17-year-old Christopher Mejia traveled all the way to Costa Rica from his home in Brooklyn. (Photo: AFAR)
I always assumed that the prospect of embarking on an international trip for the first time with only acquaintances and teachers would be frightening. But when the opportunity to participate in the Learning AFAR program came to fruition, I found myself nothing short of ecstatic. I’ve always been an inquisitive person, and this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity gave me the chance to satisfy my curiosity.
Landing in San José, Costa Rica, which has always seemed like a world away from my upbringing, made me immediately realize how connected people from two continents could be. I found myself noticing all the ways that I was similar to those around me, not those traits that made us stand apart. Despite my being an urbanite for my whole life, I didn’t feel alienated and instead felt like I was at home far away from home. I must admit that I felt lucky to know some Spanish, which helped me to feel extra comfortable in this foreign land.
Students walking through Costa Rica (Photo: AFAR)
The locals were nothing but hospitable, from the capital to the forest to La Carpio, a city largely inhabited by Nicaraguan refugees and their children. One individual who left an imprint in my mind was an American woman who had managed to construct a community center that benefited everyone in La Carpio. She talked to us about problems and expectations present in the United States and how the dogma there allowed her to move to Costa Rica without worries. It felt good to know that I wasn’t the only one who felt pressured and fearful of these expectations.
I spent a lot of time in Costa Rica walking through the forest and learning about biodiversity. Living in a concrete jungle, with very few animals and trees, we have lost the significant connection that our ancestors once shared with nature. When I was in the forest, it made me feel small, because at that very moment, I realized that I was nothing but a tiny fragment of the picture. At the same time, it also made me feel big, because I realized that no matter how small my existence is, my actions and daily lifestyle can affect the globe.
Getting up close and personal with nature in Costa Rica (Photo: AFAR )
This experience gave my lifestyle validation. For quite some time, I have been consuming organic and natural products, and I have truly become a devoted vegetarian. There have been times when I questioned why I have chosen to live this way, but our expedition leader, Sean, who also shares my same values, helped me realize that I was indeed making the world a better place through my actions.
What I loved most about Costa Rica was that throughout our trip, we never encountered any xenophobia, and we were always treated as equals. On this journey, I learned to always treat the people I met as equals. I also learned that it’s OK to venture out of your comfort zone.
Related: Eat Like a Local in Costa Rica
Christopher learning how to make Costa Rican cuisine. (Photo: AFAR)
We visited a family in the beautiful village of Monteverde, and they prepared dinner for us. At the beginning, I was a little anxious, but over incredible conversation and delicious food, everything seemed quite normal. The family served rice and beans, a staple in the Costa Rican diet, and I learned that when you mix rice and beans and add vegetables and herbs, you get gallo pinto, a dish that is served everywhere in Costa Rica, regardless of the time of day.
Costa Rica is a country full of beautiful people, scenery, and culture. The highlight of the trip is hard to pin down because I had so many memorable experiences. But something I am grateful for is the fact that I left Costa Rica with new friends who I can now call family.
WATCH: A Costa Rican Adventure