I sat near the window, sipping coffee and observing the workers outside as they loaded all of the luggage onto the plane. I watched intently as a young man in an orange vest heaved my two overweight suitcases onto the conveyor belt. My eyes followed those big, blue suitcases all the way up the belt, until they finally settled into the belly of the plane. Then I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and rested my forehead on the dirty glass window. All I could do now was wait for my boarding group to be called.
At just 23 years old, I’d already done my fair share of being a tourist. Although we rarely went on far-off, exotic trips while growing up, my parents always took us on one or two beach vacations in the summer, and occasionally on a family ski retreat in the wintertime. But it wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I finally left North America; and, once I got my “adventuring” feet wet, I never looked back.
Over the course of four or five years, I hopped on flights to London, Italy, Ecuador, Mexico, and a few places in between. I had fallen in love with travel—it was so beautiful to immerse myself in another culture, to get out of my little, white, Georgia bubble and to see the world from a new perspective. Travel truly changed me: it widened my worldview, exposed me to new cultures, and increased my compassion. I even had the chance to live for extended periods in a couple of different Latin American countries, and it was those experiences that led me to this moment, where I sat alone in an airport, about to move to San José, Costa Rica for the next three years.
Sitting at the airport that day, watching my whole life being loaded onto the plane, I felt absolutely terrified. Yet, at the same time, I felt ready. I felt as if I knew what I was stepping into. I thought I knew exactly what to expect. Living in a place was just the same as traveling to a place, right?
Oh, if only I knew.
The moment I landed in San José, I went straight to the home of an incredibly wonderful host family, with whom I lived for the first six months of my journey. Predictably, the first few weeks felt like an exotic vacation. Everything was “new,” exciting,” and “adventurous.” But once the initial honeymoon was over, culture shock kicked into high gear pretty quickly. After the first few weeks, the frustration of not being able to communicate or get around freely was no longer “cute” or “exciting”; it was just exhausting. From the food to the routine to the accommodations of my new home, it all felt foreign.
When I tell people that I lived in Costa Rica, most of them respond with, Oh, that must have been incredible! It’s beautiful there! Well, yes, it is beautiful, but I wasn’t spending my days lounging on the beach or hiking through the mountains like a tourist. Instead, I was spending hours sitting at a bus stop in the middle of the city waiting for the crowded city bus to arrive. I was fumbling through conversations in Spanish with my host family, dealing with frequent blackouts and internet outages, trying to adjust to the new foods, and attempting to find my way to the grocery store without getting lost.
That’s the difference between life and travel: when you travel to a place, you get a glimpse of it. You maybe even get an authentic glimpse of it; but, then, after a week or two or three, you leave, and you don’t have to live in that reality anymore. When you live in a place, though, you can’t just leave when things get hard.
But the true beauty of living in a foreign culture is that you get the chance to know the place and the people for exactly who and what they are: real. You get to experience the good, the bad, and everything in between. You get to know the heart of a place and the culture within it. It’s not a holiday; it’s not something to consume and spit out after a week; it’s real life.
When I traveled during my college years, I had observed people. I watched their interactions, ate their food, faltered through conversations, and tried to engage with them. I even watched their habits and movements, often trying to copy them so as to avoid standing out as a tourist. But, no matter my good intentions, I never knew them, not intimately. I never experienced the daily routine of their lives. I never felt their hardships or shared in their joys. I never felt connected to the country or the people I was visiting. I was a tourist, an outsider, a temporary visitor, who was there to consume the experience for myself, and only for myself. And I certainly never knew, or even thought about, how my travel (whether service-oriented or simply for pleasure), actually affected the people around me.
But now here I was, living through the ups and downs of life with real people who had real struggles. I got to live in the reality that the majority of the world lives in: the reality that travel is a privilege and a luxury that most of the world does not get to enjoy, and that our privilege affects real people.
I had always felt that travel was something I was entitled to. Of course I should be able to travel and see the world, I thought. Of course I should get to go on exotic vacations and experience far-off destinations. It’s my right. Isn’t it?
Yet, while I sat upstairs in my room in my host family’s home, scrolling through Instagram or planning my next vacation or trip back to the U.S., my Costa Rican family was downstairs trying to figure out where their next paycheck was going to come from. By living in their daily reality, I was able to look my entitlement straight in the eyes, and to get to know the faces of the people that that entitlement affected. I’ll always remember the excitement on my host mom’s face when I casually asked her if she wanted to go to the beach with me one day over a weekend. Her look of surprise and sheer joy is one I will not soon forget. Driving to the beach was a regular occurrence for me, but, for her, it meant money and planning and transportation, all of which did not come easily.
Slowly, I started to see tourism through the eyes of a Costa Rican. Sometimes the interaction with tourists was extremely positive: after all, tourism brought much-needed business, jobs, and dollars to local communities. And, in many cases, it fostered positive interaction between locals and foreigners, who were eager to learn about Costa Rican culture, cuisine, and daily life. Yet, many times the interactions were overwhelmingly negative, most notably in places where tourists overcrowded and overburdened natural areas, littered beautiful beaches, furthered the demand for illegal activity, like drugs and prostitution. In some places tourists overran local towns and turned them predominantly into “expat communities.”
I even found myself beginning to take this behavior personally. I remember driving to the beach for the day and seeing a big group of tourists on spring break, behaving obnoxiously and walking around like they owned the place, and I thought to myself, Ugh. Gringos. It was rather hypocritical, I know, but I felt as though I had adopted Costa Rica as mine, and I cared for the people deeply. It hurt me to see their home disrespected.
Over the three years, I saw the power that travel possesses. Tourism has a huge effect on the people and places that we visit, and that effect has the power to be negative and harmful, or it has the power to foster positive, impactful cultural exchanges and to spur healthy development of local communities. It all depends on how and why we are traveling, and how much we are willing to walk into an experience humbly, with an eagerness to learn, not to teach.
* * *
So, three years after that initial plane ride, I sat near the window of a different airport, watching the airplanes land amidst the backdrop of lush, green mountains. I sipped my [much stronger] coffee, and I watched the excited faces of the people disembarking from the airplane. I thought of the young girl who had moved to this place so long ago with good intentions and little clue. And I thought about the various ways that my three years in Costa Rica had opened my eyes to some difficult realities. Those three years transformed me, and forever changed the way that I live, love, and travel. I learned the hard way that the responsibility to travel respectfully and mindfully is both powerful and heavy. And, ultimately, the responsibility lies in our hands.
How will you carry that responsibility?
Grace Klopp is a writer, adventurer, former expat, and graduate student, currently pursuing her Master’s degree in International Community Development. She also serves as the Communications Intern for the Center for Responsible Travel, a policy-oriented research organization dedicated to increasing the positive global impact of responsible tourism. She is passionate about the power of responsible travel to develop local communities sustainably around the globe. When she’s not working or studying, you can find her at the beach with her family and a novel in hand! Follow along with her on her blog, or on Instagram @geographyofgrace.The main photo shows a view from the window of Grace’s bedroom in Costa Rica.