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Waving goodbye to my chaperones and fellow exchange students, all of the excitement that had built inside me on the 12-hour plane ride to Costa Rica turned to dread as I realized that my classroom Spanish wasn’t going to cut it.
My host family picked me up at the San Jose airport and drove me for a devastatingly awkward 4 hours back to their home in Veintisiete de Abril, Guanacaste. Skarleth, my host sister, didn’t care that I had skipped two years of Spanish and still come out top of my class. All she saw was the sad look of confusion on my face as her rapid-fire and heavily accented words poured right over my head.
Once I adjusted to hearing my second language all around me, things got a little easier. School was a nightmare of trying to pick a conversation to focus on, and deciphering the endless stream of Pachuco street language. My host family was friendly, but distant; I was isolated not only by my language but by my unfamiliarity in their home as well. At home they would gather around the TV and I would sit to watch with them and let the words wash over me without understanding a thing.
Then one day Skarleth told me we were going out after school. I got the general sense that we were headed to a beach, but nothing in my limited Spanish IV vocabulary could have prepared me for the scene of oceanside perfection that was our destination. We pulled up under a towering palm tree at Playa Tamarindo, and my whole host family spilled out into the soft evening sunlight. Turning down the coconut vendors pushing their pipa fresca towards us, we stepped forward together into the sand.
Surfers of all nationalities wove body and board through the rolling waves, while the surf itself was dotted with waders and bathers. Perfect spiral snail shells twisted up out of the sand, which Skarleth laughingly informed me were used as earlobe expanders by local teenagers. Her 9-year-old cousin, Jose, dashed ahead of us, peeling through the sand until he reached the water.
Being from Oregon, I didn’t trust the ocean water at first. The bathtub-esque heat seemed too good to be true, even under the beating tropical sun. Far behind Jose, I cautiously waded my way out into the surf. Skarleth and Jose swan ahead, diving below the waves like seabirds and giggling together with soaked hair and shining eyes. Jose turned around to look at me, still tentatively holding back at the water’s edge. “Venga, Beth!” he yelled and started swimming back toward me.
“Mira,” he said, appearing at my side, and I gratefully complied, happy to turn my eyes to something beside the boundless sea before me. “Uno, dos, tres… OLA!” he yelled, pinching his nose and sliding under an incoming wave. He resurfaced and took my hand.
I looked at him, and smile broke across my face. “Hola ola?” I asked him. I waved at him as another wave rushed toward us. “Adios!” I giggled, ducking under the wave.
Jose stared at me for a moment before understanding burst into his eyes. “Adios ola!” he yelled, and tugged my arm down with him as he dove forward into the next wave. As he surfaced and smiled, I realized I’d made my first friend in another language.
Hand-in-hand with my 9-year-old host cousin, I took on an ocean one wave at a time.