A New Journey—Costa Rica

Over Spring Break I had the opportunity to travel to Costa Rica, my first flight taking me abroad without crossing the Pacific. I was visiting as a student, studying the corporate environment and the function of leadership in Costa Rica. Although I was only in the country for 10 days, I learned a great deal and had the opportunity to experience a culture greatly different from any I’d been in before.

The business culture in Costa Rica is highly developed and well-specialized. Although agriculture remains important to the economy, Costa Rica has emerged as a hub for transnational corporations seeking a foothold in Latin America due to its longstanding democracy, low corruption, and established infrastructure. At the same time, Costa Rica has attracted many important manufacturing jobs in the pharmaceuticals, medical equipment, and communications industries because it is relatively low cost while also having much lower risk than the many parts of Asia that would typically attract these manufacturing jobs. Tourism has also been a pillar of Costa Rica’s economy, with visitors coming from across the developed world to experience the natural beauty of the protected landscapes that make up 25% of Costa Rica’s total land area. Lastly, many entrepreneurs and corporations in Costa Rica are working to become more sustainable and promote environmentally friendly industries as a primary driver of the economy. This includes giants like Walmart and Gensler that work with local farmers and businesses as well as small local players who use their own limited capital and influence to promote organic products and clean industries. Altogether, Costa Rica’s economy is remarkably diverse and is growing rapidly as more and more companies strive to take advantage of its developed market and educated labor force.

Culturally, I wasn’t sure what to expect in Costa Rica. I had vague ideas about Latin American cultures, but the picture painted is usually one of an underdeveloped third world country. What I found was starkly different. Costa Rica is highly developed. The population is over 98% literate and the country is 99% electrified. The national electric, oil, and medical services are relatively expensive but highly efficient. Costa Rica has a well-developed educational system and a steadily growing economy. All in all, it is a first world country. At the same time, driving through San Jose, we saw unmistakable signs of poverty and crime from ramshackle buildings to the ever present bars protecting the windows of residences and businesses. In this way, Costa Rica reminded me of China. Both nations are straddling eras, with elements of both preindustrial nations and modern economic powerhouses coexisting within a single country. Old and new, rich and poor exist side by side.

Altogether, I had a great trip and enjoyed myself. I also learned a lot. The way we classify countries is far too simplistic. Calling countries “first” or “third” world gives the impression that some countries are better or further along in history than others. This isn’t true. Different countries have different struggles and different economic systems. However, every country has its own strengths and all have something to contribute to the world. I want to continue traveling to experience more cultures and learn to appreciate the unique gifts that each brings to the international community.

Daily Life in South Africa

The University of Oklahoma’s university exchange partner in South Africa is the University of Pretoria. Located in Hatfield, Pretoria, UP’s main campus is like OU’s in many ways–comparable size, similar classroom and office buildings, same through-campus transportation methods.

UP, however, has an enclosed campus. A fence runs around the campus’s entire perimeter with guarded turnstiles for pedestrians and gates for cars. Students, faculty, and staff must use their identification cards and fingerprints to access the campus.

This is evidence of the high crime rate in South Africa–something to consider when thinking of going there–but Hatfield is one of the safest neighborhoods in Pretoria. I had no problems walking among campus, my residence, and local stores by myself during the day. After dark, my friends and I walked together to restaurants and clubs without issue.

UP assigns most exchange students housing in Tuksdorp, one of the univeristy’s off-campus postgraduate residences. They reserve limited spaces, though, so some students end up in other international housing or non-university accommodations. This was not the case for me, but it is a reason to submit application materials as soon as possible.

A community of differing small houses enclosed by a fence, Tuksdorp is quaint and cozy. It has a free laundry room, computer lab and TV lounge, and pool. Exchange students of the same gender are grouped together. Each resident has their own room with a sink and access to a shared toilet and bathroom. Each house floor has a fully-equipped kitchen. A housekeeper comes every week day to clean the communal areas.

Living in Tuksdorp was a great experience for me. My floor housed eight girls–two Dutch, two German, two Mexican, one Chinese, and one American (me!). We ate, studied, relaxed, and traveled together and with exchange students from other floors and houses. Having everyone so physically close made it easier for us to connect and grow friendships.

I walked most places on a day-to-day basis. The Hatfield Plaza, about two blocks from Tuksdorp, provides a grocery store, phone services, clothing stores, and even doctors’ offices. That same stretch of road has multiple American fast food chains–McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC–but several local restaurants are close as well as numerous bars and clubs, if you’re into that.

If I wanted to go farther, Uber is an affordable safe option in South Africa. A Gautrain station is also located just another block past Hatfield Plaza. The rail goes from Hatfield to Johannesburg. It’s a good option for traveling to and from the airport, Pretoria’s city center, and Joburg’s various neighborhoods. For trips, we rented cars or flew.

Study Abroad in France: Cussing Out Pervy Old Men

Bordeaux is, unfortunately, not immune from people who find absolutely nothing wrong with harassment. Men, women, small children, dogs (not a joke), everyone seems to be a target in France. The perpetrators don’t have a singular look, as is true wherever you go in the world. It could be a drunken man on the street who decides to pick a fight with a college kid, or an angry older woman feeling the need to proselytize and inform you that you’re going to hell for wearing extensions. It could be a group of kids running around and kicking people’s dogs. And with such a wide array of perpetrators, it is almost inevitable that, in a given week, you’ll find yourself being harassed at least twice. I’m going to list the different encounters that I and my friends have had. While they will seem to be ranked from most to least severe, know that in the event of escalation any one of these could be dangerous.  With that in mind, I would also like to add a warning right here that there will, unfortunately, be mentions of sexual assault.

  1.  Bordeaux has a large homeless population. As such, you will definitely see a few homeless people around town when you go pretty much anywhere. They may or may not ask you for money. I’ve known many people who have done so with no problems, and I know one who, in the process of doing so, was mugged. Most people in Bordeaux, sadly, tend to just ignore their presence altogether.
  2. People may attempt to sell you drugs or, in some cases, attempt to buy drugs from you. I, as well as many others my age, encountered many people attempting to sell us various drugs, usually outside of bars and nightclubs at night. I’ve never known anyone to actually buy them. Most likely, whatever they’re trying to sell you is illegal in France. It could also potentially be deadly or dangerous. Do not, under any circumstances, buy anything from these people. Also, as I mentioned, some younger folks tend to assume that people of Arab or African descent have drugs on them. I, as well as the majority of my friends who are black or Arab, have definitely had people come up to me and ask me if I sell weed.
  3. As I mentioned earlier, you may encounter a drunk person while walking around or on the tram, especially on the weekends. These people, if vexed, may begin to scream or yell profanities at pretty much everyone. If this happens on the tram, it is ignored by most. However, in some cases, they might become violent and may target certain people depending on who this person is. Racism, sexism, and homophobia still exist in Bordeaux, as they do around the world, and I witnessed the aftermath of a hate crime when two of our French friends came to my friend’s home with bloodied noses and black eyes, saying that they got jumped by two drunk men after leaving one of the gay bars downtown. What shocked me the most about this situation, though, was that they weren’t surprised, as this wasn’t the first time this has happened. 
  4. All of my points after this one will be about sexual harassment. I want to put this here in its own note just in case anyone reading this may not be comfortable or able to read about this.
  5. I have yet to meet a woman in Bordeaux that has not been sexually harassed at least once in this city, and I truly do not believe that I personally have ever encountered the frequency or the level of sexual harassment that I experienced in Bordeaux. I wish I was joking when I say that it was a daily occurrence. And, these incidents range from gross words made in passing to uncomfortable staring to actual stalking.
  6. Getting on the tram and staying on until you reach the city center will almost inevitably result in you getting stared down by a creepy old man. This seems to be a widespread occurrence among the young women I spoke to about this.
  7. Men in the city center may say something lewd in passing, give you a prolonged stare, or follow you to try to get your attention. This also seems to be a widespread occurrence, especially in the city center and, more worryingly, especially at night.
  8. Be very wary of men at nightclubs. They may actually attempt to put their hands on you. In the event that you start feeling uncomfortable or that you’re being watched by someone, go to the bartenders or the bouncers at the bar/nightclub and tell them immediately. That person will then be watched by the staff and most likely escorted out if they attempt anything else or make anyone else feel uncomfortable.
  9. Going to nightclubs in a group is necessary. Do not go alone.
  10. There were two times during my time in Bordeaux that I got stalked by men. I’m not going to sugarcoat this or make it sound like it wasn’t a big deal. Both times I was followed off the tram and followed down streets. Both times I noticed what was happening and quickly went into a nearby store and told the employees what was happening. This is something that you need to be aware of. I’m not the only one that this happened to.

Study Abroad in France: I Guess Meat Is Poison Now?

These posts are not going to be me just bashing everything about France. I promise. However, I would be remiss in not talking about the negative aspects of my time in France. It’s great to talk about how great the experience was, or how insightful the study abroad experience was, or how I’ve become much more independent (and those things did happen! And I appreciate them a lot!), but I feel like oftentimes when speaking of study abroad experiences people tend to add in negatives almost as a side-note. Therefore, I feel the need to talk about negatives so that anyone studying abroad, in Bordeaux or otherwise, knows that things might not go well, and that that’s okay, too. You can still turn these negative experiences into a teaching tool of some sort. Going through that bureaucratic nightmare for four months, for example, taught me how to navigate it, and now I find myself helping others navigate through these difficult channels that are sometimes filled with equally difficult people. And my experience with food in Bordeaux, which was vastly different from what I expected it to be and definitely different from what I remember it being when I came to France during the summer, taught me some pretty valuable lessons about cuisine in general and about French culture regarding food. So, now that I’ve gotten that blurb out of the way, here’s how things went down:

January

 Like most do whenever they travel to a different country, I hemorrhaged money on restaurants and street food. I don’t think I cooked in January once, despite having a communal kitchen not even 4 yards away from my doorstep. As one of the most popular tourist destinations in France, Bordeaux had more restaurants on any given street than there were stores. You could have a Belgian waffle for breakfast and then follow up with a baguette sandwich from Paul for lunch, and then dinner could be Italian food or Indian food or even Korean food. Rinse, wash, and repeat, adding Burger King whenever you felt a little bit homesick. However, like I said, a lifestyle like that leads to an empty wallet, and I was no Bill Gates. I also started to realize that the tap water was absolutely disgusting. I was told to just buy bottle water, because no one drinks from the tap here. Near the end of this month, I also started to take note of the eating habits of people around me, but not in any serious way. I also get food poisoning from a kebab restaurant in January, which was swell.

February

 I was introduced to French Walmart by, strangely, a childhood friend of a friend I met here in the United States who just happened to be from Bordeaux. We met before we realized this coincidence. The world is small. Anyways, this place had the exact same structure as a Walmart, with clothes, furniture, and cleaning supplies in one section, electronics and books in another, and food in yet another. Instead of being spread out in a wide store, however, these sections were divided into floors. I quickly bought as many junk foods as humanly possible, as well as some fruits and vegetables, some pasta, and also some chicken. I also bought an obscene amount of dairy. I started replacing some of my restaurant outings with meals at this point. No one around me seemed to want to go anywhere for breakfast, so those became almost exclusively a home-meal. I also bought a water filter, because I felt bad constantly throwing out water bottles. My first lunch that I cooked was pasta with meat sauce and chicken. The chicken tasted terrible. In fact, I realized that I hadn’t been a big fan of any of the meat I had eaten in the past two months, and had, at best, tolerated it. At worst, and this happened often, the restaurant meat upset my stomach quite a bit. At the absolute worst, after frequenting yet another kebab restaurant, my friend threw up and I began to have strange stomach pains. Three weeks after this incident, my friend dragged me to the doctor, stating that I looked pale as a ghost. My stomach pains had gotten worse, but I chalked it up to being lactose intolerant and eating too much dairy. Boy, was I wrong. E. Coli. I got E. Coli and I had it for about three weeks.

March

 E. Coli. From a kebab. Pair that with the fact that I already wasn’t a fan of the meat in France and you’ve got the whole reason I became a vegetarian. I started cooking my breakfast and my dinner at home and picking up a small sandwich for lunch, usually. This was in part due to the fact that I knew that if I cooked it, it would be thoroughly cooked, and also due to the fact that I started to get into the same rhythm as my French friends when it came to hanging out and going out. Most would eat a small breakfast, go somewhere for a large lunch or make a large lunch, and then almost exclusively have dinner at home, meeting up later to go out. This schedule was almost never broken, so I found myself simply doing the same. I also started to get more creative with what I made at home, buying a crock-pot and starting to experiment with different soups and broths.

April

 During my last month in Bordeaux, I found myself actually enjoying this newfound routine. It was easy to just get up and have some fruit for breakfast, eat a large sandwich for lunch, and then a small bowl of pasta or maybe more fruit for dinner. I also started to realize that I had a lot more money saved for this month than I did around the same time last month, and definitely the months prior. I realized this was because I spent no more than $25 on groceries every two weeks. Pasta, sauce, fruit, veggies, and dairy are quite a cheap shopping list, actually. I hadn’t gone anywhere near the meat since the E. Coli incident, save for an Italian restaurant where my friends assured me that the meat was imported from Italy and not a French product.