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One of the most constant, fascinating and sometimes frightening realities of life in Costa Rica is the presence of bugs – and I immediately must clarify that I mean the general word used for insects rather than the specific classification of the true bug – the Hemiptera - which is, of course, equally well represented here. I have had many friends visit from the north country who swear that they’ll never be able to deal with the spiders or scorpions or army ants, but they tend to get caught up in the exotic extremeness of it all and before you know it, they are drawn into bug-watching.
Having been a bush-living Canadian, I’m used to our own serious bug situation – as in a season that comes on strong in May with annoying mosquitoes, followed soon by clouds of black flies, with localized deer and horsefly outbreaks throughout the summer (personally I think we should be calling the largest of them the “moose fly”.) Then there are the big green horned worms on the tomatoes, the nasty little earwigs that get everywhere, and other garden-variety (and -centric) insects who fill out the non-frozen season. We don’t need to think so much about these things between September and April except for a few indoor creatures like spiders and cockroaches.
Then there is Costa Rica. The little isthmus with the mostest for biologists of all kinds, it particularly feeds the needs of the entomologists. At the University of Guelph in Ontario Canada, where I studied horticulture, the most enthusiastic prof I had, bar none, who drew us all in with his love of the subject, was he who taught us about the fascinating world of insects and the huge role that they play in our lives. Except for a general awareness of the fleeting beauty of the monarchs, the gentle crawl of the daddy-long-legs, and the constant chorus of the crickets, I just wasn’t paying that much attention to the insect world. But since having my eyes and mind opened by this bug freak (I’m sorry, the name escapes me – Second Year Entomology, U of Guelph, 1982 – great guy), I have a much greater respect for the winged and wingless, 4- or 100-legged, often camouflaged, and always outrageously designed phenomena known as bugs.
Monteverde draws in many biologists because of its great biodiversity and welcoming atmosphere for researchers. It is hard not to get caught up in the interest and knowledge that abounds out of these maniacs, I mean scientists. A social gathering here starts with guests walking in the door barely able to control their excitement, shouting, “Hey, you’ll never believe what creature we saw on the way here”, and at some inevitable point in the evening, everyone gathers at the window, identifying the hundreds of flying insects drawn by the interior lights. Costa Rica is one big cocktail party of creepy crawlies.
I’ve been waiting for 19 years to be struck by a scorpion in Monteverde. I’ve lived in houses here notorious for these hidden, hot-tailed alacrans, have seen many, even taken a mother with her brood of babies on her back home with me to Canada (by mistake) one year, but despite my expectations have yet to be strung by a scorpion. I’ve watched an assassin bug drag a tarantula across the road, drank tea with a woman friend as regiments of army ants marched their way across our ceiling, and been bitten by something hidden in a bag that made my finger throb for hours. I’ve also been bitten by many ants, fleas, bush lice, no-see-ums and sand flies, the thing that gave me papalomoya. Of course there are the mosquitoes which I find much less ferocious here than in the north (laid back like the people) though they can carry a powerful punch of malaria or dengue. And then there was the squeezing of the botfly larva out of my boyfriend’s butt (see Kukulas of Cahuita and…)…I’ve had my share of bug-related moments.
A year ago I wrote about being at Wolf and Lucky Guindon’s house when the termites erupted and for several days the house was filled with gossamer wings. A couple of weeks ago, Roberto and I returned to Cahuita, arriving in the late afternoon. We were nervous about what we would find – perhaps someone would have come and robbed the place or some natural disaster would have left trouble behind. Fortunately, all was in order and we could just sit down and relax, make coffee, do a little dancing in the fading daylight to the calypso music on the radio. We started to notice a few flying critters in the air and soon it was hard to ignore them. In short order there were clouds of termites, that they call ‘duck ants’ on the Caribbean, encircling us, darting into our eyes, getting tangled in Roberto’s dreads, making serious pests of themselves. The clouds were thickest right around the casita as the termites were probably erupting out of the old wood that was used in the structure and for firewood. We moved our dancing down the path a ways but they quickly followed, drawn by our movement and body heat I guess.
Now seriously annoyed, we decided to go lay on the bed where we would be safe under the mosquito net, but no, they were too attracted to us. Somehow their not-so-small bodies were able to stick through the fine netting and in no time they were crawling on the bed, through the sheets, over and under our bodies, dropping their wings, not biting but menacing nonetheless. We finally gave up, changed our clothes from those littered with discarded wings and tiny black bodies, and went to town. When we returned hours later there were no more flying critters in the dark, but the mosquito net was dark with their little carcasses and shorn wings. Fortunately that has been the only night that the termites came to town.
I’ve grown used to shaking out my shoes and clothes in case of intruders, and that just becomes habit as many stories I’ve heard from people being stung by scorpions were attacked from within their clothes. At Roberto’s I am now paying closer attention to everywhere I put my body. Besides the fact that a snake could have moved under the bed at any time, there is also the impressive and somewhat unsettling variety of spiders – large, colorful and quick. It could get ugly if you put your foot right on them as they crawl across the end of the outdoor daybed.
On our way to Cahuita from Monteverde, we passed through San Carlos, near Arenal Volcano, and stayed a few days at my friend Zulay’s. The area is on the Atlantic side of the Continental Divide and though many miles inland, the vegetation is very similar to the Caribbean.
I stopped to visit Gerardo, a friend from my first year here in Costa Rica. He was always a talented musician as well as an artist with wood. A couple years ago he opened a Wood Art Gallery on the road to La Fortuna’s waterfall where he displays his own sculptures, done out of fallen wood, as well as the work of other artists.
This stunning collection of wooden creations is displayed with the majestic volcano as a backdrop. The big beast has been belching a lot lately – they had to vacate the National Park once again because of activity. For forty years, Arenal has been an active volcano and that gives it the record for the longest-running active volcano in the world. And she doesn’t disappoint! Unless, of course, she is shrouded in clouds. Zulay and I brought home a variety of heliconia plants from Gerardo’s ever-expanding garden. By the time Roberto and I left Zulay’s for Cahuita, we had a bag full of cuttings, roots, seeds and branches which we planted following the full moon that was upon us.
The yard around the casita is becoming more and more diverse with our combined enthusiasm for gardening – Roberto mostly concerned about food crops, me adding a few flowers and colorful leaf varieties like the crotons. Since we recently left again for about a month (back up here in Monteverde), we no doubt will head home in August wondering if not only the house is okay but if all these plantings have survived in our absence.
I’m appreciative that, while we are out gallivanting about, there are bats, flycatchers and kingfishers on guard back there, doing their part to keep the insect masses in check.
That alone the lizards, salamanders and geckos, when they aren’t busy eating each other.
We aren’t that concerned about the new plantings getting water as July is a rainy month on the Caribbean and we have already seen great regular downpours. I’ve been digging trenches trying to direct the water away from our living space, but the paths fill quickly. It is something to watch the little benign Quebrada Suarez rise into a heavily flowing river in a matter of an hour, especially having the knowledge that it rose so high last November that it wiped out Roberto’s former rancho and swept all his belongings closer to the sea.
We won’t start thinking about all the possible calamities awaiting us in Cahuita until we get closer to heading back. Instead we’ll enjoy our time here in Monteverde where mosquitoes are rare (we don’t have to sleep under a mosquito net) but scorpions could be lurking…anywhere…
And a quick word on the Wolf. He is doing okay, although he is now injecting insulin rather than regulating his diabetes with pills. I think that will help to get him regulated although he still has a way to go in keeping his diet under control. He is presently in San José being equipped with a 24-hour monitor as a follow up to tests that were done a month ago. He told me on the phone (where he sounded strong and fine) that he has still had episodes – I’m prone to think that the combination of medications that he is taking, and the inevitable changing of them, is what is messing with him. Wolf will be turning 79 on August 17 – age is no doubt a factor, but don’t we know that drugs, and the unknowns involved when you combine them, can mess with your mind and body…Wolf just walked in to Cafe Cabure where I am working and said that except for low blood pressure that he experienced, there are still no answers. But he looks very alive to me – and is asking for coffee, so all is normal.
Well, what a difference a couple of weeks and several hundred feet in elevation can make! I am now at the beach, specifically Manuel Antonio, on the central Pacific coast. My Canadian friends Jeff, Randy and Kevin arrived in the country last week and I am their official guide, though my duties so far have consisted only of applying sunscreen to their backs – they have been taking care of me much more than I them.
I managed to have three great dates for Valentine’s Day which just passed – if you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the ones you’re with. We are heading up the mountain to Monteverde later today and have a date with Wolf to go walking tomorrow. I’m sure my credibility as a tour guide will be put to the test here sometime real soon.
The last two weeks were super full ones. The weather situation took several days to change from what I was describing at the end of the last post I wrote. I was cold, wet and windblown for several days before leaving Monteverde. When the weather there is bad, it can be horrendous. Although it wasn’t really raining (here rain has as many words to describe it as snow in the far north) when heavy mist is blowing at you from all directions at once, diagonally, vertically, horizontally, then you are going to get very wet and it doesn’t much matter what you call it. Anywhere else I have lived, wind like this means it’s blowing something in or out, whereas here, it just blows till the season wears itself out. The winds remained so powerful that I often had to take very serious samurai-warrior positions to hold myself upright while trying to walk along the road. Trees and their branches were down, as were the overhead wires in many places. I kept asking people how you know when a wire is alive and dangerous but all anyone could really suggest was just making a point of walking around them. Point taken.
On one of those very blustery and chilly nights, Wolf, Mercedes and I headed to the Hotel Montaña and had a wonderful dinner with the nice folks from Okayama, Japan. As I explained last post, this is the sister city of San José and the mayor, other officials and a group of interested citizens had come to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the relationship between their home towns. Our friend Takako was one of the organizers and guides (as was another friend, local guide Iko) and was responsible for getting us the invite to talk to the group about Monteverde’s history and eco-tourism in the area.
Nobody in the group besides the guides spoke much more than a few words of English nor was there any Spanish, so we spent an evening with much translating. Mostly we smiled, laughed, nodded our heads, and employed international sign language, and thus we managed to have a very warm encounter with the group. To a backdrop of photographic images that I put together, we welcomed them, explained a little history, and introduced Walking with Wolf to them. They presented us with some beautiful gifts from their city and shared their curiosity and friendliness as much as our language constraints would allow.
Just as the actual dinner part ended, all that wind outside managed to take the power out and the restaurant fell dark except for the candles already glowing on the tables. Although losing power can so often be a royal pain if you are engaged in something that definitely requires it, the truth is that some of the most magical moments I’ve experienced in Monteverde – and elsewhere – came when the plug was pulled and the night went natural and acoustic. My first year on the mountain, in 1990, I sat through a very moving and interestng presentation and discussion featuring Elizabeth Sartoris who wrote a book called Gaia and happened to be in Monteverde. She was extolling her ideas about the earth as a living being to a group of Quakers and scientists. The power was out and we sat in the shadows of the glowing candles, using people’s flashlights to spotlight the speakers. The differences in acceptance of her ideas between the academics and the local spiritual farmers was quite pronounced, but discussing ideas in soft voices and backlit by flickering flames seemed to bring everyone to a place of commonality in their thoughts. The earth’s loud voice as the powerful wind passed through the trees outside made its own point. It was one of the nights that made me appreciate the very special soul that exists in Monteverde.
So when the power went out the other night, about half of the Japanese were still interested in sitting with us and talking, so we moved to a lounge area, and by the light of the candles, carried on our discussion. Once again the subdued lighting and surrounding darkness begged us all to sit closer and there was a hushed sense to our voices.
The visitors wanted to know more about Wolf and asked a lot of questions about how the community grew and included the people who were already living here, the early Ticos, los campesinos – did they accept the changes that came or resent them? Between the three of us we told our versions of the story and Takako translated.
When it was getting late and Wolf and I finally said that we had to get going, an older Japanese gentleman, who had asked many questions, said that what he had learned was this: that although he had read about the conservation of the forest and was aware that Wolf and others had contributed a lot to the future of the trees in the area, he had now learned that much concern had also been given by the Quakers to the community itself and the future of the people in the area. When I explained how Wolf, as the original and long-term forest guard in the area, refused to carry a gun and thus had strongly influenced the next generation of guards to not carry arms but instead taught them by example to deal with adversaries with respect and humor, the kind folks gave him a round of applause. Something I think he deserves for many of his contributions, but I, like they, felt that this is a very significant legacy that he should be recognized for.
We sold a number of books and so now live with the thrill that Walking with Wolf has gone to Japan. Our very positive and energetic friend Takako, who we hadn’t seen since doing the hike with her which is the last chapter of the book, was thrilled to have put us all together and to see the completed book – when she saw her name in it and the couple lines I wrote about her, she was ecstatic. She said that she will look into the possibilities of getting it translated into Japanese – and I believe her. She is a doer and a great friend.
So thank you Takako along with all the other warm, smiling people of Okayama. I hope to visit your fair city one day.
The other highlight of my last couple of days in Monteverde before setting out for warmer climes, was tracking down the elusive George Powell. George is the founder of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, along with his ex-wife Harriett and Wolf, and is an internationally-renowned tropical biologist. I’ve known him since I arrived in Monteverde in 1990, first through Wolf and later when my friend the late Vicente Espinosa worked for him in the mid-nineties, chasing quetzals and bellbirds (which had been equipped with location transmitters) around Central America. I lived with Vicente and his wife Zulay, and George was around a lot in those days.
George still has a funky (and getting funkier by the year) cabin on a corner of Wolf’s land, sitting amongst a beautiful bit of primary forest. He is seldom here, as he has been involved for years not only with conservation projects here and elsewhere in Costa Rica but in many places including Peru and more recently in Madagascar. I haven’t seen him in years so it was well worth donning our rain ponchos and heading down the muddy path, under the constant drip from the soggy canopy, to visit him. He received us warmly and was thrilled to get a copy of the book. He is appreciative that Wolf and I managed to finish this project, to tell these tales in this book, to record the local history. I hope that when he gets around to reading it that he laughs at the stories we tell of him in his early days in Monteverde, eating black guans as Thanksgiving turkey and collared peccary as pork chops.
As I get serious about finding funding for the Spanish translation of the book, which is well underway in New Hampshire where Wolf’s son Carlos is doing the initial work, I take the opportunity to ask everyone I know who may have connections to funds to accomplish this. I will be making a second printing of the English version of the book this spring (the original 2000 will have been sold or distributed by May) but I can’t afford to fund the Spanish translation. The Tropical Science Center has contracted Carlos for the first stage of the work. We now look for donors to assure that the book gets completed and printed. So if anyone reading this has a suggestion for funding, please let me know.
With that in mind, I contacted the Canadian Embassy in San José and that lead to a very interesting lunch with two men from the Economic/Political Office there. I will write about this more in the future, but be assured, it is a wonderful thing to have the support of some people representing the Canadian government. They were keen, helpful, and our discussion lead to great possibilities for getting both some real financial support as well as the possibility of presenting the book – most likely waiting for the publication of the Spanish translation – at the embassy with the Ambassador, who apparently liked the letter I sent them and sees the value in the book. So my homework now (difficult though it is to pull myself away from the surf and sun and tour guide duties) is to write a proposal to the embassy.
Over a week ago, Veronica and Stuart came home, my doggy-duties ended and I was released to be able to leave Monteverde. So I left its cold, wet blowiness for much warmer if not dryer San Carlos, anxious to have a visit with my friend Zulay and family. Her niece Horiana has a new puppy Zeti, so I wasn’t totally without canine accompaniment but at a couple months he is already better trained than Betsy was back in Monteverde (see former posts.)
As it turned out, we had, as always, a wonderful time together (including hanging around the beautiful new springfed swimming pool) but it was also hampered by some of life’s realities. Zulay and her husband Keith were called away two of the five days I was there to attend funerals – people are buried quickly in this country where traditionally they don’t have the ability to keep bodies around for days, and so when the phone call comes announcing a death, preparations are made quickly for getting to the funeral as it will certainly take place within a day or two at the most.
The other thing that I have been dealing with over the last few weeks has been suffering the misery of boils and blood abcesses. I’m not sure why this has happened but it is common here in the tropics to have these nasty little pockets of pus on your body, especially in the kind of wet weather that we have been experiencing. First I had a boil in my nether-regions and it was extremely painful. Between epsom salt baths and applying sulpha (and a couple days of putting the leaves of hot chili peppers on it), I managed to get that under control and finished within about six days. But it wasn’t long before another nasty bubble started hurting on the back of my thigh. Traveling all day by bus over to Zulay’s wasn’t comfortable. Zulay and I tended to the beast but it wasn’t showing signs of curing and, in fact, a couple of days later another blister started on my lower back and I finally decided I better get antibiotics to get control of this. After googling information about all this, I decided the one on my leg was actually an abcess as opposed to a boil. It got infected and hurt a lot and oozed a lot of bad stuff out and well, you don’t need anymore details. And sorry about the photo – I know it isn’t good quality but do you really need to see it any better?
One thing I do know from experience and common knowledge is that you don’t mess with these things in the tropics as they can take forever to cure, can get seriously infected and become bigger problems to deal with. So since I left Zulay’s and came down here to the beach with the boys, my personal nurse Jeff has been tending to my wound, which is in a position that I can’t see except in mirrors – cleansing it and applying that wonder drug, sulpha, which they use a lot in this country for cows and these kinds of things like I have. Last year I used it to cure my papalamoya. So I’m big on sulpha drugs right now.
But my favorite treatment is to soak in the warm salty sea, for hours if necessary. I can feel it curing as the soft waves lap over me. And I think that is what I should do right now, while I still have a few hours left here on the beach. The boys are all awake and putting on their sunscreen and so I think it is time to get out there and do a little medicinal floating before we have to pack up and go back up that green mountain. It’s a harsh treatment, but nobody ever said I wasn’t tough.
I somehow find myself in my last week in Costa Rica. No matter how long I’m here, whether two months or six months, the time flies by. I never get to everything I want to, I don’t see everyone I want to, but I always seem to manage to experience a new part of the country and see some old friends who I missed the last time around. This year has been no exception – what has been exceptional has been the addition of Walking with Wolf in my life and now it is in the community and the country.
A book has a long life and so what I have missed in promoting it this time I will get to the next time. Wolf and I are still waiting for the interview that we did with Alex Leff of the English paper the Tico Times to appear. A month has passed and it hasn’t shown up, yet it was a great interview we thought. When I contacted Alex a couple of weeks ago about the state of the article, he admitted to me that he was still working on it but was having a problem interpreting Wolf from the taped conversation that we had. He said, ”I have a renewed appreciation of just what was involved for you in writing this book”. As in, how did I understand Wolf? Let’s just call it a sixth sense, luck and determination. So there is now only one Friday left, the publication day for Tico Times, before I leave. Who knows if the story will be there. I will start it all up again when I return next winter so am not worried.
The negotiations for the Spanish translation have also been stalled as we awaited word from Wolf’s son, Carlos, who lives and works in the northeastern USA. I just got word from him that he can’t come up with a price but does want to do the work. So before I leave, perhaps we’ll have a chance for one serious conversation with the Tropical Science Center who is interested in financing it, otherwise thank goodness for the internet and cheap long distance phone plans. This too will happen when it should.
The book is in many bookstores and selling. And those who have read it seem to really like it and appreciate the history it relates. For this, I am most grateful.
I have returned to San Carlos, to the base of Arenal Volcano, to be with my friends, the Martinez family, for a few days before I go. The last week I experienced a number of strange health issues. I had a twenty-four hour virus in Monteverde that felt like I had been hit by a truck, every bone and muscle, particularly my neck, very painful. It passed, but the sore neck part of it returned the day I got here and I’ve been receiving nightly neck massages which have helped. The virus didn’t affect my stomach or give me a headache, so I think that it isn’t dengue. One never knows around the tropics.
The other problem is the continuing saga of a bug bite that I got while on the Caribbean, that the folks here are quite sure is a nasty little number called papalamoya. Most Ticos I know, especially the ones who have lived part of their lives in the country, have big scars (usually round patches of rippled skin) from this bug that gets into their blood and takes forever to cure. The treatment usually involves injections of something nastier than the bug venum. In my eighteen years coming to Costa Rica, I’ve been waiting on two things – a scorpion bite and papalamoya. So far, I’ve evaded the scorpion bite, but I may finally have been caught by the bug that causes the other. I’m not really sure if it is a botfly or a sand fly or what it is (I’ve heard many versions) but I know the scar. So I am now using a country treatment – I’m using a cow drug called sulphatiasol ground up with fresh nutmeg and some of my own saliva which I plaster on the bite. Slowly but surely the big wound is shrinking in size and doesn’t look as nasty, but the new tough skin that the treatment forms must be softened and washed off a couple times a day and more guck put on and, well, it’s a process. The good news is that it hasn’t erupted anywhere else in my body, meaning that the venom hasn’t traveled in my bloodstream – she says hopefully. If I end up with a small scar on the back of my leg from this, well, it only makes me more Tica, something I am already in my heart and soul. In which case I will wear it like a badge of honor.
The final piece of bad news before I get to some good, is that last night, after we arrived back from our day spent on the beautiful Rio Celeste, we received the horrible news that Zulay’s nephew, Victor, who was just here with us up until a couple of days ago, had been shot by robbers trying to steal his motorcycle in the city of Alajuela. Unfortunately this is a more common occurrence here now. In fact, people say that they, los ladrones, will shoot you for a cell phone. I refuse to be overrun with fear and I’m not convinced that Costa Rica has become more crime-riddled than anywhere else, but I do know that the difference of rich and poor in this country has grown and the influx of serious drug-related activity has increased and this all means that it feels at times like there is a general air of lawlessness. My great sadness for the whole country is the amount of fear that people live with here. If they watch the news in the evening, they go to bed with these images of robberies and assaults on the streets in their heads. It reminds me of when I was young, living in the very safe suburban city of Burlington in southern Ontario, but we watched the Buffalo, New York, TV stations. It became very obvious over the years that some of these stations started their newscasts with all the street crime and police reports and so we were assaulted nightly with images of killings and armed robberies – as a kid I got very nervous, but sooner or later we realized that this was affecting us and we stopped watching those stations. And the news wasn’t even about our locality, where this stuff seldom happened, but it made us feel unsafe as well.
Now here in Costa Rica, people are living with this fear everywhere, in some places much more justified than in others. And when crime hits a family personally, as it just has this family, then it only reinforces the terrible possibilities. Victor, who is only 19 years old, as well as two of his brothers, has been assaulted before (while being robbed), and the story right now about last night is that he refused to give the motorcycle to the guys, who shot him in the lung, and then fled – well, my dear Victor, hand over the bike, please. But who knows what passes in the mind at a moment such as that? Anyway, I believe he is going to be okay, even if he loses his lung (and as this is published, he is past the danger). At least he is alive. And he kept his motorcycle. But a very troubling day for this family.
Before this tragedy yesterday, ten of us piled into two cars and drove fifty kilometers north of here to the town of Guatuso. Another fifteen kilometers or so, down a rough rocky road, took us to the entrance to Tenorio National Park and the magical Rio Celeste. I only started hearing about this place about two years ago, when it captured my attention and imagination, and find that it now shows up more and more in articles in tourist guides and newspapers. I know that as word gets out, people will go there, and am always happy to be there before the crowds, although there were several Ticos visiting, being the end of a 2 week school holiday. What a beautiful place.
The deep turquoise color of the river is caused by the convergence of two rivers which carry certain minerals – you can smell the sulphur – on which studies are being done to determine just what chemical reaction is occurring. We entered the area from the ”backside”. There is another entrance into Tenorio National Park from a place called Bijagua, from which I think the hike is longer. From our entrance, we hiked on very beautifully maintained wide muddy trails (remember, I know what rough trails in these mountains are).
You can walk to the teñidoras, the convergence of the two rivers where you see a grey-green river mixing with a yellowish river and very distinctly, at a line, becoming this brilliant blue. We walked in pure jungle, with twittering birds and a large variety of tropical plants and trees hanging over us, along with the occasional roar of Arenal Volcano but more often the loud cracking of thunder. Somehow we didn’t receive more than a drop of water on us, even though the thunder around us was ominous.
The trail was only maybe four kilometers long to get to everything – the convergence, the waterfall, the hot springs as well as a lookout and blue lagoon – unfortunately we didn’t make it to the last two because of time and that increasing threat of a big storm. The waterfall was out of the movies, the shady path along the cascading blue and white water was inviting, the meandering turquoise like a liquid jewel, and the hot springs were super hot. As in, you couldn’t put your hand into the water in places, it was boiling hot. In other places the cool mountain water flushed the hot water and created very comfortable pools to sit in, but if you happened to move out of the cool current and touch the hot mineral water, it scalded. Incredible.
We spent about four hours hiking and playing in the waters until the threatening storm sent us back to the car – and sure enough, we were just back on the road when the downpour came. Driving back from Guatuso we were facing Arenal Volcano which went in and out of clouds all the way, and lightning appeared and disappeared in various parts of the sky all the way home providing a light show of special effects. It is places like this and days like this that make Costa Rica the phenomenally intriguing place that it is – sadly, the spell is broken when you return home to bad news, but the splendour of the day isn’t negated, only temporarily replaced by life’s reality checks.
After those lovely few days of food and friends in San Carlos, I went to San José and on Monday morning met up with Wolf and Lucky. We dropped off books at Seventh Street Books with Marc, one of the owners who has been very helpful. We also left books with a couple of other chain bookstores who will hopefully decide to carry Walking with Wolf and place an order soon.
We spent an hour and half with Alex Leff, the reporter from Tico Times, the English weekly newspaper. He was very generous with his time and asked a lot of great questions that kept Wolf and I talking (HA! As if we needed help…) We walked with him and the photographer up to a park to take pictures that looked like we were surrounded by greenery. It will be interesting now to see how the photos and the story come out, but we both felt that Alex was truly interested in the book and the material and hopefully that will show up in his article.
We also left books with William Aspinall who owns the Observatory Lodge at Arenal. He was the director of the Monteverde Reserve when I first came in 1990 and happily took books to sell. It was great to see him after all these years.
Monday evening, I went and saw the recently released movie The Incredible Hulk. I had been an extra when it filmed in Hamilton last September. They had built a large false set that was meant to be Brooklyn in a couple of empty lots in downtown Hamilton. On the same block was scaffolding around the reconstruction of an old stone building that will be the first rooftop patio bar in the city, I believe it is called the London Tap House, and the filming included this construction site. Although I didn’t see myself, there were a few minutes in the movie that came out of that whole week of nighttime shooting that we did – and I’d say the London Tap House got as much screen time as anything else. Not my kind of movie, but I’ll still probably have to check out the DVD and scan the scenes where I’m running the streets to see if I can pick myself out in the crowd. It is fascinating to have participated in and seen how they make these movies.
We came back up the mountain yesterday to be here for today’s presentation of Walking with Wolf at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Since the maintenance crew and the forest guards were all in the forest the day of the community book launch, we felt it was only right to do something with them and the other employees of the Reserve where Wolf has worked all these years. The director, Carlos Hernandez, once again was very supportive in enabling as many of the workers to be there as possible, and Mercedes Diaz, who has been unfailingly helpful for the last year in keeping Wolf and I connected by internet, organized the event. Our heartfelt thanks goes out to both Carlos and Mercedes for the support they have given us.
Below: Luis Angel Obando, Head of Protection
Some other members of the community came as well as some of the guides who take people on nature hikes in the forest. Even the reclusive biologist, Alan Pounds, who plays a big role in the chapter on the golden toads, showed up. There were probably about forty people. It was as touching and poignant as the community book launch had been. It feels like family there, even for me, who only spends a part of each year here and only some of that at the Reserve. For Wolf, it has been his home away from home for many years. Many of the staff has been there a long time, like the Obando brothers, Lionel and Luis Angel, and the Brenes brothers, Miguel and Jose Luis. Much of the staff changes, new younger faces appear, yet there is a sense of history there and they are all very aware of the role Wolf has played in the development of the Reserve that now furnishes them with their jobs and the area with its beautiful protected forest. He is an elder in this community, an entertaining and dedicated figure that people don’t always understand but look up to and respect and thoroughly enjoy.
Since I knew that we would do the presentation in Spanish and it didn’t make sense to do a reading in English, I had thought that it would be good if we asked anyone there if they would like to share a story of walking or working with Wolf. So that was part of the program. Carlos introduced me and I gave the story of the beginnings of the book in the longest Spanish public talk I have ever given. I’m very comfortable with this gang, many of whom I’ve known since I came here, so stumbled my way through, knowing that they would be generous with their understanding of what I was trying to say. I don’t think I did too badly in the end (fortunately I’m far from a perfectionist, so speaking strangely in any language doesn’t bother me). We had the pictures showing on the screen as we had at the other presentation, many with folks from the Reserve, and of course people love seeing themselves and each other, so that was a great backdrop.
Before Wolf spoke, Carlos presented him with two plaques, one in English, one in Spanish, each with a picture of him and a summary of his story. Wolf’s son, Carlos, had asked me a year ago if I would write a short background on Wolf for something, and this is what appeared on the plaque in English, then translated in Spanish. These will hang in the restaurant of the casona at the entrance to the Reserve so that visitors will always be able to read about Wolf’s role in the preservation of these woods. Wolf was very touched – he was also given copies for his house. Carlos also gave him a beautiful wooden walking stick with an “I love Costa Rica” glass ball on the head of it. It was all very appropriate and kind and a really wonderful gesture to Wolf from his co-workers. I can’t overstate how much I appreciate Carlos Hernandez’ constant and respectful generosity to both Wolf and our book project.
The administrative assistant, Marjorie Cruz, then stood up and presented me with a beautiful arrangement of tropical flowers with thanks for the work I’ve done to record Wolf’s story. That was very much a surprise to me and, once again, very nice of them.
Mostly keeping his tears in check, Wolf spoke about his years of developing the Reserve and working with the Tropical Science Center, the satisfaction he gets of seeing the young staff carrying on his work, the thrill of watching the guides teach visitors about the flora and fauna, and the fact that it takes a community to do such great things. He is always humble when he speaks about his contributions.
Wolf’s son Ricky with his son Francis on his lap
Marjorie than asked if anyone would like to share their own experiences and several people stood up and spoke – some with stories, some just expressing their gratitude to Wolf for the work he has done, some stating how glad they were that his stories and history have been recorded while he was still alive and able to see the book in print. They all expressed, in different ways, the realization that what they were doing today came from Wolf’s hard work and gentle ways and that this would live on forever both in the spirit of the preserved forest and the pages of Walking with Wolf. Wolf’s son Ricky, who hadn’t been able to be at the other presentation, was there today and took the opportunity to stand and publicly embrace his father.
Miguel Leiton’s son, William, also spoke of the great relationship between his family and the Guindon’s and how his father was there today in spirit; Adrian Mendez, an employee of the Reserve since he was a teenager, now a professional guide, also spoke of the role Wolf had played in influencing the direction of his life.
William Leiton on right, with the elusive Alan Pounds in the blue
We laughed a lot, soft tears were shed, great stories were shared, then coffee and treats were had by all. We took a group picture of the Reserve staff, although some had already left to get back to work and others had been left behind to run things while the rest participated. The morning couldn’t have been nicer, the gestures kinder, the faces friendlier, or Wolf and I happier. Gracias ustedes, es un honor ser un parte de esta communidad.
It is morning – you can tell by the chorus of birdcalls and the chanting of the howler monkey. I think it is going to rain for, according to Wolf, the monkeys sing out at dawn and dusk but also to complain that the rains are coming. It is so hot and humid here in San Carlos, and the clouds are sitting so low, that I’d say the howler is probably correct. I think it is going to pour.
Last week while I was still in Monteverde, I was soundly asleep when all of a sudden there was a huge roar right outside my window. A congo (howler) was in the tree not ten feet from my window, about twenty feet from my bed. He was so close that I could hear the roar gurgling up in his throat, like coffee rising in the stem of the percolator getting ready to boil. I’ve heard these roars a hundred times, from a tent in the forest, and from a tree at the side of a trail. But nothing prepared me for the force that came out of that monkey that morning at 5 a.m. I woke with a start at the sound of it, looked at the clock, realized I had no intention of staying awake and once my heart beat slowed, I thought about falling back to sleep. However, every time I was just about back in dreamland, the guy started roaring again. I ended up lying in bed just listening to that roar in his throat building in force until he released his monkey-like cockadoodledo. Later in the day I ran into a neighbor who asked me if I had heard that monkey – how could I have missed him? She also couldn’t get back to sleep – a second monkey in a different troop was close to her house and these two guys seemed intent on keeping us awake that morning.
I can hear one outside now but he is probably half a mile away, which is an acceptable distance, so his roar is no louder than the rumble from the volcano. I’m up already anyway, getting ready to pack and leave for Alajuela and a family fiesta with Zulay before heading into San José for the big interview with the Tico Times tomorrow. The other thing that is telling me it is morning is the aroma coming from the kitchen – fresh Costa Rican coffee and gallo pinto (rice and beans) made with Lizano, the Costa Rican condiment of choice.
Last night we had Nectaly, Zulay’s cousin, over so we made a big pot of olla de carne – that is, a meat and vegetable soup/stew. I love this dish as it gives you a little of the redder-than-usual beef that is pasture fed along with a wide selection of the root crops, squashes and other veggies which are common here but more difficult to find imported in Canada – yucca, yampi, tekiske, elote, ayote, chayote, camote…bueno, there are many.
Nectaly waiting for Zulay to serve up the olla de carne
The last few days here we have been feasting on tamales which in Costa Rica are made with a milled and cooked corn mash, rolled with some vegies and chicken or pork inside leaves from the banana family and steamed; pejibayes, served with mayonnaise, which is the fruit of a specific palm tree and a food that sustained the natives for centuries and my absolutely favorite food here; breadfruit, a ball of dense vegetable that grows on the most beautiful large-leafed tree I know; and the nuts of the castaña, the false breadfruit tree.
I’ve been lucky in my life here in Costa Rica to have been introduced by my Tico friends to a wide variety of exotic fruits and vegetables, animals and even insects. I’ve spent hours pulling snails, sea cockroaches and other small critters out of tidal pools and off the rocks, then painstakingly cleaning the sand and refuse out of them to make a seafood and rice gastronomic delight. I’ve tried a bit of everything including iguana, armadillo (both with chickeny or rabbity-like meat), tepizcuentle (a small rodent-type animal that is known to be the best meat around and is now farmed – and truly tasty), and my first year here I ate turtle. I know that it was completely not right but I was staying with locals at the time on the Caribbean and they were still killing turtles for food then. And as I ate the tender pieces of juicy meat served in a spicy salsa, I have to say I understood immediately why people would eat these now endangered creatures – they are the filet mignon of the sea, a little bit fine steak, a little bit lobster. I also very politically-incorrectly sucked a turtle egg one night, but I won’t get into that….the event just about wiped out my reputation as having a social-conscience and all I can say is that it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Most people when they come to Costa Rica eat rice and beans in some form or other, as well as rice with chicken or shrimp, or casada – the daily meal named after what wives serve up for their husbands, combining a mixture of the more inexpensive foods that can be served up on anyone’s table (rice, beans, cabbage salad, ripe plantain and a protein such as egg, cheese, or meat), fresh fish at the beach, chicken or pork when inland. But if you get outside of the restaurants, and are willing to try new foods, there is no end to the variety here. Papaya, mango, pineapple, avocado and banana are common and can be bought anywhere – when in season, they are of course much sweeter and tastier here than you would ever experience with imported ones in the northern world. But there is also caimito, mamones chinos, guanabanas, guayabas, well the list goes on. And each one has its own flavor and texture. I’ve learned that mamones (a variety of lychee nut) are great for traveling as you crack open the colorful spikey skin and get a grape-like juicy treat from inside with a minimum of fuss and mess; that green mangos with salt and lime are very satisfying to curb your hunger; that there are a whole bunch of different fruits that involve sucking sweet white flesh from around large seeds inside pods, such as guavas or anona or cacao; that there are several varieties of citrus, including lemons and limes as we know them, but also sweet or sour, orange or green limones and oranges; that there is a tree that grows little fruit that taste like cookies and I never remember what they are really called so I just call it the cookie tree and love the little fruit whenever I find them; and that nanci, a small yellow fruit the size of a small crabapple, can be soaked in guaro, the national cane liquor, making what I call an authentic Tico martini.
A sampling of Tico food – a partially-used breadfruit (which became the centerpiece above); the nuts of its cousin, the castaña; pejiballes; papaya; creamy avocado and the leftovers of a tamale.
Of course in many parts of the country the influence of foreigners has brought new kinds of cooking, new spices, new flavors. When I first came in 1990, I couldn’t find a satisfying piece of pizza if my life depended on it (and sometimes I felt like it did) but now I’d say that the pizza you can get here, often in Italian-owned restaurants, is better than what I find in Canada (or you can go to Pizza Hut if you are so inclined). The variety of fish – red snapper, tilapia, seabass, calamari, shrimp – often cooked with a generous dose of garlic, keeps my seal-like tendencies very satisfied. I wouldn’t say that in general Costa Rica is known for its fine cuisine, but the freshness of its food often balances out the simplicity of its preparation. The jar of hot chili peppers, onions and vinegar that is often sitting waiting on the table as a condiment adds some spicy flavor. And the large presence of other cultures here means that you can find fusion-foods to die for in communities all over the country.
Then there is the question of red beans verses black beans – there is a whole discussion here about the intelligence, virility and general sex appeal of those who indulge in one type or the other (and we are talking daily), depending on which community you are in, but I’ve never really formed an opinion on that so will stay out of the controversy. But I will give you a small cooking tip – when preparing black bean dip to serve with nachos, a little leftover strong coffee and a touch of sugar adds great flavor. Mmmmmm, coffee, time to get the day started.
Beautiful Marilyn, Zulay’s niece – raised on red or black???
You have to love a country where you can go from cool cloud forest to hot tropical beach to the base of an active volcano in a matter of hours. The San Carlos region of Costa Rica, north of the central valley where the capital city San José lies, has always been one of my favorite places to be. A big part of that is the family I’ve known since I first came here in 1990: Zulay Martinez and her sister Vilma, Vilma´s husband Horacio and their four children, Marilyn, Jason, Andrey and Keíla Horiana. Andrey is in Walking with Wolf as he was one of the participants on the hike that makes up the last chapter, Across the Wrinkled Ridges.
I came over to volunteer in the small pueblo of San José de La Tigra in my third month in Costa Rica, when I spoke basically no Spanish, and lived for a month with a poor campesino family, the Morales. Zulay and her ex-husband Vicente, along with Vilma, Horacio, Marilyn and Jason, who was just a baby, lived down in the village, while the Morales lived in a small farmhouse straight up the mountain 800 metres. I was getting very weak from the yet-undiagnosed cancer, and that hike up the mountain just about killed me. So I started staying at Zulay’s, as Vicente was so often away and she liked the company. She became one of my first Spanish teachers. In her patient manner, she pronounciated words as we discussed ideas, she taught me how to cook Tica-style, and we discovered that we were sisters of a soul-sort. When she split with Vicente, who has since died from cancer, she went to work in Canada for the Bair family, friends who I’d met in Monteverde. She met Keith Maves in Pembroke, Ontario and married him about eleven years ago. They returned to San Carlos, bought a beautiful piece of property which they have been planting with every type of tree, bush, flower and fruit that you can imagine. Down here, you can push a dead stick into the ground and as often as not, it will be a bush within a year. Even here many things take much more care and time than that, but the rate of growth in the tropics is shocking to a Canadian like myself, who has coddled along shrubs and perennials for years before they finally set well enough to really take off.
Their property has a small pond where I would swim up until the fish stock got too hardy and the pair of ducks moved in – it isn’t as welcoming anymore. Now there’s a series of cement fish ponds where they are raising bass, an open air rancho where groups of visitors can be fed and entertained, a greenhouse to grow vegetables that don’t stand up to the harsh sun or strong rains without some protection, and a swimming pool is being cemented in as I type. Next time I come I’ll be swimming again here at the beautiful Jardin Botanico Las Delicias. San Carlos is much hotter than Monteverde but not as sunny as the beach, receiving a significant amount of year-round rain - and it is a territory with more plant and bird species than you can imagine. Since the summer has ended and the steady rains have begun, the flowers and fruits are at their peak – there is no end to the vibrant colors that jump out of the green landscape and the twittering sounds that rise from the bushes.
As a backdrop to all this is that amazing volcano, Arenal. Back in 1990, you could access the base of it and get close enough to feel the heat in the ground. The congestion now of hotels, parks, hot springs and private lands has meant that it is hard to get too close without paying money to somebody, but just standing back from any vantage point and gazing on its conical shape against the bright blue sky, waiting for a puff of smoke to escape, is magical. The first time I came to La Fortuna, the town at the base of the volcano, and stayed with cousins of Zulay, you could go to the now famous and frightfully expensive Tabacon Hot Springs and bathe all day for 100 colones (about a dollar at the time). I believe it now costs about $45 for any period of the day you want to spend there. I know that the gardens are beautiful and the resort is well-designed, but I prefer going upstream to where you can wander into the forest and sit in the warm sulphur waters for free, or if I’m with civilized folks, going to one of the half dozen other hotels that offer the same water at a much more reasonable price.
My first visit to Tabacon was on a rainy evening and at times it was a hard deluge falling on us as we floated about in the naturally-heated pool. It had been nighttime dark for awhile, as well as completely overcast, and I had basically forgotten that a huge volcano was looming in the background, only kilometers from where we were soaking. At one point, the rains let up for a few minutes, the dense cloud cover broke into pockets of fluff, and suddenly a loud rumble started from the belly of the earth until it boomed somewhere up above. From my watery lounge-chair, I turned in time to see the orange, yellow and red fireworks escape the volcano in a pyro-technical explosion, the red lava then dropping down the sides of the cone until the perfect shape of the pyramid was defined. I probably would have drowned awestruck if the water had been deeper. As quickly as it appeared, the clouds moved back in and wiped out any mention of the eruption. I will never forget the power, intensity and sheer drama of those few moments spent bathing in the shadow of the volcano.
Arenal is quite active but one must have luck to see it as much of the time the clouds sit low and you have no idea that a volcano is hovering nearby. The dammed Arenal River, now Arenal Lake, is at its base and that is, in itself, a beauty to behold. This area of Costa Rica is as unique as any other, perhaps more so, and has become a prime tourist destination, for where else can you go and get all these landscapes at once, along with the possibility of witnessing a volcanic eruption. However, many people come here for one or two days or more, and never see anything beyond the dense grey clouds and the dark green forest at the bottom of the cone – I guess they go home and watch videos to get a better idea of what they missed. Others who have luck, as I did on that first night, get the full floor show without even thinking about it. Life is sometimes like that.
Today Zulay, Vilma and I head up to the Arenal Observatory Lodge, on the southwest side of the cone, which is where Wolf’s Tapir Trail arrives after twisting its way from Monteverde along the forested ridgebacks heading northeast to Arenal. I’m distributing books (this is a business trip after all) and waiting for the light cloud cover to clear so that I can hopefully see smokey puffs escaping, the sign of a small eruption - it’s a “be careful what you wish for” scenario, as one should never wish for a grand eruption. Zulay and Vilma remember being young teenagers when the big eruption on July 29, 1968 sent rocks, ash, cinders and gases throughout the area and killed over eighty people. They told me that about a week before there had been an earthquake at 8 in the morning and their mother thought it could have been caused by the volcano. Through the week there were several smaller eruptions, including one that killed some people close to the volcano, poisoned by the toxic gases. The morning of July 29 dawned very clear and perfectly beautiful, like the last moment of life before death, the calm before the storm. It then got very dark as when a horrible disturbance is coming. Around 2 in the afternoon, while the kids were in school, the volcano erupted in a grand manner, sending a huge cloud of rock and hot ash over the countryside, including where the Martinez family was, perhaps thirty kilometers away. As the cloud of certain death blew over them, they all ran for shelter, as far and as fast as they could go. If you went in the wrong direction, as a neighbor’s horse did, you could be hit by a flying hot rock. Zulay watched the horse go down, shot by nature’s artillery. The people who died were mostly close to the volcano, killed by the gases or directly hit by rocks or burned and smothered by hot ash. As Vilma told me, not knowing where to run and how to escape left her quaking with fear in her bed for weeks. It remains a very scary experience for her and even living this close, now about twenty kilometers away from the base, is close enough to Arenal’s regal beauty for her. Recently the volcano has been very active, spewing rocks so much that last week they closed the National Park that sits at its base. Better safe than sorry. The most recent deaths that have occurred on this volcano have come from explorers venturing too close – a plane crashed a few years ago while taking sightseers on a fatal tour, and another man died on the side of the volcano, hit by hot lava rocks, a volcanic bowling fiasco.
We stopped by the farmers’ market held in la Fortuna yesterday, and I ran into Gerardo and Jimmy Morales, the people I had originally stayed with up the mountain in San José de La Tigra eighteen years ago. They sell their produce there. It was a great reunion, poor Gerardo being thrown off by my sudden appearance. Jimmy’s wife Carmen, who is usually there selling tamales, is at home with their three children who, along with a half dozen other neighbors, have dengue. Not a good scenario. Somehow the nasty mosquitos responsible have made their way inland to this little town in the mountains only 10 kilometers from here. I guess we won’t be visiting anybody there too soon. Instead I will stay on the farm until I have to go to San José on Sunday.