Week 8: A Little on Costa Rica

Nearly two months have passed now since we boarded the plane to Costa Rica. I didn’t know what to expect and perhaps, as a prospective student Dear Reader (if that is what you are), you are unsure as well. After this little blog there are two more entries before I am back home to familiar soil and a familiar world. The following two blog posts are going to be entirely devoted to what I’ve learned from my internships, what I did, what I didn’t do, and what knowledge I’m taking back to the States. For this entry I’m going to focus on Costa Rica itself and what I’ve gleaned from my first time living abroad.

One. There is a national identity.

Do you Reader, readily identify as a United States American? If someone were to ask you ‘who are you?’, would American be one of the adjectives? Perhaps, but if you’re like me then no. The stereotype of America: donut-eating, pot-bellied, white collar, loud mouth is not exactly a pleasant image and it hardly describes 95% of Americans anyway. The identity of the United States is a strangely collaborative mosaic of different cultures and peoples. There is no single culture because we are made up of so many different origins and backgrounds. This mish-mashed diversity is what I grew up with and so coming to a country whose sense of identity is so powerful and engrained was different.

People here are Ticos. Most are proud of their country, proud of who they are, and where they come from. This sense of belonging, that there are daily commonalities and traditions shared among all Ticos, has been a fascinating change from the fearful political correctness and cultural neutrality (less someone take offense) of the United States. I’ve never before lived in a place where I was the one that stuck out. This at times has left me feeling more like an outsider, out of place and unsure, than I have ever really felt before. But this brings me to my next point.

Two. There is a lot of kindness and consideration. But you need to show it first.

Being a white American with limited Spanish knowledge, you are instantly thrown into the stereotype of “common Costa Rica tourist”. With this grouping most will treat you in a certain way and that is either 1. You are a person to be ignored, or 2. You are a person to sell something to. Most people will not expect you to talk to them, or (kind of sadly I might add) even acknowledge their existence. Perhaps it is that stereotype of obnoxious American coming back to bite us, perhaps it’s just the tourist culture, but that’s how it is. It can make those feelings of isolation very real at times. But there is a solution.

Be nice.

I run in the mornings before work. I have a nice loop that takes me past a few common “walk-to-work” routes for people who take public transit. For my first few runs I did the classic runner thing when passing people; I stared at the ground a few paces in front of me, head down and closed off. In return people ignored me. At some point I decided I would make an effort on one run to just say a brief “Buenos Dias” to those I passed. The change was so immediate and startling I was taken aback. Not only for the most part did people return the greeting in a friendly manner but they encouraged me, shouting out enthusiastically as I huffed and puffed up these hilly Costa Rica runs.

I made an effort to learn people’s names and use them. The guards around the condo, the drivers, the operators at work. Even in my broken Spanish they treated me so much warmer when I did the same to them. It is truly a welcoming culture but you can’t expect it to come to you on a silver platter. Smile! Greet people! Even if not all these greetings are returned in kind overall it has made the international experience that much better.

Three. It’s not a tourist world.

It’s easy to think of Costa Rica as a party-on-the-beach. It’s a country toted for its adventure tourism. You come to Costa Rica for the beautiful beaches, the amazing forests, the nature-in-your-backyard feel. This isn’t San Jose and this isn’t the experience of this summer. We, my team and I, were tourists for two weekends out of ten—a total of six days out of seventy. The rest of it we were here as engineers and as students and San Jose as a working professional is not a party-on-the-beach. It’s not fun in a way that most people think of the word, but it is rewarding and I wouldn’t take back a second of it. Well, maybe a few seconds here and there.

For the two of us that travel to Coyol Free Zone for work about an hour a day, or more depending on the frequent traffic backups, we get to see the commute that most Costa Ricans do on a daily basis for years. And traffic here is not for the faint of heart. I’m thankful I’m not driving because to really get anywhere within a reasonable amount of time it requires a level of aggression I simply do not have. Lanes, traffic laws, motorcycle-sensibility are all rather vague or completely inexistent here. But we have a driver to get to work and they know what they’re doing so as far as I’m concerned it’s just been an interesting commuting experience.

Work is long hours. I’m usually at work by 7 and stay until 5. With commuting I’m away from the condos from 6:30am to 5:45pm fairly consistently. By the time dinner is made, dishes are washed, a few here-and-there chores are completed (this blog post…ahem), it’s time to go to bed so I’m not drinking three cups of coffee at work to overcome my zombie state (though sometimes I do that anyway, coffee is good down here! And I’m kind of an addict anyway. Yay caffeine!).

In other words, IT’S REAL LIFE.

Huh, internship and living experience in San Jose, Costa Rica. Who knew?

Anyway, I could go on but as it is this post is probably too long and I lost you two-thirds back there. The next two will be shorter since I’m talking about my internships for both. Hope this gave you a brief glimpse into life at GMI Costa Rica though.


Jeannette Nelson

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