I didn’t have much international experience before last year and I still really don’t, but buying a one way ticket to leave the US was probably the best thing I could have done at the time.
I did manage to survive and, at times, thrive outside of the comfort bubble that I have lived in for most of my life. Looking back on the trip in total, 10 months seem to have flown by, but when recounting individual memories the experience feels like a separate lifetime. Finding enough coins to fill a litro of beer for the beach sunset. The moment Spanish began to click and I understood my student was talking shit. And importantly, realizing that relationships aren’t quantified by the numbers of months that they’ve existed, but can grow to be strongest when overcoming new situations together.
Gaining proficiency in language hasn’t been a linear path for me. I took Spanish 1 twice in high school and only remembered some of the vocabulary from Spanish 2. Some days in Costa Rica I felt I could understand everything and others I felt that I had backtracked when a woman had to say “como” four times in a row.
However, exposure and perseverance has paid off. From learning the basics of ordering food to eventually taking guests reservations at a hostel, I grew to a comfortable conversational level. I will still confuse conjugations, but being able to book a traveler’s visiting dates and provide information on the living situation OVER THE PHONE was a confidence booster and proof that my studying had been going in the right direction. I might not have become fluent, but I’ve returned with a conceptual understanding and passion to continue working towards that goal.
The whimsical world of perfect travel has been falsified and promoted on Instagram and what slips through a lot of the filters and captions is the reality that sadness and setbacks can still occur.
I won’t say that I feel like a whole new person. Nor was everything as great as jumping off of waterfalls and playing at the beach. The truth is that bad things still happen abroad, just as they would at home. A scheduled bus not showing up, sickness, losing a debit card, missing out on a family holiday tradition and feeling alone in a city without familiarity can surely happen. These small setbacks and hardships, occurring in a different setting and possibly a new language, are exacerbated. But overcoming them yielded some of the most rewarding and insightful feelings that I don’t think could have been learned any other way.
Not having my usual support system within a close proximity forced me to accept more responsibility and proactively fix whatever it was that I was going through. Also, it was an opportunity to build a new support system with friends in similar situations. These relationships I value and trust more than anything.
Watching the Costa Rican election unfold, running with a bull at the traditional festival and feeling pride as a teacher and friend when students advance their English skills.
As my time in Costa Rica wound down, I began going through my journal counting each of these experiences where I’ve learned something new. I took into account the Spanish conversations I could hold and compared them to when I first arrived (night and day). And finally, I self-evaluated my surfing, another goal I had set at the start of the trip. I had never touched a board before heading to Costa Rica, the name of my hometown and state promotes a wild misconception to those not from Northern California, but I took to the water almost every day in the last three months. While I once was happy to not get flipped by a cresting wave, I now am dissatisfied if my rides don’t last at least 10-15 seconds.
When I started to add up all of the new friendships, the surfing and the Spanish, the months abroad felt less like days off a calendar and more like an incredible whirlwind of adventures obtained in just a short amount of time. If you’re contemplating living abroad, I’d thoroughly recommend it.