BY JONATHAN ARIAS
It was tough hiking up what seemed to be an 80 percent incline the majority of the way up. It was dark. My companions, John Stewart, Patrick Szendersk and I started at midnight, knowing that the hike would take a minimum of 12 hours to complete.
I could not see much except the rubble and dirt that my headlight illuminated a few feet ahead. We were able to catch a glimpse of two glowing eyes of a smaller Costa Rican wild cat staring down at us from a tree.
The hike up the highest point of the whole country, Cerro Chirripo, with an elevation of 12,533 feet was tough, the hike down was even tougher.
The view was amazing. The clouds seemed to be floating right next to us, clinging on to the neighboring mountains.
The air was fresh and crisp. I was able to feel the purity of the rainforest produced oxygen with every breath. The air was cold but with the beaming sun it was tolerable.
We could see the rainforest we emerged from earlier down below and saw how far it stretched out, engulfing miles of the land. We could see where the rainforest stopped and turned into a dryer, rockier but beautiful alpine tundra. We had finally made it to the summit.
I never had considered studying abroad, even with my career goal of being traveling photojournalist/anthropologist, because I thought it was going to be too expensive.
This hold-back quickly changed when I received an email stating that I was eligible to receive a scholarship from The Gilman Scholarship.
I was quick to jump on it. I started the application process, spoke to a study abroad advisor, and looked into what program would be best for me.
I was shocked to find out that studying abroad was not as expensive as I thought it to be. I realized that even without the scholarship studying abroad was affordable. Although it does depend on the destination, most of the programs would cost about the same as it does to attend Salisbury University, in addition, your financial aid goes with you too.
With this in mind, I picked my location, Costa Rica, and headed towards my new home, the little peninsula Puntarenas, or what we called the Poont.
When the bus finally arrived my host family was already there, waiting in the middle of a crowd of excited host families.
I learned from living with my host family that the way they spoke Spanish was very different from the way my El Salvadorian family speaks it. They have different words, a different accent and the thing that differed the most is that they do not speak or understand Spanglish as most of my family members do.
My room was amazing. It kind of reminded me of a cabin because everything was made out of wood. The windows did not have glass so there was a direct connection between the inside of the house and the outside, as most of the Costa Rican houses are, so be careful with freakishly looking bugs and insects crawling into your room.
My host dad, the cook, would make the most amazing plates, especially his seafood ones, because he had previously owned a restaurant.
We would eat and chat about the current news− Costa Ricans or Ticos always watch the news− and the interesting Costa Rican history that I was learning about in class.
My host mom, a health nut, and I, would talk about health and fitness. I even went with her to a couple of cycling classes that she would attend, that resulted in me sweating the most I had ever sweat in my life.
The programs first trip was scheduled for the next day. The program directors and the students were scheduled to go to Tortuga Island, or Isla Tortuga, a beautiful island with a little town, surrounded by blue waters and contained beautiful greenery.
Although there is a lot to explore, whether it is day or night, studying abroad does include just that, studying. I decided to take many classes and learn as much as I could when I got to Costa Rica. It wasn’t until later that I figure out that all I wanted to do was travel, but it too much of a problem because many of my classes were Monday through Thursday, meaning that I had a three day weekend to venture out.
The classes were not too difficult either and many of the professor were very laid back. We students quickly got accustomed to this and actually one of the first terms we learned was tico-time. This describes the relaxed nature of the Costa Rican culture, in that everything isn’t as structured and systematic. You find Costa Ricans going about their lives in a very relaxed and worriless manner.
More importantly many of the classes abroad are compressed and so many gen-eds and language courses could be taken care of. I completed two semesters of language courses in only one semester.
As soon as the school week was over everybody was taking out their maps, going through their phones or researching on their laptops where the next adventure would be.
Traveling in Costa Rica included a lot of bussing around. A year-long student that was also there for the previous semester warned the newer students that bussing was going to be a quarter of our stay. She was right.
Once destinations were made we would link up with the other students that were heading to the same location and head down the street to the bus station.
Our first student planned trip was to Monte Zuma. It was on the larger neighboring Nicoya Peninsula.
Once we got to Monte Zuma, a ferry and bus ride later, we headed out to find a hotel, it’s the cheapest way to have a place to sleep, unless you want to sleep on the free beach that is. We found a spot that only charged 5000 colones, or $10.
One of the girls told us that she had seen on the internet that there was a waterfall around the area. We decided to ask around, and after a couple tries a local tico pointed us to the direction. It was a bit of a hike to finally reach the waterfall.
After finally making it everybody hopped into the pool below the 60-foot waterfall. The water was really cold so I decided to just take a quick dip in it and then climb up the rocky wall beside the waterfall.
A few of us had already started climbing up, and I was up next to go when one of the Ticos advised me not to do it. He said it was dangerous to climb the wall and that some people had died trying to do it. But I had come to Costa Rica to have an adventure. We told him that we were rock climbers, which I actually am, and started climbing up.
Crevice by crevice we made it up, meeting up all the other students who had already made it.
It was more beautiful at the top. On one side there was a waterfall followed by a pool and another waterfall. There were lush greeneries on both sides of the waterfall, above the earthy reds of the rock walls enclosing it. The water was as clear as I had ever seen water be.
The horizon was filled with the rainforest that surrounded the river that led to the Montezuma beach.
I made unforgettable friendships during this study abroad trip, some that will never fade away. I still to this day keep in contact with many of them, and to my advantage I now have excuses to go to different states and even Australia, knowing that I will have friends to show me around.
These guys came from all over the U.S. I met Garret Macdonald from Michigan, Dave Robinson from Idaho, Patrick Szenderski from Ohio, a local tico Patrice Rodriguez, and even two Australians, Kath Louise and Maddie Johnson from Melbourne that decided to show their fellow American students the Australian way. Everybody seemed to click immediately and this was just the first couple of days.
We played some Australian football, a sport that Kath and Maddie kept emphasizing was not rugby, even though the ball looked like a rugby ball, and then went to go eat at the islands restaurant. Later I veered off with another friend Eric Eschelback from Oregon, to capture photos of the beautiful landscape.
I remember before I left for Costa Rica and attending a study abroad meeting that one of the student representatives told me that I would make the greatest friends abroad. I assumed that this was just another way to make studying abroad seem as great as everybody made it to be. I was wrong.
It wasn’t until I went and shared my amazing experiences with these people that I believed the student representative. Everything was new to us so we did struggle, and even helped each other out, when writing papers in Spanish, we did explore different mountains, beaches, and waterfalls together, we did get lost together, but somehow always make it to our destination of the weekend, we even did a lot of nightlife together.
These shared experiences are what turned strangers into friends as quickly as it did and made my experience unforgettable.