Orientation Week 1: Liberia
The first week of orientation took place in Liberia. We had Spanish class each morning from 8:00 to 12:00, which wasn’t as bad as it sounds, because we had luxuriously catered coffee/juice-and-pastry break in the middle, and that lasted about half an hour. I was pretty disappointed by the class itself, but the argument could be made that the program was simply using a different pedagogical strategy than I was expecting. I really wanted a blistering review of all of Spanish grammar, with drills coming hard and fast nonstop for four hours, and maybe some hefty vocabulary lists to memorize each night. I wanted a linguistic boot camp that would give me everything I needed to go charging into battle. Instead, it was slower-paced with longer-term goals. The first two days were spent entirely on assessment tests and exercises. The rest of the time featured some basic grammar review (present tense, ser vs. estar, por vs. para…) but focused mainly on conversation. I guess the idea was just to oil us up, to make us feel more comfortable speaking the language even if we weren’t actually speaking it any better. Oh well.
I didn’t realize that we would spend this first week with a temporary host family in Liberia, so my knees got a little wobbly when they told us we would be going home with them. But I had to put on a good face once I met them, and before long I fooled myself, too. It helped that I understood a surprising amount of what they were saying. My stay ended up being an entirely pleasant one, largely because the family didn’t worry themselves too much about me. From stories I had heard of other people’s host family experiences, I had two main fears: 1) having to listen to interminably long one-sided conversations, and 2) being forced to eat more than I wanted to avoid insulting my host mom. Neither was a problem. I spent the entire first evening with my Liberian host family, but after that I hardly saw them. I got to come and go when I pleased, and when I was hungry my host mom or host sister would simply dish out moderate portions from some Tupperwares, stick it in the microwave, and leave me to eat alone. It was exactly the sort of low-key introduction to host family living that I needed.
Of course getting to know my peers was fun. Though there are only 13 of us in the IFSA group, we make full use of the geographic and academic diversity our sprawling homeland allows. There was a certain anthropological delight to be had in watching us form a social community ex nihilo. At least for me, the biggest obstacle to integration was the language barrier, or rather, the languages barrier. To speak English would betray our common mission of learning Spanish, to speak Spanish would betray the sense of solidarity in the face of linguistic and cultural challenges coming from all directions. I worried so much about choosing one language over another that sometimes I didn’t speak at all (readers who know me are just going to have to take my word for it).
But best of all, IFSA arranged for us to have “amigos Ticos,” a group of four university students that were integrated into some of our activities. I would never have imagined that such an artificial social arrangement would yield such amazing results. The credit, of course, goes to the Ticos, who were incredibly nice. They even went out with us in the evenings. How they had the patience to put up with our strong accents and butchered conjugations I don’t know, but we learned more about the language and culture with them at the bars than we did in the classroom. (Also, it’s pretty awesome to casually go to bars. I don’t drink, so it’s not worth trying to sneak into a bar in the States, but since the drinking age is 18 here, bars make for fun places to meet and talk over grapefruit soda.) At the end of the week, goodbyes were sad and sweet.
On our last day in Liberia, we got to leave the city and go for a short jaunt through Parque Nacional Rincón de la Vieja. Binoculars hanging from my neck and notebook in hand, I had reached nirvana. (Believe me, there will be plenty of sylvan romanticism later, so I’ll spare you the details now.)