Lead Story

Ham + Burger

Meredith, May 30th, 2017

Writing about our time in Costa Rica is like explaining the spirit of Aggieland to an outside person; it is impossible capture the true magic of the experience. I can paint a picture with every living detail of the waterfalls, volcanoes, cities, and people—from the expansive rainforest view uncovered by the zip-line to the marbled, vibrant shells of the bugs found while hiking: but no matter how vividly I describe it, my picture will pale in comparison to the reality. Study abroad programs, and specifically Dr. Araujo (Dr. A), are assiduous in their endeavors to open students’ minds to new adventures and ways of life. The world outside the US is a vastly different place: a concept we, as citizens, tend to forget.

Instituto Centroamericano de Adminstración de Empresas, or INCAE, was a highly informative corporate from this trip. After touring the beautiful campus, we learned more about the history of INCAE and about Costa Rica’s status among other Latin American countries. INCAE was established over 50 years ago and is now the best business school in Latin America. Students studying at INCAE receive the same compensation in the Costa Rican job market as Ivy League graduates from the US. The caliber of the students at INCAE is incredible and the passion for learning is inspiring. Per evidence of the research that was presented to us on our visit, INCAE plays an integral role in the ascendance of Costa Rica’s “competitiveness.” As defined by the research team, “competitiveness is a group of institutions, policies, and factors determining the level of productivity from a country which at the same time projects the level of prosperity the country is able to provide.” Essentially it is the country’s capacity for development. With this in mind, we were able to see the research behind why Costa Rica is one of the most advanced places in Latin America, and why it has the potential for much more future growth. Costa Rica does a lot with the wealth it has: free healthcare, free elementary and secondary education, sustainability work, etc. These are the elements of Costa Rica that make it so unique. The literacy rate is 97.8%. There is a strong technological infrastructure. Their government system is well established and stable within the country: they lack a military. All of these components play into the advanced competitiveness of Costa Rica. Though evolving rapidly, Costa Rica’s culture remains prevalent in all aspects of society and proliferates into the native cultures of the region.

My favorite cultural visit we took was the horseback riding trip; however, the horses were not the highlight of the adventure for me. This activity consisted of a horseback ride up a steep trail that led to a wooden platform with a view of a magnificent, tumbling waterfall that cut directly through the lush greenery of the rainforest. After stopping to take in the view, we hiked down a trail that led to a river full of slippery stones and darting fish. As we climbed through the boulders that followed the edge of the river, an overwhelming view took ahold of me. Behind the rocks we had just scaled lied a breathtaking waterfall with a beautiful pool of cool water around it. It was so much fun to swim around and explore the river that I felt as though I could have stayed there the whole day. Though I thought the waterfall was the highlight of the adventure, my favorite part was actually what came next. We hiked back to the horses and rode to a large hut made of mud and hay that resembled a building used in the past by the Maleku tribe. I never thought about the fact that Costa Rica would have indigenous tribes, so it was all the more interesting to meet Maleku people and learn about their culture. They spoke a language unique to their tribe and it was interesting to hear about their culture in their native tongue. As it was translated to us, the Maleku tribe modernized to adapt to the sustainability movement in Costa Rica by abandoning the traditional huts and hunter-gatherer culture for small towns in rural areas. Their culture carries lots of pride and history through its artisanry. The Maleku believe a polytheistic religion and characterize each of their Gods through decorated masks, each crafted to match the personality and domain of the God. Meeting actual tribe members and seeing the painted masks was an amazing experience and an eye opening opportunity. It was baffling that just as I am a foreigner in Costa Rica experiencing a culture so different from my own, so is the Maleku tribe. They have had traditions and customs established in Costa Rica for hundreds of years, but to think that they too have to adapt to the Tico culture was mind-boggling. In addition to acclimating our basic cultural principles such as religion, diet, and customs, smaller aspects of the Tico culture were exciting to explore.

Driving in Costa Rica is a game of its own. Between the abrupt lane changes to the optional stop signs the whole process was a back and forth game of honking and waving between the locals and our van. Though it seemed chaotic at first, in actuality, the system was very simple and unique to Latin America. As Dr. A explained to us, driving in Costa Rica is one of the cultural customs that is engrained in the Tico culture; the system works so why change it? Once I recognized the driving style as a part of the culture I easily adjusted to the difference. I had never realized that something as second nature as driving could be personalized by the culture. One similarity that I had not expected was the amount of traffic in the cities. There was lots of time spent in our van jamming to EDM and country playlists, playing icebreaker games, and talking about everything under the sun (which, believe me, shone everywhere). During road trips was when our group bonded the most because we were each other’s entertainment. We were able to get to know one another so well that now it feels like we have been friends since kindergarten. Our group dynamic evolved as we talked about our similarities, differences, opinions, pasts, and futures to a point where we all felt like a huge family. For this reason, the car trips were some of my favorite times.

Everywhere we ate there was always a “fast food” section of the menu. Ironically, anything that remotely resembled US cuisine was listed under that category. Being a curious Ag, I ran a cultural experiment at one of our lunches by ordering a hamburger and fries at the restaurant counter. The first observation I made was that the woman behind the counter was shocked that I, an American in a bright blue polo that matched the group of bright blue polo wearing Americans, was speaking to her in Spanish. She was so surprised that she began to ask about how I learned, where I was from, and what more I was going to do in the country. By showing I was willing to accept a culture different from my own and take ownership of my responsibility to be culturally competent, I was able to foster a more personal connection with the local people around me. Part two of this cultural experiment was seeing what “American food” looks like in another country. I had never “analyzed” the term hamburger before because it has always been a common staple in my life. Between backyard barbeques, dining at home, or going out, burgers are everywhere in the US, and they are always the same: meat, bread, lettuce, onion, and tomato. I figured that a “Tico burger” would be fairly similar. Little did I know I was in for a treat when it arrived at the table! The term hamburger is a compound word between the words ham and burger, and they took those two words very literally. My burger was stacked as follows: bread, ketchup, mayo, mysterious orange sauce, burger meat, ham lunchmeat, Velveeta-like cheese slice, second slice of ham lunchmeat, and bread. Right when it arrived I showed it to Dr. A and we could not stop laughing. It was legitimately ham slices plus a burger. Though this was only one small difference in cuisine, it was extremely interesting to see and understand what the locals’ perspective of US culture was. From my interaction with the woman at the counter to the food that was served, that meal stuck in my mind at the end of the trip because it made me very aware of how I am perceived and how I perceive others. It is vital to be aware of the assumptions we make, because when we push past suppositions to analyze and immerse ourselves in the surrounding culture we improve our cultural competency.

 

Costa Rica has an unbelievable, enriching, and almost unexplainable culture. During our two weeks studying abroad, my peers and I managed to experience this country to its fullest potential, through hiking, white-water tubing, horseback riding, waterfall adventures, company visits, and so much more. From the lush “La Fortuna” area to the busy capital city of San José, the landscape and culture changes dramatically, but the Costa Rican hospitality and “pura vida” mindset never fades. “Pura vida” means pure life, and it’s their way of saying goodbye, or simply extending their best wishes. Our professor and personal tour guide, Dr. Araujo, used his incredible and extensive knowledge of Latin America to keep the trip exciting and running smoothly.

Being that the focus of this study abroad was business and sustainability, my peers and I got to visit several companies over the coarse of the trip. Some of these included, the Vatican Embassy, Café Britt, and GMI. GMI is an electronic manufacturing company who focus on building smart valves. These have several uses and are highly demanded. One reason why this was my favorite company visit is because I am very interested in entrepreneurship. The success story of GMI begins in North Carolina with only three people. Since here was no executive board and no real designated positions, this allowed them to act fast and make decisions. The young company eventually started working with Freddy Smith, the founder of Fed-Ex, to create a more efficient bar code reader, which landed GMI their first million-dollar order. From there, the company soared. After being cut out of one of their major deals with an Asia distributor, it was time for GMI to make a move. The team wanted the prices Asia had to offer, but wanted to own the manufacturing plant. Due to foreign direct investment, free trade, and the outstanding education college students receive, GMI found a new home in Costa Rica. One of the three founders, Staton Williams, oversees the Costa Rica branch of GMI. We got to meet him personally, and heard from the source about the struggle and success of starting a company. GMI has found how to couple cutting edge machines with the reliable Costa Rican workforce to create a successful company surrounded by an encouraging employee culture.

The cultural visits might have been the best part of the trip! This included a night hike, biking around the city, rafting, zip lining, and cave exploration. The waterfall hikes were the most rewarding. Along the way, our guide would pause to discuss the certain plants and animals that Costa Rica is known for. We got to get an up close look at tree frogs, bullet ants, snakes, and butterflies, as well as learn about the vegetation that makes up the rainforest. We were also briefed with safety tips and equipment to avoid any danger. Although trying at times, the destination of our hike was always well worth it. The waterfalls thundered from the cliffs so beautifully, it looked as if we were in a movie. Cooling off and swimming in the fresh water felt fantastic, and the views were breathtaking. The waterfalls will always be something I will remember about Costa Rica!

As mentioned, every person we encountered was extremely friendly, helpful, and patient with my struggling Spanish! The people of Costa Rica refer to themselves as ‘Ticos”, and this slang is not perceived as rude. They run on “tico time”, which is their version of being fashionably late. The relaxed way of life was refreshing, and better yet, all part of the Costa Rica experience. People take leisurely lunches, meet at coffee shops, and walk the markets. However, there is one down side to tico time… the speed of construction and traffic! As Dr. A informed us (and we experienced); it is not uncommon for people to have a two hour commute to and from work each day. Although the traffic situation wasn’t always ideal, I feel as though that’s when our group bonded the most. Since there were only 8 students, including myself, we got to know each other so well that it was like being abroad with my seven closest friends!

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the outstanding cultural food we had for most of our meals. Their staple dish is called “casado”, and consists of beans, rice, a small salad, plantains, and your protein of choice. They even serve rice and beans for breakfast in a dish named “gallo pinto”, which was easily the best thing I got to eat. Sometimes, we would order tacos or hamburgers to see what we would get. We would always find it funny that they put an actual slice of ham on their hamburgers! At all the typical restaurants, they served freshly squeezed fruit juices, which I ordered for almost every meal. You could choose from pineapple, strawberry, guava, and a variety of others. However, the beverage Costa Rica is most known for is their coffee. As a company visit, we got to visit the Britt Coffee Factory and see the process that goes into making what some would consider the best coffee in the world. The group got to participate in coffee tastings and assist the baristas in making the most delicious drinks.

Costa Rica is an up and coming competitive country with a culture all its own. It was defiantly a once in a life time experience get to explore this country from both the business and cultural angles. I learned so much just by being immersed for two weeks than the classroom could have ever taught me! The beauty of studying abroad is that every second and everything you do is new, especially since I had never been to Costa Rica before. As Dr. A had predicted, I miss it already. From the relaxing beaches, to the tropical forests, to the thrilling city nightlife, Costa Rica has so much to offer. I will continue to reflect on my time spent in Costa Rica, and hold dear the memories and knowledge obtained on this trip.

Categories: 2017 On-site Blogs

Howdy and Pura Vida!

At the beginning of this trip I was a little intimidated as it was my first time traveling outside the country and didn’t know what to expect, but I can definitely say that I am looking forward to traveling to see more of the world in the future! Learning about a culture that is similar yet also quite different than our American culture was definitely an eye-opening experience. I now have a deeper appreciation for the rest of the world and the traditions and customs that make each region unique. I can’t wait to go on my next trip overseas!

During our trip we learned a lot about the history of business in Costa Rica and the various methods they use to be environmentally sustainable. One of the corporate venues we visited was GMI Technology, an electronic component manufacturing company in Alajuela, Costa Rica. Here, we got to talk with Staton Williams, one of the original founders of GMI, who shared with us the history of the company and showed us how the plant operates behind the scenes. Mr. Williams explained to us that GMI set up a manufacturing center in Alajuela to take advantage of Costa Rica’s centralized location, free trading, and great education system. He also showed us one of the world’s first barcode scanners, which was first used by Fed Ex. As part of our tour, Mr. Williams and his operations manager walked us through the production plant and showed us a smart-valve motherboard component being constructed from start to finish. Our group got to see the component passed down what was basically an assembly line as employees passed the component by hand from one end of the shop to the other. I found it interesting that Mr. Williams told us the shop employees usually work 10 hour shifts and enjoy doing their job duties. I feel that most Americans would get bored doing the same task over and over again for 10 hours per day.

We were very fortunate to get a glimpse of the rich culture that makes Costa Rica unique. To name a few activities, we got to go horseback riding, hiking, biking, zip lining, river rafting, and night walking through the forest at the Soltis Center. We even got the chance to crawl through the tight-knit rocky crevices of the Venado caves. We also got a chance to see the Tico culture and observe how people interacted with each other as we shopped in downtown San Jose. My favorite cultural visit was our zip line and white water rafting adventure. As an adrenaline junkie, I had an awesome experience seeing the breathtaking sights of trees, plants, and colorful animals in the air. After we finished two lip lines, we went white water rafting, where each of us got our own donut-shaped tube and cruised down a rocky creek. Our guide told us that the current was at a Level 4 (out of 5) that day, which meant the water was flowing relatively faster than normal and made our excursion even more fun. The best part (and also most scary) was every once in a while somebody’s tube would get airborne and sometimes flip upside down!

One thing about Costa Rica that was substantially different than the US are the roadways. Firstly, the traffic in downtown San Jose was something I’ve never seen before. Coming from a town with a population of just a handful over 700, I’m used to a “traffic jam” being defined as a train rolling through town and causing a 2-3 minute delay. However, it was not uncommon for it to take us over an hour to drive just a few miles down the road because of traffic. In fact, one morning on our way to INCAE business school, a bridge that was on our route was closed down due to the overwhelming amount of traffic. As a result, we had to postpone our initial appointment time with INCAE and reschedule for another day. Dr. A explained to us that the current infrastructure cannot handle the growing Costa Rican population, and thus many traffic buildups occur. The most mind-boggling thing we saw on the road was countless people standing in the middle of the interstate selling anything from bananas and papayas to products such as phone chargers and t-shirts as cars zoomed by at speeds up to 30-40 mph. You would never see something like this in the US. Dr. A negotiated prices with some of these bartering people while we were stuck in traffic. He eventually bought a pair of bright purple arm sleeves to protect his skin from sunburn from driving. Next, driving itself in Costa Rica is completely different than the Americas. Stop signs seemed to be optional, honking is considered a friendly gesture, and policemen always have their patrol lights on while driving around. Also, anytime your car is at a stop, you are expected to look around and watch for bikes and motorcycles and move out of their way so they can get by. We only saw one or two accidents during our two weeks, and honestly I think it’s a miracle we didn’t see more. Lastly, I also found it strange that a majority of the streets did not have a name, but were instead assigned a number, such as “Calle 517”, meaning “Street 517”. I also found it interesting and a bit inconvenient that places in Costa Rica don’t have a numerical address like they do in the US. As someone who is navigationally challenged and is always using the GPS feature on my smartphone to get around town, this was a bit inconvenient because there were times when we had to rely on “go here and take a left, go there and take a right” directions from locals. I would get lost in a heartbeat if I were driving. On our last day, I was reminded of my small-town roots when we passed a tractor on the side of the road on the way to the airport.

As some of the other students have already noted, probably the coolest part about this trip was the memories, inside jokes, and friendships that were made on this trip. All 8 of us came from very different backgrounds, but we all got along with each other really, really well and worked together and looked after each other as if we’d known each other from birth. Dr. A also did a great job of making us feel at home during our time overseas. If it weren’t for him, I don’t think we would have had as great of a time as we had. If you are considering studying abroad, I highly encourage you to choose a trip with Dr. A in charge.

Adios and Pura Vida, Costa Rica, I hope to see you again some time in the near future!

Braden Nemec ‘19

Categories: 2017 On-site Blogs

PURA VIDA!

‘Pura vida’ or pure life is the common phrase used by Costa Ricans. I would stay it describes their culture well because everything from the food to the environment was focused around staying pure and preserving the Earth’s beauty.  I was able to observe and further understand how Costa Ricans, also known as ‘ticos’ live. I was very shocked at how distinct their culture was compared to my idea of Latin American culture. I come from a Mexican background and upon my arrival I instantly noticed that Costa Rica and Mexico had a lot less in common than I originally thought.

During our visit to Costa Rica, we were fortune enough to visit a variety of companies. We visited everything from manufacturing companies such as GMI, to animal rescue center Proyecto Asis, to one of the best business schools in Latin America. The company visit that impressed me the most was INCAE (Instituto Centro Americano de Administracion de Empresas). Upon our arrival, I noticed the exterior was elegantly built to be a reflection of their interior. The structure and architecture of the school was beautiful. From their courtyard you could see beautiful trees and in the very back a volcano. I wouldn’t expect anything less beautiful out of such a prestigious school like INCAE. To begin with, the school is relatively small a benefit to students. Only about 90 students are enrolled each year and they are all required to live on campus. The small campus allows students to build deeper connections among themselves as well as their professors. We were given the opportunity to walk into one of the classrooms where there was students waiting for class to start. It was very impressive when we realized most, if not all, the students sitting there spoke great English. That goes to show how well prepared students must be in order to be a part of this program. In addition to the campus and students, I was also impressed by our tour guide, Beatrice. She represented the school well through her dress and professionalism. She was even kind enough to share with us her research which focused on the Social Progress and well being of a country. Her presentation was very impressive and it just went to show how well prepared everyone, including staff, is.

We also got the opportunity to explore Costa Rica as ‘ticos’ through cultural visits such as bike rides through the town, horseback riding, hiking to a waterfall, and exploring downtown San Jose. Through all these experiences the one I enjoyed the most was horseback riding. Before my visit to Costa Rica, I’d read an article that mentioned horses’ ability to sense emotions and after my horseback riding experience it was confirmed. It was clear which horses were trained to be leaders and which ones were trained to be followers. My horse was named Neno and he was the slowest one of the pack. After a brief conversation with one of the trainers, Jonathan explained to me how since the horse could sense I was nervous he was holding back for me. I got the opportunity to get to know Jonathan a little better than most since there was no language barrier between us. He told me he had been working with horses since he was seven. His uncle was the one who got him involved with these interesting animals. Jonathan explained to me that for a brief  period of time he had to put his love for them on hold in order to focus on his education. I’m not exactly sure how old he was or what his highest education level was, but one thing was for sure. He was passionate about working with horses and he loved every second of his job. I admired his ability to find something he was passionate about so young, but be able to put in on hold because education was his #1 priority.

Now I’d like to talk about my love for Costa Rican food. My favorite part of Costa Rican food was the beverages. I ordered pineapple water at 4 restaurants and it was hands down one of the best drinks I’ve ever had. Each time I had this drink you could taste the freshness of it and there was little to no sugar added these pineapple drinks. I can’t quite put into better words how great and healthy this pineapple drink tasted so I highly recommend you go to Costa Rica and try one for yourself. I was also able to try their typical dish or ‘Casado’ (spanish for married man). This dish is white rice and black beans with your choice of chicken or beef. Although a rice and beans plate might be a typical Hispanic dish it did not taste like the rice and beans I had growing up with my Mexican family. The food tasted more fresh and it was occasionally accompanied by some kind of veggies, which were also of fresh quality. I was amazed at how such a simple dish that I grew up with did not taste the same.

I am a fluent Spanish speaker. In fact, Spanish was my first language. I was blown away when in realized Spanish is not the same everywhere you go. I went into a store asking for a shaving razor. I grew up calling a razor ‘rastrillo’ in Spanish. When I went into a convenience store asking for this the man was super confused at what I was asking for. So I had to explain to him how I needed a razor to shave my legs until he finally understood what I needed. He then explained to me how they called them ‘maquinas de afeitar’.  The second phrase that stuck with me was when they were out of stock for something or it was not available, I grew up hearing the phrase ‘no tenemos’ or ‘no hay’. However, in Costa Rica it was not uncommon to hear a more proper term ‘no le ofresco’, which translates to ‘I cannot offer you that’. It was incredible to see another side of the Latin American culture. I was amazed at how little these countries actually have in common.

I’d like to say this experience was hands down one of the best things I ever did in college. I got to learn a little more about myself as a Latin American. I was exposed to another side of the culture through such amazing ‘tico’ experiences and was able to get a more in depth understanding of what it means to be Latin American. From my time in Costa Rica, mixed with my Mexican background, I learned 3 valuable things about Latin Americans: Religion is put first, family is everything, and rice and beans are at the core of hispanic culture.

Categories: 2017 On-site Blogs

Pura Vida!  This popular saying that means pure life or good life became a term we used regularly as a sort of greeting or friendly goodbye. The learned behaviors, language, and “Tico time” in Costa Rica took some getting used to but after awhile I started to feel like a “tico” myself. This “tico” lifestyle is very different from the United States, for it is a laid-back way of life versus the US where people are more prompt and punctual. Adjusting to the different cultural changes was such an empowering journey and my group and I discovered the best of Costa Rica and all that this beautiful country had to offer in just 2 short weeks.

Throughout our trip, we visited a variety of corporations, historical landmarks, and went on cultural visits that allowed us to get a well-rounded idea of Costa Rica as a country. One of my favorite places we visited was Proyecto Asis. This organization is a Volunteer Center/Wildlife Rescue Zoo that provides a safe environment and extensive care for rescued animals. Our guide, Carlos, made the tour extra empowering because of how passionate he was towards the animals and the organization itself. Carlos explained that most of the time people in Costa Rica would take these wild animals and keep them as pets. A household full of children and/or human interaction is no place for a wild animal to be and is very dangerous to the people because of the unpredictability of the animals. Each animal we saw had its own story of their journey through different homes, any possible injuries/distortions each animal acquired, and how they got to the center. The center included animals such as parrots, monkeys, wild pigs, a porcupine, raccoons, and a wild cat. My favorite animal had to be the monkeys because of how playful, energetic, and friendly they were. Carlos’ “best friend” at the center was a certain monkey that wrapped its tail around him every time he went to his cage. This interaction between the two best friends was so humbling to see how involved the volunteers are with the animals and knowing that they are in good hands. Another interesting aspect of Proyecto Asis that Carlos touched on was how/when each animal were to get released back into the wild. For example, monkeys need a mom that will teach them how to survive and guide them. Instead of the monkeys growing up with the guidance from a mom, they grew up knowing human interaction which they cannot use in the wild where they are seen as prey. For this reason, Carlos explained that, unfortunately, rescued monkeys cannot ever be released into the wild. However, there were cases that some animals could eventually be let back into the rainforest. For example, the birds and wild hogs have a chance to be released as long as they go as a strong pack. This entire visit was so amazing to see each animals journey and Carlos’ passion was truly empowering and inspiring.

Like I’ve said, this trip was a big culture shock for me. My group and I got to experience the unique culture first hand in the different cities such as Cartago, San Jose, Alajuela, and Jaco Beach. The most “shock” I received from the trip was definitely in downtown San Jose. San Jose is the largest city in Costa Rica where a big concentration of people live. The streets were very busy and full of “ticos”, vendors and very little tourists like ourselves. Restaurants lined the streets that served the most traditional dish in Costa Rica: “Casado” or rice and beans. Every restaurant or eatery we went to had some sort of casado dish that consisted of rice and beans, chicken or beef, fried plantains, and some sort of salad. I learned that the reason behind this popular dish was because it fills you up for a long period of time. Along the streets of San Jose, there were also an assortment of boutiques or clothing stores. What I thought was interesting was each store sold basically the same clothes all throughout the city. There was no variety in clothing, I assume because everyone in Costa Rica is inspired by the “tico” style. The people that are vendors on the streets are very persistent and are not afraid to approach you aggressively to convince you to buy something from them. It was very startling and unusual for us because we are not used to that in the United States. I would say I did not feel as safe in the downtown area because of the aggression and unpredictability of some people that roamed the streets. To me, it resembled Bourbon Street in New Orleans, Louisiana. San Jose is also heavily filled with traffic. In the US, most of us are used to sitting in Houston or Dallas traffic for max an hour, but in San Jose we would sit in traffic sometimes for 3 hours in a day. We got used to the traffic jams by the end of the trip but it was definitely one of the biggest culture shocks for all of us.

A big selling point for Costa Rica is definitely the views. Every morning that I woke up, whether I was at a hotel or resort, I ALWAYS had a breathtaking view of the country. When we stayed in San Jose, the overlook of the city was spectacular. We were very fortunate enough to have a view of the National Stadium in Costa Rica and the Vatican Embassy of Costa Rica. Once we moved into the jungle part of the country, the rolling mountains and trees were so pretty and we also overlooked a huge volcano at our resort in La Fortuna. Lastly, we went to Jaco Beach and stayed in a condo that overlooked the bluest water I’ve ever seen. It was so peaceful and the sunset that set over the beach was stunning. There are definitely lots of sights to see in this beautiful country that I would not have ever seen in the Unites States.

Another part of the trip that made it so great were the people that went through the journey with me. There were 7 other Mays students, like myself, on this trip who came from all walks of life with different past experiences. I was one of the youngest people on the trip and it was so awesome getting to hear about some of the older upcoming senior’s journeys through college and what they wanted to do when they graduated. Going to a country for 2 weeks and spending basically all of your time with 7 other complete strangers seems odd at first, but we all eventually became very close and made close friendships. Since the trip was rather exclusive with such a small group, we got to bond in a very personal way. I wouldn’t have wanted to experience Costa Rica with any other group of people. They were awesome.

I could not have asked for a better study aboard experience. Dr. A did a tremendous job planning out every little thing we did and I wouldn’t have wanted a different professor for this trip. Our group agreed that we literally did everything one could do in Costa Rica and it would not have been possible if it weren’t for Dr. A and his passion for the country. I would highly recommend Dr. A on any trip because he makes the experience ten times better. I would call Costa Rica an experience of a lifetime that I will cherish forever. Pura Vida!

Lindsey Alexander ‘20

Categories: 2017 On-site Blogs

HOWDY!! Or Pura Vida!

Much like the Aggies use the word “Howdy” when greeting another Aggie, the people of Costa Rica use the phrase “Pura Vida” when saying goodbye to someone, wishing them well and a pure life as they go. It took me a few days to break out of my normal use of “howdy” and start saying “hola”, but by the time I left Costa Rica, I was very accustomed to using “Pura Vida” and I felt like I had been living in Costa Rica my whole life… okay not really, but I learned so much in these two weeks and I couldn’t imagine anything less than what this trip was.

Words do not even begin to do this trip justice because we had so many cool experiences and opportunities to learn about the culture of Costa Rica. One of my favorite parts about this trip was getting to visit Proyecto Asis. Proyecto Asis is a rescue zoo that is designed for wild animals to come and be “re-trained” to be able to survive in the wild. Most of these animals have come from homes or hotels where they should not be being kept. Some of these animals, unfortunately, will never be able to return to the wild due to the fact that they have been tainted in such a way that cannot be fixed to allow them to survive on their own. Carlos, our tour guide, was one of the main factors that made this visit so great. He was so knowledgeable and very passionate about this zoo and these animals and wanted to make sure that these animals were getting the best care they could possibly get. My favorite story that he told was about one of the wild cats they received from a family. Carlos knew that this cat was house trained and was not wild at all. This cat is meant to hunt down their food and not let people get near them, but he did the exact opposite. As time went on, this cat finally began to become wilder. Carlos said that the cannot get near him anymore because he starts to show his teeth like he is going to attack. He also said that they started putting animals in the cage at night for the cat to hunt down and eat and it was doing so. Carlos said that this is exactly what they wanted to see from this cat and that with just a little more time, he will be able to be release back into the wild.

We were also fortunate enough to be able to do quite a few cultural visits while we were in Costa Rica. We got to go horseback riding, visit the Soltis Waterfall, do a forest night walk, visit the La Fortuna Waterfall, go river rafting and zip lining, visit the city of Cartago and bike through the streets, visit the Basilica, tour the Venado Caves, relax at Jaco Beach, and experience the downtown of San Jose. I thoroughly enjoyed every single one of these visits, but I have to say that hiking through the forest to the Soltis waterfalls was my favorite part. I have never been more in awe of nature and how beautiful things are in that part of the world. Everything was so lush and green and it was very cool to see the animals in their natural habitat. I was absolutely blown away when we arrived at the waterfalls because it was just pure beauty that pictures cannot accurately capture. While the water was freezing, it was really cool to be able to stand underneath the falls and just take a moment to cool off and take a quick reflection time. Both waterfalls that we got to visit were just absolutely breathtaking. That was one of those things that I have always seen in books or on TV but have never gotten to experience in real life, so that was a dream come true.

Since this trip only consisted of 9 of us total (including Dr. A) we were able to form a bond that is kind of unexplainable. I remember arriving at the airport the day we left feeling a bit nervous because I was going to be spending the next 2 weeks with people that I barely knew, but it did not take us long at all to become comfortable around each other and to make those lasting friendships. We were all so different, but it was so cool how we could all sit around with each other, sharing stories, laughing, and reflecting on the day that we had just completed or the day that we would be embarking upon in the morning. I don’t know if I would have wanted to do this trip with anyone else but the people that I got to go with.

Another thing that I really enjoyed about Costa Rica was just seeing how the people act there. The “ticos” are so friendly and definitely made me feel welcome everywhere that I went. I specifically connected with a gentleman at our resort in the La Fortuna area. He was an artist and was set up in the restaurant at breakfast time selling his paintings. One morning I walked up to him on my way out and ask him how much he was selling his paintings for. He told me but the conversation continued much past that. He asked where I was from and what I was doing in Costa Rica. I told him that I was on a study abroad trip with my school and then told him what we were doing that day. He wished me “Pura Vida”, gave me a hug, and sent me on my way. The next morning, I came back to breakfast with money in hand ready to purchase one of his paintings and he asked me about our previous day and what we would be doing that day too. Again, he left me with Pura Vida and I departed for the day. He never came back to the restaurant after that day, partially because it was the weekend, but I will remember his kind words and well wishes as I got to embrace Costa Rica in a new way each day.

This trip would not have been as phenomenal as it was without the extreme hard work that Dr. A put into it. I cannot say enough great things about Dr. A and all that he did for us. If you have the chance or are even considering doing a study abroad, I would encourage you to sign up with Dr. A. Costa Rica was definitely an experience of a lifetime and I will never forget the memories and friendships that were made in just 2 short weeks.

Until next time Costa Rica,

Pura Vida!

-Mallory Johnson ‘19

Categories: 2017 On-site Blogs

Writing about our time in Costa Rica is like explaining the spirit of Aggieland to an outside person; it is impossible capture the true magic of the experience. I can paint a picture with every living detail of the waterfalls, volcanoes, cities, and people—from the expansive rainforest view uncovered by the zip-line to the marbled, vibrant shells of the bugs found while hiking: but no matter how vividly I describe it, my picture will pale in comparison to the reality. Study abroad programs, and specifically Dr. Araujo (Dr. A), are assiduous in their endeavors to open students’ minds to new adventures and ways of life. The world outside the US is a vastly different place: a concept we, as citizens, tend to forget.

Instituto Centroamericano de Adminstración de Empresas, or INCAE, was a highly informative corporate from this trip. After touring the beautiful campus, we learned more about the history of INCAE and about Costa Rica’s status among other Latin American countries. INCAE was established over 50 years ago and is now the best business school in Latin America. Students studying at INCAE receive the same compensation in the Costa Rican job market as Ivy League graduates from the US. The caliber of the students at INCAE is incredible and the passion for learning is inspiring. Per evidence of the research that was presented to us on our visit, INCAE plays an integral role in the ascendance of Costa Rica’s “competitiveness.” As defined by the research team, “competitiveness is a group of institutions, policies, and factors determining the level of productivity from a country which at the same time projects the level of prosperity the country is able to provide.” Essentially it is the country’s capacity for development. With this in mind, we were able to see the research behind why Costa Rica is one of the most advanced places in Latin America, and why it has the potential for much more future growth. Costa Rica does a lot with the wealth it has: free healthcare, free elementary and secondary education, sustainability work, etc. These are the elements of Costa Rica that make it so unique. The literacy rate is 97.8%. There is a strong technological infrastructure. Their government system is well established and stable within the country: they lack a military. All of these components play into the advanced competitiveness of Costa Rica. Though evolving rapidly, Costa Rica’s culture remains prevalent in all aspects of society and proliferates into the native cultures of the region.

My favorite cultural visit we took was the horseback riding trip; however, the horses were not the highlight of the adventure for me. This activity consisted of a horseback ride up a steep trail that led to a wooden platform with a view of a magnificent, tumbling waterfall that cut directly through the lush greenery of the rainforest. After stopping to take in the view, we hiked down a trail that led to a river full of slippery stones and darting fish. As we climbed through the boulders that followed the edge of the river, an overwhelming view took ahold of me. Behind the rocks we had just scaled lied a breathtaking waterfall with a beautiful pool of cool water around it. It was so much fun to swim around and explore the river that I felt as though I could have stayed there the whole day. Though I thought the waterfall was the highlight of the adventure, my favorite part was actually what came next. We hiked back to the horses and rode to a large hut made of mud and hay that resembled a building used in the past by the Maleku tribe. I never thought about the fact that Costa Rica would have indigenous tribes, so it was all the more interesting to meet Maleku people and learn about their culture. They spoke a language unique to their tribe and it was interesting to hear about their culture in their native tongue. As it was translated to us, the Maleku tribe modernized to adapt to the sustainability movement in Costa Rica by abandoning the traditional huts and hunter-gatherer culture for small towns in rural areas. Their culture carries lots of pride and history through its artisanry. The Maleku believe a polytheistic religion and characterize each of their Gods through decorated masks, each crafted to match the personality and domain of the God. Meeting actual tribe members and seeing the painted masks was an amazing experience and an eye opening opportunity. It was baffling that just as I am a foreigner in Costa Rica experiencing a culture so different from my own, so is the Maleku tribe. They have had traditions and customs established in Costa Rica for hundreds of years, but to think that they too have to adapt to the Tico culture was mind-boggling. In addition to acclimating our basic cultural principles such as religion, diet, and customs, smaller aspects of the Tico culture were exciting to explore.

Driving in Costa Rica is a game of its own. Between the abrupt lane changes to the optional stop signs the whole process was a back and forth game of honking and waving between the locals and our van. Though it seemed chaotic at first, in actuality, the system was very simple and unique to Latin America. As Dr. A explained to us, driving in Costa Rica is one of the cultural customs that is engrained in the Tico culture; the system works so why change it? Once I recognized the driving style as a part of the culture I easily adjusted to the difference. I had never realized that something as second nature as driving could be personalized by the culture. One similarity that I had not expected was the amount of traffic in the cities. There was lots of time spent in our van jamming to EDM and country playlists, playing icebreaker games, and talking about everything under the sun (which, believe me, shone everywhere). During road trips was when our group bonded the most because we were each other’s entertainment. We were able to get to know one another so well that now it feels like we have been friends since kindergarten. Our group dynamic evolved as we talked about our similarities, differences, opinions, pasts, and futures to a point where we all felt like a huge family. For this reason, the car trips were some of my favorite times.

Everywhere we ate there was always a “fast food” section of the menu. Ironically, anything that remotely resembled US cuisine was listed under that category. Being a curious Ag, I ran a cultural experiment at one of our lunches by ordering a hamburger and fries at the restaurant counter. The first observation I made was that the woman behind the counter was shocked that I, an American in a bright blue polo that matched the group of bright blue polo wearing Americans, was speaking to her in Spanish. She was so surprised that she began to ask about how I learned, where I was from, and what more I was going to do in the country. By showing I was willing to accept a culture different from my own and take ownership of my responsibility to be culturally competent, I was able to foster a more personal connection with the local people around me. Part two of this cultural experiment was seeing what “American food” looks like in another country. I had never “analyzed” the term hamburger before because it has always been a common staple in my life. Between backyard barbeques, dining at home, or going out, burgers are everywhere in the US, and they are always the same: meat, bread, lettuce, onion, and tomato. I figured that a “Tico burger” would be fairly similar. Little did I know I was in for a treat when it arrived at the table! The term hamburger is a compound word between the words ham and burger, and they took those two words very literally. My burger was stacked as follows: bread, ketchup, mayo, mysterious orange sauce, burger meat, ham lunchmeat, Velveeta-like cheese slice, second slice of ham lunchmeat, and bread. Right when it arrived I showed it to Dr. A and we could not stop laughing. It was legitimately ham slices plus a burger. Though this was only one small difference in cuisine, it was extremely interesting to see and understand what the locals’ perspective of US culture was. From my interaction with the woman at the counter to the food that was served, that meal stuck in my mind at the end of the trip because it made me very aware of how I am perceived and how I perceive others. It is vital to be aware of the assumptions we make, because when we push past suppositions to analyze and immerse ourselves in the surrounding culture we improve our cultural competency.

 

Categories: 2017 On-site Blogs

Traveling to Costa Rica was the first time I had ever been outside of the United States. I was nervous at first, but after the trip, I feel like I could travel anywhere in the world. The culture was very different than that in the United States, which we experienced through multiple corporate visits, cultural visits, and had the chance to build deep relationships with the other students on the trip.

One of my favorite corporate visits was when we went to INCAE University. I have grown up in large cities where the school or university is in the middle of the city. INCAE, however, is tucked away in the middle of the jungle. There were iguanas roaming around, and the birds were extremely plentiful. I loved that about the university. The students were all so friendly, and since the dorms are all located on the INCAE campus, the students knew each other very well. They also only select about 90 students, so it’s very selective, which makes for a very tight-knit class. One super interesting thing we heard is that students that graduate from INCAE with their MBA will make the same amount of money as an Ivy league school graduate would make. I always envisioned the ivy league schools as the top of the pack, but INCAE is world renowned and the most important MBA program in Latin America. At $60,000 a year, with housing included, I could definitely see myself going back to INCAE for my MBA.

During our study abroad we had the chance to see two different waterfalls. One was at the Soltis Center, the other at La Fortuna. I’ve always loved waterfalls so seeing these two was a big highlight of the trip. The first waterfall at Soltis took about an hour to hike the one mile to arrive at the waterfall. It was absolutely incredible rounding the corner and coming up to the waterfall. It’s one of those moments I will never forget. We jumped under the waterfall and swam in the little pool it created for about 30 minutes and I was soaking up every second. The second one we accessed was by horseback. The horses took us up most of the way to the top of the jungle then we hiked down about 500 steps to come to the bottom of the second waterfall. This one was incredibly powerful and large. They even had lifeguards stationed around to keep people from not swimming so close, because of its sheer power. While this one wasn’t as peaceful as the first, I enjoyed seeing the power it had, and the experience it took to reach this hidden gem in the middle of the rainforest.

One of the running jokes on the trip was if you wanted rice or beans, or beans and rice. These two food items were such a staple to Costa Rica, that you could literally have rice and beans for breakfast, beans and rice for lunch, then rice and beans again for dinner. Their main dish in Costa Rica is called “Casado.” This is Spanish for “married man” because this is what married men would typically eat at home, making it the “typical” dish of choice. The first two items in a Casado were, you guessed it, black beans and white rice. I very much enjoyed this dish, and it kept my full for all the activities we had throughout the trip.

Our study abroad group consisted of 8 students plus our professor Dr. Araujo. We were all very different people, and probably never would have crossed paths with the students if it wasn’t for this trip. I can honestly say without hesitation that I enjoyed every single person on the trip and that we all will continue in friendship in the future. I loved staying up late and really getting to know all the students on the trip. It’s amazing how much you can learn about people after two weeks when we have this shared experience. Our prof, Dr. A, was also an incredible teacher and friend. We would talk about the stock market most mornings, or his career before Texas A&M, or about his wife and two kids. Dr. A was such a joy to be around, and he really made this trip spectacular.

I had a great friend once tell me culture is like the wind. It’s something felt, not seen. I never really understood what she meant by this, until now. I could write many more paragraphs about the culture in Costa Rica and everything I saw, but yet you still probably wouldn’t fully understand it. You must go and feel it for yourself, to know it’s there and understand it. That is why I would 100% recommend going on a study abroad, and especially this one to Costa Rica.  I have learned so much these past two weeks, and the memories and friends I made will no doubt last a lifetime.

PURA VIDA!

– Foster Pugh ‘18

Categories: 2017 On-site Blogs

PURA VIDA!

This was a phrase that we used quite a bit! Its literal translation is Pure Life, which wishes the best upon the person spoken to. This is just one example of how Costa Rica is the “good life.” This is a country that is laid back, beautiful, and very different from the USA. I learned so much about the wonderful culture of the “ticos!”

When reflecting upon all of the different corporate visits, there was so much that I learned throughout all of them. The intensive educational culture that INCAE created, the religious background of the Vatican Embassy, the exposure to the business processes of Café Britt and GMI, the preservation efforts of Proyecto Asis, the sustainability of the Organic Farm, and the farm-to-market efforts of Furca provided the foundational layer for learning about the corporate life in Costa Rica. The thing that stood out to me most was Proyecto Asis. This was a rehabilitation center for animals. Proyecto Asis was named after the catholic saint, St. Francis de Assis. He is the patron saint of animals. The title reveals two very important things about the program. It is based around catholic rescue efforts and ideals, and they deal with animals. Catholicism is very prominent in Costa Rica which is not only evident here, but also through the numerous churches that we had the privilege of seeing. Our guide, Carlos, was very passionate in his rescue efforts. His passion for the animals seemed to give him the energy and drive to maximize the potential of the facility. He was very informative in his extensive knowledge of the animals. For every animal he discussed, he knew the background of the animals, what they needed to survive in the wild, and how to facilitate the release process. For example: the Ocelot needed to live by itself, hunt its own food, and needed to fear humans. People would not go near the cage and live animals were released into the cage to promote its natural hunting instincts. This was overall a very exhilarating experience that revealed the prevalent issues in Costa Rica regarding different animal species. The fines for illegally keeping these animals were minimal, so unless something is done, the problem will continue.

We also learned extensive amounts about the culture of Costa Rica. There were numerous activities that initiated cultural immersion: horseback riding, hiking, Solits waterfall, night hiking, La Fortuna waterfall, rafting and zip lining, Cartago visit, biking, the caves, Jaco beach, downtown San Jose, and exploring La Fortuna. The rafting and zip lining provided me with the most knowledge of Costa Rica. This activity was after we had gone on numerous hikes, so we had already learned so much about the landscaping, plants, and animals that we saw during the zip lining. At Soltis we had learned about the difficulties Costa Rica faces regarding rainfall. After rafting, it was very easy to see this. The day before we rafted, it had rained which caused large rocks to block the rafting path as well as increasing the volume and current of the river. This made for a very fun rafting adventure. Lastly, this cultural visit was one of the many places that we could see that tourism is very important to their economy. This whole organization was based around American tourism. This was something very intriguing to me.

One thing that I think is very important that we learned is the food. This was unlike any place I have ever seen. A typical plate was casados (rice and beans), a portion of protein (chicken, beef, fish), vegetables, a small salad, and usually a fried plantain. Although different, it might not seem super unique. Unlike America though, there were “resturantes tipicos.” Here, only typical food is served which was intriguing because this seems like an unheard of concept in America. Generally, America is considered a “melting pot” of different cultures and food. There are many different options, but in Costa Rica, the majority of food is based around these staples. This is very different from USA.

Lastly, the Costa Rican people were very laid back and helpful. It seems like the ticos were all about helping each other. Whenever issues would arise, Dr. A would talk to the locals, learn about their lives, and the locals would generously offer recommendations. It was remarkable to be able to observe the different lifestyle. When the bridges would be closed, the locals would offer to show us back road detours. When construction sites were blocking the roads, Dr. A would very politely ask to pass by, and the construction would stop for our convenience. A place with accommodating people helps to promote the wonderful Costa Rican culture. This is the good life.

Overall, this trip was extremely educational. Dr. A created a fun environment where we were able to bond with everyone on the trip. This fun environment opened us up to learn more about Costa Rica. The friendships that Dr. A facilitated will last a lifetime, and I would STRONGLY encourage everyone to go on this trip.

Pura Vida!

– Phillip Madden

Categories: 2017 On-site Blogs