Estadounidenses. Gringos. Extranjeros. Those guys in the Chacos and tie-dye over there.
Let’s just say that I do not “blend in” here, with the exception of when I wear my “Monteverde Friends School” shirt (see: Paving the Way to Carbon Neutrality). My skin is too pale for having lived in the tropics for two months, and I too often forget to silence my “h” in “hola.” To be called a gringo is not a term of endearment or disdain; it is merely a fact. I am not a tico nor will I ever be a tico, but I am fine with that. What I must understand as a study abroad student is that I am here to immerse myself, not take on a new identity in less than three and a half months.
Inevitably, gringos tend to gravitate toward each other. This can be both beneficial and detrimental in foreign travels. I have seen myself converse with more strangers than my parents would probably be comfortable with, all for the sake of hearing their stories. Something I found in common throughout many of my conversations was that a semester abroad was the beginning of a lifelong adventure. Whether it was the young professional woman taking a solo-vacation throughout Costa Rica for a few weeks, who studied abroad in Vienna, or the temporary volunteer at the Monteverde Friends School, who spent a semester in Buenos Aires, there is some unspoken pride. There is a silent understanding of the trials and euphoric moments of throwing yourself abroad as a young person, and that time infecting the student with the travel bug.
This is not to exclude the local people who wish to share their story with any wandering traveler willing to listen. I recall the story of a man who lost his teeth and broke his leg bull-riding here in Monteverde. He migrated to the New Mexico, a state dear to my heart, in search of work, only to be deported back here after his visa expired. Now, he lives on the kindness of his brother and was thrilled just to have a listening ear. Or there is the story of the farmer who has gone shrimping in the river that runs through his property since he was child. Thanks to the drier dry seasons and wetter wet seasons, the river has dried up and the abiotic conditions have drastically shifted. The poor aquatic conditions are compounded by the local pollution of the river. For almost a decade now, the shrimp population has tumbled. Never would I have heard these stories if I did not go out of my way to make sure both myself and the storyteller have laid some empathetic relationship.
A good rule to follow abroad is to open your ears; obviously, there are some truly inspiring stories to listen to out there. The gringo identity is defined by those who come to Costa Rica and how they represent their country of origin, the North America, Western Europe, or similar regions. If foreigners respect the local culture, find camaraderie amongst each other, and open their ears to themselves and their hosts, not only will their journeys be richer, but they might also find some common ground in the oddest of circumstances.