Exchange Brings Novelty, Nostalgia to Thanksgiving

It was darnn chilly getting off that bus. Chillier than I expected or remembered for this time of year.  

Thankfully, my parents were waiting for me and had brought a winter jacket for me, knowing I wouldn’t fully acclimate for a few days.

I don’t normally come home for extended periods in November, however this time I’d brought an exchange group of high school students with me from Costa Rica. They’d stay with local families, visit schools and experience Wisconsin for a few weeks.

If I was having problems, these kids had to be hopeless. It’s one thing to come from Costa Rica, but their region brings out the extremes.  

Just for them to get to the airport is nearly six hours and they can almost get to Panama City faster. Only a few miles from the border with Panama, this region is low lying, hot, humid, and full of rainforests, farms, and minimal population.  

They were going to get a shock to their system from more than just the weather. They were in for experiences all across the board. And so was I.

After spending the first night with their host families, I was interested to hear their reactions.

There was the usual, “Wow, the family is so friendly.” or “The dog is so funny.” and of course the “IT’S SO COLD,” but there is always something that uniquely draws their attention. The most interesting comments I heard referenced having a lower-door freezer and the astounding dishwasher.

Freezers do exist in Costa Rica, but they are almost always upper door freezers, whereas unless you are upper-upper class, or an expatriate, a dishwasher is a complete luxury. They were amazed at its simplicity and the fact that you “don’t even get your hands wet.”

I silently chuckled to myself hearing those comments as I had never really noticed those differences before.  I then overheard one student saying he had been cold at night. I asked him if he had enough blankets and he said he wasn’t given any.  Hmm, that couldn’t be right.

cheesehead model
On Wisconsin!

I decided to follow up with the family, and they were just as puzzled. They said the bed had various sheets and blankets all tucked in.

All tucked in. All tucked in. That was it. The student had never thought to untuck the comforter and sleep under it.

After I thought about it, it made complete sense.

I know where I live in Costa Rica, I rarely need more than a light sheet to cover up with at night, and that is mostly to keep the mosquitoes off. I also know that bedrooms are more focal points of homes in Costa Rica.  

It’s not uncommon to walk into a home and have a bedroom right off the entrance. Because of this they will put comforters on the bed to dress it up and sleep on top of it with a light sheet.  

That’s exactly what happened and is why the student never bothered to untuck the bed!

Don’t get me wrong, these students were modern.  This was not like the Amish coming to the big city.

I’m sure they dominated their hosts in Snapchats per capita and could overwhelm absolutely anyone at the mall, especially since they happened to be in town for Black Friday.

In addition to that utterly American event, this group also got to experience Thanksgiving, a holiday that has no Costa Rican equivalent.

Due to school schedules, we had never been able to exchange during a holiday, and this is what families (and I) enjoyed the most. Having those extra days off really gave them a chance to get to know their student and was highly emphasized in their feedback.  

one inch snowman
Juuust enough snow…

The opportunity to sleep in, take in sporting events and visit family was an intended consequence families took full advantage of. They shared tons of Thanksgiving photos/videos, Badger football/hockey games, cheesehead modeling and the world’s largest snowman you can make with an inch of snow.

It was also a bit of a homecoming for me.  Thanks to the exchange students and their host families, I was excited to experience Thanksgiving as well.

I honestly can’t remember the last time I was home for Thanksgiving (probably 10+ years), and there were more than a few relatives surprised to see me.  I’m also rarely home for Christmas, so when I do visit, it’s typically not when people get together.

On my mom’s side, we were only missing my sister and cousin, which is probably the closest we’ve gotten in a long time to having everyone together. It’s no small feat when we span states, countries, and continents apart.

In all, I spent almost a month at home, which really only felt like two weeks. I could never quite shake the cold, I made a half-hearted attempt at raking leaves (if there is snow on the ground, that’s just embarrassing) and we narrowly missed a major snowstorm getting out of Chicago.  

Maybe November isn’t what it used to be, or maybe I’ve forgotten what it’s like, but hearing the stories from the families and exchange students brought a lot of novelty to the visit and provoked a lot of nostalgia.  

There might not be as much nostalgia for my next visit in late January, but there is already a winter jacket in my suitcase, and I look forward to the exchange students providing the novelty.   


Dustin is the director and founder of Costa Rica Frika.  Originally from Southern Wisconsin, he specializes in providing immersion experiences to/from Costa Rica via exchanges, volunteering and interning.


Do’s and don’t’s at the US Embassy

Have you ever lost your passport or got it stolen?  Ever needed something notarized?  Well those are probably the main reasons any US citizen would visit their embassy in Costa Rica.  I just went to renew my passport and want to share some of my experiences about renewing and what Costa Ricans go through to solicit a visa to the United States.


Always check online first for your service and see if you need an appointment.  In order for me to renew my passport I had to schedule an appointment online.  Even though all I  had to do was turn in two pages of paperwork, a passport photo, and pay $110 I still had to get an appointment.


Try to get into the embassy without an appointment unless it is an emergency.  The security guards are super friendly to US citizens however they don’t let anyone by unless you are on the list.


Leave as much as you can at home.  If you have a phone you have to leave it with the guard and if you bring a purse be prepared to have it completely emptied out in front of everyone and passed through a metal detector.  You literally feel like you have arrived to the US with the amount of security to get into the building.  It is just like the airport except you keep your shoes on, for now at least.


Bring pepper spray or guns to the embassy.  After a very pleasant greeting from the security guard I was immediately asked if I was packing heat or carrying mace.  “Excuse me, what?” I had to clarify.  I was pretty sure I was in a safe neighborhood but I was pretty puzzled, they must ask that for a reason, right??  It’s illegal to carry firearms in Costa Rica so even if I was it would have been in my best interest to say no.  Well, if it is on the guard’s script something must have happened before.  They should do it Minnesota style and put paper signs on the front doors of public buildings saying “NO FIREARMS PERMITTED”.  Gotta love that constitution.


Get your picture at the embassy.  I paid $2 for two passport size photos inside the embassy.  I only needed one and I probably paid more than I should have but the peace of mind knowing that it is going to meet their requirements is worth it.  I’ve tried to go in San Ramon and get passport pictures and they don’t seem to understand that it must be a white background, looking straight ahead etc.  The one time I went in town I came back with high school yearbook style photos.

You can try to take your own with a digital camera but if you only need a few copies really $2 can’t be beat.


Try to help your Costa Rican buddies at the visa interview at the embassy.  In the past I’ve been able to go in with my friends and accompany them right to the interview.  The agent would even ask me questions to vouch for their character.  That is not the case anymore, hence the prior point about not trying to enter the embassy unless you have some type of appointment.  Now they give you a piece of paper right when you enter explaining if you try to accompany them they will deny everyone’s visa in the group.


Enjoy first class service.  US citizen?  Please pass go, collect $200, enjoy complementary champagne while relaxing in the jacuzzi.  They really have signs that say “If you are a US citizen, do not wait in line, go directly to window…” For anyone that has ever had to deal with Costa Rican bureaucracy this is a breath of fresh air.  If you are not a US citizen you have to stand in line and get shifted from station to station, answer repeated questions about why you are here what you are doing etc etc.  I felt like a king to be able to walk around freely.


Take pictures.  Ref: this blog entry.


Encourage your Costa Rican friends to adapt this level of efficiency and organization.  What takes thirty minutes here would take 2 hours at any Costa Rica government agency.  Trust me, I’ve woken up at 4am to get to Costa Rican immigration at 6am to wait in line till it opens at 8am, then wait another couple of hours just to be able to turn in a handful of documents (which coincidentally have been sitting in their office now for about a year with no activity, but that is another post in itself).  The embassy cuts out all the BS.  No phones, entrance restrictions, guards at every station constantly making sure people are moving from station to station to get through the process as quickly as possible.  To renew my passport it took 30 minutes and that was because one of the agents called in sick.  The lady at the counter even apologized for the delay.  I was more concerned about my friends trying to get visas.  There were about 50 people ahead of them however they got through all of them in about an hour.


Schedule an appointment in the afternoon in the rainy season.  When you get there you’ll probably have to wait outside a bit and there is no shelter from the rain (which I’m sure there is a very good reason for not having a covered area).  The sooner you identify yourself as a US citizen the sooner they’ll let you in.  If you’re not a US citizen, bring an umbrella and a plastic bag for your papers as they do check them in the street.


Support your tico friends.  Help them navigate the online visa application process (not everything is translated to Spanish).  Keep in mind they are probably not used to this kind of no BS organization and if they do something wrong the penalties are enforced.

Reiterate the following:

-The cost for completing the whole visa process is currently $160.  If you ARE NOT approved for a visa you ARE NOT REFUNDED anything.  This is for Costa Ricans asking for a travel visa to the United States.

Consider it a donation to the US government.  So make sure you qualify.  I’d be willing to bet that most days at least one person leaves the embassy in tears.  One twenty something year old girl there was an assistant at a daycare center who had only been working there for three months, single, no university degree, no car, no property.  She didn’t leave crying but seriously I could have saved her $160 with a quick conversation, I know people with more qualifications than her and still get denied.


If you live in Costa Rica and rarely/never go to the embassy then you are probably staying out of trouble and living the good life.  Or, you’re probably in a lot of trouble 😉

Did I miss anything?  What has your experience(s) been like?  Let me know in the comments!