There’s an exclusive club I belong to in Costa Rica. It’s the club for ones that have come to Costa Rica, had an amazing experience and followed through on their promise to return. So many people exchange, volunteer and immerse themselves in a foreign country as a GAP year or a once in a lifetime experience, but few ever make it back to visit and even fewer make the experience a permanent part of their life like I have.
At the end of my first experience in Costa Rica, I was enthralled. I had lived with a wonderful family and made many friends in town. As my stay was coming to an end I started telling everyone how I would definitely be back to visit. Most were supportive of my statement, but they also let me know that that is what all the previous volunteers had said too, but had never returned.
I did end up being an exception to that statement, but looking back on those conversations from 15 years ago and having seen countless students and volunteers come and go to never return, it hits me how hard you live the experience in the moment. An immersion experience ties you so much to the local culture that you never imagine yourself giving it up completely, especially with communication being so easy nowadays.
The other day I was visiting a host family from my first experience in Costa Rica. They always remind me of my inaugural experience. How I fumbled my words, who I had a crush on, and how I couldn’t hold Costa Rican moonshine. They reminded me that on Fridays I would get a bus out into the country, get off, and then walk an hour just to get to their home and be able to hang out with them for the weekend. I was behaving and acting like any other 20-something year old Costa Rican that went to the city to work/study and then returned home each weekend to visit.
I was living the experience and keeping my word. At some point though, I stopped doing those things as work, life, and other responsibilities began to take up my time, however I do remember it dawning on me when my normal changed. It went from always spending a night or two with them, to day visits and now I have to make it a special event to get out to visit them. It was a bit sad, but others have moved on too. My family’s children, who I met when they were teens, now send me wedding and baby shower invites. People I met with dark hair, now have gray hair and the moonshine now tastes like sh*t (or maybe it always did?)
Now, my family looks at me differently too. I still get the “you’re so skinny” and the blue eyes remarks, but my cultural innocence is gone and more often than not I’m asked about things that previously I’d be unqualified to speak to. Now we swap information on places to visit, apps to download, cars to buy and even the occasional investment opportunity. I can even debate the best way to drink coffee, which I only started drinking a few years ago and completely amazes them as they remember me as the guy they’d always have to make juice for when everyone else would drink coffee.
If there is one thing they have instilled in me though, is the sense of paying it forward. They’ve been so kind to me over the years and it is always a battle to return their favors, but I recognize that I’m now in their position when I receive travelers. I think I do a good job as it’s not uncommon for me to have to dry tears at the airport and say everything is going to be OK while they are wailing and swearing they’ll be back as soon as possible. It breaks their heart, but brings satisfaction to me knowing they had a great experience.
While I did prove all the naysayers wrong, it is truly a difficult experience to end which is why I feel blessed that I can still enjoy it to this day. It is natural for relationships to change as other commitments and opportunities come into our lives, but those that are young and dedicated have as much of an opportunity to join the club as I did. And last I checked, anyone is allowed to join. Just don’t encroach on my turf 😉