When I was in Costa Rica, I spent a lot of time on the beach, swimming, walking, and people-watching. But being a book-lover, I couldn’t do that the entire time — I also read a lot, too! I probably should’ve been reading Costa Rican literature, but in all honesty, by the afternoon I was more than ready to lose myself in some English words. And I read some good ones:
Middlesex: I’d been wanting to read this forever, and finally broke down and bought the ebook. It was fantastic. The storytelling and characters were complex and believable, and it was an interesting change to read a coming of age story that didn’t revolve around the cliche boy-meets-girl. It was the first book I’ve ever read with a non-cisgender main character.
Gathering Blue: I read The Giver in high school and enjoyed it, and had recently watched the movie when I found this on Amazon. Though similar to The Giver, I wasn’t as impressed with this, but it was an easy, entertaining read nonetheless.
Moloka’i: Brennert’s signature way of narrating an entire life story is fascinating. I loved reading about life in Hawaii in its earlier years, and the main character was easy to like. The supporting characters were also surprisingly strong and diverse, and the author deals with them in a direct, no-nonsense way that makes the story world come alive.
The Witch of Blackbird Pond: I’d wanted to reread this ever since I read it my freshman year of high school, and now I finally have. It was less dramatic and shorter than I remembered, but still a great historical novel.
None of these are what I would call a typical beach read, but I enjoyed them! I would always mention them in class when my teacher asked what I had done the previous day, and it was then I learned something sad: apparently, reading is not a big part of the culture in Costa Rica. According to my teacher, most people there read about one or two a year. She was astonished one Monday when I told her I’d read two books that weekend. Who knows, perhaps I was the first bookworm specimen she had ever met! I hope she meets many more.
It was months ago when I wrote about my plans to travel to Costa Rica, and it’s been weeks since I’ve been there and back. I had planned on writing about my trip each week while I was there, but as it happens, it’s much more fun to go do stuff and write about it later. So here I sit in my very U.S. living room, thinking back to Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica.
It had been about three years since I’d been on a plane, so the night before I left I was super nervous and couldn’t sleep. I had to catch my flight pretty early Sunday morning, and my wonderful boyfriend and parents drove me to the airport. I’ll be honest; I had been super excited before that point, but exhaustion and excitement caught up to me and in that moment I really didn’t want to go. But I hugged the people I love and got on the plane, and about seven hours and a few transfers later I was on a 12-person plane over Costa Rica heading for the coast.
When I landed in Quepos, which is a small town right next to the more touristy Manuel Antonio, there was a bit of confusion on where I was supposed to go next, but eventually I ended up with my host parents, Carlos and Janett. They showed me to my room and let me unpack my stuff, and then they took me on a mini-tour of Quepos and Manuel Antonio, showing me where my school and bus stops were and how to get to the beach.
At this point, I was exhausted, and I understood only about 60% of what was being said, because, of course, everything was now in Spanish. That night I met about half of Janett’s family when they all got together for a party, and I’m afraid I had exactly zero idea what was going on.
That got better the next day, after I had slept. I found my way to the bus station with only one wrong turn and made it to the school early. There, I met the director, David, who thankfully spoke English. He gave me a brief oral exam to assess my level and put me in a class, and then I met my teacher.
Both my teachers and the classes were amazing. I went through the Intermedio I textbook during my stay, which covered every verb form imaginable, plus vocabulary and culture studies. A lot of the grammar I had seen before, which was helpful. But I learned it much better this time around because I would use the grammar immediately and continuously when chatting with the teachers, my host parents, and locals on the street.
My confidence in speaking grew exponentially. For one, I was forced to speak Spanish if I wanted to order food or ask questions about the town. For two, once the person to whom I spoke realized I was a student, they were almost always happy to speak slower and correct my grammar if need be. And I got much better at using words I do know to explain something I don’t know how to say, rather than just using the English word, as I would in a U.S. classroom. A lot of the verbs and vocabulary I’ve learned but could never remember are now solidified in my brain, because I had to describe them in Spanish.
The school was only a thirty minute walk to the beach, and it’s impossible for me to be near a beach and not go. In the four weeks I was in Costa Rica, I think I only skipped the beach two or three days. It became my routine after class to buy a smoothie or falafel from the falafel bar up the street, then I’d take a walk. While it was a steep walk, the view was absolutely worth it.
For the first two weeks I was there, I was the only student my age at the school, so I hung out on my own for most of that time. I will admit, it did get a little lonely. But it was easy to distract myself from that at the beach. I love me some good people-watching, and man, it was great in Costa Rica. There were always people surfing, both professionals and amateurs of all ages and nationalities, no matter how far down the beach I walked. On the left side, the side of the beach closer to Manuel Antonio National Park, there were a lot of restaurants and shops across the street. This was where non-locals hung out, and where surf instructors and the parasailing vendors set up their tents. Farther down, toward the middle, there were chairs set up for rent, where families both local and foreign came to play in the waves. The right side of the beach butted up against ritzy resorts, and that was where fruit and jewelry vendors walked back and forth selling their wares. And of course, monkeys and sloths could be spotted anywhere along the beach at any given time.
I did get the chance to take a guided tour of the national park, which was expensive, but worth it because of the pictures. Admittedly, they’re not the best quality, but that doesn’t take away from the level of awesomeness.
To my delight, another student, F, showed up my third week into the course. She and I hit it off, and we hung out after class most days, at the beach or walking around in Quepos when it rained. Sometimes we chatted in Spanish and sometimes in English, and mostly a mix. We spoke at roughly the same level, which was nice, and we even had class together during my last week.
F likes to dance, so one night we went to a salsa club and danced bachata and merengue and another very complicated Latin dance that I never quite caught the name of. I had never been to a club before, and I don’t know if Latin clubs in the U.S. are similar, but if they are, I’ll go. It was a lot of fun to dance, even though I had no idea what I was doing. I just followed while my partners swung me around — one even dipped me several times, which caught me off guard every single time. It was a blast.
It was also with F that I discovered what kind of alcohol I like. I’m underage in the U.S., but not in Costa Rica, so I got to try a few different things. I’m not ashamed to admit that my favorites are the fruity ones with little paper umbrellas.
By my last week in Costa Rica, I was using Spanish without even thinking about it, at least some of the time. In the morning, Carlos would ask me a question, and I would respond immediately, my brain pulling the words I needed automatically. I would only realize I had spoken Spanish after the words left my mouth. It was absolutely amazing. I was nowhere near perfect, however — during the last week, I helped out some with a children’s class in the afternoon, and I really had to think to remember some of the vocabulary we were teaching. Still, it was great review for me, and the speed at which the kids learned was astonishing to see.
At the end of my trip, I left Costa Rica wanting to go back as soon as possible. I know I want to keep using Spanish in the future — hopefully, eventually, in my job. It’s not going to go away. But there really is nothing like being in a completely different, completely amazing culture. There’s always something new to learn, no matter how long you stay. I’m already saving up to go back.
Bonus: My Travel Guide to Quepos (or, tips because I’ve been there once and am now obviously an expert)
For cheap, authentic food, eat at the sodas! Restaurants can be nice, but they get pricey. Follow the locals!
Buses are cheaper than taxis.
But if you must take a taxi, use the red ones, which are registered and insured.
Don’t forget that in Costa Rica, pedestrians DO NOT have the right of way.
Make friends with locals on the beach and you might get a discount on chairs, surf lessons, and other stuff.
If you’re female, try not to go out alone after dark.
In the national park, don’t pay for a guided tour. Just be sure to look where the guides are pointing as you walk by and you’ll see animals (although if you want pictures, the guide is the best option).
Don’t exchange your money at the airport! It’s expensive!
Leave your passport hidden in your suitcase unless you’re going to the bank.
When on the beach, don’t leave your stuff too close to the trees. Leave it in the open where you can keep an eye on it from the ocean. Thieves are less likely to steal from exposed areas.
Don’t put your purse or backpack on the back of your chair in a restaurant.
Mostly, it’s okay to note differences between your home country and Costa Rica, but don’t get hung up on it! Just have fun!
Disclaimer: All these tips come from my personal experience and the people I met there. Always use your own judgment when traveling abroad.
It’s no secret that I’ve always loved to read. You don’t have to know me for very long before my love of books comes out. What isn’t as obvious is how many of my other passions stem from books — almost all of them, actually.
Spanish was the among the first. When I was a girl, I devoured historical fiction — think The Watsons Go to Birmingham 1963, Johnny Tremain, and the Dear America series. My absolute favorites, though, were the American Girl historical characters.
Oh, those books. The entire American Girl company, in fact, is in my mind synonymous with my eighth through twelfth years. I waited breathlessly for the glossy catalogs that came every three months full of shiny, beautiful dolls. I tore through the magazine, which was a smorgasbord of short stories, recipes, and tips on everything from friends to hairstyles. But mostly I loved the books.
There were eight original historical characters — one from World War II, one from the Depression, one from the Revolutionary War, even a Native American — that all had their own stories. The books, rather than being the accessory to the dolls, were essential to the dolls’ very existence. Each book was formatted the same way — each character had an introduction, a school-related story, a Christmas story, a birthday story, a summer story, and a final winter story, in that order. It was so interesting to compare each characters’ stories. They all paralleled, but each character had her own life, her own personality, and learned her own lessons. (And each doll had outfits and accessories that matched the illustrations in the books, which to eight-year-old me was the epitome of magic.)
(I don’t consider myself a purist, but I am when it comes to these books. It has been over ten years since I was eight, and now, of course, the books have been updated. In my opinion they are nowhere near as magical and amazing as they were when I read them. The titles have been changed and some characters have even been taken out and replaced with new ones. But that’s a rant for another day.)
My favorite character was Josefina, who was a Mexican girl living in what would one day be the state of New Mexico. Her way of life fascinated me. She was the only character with sisters close to her own age, and I imagined that she and her sisters were me and mine. But unlike my family and the rest of the characters, she spoke Spanish.
There were only a few words and phrases scattered throughout the books, but that was enough to hook me. I wished I could speak another language so badly that I would make up words for my doll to speak. When we started learning basic Spanish vocabulary in elementary school, I was thrilled. From about second grade to senior year, I took Spanish classes off and on, and I continued more intensively once I began college classes. I actually began to be able to read Spanish, write Spanish, speak Spanish, and understand it. A lot of the time it was more frustrating than fun. But it was worth it, because about a month ago I was finally ready for the fun part — living in a Spanish-speaking country.
Five days ago, I got back from Quepos, Costa Rica, where I spent four weeks with a host family. In a word, it was incredible. The food was amazing, the land was gorgeous, and the people were so pleasant. I was forced to use the language every day, even when I didn’t feel like it, and both my confidence and my command of the language made incredible growth. Even when my Spanish wasn’t grammatically perfect, I was able to communicate. As a result, I feel much more comfortable using Spanish in real life situations, and I know I’ll be much better at my upcoming Spanish classes at school.
But in addition to that, a dream that began with a book is now coming true. Eight-year-old me wanted something. High school me really began to work at it. College-age me kept going, even when Spanish felt impossible. And now, I’m at a workable level — not a perfect speaker, by any means, but I can hold a conversation and do business just like I can in English. A whole other world has been opened up to me, and it all began with a book.
YouTube videos can be hilarious; everyone who has ever been on the Internet knows that. I go through phases where I find one and watch it over and over and over, until all my friends and family are sick of it. And then I happen upon a new one, and the cycle starts over. Recently, this very terrifying chicken ran a close second to my favorite YouTube video of all time.
In other news, it’s almost time for my trip to Costa Rica! In about two weeks, I’ll have been struggling along in Spanish for awhile and the first of four posts from that lovely tropical country will go up. You can expect Spanish- and travel- and adventure-related posts for the forseeable future — one post for every week I’m there is the plan! I’m incredibly excited, and a bit nervous, understandably, but I know it’s going to be an awesome adventure and I can’t wait to start it! GET PUMPED.
Before you read the rest of this post, look to the right. There’s a little blurb, underneath that super awesome picture of me. Read it now. I’ll wait.
Did you read it? Good. See how there’s that little word “figuratively”? Well, scratch that word out of the sentence now and put “literally” in its place.
Because I am going abroad.
I have been waiting for this moment for years. I’ve always wanted to travel, and study abroad programs were a big part of my college-decision-making process. Lucky for me, the college I chose has a great one. I’m becoming a fairly decent Spanish speaker (my recent oral exam grade proves it! woo!), and I love warm, beachy climates, so after the spring semester ends, it’s off to Costa Rica!
I’ll be in Spanish classes while I’m there, and I still have a lot of planning and studying to do. But as far as I understand, we are allowed to explore the area as we like when class is not in session, and I cannot wait to discover the beauty of the language and the people — and especially the national parks. Apparently, Costa Rica is the home of actual, real-live sloths. Here at school, I’m affectionately (I think) known as “the sloth” by my friends, so I think it’s decidedly appropriate for me to meet some of them.
My blogging plan for Costa Rica is to post once a week while I’m there. I’ll be taking copious amounts of photos, and I’m sure I’ll need to vent about all the ups and downs of living in a foreign country for the first time. Also — and this is what I’m really excited about — I plan to write each week’s post both in English and Spanish. This is as much for me to practice as it is for any Spanish speakers out there who may stumble upon my blog. The two versions may not be the exact same, as I’m much more fluent in English, but I’m extremely excited to experiment.
Inquilina peregrina con una maleta de paso, cargada de añejas querencias, una hoja en blanco y lápiz. Una bicicleta con la que recorro galaxias, un morral donde atesoro quimeras, concierto de grillos y fulgor de luciérnagas. Soy Ilka, dividida entre las fronteras de reminiscencias e imaginación, nadando en el mar bravío de la migración. Entre otras faenas, indocumentada con maestría en discriminación y racismo.