When the customs or behavior of people in a foreign country differs from those in your native country, it is often referred to as cultural differences. Occasionally, the differences in Costa Rica are quite interesting and for me the motivation to travel is partly due to a desire to experience some of them. Since coming to Costa Rica, I feel that I have identified a couple of unique cultural differences between The United States, my native country, and Costa Rica. Case in point:
On more than one occasion, I have had the need to ask someone if I was standing in the correct location to board a particular bus. Whenever I would ask a Costa Rican person that question, the answer was often: “NO.” Granted it was always a very polite, very friendly “NO,” usually delivered with a warm smile. However, I seldom got anything more then “NO.” The bus stop may have in fact been just a short distance from where I was standing when I asked, but for some reason, that information was never offered to me. In the USA, I would have most likely been told: “No this is not the bus stop–it’s in the next block or something to that effect–not just “NO!” In Costa Rica, the culturally correct thing to do is to simply answer the question. Okay, so maybe it is my fault. You see I failed to ask the proper question. I should have said: “Excuse me, where is the bus stop for San Pedro?”
Now think of a shoelace–a white shoelace–a white shoelace that has just broken. Normally that situation would not pose much of a problem but I am in Costa Rica now. I tried hard to remember if I had actually ever seen a shoelace for sale anywhere. I could remember seeing Tee Shirts, Watches, and even high pitched “Musical” Instruments made in the shape of animals, but I had no recollection of ever seeing shoelaces. Then again, why strain my brain? Shoelaces must be sold in shoe stores, I reason, but before I can find a pair I enter the culturally different “Shoelace Zone” where finding a shoelace will prove to be an adventure not unlike something Indiana Jones might have faced while looking for a lost treasure.
I enter a shoe store and I am politely told we sell shoes not shoelaces.” No problem, there are five more shoe stores on this block alone so I will just go next door and get the laces. Wrong: “We sell shoes not shoelaces,” they tell me. San Jose, it seems, has more shoe stores per capita than any other city in the known universe, but for some reason I cannot buy a stinking pair of shoelaces in any of them. It must simply be a “Cultural Difference” I am thinking.
Undaunted I move over a couple of blocks and go inside a shoe store there. The result is the same: “We sell shoes not shoe laces.” I get the same story in store after store and I am beginning to think that there is a serious flaw in my logic. “Please, where do I go to buy a shoelace?” I wonder.
Sometimes the most obvious solution is the one you think of last. The answer, it turns out, is quite simple. Just ask someone who lives here where to buy the laces. An elegantly dressed woman is standing on the corner so I go over and ask her. In response to my question points to a store across the street. “Go there, they sell everything!” she says in Spanish. You cannot imagine my delight upon hearing that news. I feel a little silly for not asking someone in the first place, but wait, why didn’t even one person in any of the shoe stores tell me about this store? Cultural Differences, I decide. No matter, in just a few minutes, I will have solved my problem and I will not have to “clomp” around San Jose anymore.
When I enter the store, I marvel at the thousands of items they carry. The woman was right; this place has everything. At first, I do not see the laces but I do encounter a nicely dressed sales clerk who is wearing a necktie with two leaping dolphins at the wide part. “Do you sell shoelaces?” I inquire. “No,” is all he says. “No,” I say as I look around. “I can buy a wheel for a turn of the century baby carriage, or a grill for a 1958 Edsel, why not a lousy pair of white shoe laces,” I demand.
This young man could sense that I was unhappy with the situation so he offers a solution. “Just one block south there is a store that is sure to have the laces,” he tells me. I am pleasantly surprised that he freely offered the information to me. I thank him then head for the store that is about to put an end to, what for me, is beginning to feel like the quest for the Holy Grail.
“No–we don’t sell shoelaces,” I am told yet again. “Well who does?” I blurt out. “Just two blocks east there is a store that should sell that type of thing,” the kind salesperson tells me. “Clomp–clomp–clomp.” It was becoming my trademark sound.
I am sorry, that is not something we carry. However, I have a cousin who works in a store one block to the north. I’m positive’ they sell shoelaces there. “Clomp–clomp–clomp.” Now I am walking the way Walter Brenen walked on the TV show “The Real McCoys.” No problem, finally I know exactly where I can buy the shoelaces and I’m closing’ in on ’em fast.
“What da ya mean you don’t sell shoelaces here! Your cousin Miguel said that you do,” I say in a not so calm voice. “No, not here, that was in the last place where I worked,” he tells me. “Okay, I’ll go there–where is it?” “In Cartago,” he says. CARTAGO!!! Okay, I give up. I think I will just buy a new pair of shoes. After all, new shoes come with laces. No wait a minute, this time I’m going to buy loafers,” I say aloud.
This man clearly understood that I was unhappy, and in an effort to calm me down he assures me that he knows of a store that is guaranteed to have the laces I so desperately seek. Lucky for me it was only two blocks west at the next corner. “Are you sure?” I asked in a pleading tone of voice. “Yes, everyone knows that they carry ‘everything’ there,” he said while nodding his head up and down to give more credibility to what he was saying.
I lost little time “clomping” my way over to the store that would finally put an end to the odyssey, which had now consumed most of my afternoon. The minute I entered the store I could tell that I had arrived at the end of my search. This place literally had everything from soup to nuts. I had no trouble locating the shoe polish so I knew I must be close to the illusive laces; I felt like a wild animal closing in for “the kill.”
After a minute or two of looking around near the shoe polish, I do not see any laces. However, I spy a clerk stocking the shelves at the end of the isle. I decide to spare myself anymore-needless grief and simply ask the young man to direct me to the shoelaces. As he turned to face me, I noticed that he had a pleasant smile, and that he was wearing a necktie that had two leaping Dolphins at the wide part.
Now I may not be the brightest bulb on the marquee, but I quickly figure out that I am back in the store where I had started. Unknowingly, I had entered from the side entrance. The clerk immediately recognized me and asked if I had found the laces. “No, not yet,” I tell him, but then again it’s really not that important after all.” What I really need to know now is: “Does the bus to Pavas stop in front of the store?” “NO,” was all he said.
Published in the Tico Times of Costa Rica February 1994