5 Words to Live By In Costa Rica

Samantha Ching is a student at University of California, Los Angeles and an ISA Featured Blogger. Samantha is currently studying abroad with ISA in San Jose, Costa Rica.

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Manuel Antonio. Apparently we could have taken the bus, but found the scenic route utterly mesmerizing.

“When you learn, teach. When you get, give” — Maya Angelou. Our lives are in constant flux. Seasons are changing, and with it, our schedules, attitudes and our plans for the future. Despite all that is said of the slower-paced life in the tropics and “tico time,” there’s no shortage of things to do, places to go, people to see. So it can be an exciting challenge to take things one day at a time. My prompt for this blog entry was to offer up a local perspective of Costa Rica. I’ve been struggling to capture what exactly that is since I received it. However, I think the words below capture my experience here.

1. Play

San José has a great place to play. A prison turned playground, El Museo de los Niños is about a 15 minute bus ride from Veritas University. For an entry fee of 1,000 colones (about 2 U.S. dollars) you can frolic amongst the many themed salas, or wings, of the pentagonal building, tidying up giant teeth in the human body sala or trying on a fireman’s outfit. This anything-but-ordinary museum is designed to accommodate crowds of tactile learners. You even might find one or more classes of Tico toddlers on a field trip. So go ahead, don one of the gigantic traditional masks in the Costa Rican culture sala. Sit inside a real plane, pretend to wash toy bananas or try to climb some stairs in la casa inclinada.

2. Run

See where your feet take you. At the suggestion of my mama Tica, I participated in a race called the Color Run about 20 minutes from our house in Zapote with one of my Tica housemates. In other running experiences, I’ve chased down my fair share of buses. I swear it’s more fun not knowing how, exactly, you’re going to get from place to place. Somehow, I’ve never doubted my fellow travelers, and I have never failed to reach our destination. Maybe it’s the woman who let me follow her to Palí, the local grocery store in Barrio Cordoba, or the bus driver last Tuesday who backtracked to the airport so that my friend and I could find the bridge leading to the artesian wood shop. Running in any direction seems to get me to the right location, eventually. Just look both ways, and take life at a run.

3. Taste

Do you eat the seeds? Why is this one covered in red hair? Who knows, but why not try it? Depending on where you call home, you may not get another chance to sample this stuff. Costa Rican cuisine is tasty. Honest to goodness ingredients combined with an unabashed pride in their preparation makes for a satisfying, heart-warming dining experience. I never tire of the plato típico, also called a casado, which is a wholesome selection of a protein (chicken is my favorite but fish, pork, or beef are equally delicious), rice, black or red beans, salad or other veggies, and maybe sweet morsels of maduros, ripe plantains that caramelize beautifully when cooked. Given the uncomplicated nature of the recipes, I’m taking down notes during my mama Tica’s cooking lessons, for which I gladly rearrange my workout schedule. I have high hopes of eating well in my apartment next quarter.

4. Dance

Two months ago, I was thrilled to discover that la Universidad Veritas (la U, for short) offers evening dance classes twice a week. Honestly, I’m still excited come 8 o’clock each Tuesday and Thursday night. My dance professor leads the group in a warm-up, followed by some merengue and salsa with perhaps some tango or bachata thrown in the mix. We’ll learn the basics together and then break up into pairs, changing partners with each new song. Dancing is as old as the human race, so even though we might not always be comfortable shaking our hips or ducking under each others’ arms, I can guarantee you’ll feel good just moving to the music. At the suggestion of our dance professor, we checked out a local dance joint for the first time a few weeks back. The ticos’ twisting, rolling, and shimmying were glorious to watch. Dancing is always a thing of pure beauty for me, but I wasn’t expecting to be so in awe that night. At first we students had no desire to get in the way, but eventually we got out there. As per usual, my roommate and I could not stop smiling.

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Gathering leaves for the winter. An outing to the park with the kids from San Sebastian.

5. Speak

Ever since the intensive month of Spanish classes ended, I’ve been organizing a group of students to volunteer at a local orphanage, which requires me to speak with a local over the phone. Some days, you find yourself carrying on conversations just fine. No need to formulate sentences in your head before speaking. It just flows. However, other days you think too much, hesitate and let your mind get in the way. Before starting to volunteer, it seemed that all I could manage was a “sí” and wrinkled eyebrows.

However, after we began helping out at the orphanage in San Sebastian, none of that seemed to matter. With these kids, you might not always put the pronoun in the right place, yet they take your hand regardless, and off you go to play. In the past two weeks, we have made ten beds and taken several trips to the park, and suddenly I find I can speak again. But when noon rolls around, it’s still hard to say goodbye.

I never imagined that each conversation could be an adventure. Even in English, with another international students or alumni from your home university, who knows what you might find. Humility, self-discovery, a friend – just imagine the doors you open for yourself each time you open your mouth.

Bonus: Give Thanks

My friend was recently telling us how each day he wakes up super happy and that just being here in Costa Rica is reason to smile. If you come to Costa Rica, I challenge you to find truer words.

Going back to the words of Maya Angelou, true demonstration of thanks means that we keep little of that for which we are truly grateful, so that we can share what we have with others. Blessings, privileges – it’s one thing to say we appreciate them. To live out our thanks through actions is another thing entirely.

Today, the San José ISA staff will be providing us with tamales, a traditional holiday food here. Most of us probably have thoughts of warm hugs, chilly weather and comfort food this time of year. While the steady summer rain this morning does not bring memories of my typical holidays, this gesture of generosity and respect for our traditions touches me so.

This last November Thursday in Costa Rica, I hope these words help you to find the path to action. May you also find the chance to thank the one who helped you when you lost your way, who shared a meal, a snack, a recipe with you, who asked you to dance, who showed you your voice.

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