Whenever this song comes on unexpectedly (meaning I don’t put the CD player into the drive and click the play button, but it pops up on the radio or anywhere else in public where I was not expecting it) I go straight back to being 17 again and in an airplane flying in over Costa Rica on the 15th of January in 1993.
I remember this moment so clearly and the whole experience around it so clearly and it is probably a memory that will stick for the rest of my life – tied to this song. Sometimes I get goosebumps and sometimes tears start running – in joy.
It was such a powerful moment for me.
I decided that I wished to become an exchange student already back in 1991 and started sending my application forms and preparing for departure. First I wished to go to Russia for my exchange year, but this was back in 1991 and I was not allowed to by my parents. Every night for months the TV sent news about km long foodlines, economical crisis and a country full of corruption and Mikhail Gorbachev and a Soviet Union in dissolution. My parents gave me a deadline. If I wanted to go to Soviet Union they would not pay for it – hence I would not go anywhere. In pure frustration I picked Australia, just because it was the country farthest away that I knew of.
However destiny wanted things differently and I was introduced to one of my mom’s dance students that had recently been to Costa Rica for her year as an excahange student. I changed my mind and since then I always did my best to try to learn as much about Costa Rica as possible. As it turned out I was a bit late on applying for the departer in febuary 1992 hence I decided with my parents that I would leave until febuary 1993. Another co-student of mine left in febuary 1992 to Costa Rica and he updated me with information about the country and the city that he lived in. He adviced me to send a letter applying to get to that city. Liberia.
Normally they do not place students as per special city requests, but I was lucky and I knew I was accepted to that city about 8 weeks prior to departure. When Leif came back to Norway about 1 month prior to my departure I was told that the family I had been assiged to had changed their mind, but that I was still going to the same city.
Until departure I heard nothing more. The day of departure I was told by AFS that the local community had found me a family, but that they had not gotten the names of them yet.
We set off. 10 kids of 16 and 17 years of age. Some more prepared than others and all of us equally exited.
The first flight was to London. In London we met up with a huge group of exchange students going to not only Costa Rica, but any of the neighbouring countries like Honduras, Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia, Uruguay, Paraguay and several others. We were so many kids and if I don’t remember completely wrong we were many enough to fill the plane to Miami. In Miami we had to wait for 6 more hours and that one big group split up and were joined with more AFS students that were going to Costa Rica. In total we were over 100 kids on that last flight and I was so exhausted when we took off that I fell right asleep with the earphones on.
The next thing I remember was when the flight attendant woke me up to tell me that we were landing and that I had to straighten my seat and prepare for landing. Just as I was looking out the window the song Hello by Lionel Richie started playing and I was half dozed off and it was late at night and all the lights from the city glowed and welcomed us. I felt like I was taken out of a fairy tale. I was so exited I was not even thinking straight.
This moment comes back to me each time I hear this song. I also remember other small parts of the first days there. Like the camp we were taken to. That the cabins we were set up in had huge amounts of bugs and spiders in them and that we got choco cerals and cantaloupe melons for breakfast the following morning. I remember we were taken to Liberia from Alajuela in a minivan the next day all the 8 AFS exchange students that arrived and were all going to live in the same city. I remember the first meeting with my family and that after dinner we were going to relax by the TV watching american Sitcoms like the Cosby show and that I was stunned that Punky spoke in spanish :D
How amazing it felt to finally be home. Because ever since the first moment I sat my feet on her earth, Costa Rica has felt like home to me. I remember the first rain after 2 months of sun. How filled of joy I was – running around in the rain without shoes and my host parents yelling at me because I could step on a rusty spike and get a nasty infection. I remember the first time I saw fireflies after sundown and the feel of the heat. I remember the first visit to the local church which had open doors and bricks with open crosses in them for efficient aircondition and birds and butterflies would land on ladies hats and fly around inside the church.
I remember the first visit to the park and my little 11 year old cousin that showed me around. I remember people with bright smiles and a huge curiosity for getting to know the blonde girl. I remember how I was one of only 5 blonde people in the city. How much attention I got. How guys wanted to marry me without ever having spoken to me before. I remember my first day at school. That I skipped a lot because I would not recieve credits for school at home anyways. I even got expelled from school twice for wearing my uniform incorrectly (I rebelled by wearing my uniform shirt outside of the skirt instead of tucked in once and another time I wore white socks instead of marine colored) and how did they imagine punishing me by giving me the rest of the day off would be something I would be unhappy about?
I remember my family that took me in as their own child, that treated me like one of their own.
I had found paradise.
I am 2 days away from seeing the people that made my year as an exchange student so memorable and beatiful in so many ways. I am so exited and so happy. It is my fifth visit to Costa Rica. Costa Rica will always be my second home country in the world and my local host family will always be my family in heart – if not in blood.
Here it is: Hello by Lionel Richie:
and I am 17 again – filled with exitement for the biggest adventure of my life. Arriving to what I came to learn to love as my personal paradise on earth.
Remembering those few minutes when Hello tuned over the system and we flew over San Jose looking at all the lights from the big city between the mountains.
And my eyes are still filled with tears of joy when hearing and writing about this memory.