American Culture Shock Pt. 1

I’ve enjoyed living in America the past several years but there are some aspects of the Culture that have stunned me:

Small talk – most terrifying and most prevalent among American society and likely the cause for 95 percent of, and in fact the origin of my social anxiety. Imagine being asked personal questions by complete strangers, forced trivial conversations when you’re just trying to check out at the grocery store or pay for your coffee and carry on.  Not to mention in the workplace, each Monday being questioned about what you did over the weekend even though the Friday before you were interrogated by every one you encountered after lunch about how you planned to spend your days off. I realize now it’s just a way for people to make conversation and maybe encourage some sort of human connection. But i’m still not convinced of the sincerity – can small talk ever be more than triviality? 

Before I knew better, I made the mistake of answering one such question a bit too honestly, a worker in a cafe asked me how my day was going  and because I was particularly happy then and couldn’t contain my joy I thought ‘I AM GLAD YOU ASKED…’ and then launched into an exuberant spiel about exactly how my day was going only to be met with a dumbstruck look followed by my abrupt (and premature) ending of the tale and then the questioner awkwardly backing away from my table. These days I keep it simple with a ‘fine, yours?’

Weather Obsession – I am still bemused by the genuine surprise American’s express each year when the seasons change, even though this happens every single year, and presumably always has. In NYC when summer makes way for fall then fall morphs into winter, someone in the country for the first time, upon hearing the lamentations of the residents on how cold it has become may conclude that this is the first time winter has fallen in the city. And when the summer heat arrives in Chicago and every day for the next few months you hear the same people alternating between complaints of how hot it is to marveling at how nice out it is, again it might seem like summer is a new invention.  Having grown up in the Caribbean where there are no seasons to speak of, the sun either shines or sometimes it rains, so you either carry an umbrella or not – there’s no discussion about it. I don’t think i’ll ever get accustomed to this idea of weather being a main topic of conversation, but I recognize it may be a necessary subject if small talk is to continue to have its day which unfortunately seems to be the case.

Food Portions – I know this subject has been beaten to death but I remain shocked that a meal for one at a restaurant is usually enough food to feed a family of 4. Being someone who enjoys solitude I often visit cafes and restaurants and attempt to enjoy meals solo but depending on where I find myself this could be a struggle. You see growing up in a large family and being a picky eater, the ever present refrain of my parents to ‘don’t waste good food!’ continue to echo around me and though I agree food shoudn’t be wasted I can’t force feed myself! So when recently at a cafe in Los Angeles I ordered pancakes and the server gave me a questioning look and asked ‘nothing else?’ I anticipated a modest plate of pancakes that I would consume completely and enjoy.  Instead I was brought an enormous plate of what was at least 10 pounds of pancakes.

Now, how could my waiter expect that I would want something ELSE on top of this! Usually with other meals I could have some redemption by taking the leftovers to go but some things you can’t really save for later. In this case I decided to not focus on the fact that more than half this feast would go to waste but instead enjoy as much as I could eat and as long as I enjoyed it, which if I did, then I would have gotten my money’s worth.

To be contd…


The Kindness of Strangers

Three nights ago I landed in Costa Rica and my first morning in San Jose I had dental surgery. I’m to take it easy for a few days and stay out of the sun but i’ve been holed up on this studio apartment for the last 2 days and I couldn’t handle being indoors anymore so today I set out to explore the neighborhood.

September, is the winter season so it rains quite a bit, but i’ve noticed the showers start around 2pm, continue until about 5 and the its dry until 9pm or so then resumes much louder and with thunder claps in tow. Coming from California where it a welcome change i missed rains distinct smell, but as I would be traveling on foot then bus I needed to be strategic in my timing. At 10am with my raincoat packed in my mini bag pack and nothing else but my wallet and room key I sauntered outside and the fresh and cool air that greeted me was like a hug from someone I really like and hadn’t seen in a long time. I kept a small map in the back pocket of my jeans as a last resort in case I got lost. With no cell phone signal I walked on in what I believed to be the direction of the city center.

I didn’t have any lofty goals for this excursion, maybe buy a sim card and some soup that wouldn’t be too unappealing if eaten cold or at room temperature since that’s the extent of my allowed diet these days until my mouth decide to fully heal. Having gained sustenance solely from yoghurt, ice-cream and water since my procedure, it was time to try something different.

Now, my dentist said I should stay out of the sun, but after walking a good 30 minutes and growing weary probably owing to the cocktail of medications i’ve been taking since the surgery (an antibiotic, anti-inflammatory and painkillers) I happened upon a bus stop and immediately and without thinking sat on the bench. I silently decided that if a bus came along within the next 10 minutes I would get on it and go wherever it took me, otherwise I would continue to rest until I saw fit to do otherwise. About 7 minutes later an older woman walked up and sat on the bench next to me. We sat in in silence for a while until I interrupted her quiet thoughts with a ‘Permiso senora, sabes si…’ asking if she knew if the bus to the Multiplaza stopped here on a Sunday. She said yes but *indecipherable*. I was so confused and embarrassed at my lack of understanding her and was about to say ‘ok gracias’ and run away or continue sitting there in silence, but she got up and said she will show me where.

This is why I love to travel, strangers are always so kind to me and at times it’s overwhelming – in a good way. I have always felt, since I knew what it meant to feel, like a stranger in the place where I lived, and only when I would leave temporarily would I not feel out of place. Not that I necessarily fit in, but I wouldn’t feel as apart and disconnected from everyone else around me. because then everyone else was a stranger to me, not just me to them.

We walked to the corner and crossed over the street and lo and behold she had been directing me just to the opposite corner to wait for that particular bus. I thanked her and began to wait.  And wait….and wait.

And so I’ve been standing here sweating for the last ten minutes and with each minute that passes it seems the sun is burning hotter and hotter heating my face in the process. I raise my right hand to my cheek and am certain it is now swollen, again. I’ve been using an ice — well really just frozen water in a holey ziplock bag, the one I used to get my toiletries through TSA and that leaks on my shoulder and chest as it melts that works by numbing my face and thereby reducing the swelling and I did use it right before I set out 45 minutes earlier and though it left me with cheeks looking unnaturally (but not clownishly) rosy, it also lessened the slight swelling, but now I had frozen my face for 20 minutes for nothing because my cheek was even more swollen than it had been before I iced it.

But I am not in any pain so I should still be on the safe side, so what if my face isn’t looking as it should, vanity is a sin. But this bus refuses to show up. Just when I started thinking ‘I wonder if this woman really know what she talking about, 20 minutes

have passed and there is no bus!’ she is suddenly at my side with a piece of paper and smiles pointing to it while reassuring me that this is still the bus to take, and I should wait here for it.

A bit shocked, embarrassed that I was silently doubting her and wondering if she had some sort of mind reading powers, I thanked her a bit too profusely and she smiled then turned and walked back towards her bus stop. I continued to wait.

A bus approached, I was to take the Number 2, this was one 242, I stepped forward to the curb to get a closer look and make sure it wasn’t my bus but it didn’t even pause but seemed to almost pick up speed through the intersection. Hmph, kicking up dust in my eyes. I then registered the two older men that had been sitting in front of the building behind me since I arrived and at this moment one of them spoke out and asked me if I was trying to go to Multiplaza. I said yes and asked ‘this bus stops here no?’

‘Yes, Yes, right here’ was his response, I said a quiet thank you and waited in place for 10 seconds more until I moved towards the building behind me and stood next to it as there was some shade from the awning – why didn’t i think of this before?  I was so nervous about missing the bus and the woman had placed me in that very spot I didn’t think to step away. Also I kept thinking the bus would arrive at any minute and didn’t want to take my eye off the road and miss it. What if it only stops if there’s someone standing right at the bus stop?

Well, I will never know because it never came.  I waited in the semi shade for 10 more minutes until half of the pair of men sitting to my left bid the other farewell and shortly after the one remaining as if continuing a conversation looked up and asked me why I didn’t just take a taxi. I wanted to laugh out loud because I never thought of it and he said it almost as a matter of fact like

“girl you’ve been standing here for an hour…you don’t realize the bus not coming?”

‘Donde son los taxis?’ I asked and he replied that he has one, but those weren’t the exact words, I don’t remember them particularly but I understood what he said to mean that he has a taxi, but it’s not a real taxi but he can take me to Mutiplaza.  I asked how much, his price was 2000 colones (this is about $3.50 USD) which sounded fair to me. I agreed, repeating my destination once more to make sure we were both on the same page ‘Multiplaza, si?’ ‘Si multiplalza’ he replied. 

He pointed to a navy blue sedan on the corner opposite ours, it was a fairly nice car and I didn’t get any bad vibe from any of it but I did pause briefly and ask myself ‘hmm.. is this quite safe?’

It was the broad daylight on a Sunday no less, the day of the Lord and according to my research Costa Rica is quite a religious nation with 90% of the population identifying as Catholic so surely this good samaritan couldn’t have any nefarious designs, at least not relating to his offering me a ride to the Multiplaza for 2000 colones, could he? I reasoned that he wouldn’t really dare try to abduct/murder me, besides like I said he was a bit old and at least a foot shorter than me I was certain i’d be able to defend myself, but I really didn’t think it would come to that.

He opened the door for me, and trusting my intuition I got in the car – it was clean and nice, the vibe was peaceful and safe, he got in the front and we drove in silence. I remembered the general directions because my dental office was in the same location, we were going the right way so I relaxed and enjoyed the scenery. In about 10 minutes we were there! He pulled right up in front of the plaza and I said thank you, paid him two bills, 1000 colones each and he said thank you have a nice day, I said thank you same for you and happy to have made it in one piece, I skipped into the plaza.


The kindness of strangers. Pura Vida!

In the Multiplaza I walked around for a few hours, I bought a pocket Spanish dictionary which I need terribly as I don’t have internet access on my phone. I also bought a pair of socks and then in the end I bought a bottle of soursop yoghurt and a small container of gallo pinto (red beans and rice) which I was able to eat and which was quite tasty cold!

Tomorrow morning I will leave very early and make a second attempt at public transportation. This time i’m going into the city center to my last dental appointment and afterwards I will continue on a little adventure  around San Jose.

(mis)Adventure to Costa Rica’s Sloth Sanctuary

I knew I was in for an interesting day when my taxi driver who from the get go I suspected couldn’t be older than 16, confessed that he had no idea where I was trying to go but he could drop me at the bus stop. This came after I previously explained my destination, which he said he was familiar with and we settled on the fare. 

Though his baby face gave him away, my driver had the mannerisms of an young man, with his long fingernails, a wide silver ring on the middle finger of his left hand and even the way he reclined in the seat as if trying to appear relaxed and a little edgy. We drove in silence for no more than 10 minutes when he stopped and began to speak in a mumbled voice words I couldn’t decipher and when asked him to please repeat he did but with an even softer murmuring tone like a child that had done something wrong and felt he was caught red handed.

Maybe he was saying that we had arrived but I knew this could not be! I mapped the journey at home before leaving and according to Google maps it was at least a 30 minute trip. I asked where we were and this prompted him to resume driving and after passing a few houses we pulled over upon seeing a man exiting his car.  The young boy asked where the sloth sanctuary was and our good samaritan informed him that we were on the wrong road and should instead drive to X then YZ. 

At which time my babyfaced taxi driver confessed that it was too far for him but he could take me to the bus stop instead, for the same price that I expected to pay to get to my actual desired destination. I looked at him, and then at and through the spaces of the car steering wheel and saw that the gas tank was in fact BELOW E…what exactly was going on here?

As I was in no hurry I  decided to relax and go with the flow so a few minutes later we drove up a steep road that became a T intersection to the right of which was a bus stop. that thankfully had an awning for shade as it was at least 96 degrees. As I exited the faux-taxi, amused at the turn of events, I asked the boy his name, and he stared at me wide eyed, swallowed and replied ‘Axel’ then as if frightened drove off probably too quickly given he hardly hadany gas in his tank.

Some time passed then a car drove up the road we had came on and it was the man who we stopped to ask directions earlier. He seemed surprised to see me there and with a tone almost as if speaking to an old friend asked ‘What happened? Why are you here?’ I explained that it was too far for the taxi driver and so he said I should take the bus instead. He laughed knowingly and revealed that the boy was a ‘new taxi’ and didn’t have a license yet or know where ea lot of places are. I knew it and so he thinks he was a little scared!

My suspicions were confirmed  – he was just a boy!

The good samaritan reassured me that there would in fact be a bus soon to take me to Aviarios del Caribe, the location of the Sloth sanctuary. I thanked then bid him farewell. Pura vida!

Three minutes later the bus arrived and after a short ride I made it to the sloth sanctuary. 

The tour I selected lasted a little over an hour and the entire time I waited to be taken to the REAL sanctuary. You see, it was jut a group of us standing in a room with 6 gages containing sloths sleeping on bath mats fashioned into hammocks, and a guide explaining the ill fate that led to these animals being placed here to spend the rest of their days enclosed in a place that to me, didn’t seem at all like much of a haven.

Once the guide finished his speech he thanked us for visiting and reminded us that our entrance fee would contribute to the care of thee poor creatures then opened the door to let us out – that was when I realized that what I had seen was the extent of the so called sanctuary. In other words it really didn’t exist! 

When traveling far from home, the expectation is that all your experiences will be amazing ones, and all the days happy and exciting but as I exited the gates of distressing compound I accepted that not every outing can be as wonderful as the last. I recalled the boy pretending to be a man who left me at the bus station and got a good chuckle as I walked to find a bus to take me back to Cahuita.

Bees etc.

From ever since i’ve known myself i’ve been terrified of insects – all types but bees and wasps especially. Then this summer I ended up in Indonesia and then the Australian Outback and if I was to enjoy any of it I needed to get over my fear of bugs promptly.

After the first few days in Bali I accepted that being crawled on constantly by ants and strange looking but otherwise harmless bugs, and having wasps buzzing dangerously close to my face and head was just how it would be. I gained quite a few bruises and earned some reproving looks  after accidentally crashing into walls, furniture and random people while trying to avoid the the latest critter that decided my body or hair was a good resting place.

So I sat myself down and decided that I couldn’t afford to be afraid of insects anymore. They outnumbered me, were so far harmless and If I was to explore and enjoy this new land I needed to get used to all its inhabitants.

 Unidentified insect on plant in Bali, Indonesia
Unidentified insect on plant in Bali, Indonesia

I had recently started practicing and realizing the benefits of meditation and so with my newfound calm successfully retrained my mind to transcend this unwarranted fear of bugs. 

Over time the fear that turned to indifference has become slight intrigue, which I welcome as it has allowed me to get close enough to  capture this brief but amazing video of a bee dancing a little jig about the seeds of a sunflower, and I wasn’t forced to do a backflip when the be buzzed from the flower right into my face.