For most people, the thought of visiting home fills them with the warmth of security, family, and old friends. You breathe a sigh of relief, you embrace the sense of nostalgia, and you kick back in your favorite chair. My homecoming, however, has always been kind of different.
When I get picked up from the airport and we start to cruise down paved, marked highways, I realize that I’ve almost forgot what the word “modern” means. When I get home and watch TV on a 60-inch flat screen, my eyes start to hurt after the first 10 minutes. Don’t we have a smaller TV? Even when I pull out my smart phone and update my status: “Back in V-town, home sweet home”, the letters look big and futuristic to me.
These experiences continue for a few weeks: not waiting in lines, driving anywhere at any time, gawking at the newest addition to the Epic campus, watching American football, etc.
All of these moments fill me with a sense of pride about the modern efficiency of my country, but it also leaves me with the same lingering question: “Why would I want to give this all up?”
I certainly didn’t plan to move away permanently when I first planned my study abroad/gap semester as a college sophomore at the University of Minnesota. I figured I would do the typical study abroad, learn some Spanish, get into the culture and build my resume while getting an experience I could compare with those of my classmates’.
I set my sights on Costa Rica – it was a stable Central American country best known for its rainforests and natural beauty – and I hopped on a plane. Yet I soon found out that I was different from most of the volunteers and college students who visited. I didn’t want the same experience as they did.
Instead of an international dorm and a campus setting, I volunteered in a rural town and lived with a local family. They welcomed me and treated me like one of their own. I worked in the rainforest every day and I had the opportunity to travel all over the country. So isolated from the outside world and major cities, I could really focus on deepening my cultural knowledge and improving my Spanish fluency.
I didn’t actively socialize with the other volunteers and I detested going to tourist towns, as I would often battle with the local shopkeepers as to who had the best broken-language skills. I became very attached to my local town and would often stay there and hang out with them rather than travel with the other volunteers. While others were off at the beach or the volcano, I was attending local soccer games and town festivals.
By the time I returned to the United States, I recognized that my transformation was permanent. Those first six months, living with a family and volunteering at a wild animal rescue center, had changed and shaped me more than all of my years of formal education combined. I felt persistently hounded by the desire to return so one year later, I went back to visit and to confirm that sense of serenity that I had found. The following year, I led a student trip there in order to share my experiences with others. When I graduated, instead of facing the 9-5 world like so many of my peers, I took a yearlong volunteer placement with Habitat for Humanity in Costa Rica. By the end of that year, I knew Costa Rica would become my home.
Most people never stay long enough to learn the language and culture in order to fully understand and appreciate it and it is a shame because Costa Rica has so much to offer. Tourism is their primary industry and the locals pride themselves on being the best host to foreigners. I got that treatment for a long time, but eventually, I was accepted as one of them.
I now sweep the floor, wash the dishes and cheer on La Liga, the local soccer team, just like everyone else. I have lived with people who have never been more than two hours away from their homes. I know people who can’t read or write. Uno and dominos have even become one of my favorite pastimes. In short, I have come to know the simpler side of life.
Next month, after spending the fall in Verona, I will return to my Costa Rican home to find fewer distractions: less TV, less internet, less social media, no phone calls or TV ads from the Obama and Romney campaigns. It leaves me with more time to spend with my friends, to take walks into the rainforest and take peaceful naps synchronized to the sounds of the frequent afternoon rain showers.
I still get frustrated when I have to wait in long lines almost everywhere I go or suffer through horrendous traffic. I curse myself every time I forget to take an umbrella with me. And I can’t tell you how annoying it is to wake up during the night, frequently checking for holes in my mosquito net.
Yet all these things seem like minor details to me now. Even recently when a huge sinkhole opened up on the main highway to the capital city, I could only manage an exasperated, “Costa Rica, wow,” expression on my face as I settled into my seat on the bus for the long haul into town.
Nowadays, I keep myself busy with providing tour, volunteer and language services to tourists and help manage a small family-owned hostel. I have a great Costa Rican girlfriend and I have so many “families” throughout the country that every time I imagine myself leaving, a lingering question enters my head:
“Why would I want to give this all up?”