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Pura Vida

I landed in Costa Rica around noon on Saturday. As soon as I was greeted from my host family I started thinking “oh my gosh, I am actually in Costa Rica!” My host mom welcomed me with a kiss on the cheek and Spanish. I had no idea what she was saying but she was smiling so I assumed it was something nice and I said “hahaha Si gracias” The first day was a little rough, everything looked so different and I wasn’t use to seeing anything like the neighbourhood I stay in. Everyone was honking, staring, and my host brother was casually doing 100 mph down the street. I’m assuming it was normal considering the only person that was freaking out was me. You know when you’re in an unfamiliar environment and you look around you to see if anyone has the same reaction but they don’t so you kind of just sit there trying to visibly look like you’re accustomed to craziness? That was me.

As soon as I arrived at my new Tico home my host family began talking to me in Spanish.  Again, I had no idea what they were saying so I said “hahah Si gracias” the saying has kind of become my go to these days. My mama Tica makes the best food my first night here we had rice and beans (everyday) plantains, and chicken. I was then showed my room and the view is amazing! I have my own room and bathroom and I also have a separate living space up here.
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The next day we had a city tour and I got to see the University I will be attending and we also got to see some of downtown San Jose. I no longer felt homesick. I was just excited, and grateful to be here. I actually talked to people first, and I have three friends so yay! I started classes on Tuesday and I love them! I have Spanish class from 8-12pm everyday and my teacher is the most friendly energetic professor you could ever have. She makes class interesting, and in class we are only allowed to speak Spanish so I am learning a lot already!

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Tomorrow I am headed to Tamarindo! ISA has three excursions included in the price so we will be going to a different city for the next three weeks, Friday- Sunday. I will be horseback riding and going on a boat tour at sunset to a private island where we will be paddle boarding and snorkeling. Costa Rica has been so welcoming and fun so far. I look forward to sharing more with you! Pura Vida! (pure life)

 

my favourite house to walk past on the way to school
my favorite house to walk past on the way to school

 

Pre Departure Blues

So, classes have officially begun at my school and I am set to leave for Costa Rica at 6:00am on September 24. With about three weeks left before my departure I feel a mix of emotions. You know that feeling when you’re going uphill at the beginning of a rollercoaster ride and your heart is racing, palms are sweating, you’re excited but super nervous, and all you can think is “ OMG I.AM.TERRIFIED. Yeah, that’s me right now. I’m sure I have stalked every YouTube video, travel blog, and Pinterest idea on Costa Rica; I’ve looked up top destinations and restaurants, a hair store (I’m a natural hair gal, I need my products) and even began planning a few side trips. I haven’t started packing yet because I suffer from something called laziness procrastination when I wait until the day before to start packing. I made a spreadsheet and a shopping list of all the things I have to get before I leave and I told myself that I would start packing by the 12th so lets all pray I stick to that! Despite doing all of this, I’m still in shock and I can’t believe I’m actually doing this! My flight is booked, my fees are paid, all Costa Rica is waiting on is me.

This year has definitely been a ride. I didn’t apply to the nursing program (partially because I knew I wasn’t going to get in… YET) and I decided to apply for a study abroad program with zero expectations. I just wanted to try something new. I have a clean slate and I can redefine what it means to be Chrysteene and I really look forward to volunteering with health professionals and nearby orphanages. I’m blessed to be able to have this opportunity and although I know I’m about to have the time of my life I can’t help but to think about the things I’m going to miss out on while being away. Before you call me ungrateful, let me explain! My friends, family, and my boyfriend will all be here and I will be in another country for three months. I’m going to miss Thanksgiving this year, which happens to be my favorite meal holiday of the year. My whole family comes together and we laugh, dance, and enjoy each other’s company. I don’t know guys; I may just have to treat myself to the beach, an ice cold drink, and breathtaking beauty that weekend to cure my sadness lol. Being so far away from my support system will definitely be the hardest part, but luckily we have Skype and tons of other apps to communicate with each other. My friends have all started their classes, and all I can do is anxiously count the days I have left until my departure! In the meantime I’m still working and saving and spending a lot of time with my loved ones.

Financing study abroad LOAN FREE

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I think too often we get so use to staying within our comfort zones that we fail to realize there is a whole other world that exist beyond our own. I believe the media has made us fear the possibility of traveling independently to a new country, and I am not referencing to your typical fully air conditioned, all inclusive resort, where you spend your time sipping on pina coladas and totally not making efforts to immerse yourself into another culture. Isn’t that crazy? People travel internationally to get the exact same experience they could have gotten for less in the states, but hey, whatever floats your boat! Lol. I can not tell you how many times people have attempted to discourage me from studying abroad because of false misconceptions that derive from movies like Taken. You know, the movie where a young woman and her best friend travel to another country and end up being abducted and sold into sex trafficking. No… but seriously that’s the movie my mom brought up when I first mentioned studying abroad, she said “Chrysteene, you sure you want to do this? I don’t have connections in other countries, I can’t make sure you’re safe there, I need to start saving money for a plane ticket just in case I need to get to you” (insert crying laughing emoji). After giving my mom more detail she came around and she is more supportive than ever. (Hey mama!) I visited the study abroad office at my school; they gave me tons of brochures, books, and online resources I could look into to choose the right fit for me. I went in very open minded, with no specific country I wanted to go. All I knew was that I wanted to be gone for a semester, and I needed an affordable program that would allow me to reasonably raise enough money so that I could go without having to rely on loans, that was my goal. After some research I came across San Jose, Costa Rica. This program offers healthcare courses in Spanish and English. From September through December I will be living with a Costa Rican family and I will attend University of Veritas. The program fee includes food, a home stay, tuition, medical insurance, excursions, and many other things excluding airfare, other travel and spending money. Although all this seemed great there was one problem… MONEY THAT YA GIRL DID NOT HAVE! Coming from a home of a single mother and three siblings my mom didn’t have $10,000 lying around to just send me to another country for a whole semester. So… how did I make all this happen LOAN FREE?!

Upon leaving the study abroad office I felt so discouraged because I figured there was no way I would be able to afford studying abroad. But I am child of God. Through him nothing is impossible, so at this point I had two options. I could give up or I could make something happen. I stopped feeling bad for myself and I asked my study abroad advisors what my options were. They suggested scholarships that I could apply for and I learned that I could use my financial aid to help fund my expenses if necessary. I began applying for scholarships and instantly started a GoFundMe campaign while putting in extra hours at both of my jobs. I started saving money in November, a year prior to leaving. I cut back my spending by eating out less and limiting my spending money to about $50 a week. With the help of family and friends they raised about $3000 and I contributed $2000 myself. The study abroad office awarded me with the UMKC General scholarship of $2000 and before I knew it I already had a little over $7000! (Turn up)  I also applied for the Gilman Scholarship, which is a national scholarship eligible for students who receive the Pell Grant. This scholarship awards students any amount (up to $5000). I started writing my Gilman application in December and it was due in March. I highly suggest drafting essays months before the deadline and have multiple people proofread and revise as much as possible, the more people who read it, the better. I will be hearing from Gilman any day now (fingers crossed!!

So now all I need is $2500 and I will meet my goal!! See how easy it is to accomplish something you’re passionate about? It’s all about altering your thinking and approaching things with a positive mindset. I can tell you now that I would not be making my dream a reality if I looked at the challenges head on and stopped at, “I can’t afford this.” So whatever it may be, I want to encourage you to start today. Set attainable goals, do your research, and make everyday count!

Chrysteene Smith

Sunsets and Coffee

Costa Rica is all about the coffee, but with coffee comes a lot of work. We went to pick coffee at an organic farm, which proved to be a very interesting experience. It was cold and rainy, and basically in the middle of the forest. This basically meant as we picked coffee beans, there were huge spiders (and probably snakes) among us. It is amazing that people work all day in those fields, because after 10 minutes of it I was ready to stop. It was crazy how everywhere you stepped you had to check to make sure you would not run into spider webs. I could not do that every day like the workers.

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Later in the week we learned Christmas carols in Spanish. One of them was the most challenging Christmas song I have sang. It had Spanish tongue twisters, which as a group we stumbled through. The other song however was super easy and has been stuck in my head ever since (Burrito Sabanero). We sang some of the songs in Spanish and then some in English to a group of older people at their nursing home. Afterwards we decorated cookies together, where I went a little overboard with decorating them. All our professors were there, and overall it was just a lot of fun.

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This weekend I went to Jaco for the first time. It is just 2 hours from San Jose and it has the most gorgeous sunset over the ocean. The beach was completely different than every other beach I’ve gone to. A lot of the Ticos told us in general Jaco is dirty and ugly, but I thought it was beautiful. The only down side is the fact that most of the people there are tourists rather than locals. We met a lot of people who did not speak any Spanish and just wanted to enjoy a Costa Rican beach.20151211_162921

Jaco is also a huge party town. As we walked down the street, it seemed like every block had a bar or club filled with people. It also seemed like more people went to the beach at night than in the day. My friends and I swam through the waves as the sun set, and by the time we got out of the water the beach was packed. Thankfully our hostel was behind all the commotion so we couldn’t hear the music all night, but that was about the only good thing about it. One of the girls’ bathrooms didn’t even have a toilet seat. It was definitely an experience. Even with some of the less convenient aspects of the trip, we still had a great time. It was the last beach trip of the semester, and it was with some people I’m going to miss the most when I leave.

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Our host mom surprised us with inviting to a 15th birthday party. It was the craziest experience I have had all semester. The beginning ceremony was beautiful, ending with the birthday girl opening up a box of butterflies. Then they hired a famous Costa Rican singer (who sang about every other song in English), then people in stilts came in and danced with us. They brought out black lights and a face painter as we danced the night away. A drumline came in with dancers and people started conga lines and limbo. We left as they started shooting off fireworks at 11, but the party was still going strong. Who knows what happened after we left! It was a great way to spend my last Sunday in Costa Rica. I had experiences I thought I never would. I am sad I only have this week left, but I am ready to get home and see family and friends. Until then, Pura Vida!

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A Week to be Thankful

We missed a holiday this week; the first major holiday of the semester that we’ve missed. For a lot of students, it was really, really challenging. That being said emotions were all over the place all week long. It seemed so abstract that Thursday was actually Thanksgiving. The air was warm with a cool breeze and the sky was sunny and bright. The fact we had class mixed with such summer like weather made it strange that all our families were celebrating while we were studying and going to class. Luckily for me people have been shooting fireworks off all around me, so I still have had some little tastes of home.

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Instead of a Costa Rican cultural activity this week, we had a United States cultural activity: Thanksgiving dinner. We celebrated Friday night with students and the host moms. My job was to make the mashed potatoes. I am not much of a cook, so a solmate and I made them together. It took a very long time. 50 people were at the dinner, so that was a lot of potatoes. We finally finished after waiting at least half an hour for the water to boil and another half an hour for the potatoes to cook. I had a lot of fun mashing them and was pleasantly surprised when they tasted good.

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At the dinner, we had macaroni, potatoes, stuffing, green beans, pies, brownies, but most importantly, turkey. Students were great cooks! It has been one of my favorite nights of the semester. We ate and chatted with our friends and their families all night. Of course after we ate we all took group pictures together. We may not have had our actual families here, but it was a lovely evening with great friends.

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We started our last class this week. It covers Latin American Literature, and it requires a lot of reading. I am also in the final stretch of my painting class. I am constantly amazed by how passionate my professor is about painting. She brings us different things to paint on and lets us use some of her personal materials. She helps each student in the class and gives them advice and help based on their abilities. I’m not sure if it is just this teacher or if most professors here are just that helpful, but either way I have never seen such a hardworking professor.

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Our teacher gave us wood pieces to paint on.

As the semester starts to come to a close, things are starting to feel surreal. The weather has become beautiful with almost no rain, the nights are cold, and time is flying by. We have three weeks left to explore this beautiful country. We have white water rafting, coffee picking, and beaches planned for the near future. I am unbelievable excited to see what surprises are instore for the next few weeks. Pura Vida!

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The Tides have Turned

This week I had the most delicious Granizado in Heredia. It is a delicious dessert that includes a slushy, ice cream, and different types of milk. It was a delicious treat complementing the hot daytimes of December here. Our goal was to find some clear nail polish to finish off some of our paintings for class, but everywhere was too expensive. At most places, one small bottle cost 3000 colones, or a little under 6 dollars. The Granizado was much cheaper (and worth every penny) than anything else we found. It was a nice little surprise we found on our trip.

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We also found the town completely decorated for Christmas. I guess one of the biggest differences between a country where government and religion are separated versus Catholicism being the national religion is that cities can decorate. The post office has a huge bow wrapped around it to look like a Christmas present. There are also nativity scenes and decorated trees on every corner. The city looks beautiful with all the decorations and festivities.

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The main event of the week was rafting. We divided into groups of around 5 to be on the same team. My group was “Las Llamas” (the flames). We even made our own chant” Quien somos? LAS LLAMAS! Que hacemos? QUEMAMOS!” (we burn). It was a lot of fun and our group was crazy. Our guide had us go through some of the rapids backwards and would have us put or paddles in the center of our raft as a high five.

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The river we rafted on was called Rio Pacuare, which had up to Class 3 and 4 tides. Our guide emphasized the fact we had to have good foot placement to avoid falling in, and it was amazing how well that worked. At times I could feel myself close to flying out of the boat, but my feet were always lodged into the footholds so well I would just fall right back into place. It started pouring in the middle of our journey and the water felt like little needles as we soured down the river. It made the whole experience feel more authentic, like we were actually rafting through the rainforest. The water turned the color of chocolate though and got a lot dirtier. It was a little gross looking. We paid to get a CD of photos, and of course I was making an unintentional horrible face in almost every photo. They are great for a pretty good laugh.

IMG_6014The last activity of the week was essentially a Christmas festival in Heredia. The whole center was lit up with trees and decorations while kids ran around with light up wands in their hands. The night ended with a parade of children’s bands. It felt as if all of Heredia was in the little block of downtown. The food was great (we had more Granizados) and everyone seemed to have a good time. Christmas season is upon us, and Ticos sure know how to celebrate! Pura Vida!

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Soaring through the Forest

We stood at the base of the waterfall, feel the mist spray on our faces as the water crashed against the rocks. It cooled us off after trekking down 500 stairs to reach the base. It was truly breathtaking. It is called La Fortuna waterfall, and our director explained to us how it is a magical waterfall. If you watch one spot of the fall between the black rocks without blinking, then shift your gaze to the left, it looks like the land is shifting up and down. It was a crazy effect.

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The water was absolutely freezing. We couldn’t swim in the waterfall due to the dangerous whirlpools, but we could swim in the river next to it. The water would go from shallow to deep fairly quickly, so we had to be careful where we stepped. After we were done swimming, we sat by the waterfall enjoying nature and having a picnic. We had a group of the visitors go with us on the trip, and I think they enjoyed it.

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There was a man from Missouri State among the site visitors who was a Royals fan. On Thursday he and 6 other visitors ate a dinner at our house that our host mom prepared. We talked a lot about the program and our time in Costa Rica. It was fun to have so much company here and giving them tours of our lives here. It was also interesting to learn about other school’s programs and how their fresh eyes saw Costa Rica. It was strange to get a glimpse of what we must have looked like when we were first experiencing Costa Rica. We got to re-experience some of our favorite activities with the visitors, like a city tour and cooking class, but everyone was exhausted after such full days. I loved getting to share my experiences with so many people this past week.

During the weekend, we all stayed at a beautiful resort called Los Lagos. This trip was more like a vacation than any other excursion. They had dozens of different pools, ranging from the hot natural water from the volcano to the ice-cold swimming pools. They even had giant slides you would soar down as if they laced them with some oil. It was so much fun. They even had an animal walk where we saw giant crocodiles, a butterfly room, a room full of frogs, and an ant display. My favorite part was the frogs. They hide so well it was a challenge to see them, but our co-director Jessie was a professional in finding them and pointing them out to us. It was such a cool experience.

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The natural beauty in Arenal contrasted the detailed architecture of the National Theater in San Jose. In Arenal, the land was the emphasis of the trip. In the theater, every corner was marked with artistic details. We saw a one-man show about Japanese children’s stories. There were a lot of kids there, which was opposite of our weekend trip. I mostly saw adults at the hotel.

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Our final activity of the week was a zip lining tour of the rainforest. It was a fantastic experience. They even had helmets you could attach a goPro to so you could film the experience. Of course, it was raining, but it made the experience authentic. They had several surprises for us, one of which was a Tarzan swing where we were attached to a rope and pushed over the trees of the rainforest. IT was terrifying but great. The workers were amazing at getting us through the lines efficiently, and I am sure they were exhausted by the end of it. At the end, they surprised us one last time with a superman zip line: we rode belly down with nothing but the air and rainforest beneath us. It was breathtaking (and only a little scary).

 

This weekend has been great, but it’s sad to think we only have five weeks left. We have something planned for every weekend to try to experience as much as possible. I’m excited to see what this final month has in store! Pura Vida!