Teaching in Costa Rica by Ruediger Koch
When writing about my trip to Costa Rica, it’s kind of hard to figure out where to begin. There are so many nice and interesting things about this country, some of which may look strange or weird at first look but then turn out to be exciting and lovely. If Costa Rica placed an advert of itself in a newspaper, it would probably say: “stunningly beautiful country between Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean, inhabited by extremely polite, warm-and open hearted people invites people from whatever part of the world to enjoy its natural wonders and friendly atmosphere.”
To realize this, it took me not more than a taxi ride from San Jose to Liberia. Jorge, the man who took me from San Jose to Liberia, was a very nice guy, and he introduced to me the main aspects of Costa Rican culture: Pura Vida, coffee, green mango with salt, rice and beans, and an amazing landscape. During the 4-hours ride to Liberia we stopped at various viewpoints which gave me a first glimpse of this country’s beauty. Around noon we had lunch together: chicken, rice and beans (I sometimes wonder what Costa Ricans would do, if this food had never been discovered), the dessert was green mangos with salt (unfortunately I couldn’t share Jorge’s affection for it) followed by a good Costa Rican coffee (which is said to be the second best in the world!).
However, during our lunch he explained me that “Pura Vida” (literally translated as pure life) are the most important words here, the implications of which range from the people’s hospitable, convivial attitude towards foreigners to a general laidback, relaxed yet catching lifestyle. Generally, Costa Ricans have a smaller sense of personal space than most Europeans, and this may make you feel uncomfortable, or even seem intrusive to you. But once you have overcome the first astonishment, you’ll quickly feel as a part of their community.
Most of all you will experience this with your host family. My host mother, Lynete, as well as her husband and her daughter, could not make me feel more welcome. Especially when I was ill. She did everything she could to help me get better. Saying that I haven’t enjoyed living together with my host family couldn’t be further from the truth. We always had a lot to laugh about and they made me feel as if I had always been part of their family (My mother even tried to sing “Happy Birthday” in German for me! And she did quite well) which is clearly one of the things that impressed me most. And to all those who might be afraid, sacred or nervous about living with a Costa Rican host family, all I can say is: Try to communicate with them and share your experiences – either at work or from travelling – as much as you can and you’ll see that they are honestly interested in how your life is going. And don’t worry if you don’t speak much Spanish. You’ll be amazed by what sign language can do.
In case you – like me – come here to work as an English teacher you’ll find yourself confronted with a completely different, though pleasant kind of interest in your person. The very first day at my school (Escuela Aplicación) showed me that teaching here would be a unique experience. While I was walking through the school, children turned round and looked at me as if an alien had dropped in from outer space. And yes, somehow I was an alien, a little alien in Liberia. A white-skinned boy from a strange, unknown country, who travelled more than 14,000 kilometres to work at an Elementary school in Costa Rica; that was indeed a sensation. And the sensation kept growing, not only for the children at school (their surprise could not have been bigger when they found out that it is actually possible for Spanish words to come out of the mouth of a white-skinned, foreign boy like me) but also for me.
Before I came here I was a bit scared of what would await me at my school for I knew that in some way or the other it would be different from what I was used to. But soon I found out that teaching at this school is a lot of fun. My supervisor, Marianela Castro, was extremely nice to me and in our work we complemented each other perfectly. But also all the other teachers turned out to be very polite and welcoming; they were really interested in my home country Germany and our affection to “cervezas muy grandes”, and they came about with much help and advice for finding a tico girlfriend!
The most amazing thing, however, to be mentioned about my work at school are the kids. I bet that the one who sets out to find kids that are lovelier than these will go on a lonely, desperate journey at the end of which the only thing he finds will probably be the hurtful truth that he has embarked on an impossible undertaking. There will surely be no day you are not being hugged by smiling kids who are just happy to see you. And during the breaks, or when you take them to the dining room, and you are surrounded by huge bunches of smiling kids that you can’t even move (and at that point the question arises who is actually taking whom to the dining room), you might even feel like a pop star. It’s because of all this that my affection for my school and my job grew as fast as the staple of presents that I got from my pupils (I’ve stopped counting them weeks ago!)
By and large, I can just say that I have really enjoyed my time here in Liberia, that small, yet thriving Tico town as the Projects Abroad brochure correctly states. Though I have to confess that all the natural wonders this country has to offer – its white sanded beaches, its amazing waterfalls and national parks, and the impressive mountainous landscape – astonished me more than the town of Liberia.
And now, as the end of my stay is approaching, all I can say is that my attitude towards Costa Rica is pretty much the same as the Costa Ricans’ attitude towards their national food rice and beans: They just never get sick of it.