When Immersed, Failing is Harder Than You’d Think

The server jotted it down his order, nodded her head and went back to the kitchen. No follow up questions, no odd looks.

My cousin, now three weeks into his visit to Costa Rica had just ordered a hamburger, no tomato, no ketchup, with cheese, lettuce and onion – in Spanish.

I was excited. Three weeks earlier, that order would have been a disaster, however now that his Spanish had picked up and he nailed the order.

In early April, he had contacted me about coming down for a few weeks this summer to help me with my business and immerse himself in the culture. He was going to graduate high school and wanted to do an extended stay, as in his previous visits he had been on vacation or participating in an exchange program.

I said sure, knowing we’d be in for some fun.

My cousin, you see, has the perfect personality for cultural immersion. He knows no shame and will throw himself into any situation, whether or not he has the vocabulary. He might embarrass himself, but he learns a lot from the experiences and will tell you all about them.

Young traveler with drink and chips
No fear of foods

For this particular trip, he decided to journal every day about his experience and shared it with friends and family to follow. It was excellent insight to how someone would react to being in a new culture and a great way for me to see just how immersed/uncomfortable I could actually make him.

Knowing his personality, I had no trouble abandoning him when he needed me most.

There was the day I waited in line with him at the bank to exchange money, only to promptly duck out when his turn came. He played it cool afterward, though his journal described nervousness and exhilaration that by just saying “dollars, colones” and putting the cash down on the counter was enough for the teller to understand him.

There was also the day we had a volunteer in town who was looking for a place to eat lunch.  Without hesitation, I sent him on this solo mission with her to a local restaurant a few blocks down the street.

He said everything went fine, but his journal depicted the major breakthrough being when, at a total loss for words, he asked for the “menu” using the English word, only to find out that they use the same word in Spanish.

You might look at these as small accomplishments, but this reminded me so much of what I went through during my first extended cultural immersion experience. A string of many nervous moments where dumb luck bailed me out.

My Costa Rican friends told me that to avoid having to rely on sheer luck, it would be best to find a Costa Rican girlfriend. I used that strategy, and it was no accident that I ended up staying in Costa Rica because of it.

So I’d be lying if I said my wife and I didn’t have someone lined up for him. Our family friend has a daughter his age wanting to learn English, and knowing my cousin wants to improve his Spanish, we couldn’t let this opportunity pass.

I previously said my cousin has no fear of anything, but it turns out his kryptonite is putting him in a room with a beautiful girl who doesn’t speak English.

I have to say this silent version of my cousin was something I’d rarely seen. He would always find a way to fill silence, but he was at a loss for words with this girl. As much as I wanted to help him, I knew that I would only impede and take away from their opportunity to practice speaking with each other.

After they went out the first time, I didn’t even have to wait for the journal entry. He was like a balloon about to burst with all the things he wanted to share. What words he learned, what words he taught, where they went and even the bracelet and cologne she gave to him.

Culturally, the gift caught him off guard, but he saved face by paying for dinner. A week later she invited him over for lunch, and he made it a point to bring her flowers.

My cousin has now returned to the United States, and as much as he missed his friends and family, I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded staying another month if he could.

I don’t doubt he will be back, and he might come back so much that he’ll get so sick of leaving and find a way to stay. Whether he’s back for the language, culture, families, or even the girls, it will only add to his experience.

Next time, I’ll teach him how to order a double cheeseburger, or maybe a well-done steak. The possibilities are endless.

boy with angel wings
No fear to spread his wings
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Polar Vortex Provides Unexpected Surprise for Winter Exchange

“Yo brah, is your flight canceled?” read the text message from my cousin Tuesday morning.  Like any typical teenager, most of what they say is either false, or intentionally false just to see your reaction.  I wasn’t buying. Planes can fly at -50 degrees, so take off at -30 on polar vortex Wednesday shouldn’t be an issue. Besides, we’d just dodged yesterday’s snow day which would have been a bigger concern.  But then he sent me the image from the airline’s website – CANCELLED. Upon reading that, my heart skipped a beat and I may have blacked out for a second.

It’s one thing to get your flight cancelled, but when you are responsible for a group of 80 Costa Rican high school exchange students, now stranded indefinitely in literally the coldest place on earth, you might need an ambulance upon receiving news like this.  This was an event so uprooting that I would later refer to things as before the cancellation and after the cancellation. This exchange was already one for the record books. With so many weather days I was basically making a new itinerary every single day. I was rolling with the punches, snow day here, cold day there, kind of like the Avengers going against Thanos.  You dealt with things as long as the SNAP didn’t happen, until it did.

winter skiers ready
Before the cancellation

I put the phone down, cleared my head, and assessed the situation.  Two of my six schools had already said good-bye to their host families as they were planning on going to the airport after concluding the day’s activities.  I was an hour and a half away from home visiting a high school and I had over half the group at a museum. I needed a command center ASAP and the best I could do was pace the high school hallway and leverage my phone for every last multi-tasking capability it had in order to keep the fire at bay.

First step, get dad on the phone with airline to find out rebooking options while I figure out a place for everyone to live.  I always tell host families that they are what makes the exchange magical and with that in mind I rubbed my magic genie bottle and asked for my first wish.  Luckily, this wish was a softball as families were more than willing to keep them, especially the ones that had just said goodbye. They had barely dried their tears of sorrow when tears of happiness would arrive with the surprise return of their exchange student.  Let’s just say you’d never get that reaction from a Holiday Inn.

Having resolved housing for the time being, I checked in with my dad on rebooking status.  Not. Good. At. All. Turns out, I needed to wait two weeks before I could get all 80 rebooked on the same flight.  With that news I left the high school and departed on the long, cold, windy drive back home through rural Wisconsin. The wind blew the snow across the fields, making it look like an arctic desert.  It was barren, and besides the passing vehicle, there were no signs of human or animal activity. When this story gets made into a movie this drive will have a montage reflecting back on all the fond memories of the exchange before the cancellation.  The music would be set to a ballad, probably from Adele, and the actor playing me will probably be crying, or at least have that glazed over look on their face like they are trying to come to terms with a recent death.

By the time I got home the pity party was over and it was time to get to work.  Armed with a thermos of coffee, I got on the phone with the airline only to promptly get shot down.  No flights with any reasonable space for at least a week(!). After talking up and down the chain of command and pleading my case I was essentially cut loose.  My only option was to take a fraction of a refund and rebook on different airlines. It was too late at night to begin that search and at that moment I looked my wife in the eye and told her surely this is just a bad dream and I will wake up soon.  This can’t be really happening, can it? It was like I was waiting for the director to yell “cut!” or Ashton Kutcher to appear and tell me I’d been punked.

I wanted to fall asleep and just dream for days.  Find some alternate universe and just stay there, ala “Inception”.  Even if I wanted to sleep it was darn near impossible with all the adrenaline surging through me.  I don’t think I slept more than 30 minutes the whole night.

The next day I managed to sneak 15 out on a later flight and slowly began rebooking the rest.  The weather may have been frigid but the phone lines we’re boiling. At one point I had a Skype call going with my trip coordinator, a cell phone connected to the airline and borrowing a second cell phone to take individual inquiries.  First I’d find the flight, check space/price, then call my trip coordinator to see who would take those spaces, then forward all the info to the airline and then work incessantly to convince the Costa Rican parents to agree to the change.

at work
After the cancellation

Convincing was not as simple as it sounds.  With 80 sets of parents it was a challenge to find consensus, with some anxious to get their children out quick as the weather could get even worse, all the way to the other extreme where they wanted to wait longer for the weather to pass.  The literal icing on the cake was that the teacher-chaperones had to be back to start school Monday and some even had meetings Friday. I felt like I was standing in the middle of a circle of people and they were all chucking snowballs at me to get my attention and listen to them.

That was Wednesday.  What followed then were some of the most anxious days of my life.  Now, that I had everything reconfigured I was on edge waiting for the next issue to pop up.  It didn’t take long. When going to verify the bus shuttle schedule to Chicago I was met with a notice that they wouldn’t be sending out buses that night due to the cold.  The last bus would depart in… 30 minutes. I was at least 20 minutes away and had no idea if the students would make it in time. I frantically sent out text after text, call after call all the while en route to the bus stop.  I was rehearsing how I would sweet talk the driver into waiting a bit, or preparing a chase team to track the bus to the next stop. Nobody could miss this bus.  In a sign that the universe wasn’t against me, everyone managed to make it in time.  That was the win I needed. If you’re keeping track, that was my second wish granted.

Fast forward through overnight bus rides, and waiting at airports all the way to Sunday at 10:45pm.  At that moment, I exited the airport in Costa Rica as traveler number 81 and let out such a big sigh I think it registered on the Richter scale.  There’s no greater relief finishing an exchange and returning everyone’s children back to them. On this occasion it couldn’t have been truer.

After an experience like this, some people might swear off doing that ever again.  However, if you ask me, I’d go through it all over again. The experience is too great and all the problems to solve only makes you stronger, right?  Plus, having gone through it once, I’ll be much more prepared for the next polar vortex.  And besides that, I still have one wish left 😉

 

All Abroad: My Immersion Experience (Guest Speaker)

I couldn’t believe I was actually doing this.  The plane had just touched down in San José, Costa Rica and here I was, all by myself with my life packed into two little roller bags about to exit customs and head out into the unknown.  I was met with the blur of what seemed like a thousand paparazzi shouting at me, hands in the air, waving signs and trying to get my attention.  I was dumbfoundedly looking around for my name, when all of a sudden a man came up to me, said something very fast and proceeded to grab my bags and walk away…

As they say “the rest was history”, or was it?  To hear inspiring personal travel abroad stories, cultural immersion experiences, and exchange anecdotes, join or invite Dustin to speak to your group/schoolperson with 2 dogs.

Speaking dates are available year round (virtual) and in person dates are subject to availability.

Upcoming in person speaking opportunities in Wisconsin:

Oct. 24th – Nov. 3rd, 2016

Jan. 23rd – Feb. 1st, 2017 (exchange groups)

For more information contact us