I expected something akin to culture shock in January when I began my semester abroad in Costa Rica. The program was through the Organization for Tropical Studies and focused on tropical biology and conservation. We spent three and a half months at six research stations, frequently with no internet or hot water, doing fieldwork that required tall rubber boots to protect from snakes. We met farmers who work hard to produce goods like coffee or sugarcane and can only hope for favorable weather to make a profit that year. We got caught in the rain doing field research, watched sunsets on the ocean, spent hours identifying insects under microscopes and plants under hand lenses, picked cocoa fruit that would make the chocolate we later ate, and slept on long bus rides after nights full of dancing. Over those three and a half months, the twenty-eight of us were never apart for longer than a few hours; during our homestays in San José, the first thing we did with our free time was pile into a bus headed for San María de Dota to visit one of our Tico friends. The most privacy I had was when I showered; at all other times, there were six, ten people in a room with me.
I returned to the U.S. after a full day of flying, exhausted but happy to see my dad who picked me up from the airport. Driving home, I expected to feel something – joy, sadness, excitement – but I was too tired to react to the sights of the roads close to my home. My dog would have none of it, happily barking and whining when she saw me, running in with her eyes nearly shut from sleepiness, her tail hitting against kitchen cupboards. I closed the door to my room later and thought then I would feel something, but still, nothing. I smiled a little at the sound of frogs in the pond behind my house and then fell asleep.
The next day, my dad and I went to the mall to buy a cell phone for me because mine had broken right before Costa Rica. I immediately noticed how huge the mall was – three floors – and filled with anything you could want (except books, for some reason). There was even stuff you couldn’t possibly want but advertisements were everywhere, convincing you that you did. While I was buying the phone, the woman working there tried pushing all these extra accessories, most of which I didn’t need. Those I did, I noticed, were plastic-wrapped in a plastic box, handed to me in a plastic bag. On the drive back, I looked out the window at long empty fields devoid of trees next to the four-lane highway, the trees cut down to make room for more houses or stores. Today, I was walking my dog and stopped for the first time to look at one of the few trees on the walk. I saw simple opposite leaves with pinnate venation, as well as big interpetiolar stipules, and the thought that this far away from Costa Rica what I’d learned was still applicable made me smile. I passed big houses with huge lawns; meeting no one on my walk but being passed by numerous people in cars talking on their phones.
And now, finally back home after a long semester, I’ve finished most of the things I wanted to do when I got home. I’m sitting in a quiet room, listening to the frogs outside, looking at pictures of my last few nights in Costa Rica. I’m thinking about how different a lifestyle it was; today I asked my dad to buy vegetarian patties when he left for the supermarket. He came back with chicken patties and, when I asked him about it, gave me a look that seemed to say, “Why would anyone want vegetarian chicken?” My apple cores and banana peels are going into a garbage can heading for a landfill. There are so many bottles of water in my kitchen. My shower pumps at least twice as much water as anything I’d experienced the last four months. I feel I can’t live like I promised myself in Costa Rica, when I could walk through a rainforest that wasn’t yet cut down or admire an animal yet unaffected by climate change.
I’ll return to Costa Rica, undoubtedly, but until then, I have to find a way to merge these two lifestyles. Looking at the friendship bracelet Chesca made for me, I know I will see everyone again eventually. I miss you guys. See you soon.
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