By: Christian Kiffner, PhD

Posted: December 12, 2012
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Faculty Post

Final Impressions: Living in Paradise

Costa Rica

What did you like most about the SFS experience?
You have to know there’s no way to answer that question! Out of everything I’ve been living for three months, you ask me to choose what one thing I liked most? Well, I guess the question doesn’t specify one thing, actually, so how about this: I liked living in paradise. Being able to spend a casual Wednesday morning lying in the sun by a pool, watching palm trees sway overhead and listening to monkeys chatter – that doesn’t happen in real life. Or being able to take a weekend trip to a white sand beach fringed by lush rainforest, and diving into bath-warm ocean the color of a robin’s egg – that can’t be real, right? But it is in Costa Rica.

Oh, and I liked getting some field experience to give some context to my environmental studies major. Studying sustainable development feels a lot more meaningful when you’re interviewing farmers about the impact of tourism on their community than it does when you’re listening to a lecture in a classroom in Massachusetts.


And of course I liked the people. No, I loved the people. I’ve been living in extremely close quarters with thirty other college students and I am still able to say three months later that I more or less love all of them…That’s saying a lot. I’ve never met such a brilliant, funny, chill, adventurous, and passionate group of peers in my entire short life.

You’ve been in the country for a full semester – tell us your impressions of it now.
Well, it is literally paradise. And I say literally not the way that a lot of people casually use it to mean “figuratively,” but as in honest-to-the-powers-that-be this country is a perfect tropical paradise. But at the same time it’s been interesting to realize that paradise has plenty of problems – tourism development that damages landscapes and communities, illegal immigration and subsequent racism, areas of poverty – apparently people can’t build a civilization anywhere without filling it with problems. On a brighter note, the people here are so warm and friendly – for example, during Directed Research, I was blown away every time a family would let us, two weird American girls with clipboards, into their house for two hours at a time on zero advance notice so we could “conduct an interview” for an “academic project.” Would that ever happen in the States? It is humbling to be met with such kindness from strangers, and this country has greeted me with nothing but kindness.

What is life at the field station really like?
We’ve been living in a rural part of a fairly small town, and life here provided a lovely balance of isolation and connection. The group dynamic is a lot like freshman year dorm life, except the people are all more interesting and we have monkeys and an outdoor swimming pool. The challenges of living here include spotty internet, cold showers, and my possessions always seem to be a bit moist. I’d say the best parts are always being surrounded by friends, the swimming pool, and having avocados at every meal. It’s also really nice being able to go into Atenas – it’s such a quaint, beautiful, tranquilo little town and I feel like I’m always discovering more of it, even now.

What ended up being your biggest challenge this semester both academically and culturally?
My biggest challenge academically was definitely doing all the stats work for Directed Research. Ask me anything about, say, politics, or climate change, and I will give you the answers (or at least confidently make something up that sounds right). Numbers are a different story. Culturally and otherwise, it’s at times been hard to adjust to the culture of the center – I’d been living independently in an apartment before this, so the structured group living environment was definitely a change. I would say that Costa Rican food has also been a fairly significant cultural challenge. I’m used to cooking spicy stir fry, pasta sauces bursting with herbs, paninis with goat cheese, and lots of kale, and the rice-and-beans diet has been a departure from my normal fare. That said, I do really like gallo pinto for breakfast, fried plantains, fried yucca, and all the avocados. And my time here has been so fantastic in every other way that I’d say it’s been more than worth it to give up chile peanut sauce, sharp white cheddar, and browned-butter blondies with Nutella for a little while.

What is the best memory you have from the semester? Give some highlights.
Trying right now to select a single best memory from the sixty thousand excellent memories I’ve collected over the last three months is making me feel a little stressed out, so I’m afraid I’ll have to break the rules and pick a few:

One is Thanksgiving: spending the quintessential American holiday in a tropical country that has never heard of chestnuts or fresh cranberries got us all some degree of homesick, so we rallied and spent the whole day creating a magnificent feast. I made my favorite stuffing, and other students cooked up three succulent turkeys, and we had something like twelve enormous pies: pumpkin, apple, berry, banana cream. I think all thirty-one of us either helped cook something or decorate the outdoor classroom for dinner. When all of the students and all the faculty and staff and their families sat down to this glorious banquet, there was such a sense of warmth and camaraderie and love and pride in the air and it felt right then like we were all one over-sized family.

Then there was our first free weekend, the first weekend of October, where for the first time in the weeks we’d been here we all had the option to travel independently and do whatever we wanted to do, and so what happened? All thirty-one of us went to Manuel Antonio together and rented a place on the beach. That night, someone made delicious guacamole, and as I was eating it and sitting on the porch with a few people watching the sun set over the ocean, I remember feeling so impossibly content.

Give three adjectives that best describes how you are feeling right now.
Nostalgic, peaceful, tired.

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