As we’ve been settling in over the last two bright and breezy weeks, I’ve noticed some clear cultural differences between North and Latin America. First of all, people are generally happier here–all smiles and welcoming Buenos Dias-es. They enjoy each other’s company. As each neighbor gets on the local bus down to Atenas center, they are greeted by a kiss and a como estas from several friends. Also, the people are chivalrous. If an elderly or pregnant person is standing, someone will always jump up and offer them a seat. I have been put at the head of the line many times already, while I stand with my baby in her carrier and my toddler on my hip. I am not allowed to refuse–they insist on letting me in front of them or having their seat.
While I love this about the Costa Ricans, I have been slightly surprised by an accompanying cultural difference–women of all ages appear to think that I need advice. I know I should take this as graciously and non-ethnocentrically as possible, but I must admit that it slightly irritates me. Multiple times on an outing, women flock to hold baby P’s feet, rub her head, and squeeze her chunky legs. (Can I blame them!?) However, they always add a remark on making her more comfortable, even if she is sound asleep. She is too hot, too cold, her clothes are too tight, she needs socks, she wants out of her carrier, I should hold her like this, like that–ahhh! I am always left feeling like I have to apologize to the random stranger about how I am caring for my baby!
Last weekend, a very sweet Costa Rican woman noticed that baby P’s eye was irritated. This happens occasionally, and I have some medicine for it that clears it right up. She told me to mix cinnamon with tea and put a few drops in her sore eye–cinnamon? Really? While it might work very well, I am scared to do it. I’m all for natural remedies and avoiding medication–don’t get me wrong–but I’m a little nervous about putting spices in my baby’s eye.
Our landlord sent over his maid last week, since she arrived wanting work on her day off. She is 19 years old and 5 months pregnant. I felt uncomfortable asking a pregnant woman (or any woman, at that) to do any hard work in my home, so I just asked her to clean two sliding glass doors and one bathroom. Instead of doing this, she insisted on picking up my baby and unfortunately making her cry with the unnecessary effort. Baby P had been contentedly playing on a blanket with her toys for a solid 15 heavenly minutes. She then noticed that my quiet toddler was eating his eggs with a fork, and pried it from his fingers. She got out a tiny spoon and tried to spoon-feed him, which (to my pleasure) he would have none of. I was a bit annoyed with these actions, wondering if this 19 year old girl thought she knew better than me, their mother?
It’s generally just women who try to “help” me with the kids. However, a shocking thing happened while I was grocery shopping alone with the little ones. I had to put my son in “time-out” in one of the aisles, and he was naturally sobbing. A man walked up and PICKED HIM UP! I said, “No, gracias!” and gestured for him to put him down–but can you imagine if some guy you didn’t know picked up your toddler in the States!? He’d be arrested!
Recently, a local woman was furious with us (I think). She was probably a great grandmother, and couldn’t communicate with us-but she had something very important to say about our 2 year old. I struggled to understand her flowing and feverish Spanish, but I couldn’t grasp anything. She was gesturing strongly to him, as he sat next to our bench on the clean tiled floor of the bus stop. He was playing silently with a toy. Did she need more room? We scooted over and I had Chris stand up, in case we were being rude by taking up too much space. (There was plenty of room, in my opinion, but who knows…) Finally, she got up from her seat next to me, and went down the line of benches, stopping to bitterly inform each individual about how horribly we were raising our children (I think), waving her arms around and pointing at our son. Chris and I were desperately trying not to laugh, deciding not to take offense. Obviously, we were doing something terribly wrong. Perhaps it was not culturally correct to let our son sit on the floor. Oh well. Usually I understand enough to realize the error of my ways, and either say “He/she is fine, but thank you” or “You’re right, I’m sorry and thank you.”
At least I have learned to expect advice from all the teenage girls to great-great grandmothers. I think the best way to handle it is to not take any suggestions personally. Maybe they are actually hinting that I don’t know what I’m doing, in a sweet, passive-agressive way–but maybe this is just their way of helping each other out. I know in some places, a whole family of extended relatives raise a baby. It might be that way here. Or, this might be their way of making polite conversation, like people talk about the weather. I suppose I should assume that their advice is meant in the nicest way, and go on enjoying paradise.