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Costa Rica and Culture, Americanizaton and Societal Observations June 17, 2013

Posted by trishapintavorn in Travel Log.
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Hola Chinita! China! China! I hear this everyday in the streets. At first it irked me, because I wasn’t expecting it. Before I left last summer to Ghana, I knew that I would get called “obruni” or told “Nee-how” in some of the bigger cities because I looked it up beforehand and so I didn’t mind it, but I didn’t expect it in Costa Rica because it’s quite Americanized.  But now I go with the flow, and it goes to show that expectations really do color how you interpret things. Me and the other Asian girl on the trip have been told it’s not disrespectful, just part of the culture here and not to mind it and now it’s whatever.

Poverty. There are some homeless people here like in the States. We also planted trees near a river that was across from the “dangerous” part of Costa Rica, and it was quite shocking. There was basura everywhere and shacks that were of terrible condition. We were told by the police that were protecting us while we planted trees that that part of Costa Rica is where a lot of immigrants live and a lot of drug trafficking happens. My host brother said that drug trafficking is definitely quite a problem in all of Central America, thanks to Colombia. And in Nicaragua, I felt really guilty sitting on the street with other Americans/tourists, enjoying my $.30 helado while women and men were roaming the streets trying to sell packs of gum or bracelets for less than a $1 to make money for the day. My main focuses of interest in international affairs are human rights and international development, and poverty and violence are the two things that really get me. I’d definitely be interested in coming back to Nicaragua to work for an NGO to help alleviate it, and I already got in contact with a couple while I was there.

American Influence. In Nicaragua, American tourism/tourism in general has been pretty good for touristy places. They need to really work on their crime though, or people won’t want to come! And in Costa Rica, tourism is also quite big, as well as calling centers. Many people after they graduate from university work in calling centers of MNCs. Some people don’t like that the culture here is so Americanized, others don’t mind it so much and think of Americans as quite friendly. One of the other interns, a French girl, really liked how the American tourists were always so friendly, always asking “Where are you from? How are you doing” which I think isn’t totally unique to American culture but we do tend to be pretty friendly. So plus 1 for the U.S. in that regard!

Expat community. There are tons of Americans living here, teaching English or working at or owning hostels. It’s really a great, great place to live, just absolutely gorgeous, but I guess my only thing is that I feel like I’m quite ambitious and while Costa Rica is wonderful, I want to live a life of impact and not just bum around at the beach all day. Maybe a year or 2 in Costa Rica, yes, but not my entire life.

Nicaraguan Immigration. Because Nicaragua is poor, there are a lot of immigrants from Nicaragua, and there tends to be some discrimination against them and vice versa. Nicaraguans don’t like Costa Ricans before they think they discriminate against them, and many Costa Ricans don’t like that the Nicaraguans are uneducated, put a lot of trash in the streets, etc. I was expecting Nicaragua to be really dangerous and roughed up because of all the things I heard about them from here, but I met so many nice and gracious people with the same sweet manners as the Costa Ricans. A girl did get her purse stolen, because she was swimming in the ocean at 3am on her way back from the bar (not safe anywhere!). She had to go to Managua to get a new passport at the French embassy, but had like no money, so the cab driver helped drive her around and took care of her for free. It’s a shame that it’s always a select few bad people that tarnish the reputation of others.

No Army! Costa Rica is quite known for not having any army. My host brother said, however, in WW2 the government declared war on Germany, which is kind of hilarious, because they didn’t have an army then either. Guns are also hard to come by here, so if you’re robbed and someone brandishes a gun at you it’s probably a fake. But yeah, my host brother said it’s all good with not having an army because they’re buds with the U.S. which I thought was hilarious and true. And the French student I’m also working with said that the French army always goes where the U.S. wants them to go because they’re scared if they’re ever attacked that the U.S. won’t help them, which I also found absolutely hilarious.


Week 2 June 1, 2013

Posted by trishapintavorn in Travel Log.
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Hello again from Costa Rica! Week 2 has definitely been more challenging.

Aside from traveling alone in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language well, learning about sustainability initiatives, improving my spanish like crazy, and learning how to budget while traveling (hahaha… ha, ha.), I am also gaining some really invaluable leadership experience as well. A lot of the other interns are struggling with the project, as it is sometimes a little disorganized and we are somewhat lost as to what our day to day activities are because of the language barrier.

For example, this past week we were told we would either be handing out surveys to businesses to do market research on whether they recycle or not or we would be weighing materials and discerning what percentage of it was plastic or paper, etc. We were under the impression we were done with actual sorting of materials, and so I wore a cute dress and sandals to work expecting to hand out surveys. But then we ended up sorting through trash again, which we had to do first in order to weigh the materials and gather the percentages, and we never handed out surveys. And that day the trash wasn’t separated from the recyclables, so there was food and toilet paper and dirt and all in it. I wasn’t thrilled, but I was okay with it since it was only a few bags of trash and I recognized I maybe should’ve asked for clarification earlier, but some of the interns were very visibly upset. While I was unhappy that others were acting unprofessionally/overly negatively, I tried to coax them through it, saying it was almost done and soon work would be over and we would get to go have fun in San Jose and explore like usual. But it was not enough and we still got a stern talking to the next day by the project manager, who gave us a really great and sobering speech about being able to communicate our problems with her, recognizing that if we act as if tasks are beneath us, we are disrespecting the plant and people who have to work there everyday. It was tough to hear, as one of my biggest fears is ever being an arrogant American in a foreign country, but it was a much needed reality check. We are here to work, not play. And also, side note, this is the type of thing refugees or immigrants face every single day. I helped so many refugees with masters degrees or college degrees apply for jobs at Moe’s or doing retail that they were sadly, even probably underqualified for because of the language barrier. And so they would end up working as janitors or on factory lines or as housekeepers. So yes, while we are college students from world class institutions, in we had to move to a foreign country this may well be the type of work we would have to do. After working at the International Rescue Committee, I now think twice when I walk by a janitor, and sometimes I hear bits of Swahili, and I think about whether they are an immigrant who wanted to find a better life for the children or a refugee escaping war. This is the world we live in. /endrant.

I am realizing how important expectations and communication are when working in teams. In Ghana, we had daily debriefings in which we talked about our hi’s and low’s of the day. We were told not to ‘suffer in silence’–if you’re having a health issue or a problem with the work, say it. And we were told to always, always be positive, and to recognize that things ran on “Ghana maybe time”–maybe the meeting with the community members will happen at 2pm like we planned, maybe it will happen at 5pm because it is thunder storming and it’s part of the culture to quit all work during the rain. (And Ghana maybe time really worked for me, as I sometimes struggle with punctuality and remembering appointments!) Also in other nonprofits I’ve worked for, we were always told on our first day that is important to be flexible. This is a thing with a lot of NGO’s and nonprofits and travel in general, things change day to day and you have to go with the flow and it’s why I want to work and live abroad: I love experiencing new things everyday and I don’t like monotonous routines and I don’t mind being flexible. I think with some of the other students coming in and only having travelled maybe in first world countries and expecting, since it’s Costa Rica, endless beaches and rafting and waterfalls, expectations have not been met, while of course in Ghana, we all expected the worst and that we’d be roughing it because it’s Africa and Africa’s scary, amirite?

Whether you enjoy yourself in a foreign country is almost completely up to you. Yes, we all have breaking points, we all have bad days, and we all really learn about ourselves when we travel and what we can and cannot handle. But in the end you must recognize that you cannot control other people, or even a lot of situations, but you can control how yourself and your attitude and behavior. 

I also skyped with my boyfriend for advice since he once spent a year traveling in a van across America with other Americans and Ugandans for an NGO, and he told me to be patient and empathetic as others have not had the same volunteer experience as I have or been in a hot climate like this or just are more particular and structured and that this is AOK. It’s true, you need to not only be understanding of the culture that you’re in, but also with the people that you are travelling with who may have more trouble adjusting. You never know when you’ll be that person who just is homesick or sunburnt or just plain angry.

Sorry for the text heavy posts, I keep forgetting my camera! I’ll get some pics soon. 🙂


Pura Vida! May 21, 2013

Posted by trishapintavorn in Travel Log.
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Hola de la hermosa Costa Rica! What an eventful first few days I have had.

My name is Trisha, I’m a rising 3 year International Affairs and Spanish major, and I am on a 2 month work abroad program with AIESEC in beautiful Costa Rica, which will be my second work abroad trip. Work abroad is definitely something I recommend anyone who is looking to be more immersed in the culture. It’s also generally a lot cheaper than study abroad, as you are either getting paid or just paying for your food or housing. Of course, there are downsides as well, as you don’t get to be with your Tech friends or get a lot of class credit and it can sometimes be very overwhelming, but I really think it’s something more people should really consider doing that think they can’t afford an international experience!

Anyway, for this summer I wanted to go somewhere in Latin America to practice my Spanish, and was considering other countries like Peru and Argentina. But I had heard wonderful things about Costa Rica from friends and so decided on here like a month ago, and here I am!

I started out my trip with a direct flight from Atlanta to San Jose this past Sunday , which was a really nice short trip compared to the 20 hour or so ordeal with crazy layovers and food poisoning I had last summer on my way to and back from Ghana. My host family picked me up and took me to their home in Heredia, a town to the north of San Jose. Yesterday, I went to our first meeting at the University of Costa Rica, which has a campus that is absolutely BEAUTIFUL. Like huge bamboo forests and students reading underneath the shady trees and natural creeks just running between the buildings, no big deal. It was just really cool to see that the campus was built around the natural landscape, instead of the other way around. I met the other interns–there are 2 other Americans who speak limited Spanish, a French girl who speaks limited Spanish and English, and an Argentian who speaks no English. Together we make an interesting bunch and speak a lot of Spanglish! (I actually keep accidentally typing in Spanish as I try to write this, it’s kind of frustrating!)

I am working on a project called World Town Keepers, which is to basically educate people on sustainability and learn more about sustainability initiatives ourselves. International development is my passion, but I also believe that the environment should not suffer at the expense of development. It’s so interesting to be in a place where eco-tourism is such a big thing, and to see conscious efforts to maintain the many rivers, oceans, volcanoes, forests, and other natural features Costa Rica has to offer. Here, the economy and the environment are somewhat tied together due to the tourism industry being so big, and I think it’s very helpful for both.

Today was our first day actually working on the project. We met up in San Jose (all the other interns are spread out among different host families) in la Plaza de la Cultura and then went to the Municipilidad de Reciclaje de San Jose to learn about their recycling initiatives. Here in Costa Rica, recycling plants are privately owned. We then sorted through some trash which was definitely not the most glamorous thing i’ve done! So much respect to the men and women that do this on the daily, but I learned a lot more about the different types of plastic and that you should ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS wash your recyclables before you recycle them! Seriously, it’s gross for the people who sort them if you don’t!

I have a lot of confidence in traveling to foreign countries alone that’s really based on nothing except for maybe American arrogance. Take a bus ride to San Jose on public transportation to a place I’ve never been to with my limited Spanish abilities? No problem, and nevermind that the one time I took MARTA I was totally bewildered and that I rely on my GPS and Google Maps for like, everything. This blind confidence is generally good for keeping my calm, and I handled everything pretty well today, but when I was trying to go back to my host family tonight I got seriously lost! There are not street signs in most of Costa Rica, only in San Jose, and so I find myself writing directions like “turn left at the blue house” or “turn right at the old hospital” and it’s seriously confusing. I stopped at a shop to use their telephone, however, and they were super helpful about it and eager to practice their English with me. I really like it here so far. It feels like this awesome, perfect middle ground between the U.S. and Ghana. Like, there are toilets and showers and people have a decent standard of living unlike Ghana, but people are very family oriented and giving and have time to help you unlike the United States. Seriously, everyone is so nice. My host mother, for example, is the sweetest woman. She’s a former teacher who is very involved with charity, recycles religiously, and has been giving a homeless man breakfast and coffee every morning for years. She also met an elderly woman when she was in her 20s who had been abandoned by her family for not being kind to them as they were growing up, and took her under her wing and the woman came over for breakfast every sunday for 16 years. Obviously, there are kind people in the States as well, but it just feels like everyone here is a lot more open and trusting. I’m in love.