Looking Back on How a Travel Experience Became a Permanent Lifestyle Change

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.

volunteer with family
One of my first families I met in CR

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 😉

Cultural Exchange Brings Tingling Feelings to Life

AAAHHHH!!  Was the shriek I heard coming from the other side of the bushes.  This was no ordinary scream, as we were in an area surrounded by jaguars, pumas, and bobcats.  And by no ordinary scream, I mean it didn’t sound quite like an animal attack, but something else.  I rounded the corner to find my cousin, amongst other students, taken aback by the “massive” spider they had just spotted right outside the jaguar enclosure.    

For a group of Wisconsin teens on their first visit to Costa Rica, any creature would appear “massive” in fake spider on armcomparison to what they are used to seeing and this spider sure qualified.  Thankfully, they didn’t scream every time they saw a new insect/animal or they would have been hoarse by day two, but there was a lot of “new” for this group to take in.

Our spider encounter at the Costa Rican zoo we visited that day was just one of the many cultural experiences these students had over the course of their cultural exchange trip to Costa Rica.  When you add that to the cockroaches, gecko lizards, mutant mosquitoes and the occasional rat/mouse there’s already a lot to experience not even counting human interaction.  This was a very special group of exchange students as they had received Costa Rican exchange students in their homes January and would now live with the same students in Costa Rica.  

Over the course of two weeks, the students visited the host students high school, attended classes, participated in educational and recreational activities, and most importantly, were immersed into the Costa Rican culture.

When I talk about cultural exchanges, I always refer to “tingling” moments or sensations where cultural interaction is taking place, but there is no good way to describe the feeling as it is not something you can detect physically (unless you’re screaming).  What’s fascinating is everyone experiences these moments differently for a variety of reasons and there is no telling what their main take aways will be.

Observing these students over the course of the exchange I noticed a lot of these tingling moments. There were card games the US students shared and there was salsa dancing the Costa Ricans shared.  There was our trip to the capital city San José, punctuated be getting stranded (but not soaked) under a torrential downpour and a visit to the main central market of San José.  There was also the unique experience of living through a power outage in all of Central America.  Besides that, there were many great memories created on the other excursions such as the beach island trip, where Wisconsinites and Costa Ricans could be seen kayaking, playing volleyball, and having a good time chilling out in the jacuzzi.      

dave with host familyThe little things were also noted.  My cousin, for one, was relieved despite his limited Spanish, that there were still Costa Ricans that spoke naturally slow enough for him to understand.  There were also students very keen to pick up vocabulary and some carried around a notebook to be ready at a moment’s notice.  Even the teacher/chaperone had a list of different foods to try that was made for her by students at the high school.  (I was curious to hear from her what toad’s soup tasted like.)  

These were only the things that I could observed.  The other aspect of this trip was all the opportunities the students had on the weekends and evenings with their host families.  Even though we insisted the students only spoke Spanish when together, we could rest assured that they were being forced to try out the language while at home.  For the higher level students, this was their time to speak the language freely without feeling as if they were being graded.  For the lower level students this was their chance to see just how far they could get while having their host sibling as a backup should they get stuck trying to communicate something to their host parents.

For me (and them) it was a big accomplishment completing both stages of the exchange.  The only thing I’ve ever regretted about international travel was not starting sooner (and I started when I was 20).  These students now not only have the international cultural travel experience at a young age, but they also have international life long friends that will no doubt continue to be resources for them.  There was lots of sadness at the going away party, however I don’t foresee this being the last time they are together.     

I still keep in touch with my original host family from 11 years ago and rarely do I miss a celebration.  Even being fully integrated into my wife’s Costa Rican family doesn’t take away from that first experience and bond I’ll always have.  I visited a lot of countries after first coming to Costa Rica, but no matter how much I enjoyed the other places, it was never enough to overcome the experience I had from my first time in Costa Rica.  

The future is bright for these students as it’s anyone’s guess where this experience will take them.  I ended up in Costa Rica, however maybe they will never return to Costa Rica This exchange though will no doubt give them the confidence to take other risks putting them out of their comfort zone.  Let’s just hope those risks don’t involve jumping into a jaguar enclosure.  That would provoke one extraordinary scream.  

group photo at park

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

Refreshed image!

To all our followers, fans, and friends:

You may have noticed a new and improved logo appearing on our web and social media sites.  In addition to a new webpage design we thought it was time after almost 3 years in business to change things up a bit.  Now you’ll see a clean fresh image to go along with our same mission:  Providing travelers with immersion experiences in Costa Rica.  Thanks to all who participated in our previous poll, ¡Pura vida!

Costa Rica Frika – Eyes Wild Open