I had just come out of the Museo de Oro Precolombino and had emerged onto a very busy intersection. Masses of locals were hurrying about their day, not bothering to watch for oncoming traffic as they crossed the streets. Not wanting to stand out as a tourist as I determined how to find my next museum, I quickly sidled up to the building on the corner, letting others pass by me. Determined to remain unobtrusive, I pulled out my map from my purse and tried my best to unfold in only a little. I studied it for a while, glancing up occasionally to determine what streets made up the intersection before me.
I glanced up and saw an elderly man – probably in his 70’s – approach me, pointing at my map that I had tried so hard to minimize. I smiled and told him that yes, I could use a little help.
It turned out this man’s name was Solomon, he was in fact in his 70’s, and he knew exactly where I needed to go. He offered to walk with me some of the way since it was on his path anyway, and not wanting to be rude, I agreed, silently hoping he wouldn’t turn out to be creepy. (#BeenThere)
He was friendly and very chatty, but a far cry from creepy. In fact, my conversation with Solomon had been those most stimulating one all day. Over the course of our ten minute walk, he asked me where I was from and if I was Muslim. Answering affirmatively and that I was Pakistani American, he grinned and told me he was Jewish. I didn’t know how to react, so I just smiled and nodded.
More questions came. Among those were whether or not Muslims believed in Jesus (yes, but as a prophet), if I was from the same country as Malala (well, my parents are), and if people were treating me OK here (absolutely!)
By the time we parted ways, Solomon felt comfortable enough to offer me his phone number and told me that if I needed any help during my trip, I could reach out to him, his wife or his daughter. And then he lamented that such a young woman must be nervous, traveling all alone. (He guessed I was about 20. I laughed and thanked him for his misjudgment.)
Traveling as a Muslim woman is an interesting experience, and how I’m received by locals certainly differs wherever I go. My experiences in the U.S. and Europe are similar – people often think I’m Arab, that I’m an immigrant. I’ve found that people are more accepting in Europe of the fact that not all Americans look the same. Here in the U.S., there’s the occasional suspicious glance or glare, the odd cashier who’ll be super friendly and talkative with the person ahead of me but then fall completely silent when it’s my turn. There’s the occasional racial slur. But one thing I rarely get anywhere is questions. It’s like everyone’s already in the know and has chosen a side: Muslim-friendly or Muslim-hater.
In San José, however, it was different than anything I had experienced: my presence was met with…I guess the best word is curiosity. About Islam, about hijab, about Muslims on the news, about Muslim women and how they found me confusing because I was a conservative-looking Muslim wandering around alone in a foreign country. Where was my husband? Did my parents approve? Why didn’t I look like an angry terrorist, or a heartbroken refugee? According to the news, those were the faces of Islam.
On another free afternoon I had, I went looking for the Spirogyra Butterfly Garden and – because I’m me – I got lost. Again.
Cue the random construction worker nearby. He doesn’t look busy, as he’s just ambling down the sidewalk and whistling to himself. I ask him for directions. What should have been a 30 second interaction (he didn’t know where the garden was) turned into a 30 minute Q&A about Islam and our belief system (Um, hello! Don’t you have a building to build? I’m missing my butterflies!) As a devout Catholic, he wanted to know how Muslims were similar, and how we were different. What was our take on Jesus? Original sin? Afterlife? How is the Qur’an different from the Bible? He apologizes to me later about his inquisitiveness, and tells me that they don’t really have many Muslims around Costa Rica, and all they know about Islam is what they see on the news. He tells me he’s happy to have had such an interesting conversation, at which point he invites me to dinner. Alarmed at the turn this conversation has taken, I quickly remind him that I need to find the butterflies (I’ve missed them. The garden closes at 2:00) and also that I’m primarily in San José for work. I wish him well and hurry off.
Side note: I ended up having to circle back to that same street on which I had met the chatty construction worker and found myself power-walking my way down the sidewalk so as to avoid running into him again (I was super hungry and didn’t want to stop for anything but food!) While I didn’t see him, I did see a larger group of guys in construction hats across the street. One of them noticed me and beckoned me. “Pakistani!!” he called out. (Um. Yeah.) It turns out Mr. Chatty Construction Worker told his buddies about me, and Mr. Chatty Construction Worker #2 also wanted to have a theological chat with me.
While I am guilty of being a bit impatient when I’m hungry, I typically welcome questions and enjoy appeasing curiosity. If I couldn’t, I wouldn’t fare very well as a teacher. Admittedly, there are times though (besides hunger-induced moments) where I do get a bit annoyed – when curiosity tiptoes into the realm of assuming and accusing.
I joined a tour group to visit the Irazú Volcano towards the end of my trip. I had a wonderful time, although it took me a while to warm up to the other tourists in the van. There was an English mother-son pair that I got on with (I almost opened with “Oh, you’re English! I love Doctor Who!” but thought better of it), and then there was a Spanish couple on their honeymoon who were pleasantly surprised to learn that I spoke Spanish, and had asked me to interpret a few times for them and the English folks.
Then there was the German lady who lived in Colombia who kept to herself. Fair enough; I was doing the same for most of the drive to the volcano – I had woken up at 6 am with no time to caffeinate myself. We eventually spoke when we had reached the volcano and were taking photos of the crater. She was attempting a selfie so I offered to take her picture. Somehow, we got to chatting and when I told her I was travelling alone (same as her) she seemed stunned. She then asked me, “Isn’t that forbidden in Islam? Your parents let you travel alone?” and something in that question stung, like I was a child who had gotten caught sneaking out to the movies after my bed time.
Still, I never stop being polite. I get that from my mom, and all of the Jane Austen film adaptations I watch.
I explain to her that many Muslims have a conservative (and sometimes strong) take on gender propriety, and that sure, many Muslims would be in agreement that women shouldn’t travel alone. In fact, my parents feel that way. I, however, don’t…at least for myself. As a fairly independent person who was taught how to take care of myself, as someone who often travels to places where I can communicate in the country’s language, I do not feel that a man would fare better than me (or be safer) just because he’s a man. In fact, I often feel that my only disadvantage is my religions, not my gender – whether I’m thousands of miles away from home versus right outside my home. I have been harassed by strangers – in high school when I was still living under my parents’ roof; in college, when I was walking down the street with my sister; in California, right in the parking lot of my apartment complex; in D.C., when I was at a restaurant with my parents and sister. My point is: my safety is never guaranteed, whether I’m near, far, alone or accompanied. All I can do is make smart decisions to avoid trouble, and – if needed – be ready to knee someone in the groin and run (in case you’re curious: no, I haven’t had to do that yet.)
Prior to this trip, I hadn’t thought about how I might be received by others. I’m used to people seeing me, taking some guesses as to where I rate on the Muslim scale (Ethnic Muslim who has no interest in Islam, or ISIS operative. Yeah. It’s a weird scale.) People usually don’t want any help understanding my identity, or the vast diversity that makes up the Islamic spectrum. Perhaps it’s both a blessing and a curse – much our societies have become heterogeneous enough that people feel like they understand those who are different from them. The curse is that perhaps many of those who are complacent in their warped understanding are the ones who ought to be asking questions. It was a refreshing change, then, to be thrown with people daily in Costa Rica, who hadn’t yet committed to a Muslim-friendly/Muslim-wary side and were genuinely interested in understanding who I am.