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It’s like I never left

Time December 2nd, 2013 in College Study Abroad | 1 Comment by

They told me about the culture shock upon returning home. They told me I’d go through mood swings and have a hard time adjusting to life at home, both in school and with family.

But culture didn’t shock me…yet?

I expected a lot of things to happen when I came back to the United States, but not this. It’s actually been a very smooth transition.

Everything that happened in Costa Rica, from the flights there to the flights back, feel like a dream, like it never happened. All of the experiences I had and the sights I saw seem like something out of a movie.

Instead, I’m right back in “regular” life, where everybody speaks English, accepts American dollars, knows me as the Zach Cohen the student journalist and not as Zach Cohen the barely-proficient-in-Spanish gringo. Nobody and nothing has changed.

I spent the first few days back home watching TV, sleeping and eating all the American foods I missed so much. Then I went to D.C. to see friends and step on campus (pinned below) again. As I finish penning this blog post, I’m back in Massachusetts, where I began my journey. It’s been a glorious week and a half.

But I can’t stop thinking about, and talking about, Costa Rica.

Everything in that country that always felt so close now seems farther away, more distant. Already my memory has started to fade. The vision of my commute to school, the long bus rides to jungles and beaches, all appear more hazy than they did only a few days ago. All that remains are trinkets and photos.

I do miss Costa Rica, especially the coffee, the fresh fruit and, most importantly, my host family, with whom I still keep in touch via Facebook. But that chapter in my life is closed, and I’m satisfied with my experiences there.

I learned Spanish.

I made friends. Many amazing friends.

I explored new places and experienced amazing sights.

I learned to relax and embrace pura vida.

I even got a chance to be an international correspondent.

Costa Rica will always be a part of me, and it’s bittersweet to wish it farewell. The main thought that keeps me from feeling lost is the hope that I’ll return one day.

But until then, I’m grateful for the last four months. I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

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This is my last blog post for IFSA-Butler. If you’ve been following along for the last semester, I sincerecly hope you’ve enjoyed my dispatches, both cogent and not. It warms my heart every time I hear from one of you about my blog, and I’m grateful (especially as we celebrate Thanksgiving) to have friends and family who care enough to read my ramblings.

If you’re just starting to read my posts now (or are considering studying abroad), you can find all of my posts here. Take a trip to Costa Rica through my eyes. If you’re so inclined, take a trip there yourself. The country makes it worth it. I humbly hope my attempts to portray Costa Rica do it justice.

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Check out the rest of my adventure throughout Costa Rica here at IFSA-Butler’s blog, at my blog, on Twitter or even on Facebook.

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Bidding goodbye to my home, and a couple of reflections

Time November 15th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Nov. 15, 2013

Tomorrow I’ll be on a plane to Miami, and from there, to Newark, N.J.

And that’s that. That will be the end of my 4-month life in Costa Rica. No more Spanish, no more amazing mountains, jungles and beaches, no more delicious tico food.

No more hometown. No more host family.

No more study abroad.

It’s all a memory. And I’m OK with that.

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Now THAT’s a volcano

Time November 15th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Welcome to Parque Nacional Volcán Poás.

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Parque Nacional Volcan Poas

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Follow the rest of my adventure throughout Costa Rica here at IFSA-Butler’s blog, at my blog, on Twitter or even on Facebook.

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Tourism into the past

Time November 15th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Probably my favorite class I’ve taken here is Social History of Costa Rica. Our professor, Carlos, is brilliant and likely one of the premier scholars on the socioeconomic and political history of Central America.

He took us on a bus tour to travel back in time.

First, we went to La Basilica de Los Angeles, the same place I visited during El Día de la Virgen de los Angeles. It’s the most important church in Costa Rica.

Then, we checked out Guayabo National Monument, which is, for all intents and purposes, the Machu Pichu of Costa Rica. It’s the most important archaeological site in the country and the home of the remains of a pre-Columbian capital.

We also visited two churches. All that’s left of the first are ruins of the oldest church built in Costa Rica.

But the second is the oldest functioning church in the country.

We also checked out an incredible vista of the surrounding area.

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Follow the rest of my adventure throughout Costa Rica here at IFSA-Butler’s blog, at my blog, on Twitter or even on Facebook.

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Last program trip

Time November 15th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Our last program trip was an adventure. Unfortunately I don’t have many photos of the rafting and ziplining that bookended our trip, both on or over Río Sarapiqui.

We started off with a tour of a chocolate farm, where staff showed us how to make chocolate the same way it has been done for hundreds of years by indigenous Native Americans of Central America.

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Here is a chocolate pod that will, in due time, give birth to what the indigenous people of America call "the drink of the Gods."

Our night hike around Hacienda Pozo Azul, where we saw, among other things, mating red-eye tree frogs, is probably where I got my best photos of the wildlife of Costa Rica.

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Follow the rest of my adventure throughout Costa Rica here at IFSA-Butler’s blog, at my blog, on Twitter or even on Facebook.

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Flying through Monteverde

Time November 15th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Monteverde is known for three things: quetzals, cloud forests and ziplines.

I only got to enjoy the last two.

Ziplining was first on my to-do list, and it was a blast. One line is billed as being the longest in Latin America, soaring over a valley for over 1,500 meters.

With that out of the way, I hiked around Reserva Biologica Monteverde (Monteverde Biological Reserve) looking for the famed quetzal bird, with no success (closest my guide and I found was a nest). Found a couple of other critters, though.

Finally, I spent my final morning there rappelling down waterfalls, the tallest about 40 meters. Quite the adventure, and quite the workout.

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Follow the rest of my adventure throughout Costa Rica here at IFSA-Butler’s blog, at my blog, on Twitter or even on Facebook.

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Exploring the Caribbean side of Costa Rica

Time November 13th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

The Caribbean side of Costa Rica is like a different country than the western half. More beaches, of course, but beautiful in a different way. The culture is spectacularly Rastafarian and carefree, and all of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, where I stayed for a weekend, is filled with surfers and bikers.

I also made a trip to Bribri, an indigenous reserve that included waterfalls and an indigenous reserve.

Finally, I went snorkeling at Punta Uva (“Point Grape”) to explore some of the best coral reefs in Costa Rica.

Right before we left, a view of River Sixaola and, just beyond, Panama.

rio-sixaola-border-with-panama04

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Follow the rest of my adventure throughout Costa Rica here at IFSA-Butler’s blog, at my blog, on Twitter or even on Facebook.

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Saving the turtles

Time November 12th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Volunteering at a turtle conservation project in Matapalo was by far the most meaningful experience I’ve had in Costa Rica.

We visited the hatchery as part of our “Ecological Richness of Costa Rica” class. All of us were split into patrols, either walking along the beach collecting eggs or releasing hatched turtles into the ocean. All of them were at night.

My first job was a 3 a.m. shift at the hatchery, monitoring the nests for any hatched turtles. Just as the sun was rising, we found one, lone lora turtle walking around its nest. It was part of another batch that had been born earlier that evening, and it was just late to the party.

We named it “Vida,” which mean “life” in Spanish. Watching it waddle along the sand, back into the ocean, to its home, was incredible and life-affirming.

Normally, these turtles are born in a nest in the sand. But threats, both natural (snakes, crabs, foxes, etc.) as well as man-made (poachers), have driven them to near-extinction.

To protect those eggs, I went on a four-hour patrol in the dead of night. We hiked a total of 9 kilometers at a power-walking speed. On our way back, our guide Daniel spotted a mother lora turtle making her nest. It was majestic, watching this mother laboriously, yet gracefully, make a home for her babies.

We carefully took her measurements and removed the eggs, all 103 of them, and placed them in a bag to bring back to the hatchery to be cared for by the volunteers until they hatched.

The work that these volunteers do every day and every night is not easy, but it is necessary. If these volunteers are successful, they could serve as an example for all turtle conservation efforts in Costa Rica.

Without them, without us, these turtles, as a species, would not survive.

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Daniel, the leader of the turtle conservation project, shows us around the turtle hatchery at Playa Matapalo

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Follow the rest of my adventure throughout Costa Rica here at IFSA-Butler’s blog, at my blog, on Twitter or even on Facebook.

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Lamest national park ever

Time November 12th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

We visited Parque Nacional Carara in our “Ecological Richness of Costa Rica” class.

It was honestly pretty disappointing. Though it’s billed as a sure-fire place to see the famous scarlet macaws, we saw none.

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Me climbing a tree at Parque Nacional Carara

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Follow the rest of my adventure throughout Costa Rica here at IFSA-Butler’s blog, at my blog, on Twitter or even on Facebook.

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Postcard perfect at Manuel Antonio

Time November 12th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

My trip to Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio was by far my favorite part of my trip to Costa Rica. Beautiful, white sand beaches, jungles and hordes of monkeys.

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Two white-face capuchin monkeys at Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio

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Follow the rest of my adventure throughout Costa Rica here at IFSA-Butler’s blog, at my blog, on Twitter or even on Facebook.

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A trip to Mal País

Time November 12th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

The southern tip of Nicoya Peninsula is known as “Mal Pais,” which literally means “Bad Country.”

It’s anything but bad.

First, a wonderful ferry ride across the Gulf of Nicoya.

After two bumpy bus rides, we made it to Mal País, and, more importantly, the beautiful Playa Carmen.

The next day we took a horseback ride around the surrounding jungles and beaches.

We capped off the weekend with a trip to the famous waterfalls of Montezuma, where we jumped and swam to our hearts’ desires.

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Follow the rest of my adventure throughout Costa Rica here at IFSA-Butler’s blog, at my blog, on Twitter or even on Facebook.

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Sarchí: The land of colorful oxcarts

Time October 29th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

About a month ago our Spanish classes visited the small town of Sarchí, known for its beautiful, hand-painted oxcarts. We toured the factory, where we painted little wheels in the same style and fashion as the professionals, whom we also watched at work.

We also went downtown to see the largest oxcart in the world, made in the same factory we visited.

This from Lonely Planet: “Costa Rica’s most famous crafts center, where artisans produce the ornately painted oxcarts and leather-and-wood furnishings for which the Central Valley is known. … It’s a tourist trap, but it’s a pretty one.”

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The whole group, plus our Spanish teachers and program associate in downtown Sarchi, at the biggest oxcart in the world.

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Follow the rest of my adventure throughout Costa Rica here at IFSA-Butler’s blog, at my blog, on Twitter or even on Facebook.

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Customer service at Claro at its worst

Time October 21st, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Just like the States, choices between cell phone providers are limited. Here, Claro, Movistar and Kölbi reign supreme.

I bought a Claro cell phone one of the first days I was in Costa Rica. And for months, I’ve been trying to get them to stop harassing me with promotions and ads in the form of text messages multiple times a day. Buy these minutes! Two for one minutes today! Buy today!

This is a story of lies, doublespeak and corporate incompetence.

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PHOTOS: Simón Bolivar Zoo

Time October 21st, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

I spent two days in mid-September at the Simón Bolivar Zoo, both for a group project on Costa Rica’s public zoo in San José. I even got a chance to interview the director. Useful trips if for nothing other than to cross animals off my “to see in Costa Rica” list.

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Follow the rest of my adventure throughout Costa Rica here at IFSA-Butler’s blog, at my blog, on Twitter or even on Facebook.

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PHOTOS: Parque Internacional La Amistad

Time October 21st, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Lonely Planet: “The 4070-sq-km Parque Internacional La Amistad is an enormous patch of green sprawling across the borders of Panama and Costa Rica (hence its Spanish name La Amistad, ‘Friendship’). This is by far the largest protected area in Costa Rica.”

Most of our time on this 4-day program trip in early September was spent in and around Asoprola, a small community of organic farmers and craftsmen. No, I didn’t see Panama. It was too cloudy.

This was the same trip I used to unplug from technology. Great trip, overall.

Crossing Crocodile Bridge

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Follow the rest of my adventure throughout Costa Rica here at IFSA-Butler’s blog, at my blog, on Twitter or even on Facebook.

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PHOTOS: Costa Rican Independence Day

Time October 21st, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

I woke up one morning after spending the weekend in San José to crowds surrounding downtown as children with typical dress, flags and batons marched down the street in honor of Costa Rican independence Day, Sept. 15.

Good thing I had my Nikon-D5100.

Children's parade in downtown San José on Costa Rican Independence Day

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Follow the rest of my adventure throughout Costa Rica here at IFSA-Butler’s blog, at my blog, on Twitter or even on Facebook.

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I don’t like being the dumb kid

Time October 15th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Midterms were particularly hard this year for me. That’s not to say they weren’t par for the course at a national university. They mostly included in-class essays and short answers based on the readings, presentations, etc.

What’s changed is that none of this is in English anymore.

I’ve been frustrated a lot recently with my academic abilities in Costa Rica. In the States, I’m used to handling a full course load along with extracurricular activities and even some part-time work.

But in Costa Rica, my only activities outside of class are trips on weekends, which even then often include long stints of pouring over history and literature readings, usually playing catch-up. Weekdays, I go home and sit on the balcony and read. Or sit in the library doing research. All of these take longer because I’m working in a language in which I am not fluent.

At a rate of about 10 pages of reading an hour, it doesn’t leave much time on weekdays for anything other than an occasional Skype session home, a jaunt to the bars with friends or a stroll through the Internet to catch up on the news.

The remainder of my time is spent slowly, laboriously reading every class reading in the hopes of understanding class discussion.

It usually doesn’t work.

In class, I catch the general themes of each professor’s talk but rarely understand every single word. I understand even less of what my classmates say, as they often employ colloquialisms and accents to which I am not accustomed. I usually spend the two to four hours of lecture each week staring at the professor more or less clueless to the train of discussion.

Professors try to help. I can turn in my essays after being graded to improve either my grammar or the content of my essays. In class, the professors take my questions eagerly and even speak a little in English to emphasize key points.

I don’t like it.

I don’t like being the dumb kid in the class.

I don’t like being the gringo.

Costa Rica has been an amazing experience, and I’ve been on so many adventures I sometimes can’t remember them all.

But simultaneously experiencing one of the most challenging semesters of my academic career and being demoted to the dunce in the front row is not exactly thrilling.

To be fair, I chose to put myself in this situation. I chose IFSA-Butler’s Costa Rica progrm at la Universidad Nacional because I didn’t want to just go on an extended vacation and hate my classes for their simplicity. I didn’t want my study abroad experience to be a booze cruise. If I’m paying tuition, I want to get my money’s worth.

I also registered for harder classes, without other Americans, in the hope of simultaneously meeting ticos and engaging in academic material that was relevant and interesting. If there’s one thing I hate more than extra homework, it’s feeling like I’m wasting my time.

But I wasn’t prepared for the major shift of moving from the top of any given class in terms of grades, participation and academic insight to the bottom, desperately feeding off the crumbs of knowledge I may or may not find between lectures or readings.

The fear of wasting my semester academically may have caused me to do just that in terms of the academic content I’ll bring back to the states.

Nevertheless, at the risk of sounding absolutely cliché, I’ve learned more about myself here than I did in three years at an American University.

I enjoy being in the know.

I don’t enjoy being clueless.

I can handle uncertainty, but only to a certain degree, and most certainly not when my GPA is on the line.

My Spanish is good and is improving, but will likely never reach fluency without some more serious effort and years, not months, of immersion.

Those realizations help put my challenges in perspective. I’m not completely failing all of my classes, and I don’t have to be a straight-A student in order to graduate in May as planned.

Maybe my tuition isn’t being wasted after all.

Here’s to hoping finals go better than midterms.

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Follow the rest of my adventure throughout Costa Rica here at IFSA-Butler’s blog, at my blog, on Twitter or even on Facebook.

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Reflections at the halfway mark

Time September 12th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

September 11, 2013

67 days.

67 days I’ve been in my new home of Costa Rica.

67 days until I go back home the U-S-of-A.

I have a  lot of mixed feelings about that revelation, some of them clichés but all genuine.

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Three days without Internet

Time September 9th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

This weekend, I spent 85 hours without access to the Internet, media, news, the outside world or electronic stimulation.

No phone. No Internet. No Kindle. No laptop. No news. No Facebook. No Twitter. No television. No iPod. No Skype. No email.

And boy was it a great feeling.

To be fair, I made a few exceptions:

  • I watched the (painfully horrendous) U.S. vs. Costa Rica World Cup qualifier on TV at a bar.
  • I used my digital camera to take some awesome pictures of the frogs, butterflies, beetles, snakes, spiders, and more (all to come on this blog as soon as my ecology-studying friend can help me classify them all).
  • I checked my local phone, which has no Internet capability, only to find there was not a bar of signal to be found, as I tried to get in contact with group mates on a class project due soon after the trip. I also used that phone as an alarm clock.
  • I heard snippets of music from friends’ iPods as we all hung out in the cabin.

I’m confident none of these detracted from my ability to enjoy my weekend, nor did it distract from everything that was happening all around me.

Before I left, I wrote on my blog why I was looking forward to the isolation:

I’m always connected. To my phone. To email. To Facebook. To Twitter. To digital conversations far and wide, public and private (who am I kidding, it’s all public).

This weekend, that changes.

It’s gotten to the point that I can’t go an hour and a half without itching to turn my phone, tap in the code and scroll through every information feed I can get my hands on. In the States, where Internet is ubiquitous, my phone battery is dead by 2:30 p.m. Here in Costa Rica, Wi-Fi is still ubiquitous enough that I’m connected most of the day.

As someone who lives online, I need to learn how to disconnect, for my personal sanity and for the sake of truly enjoying life without pixels.

Really, the timing of this retreat from technology is perfect:

  • A trip to a country without my data plan has been a struggle in and of itself. I’m constantly looking for Wi-Fi signal and occasionally missing out on the country I should be exploring. I haven’t had the opportunity to fully unplug. This will hopefully be the opportunity I need to, so to speak, rip the band-aid off.
  • Having just left MediaShift today, tomorrow will be the first time in more than three years (over 1100 days) that I will not be replying constantly to emails from editors and sources.
  • Mid-terms are coming up, but my preparation can take place entirely offline with the use of a very large notebook. Any paper writing and presentation creation can and should take place after reading all the material anyway. If anything, staying disconnected will let me get work done faster. 
  • Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) begins tonight and ends Thursday night. Shabbat begins only 24 hours after that on Friday night and ends Saturday night. Both are holidays that should be reserved for contemplation and relaxation. For the first time in a long time, I’ll be able to do just that.

It’s been years since the last time I’ve gone without Internet access for more than 24 hours, especially with my 3-year-old dependence on iPhone, which I only half-jokingly refer to as my third arm and an extension of my body.

I’m hoping this trip will give me the perspective to understand the place of technology in my life so that I may live life, offline and on, to its
fullest extent.

When I arrived, I realized just how little of a choice I had here. There was no Wi-Fi nor phone service of any kind. If I had had my iPhone or laptop, they would have been next to useless.

Nevertheless, even remaining away from keyboards and screens did wonders for me. I was definitely more present and able to get more reading done for classes (an unavoidable phenomenon known as midterms precluded me from leaving work at home).

I didn’t really miss technology, strangely enough. It was freeing to not be checking online every few minutes. I was able to push a lot of work-related (as well as less urgent) matters out of my mind.

I was (gasp!) relaxed. No stress, no anxiety, no impatience. Just being.

I’m hoping I can repeat this exercise every once a while once I get back Stateside and even while I’m here. I’ll be better for it.

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Follow the rest of my adventure throughout Costa Rica here at IFSA-Butler’s blog, at my blog, on Twitter or even on Facebook.

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El Cerro Chato – The hike that almost killed me

Time August 26th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Maybe it was the heat. Maybe it was the sun. Or the weight of my backpack. Or of my clothes. Or a combination of them all.

Either way, one part of this journey to the top of Cerro Chato (literally, “Flat Hill”) involved lying down in the middle of the path hypervenilating.

This hill was anything but flat. 8 kilometers round-trip at a very steep incline. I was clammy, sweaty, and ready to give up and head right back down the mountain to the hostel.

Lucky the bottom half of my pants could zip off. Lucky that I could take my shirt off to prevent overheating. Lucky I brought enough water to keep me hydrated.

And I’m very lucky to have two good friends to share the literal load on my shoulders and take as many breaks as we needed to make it to the top.

And boy was it worth it.

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Follow the rest of my adventure throughout Costa Rica here at IFSA-Butler’s blog, at my blog, on Twitter or even on Facebook.

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Día de al Virgen de los Ángeles

Time August 23rd, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

I meant to post this a while ago but lost track of the time.

My family drove to Cartago one evening to pick up other members of my family. They had just walked from San José to Cartago (no easy feat) to celebrate El Día de la Virgen de los Ángeles.

And we weren’t the only ones making the trip.

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Follow the rest of my adventure throughout Costa Rica here at IFSA-Butler’s blog, at my blog, on Twitter or even on Facebook.

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Flores y animales

Time August 23rd, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Here are some pictures of our trip to INBioparque, a zoo in Heredia featuring all of the ecosystems of Costa Rica.

Featured here are just a fraction of the flowers and animals that we got a chance to see, both wild and caged.

Follow the rest of my adventure throughout Costa Rica here at IFSA-Butler’s blog, at my blog, on Twitter or even on Facebook.

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Why I quit my internship

Time August 23rd, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

I was the strange kid in the study abroad group simultaneously completing an American internship.

I worked at nights when I had finished (…maybe…) my homework and was in no danger of missing out on cultural experiences or, more importantly, time with my host family.

Not anymore. As of Thursday, I’ve given my two-week notice.
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When family visits its abroad student

Time August 20th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

My head started to spin. I lost my appetite. I was confused.

I was going through reverse culture shock, three months early.

It’s an odd reaction to have when parents come to visit, but in this case, it makes perfect sense.

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I learned how to fly

Time August 20th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

So not a particularly Costa Rican activity, but when I visited Playa Herradura, I got a chance to try out FlyBoarding.

The method of FlyBoarding is pretty simple. A large hose simply funnels exhaust water into a board. The water then pushes the rider above the water as much as 20 feet, and the rider has to balance, like on a snowboard on a spinning top.

Photos by David Cohen, my father.

Follow the rest of my adventure throughout Costa Rica here at IFSA-Butler’s blog, at my blog, on Twitter or even on Facebook.

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