|September 4, 2003
Volume 34 Number 1
|A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico|
Turtle Walk of Death: Tales from Costa Rica
Why faculty should consider an exchange program with a foreign university
Coming back to Chico at the end of June, fresh from five weeks in Costa Rica, wasn't quite as hard as you might imagine. We were ready to sleep without mosquito netting, make it through two afternoons in a row with no downpour, and come home to our Jack Russell and Lhasa apso. The joys of homecoming aside, you can't knock more than a month traveling through a tropical paradise, especially when more than half the expenses were paid by somebody else.
One of our big perks as faculty at CSU, Chico is the chance to teach, study, or advise students at one of the study-abroad sites through International Programs or the University Study Abroad Consortium (USAC) as well as direct exchanges between Chico and several foreign universities. I taught a one-unit culture course in Heredia, Costa Rica, in June as a visiting professor for USAC. Since the course was an elective, only the students who wanted to learn signed up. I met with my seven students Tuesdays and Thursdays for three hours, and for this USAC picked up the tab for my plane flight and gave me a stipend that essentially paid for my partner's plane trip, our accommodations for the month, and a little left over. OK, so, as I reminded my partner almost every week, I also had the onerous responsibility of lesson preparation and grading, but I managed to fit that into Monday afternoons and Wednesdays, leaving us with four long weekends in a row.
Although my field is Latin American culture and literature, my specialty lies outside Central America, so this was new ground for me. Costa Rica is somewhat of an anomaly for the region (or the world, for that matter), having no army since 1948 and no armed rebellions, governmental takeovers, or military intervention in the subsequent years. The country is a favorite destination for surfers, tree-huggers, and birders, due to the political stability, the mostly pristine beaches, the 300,000 species of wildlife (in an area about the size of Vermont), and the warm and welcoming attitude of the Costa Rican people.
According to Mavis Biesanz in her excellent book The Ticos: Culture and Social Change (2001), the pacifist politics and personal affability are both reflective of the Costa Ricans' need to quedar bien, to get along and avoid conflict. Ticos, as Costa Ricans call themselves, will usually take the time to greet and chat with a friend or acquaintance even if they will be late for their next appointment; they might give you vague or completely erroneous directions rather than be so rude as to not give you any at all; and the routine response to "thank you" is an unusually warm "with pleasure." This doesn't mean that all Ticos are nice, or that Ticos never argue, but it does lend to a generally pleasant and upbeat ambience despite an intense economic crisis and so much recent immigration that Nicaraguans and Colombians now make up about a quarter of the population.
We spent a weekend in the mangrove swamps of Tortuguero, on the Caribbean coast, where all transport is through the canals, and we saw howler, spider, and white-faced capuchin monkeys. We did not see any of the endangered Caribbean green sea turtles, for which the place is named, or any giant leatherbacks for that matter, being between laying seasons. We did survive the walk along the beach with no moon or flashlights, tripping over driftwood yet avoiding falling off the cliff, no thanks to our guide, who was determined to find us a turtle.
Our trip to the Monte Verde Tropical Cloud Forest officially completed my transformation into a full-fledged nature nerd. I can now proudly say that I have positively identified 74 different species of birds in Costa Rica, including the resplendent quetzal.
If it all sounds too good to be true, I can tell you the rest of our stories, good and bad, explain the plight of the precaristas (squatters), discuss the teachers' strike that lasted through our stay, and in general confirm that things are tough all over. Learning about a foreign culture is never 100 percent pleasant, but it is always interesting and makes us think critically about our own way of life. So here I am back in Chico, enriched with new experiences and feeling more rested and serene than I have since I was an undergraduate. That would be a bargain at twice the price.
Sara E. Cooper, Foreign Languages and Literatures
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