Reflections on My Study Abroad: Expedition Fellows 2013

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Luan at International Student Language Social event at UW Tacoma campusTraveling has always been one of my favorite things to do since I was a little kid because I wanted to see bigger pictures of life outside of my bubble. I would be day dreaming about visiting and exploring exotic places when listening to bed time stories from my grandmother. Who knew that I would one day  finally accomplish that dream by going to Costa Rica on the Expedition Fellows Program on spring break 2013!

As being a permanent resident in America, I thought that study abroad would be impossible with my language and financial barriers. When I found out about the Expedition Fellows Program at the University of Washington Tacoma for only $500, I told myself that this could be the only opportunity for me to study abroad. I had to seize that opportunity and I made it happen. With the help and encouragement from my friends and professors to apply, I later found out that I'd made it to the first Expedition Fellows Program to go to Costa Rica along with other colleagues at the University of Washington Tacoma. I felt like I have achieved one of the biggest dreams of my life because my dream of exploring a new country has finally been fulfilled in my first year of college. It first was totally a shock for my family to accept the news from me; my mom thinks it's bizarre for me to travel without any family supervision. However, I won their trust after a few explanations about how it would benefit my life. From that moment, I felt more independent and have more confidence in myself than ever. As becoming a young man, I wanted to change the way I live, I wanted to find my own self other than my twin brother. But mostly, I wanted to see the world through my heart and eyes, and learn more about the world than just the books or internet.In the airplane

Having the trip to Costa Rica during spring break was perfect timing for me and the other fellows to leave all the stress from finals at home and freshen up our minds with the pure beauty of Costa Rica. Pura vida! At the airport, everyone was so excited for Costa Rica that it was the only topic we could think of. Life in the jungles, bugs, snakes, coffee, chocolates and the lists went on. I was very shy at first but after being surrounded by an amazing group of like-minded people, I could not resist myself but jumped into the conversation. I still remember those moments when we bonded together through every day tasks because all we needed was each other. We laughed, we sang, we cried; basically we did everything together as a team. Some of the members even made a rap song called "the sun, rice and beans” basically about the sun in Costa Rica beating down on our necks and how we got tired of eating rice and beans for every meal in Costa Rica.

All the things we have learned from Costa Rica were precious because every day we were exposed to new things about the beauty of Costa Rica and its people. I have to admit that Costa Rica reminds me of where I used to live in Vietnam; I was probably the only one that didn’t get the culture shock like everyone in the group. There was a familiar feeling in me from almost everything. At first, I did not like it because I was expecting something more like the wilderness of the Amazon but after a few days, I started to love the places and how much the indigenous people love and have pride in the mother Earth. Sustainable and organic farming in MastatalEverything was recyclable and environmentally friendly. Nothing like what we do here in the U.S., especially no toilet paper allowed or chemicals in the water way, because it would cause damage to the natural water that they have been using for generations. In Tarrazú, a coffee-growing region, all leftover food would be consumed by the pigs, and their waste is used as clean energy gas for cooking. In Villa Mastatal, all the drinking cups were made of glass bottles, houses built from glass bottles and clay soil for natural light. One more bizarre thing that could gross you out is the compost toilet. It was the very first thing that we all had to learn is how to use it properly, so that we didn’t break the system. The solid waste later can be used as natural fertilizer for some of the plants on their farm. This practice of organic farming applies to every part of the farm to minimize the waste into the environment. The hot water is stored inside the hose covered by thick layers of grass to trap the moisture and heat in order to keep the water warm. That means energy efficiency and 100% natural produce in the farm. We all were amazed by how innovative and conservative the people here are and we discussed the possibilities in America of applying these methods to reduce waste into the environment.

Every day is a new day; we were constantly learning and exploring new things through activities and service learning. It was very exhausting, yet very valuable to each individual at the same time. In Tarrazú, the first thing we learned was banana trees are planted along with coffee trees to primarily bring in alternative income for the farmer. However, their support as a permanent canopy helps reduce the temperature of the area and gives shade for coffee beans to avoid burning heat from the tropical sun. Also, the root systems and mulch from banana plants prevent soil erosion and degradation in hills. What a beautiful thing about the ecosystem!Coffee bean

Then, we headed to a local coffee factory; we learned step by step how a coffee cherry turns into a delicious cup of coffee. It's more complicated than what I expected, and that is what makes their coffee special compared to others. At the end of the tour, we learned cupping different flavors of coffee to distinguish the taste of different types of coffees. I never knew that there are more than a hundred flavors of coffee and each brings its unique taste in our tongue. Since Costa Rica is a small country, they rather focus on quality of the coffee instead of quantity, because of the size of the product compared to other giant leaders in the coffee market. Not only did we learn about the coffee, we enjoyed that same coffee after the tour. We also bought a few coffee bags and honey collected from coffee plants as souvenirs for family back home. Because of the coffee taste and quality, we almost cleaned out the whole shop. 

At the dinner table on the second night, we started to exchange conversations and enjoyed each others company. It was tons of humor, crazy laughter at the table that even the hosts were laughing along with us. We didn’t need technology or internet to keep us entertained, all we had was each other for company and it was more than enough. That was the moment when I realized that this trip helped me to value what we are missing in the U.S., the natural interaction between humans.  I could not believe that we became such close friends after only the second day in Costa Rica.

The first night in Villa Mastatal was quite terrifying to all of us because of the fear of living in the tropical jungle. However, after a quick session of zoology from Dr. Banks and Robert, we were more comfortable with sleeping outdoors inside a simply built dorm. As a group we were isolated from modern civilization and learned to live the simple life with the other villagers in Mastatal. However, this experience helped us to value the beautiful things about each other, like when we were amused by the stars in the sky and the sounds of nature. At bedtime, I volunteered to turn off the light and as I returned to my bed, the sound of my footsteps was unintentionally loud; the peer advisor made a funny joke calling me “big foot”, and we all busted into laughter a few seconds after that. The night ended nicely, we were glad to be together in pitch black and silence.Luan's eatting banana

Besides the genuine friendship that we have made along the trips, the embarrassing moments are always precious memories for us to keep. For me, that moment is still clear in my head, I learned how to say “how much does this cost?” in Spanish just a few minutes before I did my first purchase for some bananas at a corner store. When I approached the owner of the shop, my mind suddenly spaced out; all I did was put money on one of my hands and holding bananas on the other hand. I sure looked like a dork; I couldn’t help myself but waited for the guy to take the money off my hands and gave me the change. Still today, it is one of the most embarrassing moments of my life, but ironically, a fun experience to remember. After that funny incident, I was eager to learn more about Spanish and Costa Rican culture, because the knowledge that we learned there cannot be taught in a normal class room at UW Tacoma.

In Villa Mastatal, we drowned ourselves in the pool of wilderness and knowledge of nature in every task. One afternoon, we learned how the indigenous people utilize plants for traditional medicine and making crafts for every day’s equipment from a local gentleman. We really enjoyed making crafts from the fiber of tree vines, and that inspired our creativity for the work. The atmosphere was just pure, simple, joy. Everyone was focusing on their craft and enjoyed the peaceful environment of Mastatal. Not only that, we even had a chance to go on a night hike in the jungle with some other volunteers and the host in the following evening. It might sound crazy but it was a dangerously fun experience to see the wildlife at night where the predators are active. We didn’t get to capture any large animal but we saw a large, hand-sized tarantula, other native insects and fish.

In addition to the cultural learning experience, we were assigned a home stay with a local family with one other Expedition Fellow. It was a great opportunity for us to practice our Spanish and explore new things about life from an ordinary Costa Rican family in Mastatal. The next morning, we had a mini-volunteer project at the local elementary school cleaning the yard and replanting trees around the facility to prevent water erosion in the rainy season. Despite the heat from the sun, every one of us was working hard for the sake of local students. They don’t receive the same privileges as we do here in America, but they are still happy with what they have and striking for bigger dreams. One of the local volunteers shared with us the story of how a small village like Mastatal came together to build an Elementary school for their children’s future. At the same time, the kids don’t have to walk for miles to other villages for school, especially in the rainy season where flooding can make the roads dangerous to go out. The Expedition Fellows sympathized with the local children and was glad that our small effort could help improve the school.

Enjoying the bingo nightOn the night before we left Mastatal, we were able to enjoy a bingo night hosted by the villagers for raising money for the local school. It was fascinating to see the effort of a small village come together for a good cause and nurture relationships with one another as a big family. The price for winners was just ordinary cooking supplies and food; nothing extraordinary, just essential needs for the local family. We all were having fun at the event enjoying traditional food and playing bingo in Spanish. Even though, some of the students and I were having difficulties to keep up with called numbers in Spanish, because of the language barrier, but overall, it was a great night. We each felt the warming welcome that the community was giving us.  That made me realize what we are missing in the U.S. The people over here don’t need special entertainment like we tend to live for; all they need is one another.

The lifestyle in Mastatal really helped me grow to be stronger and more independent when I was far away from home. I learned to see the world differently through other aspects and appreciate what I have in life more than ever. Perhaps, I finally found a new place where my real self has emerged from a being a twin. This trip was one of the most memorable, amazing adventures I have ever been on. I have made friends with many Expedition Fellows, and our long lasting friendship still continues today.  Those precious moments could never be forgotten in each of us. Before closing my thoughts, I would strongly encourage each student to go on a study abroad trip, because figuring out who we are could be the best part of the journey. Thank you to the Chancellor office, Dr. Banks and all individuals that helped us to have this wonderful experience in Costa Rica.

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