Costa Rica: One Year Later


Exactly one year ago I was on a plane headed for Central America to join the Latin America Studies Program in Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

I had no expectations; I was completely alone. I didn’t know Spanish. I didn’t know anything about Latin American history or politics. I was — as my dad likes to say — jumping off the edge of the world.

After a year of reflection, more travel in Eastern Europe, the death of someone close to me and the beginning of the transition toward graduation and adulthood, I decided to look back to what I learned from my time in Central America.

It’s an old list, but I think the lessons still hold.


  • Preservativos and preservantes are NOT the same thing.
  • Always throw your toilet paper away. Do not flush.
  • In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega’s political propaganda is as profuse as fried chicken places in Texas


  • When riding the public bus, the notion of personal space does not exist.
  • Capitalism in its purest form is really only found on the black market. The selling of organs and babies isn’t legal. Yet.
  • Most of the world learns six continents: America, Oceania, Africa, Asia, Europe and Antarctica. Sometimes they combine Eurasia.
  • Some types of ants protect aphids because they like the type of honey the aphids produce. My host dad compares it to farmers caring for cows.


  • Many people don’t call the United States: America. America to them encompasses all of North, South and Central America.  We are United Statesians. Or just gringos
  • The U.S. has a violent history of interference in Central America including aiding dictatorial coups and performing air strikes.


  • Although prices are similar to the U.S., Costa Rican wages are much lower.
  • Christianity from a Latin American view is a lot different from my Southern Baptist upbringing. Christ is a campesino, a compañero, a fighter for justice.


  • Missions, especially short-term missions often do more harm than good.
  • Liberation theology is theology based on reality, usually the reality of the poor and marginalized.
  • Being able to speak to someone in their native language, without judgments, is absolutely beautiful.
  • Cafecitos, midday coffee and tea breaks, are a necessity.


  • Getting anywhere in Costa Rica requires lots of bus changes, abstract directions and unwanted whistling from passersby.
  • Liga vs. Sapressa
  • Costa Rica beating U.S. in futbol is a huge deal.
  • You will consume more coffee in one month than probably your entire life before arriving to Costa Rica.


  • The Subjunctive is the Devil.
  • The Past Subjunctive is a cross between the Anti-Christ, Voldemort and that really creepy ginger kid from Children of the Corn.
  • In Nicaragua, birthday parties and Sunday school usually include a piñata and lots of singing about Jesus.
  • No one knows what they’re doing half the time. And they don’t care.


  • Don’t say Me gusta someone. (I like someone.) That usually only has a romantic or sexual connation. Me cae bien is the right term (They fall well with me.)
  • You will dodge lightning on the way to class. And look like a drowned street rat a good percentage of the time.

Photo: Natalie Kadar

  • Street slang is really fun once you get a better handle on your Spanish. Especially when it’s not expected of you.
  • Don’t pause in between the metal bars in the bus.
  • Mamon chinos are the coolest fruit ever. They look like alien dinosaur eggs.


  • Bananas do not grow on trees. They’re plants. And three generations grow on one


  • Organic farming is the best farming. It’s also extremely difficult work that makes little money.


  • The views from San Cristobal, Cartago cannot be beat.


  • Gallo pinto para siempre
  • You’re going to miss PB&J.
  • You’re going to miss your family like crazy.


  • You’re going to be confused 99 percent of the time.
  • You’re going to have relatives asking you how your vacation on that island is going. And if you have a Mexican boyfriend yet. The answer is no.


  • You’re going to be challenged.
  • You’re going to overthink your life choices.
  • You’re going to be grateful.
  • You’re going to blog way more than any of your friends want to read.


  • You’re going to vamos al bus with no idea where you’re going.
  • You’re going to see your neighbors going through absolute crap. You’re going to realize you have no capacity to understand their struggles, and that you’re part of the problem.


  • You’re going to fail.

You’re going to fail every single day.

And you’re going to get back up again,grab that stick of hope, put on your blindfold of faith and absolutely destroy that piñata of inhibition.


Then you’re going to say something embarrassing and eat some more gallo pinto.

Snapshot_20130829 DSCF9107

You’re going to cultivate some of the best relationships of your life: from your amazing host families, to the other students, to your professors, to the guy who sells strawberries on the street corner. These are the most important. DSC09600 DSC09603

Enjoy it.

It’s beautiful.

Pura Vida, mae



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2 thoughts on “Costa Rica: One Year Later

  1. Ashleigh, I think what you are doing is amazing. Your mom and dad have to be beyond proud you are pursuing a world that needs more thought provoking activist care. Please give my best regards and prayers to your mom and grandmother at this time. Beautiful people…but nothing you don’t know better than I. I am enjoying Travel Bugg! I hope to meet you again one day and visit with your family. God’s peace and grace to you in your travels. p.s. I’m astounded how much you favor your mom when we were in 9th grade choir! (Yes, I know you are grown, but still the resemblance is there). Give them my best! Kim Underwood, Odessa, TX

  2. Dear Kim,

    Thank you for your kind words. My mom has told me so many good things about you. Hope to meet you one day! Best wishes.

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