I know I said I was going to hold out for a real computer before I posted, but I've been here for a week now and I'm not sure when I'll have that chance. This means that I'll suffer through typing on this tiny keyboard for you, whoever you may be. *Insert long dramatic sigh.* But getting down to business...
I guess I should start on Wednesday February 2, which is the day my parents dropped me off in NYC. The weather was unseasonably warm, at a balmy 60 degrees, and it was a lovely day for a stroll in the city. We met up with my brother for lunch near his lower east side apartment, then around 2:30 we headed to the Seaport Inn so that I could begin my orientation. Based on my previous AFS experiences, I was expecting to show up to a hectic scene, with a few volunteers frantically trying to check in the hordes of AFSers, tons of jittery and anxious teens holed up in a hotel ballroom, and an overwhelming sense of impending I-don't-know-what. But apparently the universe had other plans. In place of the large hotel in Queens, there was a small inn in Manhattan. Instead of a packed lobby full of weeping parents and overweight suitcases, there was a bored volunteer chilling in an armchair. And en lieu of a list of tons of people headed in various directions (and 30 headed to France), there was a single piece of paper containing only 3 names and 1 program: Costa Rica semester community service.
Although I had to be at the hotel by 3:00, our orientation activities didn't start until 5:00, so I said my goodbyes, headed up to my (this time single) room, and took a much needed nap since the night before had only provided about 3 hours of sleep. Two hours later, I pulled myself up and headed downstairs for Welcome and Introduction, where I met Thomas and Rob, the only two other Americans headed out for this particular program, who both happened to be from the MD/DC area. We were joined by a girl who had gone to Costa Rica for a year, and she told us a lot about the country in general (although neither she nor the leader could really elaborate on our individual projects. We left the hotel for dinner at a funny little restaurant called The Cowgirl Seahorse, and afterwards we walked around the area before turning in for the night.
The next morning we left the hotel at 8:30 and hailed a cab to take us to the AFS Office. That's right, we got to go see where the magic of intercultural exchange takes place! As much as I'd like to say that it was built of friendship rainbows and culturally aware unicorns, it looked an awful lot like cubicles with some blown up photos of happy exchangers on the walls. But the people were nice, and we got to check out the AFS archives that are housed there. We hung around a conference room getting oriented some more via videos, African parables, and little activities, then at 12:15 we piled into a waiting car and headed off to JFK International Airport. The volunteers got us checked in and to security, gave us some phone numbers in case of emergencies, then bid us farewell as we headed to our gate.
We boarded the plane around 4:00, and after 5 hours or so of uneventful flight time we touched down in San Jose. Going through customs and security was relatively painless, and I managed to get by without saying a word (which was good, because the only things I could say in Spanish were "El caballo corre" and "Donde están mis pantalones?"). After making it past the formalities, we found our AFS CRC people waiting for us out by the taxis. We met up with them, and they told us that we were waiting on a few more people before we could go to the hostel. Although it was only 8ish, it was already a dark Costa Rican night. The little strip of sidewalk reserved for meetings and taxi-gettings was packed, with people moving around each other in the orange glow of the lights like moths to a streetlamp.
Finally we were joined by Caroline from Germany and a Frederic from Quebec, and the 5 of us (along with our 2 AFS people) piled into one of the red taxis and set off for the most terrifying ride of my life. Treating rules of the road more like unimportant guidelines, our driver wove in and out of cars while taking sharp turns at insane speeds and breezing through red lights. After what felt like an insanely long time, we arrived at the hostel, Casa Yoses, and breathed a sigh of relief that we had made it in one piece. Although they gave us dinner on the plane, we were kind of hungry by that point. We went to the little restaurant at the hostel, where we were joined by Anna from New Zealand as we chowed down on some delicious beans and rice.
The next morning, after failing to understand how a Costa Rican baño works and taking a pretty frigid shower, we (all 30 or so AFSers that had showed up) walked a few blocks to the AFS CRC national office to begin the next round of orientation. It was my first time really experiencing Costa Rica since it had been nighttime when we arrived, and I was certainly impressed. Having left behind a cold Maryland February, it was amazing to be walking around in this 75 degree sun, flowers hanging from some of the nearby, not a jacket in sight.
Although the AFS CRC office still looked mostly just like cubicles, it was closer to being built on rainbows and unicorns than it's NYC counterpart. With huge windows and open-air skylights, it felt almost like an extension of the outdoors. We got served lunch, which was delicious, then we began our activities. They had a few PowerPoints telling us more about Costa Rica, AFS CRC, and family structure, and after it was all presented it was time to head back to the hostel. The evening was mostly filled with TV, dinner, and another cold shower, but after I went to bed disaster struck!
Fo once in my life, I am actually going to skimp of the details of this little period in time, and I think you may thank me for it. The disaster in question was of a "Aaand up comes dinner" nature, and I spent the rest of the night curled up with a mug of tea on the sofa in the common room, half watching some soccer match and half making a break for the bathroom, with the guy from he front desk checking in on me every 15 minutes or so.
Anyways, when it got to be time to leave for orientation in the morning I wasn't feeling any better, and when our AFS volunteer Nadia saw me she said that she was taking me to the hospital. She called a cab, and as the everyone else gathered to walk to he office, I got taken to the ER.
Now I'm going to take a second to back up to my preconceived notions of Costa Rica at the time. I had been told a lot of things by a lot of different people about what to expect there, and they were all rather contradictory. I got told that the country was both a first world paradise and a third world drug smuggling rat trap. I was told that the water was clean and the fresh fruit healthy, and then I was warned not to eat anything that didn't come wrapped in 7 layers of plastic. The scariest warnings came from the travel doctor that gave me my vaccines, who basically said that I will contract malaria/dengue fever/rabies/AIDS and will need to bring my own IV for when they cart me off to the hospital to die. All in all, I had no clue what the heck to expect when I showed up at the Hospital La Católica.
As it turns out, the ER in Costa Rica is almost exactly like the ER in the USA. You go in, get lost trying to find the proper check in desk, go to the admissions counter, get a fun name tag bracelet, wait, wait some more, go through triage, wait, meet with a doctor, wait, get taken back to where the beds are, get an IV, get blood drawn for a blood test, wait, get told that you have a stomach virus, get prescribed meds, get taken out in a wheel chair, and go home. There was no voodoo medicine, no roaches crawling around, just sterile surfaces and those fun hospital beds that move with a remote. (Note: No, I never did believe that this would involve risky medical proceedings, but I know there were some people that were worried)
Once I had eaten some chicken soup I rejoined the others at HQ for some talk about expectations, change, and the personal projects we'll be coming up with. That night, they took us to the San Pedro mall to grab dinner. It was fun to be out with people in the real world, and it was utterly terrifying to face the fact that I couldn't understand or speak Spanish while trying to order a sandwich.
The next day was Sunday, the day we were supposed to leave San Jose and head to our next destination: language camp. Language camp was (still is) at Finca la Flor near Paraiso. The finca is an ecoagricultural farm where they go back to nature farming in the forest. After our bus ride there, AFS left us in the capable hands of Bridget and the rest of the people here. We split into cabins, mine being with Anna and Allie from New Zealand and Kayla from Australia, and then sat down for our first of many all organic, vegetarian, all home grown meals. After lunch they split us up by those who spoke at least a little Spanish and those who, like me, spoke none. The speakers had a speaking placement test, and the rest of us had free time until the written placement test. 96 questions, and I only had the slightest clue what about 20 of them said. It was funny because it felt like I should have known what they said, like that feeling you get when you don't study for a test and you think to yourself "Oh yeah, I remember that being mentioned once. Too bad I can't remember what it is..."
Apparently, though, I did a pretty good job guessing, because when they split us up into classes the next day I got put into the intermediate level. There were two other people that were in the same boat, and as soon as Professor Esteban started talking we were quick to point out that we were total beginners. They sorted that out and we were transferred to Professor Gustavo's class, where we started with learning the alphabet. Over the course of the day, we learned letters, colors, adjectives, and when to use ser vs estar. We took a walk in the forest, we ate fresh cooked bread, we did bilingual yoga, and that evening all of us headed up to the little bar since we're all legally allowed to here.
The next couple of days have started to run together, each one following the same basic schedule. 7:00-7:45 is breakfast, 8:00-10:00 is class, then there's a 20 minute break. Then it's back to class until noon, lunch break until 2:00, class until 4:00, coffee break, and then we're free with dinner at 6:00. Over the past couple of days we've learned everything from how to count to how to conjugate irregular pretérito imperfecto. I can now tell you what I'm wearing, what (and what color) that animal is, and if you talk at a decent speed to me I will understand what you mean (after I process for a second). All that from 7 days of classes. My French is immensely helpful, since it's provided me a base of concepts (gender of words, imperfect vs perfect past, making your adjectives agree with your subjects, etc).
In addition to classes, I've learned Pranayama breathing, the dance of universal peace, and how to salsa dance. I've buried a dead porcupine in the forest, been part of a women's circle, and gone from not being a coffee drinker to drinking a cup in the morning and a cup in the afternoon. I've used a machete, ordered a beer in Spanish, and hiked through a rain forest (multiple times).
Finca la Flor is lovely. It's all organic, and they cook us tons of food I've never had before. It has great views, three crazy dogs, and WiFi that shuts off at 8:00pm. My cabin is really cool, built out of l logs, with a big window that looks out over the forest out the back and a wall that seeps water when the wind blows during a rain storm. My spanish class is held in the yoga house, and every so often we'll stop class to look at birds outside the windows the line all the walls.
I know I've probably given you tons of details when it didn't matter, and breezed over things you want to hear about. Sorry. I'll repost soon with some full stories.
As for my mental and emotional state, I'm doing fine. The days here feel really long, and I'm usually dead asleep by 9. My Spanish is progressing rapidly, although I still can't really speak. I've made some fantastic new friends, and we've laughed ourselves silly multiple times. Everyone is really nice, and the whole community here is really supportive. I love the temperature here. I'm excited and nervous about leaving to go into the real world, and I still have no clue what to expect.
I hope that was enough to hold you over until I for real get a computer and my thoughts flow a little better.