Faculty Study Abroad in Costa Rica

Kathy Bower on canopy tour at Monteverde, Costa Rica
Kathy Bower on canopy tour at Monteverde, Costa Rica

This year I was awarded a sabbatical by Eastern Illinois University, where I am a professor. I choose to pursue studies in my field of research, environmental sustainability, in a developing country so that I can compare sustainable community planning of developing and developed countries. Since I speak only English, I also need to learn the language of the country where I am doing the research.

I chose to come to Costa Rica, a developing country of Central America. I am being generously hosted by the Universidad de Veritas, located in San José. The connection was made through the Study Abroad Office at my home university. The Universidad de Veritas has a Study Abroad program for many U.S. students, as well a regular program in design for Costa Rican students. The university allows me to live with a Study Abroad host family and attend classes in Spanish with the Study Abroad students. The university also provides me with advice on how to get around Costa Rica and pursue my research. In return for free Spanish classes, I have agreed to help the school develop more courses in physical environmental topics. I have also agreed to serve as a guest lecturer in some of the environmental classes (in English). In addition to working with the Universidad Veritas, I also have contacts with professors and administrators at the University of Costa Rica which I am pursuing.

I arrived in Costa Rica, like Study Abroad students, not knowing much about the country or speaking the language. I was collected at the airport along with other students of the university. I am surprised to find that the people here have a great respect for my age; the Costa Ricans from the university insisted on carrying my luggage to the bus; none of the Study Abroad students received this privilege.

I find my classes in Spanish very difficult; I am now taking essentially the same class for the third time (once in the US before coming to Costa Rica where I earned an A). But I must report that I am learning Spanish. After one and a half months in Costa Rica, I can carry on a simple conversation for about 10 minutes. Of course, I realize that my sentences are probably full of grammatical errors. Writing and reading are much easier than talking and hearing the language. At this point, I can understand about 80% of the newspaper but only about 20% of the television news. I am, however, pleased that I can read a technical book in my field, on Costa Rica, in Spanish, and understand most of it.

Costa Rica has been called the ‘Switzerland’ of the Americas. The country is small, has a higher rate of literacy than the US, and has no standing army. A recent global survey found that Costa Ricans are the second happiest people in the world.  I have been traveling around San José and the country.  The capital, San José, is very small by US standards and I walk from one neighborhood to another. I do have to be careful of security; I don’t walk at night, I don’t carry electronic gear that might be stolen, and I always tell my host mother where I am going. She will tell me if the neighborhoods are unsafe.

It is cheap and easy to travel around Costa Rica. You can arrange a tour and have everything done for you. Or you can take public buses to your destination (about $18 round trip from San José to the beach). Hotels can be expensive or you can get a bed in a hostel for $10/night. Food can run from expensive to $4 for a big lunch. Some students in the Study Abroad program choose to have arranged tours ($100 for two nights on a beach including transportation and two meals) and some figure out how to use the public buses themselves.

I traveled to Tamarindo Beach on the Pacific coast for one weekend with students. I went to Puertoviejo on the Caribbean Ocean for another weekend. At Puertoviejo, we hiked on the beach, swam, and went snorkeling over the coral reefs. The people of Puertoviejo are mostly of Jamaican descent. They were brought in to work on the railroad in the late 1800’s. The people of Puertoviejo have a Caribbean culture that is very relaxed and enjoyable to visit.

A highlight of my travels is my trip to Rio Fortuna and Monteverde northwest of San José. Rio Fortuna boasts of geothermal bathing and of a high waterfall. At the base of the waterfall is a natural pool where hikers can go swimming. The hike down to the pool was easy. The hike back up was very strenuous. Monteverde is in the cloud forest and has zip-lines through the forest canopy. We went on 11 zip-lines. I was hooked up to the line with two ropes for safety so it is not really scary. But I moved along the lines very quickly. Unfortunately, any animals that might live in cloud forests do not come near the people because of the noise. The scariest part of the canopy tour was the ‘Tarzan’ swing. I was connected to a 30-foot rope and jumped off of a platform. I had second thoughts at the edge of the platform but the guides must be used to that. They pushed me off. Again, I noticed that Costa Ricans have a great respect for age; I was constantly asked by the zip-line operators if I was okay and they called me ‘Mama.’ None of the students were cared for so solicitously.

I am learning a lot about the people of Costa Rica on this trip. I ask questions about the society of my host family and my Spanish teachers, I watch the local news, and I read books on the country. Of course, the information is not always consistent. I compare and contrast the information and I feel I am getting a feel for the similarities and differences of Costa Rica and the US. One thing I have noticed from the news is that the Costa Ricans respond very professionally to disasters. However, I have also noticed that the society is lacking in the use of measures to prevent said disasters. The reasons why this is so are part of my continuing research.

While it is difficult to leave my home and family in the US, I am grateful for the opportunity to learn a different language and culture. I have always believed in life-long education and would get bored without the opportunity to learn new things. An extended trip to Latin America was difficult to develop, but once I was in contact with the Universidad de Veritas, everything went smoothly. I appreciate their help, as well as the help of the Study Abroad office at Eastern Illinois University.

Posted by Dr. Kathleen Bower, Associate Professor Geology/Geography, Eastern Illinois University

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