Sometimes when people check in with me (which I really appreciate, by the way!), they ask if I will be ready to come home from my five month vacation. There is no doubt that I have been lucky to have this opportunity, or that I have been a tourist a time or two. However, a part of me still wants to reply with, “I’m not on vacation. I live here.”

Even though I run off to a volcano now and then, I spend most of my time doing the things I would be doing in the US in an average week. I spend time with my (host) family, go to school, talk to my boyfriend (on Skype), do homework, go out to eat with my friends, go to the bank, pet my dog, and scroll though a plethora of “OMG!”-worthy posts on facebook.

The acclimation process was difficult for me, and I worried I would never feel comfortable living in Costa Rica, let alone come to love it. And yet, I have reached a point where I’m excited to go home and see everyone I miss, but simultaneously heartbroken to think about leaving behind the life that I have established here in my home-away-from-home.

A trip to Nicaragua caused me to realize just how much I feel connected to my Heredia home. I had previously made incorrect assumptions about the similarities of the countries of Latin America. Seeing instant differences in the looks, language, and habits of the people as we crossed into Nicaragua showed me how wrong I had been.

Our first stop was the beautiful beach town of San Juan del Sur. Although it is a tourist destination, it was more quaint and beautiful than I had expected.

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San Juan del Sur is also home to the 2nd largest Jesus statue in the world!

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From San Juan del Sur, we went north to Granada. I wasn’t feeling well, but I knew that I would regret staying in the hostel while my friends viewed the colorful colonial town. I was right. I don’t like to choose favorites, but Granada really tried to change that!

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We explored museums, climbed a bell tower for a view of the town (pictured below), and bought some cheap, but lovely souvenirs.

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On what could easily be called the most jam-packed weekend of my life, we headed next to the capital city of Managua. Here, we were so lucky to meet and stay with an ISEP coordinator, who gave us background about the country, insight on what it’s like to be a blonde living in Latin America, and a really great experience in a city that’s often not thought to be worth visiting. Pictured below is the view from the pier at Lake Managua.

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Managua was rich with history, cultural landmarks, and friendly people willing to discuss the past and the present state of the country. We were also lucky enough to stumble upon some young people performing traditional dances, and they were so cool!

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I had been warned that the infrastructure of Nicaragua is not as established as in Costa Rica, that poverty is more prevalent, and not to drink the water. I did get really sick, so someone might have been on point with that last bit. Regardless of the rough parts of the weekend, I will remember it fondly for a long time!

Below is a picture of me with the flags of all the Central American countries. Although I’m holding tightly to my “home” country of Costa Rica, I am excited that I was able to briefly experience Nicaragua and expand my cultural knowledge.

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Pura Vida!

Tori :)

I Have Class, And You Don’t!

As my Northwest friends finish up their classes, I have a little over a month before I can say the same. I don’t really have room to be bitter seeing as I’ve also been filling my time with amazing experiences in my new home. However, thinking about all of this has led me to make a list of things that I have noticed about my classes here in Costa Rica.

The students studying English speak much better than I speak Spanish. Although this is sometimes embarrassing, it only confirms what I already knew. Students here start learning English early, and have no trouble keeping up with native speakers by the time they’re certified to be teachers. I only wish I could say the same about myself!

Almost all of the chairs on campus are reclined. This may not technically be about classes, but it is a noticeable difference. At first I thought was cool and relaxing, but it actually is kind of a hindrance when I need to sit up to focus and write.

Students don’t seem to have a problem telling professors they haven’t finished their homework. At home, there may be that one brave soul that mentions aloud that there was too much going on or that they just didn’t get around to doing the homework, but usually anyone who missed out tries to remain unnoticed. In my classes here, when the professor asks “Did everyone finish the homework?” a lot more straight up “no”s come back in reply.

It’s not common to use computers in class. I think I may be a little biased on this one because I come from a university where laptops are checked out to you, giving every student easy access to their own computer. However, I think that home computers and computer labs are more widely used here because of the way that students travel to and from school (which I will discuss shortly).

SO MANY group projects. I guess I never realized how much of an “independent” endeavor higher education in the US really is until I left it for a while. I have had classes at home with the typical one to two group projects in a semester or small pair or group work throughout, but all of my classes here have three to six on the syllabus with more sprinkled into classwork.

Classes are scheduled into longer blocks. Because very few students live on campus and most take the bus from surrounding towns, class schedules are planned accordingly. Most classes are held one or two times a week for two to three hours so that students don’t have to make so many trips to the campus. Students that live in apartments during the week almost always go home on the weekends, so many of them plan schedules without Monday or Friday classes if possible.

Professors don’t really have office hours. Although they are very helpful before and after classes, it is a bit more difficult to sit down and have a long conversation because the professors don’t seem to readily use offices.

There are copy/printing shops galore! Instead of having textbooks, teachers put together anthologies of sorts that are picked up by students at one of these local shops for a small (my most expensive “book” was $7!) fee. They are also used for any printing needs that come up for both students and teachers.

If you made it through the wordy part of this post, you shall be rewarded with photos of my latest adventures:

Exploring Barrio China (China Town) in San Jose. In reality, there wasn’t much to explore after passing through the pretty entrance.

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There is, however, a statue of John Lennon in China Town. I have no idea why.

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Visiting la Basilica Nuestra Señora de Los Angeles in Cartago.

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A muddy, but beautiful day of hiking at Monte de la Cruz.

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Pura vida!

Tori :)

The Time I Almost Went To Panama For Spring Break

As Costa Rica’s official religion is Catholicism, “spring break” here is actually Holy Week (Semana Santa). All of the students in the ISEP program went on a service learning trip for the week. We stayed in the very small town of Altamira in the south of the country to learn about the organic practices that sustain the community and do some work to help further those practices and generally beautify the volunteer lodge.

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The volunteer organization we worked with is called AsoProLA (Asociación de Productores La Amistad). The people of the organization were AWESOME! They were considerate of our wants and needs, fed us more amazing food than we could have imagined, and taught us so much about the beauty of rural life in Costa Rica.

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One of our activities during the trip included a hike in La Amistad International Park, located on the border of Costa Rica and Panama. I was very excited to visit my first international park, although I was slightly disappointed that we were not able to cross the border. However, we did get to wear cool boots, see beautiful landscapes, and learn a lot about the plants of the park.

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Overall, the experience was a humbling one for me. While learning a lot about nature and hanging out with gringo pals/new pals/adorable dogs was fun, my limits were also tested spending a week with a lot of large creatures sneaking into our room. We were also without access to Internet, hot water, and the comforts of home and host family in Heredia. In other news, I discovered I’m not the best at working with mosaics…

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Despite struggling through new experiences and homesickness, the last night of our week there was absolutely wonderful! We spent time with our host families, workers from AsoProLA, and others from the community. There were games, food (of course!) and so many kind words about our shared experiences. We certainly didn’t have a typical “spring break” this year, but we will all be able to take home unique and cherished memories.

P1000907 (400x300) A few more photos from our time in Altamira…

Showing off the boots/shorts combo that was quite popular for the week.

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Eating organic, fruit-flavored ice cream at the local heladería – SO GOOD!

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A beautiful view that we were rewarded with after getting soaked during a ride in the bed of a truck.

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Pura vida!

Tori :)


She Was An American Girl

I had more than a few warnings that choosing to spend a semester in another country would result in me being asked some tough questions about my own. In all honesty, most questions here are tough for me because they’re in Spanish. Anyway, I’ve decided to share a list of some of the questions I’ve been asked by my new tico friends and family. They have been translated into English by the best of my memory and ability for the benefit of my target audience (Mom and Dad).

Are you French? – Ok, so this only happened once, but it was cool. I was excited to think that my looks could be ambiguous, but on second thought, maybe I just have a weirdly French tone to my Spanish accent…

Aren’t you cold? – This is a totally normal question, but seeing as it hasn’t dropped below 60° Fahrenheit (15ish° Celsius) while I’ve been here, the part of my brain that contains memories of past Maryville blizzards just thinks LOL.

Do you speak Spanish? – This might seem like an obvious one since my skin is the color of milk and hiking sandals are my most common choice of footwear, but it’s interesting to me because I would never think to ask someone what language they speak at home. I have always assumed that all people who come to the US speak English. Whether that assumption is good or bad, I’m not quite sure.

Why aren’t there more language classes in US schools?/Why don’t people there learn a second language? – Obviously, I’m studying Spanish, and I want to be a language teacher, meaning that language classes and the encouragement of bilingualism have and will continue to be a huge part of my life. It’s hard for me to express my passion for this subject in my second language, but I try! However, I usually try to practically explain that speaking a second language seems unnecessary to most people in the US because there are so many English speakers throughout the world, and the opportunities for bilingual people (although there are many) are not quite as numerous or in-demand as they are in Costa Rica.

Oh, Missouri. That’s in the south, right? – It’s not that I expect everyone to know the exact location of my home, but I have just been surprised that so many people associate it with the southern region of the US.  It could just be that living in the northern part of the state makes me identify more with my northern neighbors.

How do you say (insert word here) in English? – I love being asked this because it gives me a chance to be an expert on something, which doesn’t happen much when you’re on the wrong side of the language barrier.

Do “Americans” (see next question) like President Obama?/What do they think of Obamacare?  – I almost want to laugh when I am asked these questions, not because I don’t appreciate the interest in ongoings in my home country, but because it’s impossible to answer. There are so many aspects that can be criticized or praised for every politician and each of their policies. I can barely answer these questions for myself, let alone the entire nation.

Why do you people call yourselves “Americans?” – I should preface this comment by saying that the use of “you people” may have been less intentionally blunt and more a result of the fact that a friend chose to ask it in English, her second language. Regardless, this question made my heart drop. Although the term americana (American) is used here in some contexts, I do not feel right using it. My other choices are: estadounidense (United Statesian, if you will), which is overly formal, gringa (yankee, but with slightly offensive undertones), which is overly informal, or norteamericana (North American), which isn’t specific enough. I usually choose to say, “Soy de los estados.” (I am from the US.) because it’s the easiest. So, I had no suitable answer to my friend’s question. Is it consoling for her to hear that there is no word in English other than an exclusive term that should include both of us and people from many other countries as well? Probably not.

One final question: What is a blog post without a few photos?

My aunt, uncle, and cousins visited during their spring break. Even though I only got to see them for a few days, I was excited to have some Iowans in Costa Rica!

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View of Volcán Arenal

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Climbing around in the La Fortuna waterfall… it was strong!!!

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My amigos and I after a long, steep hike at Monte de la Cruz.

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The alphabet sidewalk at the Museo de los Niños (Children’s Museum) in San José

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Pura vida!

Tori :)

P.S. Credits to Tom Petty (and the Heartbreakers, I suppose) for this post’s title.

Upside Down

OMG, I’ve been here for a month! That is unbelievable! Before leaving a lot of people told me that culture shock and assimilation to my new country would be like a roller coaster. With four weeks of expertise (or something like that), I would have to say that I agree with the analogy. Here’s some insight into the experience I’ve been having so far.

Host Family Life:

Down: Not being in complete control of what I can eat or what I can wear on a given day has contributed to my feelings of dependency. This has been a big change from living on my own in Maryville. Up: Am I complaining about the fact that my host mom does my laundry and serves me delicious meals? Certainly not! She is awesome, and I only wish she would let me help out more.

Learning Spanish:

Down: Not always being able to express my thoughts/emotions in Spanish is more frustrating than I would have guessed. It’s very difficult to participate in intelligent conversations or to have a personality in a second language. Up: I have had a lot of chances to work on speaking and listening. I am so happy that people are willing to work with me, and I have no doubt that I’m improving.


Down: I really really miss my family, friends, and boyfriend. And my house. And my car. And my job. And abundant water fountains. Up: I’m definitely not without support from my loved ones, even from afar, and learning that I can do things without the comforts that I’ve always known is kind of an awesome experience!

The Tropical Climate:

Down: Sunburns, bug bites, and sweat. Up: I’m kind of ok with not being frozen at home.


And… here are some pictures of the latest adventures I’ve had in local towns.

The view from the coffee plantation we visited in Naranjo.

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Painting oxcart wheels in Sarchí.

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And one of the Los Chorros waterfalls in Grecia!

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Pura vida!

Tori :)

Heredia por media calle :)

Here are some of the things I’ve been up to this week. I’ve been very lucky to meet some wonderful ticos and ticas who have helped me learn about my new city, Heredia. The title of this post is a saying that a new tica friend taught me. It refers to the fact that Heredianos are known for not quite following traffic laws, which is definitely something I’ve observed. :)

My first fútbol game. Vamos Heredia! It was a beautiful day for a game, and a win for Club Sport Herediano!

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After the game, some friends and I explored Heredia’s central park (El Parque Central). It is always lit up at night!

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We went on a mini field trip around the city for my Costa Rican culture class. We got to explore Heredia’s oldest church, La Iglesia de la Inmaculada Concepción.

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One of my favorite buildings in Heredia is the post office. It’s much more historical looking than most of the post offices that I’ve seen in the Midwest!

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We visited a few other cultural sights, my favorite being El Fortín. It is a tall tower in the center of Heredia. We had to climb a lot of twirly steps, but it offered awesome views at the top. We also got to meet the mayor (el alcalde)!

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After a long week of learning about Heredia, we decided to reward ourselves with the biggest pizza we could find! It was as delicious as it looks!

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I hope you enjoyed your tour of Heredia! Now I just need visitors to come see me and experience all of it firsthand!

Pura vida!

Tori :)

L2 and a View

The first week of classes is over… and we all survived!

After a night class, a few of my US friends and I climbed to the top of one of our school buildings to get some shots of the city at night. All the red cars lined up are the taxis, and if you look closely, you can see the neon Burger King sign to the left.

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I’m already getting a lot of practice with my Spanish with my host family, ordering things at restaurants and stores, and a few homework assignments. In one of my classes, I’m learning about the process that students here use to learn English, which is really interesting!

I was very confused when I first arrived because street signs and names are seldom used here. However, I am getting more acquainted with my route to school and some of the other places in town. If you visit, I can show you the landmarks I use to find my way around, including cemeteries, parks, churches, and “the house with the zig-zag bricks.” Here’s a view of my street!

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My host family has been wonderful, letting me tag along to the houses of other family members, the grocery store, museums, and the mall! I also love just spending time at my host home, doing homework or reading and enjoying the breeze. Our front patio is my favorite!

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Even though culture shock and homesickness are present, I am working on my routines and settling in to my temporary (but lovely) home. :)

Pura vida!


Indigenous Floss

More about orientation week!

Our third day of orientation began our excursions. We started at La Sabana Metropolitan Park in San Jose. Here’s our first group picture!

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We went to a natural history museum that had really interesting displays with shells, fossils, rocks, and animals.

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It was back to San Jose for day 4, starting with walking around the city and finding this beautiful church. It was very open, like many of the buildings here.

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Unfortunately, I began to feel sick that day. I know it’s common for bodies to rebel when they’re under the stress of getting accustomed to a new place, but I was frustrated that I had to go home and rest instead of spending more time in the city. Feeling sick in a new place definitely made me miss the comforts of home more, also. However, my host mom took me to the clinic, and she has been wonderful in helping me to feel better! I was nervous about holding up during our last day of orientation because I knew it would be a long one, but I’m so glad I decided to go!

We left early so we could drive a few hours to get to the rain forest. We started our day with a banana plantation tour. We learned all about banana plants and how they go from the rain forest to our tables with their little Dole stickers. Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures because we got a lot of rain during the tour.

During lunch, we visited a jungle lodge and did some exploring. That’s where we came up with Indigenous Floss (both a prediction of the use of a certain rain forest plant as well as an excellent band name to use in the future).

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After lunch, we went to another part of the rainforest to learn how chocolate was made back in the good ol’ days. The tour started with a walk across one of the longest suspension bridges in Costa Rica (about 800 feet long!) It was scary, but a really neat experience.

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We got home late because a landslide closed the road we had taken in the morning. Our road home was very curvy, but the views were beautiful. I guess it was just a reminder that you can always find something good when things seem bad. I’ll need to keep that in mind as we start classes soon! :)

Pura vida!


Roto el hielo :)

Observations during this orientation week have been so numerous that I’m going to have to make more than one post about it!

The weather here is BEAUTIFUL. There are almost constant breezes that make drying clothes outside the ideal option. See below, the patio and clotheslines behind my host home.

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I haven’t mastered the ATM/bank situation just yet, but I am slowly figuring it out. Look how pretty Costa Rican colones are! I think it’s good for my budget because they’re so pretty that I don’t want to spend them.

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This is my host dog, Lulu! If she looks sad, it’s probably because I had to steal an oreo wrapper from her. But I’m sure she’ll forgive me when she realizes it was for her own good.

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It’s strange to me how quickly my confidence in speaking can shift. Sometimes at school I can’t even form basic sentences, but then I can come home and tell my host mom everything I did that day. Then the next day will be the exact opposite! Here’s the first picture I’ve taken of my school.

P1000348 (600x800)Orientation has been stressful, but it’s also been really good. Having something to do is much better than spending all my time at my host home missing my US home. I am SO happy to have met the other students in the exchange program (a.k.a. mis amigos gringos).

More to come soon! Pura vida!


P.S. The title loosely translates to “breaking the ice,” something my host brother, Victor, taught me. :)

¡Bienvenidos a Costa Rica!

Well, I made it! Here’s a recap of my first day in Costa Rica:

I traveled with my friend Meagan from Nebraska. Here’s our slightly teary picture before leaving the airport in Omaha.

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My first impression was muy incómodo (very awkward). My host family didn’t recognize me because my clothes and hair were different than my picture, so I kind of had to sneak up on them. And the welcome hugs/kisses on the cheek that I had tried to prepare for were much more difficult because I’m quite a bit taller than them and had a lot of luggage. Not to mention that I said “Nice to meet you,” in English. I didn’t quite have my Spanish brain on yet.

Eventually I said a few things correctly so they figured out that I can at least speak some Spanish, but I also had to ask them to speak more slowly and/or repeat nearly everything they said on the way to our house. I looked out the windows the whole way home and already noticed a TON of things that are different from home or that I’d never even seen before!

Everything is very close together here. Most of the cars seem smaller, but the roads are also. This doesn’t keep people from driving very fast. I would tell you how fast, but my kilometer to mile equations are not very accurate yet…

Most of the houses are connected. My room is small, but it’s the perfect size for what I brought from home. My window looks like a glass blind, which means my room is very loud, but it also has a wonderful breeze!

We had coffee and cake in the afternoon, which seems to be something that is typical here. I gave my host family some cherry mash as a gift from my hometown, and my host mom said she liked them!

Before I even finished unpacking, we were off to meet more family members. Everyone has been very patient with me, which I appreciate more than I know how to express to them. My host brother, Victor, showed me pictures he had taken of Costa Rica, and he told me that he wants me to like his country. I think I will. :)

Sleeping was hard because it is so much louder than my house in the country at home, and it was the first time I’d been able to really think about how much I already miss my family, but I survived the first day!

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This is the first sign I saw at the airport! I had to be a tourist and take a picture. :)

Pura Vida!