I arrived in Costa Rican on a chilly, rainy June afternoon, scared and worried about the weeks to come. At 16, I had just flown alone for the first time, arriving in a country I knew nearly nothing about. I didn’t want to be here; I wanted to fly home to spend my summer as a camp counselor, surrounded by the friends I had known since childhood. But that was not to be: my normally overprotective parents had decided to send me abroad, to stretch wings that had no interest in exercise and improve Spanish skills that were woefully nonexistent.
My Costa Rican family picked me up at the airport, greeting me warmly with kisses and welcomes. During the ride home, we struggled to communicate, but their rapid-fire Spanish made me so nervous that I forgot how to ask them to speak slower. At home in Alajuela, a quick tour of their house revealed several unfamiliar things: an electric showerhead that wanted to murder me, a toilet that didn’t swallow toilet paper, and a washing machine made from only rocks and a sink. So far beyond my comfort zone, I was in another comfort galaxy.
Despite my concerns, I drifted off to sleep quickly, awaking just moments later to a sunny day and delicious scents wafting through the house. My rumbling stomach led me straight to the breakfast table, where my Costa Rican mother presented me with a jumbled mix of black and white something. Upon inspection, I realized: she’d given me rice and beans. For breakfast. “I can’t eat this!”, I told myself, opting instead for the musky papaya salad that she had also prepared.
The following day was filled with many other firsts, like riding the rickety public bus, a castoff from the United States school bus fleet, and acclimating to my Spanish school. It seemed that everyone was older than me, more experienced. But one thing stood out: their Spanish wasn’t better than mine. In fact, despite a tongue that wouldn’t obey orders and a brain paralyzed by fear of the unknown, I placed into an high-intermediate Spanish class.
The freedom of that class, which was conducted from 3-walled open classrooms, hammocks, and picnic spots, got me through that first week. We didn’t just review grammar; we talked about Costa Rican culture, sang pop songs in Spanish, and talked about life. Suddenly, Spanish was alive for me, a living, breathing entity that helped make everything richer and fuller.
In addition to daily Spanish classes, I had decided to casually study Latin American dance. Each weekday afternoon, I twisted and twirled through salsa steps, bounced and laughed to Costa Rican cumbia, and moved to the rapid beats of merengue, my favorite tropical rhythm. I fueled and fed my inner latino everyday, practicing Spanish with my dance teacher who, though ten years my senior, had won my heart with her intricate foot work and smoldering brown eyes.
Before I knew it, I was one month into my trip, and falling hard for my adopted country. I eagerly gobbled down “gallo pinto” (rice and beans) for breakfast, sang Latin tunes under my breath, and had even managed to survive a tarantula in my bedroom. My acclimation was nearly complete, the only thing missing was fluent Spanish.
One Saturday morning, I awoke to another sunny day. Birds chirped outside, cumbia played in the background, and my tica mom was gossiping with our neighbors outside. As I readied myself for the day, I suddenly realized that I understood the outdoor whisperings, which I had been passively listening to. As Twilight Zone melodies danced in my head; I was sure I had woken up in an English-speaking Costa Rica.
Of course, I wasn’t in a 1960’s television show; I was speaking and understanding Spanish. I was happy, proud, surprised… my outside now fully represented my inside, which was madly in love with this small Central American paradise. As much as I had adopted Costa Rican as my own, it had adopted me, welcoming me with a beautiful language, an incredible ecology, and warm, friendly people. I was home.
As I grew older, I realized that Costa Rica had been much more than a destination. I was destined to return, to learn more, appreciate further, and love more deeply. Because travel is not the end, but the beginning of a longer journey. And so, almost 8 years after that rainy June afternoon, I packed up my life in the United States and returned to the homeland of my heart, where I now live my very own happily ever after.
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