Arriving in San José, Costa Rica

Julia Preszler, CAMD'21

Julia Preszler is a fourth-year student majoring in journalism and minoring in environmental studies. She has interned at The Boston Globe, The Chautauquan Daily and two community newspapers in Connecticut. Julia will be studying abroad at Universidad Veritas in San José, Costa Rica. She is looking forward to exploring the country's national parks and learning more about environmental issues, since she hopes to focus her career on environmental journalism.

By Julia Preszler

After hours of travel, only one thing stood in the way between me and my new life in Costa Rica: The airport exit.

The problem was that I couldn’t find it. It was the end of my trip — one that started the night before when my mom and I struggled through the insanity that is New Jersey traffic, and continued with flights from Newark to Orlando and Orlando to San José. I had gotten through customs, found my bag and exchanged $100 USD into colones, the Costa Rican currency.

Now, I was walking back and forth in the airport, lugging a heavy backpack and suitcase, asking employees for the “salida,” the exit. Finally, I found it, stuffed my bags through a scanner and walked outside.

As I waited for my program coordinator to pick me up and bring me to my host family’s home, I took in the busy airport scene. A light rain had started outside. Countless taxi drivers kindly asked me if I needed a ride. I responded, “no, gracias,” with a smile each time. The weather was warm and slightly humid.

I thought about how this was my real life. How just a day ago, I had been hanging out with my cats in Connecticut. And how just two weeks ago, I finished up a summer internship on the shore of a lake in western New York. And now, here I was, in San José, Costa Rica. It didn’t feel real at all.

Before coming, I had looked at Google Maps. It started out zoomed into my home in Connecticut. I zoomed out farther, and soon I saw New York City, where I often visited as a child, and then Boston, my college town. Next, came Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine to the north, where I have vacationed with family and friends. And to the west, I could see the spot in New York where I had spent the summer. I zoomed out enough so that I could see the United States and Costa Rica on the same screen. From this view, it was clear that my whole life has taken place in a pretty small area, compared to the rest of the world. And Costa Rica looked really, really far away.

Now, standing outside of the San José airport, it didn’t feel far away anymore. It just felt like a place that I was in, no longer a distant spot on a map.

Coming to Costa Rica, I had very little information about what to expect. I knew I would be staying with a host family in San José and taking classes at Universidad Véritas. But I didn’t know exactly which classes I would be in, how many students would be in the program, or what my day-to-day life would be like. I was worried everyone else in the program would be amazing Spanish speakers, and I would be left floundering and embarrassed with my extremely limited knowledge of the language.

I am typically someone who likes to plan things out and learn about the new places I will be before I go. In the absence of information, my philosophy became: I’m just going to show up and see what happens. Flying to Costa Rica was like voyaging into the great unknown.

When the plane started to descend into San José, I marveled at all of the lush, green mountains. Even from the tarmac, I could see a big, beautiful peak in the distance. Seeing the mountains, I felt like I had finally arrived.
Francy, my API coordinator, picked me up from the airport. We drove about half an hour to the city and I was dropped off to meet my host mother, Marí. She showed me around the apartment, and in Spanish, explained how the shower, lights, and keys work. I know very little Spanish, but I was amazed at how much I understood. Then, she made me a cheese and vegetable panini and we sat at the kitchen table and talked. Mostly, she talked and I listened, trying to make out everything she said.

Then, Marí walked me and Danielle, the other student staying in our house, to the API office, just a block away from our home. There, I met the other 8 students who are studying at Universidad Véritas through API. Francy gave us some tips for life here and explained some of the cultural differences between the United States and Costa Rica. For example, toilet paper is tossed in a trash can in the bathroom, rather than being flushed down the toilet.

We all went to a restaurant in downtown San José for dinner and got to get to know each other a bit. Then, we were all dropped back at our homes for the night.

The next morning, on Sunday, we met at the university and Francy led us on a tour of downtown San José. We passed murals, Costa Rican government buildings, libraries and banks. There were also a number of parks with interesting features, like Morazán Park that has a domed bandstand, like the one on Boston Common.
Francy told us the city was relatively quiet on Sundays, but still the two pedestrian streets, Avenida Central and Paseo de la Unión Europea, were bustling. At the Plaza de la Cultura, there were a bunch of pigeons hanging around people who were feeding them. Street vendors hawked fruits I had never seen before.

At the end of our tour, we all took the bus back to the university. We were hungry, so the other students and I went to the little “soda,” or traditional Costa Rican restaurant, that my host mom runs. It is an adorable little shop where she cooks up Costa Rican breakfast and lunch dishes. We ordered inside and then sat under the overhang outside. All day, the forecast had promised rain, but it had held off. Suddenly, as we were waiting for our food, great claps of thunder sounded in the sky and rain started to fall on the tin roof above us.

Yup, I thought. I’m in Costa Rica.