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.