How People Approach An American Woman Traveling Alone

We are women and we dare to travel alone. People treat us differently. Reactions from other people from the States range from shouldn’t you be medicated to you are the coolest person I know. Costa Ricans seem confused but are accepting.

We also act differently than those traveling in a group. We take a lot of selfies, for one thing. And we have an attitude. On a daily basis, we have to step out of our comfort zone and talk to strangers in a foreign country. For me, I have to speak to strangers in a new language in a foreign country. There’s just no choice if I want milk from the cooler instead of warm milk from a box next to the cereal. (I still don’t understand why Costa Ricans don’t get the concept of peanut butter. There’s no word for it.) Playing charades is humiliating and tiresome. Try miming that you want your car filled up with gas. That’s why I’ve worked really hard to learn Spanish in the US and common phrases from other Costa Ricans.

Here’s one a women told me when we were watching a fútbol (soccer) game. “Me gusta el maleta.” Maleta is a suitcase. She was referring to one of the soccer players. She said she liked his suitcase. Only he didn’t have one. Suitcase is slang for “package.” She liked his package. I also learned that “Trump es un hilo de puta.” (extra emphasis on the poo sound). He’s the son of a whore. In fact, I learned all kinds of words in reference to Trump, but I don’t want to get too political here. Let’s just say none of them were nice. El es psicopata (psychopath) is one of my favorites. On the beach, a guy might say to a pretty girl, “Muevalo.” Literally translated it’s move it, but it’s more like shake it.

Armed with these icebreakers, I head out each day hoping new people will understand me and that maybe I’ll even make a friend. Sometimes, usually when I’m having a meal alone, someone will approach me. That’s when it gets interesting.

Two Costa Rican men (I’m not including the young guys–the mantenidos I wrote about earlier who are looking for free meals to be escorts), and a Texan just sashayed over to my table and sat down at an empty chair. In that respect, their country of origin seemed like it didn’t matter. But I think the Texan was an outlier. He was quite drunk when I first spotted him stalking me around the trails to the hot springs at a resort, holding an Imperial can of beer in his hand at 11:00 a.m. He was trying to strike up a conversation but taking too long so I walked away. By the time he caught me sitting down at lunch, he was amazed that I knew what the equinox was and that it was today.
“How do you know that?” he said.
I told him with a straight face I was a pagan.
“What’s that?”
“Never mind,” I said.
“Is it a cult?” he said.
“No, not at all. But I am a witch.”
His glassed over eyes crossed.
“You’re beautiful,” he said.
I may be when you cross your eyes.

The Texan proceeded to talk about himself for 15 minutes without asking me a single question. I asked him only one question that preceded his self-admiring rant: “So what do you do to get this adrenaline rush you say you love?”  He described the manliness involved in casting a line for billfish.

“I tackled that fish the other day until my forearm was black and blue. You gotta understand. My arm was in it’s mouth. We were eye to eye. Eye to eye.”

His self-involvement gave me plenty of time to finish my lunch. He contradicted himself too many times to count. But calling BS is not my job anymore. I don’t get paid for it so I can just laugh at it. For instance, he said he was staying at the resort we were in that costs $800/night. Later he said he was traveling with his dog and he asks his dog if whatever hotel he is passing looks like it has good margaritas. Tabacon, where we were, doesn’t allow dogs. He tumbled out of his chair mid-sentence for a secret meeting (with the bathroom) and I ducked out. Maybe just sitting down is typical of Texans but I eat out alone in the States and men don’t sit down without asking first.

Back to the Costa Rican men. Both times they claimed the space with their bodies. After the exchange of pleasantries in Spanish, “How are you?” “Well, and you?” “Very well, thank you,” both men fiddled with their cell phones. It was up to me to initiate conversation as though I had just sat down at their table.

No one in Costa Rica asks what you do for a living. It’s just not a thing. A common question that seems more personal is asking me where I’m staying or how old I am. I never answer the age one. My Spanish teacher taught me that. But come to think of it, she’s from Spain. Taking my cues from their questions, I usually ask them where they live. And then the conversation begins.

The first topic usually centers around where I’m staying, because in these small towns everyone knows everyone else. Then they want to know how long I’m staying. I feel like they’re judging whether an investment of time is worthwhile. Next comes my age. It always comes up. It came up with the third guy I met, too, but not at a restaurant. They tell me their age and want to know mine. Without fail, I’m older than them, but there’s no way I’m telling, so they guess. I answer “mas o menos,” more or less. For some reason my age is interesting to them. Then comes family, first my status, married or single. I answer married and I get the look. I explain I’m happily married, I like time alone, and my husband is a good man and gives it to me. Once that’s out, the men brag about their kids. Their wives are not discussed.

Somewhere in the conversation, I’m quietly asked if I like Donald Trump, to whom they refer as El Naranja (The Orange). This is when I bring out my puta phrase which always brings strong laughter and usually a comment to someone else in the restaurant. A jingling of snickers erupts.

Family is super important in Costa Rica. Every Sunday, the beach is crowded with groups of extended families who have strung up hammocks between the palm trees, and brought plenty of food and drinks from home. In fact, they bring chairs from their living rooms, put them in the back of the pick up truck, put the kids and a couple of cousins in the chairs in the pick up, and drive from hours away with grandma and grandpa in the front with mom and dad. I’ll try to attach the photo of one family.

Next comes the attempt to try to help me do something. It could be anything. Omar drove me around a small town looking for the two brothers that stole my wallet. I could tell he really liked helping me. He stopped at all the stores where he knew people and pointed to me. Marvin wanted to make sure I knew the best beaches and best supermarkets (tiny one room shops). Both men owned the restaurants I was in. Maybe that gave them the confidence to saddle up to my table.

Then comes the closing, double entendre intended. I am always careful not to touch back. Yes, Latin men like to touch, as do Latin women. There are lots of pats on the hand and arm and even the head, and especially the back. I want the men to know I like talking to them, I’m grateful for the help, but whatever they’ve seen on TV or heard about US women, I’m not available. Usually, this means I confidently end the conversation when I see a corner approaching. When I’ve gone back for another meal, both times the guys were nice, just a little less, what’s the word, curious.

The third Costa Rican man that talked to me said he was 37 and I picked him up hitchhiking. I guess I was possessed. Few people here have cars. They walk, ride bicycles, and take the bus. So I felt sorry for him. The conversation followed the same pattern as the others. He wanted to know where I was staying, he told me how old he was and wanted to know my age. For some reason, all three men acted perplexed that I wouldn’t share my exact age. I guess it’s a polite question here. He asked the Trump question and held his stomach laughing when I said, “El es hilo de puta.” It must sound funny coming from a Gringa with a strong US accent.

A Costa Rican woman has never walked up to my table, pulled out a chair, and sat down. On this trip, both women I’ve made friends with, like the men, own the restaurants where I was eating. I watched them watch me the first time I ate at their places. I was very friendly. I complimented the food. The second time I went in, they were nicer. Each time, they came near my table and asked how I liked my food. Then they went back to studying me. By the end of the second meal, both women came to my table, this time touching the back of a chair and we had a conversation. Their openers were where was I staying and where was I from. They didn’t ask my age.

DelectiMaria has fewer Gringas at her restaurant and she doesn’t speak English. She asked exactly where I was staying and did I know so and so who lived near there. She was much more interested in what I was doing there and how I found her restaurant. The gardener Josué told me about it and she pointed in the direction where he lives. Josué is friends with her son and culinary school educated chef Roberto. She invited me to the intercambio at the restaurant on Saturday mornings where she and a few of her friends meet with Gringos she’s met and teach each other English and Spanish. She practically pushed her nearly 40 year old chef son at me, who was quite handsome, who has no girlfriend. I’m pretty sure Roberto is gay but I don’t think Maria knows. Before I left, she hugged and kissed me.

Reina who owns the restaurant next to the beach is used to European and US tourists and is pretty jaded by them. She blames tourists for the rise of mantenidos (are they really just gigolos?) and spit on the dirt floor of her restaurant when she said the word. She told me the women, the ones who do the maintaining, are often ugly. She thinks the whole thing is disgusting. She always has the TV on and watches the news. She also rents out two rooms to international students enrolled at the Spanish language school. She knows what’s going on in the world. She wanted my opinion of Trump. I gave it. She told me he was a racist and was going to start a world war. She kept her voice low. There are a number of Texans that visit Sámara and she doesn’t want to lose customers.

Two women traveling alone approached me. Melissa is from Denmark. I was sitting in a chair at the beach and she asked me to watch her bicycle. I said it would be fine and that I was getting in the water. We chatted in the water and I mentioned that Costa Ricans are very happy. She seemed very protective of some ranking that says the Danes are some of the happiest people in the world, and surely I knew that. I asked why and she talked for at least 20 minutes. She used the word “cozy” at least two dozen times. It sounds like the Danes adore candles and staying inside in oversized socks with their friends drinking coffee. That defined happiness for her. She said there were books about it and indeed there are. I prefer the way Costa Ricans stay happy: being outside watching the sunset with their families and friends.

Today a PhD student from NorthWestern asked to join me for breakfast. She was born in Columbia and spent a considerable amount of time there. She spoke so fast I had to ask if she was from New York and she admitted living there for ten years before moving to Chicago. She mostly talked about how expensive it was to stay at the hotel and take a van back and forth to La Fortuna, what she had done already, and what she was going to do that day. As with Melissa, I didn’t get to say much.

I dared a woman traveling with her son, daughter and husband to jump in the cold lake under a waterfall with her clothes on. She and I had the best connection. She did it, almost without hesitation. She gave me a kind of, “What did you just say?” look and  accepted my challenge. It’s all on videotape on my Facebook page. We had a blast, screaming at the waterfall. We said stuff like, “Wash away all the crap we’ve felt from glass ceilings!!!” “To hell with Donald Trump!!!” “Here’s to being free for just five minutes!!!” “Here’s to being great mothers!!!” You know, empowerment kind of stuff. It was cool.

I’ve talked to at least a dozen other people, but the conversations are not worth writing about.

Every day is an adventure. People notice you when you are alone. It’s easier for them to talk to you. It’s a little scary to talk to them. But my Spanish is getting better and I’m getting more confident, just as it’s about time to go. home.

Sleeping In A Treehouse

The first thing I did was thump my head on a thick bough going up the steps that would not allow passage for an overweight American. The jolt did not spoil my adventure. The room wraps around a mango tree to fit a queen sized bed, a refrigerator, and a bathroom with shower inside. Palm fronds on the two sides with floor to ceiling windows provide privacy. A wet wind cools me as I sit on the wrap around balcony.

I’m in the rain forest and I think I need a snorkel. It’s not raining but it always feels like it is. Sometimes it does rain, in torrents, for three minutes. I passed the famous Arenal Lake and Arenal Volcano to get here. There were lots of tourists so I opted to stay in Heliconias. Once I get off the deck, I’ll go for a hike on the property and admire the sloths sleeping upside down. But first, I may take a nap because writing about sleeping animals makes me tired.

I spent the morning driving around the town before this one with the owner, Omar. I don’t know if it’s because last night I told him his name was sexy (sexy means the same thing in Spanish), but today he tried to help me find the boys who stole my wallet. He even took me to the police station where the officer was no help. “Different department,” the light skinned man said, exclaiming the road police (the other department) were everywhere.

The boys look younger here than they are. I picked up two hitchhikers who appeared to be about nine years old and 13. What harm could little kids do? After describing the boys to Omar, and after he brought out boys from their houses for me to inspect, we realized that a boy only has acne at adolescence. So the boy I thought was nine was most likely 13 and his brother was probably 17. The older brother sat in the back and relieved my purse of its wallet.

Before I left Playa Carrillo, I thought I might get robbed in such a touristy area, so I only had $80 in dollars and colones in my wallet. I didn’t think I’d get robbed because I invited some poor kids into my car to rob a rich white American. I asked for it. I received an $80 lesson. Plus, I don’t have a driver’s license so I can’t speed anymore. That’s annoying.

Luckily, I’m staying in a tree house to take the edge off. And it’s not a tree house where I go with other 14 year olds to smoke and drink Boone’s Farm Rosé  while listening to Pink Floyd albums. It’s a tree house for grown ups, grown ups who want to feel like they are little kids, and for me, do dumb little kid things.

Mantenidos

I first discovered younger Costa Rican men had a thing for older women last year when I was in Sámara. Guys as young as 23 sat at my dinner table speaking in Spanish, asking me to go out dancing, or to have drinks. I mentioned it to another female solo traveler my age at the hotel where I stayed. She said it hadn’t happened to her. But I knew better than to be flattered. Okay, maybe I was a little flattered.

This year my Spanish is better. I asked Marvin, a man my age who sat with me at a table at a restaurant he owned about this phenomenon. He introduced me to the term “mantenidos.” Mantenidos refers to young men who are literally maintained or supported by wealthy women. The woman is engaged in maintener, the verb for maintaining. There is no word for sugar mama. In Mexico, there is a phrase that translates to cradle robber, robacunas,but that is a different concept.

To make sure I understood Marvin correctly, I asked the owner of my favorite little soda, as the small family restaurants are called, if she had heard of mantenidos. Every Spanish speaking female in the restaurant had something to say and they were not nice things. Reina told me her son brought home an ugly woman. I had seen both of her sons many times. They are very handsome surfers. The woman one son brought home (which was the same place as the restaurant by the way) was as ugly as something I didn’t understand, but judging from her facial expression, the woman was butt ugly. Her son didn’t care. All his food and drinks were free. She complained to him but it didn’t bother him.

The waitress, the one who prompted my earlier entry on sexiness, spoke with such urgency I had to ask her to slow down. Her main point was these women have an unfair advantage because they have money. She is disgusted by mantenidos. They don’t really like these women, they just want someone to take care of them.

There was a chorus of damnation from the other Ticas who were folding napkins and closing up the soda.

As for me, I have the money to pay for drinks and meals for 25 year old Ticos. But how could I hang out with them knowing I have two sons younger than them? I would constantly think of my son’s faces. Ick. This is assuming I wasn’t happily married, which I am. Sugar Daddies don’t seem to have this problem from what I can tell. And maybe all Sugar Mamas are not be like me. Maybe they have standards that the young men must be older than their children. I don’t know. Maybe next up I will find a Sugar Mama and interview her.

Sexiness in Central America

What is sexy for a woman? It depends. It depends on where you are for one thing. Last night in Sámara, the server had an ample curved bottom that popped out, barely covered with tiny shorts dangling swinging tassels that did not cover up her cheeks or a little cellulite. Her thighs were thick by U.S. standards and she carried around a woman’s belly–you know what I mean. She walked with her chest and bottom out, head high. And she was sexy as hell and she knew it.

Another young woman on the beach flouted her apple bottom and muffin top tummy. She had a skinny waist and filled out her bathing suit top well. She got lots of looks from the Ticos. She was definitely sexy.

You may think I’m going to bash the impossibly thin flat bellied, no assed models in the U.S. I’m not. Too cliché. I’m thinking about the character of Hannah on Girls. She’s slightly overweight by US standards, her face is merely pleasant, she has no augmentations that I can see, but she gets laid all the time by really good looking guys. She is a writer and super interesting. She’s very comfortable with who she’s not and that makes her confident. She can’t handle long term relationships and that makes her vulnerable. All told, she’s sexy. Guys love her.

And since it’s my birthday, what about Susan Sarandon? She’s seventy. Her latest goal is to make porn for women. I’ve looked at photos of her standing next to famous actresses half her age and she holds her own. She’s simply, well, sexy.

Preferences for what’s physically sexy appear to change with geography. But sexiness is definitely an attitude.

(N.B.: I received so much feedback from this post that I decided to do more research on what makes a woman sexy. I found articles that mention universal qualities that have to do with reproduction but that’s not what interests me. What characteristics make a woman sexy, physically, mentally, spiritually, whatever. Send me a comment. I’m interviewing people in Costa Rica. I’m comparing. Thanks for the interest!)

Back In Costa Rica

I’m back in Sámara, Costa Rica for my annual spiritual cleansing and gift to myself, blessed by my family, to follow my bliss as Joseph Campbell would say. As the plane left the borders of the United States from Houston, my connection from Denver, I unintentionally sighed with relief–no more blow-by-blow accounts of President Trump’s antics from the White House, whether it be his so called Southern White House at Mar-a-Lago in Florida, his Manhattan White House, or what every other President called the White House in Washington, D.C.

My relief was short-lived. The woman seated next to me on the plane, the kind of person who talks too much when she is nervous, defended each day of her and her husband’s whirlwind ten day journey through Costa Rica. She described in a strong Texas accent that bordered on giddy, the towns they intended to visit with their private driver. They were hitting every major tourist site about which I had ever read. My preference is to pick a place and stay put, learning about the culture and becoming as much of a local as possible. But it seems to me that most people from the U.S. prefer to jump from town to town cramming in as much as possible when they go on vacation, no matter where they go. This does not sound relaxing to me, but everyone has their own concept of a vacation I suppose.

As we were landing, Ms. Texas spotted three U.S. Army helicopters parked at the airport and asked, “What are those doing here?”

“Costa Rica does not have its own military–“, I said. Before I could finish she chimed in.

“So we just pay to protect other countries?”

“It’s in our best interest. Those helicopters track shipments of cocaine coming from Columbia up to the U.S. The U.S.A. is the largest consumer of illegal drugs in the world. The helicopters inform the Costa Rican police and Coast–”

“I don’t want to talk politics,” she said.

And that was my interaction with a Trump supporter. Earlier in the flight, when she tried to disguise her horror that I was traveling alone, I explained I spent two years learning Spanish. She grumbled, “I probably should since they are taking over.” I knew who “they” were but I wondered what they were taking over.

“Trump’s immigration policy will certainly impact the number of Mexicans in Houston,” I said.

“He’s got to do something.”

She seemed educated from out initial conversation, but she only figured out where Costa Rica was after looking at the map in Hemispheres Magazine published by United Airlines and left in the seat pocket.

“Oh, it’s this skinny part under Mexico,” she said to her husband.

Yeah, as in Central America. Who goes on a trip without knowing where they are going first?

More troublesome to me is the way her hands went over her ears when information was conveyed that did not jive with her view of the world. She preferred to believe the U.S. was protecting Costa Rica at great expense to our government with no benefit to the U.S. I may be crazy, but the hands over the ears seems to be what Trump supporters do. How else did a brash alleged billionaire who admits he grabs pussies get elected?

The fact is the U.S. must secure permits to land those helicopters with machine guns at the Liberian airport and that is not a rubber stamp process. My observation from the seven times I have visited this country is the locals do not use cocaine. If it is used here, it is by foreigners. Costa Rica is on the State Department’s list of drug running countries because Columbian drug runners stash supplies in the woods in Costa Rica for later pick up by another runner. This is where the U.S. Army comes in and patrols the coastal waters looking for drug runners. They inform the Costa Rican authorities (Costa Rica does have a Coast Guard) and Costa Rica gets the credit for a drug bust.

But Ms. Texas didn’t want to hear this. I’m sure she covered her ears about his pussy grabbing, too. And did she really want to know she was going on vacation so far away from the U.S.? She didn’t even know until she got on the plane. This xenophobia and immigrant-bashing gets on my nerves. If you are going to be like that, at least learn where your country is in relation to the rest of the world. And consider your status when you visit another country on vacation. What right do you have to be there? Why should that country let you visit?

It’s a privilege to once again visit this beautiful country. I am careful to use the formal you in Spanish. Although the informal “tu” is acceptable in Mexico, “usted” is the polite form in Costa Rica. I sometimes slip but I know how to say “lo siento”, I am sorry, a phrase that comes in handy in many languages, I’m sure. For example, I’m sorry I brought up politics in my first post concerning getting away from politics.

Happiness in the USA–Just Walk in the Forest

Mountains-2

(Trail to Columbine Lake, Continental Divide, Grand County, Colorado)

My efforts to simulate the things in Costa Rica that make them the happiest people on Earth according to the Happy Planet Index failed miserably in the U.S., specifically in Colorado.  Sunsets go down behind jagged purple foothills long before they’ve had a chance to change colors and create optical illusions of huge orbs sinking into perfectly horizontal planes.  And our families here are just different.  The nuclear family is the norm, not the extended family that includes aunts and uncles and even best friends.  Our relatives live in different states.  We cannot get together to celebrate birthdays and graduations very easily much less have huge family meals and outings together.

But Colorado does have other things that are actually proven to make people happy.  Even though the US is 27th on the Happy Planet Index, maybe Colorado judged alone would be higher.  I say this because, with the exception of Hawaii, Colorado is the only other state to rank in the top 10 healthiest states for eight years in a row since the 2015 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index began measuring well-being.  Coloradans have a high sense of well-being according to the index.  And it’s no wonder.  Most of us are outside walking, biking, hiking and just taking advantage of our beautiful state.

As it turns out, some of the things we do here in Colorado are proven to make people happy.  I was resting with my Italian Greyhound in a hammock at 8,800 feet in my backyard, surrounded by about 200 lodgepole pine trees, some wildflowers, and listening to lots of black squirrels scurrying around in the trees, and hummingbirds whizzing by while a slice of sun cut across half my body, warming me.  I remember thinking, “This is heaven.”  It was not about the hammock. The air just smelled different–earthy, alive.  It turns out the air is different.  And it does make you happy.

The July 25, 2016, edition of Time magazine reported on a Japanese study begun in the 1980’s of “forest-bathing” or shinrin yoku to reduce stress.  One of the studies showed that people who walked in a forest for 40 minutes had greatly reduced cortisol compared to those who walked for 40 minutes in a lab. And cortisol is that substance we do not want building up because it increases our blood pressure and stress.

But the best part of the study found that the forests are magical just like in the faery tales!  Okay not really but almost.  The trees and plants emit aromatic compounds called phytoncides.  When people breath them, they become healthier.  They provide protection against cancer, better immunity and lower blood pressure.  Best of all, they relieve depression and make people feel happy!  The trees are drugging us!

I googled “shinrin yoku” and found a whole U.S. website dedicated to providing guided tours through the woods of less than a mile.  I presume these tours are for those who are unable to appreciate the forests on their own or need some guide to say, “Behold, a beautiful tree.  Touch it.  Smell it.”  Bless capitalism.

Alas, I live in the city, not in the mountains.  While I can go on hikes on the weekends, I’d like to stay happy all week.  My husband suggested walking figure eights around all the trees in the park across the street every day.  It sounds silly, but don’t they emit phytoncides, too?  I could pretend I’m training my dog while I’m actually being drugged by trees.  I understand cannabis sounds easier and it is legal here but I’m looking for more natural highs, like in that corny John Denver song.

Interestingly, my tai chi chen pan ling teacher always teaches in the trees.  And he knows a lot of ancient Chinese stuff.  I think there is something to this forest bathing. Something that increases our sense of well-being.  A lot of Coloradans have found it and they probably do not know why.  I think the Happy Planet Index people should separate us from the other states.  Then they should compare us to Costa Rica!  I bet Colorado would at least make the top 10.  Think of all the trees we have.