Longwood Magazine Winter '02 - Navigation Bar Longwood Magazine Archive Table of Contents Departments Features Cover Story
  

 

Recent Longwood graduate Kindle Higgins reflects
on her study abroad experiences in...

Costa Rica - A Land of Enrichment

Editor's note: Kindle Higgins, Class of 2000, visited Costa Rica during three different study abroad programs while she was a student majoring in psychology at Longwood College. The following story is taken from her daily journals.

 
PART I: ATENES
La vida del campo
(or, life in the country)
 
Kindle Higgins with friends Mary Vargas and Laura CalzadaI am not quite sure when I became aware that my life would take such a major turn through what seemed like such a small step. Maybe it was being on an airplane that was preparing to touch-down in a country where there appeared to be little of civilization as I had known it in my life until that day. Miles and miles of dark vegetation and sprawling hills were all I could see ­ no buildings, no infrastructure, no vehicles. As the landing gear locked into place, I thought, "What have I gotten myself into?"

I would soon realize that the vast areas of dark green growth were not dangerous jungles, but a variety of rainforests where I would spend the next two months exploring, learning, and living in an old chalk factory on the side of a canyon in a little village called Atones.

I remember stepping off the airplane that first day, and I must admit that's where my "international education" truly began. Never had I seen a country so proud of its culture, yet so anxious to become immersed in my own. Costa Ricans, more typically and affectionately called "Ticos," flooded the airport eager to exploit the growing industry of tourism. Here I was in a strange country, all by myself ­ grabbing my luggage, not knowing who was meeting me, hearing a loud barrage of unfamiliar Spanish (was this the same language I studied at Longwood?) and fighting my way through a gauntlet of shouting taxi drivers who competed for my business. Now this was education.

PART II: HEREDIA
La vida de la ciudad

(or, life in the city)

My second trip to Costa Rica gave me a much different perspective. This time I would live and learn in the more "civilized" city of Heredia, "The City of Flowers" which truly lived up to its name. No matter how small the house, there was sure to be some type of flower garden or beautiful shrub meticulously placed to decorate the entrances of most houses that were all gated. I could never get used to the gates. In a country that appeared to be so safe, all houses were subject to vandalism and other crimes. This was my first impression of what life was like in the city.

I would also witness the most perilous driving I had ever seen, and learn to love the truly reliable bus lines. For about a dollar a day, I could travel on the bus within a 50-mile radius and that meant just about anywhere in Costa Rica.

Throughout my time in Costa Rica, I remained great friends with the American students, but we all faced a struggle to separate from the comfort of our group. If we were to have a valuable learning experience, we had to abandon that comfort and try to associate with Ticos of our own age.

It should come as no surprise that being a tall, light-haired female in Costa Rica provided me with a different yet interesting experience ­ I was very different from the typical "Tica." I not only learned that opinions were formed about me based upon my sex and hair color ­ but that stereotypes were formed about Americans as a group.

To my surprise, catcalls from men that might seem outdated in the U.S. are alive and well in most parts of Costa Rica. Such verbal attention often left me more insecure than confident. It made me miss my first simple home on the side of a canyon in Atenes. I learned quickly to take these verbal callings as a form of flattery, never to make eye contact, and to keep on walking, offering a smile if it felt right. That was during the day. If I were to walk alone by myself at night, I learned that would put me in another category entirely ­ stupid. Although Costa Rica is considered one of the safest countries in Latin America, common sense applies here just as well as it does in the States. But there is also a cultural taboo about women being out alone at night.

As a college student, I noticed that the Costa Rican girls that I would see at school during the day would virtually vanish at night. In fact, I wondered if these girls ever went out and learned that most did not, especially after 9 p.m. Though a "night out with the girls" might seem harmless to me, in their eyes, I was one of those wild American students ­ with no social conscience, etiquette, or morals. Being prejudged was a new experience for me. I was now the minority, the outsider, viewed as a stereotypical American female.

Kindle Higgins being pulled in a hand-painted cart
In Photographs ... A colorful mode of transportation ­ this antique ox cart is representative of early transportation. Carts pulled by animals were always hand-painted in festive colors. Kindle Higgins, pictured at the top of this page, with friends Mary Vargas and Laura Calzada. All photographs courtesy of Kindle Higgins.

Whether I was in the city or in the country, life in Costa Rica was like living in a fishbowl ­ not only are all eyes upon you, but there is this invisible divider that separates you from the locals. Most of my American friends felt the same way.

It was culture shock of the first order, but this fishbowl effect would gradually, almost imperceptibly, recede. Perhaps it was because our Spanish was getting better every day. There's nothing like being surrounded by the language to improve your skills. Maybe it was because the Ticos are friendly people. Or, maybe it was just because we were beginning to love and appreciate the beauty and mystery
of Costa Rica.

Men and women are still considered far from equal in this country, but such social inequality is improving, an evolutionary process in which the whole country is participating. Progress, like the pace of life here, is a little slower than back home.


During the time that I lived in Costa Rica, I believe
I endured a "rite of passage" more difficult than any adolescent struggle I would have faced in my previous world. This type of education, well, you just can't get it at home.

PART III: ESCAZU
 
The internship that brought me back to Costa Rica for the third time proved to be my most educational experience. I lived within sight of my workplace ­ the United States Embassy ­ nestled in the higher elevations of an area known as Escazu. Considered posh by most locals, Escazu is the neighborhood of choice for diplomats, business executives, and employees of the foreign embassies in Costa Rica. Although considered somewhat safer, it was still dangerous to walk by myself at night, and because of its affluence, this area played host to a variety of American fast food chains. The influence of my "mother country" never quite escaped my time in Escazu. It seems the "golden arches" are just around the bend no matter how far from home you travel. Working as an intern for the United States Embassy was the opportunity of a lifetime. Thinking back, a flood of emotions return, starting with my first day on the job.
There were so many new responsibilities to learn, so many new people to meet. When I close my eyes, I can still hear the heavy "clank" of the Embassy's iron gate that would let me enter and exit every day. Always the guards smiled ­ they have such an important job, but they always remained super friendly.

From the moment I first entered the Embassy, I knew my life would be guarded, protected, and even more than
I had expected, observed! The Embassy looks like a fortress, overwhelming to most Ticos because of its immense size and elaborate design. I came to take such security for granted ­ maybe it was that iron gate and those guards. I was trained thoroughly on embassy defense, security, and other matters ­ from identifying every possible type of bomb to the many facets of terrorism. Never before had I appreciated national security more than I did that very first weekend. I had a newfound respect for my government and what it means to be an American.

While attached to the Embassy, I worked for
Mr. Franklin Foster, Senior Commercial Officer in the Department of Commerce. He was a great boss, a wonderful, brilliant mentor, and ­ surprise ­ a Virginian. In fact, he grew up only a few miles from my home in rural Virginia. What we shared in common, however, hardly helped to alleviate the intimidation generated by his amazingly professional mannerisms and perfect way of just doing about everything. I generally admired him more and more everyday. During my internship, I thoroughly enjoyed performing all the specialized duties for Mr. Foster and my co-workers ­ even the grunt work was fun.

I was able to meet daily with new people, successful businessmen and even aspiring entrepreneurs in Costa Rica, who dreamed about what business could mean for them in the United States. Learning about their hopes, dreams, fears, and perceptions of our economy was the most worthwhile and humbling experience I have ever had. My daily routine often included editing commercial reports and industrial sector analysis reports, giving tours, answering phones (sometimes very important calls!), as well as conducting market research ­ all of which was all done en Español,
of course.

Most people will tell you that visiting a foreign country (especially a developing country) is a unique experience ­ one that can leave you with a sense of patriotism and renewed pride in your home country. Although I consider Costa Rica my second home, arriving on U.S. soil after a long trip abroad brings a feeling of comfort, even if it's just coming home to familiar plumbing or an ice cold CocaCola ­ seemingly little things that we take for granted. It's a feeling that can match the intensity of the fear you may feel when stepping on foreign soil for the first time by yourself.

Living and working on my own in a foreign country taught me how important it is that we Americans represent ourselves in a proud and humble way. In most developing countries, Americans are seen as over-worked, materialistic, and status conscious ­ devoting little time to family-centered activities. Some of these characteristics are now viewed by Ticos as popular and desirable, representing new indicators of success. However, Costa Rica lacks the resources and infrastructure that could promote widespread material, educational, and economic growth.

From Ticos, I learned many things, many lessons that still leave my heart yearning for the simplicity of my life in Costa Rica. My adopted family in Heredia taught me how to spend hours at the dinner table, not eating but talking, laughing, reviewing the day. My friends at the Embassy taught me that in Costa Rica, it was okay to kick back around 4:30, because the work day really was over. Lunch became a long, restful, and even celebratory time of the day, sometimes longer than an hour and never to be taken at a desk by Costa Ricans. And I truly learned to admire the way Ticos valued their friends, often greeting each other with genuine hugs or kisses and none of the emotional baggage that we Americans often tote around. This, too, was part of my education.


During the last part of my Embassy internship, I was able to work in the consulate, where Ticos can interview and apply for a U.S. visa. This was not an easy job because consulate workers are literally determining the fate of someone on the basis of a few words and a short interview.
It is a screening process that is necessary to evaluate the hundreds of desperate Costa Ricans who apply daily for a visa, sometimes waiting for hours just to get to the front door. The daily sight of a long line of Ticos winding around the Embassy remains fresh in my mind. When I would introduce myself to someone outside the embassy, I could almost always predict the response. As soon as they found out I worked at the Embassy, the conversation would inevitably focus on the possibility of acquiring a visa. As much as I love Costa Rica, Ticos share a passion far greater than mine to visit the U.S. It really made me appreciate the bounty of opportunities we enjoy as U.S. citizens. This kind of education, well, you just can't get it at home.



10 things
you should know before you go ...
 
There were some things that took me quite a while to learn and now, thankfully, I can smile back on them. Here is my personal top ten list for survival in Costa Rica ...
 
* I should never hail a cab without making sure that the driver knows where I want to go. I should also check his eyesight and hearing in advance.
 
* I should ride the bus always with pants on, even if it is just a short ride to arrive at a local park
where I jog (shorts are frowned upon).
 
* It's okay ­ even expected ­ to be aggressive when trying to get on a bus, even if it means running after it.
 
* Even though drivers appear to be rehearsing for a demolition derby, they are not suicidal (Costa Rica
does, however, have the second highest fatality rate in the world for car accidents).
 
* It's okay to take a little extra time for lunch, even though I could never get used to the full hour.
 
* Never say, "Hasta la vista, baby!"
 
* It's OK to drink the water, but it's safer to drink the cerveza (beer).
 
* It's okay to be at least 15 minutes late ANYWHERE in Costa Rica, except when you have an appointment with an AMERICAN. Ticos call this "la hora gringa" and that means be there at 7 a.m. if you say 7 a.m.
 
* Four words: "Donde esta el bano?" (Where is the bathroom?)
 
And finally...
 
* It really is OK for guys to pay for everything.

 

  
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