#KelsiAbroad: Dealing with Culture Shock Studying Abroad in Costa Rica

By: GoEnnounce Student Kelsi Brooks

Kelsi in Costa Rica!
Kelsi in Costa Rica!

So one of the things that people fail to mention when you are living abroad is the different stages that you go through. Throughout your time abroad one often experiences various aspects of culture shock. Walking out of the airport and boarding a bus or car, you are kind of nervous and relieved to finally have landed. You have messaged all of your friends and family that you have made it safely, and are eager to explore your new home.

As you look out the window, everything is fresh and new. That billboard is in Spanish, instead of English. The houses are shaped funny, bridges are brightly colored, and the traffic is hectic.

When you get to your home stay, you have expectations and fears about the environment. What if they don’t speak English, is my room going to have enough closet space, what if I don’t like the food, do they have a maid, what’s the wifi password, do I have a curfew, where am I?

This part isn’t exactly fun, you are stressed out and tired. Your head is spinning with questions and trying to understand Spanish, and guess what? This is just the beginning.

Next day.

Buenas días! You are up bright and early, Mama Tica is talking to you in Spanish. The coffee smells awesome, there are eggs on your plate, but what is this black stuff with rice. Gallo pinto, welcome to Costa Rica. This dish will be on your plate for the majority of the semester, learn to love it!!

For those of your who did not do any research on the cuisines of Costa Rica, gallo pinto is one of the signature dishes of Ticos. Ticos love eating gallo pinto with breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It has protein in the black beans, and starch in the rice. The dish itself tastes delicious with the Salsa Lizano. Salsa Lizano gives the gallo pinto flavor, but if you’re like me and love spicy, it’s best to add hot sauce anyway.

Desayuno, is complete. You have enjoyed your first taste of Tico cuisine, and you are ready to go to orientation. You get your bag ready for the day. Big whoop, orientation will be exactly like it is in the States!

Wrong. The rules in Costa Rica are not the same, and throughout your trip you will experience a completely different lifestyle. The staff at International Studies Abroad, or your program of choice will provide you with safety information and rules for your host stays. Here in Costa Rica, one has to be vigilant and mindful of their surroundings, belongings, and the way that they carry themselves. Even though your university is in a fairly nice neighborhood, you yourself are still a target for petty theft and crime.

Rule number one; do not carry around your laptop, camera, or cellphone like you would on your college campus.

Carrying your laptop out, without the case, and parading around the neighborhood like you own the place makes you an easy target. Talking on your cellphone as your walk down the street, is not smart, as someone can easily snatch it right out of your hand. If have to take your laptop or cell phone with you throughout the day, place it in your backpack, not in the open mesh pocket. The best places to use your electronic devices are at the university or inside of your host family’s home. The majority of people at the university will have their own devices to worry about, plus there are security guards at the entrance of the school.

Rule number two; try not to look like a gringo.

This rule is very important. You know how they said on the online orientation not to pack a lot of touristy clothes (khaki pants, Hawaiian print shirts, safari hats, etc.), this is because one can easily pick you out the crowd. I know you just got to Costa Rica, but observe your surroundings. What are the locals wearing and what do your normally wear at home? Big difference right. As you are used to wearing runners shorts and a t-shirt to class everyday, Ticos like to dress up. The norm is to wear jeans, and a nice shirt. They do not wear gym clothes to class, and sweatshirts look weird in the tropical setting.

For guys, I would recommend not wearing your shorts. Ticos normally wear jeans or slacks. Shorts and a t-shirt are seen as very casual (beach wear).

Ladies, be mindful how short your shorts or skirts are. I know you are not used to this in the states, but men in Costa Rica like to appreciate the woman figure. It is the norm for men to honk, call out piropos, and whistle at you on the street. It is often disconcerting and strange, but just keep walking and look straight ahead. Any smart comment or double take is an invitation to start a dialogue.

For both ladies and men, when you are walking on the street, walk with purpose. Even if you have to look at a map, or ask for directions, glance at or get the information you need and keep watching. When you walk super slow or you slowly gaze at your surroundings, you are likely to draw more attention to yourself.

What do you do with your hands and your bags?

Put the most valuable things in the bigger part of your bag, so that even if your bag is slit open (in the front), you will still have your most valuable things. Also, zip your bag and have the zippers facing the inside of your body. I know it sounds silly, but having your bag unzipped is not smart. One can easily slip a hand into your bag when you are not looking. The most important thing to do when you are walking around, is to carry your bag in front or the side of your and to put your hand over your zippers, and over the opening of your bag. It may look dumb, or make you look paranoid, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. Often, so many people get their bag swiped when they have a loose grip or are not paying attention to how their bag is situated on their back.

Rule number three, do not walk around at night by yourself.

If you don’t get anything else, get this one rule. Over two semesters, I have witnessed many people make this mistake. Take a taxi, walk in a pack, or take the university shuttle. Don’t be prideful and think you know what you are doing. It is better to be safe, then to regret your decision to walk home alone. So often, students within the first couple of weeks get a big head. They think that they know the area enough and that nobody will bother them if they are walking with a backpack. Wrong, the backpack makes them a target, and if they get lost or turn down the wrong street, they could have a run in with the wrong crowd. Not to freak you out or make you feel scared, but people are watching you more than usual. You are now the minority in Costa Rica. Ticos know who is Tico and who is a foreigner.

Overall, the goal is to not make yourself look like a target. You are in a strange place; there is a different protocol here in Costa Rica than back home on your college campus. You will have to be more mindful of what you do and say here.

I realize that this is a lot to get used to when you first arrive, but I promise that this will become second nature as time goes by.

And remember, Pura vida!

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