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Bars, Girlfriends, and Culture in Costa Rica

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Bars, Girlfriends, and Culture in Costa Rica


All cultures have certain symbols and ways of acting that almost every member of the society recognizes and understands. Misunderstandings inevitably arise when travelers do not fully understand the implications of their actions in a particular social sphere. Dating, relationships, and sex are all full of cues, symbols, and underlaying implications that are deeply embedded within a particular culture. I find it interesting when the normal behaviors of one culture are brutally thrown up against another, and are therefore perilously misunderstood. For the foreigner in Latin America, I have the impression that many such misunderstandings arise over courtship, sex, and relationships.

In western culture birthdays are often celebrated in bars. I reserve a particular abhorrence for these places, as I would rather be doing other things than sitting around waiting to be drunk. But certain occasions arise where drinking is the socially acceptable way of acting. In Heredia, Costa Rica on a Thursday night, Mira, myself, and three newly acquainted compatriots set out to celebrate one of these occasions. It was one of our new friend’s birthdays, and we felt that a slice of cake and a poorly sang “cumpleanos feliz” was not a worthy enough celebration. As we sat around a white plastic yard table telling easy jokes and old stories, we knew that we had to do something.

So Mira and I concocted wild schemes about how we would celebrate our new friend’s birthday in the mountains with the stars and rancheros while looking over the brightly lit sprawl of San Jose.

We just ended up at a bar.

It is difficult to break a cultural cycle. In the USA young people equate birthdays with clanking glasses and beer. So the five of us complied with our conditioning and set out to have a fun night.

I seem to get a little edgy in bars. I like moving and doing things, I like being active. In bars, I know that you are just suppose to sit there drinking. It seems like an odd thing to do: drinking 100 ounces of a liquid in one sitting? Bars- I believe the nomenclature here is appropriate, as I feel as if I am in a cage while inside of them. I do not mind having a quiet beer with a friend while having a good talk, but I no longer appreciate drinking to excess, or being in such a situation. Maybe I am too old, maybe I am just writing this because I drank too much that night and feel a little ill today, maybe, maybe. Whatever the case, excessive drinking in Costa Rica is not for me.

I am a traveler. I need to save every dollar today to enable me to travel another day. I live almost Spartanly, without craving for any real excess. Outside of special circumstances, like birthdays, I feel that bars are an excessive expenditure of travel funds. A traveler can easily drop an entire days travel fare in a couple of hours in a bar. I prefer to go to sleep early and wake up with the sun and walk in the mountains with a clear head and an upright demeanor.

But we had a birthday to celebrate, and running up through the mountains was not a real option, so to the bar we went.

We walked into a little bar and took a big table in the middle of the room. Two pitchers of beer arrived, and I thought that I was in for an easy night of social drinking. I figured that we would finish this first round, go watch a movie somewhere, and be done with the night. But an old friend of Mira’s strolled in, and from the excited look on her face I knew that I was in for a long night. Mira previously lived in this town for a year, and created a decent history for herself with the local boys.

Mira’s friend proved to be a real good guy, and we laughed and joked together for a while. Soon, another Tico was sitting at our table and was talking about Ta Kwon Do or something. The night was building, and I was laughing and speaking Spanish. I admit, for all of my high ideas, I was having fun.

Then an old boyfriend of Mira’s walked in and we greeted each other warmly. He is a landmark in this town, and we have met on multiple occasions. Mira went and sat at another table with him and talked of old times. I thought nothing of it. An hour passes, and I still did not think of objecting to Mira talking to an old boyfriend.

I am from the USA, my girlfriend can talk to whoever she pleases. My culture teaches me that this should not really bother me. If I let this get under my skin, then it would be I who would be acting inappropriately. It would be I who would be acting jealous and insecure. But this seems to be a different game here in Costa Rica.

The bar was small, and everybody could tell what was going on. Soon Mira’s old friend began warning me that I should break up the conversation between Mira and her old boyfriend. Other guys in the bar began following suite and tried to convince me that I should take my woman back. I was beginning to look like an ass. Mira was beginning to look a little less like a lady. I found myself pushed between the pressures of my own cultural upbringing and that of the culture that I was in.

The guys in the bar did not let up. They began helping me out by going over and breaking up Mira’s conversation. “Get over there!” they told me. I was being embarrassed for something that I did not really feel embarrassed about. I soon complied with the Tico pressure, and went over and told Mira what was going on. She seemed to think it was ridiculous and told me how much she loves me. Her old boyfriend covered his face with his hands- he knew the situation that I was acting in, and he seemed to be a little embarrassed as well. I did not need to be reassured of Mira’s love, I just wanted to stop looking like an ass.

I am not sure if Mira could have fully gauged the social pressures of the moment, because she acted a little offended and kept talking in solitude with her old boyfriend. She invited me into the conversation, but it did not feel as if that would be too easy of a transition given the circumstances. So I walked back to the guys that I was previously talking with, and Mira’s old friend jumped in to do my dirty work. He promptly jumped right into her conversation, and took control. He was a real good guy, though I know he also has a huge long standing crush on Mira. I think my lady is hot property in these parts. Soon the old boyfriend told Mira that he knew what was going on, said goodbye to me, and exited the bar.

Mira and I soon followed and talked more of what happened as we walked home. To us, a girlfriend publicly talking with an old boyfriend is acceptable, here in Costa Rica, this seems to have deeper underlying connotations. We laughed about it, Mira apologized for making me look like an ass, and we went home undaunted.

An entire divulge of cultural mish-mash happened right before us, and we scarcely even knew what was going on. Mira and I were the actors, but the play was written by the audience- the Costa Ricans.

Maybe next time I will have to break out the leash hehehe.

Wade from Vagabond Journey.com
Heredia, Costa Rica
January 26, 2008

For more photos from Costa Rica please visit Traveler Photographs.com Costa Rica Photos

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Filed under: Central America, Costa Rica, Culture and Society

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3054 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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