Two cooking lessons, one soccer game and a hundred hugs later, I’ve returned back to the States with improved Spanish jargon and a new perspective on travel.
I spent three weeks in Costa Rica, entirely out of my element, but also incredibly in it.
I joined a UNM professor, a few professional Costa Rican (Tico) athletes and around 20 collegiate student-athletes from across the U.S. for a summer internship like no other.
I have the superpower to trip on thin air, frequently burn dinner and experience chronic nose bleeds—if you know me, you know that I’m not a student-athlete.
Still, I stepped out of my comfort zone and chose to be part of this program, where we were given personalized training schedules at the gym and spoke a great deal about sports. While I was physically challenged, my sports vocabulary and view on teambuilding and community grew, particularly after attending a national soccer game against Trinidad and Tribago.
The Costa Rican fight song still rings in my head with all of the clarity and strong ties the sport has to Tico identity. It helped me recognize the importance of sport—that athletics helps unite a group of people, in that we share a team, a culture, a soul.
During the week, the interns were divided into groups based on their interest. I helped develop a sports camp for underserved youth while also volunteering with Special Olympics. I stayed with a host family during the weekdays and joined the student-athletes on weekend excursions.
I spent my time in my temporary—and forever—home playing soccer, video games and with action figures with the host family’s children; learning traditional cooking recipes with the host mom; and discussing topics like work, folklore, school, holidays and just about everything else in-between with the parents.
While working at Special Olympics, I connected with the children in a way that made me feel that I was doing something worthwhile and valuable. The other interns in our program likely recognized similar situations—the children remembering us after a few days, requesting to be our partners and simply perfecting their technique each day.
I wish I could continue to travel this way. I wish this was the only way to travel—living with a host family and giving back to the community without being a tourist, not an outsider, but a guest.
It is unsettling to think of all the times many Americans have stepped outside of the States and taken advantage of their surroundings, taken the culture for granted or commercialized what is important to a group of people. This experience was different.
I felt comfortable and excited to absorb something new each day. We traveled to a few beaches and did a bit of sightseeing, but nothing compared to being immersed in the language, my host mom telling me all the different ways to say, “Bless you,” after someone sneezes and a five-year-old knocking on my door each night just to say, “Buenas noches.”
Nothing compares to feeling accepted and excited to be someone who wants to learn from and be integrated into a society.
Elizabeth Sanchez is the Editor-in-Chief at the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Beth_A_Sanchez.