The Art of Blending In
So, this is me:
I went to Costa Rica a few years back with a group from my high school. We were doing community service at a school in a small town called Orosi. The majority of my group were either blonde girls with blue eyes, or brunette boys with brown eyes, all of whom were clearly caucasian, and two Koreans. My friend Marcos and I were the only “brown” people in our group. Back then, I did not speak any Spanish besides “No I don’t speak Spanish” and “Where is the bathroom?” But, it didn’t matter, everywhere I went with my group of friends, locals would come up to me and say “Oye Nativa!” and then continue in Spanish at warp speed. It took me a while to understand that they thought I was from Costa Rica or another Latin American country, and that I was just traveling as a guide with my group. It was only when I stared at them doe-eyed that they knew I could not understand them at all and that even though I looked it, I was not it. While my other friends were being gawked at as they walked down the streets, I could blend in and truly appreciate where I was, even though I couldn’t speak a lick of the language. But, it wasn’t just my skin color that helped me blend.
1.) Try not to speak too much English: Try and assimilate to the culture while you are in it. Speaking English can draw unwanted attention to you especially at night. There are also some business owners who will try to rip you off because they assume that you will not notice, since prices are in Spanish. If you don’t know the language, what a great time to learn it! I went into Costa Rica not knowing very much Spanish, but after 10 days of being in a community where the locals only spoke Spanish, I had learned enough to be able to speak to some elementary school children.
2.) Observe: Look around you and notice what the locals are doing, eating, wearing, and watching. If you are at a restaurant, try some of the local foods. If you make a lot of changes to the meal, then you are going to stand out. One of the students in my group, whom the girls at the elementary school thought was an Abercrombie model, was a very picky eater. He would only eat dry cereal, bananas, grilled cheese, and water. We were in a country with beautiful fresh fruit, tender meats, amazing coffee, and any time he was offered anything, he would say “No,” “No me gusta…” (I don’t like), or “Yo no quiero…” Cooks will get offended if you don’t eat the food they have prepared for you. If locals are wearing shorts, tank tops, and work boots, try to mimic them. There was a girl in our group who always wore bright short skirts and sandals which attracted the locals. Make sure you know the customs of the area as well. Get to know the sports teams, the favorites and the rivals. There is nothing worse than rooting for the rival team at a big soccer game.
3.) Get involved: Play soccer, go to the local swimming hole, hang out at the discotecas, get out there! Our group played a game of soccer at the local indoor soccer arena with a bunch of locals watching. I was getting ready to kick the ball from the sidelines and my foot got caught in the netting around the field. I fell and everyone laughed. But instead of being embarrassed, I got up, curtsied toward the local-filled audience, continued playing and scored the goal. After the game, a bunch of local teenagers came up to me and started speaking to me in Spanish about the game. Our group played against the locals once, we were destroyed, but we made some friends.
4.) Explore: While you don’t want to be too “touristy,” you still want to see the sights. Go to the beach, go to the jungle, take that guided tour of the church, go zip-lining!
Remember, the trick to blending in is to look and act like a local, and like you belong there. Stay safe and have fun. Happy traveling!
Just a few pictures from the Costa Rica trip:
I am the tallest “brown” person in this picture, besides the kid in the tree.
The Pacific Ocean from the rainforest
Arenal, an active volcano in central Costa Rica
Sloths only come down once a month to go to the bathroom. We were lucky to see this guy. He crossed right in front of us.