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Living with a Costa Rican family

Studying abroad is an experience brimming with opportunities. Perhaps the biggest opportunity of all is the chance to look into another culture and learn the way people in another part of the world live. It is fascinating to see all the differences life in another country brings, as well as inspiring to see all the similarities we share as human beings. A homestay while studying abroad is a way to truly dive into the experience and learn as much as possible. Universidad Veritas helps their students get the most out of their time in Costa Rica by finding host families close to the school for them. I thought it was a great experience that helped me learn more about Costa Rican culture, and I will describe it in the rest of this article.

In discussing my homestay, there are two main parts on which I would like to focus. The first part is what it is like to live in a Costa Rican house, and the second, most important part is the connection a host family gives to Costa Rican culture. My host family consisted of my Mama Tica, Papa Tico, and Dani & David (my host siblings). Ticos is the nick name Costa Ricans give themselves, and my Mama Tica and Papa Tico chose to adopt the nickname for their host students to use.

ISu student poses with her host mother, father, brother, and sister in their living room

Me (far right) and my host family

Costa Rican homes, especially in San Jose, are different from the United States. I was a little surprised when I arrived at my home, because homes in San Jose are gated with razor wire on top of the tall gates. They look scary at first, but once you go inside, they are nice and feel like a home. The most important thing for me to remember in my homestay was that I was in a different country that was different from what I was used to and needed to keep an open mind. I would advise anyone traveling to Costa Rica to do the same. There might be water rations in the dry season, cold showers, and no air conditioning or heating, but all these things are pretty insignificant when compared to the welcoming people and unique culture to be experienced in Costa Rica.

exterior of house with fenced entrance

Outside of my house in Costa Rica

To move on to the second part of the homestay, there were many ways my host family helped immerse me in Costa Rican culture- one of which was through the Spanish language. My host family spoke hardly any English. My Papa Tico worked most of the time, so Mama Tica was the person the three other students and I interacted with most of the time. She had been a host mother for several years and picked up a little English, but for the most part only spoke Spanish. She pushed me to learn more Spanish and use it. I quickly learned to not be afraid of making mistakes in my speaking and just give my best attempts at Spanish. My Mama Tica would always listen patiently and help correct any errors. It was an interactive way of learning Spanish, which was better than anything I had experienced inside a classroom. There were of course times when my limited Spanish ability and my Mama Tica’s limited English ability failed, and in those instances Google Translate was always a welcome friend.

In addition to learning Spanish with my host family, I also took an intensive Spanish class. My host family, especially Mama Tica, was happy to help. She would review my writing and presentations and also teach me about different parts of Costa Rican culture I needed to learn for the class, such as popular Costa Rican food, drinks, and party games.

Another way my Mama Tica aided my integration into Costa Rican culture was by helping me plan weekend trips around the country. I would plan out the trips with my friends, and then she would help me call hostels, tour companies, bus stations or whomever else I needed. With her help, I was better able to explore the country and its many ecosystems and peoples.

I also experienced Costa Rican food with my host family. My Mama Tica made us breakfast and dinner every day. In the morning, I would

woman smiles as she stirs pot on stove

Mama Tica teaching me to cook gallo pinto

only eat with my Mama Tica and her other international students, because Papa Tico would be at work and my host siblings were either sleeping or at school. For dinner, sometimes we would eat together as a big family and other times whoever was available would eat and anyone else would eat when they were done with classes or work. Our Mama Tica made foods like gallo pinto (rice and beans with spices), platanos (sweet plantains), yucca (a potato-like vegetable), and huevos rancheros (poached eggs in sauce). Most days breakfast would be an egg, tortilla, and fruit, and dinner would be rice and beans, a vegetable, a piece of meat, and salad.

Food could sometimes be one of the drawbacks to my homestay. My Mama Tica would make the same thing for breakfast and dinner almost every day, which was okay but got tiring after a couple months. There was also an issue in our family when it came to meat. My host family would feed their students cheaper meat than they ate themselves. They would eat beef or steak some nights while they gave their students chicken. It did not affect me so much because I am a vegetarian, but it was not a particularly inclusive thing to do. It was one of only two complaints I had with my host family.

The final way my host family helped me learn about Costa Rican culture was by spending time with me. The other three international students and I would eat breakfast and dinner with Mama Tica every day. Some nights after dinner we would play games with her and her nine-year-old daughter Dani. There was one night after dinner I taught Mama Tica, Dani, and two of the other students how to make bracelets after dinner. Other times we would listen to my Papa Tico rehearse songs in a beautiful voice with his singing partner. We would also talk a significant amount during these times in both English and Spanish.

a girl and woman make bracelets

Making bracelets with Mama Tica and Dani

One of my favorite days in Costa Rica was when my Mama Tica and Papa Tico took me and one of the other students, Nicole, to a city called Cartago. It was the city Mama Tica grew up in, and she showed us the sights, which included ruins, the main Catholic church in Costa Rica, and a scenic overlook. We also had lunch with her parents, who were exceptionally welcoming. After all of this, Mama Tica took us to her favorite ice cream place in all of Costa Rica. I felt like I experienced Costa Rican culture more on this day than any other day there.

Three people pose in front of a scenic overlook

My Mama Tica, Papa Tico, and me at a scenic overlook in Cartago

I mentioned I only had two complaints about my home stay. The food discrepancy was one, and the other was that I did not get to spend as much time with my host family as I would have liked. They were busy people and were not home often. They also, with the exception of a couple times, did not invite us to spend time with their friends and family or go places with them. They had 4 international students, and it was too hard to take us all on family outings. Instead, they usually took none of us. I still had plenty of quality time I spent with my host family, but I would have liked to have more days like Cartago.

Overall, my homestay was wonderful experience that brought me closer to Costa Rican culture. For anyone venturing to Costa Rica, living with a host family is going to be a great experience that lets you get the most out of studying abroad.

sunset with lens flare overlooking houses in Costa Rica

View from my Costa Rican home at sunset

Emmi Chambers studied abroad at Universidad Veritas in Spring 2019. If you are interested in learning about the Universidad Veritas program, visit our website for more information.