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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.
New seasons always bring new surprises – I knew that it would be wet here in Monteverde at this time of the year. As I said in the blog yesterday, it has been really wet – although that is very recent, as in the day arrived. The rains came late and they were getting desperate for water here. Hard to believe for a rainforest but true. However, since I’ve been here, I’ve seen much more rain than sun… and I think I’ll be heading to the beach soon. It’s all panchos, hats, umbrellas and rubber boots. I sure wish I had Lori Yates’ flashy red flowered rubber cowboy boots…man, they’d be styling here!
The big surprise for me though was the delicate gossamer beauty of a termite’s wings. For most, termites is only a real big problem. Such as at Wolf’s house. In the chapter of Walking with Wolf, All Trails Lead to Home, you will read about Wolf and his termite problem in his house…well, basically waiting for them to bring the house down before he gets around to fixing it. So now his son Antonio is building them a new apartment (a barn penthouse I call it) over top of the barn. Once it is finished and Wolf and Lucky move there, they may fix up the house they have been living in for 40 years or they may just let the termites finish with it. In many places the wood is paper thin, cleaned out internally by the little pesks. What looks like wood planks and posts are now hollow paper beams. So there is a push on to finish the new living quarters before the walls literally come tumbling down.
In the meantime, as the rains begin, the termites come out and fly about and mate and lose their wings and die and….well, I don’t know what all…but I can tell you that last night as a bit of sun broke through the clouds at sunset, the sky filled with clouds of winged termites. Lucky systematically emptied her beautiful blue, green and gold glass bottle collection out of her windows and vacuumed up the termites that were resting on the ledges. I walked into my room, which has a skylight, and saw all these delicate floating petals – termite wings, tiny translucent feathers floating down from the ceiling. They were landing all over my clothes and I actually found the whole effect quite magical…but then, this isn’t my house that is hosting the hungry little critters. I doubt many people here find them delightful, but I’m trying to think up an art project that could use their shimmering beauty as a detail. Termite wings, who knew?