Jul 11, 2012

And just like that it's all over

Foreign exchanges are incredible things. Anyone who's been on one will tell you how it changed their life, how it made them see the world differently, how it made them see themselves differently. And if you're anything like me, you'll be a little skeptical of all of the hype they're creating. After all, it's just living in a different geographical location. Your friend who just got back from a semester in Paris is probably just trying to get attention when they lament how different everything is and try to kiss everyone on the cheek, right?

But trust me, this time the hype is totally justified. It's something that's impossible to capture in words or photos, but is extremely real. Living somewhere else, no matter how "similar" or "on par" it may be to where your from, will be completely different from anything you've ever experienced. Period. Because cultures are different. That's what makes this world such a cool place. Every place has it's own identity, it's own things (no matter how small and insignificant they may seem) that make it unique and different from anywhere else. Maybe it's the way they teach kids to tie their shoes, maybe it's the way the country is structured, but whatever it is will have an impact on the way life works. Yet despite the cultural differences, we're all just people. We all want to be happy, to be successful (by whatever standards you measure success), to be loved.  And so while there may be huge cultural differences, there will be an inherent sense of familiarity. Which is generally awesome.

Leaving San Ramón was very different than leaving Millery. This time there was no big group at a hotel, no long bus ride to the airport. Since we had already had our final orientation in Limón, we just had to show up at the airport on time the day of departure and sort ourselves out to get home. At 3:20 AM, Ivania, my host parents, and I  loaded into the pick up truck and headed off to the airport. The radio kept the ride from being awkwardly silent, since none of really could think of what to say. When we got to Juan Santamariá International Airport, we figured someone from AFS would show up to give us tickets and help me get where I needed to go. (The San José office hadn't really been too detailed when telling us what to expect). We waited and waited and waited. Groups of people passed, lots of people complimented me on my Liga Deportiva Alajuelense jersey I was wearing (Side note: La Liga is better than Saprissa. Always. Continuing.), but no one from AFS showed. Finally, as time was starting to feel tight, a few other AFSers (not volunteers though) showed up, and we figured we should just try to get checked in on our own. I said my goodbyes to my host family, but very much to my surprise I didn't end up crying (which was very odd considering the good 2 hours I had spent crying after a goodbye I had just 2 days before). I didn't dwell too much on that, though, and instead attempted to maneuver exit taxes, bag check in, and security with my 2 other Americans.

We made it through unscathed, and made it to our gate without too much wait time before boarding. The flight to Miami was smooth, as was all the border patrol shenanigans (which, somehow, I did entirely in Spanish). One of the other Americans managed to get the three of us in exit row seats for the flight to New York, and a few short hours later we were making our way out to see our parents for the first time in 5 months. (Well, 2 of us were. One still had a flight to wait for). It was great to see my mom and dad, and around 2 AM we finally arrived back in Towson.

It wasn't until I got on Facebook and got a message from Ivania asking if I was home safe that it really hit me that I had left Costa Rica and wasn't going back for a long time. That's when all the tears that hadn't come that morning finally arrived.

And while I'm still sad that my time is done, I'm happy to be here now. It's an adventure in itself, really. I'm with some of my oldest friends, doing things I do every summer, yet somehow it's different. Once again I feel like I see the world through a fresh pair of eyes. I see things that I never really noticed before, like how many people around me are speaking Spanish, or how stressed people get over being 5 minutes late. I notice how values are different in the USA and in Latin America, how families are more spread out, how much liberty people have at 18. None of it is necessarily better or worse, it's just very different.

I find myself feeling very culturally confused quite frequently. I don't feel like I'm a typical suburban white girl anymore. Part of me is almost Tica, part is almost European, and part is almost...well, I don't know what it is. I  want to correct people when they say they're American (after all, there is a whole other continent of Americans south of us), I crave rice and beans (typical exchange student stuff), I feel awkward that I don't have to say goodbye to each person individually when I leave somewhere. The day after I got home, I went to the Mercado Latino and bought tons of food I'm used to eating. Then I bought some paté and a baguette.

I changed so much more than I expected to in Costa Rica. Having already been on an exchange, I didn't think that I'd learn all that much the second time. But I did. Costa Rica taught me things about life, about exchange programs, about myself.  I learned that it's OK to to change families, to be bad at Spanish,  to fake a smile, to use the cards you've been dealt, to talk to people, to change, to become attached, to take a chance, to fall in love, to love yourself, to have pride, to be different, to listen to bad music, to not want to leave, to be excited to go back, to be typical, to not know, to learn, to get lost, to look crazy, to grow, to get fat, to mess up, to break some rules, to laugh at a joke you don't understand, to be laughed at, to laugh at yourself, to show off a bit, to stand out, to blend in, to cry, to smile for real, and to live, really live.

And now, here I am. Sitting on the hammock in my back yard under the magnolia tree, the summer sun just starting to lower, the smell of burgers coming from my neighbors patio, the sound of talk radio almost audible from the kitchen window. And I'm lost. I'm lost without a clue which direction to go in. I know that in 2 weeks I'm headed out west to get a flight to Hawai'i, where I'll be until winter break, but that's about as much as I have. Everything I thought I had figured out, what I wanted to do, what I wanted to be, I'm suddenly not sure about. But for the first time in my life I don't feel like that matters. I'm not stressed or anxious, I'm calm. For lack of a better word, I'm pura vida.

Going to Costa Rica was an amazing decision. If you're thinking of doing it, DO IT. Because there's something about that place that I just can't put into words. It was a great learning experience, a great growing experience, and a great living experience. And maybe I'll end up back there. Maybe I'll end up in France. Maybe I'll end up somewhere entirely different. I really don't know.

But I have a lifetime to figure it out.

Hasta Luego, 

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