9 US Habits I Lost in Costa Rica
1. Thinking that just because I’m from the US, I’m American.
We Americans from the United States have forgotten that the word “American” actually encompasses North, Central, and South America. Somos todos americanos. If you dare introduce yourself as an americano to a Tico, you might understandably get an odd look.
“That’s swell, so am I,” a Tico might think. Here, you’re an estadounidense. Get used to it.
2. Flushing toilet paper.
The only time I had ever even heard of the concept of not flushing toilet paper was when I stumbled across the concept in Dharamsala, India. But I was also at a monastery, so I assumed it had something to do with some spiritual thing far beyond my understanding. Only now do I realize how incredibly stupid that was. Costa Rica is actually in bigger company when it comes to where you put your, let’s just say ‘used’, toilet paper. There is usually a trash bin next to the toilet. It’s there for a reason.
3. Calling myself an “expat.”
Most North Americans and Europeans living in Costa Rica refer to themselves as expats. Seems harmless enough. The word is short for expatriate, which literally means one living outside their home country. But then you see how the word is used and you quickly realize it’s basically reserved for ‘white people with money’. Nicaraguans, for instance, are not considered part of the ‘expat’ community.
In the worst of circumstances, it’s also used to separate people who are ultimately guests in this country from Ticos. Many of the expat groups are filled with people uninterested in learning Spanish or mixing with their respective local communities. Suddenly the word has an ugly tinge to it that I want to run away from as quickly as possible.
4. Assuming everyone owns a car.
US Americans, save for maybe those in big cities, assume everyone has a car and maybe even a car for their car’s car. Think about any professional or social interaction in the States. “Do you need to validate?” After dinner, “Where did you park?” Getting directions, “And you can park in their lot.” God forbid you do go somewhere without a car. “But, how are you going to get home!?” As if we didn’t think about it beforehand and just wander around aimlessly until someone takes us home.
Costa Ricans, at least comparatively, have a much lower car ownership percentage than US Americans. Far more Ticos get around by bus than by car.
5. Thinking buses are scary.
Speaking of the bus, it isn’t some scary thing for poor people here. The only scary part is when some drivers are busy texting while driving. Otherwise, bus travel is really the best and most affordable way to get around the country. Ticos will say they have “mal servicio,” but compared to the United States of Automobiles, service is actually quite impressive.
You can get to virtually any corner of the country by bus. Sure, it can be incredibly confusing with a privatized system that has resulted in God knows how many bus companies spread across San José without any kind of online system for purchasing tickets in advance. But at least it exists. Just try getting to any number of small US towns by bus, and prepare for the shocked gasps if you dare take Greyhound.
6. Wearing shorts in hot weather.
I’ll be the first to admit that I occasionally play into the stereotype of a sloppily-dressed US American. On many occasions I would wear just a t-shirt and athletic shorts to go from my apartment in downtown Cleveland and over to CVS to pick up a few things. That’s a rarity down here. Even when it’s scalding hot out, most men are wearing jeans and shoes.
7. Questioning the idea of rice and beans for breakfast.
Gallo pinto is the traditional breakfast dish of Costa Rica, and it includes a nice helping of rice and beans. This is nothing to turn your nose up at or question in the slightest. When in Costa Rica, you eat rice and beans pretty much throughout the day, so why not start at breakfast?
8. Assuming that the taxi meter is running.
The worldwide battle between passenger and taxi driver continues in Costa Rica. Here, especially if you look like a tourist, the taxi driver might ‘forget’ to put the meter on. You learn very quickly to ask the driver to, “Ponga la maria, por favor!” But when living here, you might develop a relationship with a pirata, basically a taxi driver who isn’t really supposed to be a taxi driver. There’s no meter in this case, and negotiating the price before getting in the car is a pretty damn good idea.
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9. Being precise with directions.
Uncle Sam land is all about proper directions and addresses. At least what we think of as proper directions and addresses. Home addresses don’t exist in Costa Rica like they do in the United States. Like time here, location is more of a concept. So instead of hearing, “1432 Avenida 3” for directions, you’re more likely to hear, “Dos cuadras oeste de la Super Mora en la casa verde.” That is, two blocks west of the supermarket in the green house. Ticos rely on this system so stringently that it’s not rare for the direction to outlast the point-of-interest used to base the directions around.