The Long and Winding Road

That Leads to the Vargas Door

View heading to the homestay, captured by Zach Copman

Athens, Georgia — Bolton Dining hall at the University of Georgia: a place that I quite often call “hell.” I look disappointedly into my ice cream cone that was left unpacked and throw my backpack over my shoulder. Noticing that I am late for class, I walk hastily to the crosswalk in front of the dining hall. It is time to face the worst part of Bolton: the hills in every direction. I remove my water bottle from its pocket as I trek up the mountain that is Lumpkin Street. I know that I will need it when I walk into the building. With legs like jelly and only one minute until the beginning of class, I enter, heave a sigh of relief and refill my water bottle.

Monteverde, Costa Rica — My day at the UGA Costa Rica campus draws to a close with the incoming thunderstorm, and I prepare to head off to my third day of homestay. All twenty-five of the students who came to the beautiful country to study abroad, myself included, are staying with local Tico families. I am grateful to Noé, Margarita, Paula, Karen and Sebastian Vargas for teaching me more about the Costa Rican culture and Spanish language. I grab my umbrella, strap on my Chacos, and begin my walk.

The mountainous terrain sends me uphill towards the Vargas’s home.

The hike from the campus to la Casa Vargas is slightly longer than a mile, and the sky has just opened up to release all of its pent-up frustration. Tiny rocks get into my shoe with every step, and I keep having to shake my feet to get them out. As I navigate the uneven gravel road, I feel as though on the verge of tears. After today, I still have to walk this path twice more, and I am losing confidence. The rain aggressively knocks on my umbrella as I pause to give my legs a break.

I am out of breath and can’t tell the difference between sweat and rain on my face. I give a wave and a wheezy “Hola” as a local Costa Rican man passes me. I ask him how far from here the Vargas house is, and he tells me with a friendly smile that I have about a kilometer to go. He then tells me that he walked past there earlier, and to watch out for the anthill on the way. This man equipped in nothing but a rain jacket has walked a mile on the hilly, gravelly terrain in the pouring rain, and continues to have a smile on his face.

Shortly after my encounter, I am greeted by another friendly Tico face.

I thank him, and head to my temporary family’s home. Karen, the fifteen-year-old girl, greets me warmly at the door. As I enter my bedroom to take a sip of water and change out of my sweaty garb, I can’t help but ponder the smile of the Tico man.

Athens, Georgia — It is 6:30pm, and I haven’t gone to class today. My day has been spent tucked under my covers watching the first season of Game of Thrones, praying that my fever will pass soon. It has been a day of pampering and laziness, and I want nothing more than a long nap and a cup of soup. The door handle jiggles, signifying the arrival of my roommate. I quickly shut my computer and pretend to be asleep. Human interaction is the last thing I need right now. Soon afterwards, pretending turns to trying; and before I know it, I am in a dreamless darkness.

Monteverde, Costa Rica — Goosebumps. Although it is almost seventy degrees outside, I pull a fleece sweatshirt over my head and continue shivering. Two days before, on my first day staying with the Vargas family, I came down with a fever. Paula, the cousin of both Karen and Sebastian, has one as well, and I wonder if I passed it to her.

I decide to take a shower to see if it will make me feel any better. I grab my towel from the rail and a large cockroach scuttles out from behind. I shudder and decide to pretend that it, along with the other creepy crawly things, is not there. I turn the handle of the shower ready for it to take away my chills. It does quite the opposite. My mouth hangs open like that of a statue as the freezing cold water weaves its way through my hair and trickles down my back. I can’t bring myself to immerse my entire body in the icy stream, so I toss my hair into the water just enough to be able to brush. Quickly, I wrap a towel around myself to avoid any further confrontations with Jack Frost, and head to my bedroom.

I am convinced that this will be the last thing I see before sweet death.

As I walk to the kitchen to eat whatever my appetite will allow, I catch a glimpse of Paula, who has just gotten out of the shower. Her face is relaxed and at-ease. There is no trace of a grimace despite the cold shower, and I am envious. She has a fever as well and must be feeling the same way I am, so how is she comfortable? (As I find out later, there is a hidden switch to turn on the hot water. The Vargas family has always known how to make the water hot). I shrug it off and take my seat at the dinner table.

Athens, Georgia — If I have to count pepperonis one more time, I am going to scream. I recently put in my two-weeks notice at Papa Johns, and I am confident that these will be the slowest two weeks of my life. The in-and-out of making pizzas for angry customers is more than I can handle, and is definitely not worth the minimum wage that I am earning. Every shift exhausts me, and I am beyond ready to get out of the godforsaken place. In two weeks, everything will be better.

Monteverde, Costa Rica — I notice the vibrant flowers that are freshly hydrated from last night’s rain. Karen notices me looking, and offers to give me a tour of the backyard. We navigate around lilies and parrot flowers until we reach a small building. My curiosity piqued, I enter. Inside lies a small factory: a fabrica of soap. The smell hits me first. The aroma of pure relaxation reaches my nostrils upon entering, and I let out a sigh.

Karen shows me the way in which the soap is made. She points to a big mixing bowl and tells me that it is where they mix the necessary ingredients: vegetable oil, herbs, and any natural ingredients found on the farm to make the soap smell better. She shows me how they pour the mixture into a pan and allow it to solidify, and later cut it up into uniform squares. Finally, she explains, they patiently wait for the soap to sit for a month, and it is ready to be sent off.

Left: Bars of orange-chocolate soap, my favorite scent, sit for a month waiting to be packaged. Right: Noé and Margarita show off their wall of finished products.

I ask Noé, my new papá, about his work as a soap vendor. He tells me that it is a passion of his. Although it can require hard work, every bit of effort is worth it.

Athens, Georgia — After a satisfying dining hall meal, my friends and I go back to our respective dorms to get in a few study hours. Before committing myself to my philosophy homework, I decide to take some “me” time. Per usual, my iPhone doesn’t recognize my fingerprint until the third try. When it finally allows me in, I immediately click on the golden emblem of hope that is Temple Run: a game that lost its popularity back in 2011, and a game that I don’t have the heart to delete.

I play until forty-five minutes later, when I can finally beat my high score.

Seven million!

Even if it’s against myself, I thrive on competition.

Monteverde, Costa Rica — I clench my teeth in frustration. Karen has just won her second game of Bananagrams en español against Sebastian and me. I am determined. This next game is mine. I can tell from the way her lips are pursed that Karen has pity on me and my non-native frustration. As if reading my mind, she says “Let’s do it in English this time!”

Hell yes.

We flip over our tiles, and I immediately spell out “exodus” and “squid.” Within three minutes, I am finished. I throw my hands in the air and scream out “I WIN!” with childlike excitement. Sebastian and Karen let out disappointed sighs, which makes me puff my chest a little bit more.

Karen’s winning game of Bananagrams en español

Karen and Sebastian spend lots of their time playing games. They have a large box of dozens of board games that they keep on a little shelf next to the kitchen table, and have a new one to play every night.

I ask Karen what her favorite is. “Ooh!” She runs and grabs a box.

We play a game with no name for the next two hours. Sebastian, Karen and I each have four pieces, and we have to get our pieces into the end space through a series of challenges. Here’s the kicker: you can send others back to start if you land on their space.

I send Sebastian back to home as soon as I get the chance. Later in the game, he returns the favor and screams “venganza!” victoriously. Karen lets forth her manic laughter. It’s contageous.

Sebastian, prepared to execute his vengance.

Athens, Georgia — I am small. People here don’t care about strangers like me. People here don’t care that there is poverty on the streets or injustice in the world. People work for themselves alone, without much of a thought towards others. It’s something that I’ve fallen prisoner to: privilege. I am so lucky to have all that I do in the United States, and there is so much that I take for granted. Despite the walks up the hill next to Bolton, the occasional flu, and the hellish job at Papa Johns, I have so much. I am so blessed.

We are so blessed.

But why don’t we always recognize that?

Monteverde, Costa Rica — I have been here for two weeks, and am now realizing that although the country is beautiful and the wildlife is diverse, there isn’t much to do in Monteverde. There are uneven gravel roads, age-old televisions, and ice-cold showers.

With parents at work and the girls at school, Sebastian and Perla are my “adiós” committee for the day.

Yet, despite all of this, there are smiling faces. There are cheerful people and sincere greetings. Any stranger on the street will greet you with a “buenos días,” because every day, it truly is a good morning. Every morning the roosters crow. Every morning the sun rises, and every evening the rain sets. Every day is a beautiful day to be a Tico in Monteverde.

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