Meredith spent a summer learning and serving in North Africa, and her time there changed her thinking in multiple ways.
As I sat at the table in Khadija’s house I laughed. My hands were covered in henna and thus they were out of commission for the rest of the evening, so as not to smear the designs. But this presented a big problem as I sat down for dinner and realized that as usual, my fingers were the only utensils around. But before I even finished this thought, Khadija popped a piece of bread into my mouth and proceeded to feed me my entire dinner as I sat helplessly chewing, and indeed smiling. We laughed as both of us knew how foolish this looked, but how necessary it was! At that dinner I found myself pleasantly surprised by the realization that though I thought I would be waltzing into this country to serve Muslims and love them, I found myself being served and loved in a way that shamed my understanding of hospitality. Khadija’s sister snagged my iPod one afternoon when I wasn’t looking and began to scroll through my playlists, listening to whatever interesting song she could find. I’m sure I blushed once I realized what was happening, knowing that some of my latest hip-hop hits weren’t exactly “halal” (the Muslim word for kosher). But to my surprise, she began to sing, “…under my umbrella-ella-ella, eh eh eh…” She knew the words to the hit songs just as well as I did—and English was her second language! Again, my understanding of her world was shaken. She listened to Arabic music, I listened to up-beat jams. But, after getting inside her world I realized that she wanted to be “up on the latest” just like I did. She was a modern girl, just like me.
Those three weeks in Spain were definitely a turning point for me personally. I changed my major in college, no longer pursuing a SeaWorld career but one in education with an emphasis on Spanish. Because I was in bilingual education, and not a native Spanish speaker, I knew that I had to develop certain level of fluency in the language in order to be accepted into the program. So, the fall semester of my sophomore year I began looking into study abroad programs for the upcoming spring semester. A few months later I was in Costa Rica and living with a family who didn’t speak any English.
This experience was even more stretching than the time that I spent in Spain, as it was for a period of about 4 months, not 3 weeks. Right before I left for San José, Costa Rica’s capital city, I had several ideas about what my experience would be like. I would probably be living in the jungle, playing with monkeys, and building great relationships with the local people. However, when I got there, my perspective changed quite a bit. The first couple days that I was there were exhausting – I remember going to bed around 8:00 at night with a headache because everything was in a different language. Then, there was a huge 6.2 earthquake my second day of Spanish class and everything was shaking, the walls were moving up and down and the lights were swinging. That night, my host family told me to sleep with my shoes on in case we had to run out of the house because of the aftershocks. Fortunately, after that first week, things started to quiet down and I was able to get more “settled” into the culture. I began to make friends with other international students, explore the city and other parts of the country, pick up the language and build relationships with my host family.
While I was able to see different parts of the jungle while I was there, I no longer think of Costa Rica as just a rainforest. I think of individual faces and names like my host dad, Tyrone, and insurance salesman, and host mom, Vanessa, who made the
best banana pancakes in the world. I think of my Cuban professor, who taught me so much about the Spanish language, and my literature class where I studied great works of Costa Rican authors. There are also certain smells that come to mind – the
neighboring panadería that sold warm, fresh bread and delicious pastries, or the time I got in a taxi and it smelled like dog poop (the cab driver blamed me, but I am absolutely certain that it was his taxi). I also think of the unsurpassable beauty of Costa Rica’s natural world, the palm trees extending out into the Caribbean sea, the white-faced monkeys on the beach in Manuel Antonio, the sloth slowly making his way up a tree in the rainforest, and wild parrots and toucans flying from tree to tree.
I have fond memories of my time there, though it was not always easy. At times I felt isolated, lonely, sick, and missed good friends, family, and fellowship. However, studying abroad allowed me to experience another culture, lifestyle, and language in ways that vacation does not. By living with another family, attending a local university, and exploring national transportation systems I learned to function in an environment completely different from my own. It was not until I went back to the United States, after spending some 4 months abroad, that I realized how much I had changed.