I had the pleasure of meeting Susu Gray, our Regional Director of Latin America, at Winterline's Parents Weekend a few weeks back. She's incredibly welcoming and extremely knowledgeable about her region—after all she's lived in Costa Rica for the past 15 years. The Winterline students will spend almost three months in Latin America (late September to early December) under her planning and direction. She's pictured above with our Field Advisor, Nick Manning, also on our team.
Some of the Winterline locations include:
Panama: Casco Viejo “The Old Quarter” of Panama City, and the Caribbean archipelago of Bocas del Toro in Panama
Costa Rica: Tortuguero, The rainforests near the Central Valley, Manuel Antonio and Monteverde, to name a few.
Q: What is your role as the Regional Field Director in Latin America for Winterline?
SG: I consider my role to be an integral part of the behind-the scenes planning—the "ground control" here—to make the Winterline participants' experience in Panama and Costa Rica educational and as smooth as possible. I will meet them right at the beginning at the airport in Panama City. While the students are here for almost three months learning skills in Spanish, marine ecology, local cooking, photography, organic farming, etc., they will also be doing an Independent Project, too. They will choose from several apprenticeship-type programs in Monteverde, the last location in the Latin American unit (before Winter Break).
Q: Can you tell us a little bit more about what the Winterline students will be doing during this unit?
SG: At the start of their time in Central America, they will be attending a Spanish School in Panama City called the Casco Antiguo Spanish School. This will give them a brief introduction to the native language. At the end of their time in Latin America, each student will be staying in a homestay for five days; this gives them the opportunity to be immersed in Costa Rican language and culture during their independent projects in Monteverde. During Winterline's Latin America Unit, students will also be spending "water time in the Caribbean": certification in scuba diving, sailing, sea kayaking, etc. Plus, working with the Sea Turtle Conservancy, Earth University (to learn basic farming/livestock care); Outward Bound (to hike the rainforest), natural building skills at Rancho Mastatal, and more.
Q: Can you tell us more about the Independent Project for the students?
SG: Monteverde has been my home for several years now, and where I am raising my family. I have a bicultural perspective, which has helped me immensely in planning each of the weeklong independent projects. About a month before arriving in Monteverde, Winterline students will be choosing from 12 different skills-based projects, everything from working on a dairy farm to tree canopy research, GIS/GPS mapping (tools for survey and digital planning), coffee production, horsemanship, tour guiding skills, and much more.
Q: Did you take a gap year? In your experience, what are the benefits?
SG: I did a five and a half month exchange program when I was 17, in Villahermosa, Tabasco, Mexico. I graduated high school one semester early in order to do this. So, in a sense, this was a gap “semester.” The benefits are ongoing; I still refer to my experiences during that time. The language benefit was huge, and I still am in contact with my host family. Overall, the memories and stories of living in a new culture are what stick the most.
Q: What have you learned traveling abroad and how have you applied it to your life?
SG: I am constantly grateful for the opportunity to embrace people's similarities and differences. I just can’t get enough of the fact that we humans are so different and yet so similar. I remember sitting for hours at the home of a Japanese family in the mountains of Japan. This family had not seen many foreigners. While the elderly man was perfectly comfortable on the floor all afternoon, my hips and legs were in pain and felt like pretzels because I was not accustomed to floor sitting for such a long period of time. And I drank enough tea to last me a year! But I smiled and had a lovely time, because I realized that this was his family’s way of, simply, as I would call it, “hanging out.”
Q: What do want the students to take away from their time in Latin America?
SG: I want them to experience the warmth here—in the weather and the people. Richness (in personality) and diversity— color, music and nature abound. Costa Ricans are proud of their pacifist roots (the army was abolished here in 1948), and they seem to enjoy being present in their lives. They also like to make you feel at home. This could be by offering you a cup of fresh coffee or a sweet treat, asking you where you’re from, or making sure you have everything you need to have a great visit in Costa Rica.
Q: What do you hope Winterline students will gain after traveling for nine months abroad?
SG: I would like each Winterline student to improve their ability to feel “at home with oneself” in whatever situation they are in; to recognize that they do not have to fit into any one box or follow any one path. Create your own box; follow your own path! Also, to really embrace other cultures and people as individuals.
Q: What do you love most about your region?
SG: While life is changing quickly here and getting more fast-paced, I still love that in most parts of Costa Rica you can still take things slower. Best of all, chatting over a cup of Costa Rican coffee is still the best excuse for taking a break and sharing with your family, friends, and colleagues. Although I am originally from the United States, I came here to visit and never left; it's been 15 years!
Q: What countries have you visited?
SG: Besides living in the United States and Costa Rica, I have visited Canada, Belize, Mexico, Panama, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Spain, Italy, Czech Republic, Hungary, Austria, Greece, Israel, Jordan, Finland, Russia, Egypt, India, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia and Japan.
Q: What’s next on your travel bucket list? Anywhere you really want to travel?
SG: England and Jamaica to do some genealogy research. I've always been interested in learning more about my roots. My paternal roots are Jamaican and, further back, African. My maternal roots are English and German. I would like to see Russia (again) and Brazil (again). There is just something about Brazil that grabs me. Also, New Orleans and West Africa are on my list.Here are some "extras" Susu added to our interview:
Favorite pastime for locals: Traditionally: soccer. Modern day: cell phones!
Demeanor of the people: Friendly and open
Panama: banking, commerce, and tourism are on the rise.
Costa Rica: tourism*, microchips, and agriculture.
Favorite city in Panama: Panama City.
Favorite city in Costa Rica: Monteverde (where I live)
Something we should know about your home country, Costa Rica:
There has not been an army here since 1948
Eco-tourism is becoming more and more popular as 25% of the land is protected
What she misses when not home, but traveling: While my home country is the U.S. and I still love it (Susu has dual citizenship), I now call Costa Rica my home. When not here, I miss the fresh fruit, good coffee, and smallness of this country.
Favorite Ethnic Food: A Jamaican patty; it is a savory pastry or turnover, with usually a ground beef spicy filling.
Susu and her husband actually have a small tourism business in Costa Rica. Let's just say, she's an expert on the region and loves to call Costa Rica her home. We are so happy that she's such an important addition to our team.