Say goodbye well…

July 31, 2010

When i finished my undergraduate program, as you would expect there was much partying and carrying on with my friends as we got ready to make the jump to non-student status. it was a sad time in some ways, in others full of promise and excitement for the next step. we said goodbye, cried in some cases, and of course promised to keep in touch and get together in the future for all weddings, babies and other important events. some of these promises have been kept (my ex-roomate flew in for 24 hours to Costa Rica for my wedding this past year) but for the most part people started the drift that we call life and responsibility.

There was one member of our clan that was noticeably absent from all the festivities that last week of revelrey. evidently, she slipped off to the beach for the entire week with her family and skipped the whole goodbye process. for me this was a huuuuuuge mistake, as it robbed us and her of the opportunity for closure, to express how much we appreciated her etc. it left an open loop. the human psyche abhors open loops.

When you are getting prepared for your departure from your program and your time abroad, saying goodbye well is an important part of your experience. Here are a few ideas for closing loops and leaving with satisfaction:

1. make a list of your favorite places in your new country and make a farewell tour. get a chocoalmendras at POPS, one more beer at your favorite watering hole, a Latte at Bagelman’s, one more casado at your favorite dive downtown.

2. consider the most important people you’ve met and make sure to let them know how fond you are of them. take time out to chat, hug, express yourself, draw a picture, whatever moves you. The final days get hectic and if you aren’t intentional about the goodbyes, when you get around to it, perhaps those special folks have already made other plans.

3. do something nice for your family. maybe you order chinese take out, cook your favorite meal, make cookies, take them bowling or to a movie or something of that line. the host families are usually in a position of giving to the students, you’ll find that perhaps one of your favorite memories is when you turn the tables and do something nice for them.

4. Get a group foto. make sure you don’t leave without getting a phot of you and your host family all together. get out the timer, put the camera on a chair and get a shot of everyone in the kitchen, or living room or your favorite space in the house. this photo will become one of your great memories from your time abroad.

The final week will be full, so don’t think that you can leave everything for the last 2 days and get it all done. saying goodbye is something you should think about 1-2 weeks before you are actually going. this can be a challenge in itself, as many students who have had a great time like to live in denial that they are on the verge of leaving. don’t be that person, take the time and say goodbye the right way, you will be happy you did.


Surviving the daily shower

June 17, 2010

Some say that electricity and water don’t mix, we beg to differ.

Speaking with one of our program participants this last week, he was complaining about the fact that his morning showers were cold to luke warm and that he really missed the hot morning shower. I slipped into my professorial mode and began to explain that he might have one or multiple problems that were provoking the cold morning blasts. One, i explained, is that he didn’t turn the shower head on. He looked at me aghast, and queried, “turn it on?” Yep, turn it on. its electric. I pushed on, reason two is that you have too much water running through the aparatus, making it come out cold. Let me explain each of these in turn.

Most of us don’t deal with shower heads that can be turned on because we get our water piping hot right out of the water heater, not so in most CR homes.  As is the case in many other places around the world, they only heat the water they are going to use, so therefore they have an electric coil devices on the end of the pipe in the shower that heats the water as it goes through the coils. And yes, it needs to be turned on. most showers have a little switch with three positions. mostly the center position is off, and to either side you have hot and warm. the shower heads should indicate which is which. in the photo below you’ll see the aparatus in question with the lever or the front top.

D&D Brewery & Bed & Breakfast: Death trap electric shower head with mold.

The second issue in getting hot water has to do with volume of water. if the water is being heated as it goes through the coils, then naturally the more time it spends in the little magic machine, the hotter it gets. so if you want hot water, you’ll have to have a bit more patience and turn the volume down. for those folks who love the morning gusher of a shower, and like to feel the dirt and grime is being blown off your body like a fire hose shower, this can be a bit disconcerting. depending on the shower head, the right volume of water to get hot water without deactivating the shower head can vary dramatically. yes, the shower head will “deactivate” when there is too little water going through it and won’t heat the water at all. one has to get to know their shower head, learn its little tricks and quirks in order to get the maximum shower experience.

Here are some tips to help you survive and thrive in the morning shower.

1. Very much #1 tip. Don’t play with the thing when its on and you have wet hands. you are just asking for a jolt. if you are going to change the settings, turn it off or on etc, do it before you turn it on and get in!!!

2. Ask for an orientation to the shower from the host family or hotel owner. sometimes it is not apparent which is warm, hot or off.  I’ve known families and hotels that turn their showers off to conserve electricity and I think some of them hope you don’t notice.

3. Check to see if the shower is connected to a switch on the wall that can be turned off and on. sometimes you can turn the shower head on, but it is connected to a breaker or a wall switch that is turned off. this is of course not helpful for your goal of a hot morning shower.

4. Don’t freak out. although you may not be used to it and may have been told countless times that water and electricity don’t mix, the truth is that much of the world uses these electric shower heads and you too will survive. (most likely….)

Is the language a priority?

May 25, 2010

6. How much focus is placed on language study?

When considering a country that speaks a different language, its natural that one of the principal reasons for going is learning the language. Language is a tool for learning culture and engaging people from a different context. I recall that that after I learned Spanish on a study abroad andlooked at a map that I could now communicate with millions more people than was possible just a few months previous. Not to mention being able to communicate with countless of people in my home state of California. Having the new freedom really energized me.

Mastering a new language is a challenge and takes time and dedication but the payoff is well worth the effort. Good programs do more than just give participants access to language classes, the staff speak the language and encourage students to speak as well. Language learning is central to travel experiences and other activities promoted by the program. Here are some good questions to ask of your program to get an idea of how they value and stimulate language learning.

  • Is language study required as a part of the program or optional? How much is required? Is it really enough to make a difference in fluency?
  • Does the overall context of the program encourage the acquisition and utilization of the target language? Are students ever forced to speak the language or do they mostly hang out with other foreign students?
  • Are there opportunities to use language skills on a regular basis – or is the program so isolated that participants rarely have reason to speak the target language? (This sometimes happens with biology programs or isolated rural programs. )
  • If you are really concerned with fluency, is there a language pledge where students commit to speaking the host language even with one another?
Nicaragua trip

IGE Students at a Family Homestay in Nicaragua

I am not a language teacher, so I won’t get into the academic measurement of the language requirements, I am more concerned with the language as a tool to communicate. However the language requirement is a big deal if you trying to graduate. Check and double check with your language teacher and study abroad advisor to make sure the language courses you will take will get you the credits you need.

Where will you live?

May 12, 2010

5. Does the living situation really help you get into the culture?

The housing situation in your study program is one of the key components that can make or break the experience. In Costa Rica, the family homestay is the best option for getting into the culture. The program you go with should have a screening process for families and a person dedicated to keeping up with the families, visiting them etc.

Unfortunately many housing options actually discourage direct contact with the host culture. In fact, many programs have gotten into owning their own dorms or apartments in order to maximize their profits on each student. This is called vertical integration in business and it’s a nice economic model, but it doesn’t make for much opportunity to meet and interact with locals. Large concentrations of foreigners in an overseas context have a tendency to band together despite students’ best intentions to break away from the pack.

Even doing a homestay does not insure you interaction with the host culture. There are some family homestays that have 4, 5 or more students at the home. I encourage you to live alone with a family when possible but living with one other student is the maximum we would recommend for a homestay experience. Living alone can be a bit more uncomfortable at times, especially at the beginning, but you get used to it quickly and the spanish and cultural interaction are worth it.

Here are some questions to ask of your program to find out more about the homestay.  

  • If you are housed in a home stay, is it really a family homestay or is it simply an apartment complex run by a family? (i.e. how many people per family?)
  • What is the screening process for families to participate in the program? how often are they reviewed? is there an exit evaluation of the families?
  • If you are housed in an apartment or dormitory, are you mainly housed with other foreigners or are you housed in a place made up primarily of locals?

Check out this video of a student in Costa Rica showing you her family homestay and introducing you to her mom. Costa Rica Homestay.

There is also a video of talking about getting the most out of your homestay.  How i had to get comfortable sitting on my host mom’s bed.

Who is leading your program? Choose your guides wisely.

May 4, 2010

4. What is the experience of the Staff that will accompany you?

Nothing beats experience.

There are so many things to learn when you get to Costa Rica or any country that the accompanyment of the staff is essential. The interaction with staff will impact the overall quality of your program experience in many ways so it is important to feel comfortable with their level of experience, their expertise and their availability. Nothing against young interns working in programs, they can be a great bridge and play a necessary role, but many programs are staffed with young and inexperienced staff because they are less expensive to hire and are considered short term hires working for two years maximum in the country before moving on to their “real job”.  Although these people may be good friends as they often are just a few years older than the students, they may not have the experience necessary to help you really take advantage of your overseas experience. If you have a accident and have to go to the hospital and manage insurance, do you want a someone about your age who is also trying to decipher the documents or someone who has managed a similar situation 10-15 times? If you are looking for contacts to do an internship or service project, wouldn’t it be better to have someone with multiple years in the country who knows the pros and cons of each opportunity? For these reasons and many more, there is no substitute for experience.

Local or Foreign? Who is the better guide?

So, is it better to have local staff from the host country or a foreigner? Is it better to have to local insider knowledge of a host national who can tell you the culture firsthand or someone from outside who understands what it’s like to be a foreigner in Costa Rica or whatever country? I would say both. The healthiest study abroad staff are the mixed staff that have both foreigners and locals as the guides. The foreigners bring a perspective that the local can never have about how it feels to be foreign, what the challenges are, and a host of other insights that are difficult for a local to imagine. The local as well brings a perspective and opportunities for cultural learning, contacts and local knowledge that a foreigner might never be able to obtain. I would encourage you to find a program that has a mixed staff of foreigners and nationals to give you both perspectives during your experience.

I have heard things from students like, “We are paying for the program director, but I haven’t seen him/her since we did orientation!” or, “I am supposed to be getting help from the program staff, but they don’t seem to know where anything is!” Avoid these problems by asking good questions of the program before you choose.

  • Who are the staff members? Are they local or foreign? How many of each?
  • How old are they?How much experience do they have in the local culture if foreign?
  • What have past participants said about the helpfulness and availability of the staff?
  • What are the points of interaction? do they just have office hours or are there scheduled spaces to get together, talk and interact?

Travel or just tourism?

April 20, 2010

3. What kind of travel does the study abroad program provide?

One of the reasons to go abroad is to see the most interesting parts of the country or continent you are visiting. The travel aspect of any program can be a great differentiator, providing an opportunityto really help participants to experience the local culture. Travel witha study abroad program should not just be about loading the entire program onto a bus and becoming a tourist at the top attractions in your city or country. My thinking is that many of these attractions you could see on your own with a decent guide book and minimal advice from the program leaders. Your program can really distinguish themselves by offereing local knowledge of off the beaten track tourism and experiences.

Specifically in Costa Rica, I encourage that on free weekends my students visit the most popular attractions like Manuel Antonio, Arenal and Monteverde, the three top tourist attractions in the country. I can refer a good cheap hotel and give some pointers on using the buses to get there and send them off with my blessing, but that’s not necessarily the trip i will take them on. We will take them to the out of the way mountain hamlet where we’ll do rural sustainable tourism. Or we’ll go to the farming cooperative that has created its own currency in order to improve the economic conditions of its members.  A good study abroad program will take you places or allow you experiences that you wouldn’t or couldn’t have on your own.

We’ve been working with Santos Tours for the last couple years developing tours in the off the beaten track areas of the central mountains. our students really like the family homestays, the picturesque mountain hamlets and the opportunity to climb through the center of an old growth oak tree and rappel off the top. it s a different experience than you get at the massive tour providers.

IGE student cutting chiverri

IGE student preparing chiverri for a typical jelly made during holy week

Travel should have a purpose that is part of your educational experience and not just be a weekend trip to the beach. The weekend trip to the beach is great and you should definitely do it, but it’s a waste of the time for the coordinators of the program. you should expect more from them if they are truly your local guides.

Some questions to ask your study abroad program:

1. What travel is included in the program? just weekend trips? weekly field trips in the city?

2. What is the purpose of the travel? is it educational? cultural?

3. Could you do the trips on your own or is it something that the program is really helping you to organize?

4. Is the tourism with just the big providers or is there some rural tourism that supports communities?

Here is a video of students in Costa Rica in the Santos region on a rural community tourism trip with Santos Tours.


Dealing with the weather

April 16, 2010

From May (or sometimes mid April) until November, it rains every day in the San Jose central valley. there are many sub-climates in Costa Rica, but the reality is that it’s gonna rain, and it’s going to rain a lot. that’s the reason things are so green. we can’t have one without the other. the tourist industry in Costa Rica took to calling this time of year the “Green Season” instead of the rainy season to make it more appealing, but no matter how you spin it, its going to rain.

So as a student, how do you deal with it? A couple of ways to think about it that will help you prepare mentally and physically for the rainy season if you hapeen to be here during that time.

1. Wait out the big stuff: they say about Seattle, “The rain gets to you until you get out in the rain.” Well, they don’t get the torrential downpours in Seattle that we get in Costa Rica. if you try to get into the rain during one of these downpours, you are going to pay a cold and wet price in soaked shoes and jeans wet to the knees. So point # 1 would be, wait it out. be prepared to sit out the heavy downpours that only last for 30 minutes to half and hour. Relax, enjoy the deafening pound of the big drops on the tin roof of wherever you are and just chill.

2. Enjoy the Blue: The truth is, although it rains every day, its sunny almost every morning. this is a huge saving grace as you wake up to clean air and blue skies every morning for your walk to school or get some morning excercise. take advantage of this time. adjust your schedule, get up early and run or walk or just have a cup of coffee and enjoy the bird chirps.  

3. Fashion tips: In the  USA you often see folks running around in their Gore Tex jackets like a jack johnson album cover with the hoods covering all but a sliver of their faces. This is patently uncool in costa rica and not very functional. umbrellas are the rule and are the only way to go for the torrential big drops that you’ll be encountering. the hoods do fine in the mist, but for the real deal you need a carry around roof over your head to provide you shelter. get yourself a good umbrella because if yo by the $4 variety on the street corner in downtown, at the least opportune time, it will fail you.

Truthfully, it just isn’t bad. there is almost nothing better than being in the rain forest during a downpour and watching the water do its thing or hanging out with some friends over a cup of coffee during a heavy afternoon thunderstorm or the smell in the air after a heavy rain. its really beatiful in its own right.