So believe it or not, after 17 straight days at the beach, I got bored. I was doing things other than going to the beach, but I wanted to take going to the beach off my list. The amount of time I could stand sitting in a chair reading a book got smaller and smaller until all I could do was swim in the ocean, have lunch and go back to my rental house to paint, write, read and practice my photography skills.
I decided to take a trip to Monteverde, a cloud forest that is 3 1/2 hours inland from here at a much higher elevation where it is considerably cooler. It is also a rainforest and not dry like Guanacaste where I am now. I was not sure what to expect.
Since childhood, I’ve suffered from carsickness. So against the advice of all guidebooks and tour guides, I rented a car and drove myself. There is a reason the guidebooks and tour companies advise against this. For some unknown reason, in a country that depends on tourism, there are no road signs to tell you where you are headed, where to turn or where the next Estación Gasolina is. Monteverde is one of the country’s biggest tourist attractions. I did not see a single sign for it until I was there. I passed through many very small villages with streets made of cobblestone that dead-ended at an intersection. Should I go left or right?
So, luckily, I have been studying Spanish for a year and a half and studied it here intensely for a week, four hours a day. I practice as much as possible in a tourist town where the Ticos speak better English than I speak Spanish. But few people speak English in the tiny towns I found myself lost in after four wheeling towards Monteverde.
Now here’s the touchy feely part. I see a person who looks like he might know his way around. I’m sitting in my car. I say, “Disculpe me,” for excuse me. The señor comes over to my window and I ask the ruta to Sámara. He gives me directions I understand, thank God, because all three times this happened I was going in the opposite direction, but it doesn’t stop there. All three times I asked directions they were of men in their mid-60’s and older. They wanted to see exactly how much gasoline I had in my tank because apparently everyone keeps a little extra in their homes for emergencies so they stuck their heads in and looked–each of them. Then came the chit chat about where I was from, how long I was staying and so on. But the surprising thing is all three men in some way touched me in kind of a younger daughter way, even though I’m not that young and one man’s wife was standing there.
The first man was all smiles and after I said, “Feliz Samana Santa”, basically Happy Easter which they celebrate for a week, he reached into the car, I kid you not, and began stroking my hair saying “muy linda.”
The next man was in an even smaller town, gave me the directions I needed, and then told me how he used to know English when he was younger and an economics professor. As I was leaving, he reached inside my window and stroked my left arm up and down very lightly and sensitively, wishing me luck.
The third man seemed to be in his seventies. He directed me back into the opposite direction then put his hand on my hand and patted it.
Can you imagine a women in the US asking a man for directions and he begins stroking her hair!? He’d get an assault charge. But there is a cultural difference here. I don’t know if it’s a Latin man thing unique to Costa Rica or if all Latinos do it.
I’m just now reminded that it is not just the older guys who do this. I was walking across a tributary toward the ocean to watch the sun set one day two weeks ago. It was thigh high in the middle, with signs all around warning of crocodiles. But many Ticos cross it every day. The next thing I know a Tico, about 32, has grabbed my camera bag and is holding it over his had and holding my hand across the slippery rocks. We got to the other side and he didn’t try to French kiss me or anything. I just said thank you and moved on.
I also noticed at dinner the waiter rubbed my neck while I was reading my book–I mean it took 10 seconds but he rubbed my neck.
Personal space is different here between men and women and not just when asking directions.
And another thing. I stopped at the Tourist Information Center at Monteverde. It seemed I had a lot in common with the 21 year old who worked there regarding nature, what it does for your soul and sense of well-being, how the air is fresher, you know, that kind of hippy talk. As I was leaving to begin my hike, he hugged me and told me he loved me. Now, that must mean something different here. Or, in the US we’re too uptight to use it often when we connect with someone. He wasn’t saying let’s go on a date. It was not sexual. He just loved the connection.
My massage therapist Wendy told me she loved me, too after the second massage (and there were no happy endings). I’ve observed Latinos have a different way of expressing their happiness about a new friend, and a lot of it involves touching.
Come to think about it, I walked into the small Sámara grocery store the other day and the two male clerks had their arms around each other, singing a song that was on the radio. You’d never see that among two straight guys in the US.
I just googled “Latinos and hugging” and it turns out there is a lot written about this cultural difference between Latinos and other countries. But maybe they’ve got it right.
I know I always felt loved growing up in New York by the constant kissing and hugging from my friends’ Italian families. It turns out there is science to support giving lots of hugs.
A U.S. News Report dated February 3, 2016 reports that hugging reduces stress, increases the happy hormone serotonin, boosts your immune system, reduces stress, lowers blood pressure and overall, increases your sense of well-being. So we’re back to the phenomenon of Costa Ricans being the happiest people in the world, with four times less the gross domestic product of the US, and 20% of its citizens living below the poverty level.
I’ve had my share of hair petting, arm stroking, hand holding and neck rubs for today, but I’m going to be sure to work in as many hugs as possible when I return to Colorado.
Hug someone today and see what they do. Then hug a Latino or Latina and see if there is a difference. I like the tradition.
The cloud forest at Monteverde Costa Rica