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Eight months ago, I was sitting in Perkins Library stressed out about my DukeEngage application and my impending final exams. Today, I am sitting in the library at the University of Georgia – Costa Rica after a day of working with trees and learning about equity issues in scholarly research. Much has happened between then and now to influence my DukeEngage experience. One of the first things I saw in Costa Rica was a Taco Bell advertisement. Initially, I was surprised that this fast food chain from the United States was attempting to serve its version of Latinx food to the people of San José. Then, I thought back to a class I took last semester which revealed the deeper truth to this sight.

In an attempt to better prepare myself for my DukeEngage program, I took the house course “Travelling, Volunteering and Doing Research in Latin America.” For one of the assignments, I interviewed Professor Bethzaida Fernandez to learn about her perspectives on Costa Rican conservation efforts. One of the most memorable portions of our interview was when Fernandez explained the social and environmental impacts of tourism on her home country.

She focused on an issue that many travelers may not think of: plastic water bottles. Fernandez linked increasing levels of tourism to the increasing demand for the product. The greater production and disposal of these bottles poses risks for the environment as plastic is a petroleum product and takes hundreds of years to degrade.

Ironically, Costa Rica attracts many ecotourists hoping to support conservation efforts through their trips. I, too, applied to the Costa Rican DukeEngage program partially because the country is a world leader for conservation and renewable energy. While I am proud that our program has already helped plant and collect data on over 1,000 trees, our presence is part of a larger system of service learning and international travel which inherently alters the society around us.

The globalized nature of San José connects my Taco Bell anecdote to Fernandez’s observations on plastic in Costa Rica. The large presence of visitors from the U.S. means that businesses in the area are not always catering to Ticos, or Costa Ricans. Instead, the Taco Bell simulacrum is a result of foreign visitors influencing market forces in the country. Similarly, globalized markets and demand for the allegedly more convenient bottled water have shifted product consumption. I hope to reduce my contribution to this system by staying away from fast food restaurants and plastic water bottles. Instead, I will enjoy casado vegetariano from a local restaurant and drink from my Sustainable Duke water bottle.

Sustainable Duke water bottle at UGA-Costa Rica (Photo by: Shom Tiwari)