In 11th grade, I took a writing course that focused on the power of storytelling. One of my classmates shared a story with the class about her experience travelling back to her family’s roots in India. She spoke of how excited she originally was to meet her people, however, her dream didn’t go quite as planned. She received an unwarranted amount of unexpected attention as she explored the country. There’s one social enigma that separates the United States from most other countries around the world: staring.
This girl in my writing class explained how unfamiliar the concept was to her; there was absolutely nothing wrong in their culture with locals recognizing she was a tourist, and staring at her curiously. Even when she’d meet their gaze, they wouldn’t turn away or try to hide it. This story I’d heard a few years ago had completely slipped my mind until my arrival in Costa Rica. Seeing as we travelled around in a large group, often on a large tour bus, it was quite obvious that we were tourists. I think the Ticos were intrigued, or curious to learn about Americans, and so they stared. While this is completely socially acceptable in their culture, it was both unfamiliar and uncomfortable for me.
Specifically, the experience was new to me when walking alone. As a woman who grew up in a city and attended high school downtown, I thought I was relatively used to and/or aware of the catcalling/looking/etc. that could happen when alone in a metropolitan area. My experiences had not prepared me for the streets of Heredia.
The culture in Costa Rica is heavily reliant on the machismo ideology, therefore it’s considered complimentary when men call after a woman. Accordingly, most of the interactions I had with locals involved some sort of mention or recognition of my appearance, and how I stuck out. With that being said, I didn’t necessarily feel in danger. While catcalling can be rather scary in the US, I was completely confident that the Ticos’ “praise” of sorts, was mild-mannered, and in no way capable of turning into anything more serious. The Tico’s were a generally joyful bunch; often times they’d see groups of us around the city and shout, “Welcome to Costa Rica!”
It was in this way that I learned a lot about traveling not only as an American, but especially as an American woman. Awareness and understanding of other cultures is necessary; one must be prepared to be treated differently in varying countries, and to adjust accordingly. It’s important to simply be conscious of your surroundings and cautious of your actions, i.e. how you assimilate into the culture, appropriate clothing within the culture, etc. This doesn’t necessarily mean to be afraid or limit yourself while travelling, but to simply be mindful of the fact that as a woman, you will receive a few extra moments of attention than male counterparts.
While it seemed obvious afterwards, these differing societal standards regarding gender, public staring, and even the importance of appropriate attire all served as some of the most surprising adjustments to me while traveling in Costa Rica. It could be rather frustrating at times, as I wanted so badly to blend in and feel as if I could belong momentarily. However, these struggles served to educate me, and I’ll carry these lessons with me in my future endeavors both socially and professionally, as well as nationally and internationally.