When I was preparing to leave for Amman, Jordan last fall, one of the most common questions I heard was “Is it safe there?” On the other hand, responses when I said I was coming to Costa Rica this semester were nearly all positive, focusing on the natural beauty, beaches, and my Spanish skills. This is probably because Costa Rica has cultivated an image as a land of peace—it is a popular tourist destination, has a stable government and political system, and most relevantly, Costa Rica does not have an army. However, Jordan shares the first two characteristics, and is still perceived by most people in the United States as a dangerous place to go. After having been in both Jordan and Costa Rica, it’s fascinating to see how discourses of danger, conflict, peace, and safety actually play out in both countries.
In some regard, I feel both freer and safer in Costa Rica as a woman. In Jordan, I had to wear more conservative clothing in order to blend into the Muslim-majority society, worrying about my neckline, tightness, and how much skin I was exposing. Meanwhile, I’m free to wear almost anything I want in Costa Rica. While I was often catcalled in Jordan and many girls got proposals from taxi drivers, now I feel less like I have to worry about being yelled at or think about my personal safety while walking down the street. However, this perception is partly due to factors like language and seeing more people outside in Jordan. Here, I can understand much more easily what people say to me or each other in Spanish than I could in Arabic, so I’m less likely to perceive random comments as directed at me and it makes me less defensive. For example, last year I was walking down the street while listening to music in Washington, D.C., and I heard a man yelling something at me. Because I couldn’t hear or understand what he was saying, I assumed the worst and pulled out my headphones to yell back at him angrily, just in time to hear “I love your hair—that’s awesome!” Finally, while I may feel like it’s safer here for women, that doesn’t mean it’s true. There were no major incidents with girls in my program that I heard about in Jordan, but last week one of the girls studying abroad with me in Costa Rica came to class very shaken because a man had been following her down the street in a van, saying creepy things.
Despite the “conflict in the Middle East,” a phrase that is thrown around quite often, Jordan is very safe, and my time there reflected that. As my mom researched when I was preparing to go, Amman, Jordan has a lower crime rate than Washington, D.C., where I normally attend school. The apartment where I stayed in Amman with a host family was right next to a police station, and although the officers posted there with machine guns were intimidating, they helped a group of us find our way home on one of our first nights in the city and were a reassuring sign afterwards. Also, my friends and I walked all over the city during both day and night when we didn’t want to spend money on taxis, and never had any issues. Jordan was intimidating for me, as a woman with blond hair and little Arabic knowledge, but it was a safe and peaceful country.
On the other hand, Costa Rica is a popular tourist destination, compared favorably to other Central American countries that have problems with violence and gangs, but is perhaps less safe than “natural paradise” would suggest. Part of this is due to the very tourism that promotes the country and its safety—tourists are easy targets for petty theft, and often lose wallets, money, and smartphones. Even the monkeys join in, stealing food and occasionally other things from people at the beach. However, the residents are more careful. All the houses in San José have locked gates surrounding their yards, the doors lock with deadbolts, and the windows have metal bars on them. I was warned approximately 20 times in my first two days not to ever walk alone at night. Some of the crime risk here is due to drugs and gangs, similar to issues in México, Honduras, or El Salvador, and the police taking territory back. However, I’m not saying that everyone who knows me should worry something is going to happen to me. I’m staying in a safe neighborhood, being cautious, and enjoying my time here. I even get to wear shorts and skirts above the knee, which is very exciting after covering up in Jordan and spending Christmas in snowy northern Michigan. It may be a contrast to what I expected in terms of safety, but my time in Costa Rica will still be free of dangers, other than difficult classes and sunburn.