Coping with the Unexpected

Living in Latin America is not always easy. Especially when my light brown hair and fair skin attracts attention.

Granted, the sun shines every day and I eat fresh fruit with almost every meal, but studying abroad in a country where everyone has caramel-colored skin and black curls means my light brown hair and fair skin attracts attention. And sometimes, it makes me a target.

Two weeks ago, I went to the bar with some friends from my study abroad program to watch the Costa Rica vs. Panama soccer match. Since it was only 7:30 p.m., I decided to take the bus into downtown Heredia. My host parents assured me I was safe taking the bus at this time, but instructed me to take a taxi upon my return home.

I walked the short distance from my house to the bus stop, and sat on the bench to wait for the bus. The temperature had dropped since the sun set, and the area was dark except for a few street lamps and the light coming from nearby stores. As I waited, two groups of teenage boys chatted with their friends outside the stores, smoking cigarettes and doing tricks on their skateboards.

After five minutes at the bus stop, I heard “Hey! Muchacha!* Psst! Psst!” coming from their direction. I stared ahead, hoping they would leave me alone if I ignored them. I had been warned by my program directors that Costa Rican men would try to attract my attention by engaging in this behavior, and I followed their advice of nonchalance. Then, they began talking about me in Spanish, whistling and coming closer.

In fright, I jumped on the bus on the other side of the street just to get away from these crude teenage boys. However, the bus was headed in the opposite direction, and the bus driver kicked me off at the last stop. Luckily, a bus going in the right direction was parked right across the street, and I arrived at the bar safely with no further encounters.

The cloud rainforest in Monteverde

While this harassment may seem like a one-time occurrence by immature boys, it’s not. Last week I was catcalled by at least two juniors during class in which I was the only exchange student. A few days ago, a truck driver pulled over on the side of the road where I was walking, and began waving his arms and yelling “hey muchacha!” at me. And just yesterday, a man stopped in the middle of the sidewalk to declare that I was “the love of his heart” on my walk home from school.

These are just a handful of scenarios I’ve experienced in the month since I arrived in Costa Rica. I’ve been verbally harassed on the bus, in restaurants, walking through parks, etc. by men of all ages. I have rarely been subjected to this kind of behavior in all the places I’ve lived, including D.C.

Costa Rica is a beautiful country. The people here are genuinely friendly, and are always willing to help others. However, verbal sexual harassment is a real part of Latin American culture. And it’s not just the drunks or crazies practicing this behavior, but fathers and businessmen as well.

For now, I can only hope this social norm changes so that females who visit this beautiful country in the future can do so without worry or fear.

*Muchacha is a Spanish word for “girl.”

international student voice paige jonesKeep up with Paige’s blog as she continues her study abroad experience in Costa Rica!

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