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Culture shock in Costa Rica

Culture Shock in Costa Rica: Five WTF Moments You Might Experience

Culture shock in Costa Rica is real for many people moving here from North America or Europe. Or – How many WTF moments have you had? We can guarantee that no matter where you’re from, your WTF ratio will go up when you move to Costa Rica.

How many WTF moments have you had in Costa Rica?

I guess it depends on how long you’ve been here or what you consider merits a WTF moment. But for the sake of clarity here, let’s take the Urban Dictionary’s various definitions:

That moment when somebody does something so stupid that it renders you speechless.”

A little harsh, no? So what about this?

When something so stupid and random happens the only three words that can be said are WTF.

Again, all this is subjective, but I defy any non-Tico who has spent even a nominal amount of time in Costa Rica to say they do not have WTF moments.

Indeed, out in social media land, there is a Facebook group called, fittingly, WTF Costa Rica. It’s dedicated to the different WTF moments one can expect to experience in the land of Pura Vida.

I remember my first WTF moment in Costa Rica.

It was an innocuous one, born from a total lack of experience of Latin America.

I landed in San Jose and went through immigration. A barrage of taxi drivers fell onto me straight away. Swarms of guys jostling me and trying to pull my bags out of my hand and drag me into a cab. It was overwhelming and typical of developing world ports of entry anywhere.

That wasn’t my WTF moment, though – I was an experienced traveler at the time.

The WTF moment came about two seconds later. With utter amazement, I realized I was the tallest person in the scrum of taxi drivers. That hit me like a ton of bricks because I’m not exactly lofty. When I’m exaggerating or kidding myself, I’ll say I’m 5’8”. In reality, I’m closer to 5’7″. But I was towering over this crowd of Ticos and I was like, WTF?

Over the next hour or two, I had a few more WTF moments. The appalling way the person who picked me up from the airport drove was the next one.

And then seeing it was normal and everyone drove like that was the one immediately after.

I recall a fourth WTF moment when I saw the houses. They were all gated up, had bars on the windows, and rolls of razor wire wrapped around them. Each one looked like it should be guarding El Chapo rather than housing middle-class families.

I remember thinking WTF am I even doing here?

Over two decades later, I realize those first WTF moments were nothing but culture shock in Costa Rica.

Since then, I’ve put down roots in Costa Rica. I’ve also traveled a lot through the rest of Central and South America, with extensive stays in other countries around the region along the way. I know those moments would have happened anywhere.

But I was a noob back then, young and green. My whole world was one big WTF moment. Nowadays I’m way more nuanced about my WTF moments, but I still get them.

There are still plenty of culture shock in Costa Rica moments where the only possible thing you can say is WTF:

  1. Buses. Anyone who has ever ridden on a public bus in Costa Rica knows all about this. Ticos don’t do fresh air when they’re sitting in these things. If it’s dry and sunny, then yeah – someone will open the windows. But once a cloud appears, those windows close up muy rapido. It seems like Ticos are happier to sweat in a soup of sweltering, fetid air than they are to open the damn window and risk a drop of rain splashing onto their arm. Every day on the bus during the rainy season is a WTF moment. This is why everyone gets sick during this half of the year. And many Ticos – often smart, well-educated, professional people – will think it’s the water that gives you the gripe. Not the fact everyone is crammed together coughing into hot, humid, air. You’d think Covid might have cured this mindset, but unfortunately not.
  2. Sugar. Don’t get me wrong, the western world is not immune to the allures of sugar. The US, Canada, Western Europe, and other places are all hotbeds of obesity and diabetes. I get it. But when I first watched my friend’s mother turn what I thought was going to be the best smoothie in the world – packed with fresh watermelon, pineapple, mango, papaya, and strawberries – into an undrinkable mess by pouring two full cups of sugar into the blender, I was appalled. WTF? Things are getting better – many places now ask if you want sugar or not, whereas they never did before. But overall, this is the norm down here, and years later I’m still appalled.
  3. Bank employees taking your place in line (also eating lunch in front of you – service in general). I do the vast majority of my banking online nowadays. I have little reason to set foot inside a bank. Sometimes, though, I have to. Walking into a Costa Rican bank is like walking into the DMV in the States. You enter with a sinking heart. You know a long wait is all you have to look forward to in your immediate future. Most institutions are like this here, actually. Migracion, the Caja, ICE. But the banks deserve a special WTF moment all to themselves. You can be waiting in line forever. And then as your turn comes up and you head to your teller’s window, a bank employee cuts in and takes your place. Like any-given-airline, there seems to be no concept whatsoever of customer service. It’s acceptable for employees to get preferential treatment compared to the clients. It’s also normal for there to be a line of 50 to 100 people waiting for service in the bank while a teller will close up his/her window. And to add insult to injury, then sit there and whip out their phone, a paperback, or a sandwich. I’ve worked in stores before, and the one thing I knew was the customer comes first. If there’s a line of customers waiting for one person to serve them, then do them – and your overwhelmed colleague – a favor and give them a hand. It clears the line quicker and you can have your lunch without the glares of a hundred impatient people on you. Right? Right?
  4. Shop assistants up your ass. The opposite of the lack of service you get in banks is too much attention in other stores. Particularly – for some reason – sporting goods stores. It starts as you walk past in the mall or on the street. The store will have about five or six guys in the doorway calling and cajoling you to come in. Once you enter the store, one of the assistants will peel away from the doorway and stick to you like glue. This takes away the enjoyment of browsing and pottering around with nothing in mind you want to buy. Instead, you’ll find yourself barraged with sales patter. You’ll have to endure someone sticking items you have zero interest in into your face. Asking you to try this on or what size you are for this product you don’t want. Ugh. I remember one time being in the Timberland store. There was a certain boot I liked and wanted. I beelined towards the boot and asked the limpet who had attached himself to me for a size 42. Guy trots off and comes back with some sort of cowboy shirt. Yes, a shirt. Not even another boot. They didn’t have the boot in my size, so he figured I’d like the shirt instead. He then went full hard-sell on me about the shirt until I had to walk out of the store. First-world problems, I know. But this sort of thing is normal and reduces leisurely shopping to hell-on-earth. WTF?
  5. Logic. This is a true story. A guy was once doing some work on his property in Guanacaste. He hired a few workers to assist him. During the course of the day, he asked one of these workers to cut a big plastic barrel in half. He wanted to use it to fill with water for his animals or something like that. Can’t remember the exact details. Anyway, instead of cutting it down to size horizontally, making the thing shorter, the guy cut it vertically. Thus rendering the whole thing useless. I really wish I had a photograph. I used to have a photograph. Meh. If this was a one-off story about the incompetence of one individual, that’s one thing. But stories like this are common enough to feature all the time in the WTF Costa Rica Facebook group.

It’s worth repeating most of the WTF moments listed above are mere cultural differences. A WTF moment anywhere is nothing more than a cultural difference, when all’s said and done.

My wife can go to my home country and have many WTF moments of her own. And my WTF moments are completely normal for her. She feels neglected if a shop assistant isn’t buzzing around her in a store, and she’s left to fend for herself. She doesn’t get why I’m still amazed and blown away by some of the things I see here in Costa Rica and elsewhere around the region. That’s fine.

WTF moments are a good thing. They teach you people are different everywhere. You learn systems are different everywhere. And they remind you how boring it would be if they weren’t.

At least that’s what I tell myself at the bank.

James Dyde is the editor of CentralAmerica.com.  He lives in Escazu, Costa Rica.

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