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.

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