For two summers, Payson High School senior Christina Breen worked 30 hours each week, and walked her paychecks straight to the bank, as she watched with envy as her friends spent their money on entertainment.
However, this summer, as her Costa Rica-bound plane left Phoenix, Breen nervously anticipated the educational adventure for which she saved.
Breen, 17, spent five weeks in Costa Rica last summer, both as a student and tourist. She worked on a coffee plantation and experienced life with a Costa Rican dentist and his family in the city of Heredia. She lived in a thatched hut with an indigenous tribe that was working to regain its sense of identity and culture after near destruction, and she rafted whitewater and hiked.
She experienced Costa Rican “pura vida,” as they say — pure life — which also carries connotations of enjoying the simple things and living slowly and fully.
Surrounded by an unfamiliar language and needing to mind safety like never before, Breen said she embraced the scary, but riveting experiences, she came to appreciate her American life, even as she looks toward further exploration.
“I knew that I wanted to get out,” she said Tuesday in her Payson home. Breen says she was driven by an irresistible urge to learn about different mindsets and different ways of living. She traveled with a group of American high schoolers from around the country on an organized excursion, which Breen said eased the frustration of language barriers.
Deplaning in the airport, her host family welcomed her with a name on an upside down sign. “I was like ‘Oh my God,’” Breen said, holding her hands to her face — lost in translation.
The people of Costa Rica lead rich lives, although they are often financially poor, Breen says. Her host family’s home was small, but cozy. The family was also well off, since the dad was a dentist. Breen said she wasn’t sure if the mother worked. Women did work in the city, but Breen said mostly in restaurants or in traditionally feminine occupations.
Her early way of dealing with communication impediments was to spend lots of time with new friends or hiding in a room with a book. But Breen took Spanish classes and said she found it easier to learn once submerged and learning from a native speaker as opposed to an American back in Payson.
Costa Rica was discovered by Christopher Columbus, but the Spanish left after finding the land was devoid of the gold they originally hoped would make them rich.
The economy switched to agriculture, Breen wrote in a report, and it remains so today, with the addition of tourism.
“I don’t think they’re behind. I just think they’re on a different course,” Breen said. America focuses more on imports while Costa Rica is export-oriented, she added. The country also has no army.
The cities were noisy and the houses were rainbow colored, Breen said, but a woman must watch, especially in the city.
“There were a lot of cat calls just walking down the street,” she said. She and a friend were walking when a car pulled up and asked for directions. Breen started for the car before an American traveling companion pulled her back.
She later learned that those situations are sometimes ploys to kidnap girls for trafficking.
On the coffee plantation, however, said Breen, genders were more equal. “You have to do more work.”
Roughly 15 people lived on the coffee plantation, and 75 in the surrounding village. It wasn’t harvesting season, but the planters were upgrading. Wooden beams once stabilized a screen used during harvesting season, but during Breen’s stay, she and her fellow travelers helped pour concrete for a more modern metal structure.
“It was definitely slave labor,” Breen joked.
With the indigenous people, Breen lived in a wooden-walled hut with a thatched roof. “At least I had indoor plumbing,” Breen said.
However, “this is just their attempt at what they used to be.” Breen said the tribe was offered money for their land, which they accepted not knowing the value of the currency. Until their land was purchased from under them, they had lived off of it. After the purchase, they were forced to pay to live there and eventually started fighting for their rights.
Modernity had made its mark, like the indoor plumbing — “I was very grateful for that detail” — and they also drove cars to the city for supplies.
For better or worse, the tribe was attempting to rediscover its roots, and the houses were one mechanism of returning to its roots.
“The beauty was in the simplicity,” Breen said. “I think Americans like the idea of it,” Breen said.
However, sometimes glorious abstractions are destroyed by the sting of logistics. For instance, one hotel turned off electricity after 5 p.m.
“It was the epitome of independence,” Breen said of her trip. “I was open to it and everyone was open to me.”
She now stays in contact with friends from the trip, and looks forward to future travels.
Michele Breen Simmons said her daughter is more gracious now, and the two are closer. “We have coffee in the morning together,” she said, adding that sometimes teenagers seek distance from their parents instead of closeness.
“I really think that kids should go travel before they decide their major,” Breen said. She plans to attend either Northern Arizona University or Hofstra University in New York and study psychology.
At home, Breen said, people tend to act in accordance with preconceived roles. Traveling can clear those perceptions.
“It’s like you’re seeing yourself in a more pure form,” Breen said, or as the Costa Ricans say, pura vida.