Culture and Consumerism: Coming Home From Abroad

culture and consumerism costa rica

Going away to explore a new culture and find fresh adventures is always exciting. There is such a build-up of excitement as we plan and prepare and pack for the impending journey. When it comes time to return home, however, there can be a mish-mash of feelings about the end of an adventure, and re-entering the reality of our normal day-to-day. This time I was left with many strong feelings about how how Costa Rican ways of life differed from our North American culture and consumerism.

fishing boats in Costa Rica culture and consumerismEach time we go away, I get a better sense of the different ways of living and being in the world. You know how immersing yourself in another culture for a period of time offers a chance to learn more fully and easily a language? I see this, too, with cultural understandings. While I often come back to consider our culture – our ways of thinking, doing, and living – in a different light, this time I felt it more stronger than before. Perhaps it’s that these realizations are compacted each year we go away, the undeniable differences collecting in my conscious, or perhaps these differences seem to hold more weight now that I’m responsible for raising a little person whose understandings of what is necessary, what is important, what is “normal” are being formed anew.

In any case, coming home this time was like a hard slap in the face to the stark contrast of cultures as we floated between.

Throughout our journey, I couldn’t help but be reminded over and over again how centered our North American culture seems to be on appearances. Unless we were in a wealthy and touristed area, like the blocks in the big city of San José which host a giant mall and typical shops and restaurants you would find here at home – Johnny Rockets, H&M, Subway – it was obvious that very little money or effort was put into cosmetically “looking good”. Instead of an ambiance of stark sparkling white and bright colours, with menu boards boasting perfectly painted, dressed, and photographed foods, the traditional eateries in Costa Rica (often called “Sodas”), food was simply food. If there were any images available to show what you were about to order, they were basic, bland images. While it took a while to adjust my mindset to crave the food that was advertised un-doctored, with muted colours, the food always tasted amazing. Instead of spending time and money focused on making the food look good in pictures, it seemed that the energies were spent actually making the food taste good and offering nutrition. Less grease, more honesty.

I saw this same message everywhere. Why waste time and money on frivolous appearance? Have, do, want only what is necessary. Life is more than skin-deep, and worth is in more than your wallet.

Playa Tarcoles playing in the sand culture and consumerism

The first slap came arriving back to our almost-home airport of YVR. You could practically feel the money and status oozing out of every crevasse of this expensively decorated airport. Pretend tide pools, rivers, and rain forest spaces were everywhere, carefully lined with millions of little rocks in perfect positions, sculptures, lights, and decor aplenty. It is beautiful, I don’t argue that, but is it necessary?

The next morning, on the way to the ferry that would take us finally home, we stopped at a well-known store for my husband to quickly check for a gift. I could have thrown up at the gigantic show of money, every corner of the mega-market brightly lit, painted with amazing backgrounds, displays of stuffed wildlife and large tanks of “decorative” ocean life there to do nothing but impress you with the feeling that you don’t have enough. That you should want for more luxuriousness. That what you see really is what matters. “Stress less, buy more.” Seriously. As if spending and having more will make you happier. Trust me, less is so much more.

While we were away, we bought very little (although, our bank accounts will need some healing time after the cost of all those meals out and rooms rented). Coming home I realized that my husband and I had lessened our grips on some of the bad habits that are generally stable in our home lives. There was less draw and need to drink cup after cup of coffee. We had actually been eating healthier away than we would have at home, less deep-fried and junk food entering our bellies. Even our phones spent far less time keeping us constantly connected to mindless media. The struggle, now, will be to hold on to the balance we found. To not let the ability to log on to wireless anytime, anywhere, take over the pleasure we enjoy by simply being alive. Not bored, but neither removed from reality. “Wasting time” truly is wasting life. Being bored is essential. Simply being is where life lives the fullest.

Bananas in Costa Rica culture and consumerism

We are a culture of waste. Wasted time, wasted money, wasted materials, wasted effort. Such superficiality and disposable nature. It pains me deeply to raise a child in a culture of such backwards logic, where money spent on ceiling paintings is worth more than generosity, and where every where you turn your mind is challenged with the sneaky messages that beg to relay “You need this. You’re nothing without it. Just look around. There is so much you should want.”

So what do we do? It’s unrealistic to think that we can change the way that the stores and the media shove consumerism and superficiality down our throats, and moving away from our home to another culture involves a number of complications and considerations in itself. There surely are pros to living the life we’re accustomed, too. But raising my daughter to believe that she must have the best, and look the best, that life is about shiny new things and never sitting still, doing “nothing”, that is not an option for me.

So we shall continue to travel, to expose our little one to the truth that is there are many other ways to live life. We’ll do our best to buy only what we need. To give what we can. To see past what is not classically “beautiful”. To want less. To simply live more. To learn that food – and life – can look dull and boring, but taste exquisitely.

Stay tuned, because I have a lot to share with you about what we did and saw in Costa Rica. There are a bunch of awesome trips and tips I have to share with you, so if Costa Rica is on your family travel sights, you may want to sign up here for my short and sweet weekly newsletter so you know when I post new goodies for you.

3 thoughts on “Culture and Consumerism: Coming Home From Abroad

  1. Lizzie Lau

    Pura Vida! I long for it too. We are programmed up here to be good little consumers, and it is so backward. I’m doing my best to raise a child who values experiences over stuff.

  2. Pingback: 8 Travel Experiences Not To Be Missed - The Big To-Do List

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