Memories are a sneaky thing. They creep out, slowly and quietly, so you don’t even know they’ve gone. Time eats away at them, until they are only sweet remembrances. There are so many things I wish I could hold onto and remember from my travels, but already, my experiences and new friends seem so far away.

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Still, I am happy to note subtle but lasting differences in my lifestyle and outlook that result from my trip to Costa Rica. It’s funny, because oftentimes my friends ask me how long my trip lasted, and it feels like almost a lie to say it was just a short ten days. The many things I’ve seen, done, and learned make it seem to me like my trip was so much longer.

I don’t want to use a cliche and say my trip was life-changing, but at least in the scope of conservation, it was. Before my trip, I never was one to think much about the environment. Naturally, growing up in a not-as-affluent household, I was conscious about turning off the lights/water and recycling, but these weren’t priorities in my head; I did them without thinking. But seeing the level of care all the volunteers at the Reserva put into doing these simple things, and more importantly directly seeing the wildlife and nature that would be harmed as a result of not conserving truly made me much more conscious about my actions.

One of the most valuable things I learned was during one of my interviews, after I confessed to not knowing much or caring much about conservation: without conservation, many of the people I care about and want to learn about would disappear, and their livelihoods destroyed. This really put things into perspective for me, and I’m beginning to understand how everything is interrelated. This means even the smallest of actions, like forgetting to take a reusable bag to the grocery store, could have a tenfold impact.

Back in the US, I find myself triple-checking to make sure all the lights are off when I’m not using them, limiting the water I use in the shower, picking up trash I see in my neighborhood, and being really aware about how much meat I eat or where I dispose my trash. One challenge is that the recycling bin in my city only goes out once every two weeks, so my family and I often find that there is just not enough space to recycle everything we’d like to, so I’m hoping we can find a solution to that. All in all, I now have a newfound appreciation for nature and for conservation, which bleeds into many practices and perspectives throughout my daily life.

Although I’ve never thought much about it, I’m very fortunate to live where I do in Connecticut – there are many protected forests and state parks and local organizations such as land trusts and conservation committees. In the future, I hope to expand upon this project and get involved with conservation groups in my area. Last but not least, I want to keep in mind that “we vote with our money,” meaning whatever we buy, we support. This means we support the system that enables the products we use, further highlighting the necessity of choosing consciously.

My perspective toward Costa Rica, Spanish, and travel in general were also radically altered. Before my trip, I completed pre-departure assignments and researched Costa Rica, but Costa Rica was just another place on the map. I had known that Costa Rica would have rich biodiversity, but knowing that and seeing the mangroves and capuchin monkeys for myself were two completely different things. Similarly, I had known that rice and beans were a staple of the diet, but didn’t really know until I had tasted it for myself. Now, I can personally attest to the beautiful starry nights and friendly locals, people and places that are more than mere names to me.

It was also a really amazing opportunity to take my Spanish beyond the classroom and see the looks of surprise when people in Costa Rica heard me speaking their language! I learned the value of knowing a language – it’s not as easy to remind yourself when you’re in a classroom, just learning grammatical conventions or completing worksheets. I met a lot of volunteers who had learned Spanish in school but had never really absorbed it; these same kids left Costa Rica with renewed passion to improve their Spanish. This is a lesson to me that all learning is valuable and useful – we just need to remember that in our daily lives.

I find that I miss many of the little moments most – talking to Gaby and cooking with her in the kitchen, playing soccer on the beach, learning Spanish slang, playing mafia during thunderstorms, walking along the beach at midnight. In hindsight, I am so incredibly thankful for my documentation project, which forced me to get out of my comfort zone and talk to everyone – researchers, locals, fellow volunteers. I gained so many insights and enjoyed my trip more than I could even have imagined. I just wish I could’ve taken more pictures with the people there, and not just of them!

It is bittersweet to be back home, but I’m blessed to have received this opportunity. Costa Rica~ You are so dearly missed. Signing off for the last time…! Thank you to everyone who’s made this time so special. read more →

I got home from my trip at 2 am this morning. After 10 days away from home and family, everything’s a little bit strange, both familiar and different, and already there’s a lot I miss about Costa Rica and its friendly, relaxed people. Before I get into reflections about my trip, I wanted to update everyone about what my trip was like. During the trip, it was a little hard to blog because the wifi connection was unstable at times, but I did write a brief overview of each day in my journal.

Day 1: Impressions and expectations. 7/14/17
“The blanket of cotton-candy clouds that has smiled upon us from the morning is replaced now with a dense blue-gray. The earth below, speckled with red-roofed homes, waits in anticipation for the sweet July rain. Petrichor, teasing.” -Sights from the airplane.
Not much done today; arrived at SJO airport (in Alajuela) around 2 pm and got to know my roomie Juliet a little (SoCal buds!). We then ate some super rico casado tipico at Bosco’s with group leader Rachel, and 5 of us travelers hung out while waiting for the group flight to arrive. At Hotel Pacande, we had fun eating pizza (cut into meters, which was surprising) and playing “psychiatrist” with country director Esteban.

Day 2: 7/15/17
After a light, healthy breakfast at the hotel, the whole group piled into a bus and our driver Ricardo drove us to RPT. During the 5.5 hour drive, we chatted with new friends, ate mamones chinos (similar to lychees), looked at sunbathing crocodiles, and enjoyed gorgeous views and heavy rain. Once at the Reserva, we saw capuchin monkeys and walked through a jungle to the nearby Playa Tortuga, which was absolutely breathtaking and so peaceful. Untouched and unparalleled. Pura vida!

Day 3: 7/16/17
Pretty relaxing day at the Reserva. Oscar gave us a brief run-down about the work researchers do, and we visited the hatchery (where sea turtle eggs are) and went to the beach to receive instructions about sea turtle monitoring, which we’d do each night. Later, researcher Adrian talked to us about birds and sharks. Finally, from 7-9, I went on a beach walk to search for turtles with a group of 4 and our guide Deivi.

Day 4: 7/17/17
Morning croc monitoring on the Terraba River, where we spotted 11 crocs and even got to measure some tracks they left behind on a small mudbank. Later, I went with Adrian to collect data from a small shark sample (baby hammerheads). I learned that it is important to collect data about all animals, even dead ones like the sharks, because the data shows the status of the population (size, sex, etc), which affects other wildlife in the ecosystem. During free time, we went to Playa Tortuga to play a competitive game of soccer during a heavy downpour (score: 3-2). Finally, I accompanied Jorge and a small group to another turtle walk from 9-11.

Day 5: 7/18/17
Today we visited the local store and I bought helado y yucachitas, so good. I went on a short mammal walk with Adrian in the afternoon, then a longer reptile walk with Oscar at night. We saw more capuchin monkeys, a small snake, frogs, and agoutis. I also went on the latest turtle walk from 12:30-3:30 with guide Bryan. It was the most beautiful starry night and we took pictures of the Milky Way, saw bioluminscent plankton, and learned Costa Rican slang like mae and tuanis.

Day 6: 7/19/17
In the morning, the group learned about RPT’s Blue Flag environmental education initiative, then participated in a beach clean up. It was a pretty free day since it was our last at the Reserva, and everyone played ping pong and card games (there was a particularly intense game of Sabotage). At night, we had a fiesta de despedidas (goodbye party) with a lot of food, music, and dancing. Although reluctant to join at first, I ended up having a lot of fun. At 10 pm, the party abruptly ended when we heard that Javier, one of the guides, had found an olive ridley sea turtle on the beach! Everyone, still in their pretty party dresses and clothes, ran to the beach through a chest-deep river (high tide) and saw the turtle and her 109 eggs. I stayed until 1 am on my last turtle walk with Bryan and a couple others.

Day 7: 7/20/17
Bittersweet day. Breakfast, last minute clean up, and goodbyes with some of the most dedicated and informed people I met at the Reserva. Throughout spontaneous dance lessons, interviews for my documentation project, and cooking with Gaby, Landy, and Em in the kitchen, I was able to quickly adjust to the Reserva, which became a very special home to me. So much to miss. After our drive down to La Cusinga Eco lodge, we swam in the waterhole and played mafia as the thunder rolled over the Pacific coast.

Day 8: 7/21/17
Busy day on the beach. We hiked to the reef at 5 am, learned how to surf (more like attempted to) with Uvita 360 (at Marino Ballena National Park), and swam at a small secret beach. Beautiful all around. Missing my friends over at RPT.

Day 9: 7/22/17
During our drive back to Alajuela, we stopped at a soda to eat lunch and went souvenir shopping at El Jardin. Back at Hotel Pacande, we went grocery shopping and shoe shopping, then had a delicious dinner of quesadilla especial at Bosco’s. Late at night, a couple of us got together to talk and reflect on our experiences, share snacks, and watch movies. I went to sleep around midnight, full of thoughts.

Day 10: 7/23/17
3 am wake up for the airport. I couldn’t help but cry as I said goodbye to Rachel and some of the new friends I’d made. It’s been such a wild ride. More updates to come. read more →

“Wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow.” ― Anita Desai

“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” ― Gustave Flaubert

Only about 12 hours until my flight at 5 am…! It’s been a crazy journey already. The pre-departure work has been more challenging than I expected when I walked into this, but I’ve also learned more than I thought I would. These past couple of weeks have been some of the busiest of this year for me, and not just because of this trip. Between a move, a Girls State conference, summer homework, and my awaiting college apps, I so want to relax.

But something I need to keep in mind as I prepare myself now is that this trip is not just a vacation. Sure, I will be tasting new food, making friends, learning how to surf, and exploring the idyllic beaches and forests of beautiful Costa Rica…but I will also be challenged physically and mentally as I work through my documentation project and adjust to a new place. I am expectant, worried, alert, exhilarated…a true mezcla de emociones.

Thus far, my day has been fairly normal, which is just fine with me. Did some work on the house, ate some homemade Korean food with my family, packed, volunteered at the local food pantry. As I enter a new and unfamiliar country, I will be taking with me my pocket of this world and the beauty of my home, in hopes that when I return, my concept of home will again be stretched. Hasta la vista, Connecticut.

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It’s currently hot, humid, and stormy here in Connecticut, so at least the weather in Costa Rica will feel a little bit like home to me. Unfortunately, this weather makes packing feel like a little bit more of a chore than it should…

I’m sitting cross-legged on my bedroom floor, staring at my suitcase. What to pack, what to pack… There are so many things I wish I could/ need to take, but so little room in my small carry-on (14″ x 22″ x 9″ max size as specified by United Airlines). Here’s a rough list of things I’m thinking I’ll need:

  • Passport, student ID
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste
  • Sunscreen – SPF 30+, 50 recommended
  • Shampoo, conditioner, soap/body wash
  • Hairbrush
  • Band aids + Neosporin
  • Anti-itch cream
  • Mosquito net?
  • Bug repellent
  • Socks – hiking and casual
  • Underwear
  • Swimsuit – a comfy, simple one
  • Towels – Take more than you think you’ll need! My friend in CR told me it’s so humid that nothing really dries.
  • Athletic shorts – lightweight and dry quickly
  • Pants – jeans, comfy PJs, hiking wear
  • Rain jacket/poncho
  • Umbrella
  • Other jacket and/or sweater
  • T-Shirts – cotton or quick-dry
  • Nice shirt and blouse – for more formal occasions
  • Cap
  • Sunglasses
  • Hiking shoes
  • Sandals
  • Work gloves
  • Plastic bags – for trash, dirty/wet clothes etc
  • Journal, pen, Wandering Scholar booklet
  • Bible
  • Phone + charger
  • Laptop + charger – Not sure on this yet, maybe to blog
  • Water bottle
  • Spending money

The list is longer than I thought it’d be…! I’m hoping there will be enough room between my suitcase and backpack, but it’s a little too hot to check right now so for now, my suitcase remains empty.

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Personality-wise, there is much to be taken, much to be left behind. This is a little bit harder than my actual packing list but just as important:

  • An open mind
  • Spanish skills + ability to communicate wisely
  • Pride in my story and culture – as an Asian-American, as a Christian, as a Wandering Scholar
  • Caution, but not fear
  • Ability to listen
  • Flexibility! I want to let go of my need to plan and always know what’s ahead.

Finally, I’m going to miss my family a lot. The familiarity of home, routine, Mom food. There’s nothing tangible I can take of my home, except what’s in my heart, but I wish I can take them all along – none of them have gone abroad for a long time (especially my parents!) and they deserve a fun vacation.

So many emotions~ Only one more full day before I’m headed off to Costa Rica!!! #casi

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A note from TWS: It is important that our Wandering Scholars prepare for their journeys by researching their host country before they leave home. The below post is the product of an assignment in which we ask our Scholars to read and share something interesting they’ve learned about Costa Rica’s history, culture, or politics. 

On December 1, 1948, following a violent civil war, Costa Rica’s president José Figueres Ferrer (also known as Don Pepe) destroyed the wall of the Cuartel Bellavista and called for the abolition of the army.  The following year, it was adopted into the Costa Rican Constitution (article 12). Consequently, the funds previously used by the National Army were allocated to the development of education, health, and culture.

Most media outlets agree that this historical event has greatly improved the living standards of Costa Rican citizens. Citizens enjoy high literacy rates, well-preserved ecology, and relative wealth/stability in comparison to their Central American counterparts. Furthermore, the country is widely regarded as one of the happiest in the world, and Ticos (the nickname for Costa Ricans) and foreigners alike praise the policy.

When faced with the question, “How does Costa Rica defend itself?” people explain that diplomatic alliances with countries like the US, special forces, and the Civilian Guard enforce law and patrol borders. Some go further yet to voice that the impromptu army is nearly on par with American armies in that they are trained extensively and equipped with high caliber weapons (5.56-caliber M4 carbines). Such people draw the argument that Costa Rica continues to protect their citizens and are even increasing internal security spending substantially.

However, other sources contradict this information, pointing out that  “Costa Rica’s police reportedly have insufficient training, a shortage of service men, and a lack of resources (including vehicles, weaponry, etc).” Particularly in recent years, the nation has been faced with serious security problems such as drug trafficking and border dispute with Nicaragua, which cannot be adequately tackled by a small civilian army. To these ends, there are some proponents for the development of a stronger defense system and even potential revision to the policy. read more →