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Off the northern Caribbean coast of Panama is an archipelago of islands called Bocas del Toro. It means mouth of the bull, supposedly referring to a waterfall and was named by Columbus when he saw the resemblance. Today, perhaps the name would refer to the opening up of that wild creature known as tourism – it’s been a slow yawn so far, but once that mouth is wide open, it usually means there’s no shutting it up, or taming that bull.
I read on a website that Bocas has the distinction of being the only place in the world that all the different global variations of the big reality show “Survivor” have filmed at. I remember that the American version was around there years ago and it worried me that the place would never be the same again (as it was already on my list of unique places I wanted to visit while they remained unique). Then I read that every language version of Survivor has used the area, and I wondered if I’d arrive to a street with Survivor paraphenalia shops and every other T-shirt would say “Outwit, outplay, outlast.” I’m glad to report that I didn’t hear a word about the show while there, nor did I see a thing that reminded me of it except for windswept beaches ringed with palm trees.
Having been in Costa Rica about three months, it was time to leave the country for 72 hours and renew my visa so Roberto and I headed to these sweet Caribbean islands. For Roberto, it’s been ten years since he was there. This is where his father was from and Roberto can feel the pull of his roots, like a tidal current drawing him further out to sea.
It takes about three or four hours to get there from Cahuita. A bus ride to Sixaola, a walk across the rickety rackety old bridge over the Rio Sixaola which is the frontier between Costa Rica and Panama. A quick visit with the border guards. Then a bus or taxi to the port town of Almirantes and a water taxi over to the town of Bocas. We decided to head to the little town of Bastimento on a different island where Roberto had been and remembered it as a quiet place. The weekend of February 13 was the beginning of Carnival in Bocas and other places in Panama just as it would also be unraveling in Brazil and New Orleans. It was a good idea to get there early in the week and get ourselves a peaceful room before the fiestas began.
I love being in a water-based community, where yer horses are boats and everyone is paying attention to the clouds to read the upcoming weather. We had a combination of hot sun and some drizzly days. The sea breezes meant that it got a little cool once or twice.We chose not to take a boat trip out to a distant beach and through the National Marine Park where you can see dolphins because the waves looked like they’d take too much energy from us. Next time. We fell in love with the place enough to know that, si dios quiere, there will definitely be a next visit to Bocas del Toro.
We stayed in a very inexpensive room – $12 with private bath and a communal kitchen right on the water – at the Hospedaje Sea View. A simple wooden walkway connected the building to the covered dock where we spent hours swinging in the shaded hammocks, watching the boats come and go. Bocas area is the biggest touristic draw in Panama, after the Canal Zone, but in little Bastimento, you knew that the locals outnumbered the tourists by a large margin. The busiest sign of tourism is in the form of water taxis and tour boats.
And there were no mosquitos!
The island of Bastimento is quite big. There are different trails that lead you around the shoreline or up and over the higher land in the middle of the island. Everyone heads at some point over to Wizard Beach, a big sprawling, windswept beach with a good surf. There is a lot of tropical forest left standing all over the island, so you get the feeling of being in a muddy jungle for a few minutes before emerging on the beach.
You then walk through sand, swamp, mud and rock until you emerge on another smaller beach. You can continue doing this for a couple of more hours, through beautiful jungle, a breadfruit tree plantation, a topless beach (‘women only’ said the sign to noone there), and arriving at Red Frog Beach where there is a small bar and the beginning of a bit of new civilization. The beach is named after the little red frogs that are the poster boys of the place, getting scarce but apparently being bred for survival.
The only major sign of development that we came across on the island was the beginning of a resort with building lots divided up in this area where the red frogs live.When I googled Red Frog Beach, there is an amazing amount of people selling this island land out from the indigenous and local community – and it is scary to see what will become of the area. After walking for a couple of hours to get there, we opted to take a $3 water taxi back to the town. There is a parklike atmosphere with manicured trails and gardens that links the boat dock with the beach. We had hardly seen a soul on our walk there and we arrived to few people at the beach. But in short order many must have been dropped off by boats, because all of a sudden there were dozens of people around.
There were also a lot of children from the local community of Ngobe bugle – the indigenous settlement on that part of the island. We couldn’t figure the kids out but got a bad feeling about what all this new development and influx of foreigners was doing to the place. These young kids – from between four and eight years old – would approach the foreigners in silence. A couple of the older boys brought a little can with a red frog in it, and seemed to quietly be offering something in exchange for a dollar. But the others were almost mute, shy, and we didn’t know if they were under orders to go and beg but with no instruction. Or were they just curious? Groups of them would surround one or two tourists – they seemed to like the university-age white girls who maybe were friendlier or less threatening. But they wouldn’t ask for anything, just stare and not go away.
We bought a drink for one very quiet little boy, but other than that they left us alone – probably, as Roberto said, because they didn’t expect a black man to have money or were respectful of us as a couple while we were laying on the beach. These kids were not starving and their clothes were in good condition and clean and they’d happily play soccer when a tourist pulled out a ball. Maybe they are just passing their time, amusing themselves at the beach – but it did seem that they were wanting money, they just didn’t want or know how to ask. And they did speak Spanish as well as their own tongue and probably some English. This remains one of the unanswered mysteries that we left with.
Old Bank, the original name for the town of Bastimento, is built on the sheltered side of the island. Many of the hotels and restaurants are right on the water, built on stilt legs with long docks that steadily receive boat traffic. It is like a courtyard where everything is right at hand. There are no roads or cars or motorized vehicles – a wide concrete path wanders through the town with some other smaller dirt paths heading off to houses and a lot development on a hillside behind the town. It didn’t take long walking along that path to have met many of the locals and found our bearings.
Folks sat on the balconies and verandas, hanging over the railing, greeting each other. For such a small place, it was interesting that there were four languages being spoken by the locals – English, Spanish, the indigenous tongue and Guati, the local name for the Caribbean patois. People told us that the community is still very tight, holding on to the unity that they have, trying to hold on to their culture and keep tourism under control. One of the main signs of this is that footpath that links them all, people strolling up and down, deliveries coming in by boat, no motors heard on dry land. But once that toro’s mouth is open, quien sabe?
At Sea View, we shared the kitchen and hammock space with two other couples – a Portuguese/British couple, Shannon and Brett, and an Australian/Austrian pair, Paul and Lisa. I have to say that Paul and Lisa were particularly great folks to share a space with as they had just come from a coffee plantation tour and had a big bag of fresh coffee – unlike Costa Rica where there is lots of great coffee, we didn’t get such fine roast easily in Panama. They also shared chocolate cake that they got busy and baked one day. The last night together, which was Valentine’s Day, we all shared in making pizzas (thanks to Paul’s great dough-making) and were serenaded by Francis, the owner of the hotel, strumming his guitar and singing us love songs. He was a very gentle, humble host and we’d be happy to go and stay there again. There were a number of nice little hotels, many inexpensive and none horribly expensive, some on the water as we were, others up the hillside of the town, no doubt with great views over the bay.
For eating, the best food was next door at Roots Restaurant, which was always playing soca or reggae music that kept us rocking in our hammocks. We had delicious coconut-cooked fish and chicken there along with patacones (fried plantain). We liked having breakfast in the little waterfront restaurant called Alvin’s. The woman who ran the place was very friendly and funny and although she seemed casual about the place, she definitely knew her business.
We also made friends with one of the boat chauffeur’s, Louie. His family owns the Caribbean View Hotel in town, and he was always taking people on tours, but was friendly and came around often to talk, make sure we were okay. A beautiful young man with dreads and strong opinions, he could have been Roberto’s son. I didn’t get a good picture of him, but would recommend to anyone that you look up Louie at the Caribbean View…., and tell him the rasta from Cahuita and his Kween sent you.
As is too often the case, garbage was an issue – it was floating in off the sea, not properly taken care of in town, and they are no doubt incinerating it somewhere. In the bigger town of Bocas, I read that they were trying to recycle but people weren’t cooperating and those responsible for the program were running out of patience to keep doing it. Roberto will say to me that this is cultural, that he wasn’t taught to throw things in garbage cans. But my experience is that it is a lesson that comes with a little affluence and all the stuff that comes with it. Once a community starts receiving lots of products to sell, all of them in plastic wrapping or tin cans or…, then garbage starts becoming an issue. Twenty years ago, most of the refuse would be organic. People would buy in their own containers. Now everything is wrapped in single serving sizes as that’s all that many people can afford. And they triple wrap things like cookies as one little hole will invite a whole bunch of ants, quickly. And people start acquiring things that break or run out. And garbage becomes an issue that sooner or later, people who live together have to deal with.
We watched the garbage scow come and pick up the garbage left at the end of the docks. We watched the birds and dogs scavenging and pulling the garbage out to scatter it further. As humans, we seem to have a real bad habit of creating garbage – and wildlife have become addicted to it as well.
It was an hypnotic five days and nights in Bastimento, intoxicated by the sea, swinging hammocks, Caribbean food, lots of walking, friendly people. Each evening, we would hear a multitude of drums, the sound traveling to us from somewhere in the town. The second night, we wandered up the path to the sea-overlook which is the center park of town, and there we came across dozens of members of the community. The men and boys were drumming, the young women were choreographing a chant and dance, hips and arms pumping. The little park was filled with old men talking, kids playing, pregnant women resting in the cool breeze of the evening.
We found out that they were practising to take part in Carnaval, the big event coming up on the weekend in Bocas town. In Bastimento, there was always a lot of music around us – coming out of houses, boom boxes and restaurants – and we would have the chance to hear plenty more at Carnaval in Bocas.
Bastimento is a place that I could easily find a cheap rental and stay for a couple of months. Food was cheap and excellent, transportation was easy, rooms were inexpensive. People were kind and had a great energy. I could see living there and doing some writing – Roberto could probably spend the rest of his life in a hammock on the sea, rocking his roots. It was enchanting. We left this quiet refuge on the sixth day, and headed to Bocas,where Carnaval had started. We managed to secure a room for ourselves, and in the end stayed two nights, longer than planned. I’ll write about the music and fiesta of Bocas next time. The energy level went up, and so it must for me before I can put my thoughts in writing.
It is now September and, totally off my usual migratory schedule, I’m back in the north. Home in the Hammer, enjoying brilliant blue skies – even Hamilton Bay, the maligned body of water that shares its shores with steel companies and suburbia, has an aqua shine to it these days. I couldn’t ask for a better homecoming. My buddy with a bosom, Cocky, was at the airport to meet me, after her own month of travels. A treat to come home to, but now she’s gone too. I may get a chance to go for a sail on that same water if this weather holds for the Labour Day weekend which it is supposed to.
My last two weeks in Costa Rica were spent down in sweet calypsolandia, Cahuita. Although it rained lots in July on the Caribbean coast just as it had been up in Monteverde, I ended up being followed by beautiful weather from the green mountain to the seashore. There were some casual showers of course, and maybe one night of insistent rain, but the month of September in Cahuita means dry weather. Hard to fathom how, when it is hurricane season just to north, but I stopped trying to figure out weather a long time ago.
We got a lot of hot sunny days that sent us to the beach, but we mostly stayed at home. It was glorious to be back basking under those big trees, bathing in the cool water, being serenaded by the howlers and bailando with Roberto. I was amazed at how much the papaya seedlings we had planted in July had grown in the four or so weeks I was away. But then the growth of vegetation in Costa Rica always unnerves me a bit – you just don’t want to sit in one place too long if there is a vigorous-looking vine nearby.
One afternoon we went up to the Port of Limon, a place I really only have known as a bus-changing town. We walked around the ‘malecon’, the boardwalk that follows the seaside. Limon is one of the oldest cities in the Americas, having been visited by Christopher Columbus in 1502, so if it seems a little worn that should be understandable.
Development in Costa Rica by the Spaniards took place from the Pacific side, and so the Atlantic coast was left to fend for itself against all that crazy rainforest vegetation. In the mid-1800s the government decided to build a railroad and connect Limon (particularly its port) to the rest of the country. They brought in Chinese and Jamaican workers to build the tracks and thus the Caribbean coast is very much an extension of Afro-Caribbean culture with lots of chop suey houses around.
There is no denying racist elements that existed (and unfortunately still do.) When the railroad was finished and the banana plantations became a major employer, the black population provided the workforce. They weren’t encouraged to travel throughout the country, couldn’t afford it anyway, and the fact that they were foreigners themselves made it able to control their movements through their documents. Eventually they went to work in other parts of Costa Rica as laborers were needed and Afro-Caribbean families settled elsewhere in the country. But the heart of the calypso-blooded community will always be Limon.
The city developed once the railroad took off, but government money was never pouring their way. In the last year or two, there has been a move by the Costa Rican government to bring economic development to the area although people are waiting to see the proof. There was an attempt at revitalizing the waterfront of Limon several years ago, but earthquakes and storms destroyed much of the expanded boardwalk as well as what must have been a great little outdoor concert theatre in its short life. As Limon grows into a bigger cruise ship port (it is already a large commercial harbor and a popular cruise ship stop) hopefully some of the wealth that visits its shores will be spread in the area. Although Limon is known for its poverty, its richness of spirit and culture is as much a part of life there. The biggest threat to that, after poverty, is the drug trade which feeds on the poverty and changes the spirit.
The city has a funky flair to it and lots of local color, from the bright hues of the buildings to the cacao skin of the residents. When you take the highway east of San José, over the mountains of Braulio Carillo National Park, and through the miles of flat banana and pineapple fields, over the wide rivers coming out of the mountains and arrive in Limon province, you know you are in a different culture than in the rest of Costa Rica. The food changes – instead of arroz y frijoles, you are now eating rice and beans cooked in coconut milk; the music changes – from salsa and merengue to calypso, soca and reggae; and the language is English-based Limonense-Creole rather than Spanish. It seems that most people are fluently tri-lingual – speaking Tico Spanish and British English as well as their own Caribbean-tongue. It is a disappearing language as are many of the indigenous languages that are being used by less and less natives of Costa Rica. My experience being there with Roberto is that every plant, bird and insect has a different name in Limon than elsewhere in the country. The words are English-based, but the names are distinct to this region. I can get very lost trying to follow the lilt and tilt of the language used in Cahuita.
We had some beautiful days and were out on the ocean as often as we could force ourselves to go for the walk through the forest to the beach. There was another hot night spent in Puerto Viejo, which has a number of bars that cater to different crowds – we go to Maritza’s, which has a live band on Saturday nights and always plays a great variety of music for dancing from soca to salsa.
In the middle of all this it was my birthday and Roberto promised to go out in the sea and get me lobster for dinner. So we spent two fine mornings on the beach under a big sun, the sea a calm shiny turquoise stone. Roberto used to be a diver (snorkeler) and caught and sold octopus, fish and lobster, but quit a number of years ago as he saw the population of these sea creatures diminish. The banana plantations in the area have caused lots of pollution – from their chemical effluent to the silt run-off to the plastic bluebags that they put over the banana bunches – all this stuff ends up in the ocean and, along with a bad earthquake or two, things have never been the same.
But it didn’t take him long to get four nice-sized lobster for dinner and we were thankful for the bounty. We were blessed with the warmth of the sun and the beauty of the sea and took advantage to walk through Cahuita National Park’s shady trails, sharing our time with the monkeys.
Cahuita’s beaches are stunning and the National Park is one of the most beautiful in the country. Between the white sand beach, the reef off the point, the hours of hiking, the constant presence of birds, insects and animals, and the fact that you can enter for a small donation from the town access point, it makes for one of the nicest parks to visit in Costa Rica. They have built bridges over some of the swampier areas (where before there were submerged wooden walkways), using the same recycled-plastic material that the Monteverde Reserve has been using on its trails and signage for a few years now. It was interesting that we could smell the plastic off-gassing in the very hot sun – something that I’ve never noticed up in the cooler cloud forest.
We also continued taking care of Roberto’s little farm. We seeded corn and within three days it was two inches out of the ground – when I head back there in November I should be eating elotes, the young corncobs.
Roberto climbed up his castaña tree, the glamorous cousin of the breadfruit, to chop off the top limbs before it gets too tall and he won’t be able to harvest the fruit.
This tree is also growing on the bank of his stream and, knowing that it will fall one day, he has been concerned that if it is too tall it will fall on his casita. So I took pictures as he shimmied up the trunk and took his machete to the big elegant leaves and chopped off the top.
Afterward he said he was getting too old to do this stuff – between the possibility of falling, wasps, snakes, and other risks he felt lucky to get the job done in one piece – but my guess is he’ll keep climbing and chopping as long as he needs to, for as long as he is truly able. His age is just making him realize how vulnerable he is and that when it hurts, it hurts harder.
We went back through the mountains to San José for my last two days in the country. There was a full day of music awaiting us and we took advantage.
Wandering around the city, we caught the Lubin Barahona orchestra outside of the National Museum. It was big band music and boleros being sung by old timers.
The crowd was mostly older couples who were happy to be dancing on the street while the music played on and the rain held off. Like in most cities, there is live music playing for free to be found most weekends.
We then caught a gospel concert in the Melico Salazar Theatre at night – a contest between three local gospel choirs (won by the University choir) with Master Key (a five man acapella group from Costa Rica now working in the US)
with Manuel Obregon, a musician I’ve known for years in Monteverde (and seen him play here in Toronto twice). He’s one of the most experimental composers in the country – here he was playing gospel with our friend Tapado, the country’s top percussionist, at his side. Manuel never fails to amaze me with where his music takes him and he takes alot of other musicians along for his musical rides. The Let It Shine concert was presented by a gospel choir group and held to celebrate Black Culture Day, August 31. It was a great way to extend my time in the cultural richness of the Afro-Caribbean community.
The inevitableness of leaving woke me up early on the last day of August and when it is time to go, it is time. It makes saying goodbye easier when you know you are going to return within a couple of months (si dios quiere.) Heading to my happy home in the Hammer also makes things easier. I can still feel the Caribbean sun on my skin and if I listen hard enough, the gentle arrival of the waves lapping the beach and gently rocking my soul.
The mellowness of life in the jungle and on the sea exists in stark contrast to the busyness of my life back here in the city as I prepare for a trip to the northeastern US, continue overseeing the Spanish translation of Walking with Wolf, work on the historical record of Bosqueeterno S.A., and catch up with my northern friends.
Stay calm, Kay, stay calm – but keep that ball rolling, there is lots to do.
I spent the last week on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, living a very slothful existence. It isn’t hard to do that – the place is sleepy and the pace is slow. The week was rainy – it drizzled, it poured, it spit – and then the sun would shine and all would be forgiven. My friend Leila had her first taste of the towns of Cahuita and then Puerto Viejo – and, like me, finds herself a Cahuita girl. I wrote about this last year – how people are drawn to one of these communities more than the other – and once again lethargic Cahuita has won out over quaking Puerto with one of my friends. We spent one night – Leila and our friend Largo, and Roberto and I – listening to live music and dancing in Puerto – but were happy to leave the next day and head back to Cahuita were life is as slow as a sloth’s jig.
Sometimes life doesn’t work out as we think it will. I have told the story here of my friend Roberto Levey, a man I have loved for years and was reconnected with last June after a few years passed when I didn’t go to Cahuita. I have written of how he was united with his eighteen-year-old daughter from Australia in October and though plans were started for him to go there following the loss of his jungle home in the floods of early November, he decided that he didn’t want to go that far away from his home. Instead he has been rebuilding his little shack in the jungle (after a second flood took some more of his possessions, he finally gave up the spot that he was on and moved to higher ground where the flood waters didn’t reach.)
And though there was a connection made between him and his daughter and her mother that almost took him far away, when he decided not to go it opened the door to our relationship that has simmered for many years. Now it is a pot started with friendship and filled with chemistry that has boiled over with love and respect. So Roberto and I have started something, and only time will tell if it can endure the tests brought by long distance and cultural differences.
In our favor, we are both bush people as well as dancers, thinkers, talkers and naturally positive people who have cared for each other for years and know each other’s history. We both believe in the Dalai Lama’s philosophy of kindness. Roberto lives his life proudly with few possessions and refuses to fret about what he has lost – something I admire since I think that consumerism and desire for material comfort is one of the greatest demands placed on our earth. To be able to live so simply is a challenge but Roberto proves it can be done with grace and humor. He loves deeply and lives passionately and he has lost plenty in his life. As have most. And he endures.
The fact that we are both bush people cannot be undervalued – I don’t think Roberto ever thought he would know a woman who could live in his humble little shack on his wild piece of tropical rainforest. But when I spent my first night there last week, I told him it was just like camping – something I have done all my life, not excluding my years of living in a funky log cabin in northeastern Ontario without running water or electricity. Here, however, there are monkeys in the trees and the possibility that a poisonous snake may have moved in under your bed.
The mosquitoes weren’t as bad as they would be much of the camping season in the north but there’s a whole other buncha bugs here that cause nasty problems. The leaf cutter ants march on their employment lines everywhere, taking down the best of the vegetation. Then there is the botfly, the torsalo, whose eggs are deposited by a mosquito and grow into fat larva and eventually into another fly unless you squeeze the buggers out.
This is what I squeezed out of one of the bites. There was also a white maggot elsewhere… after a visit with some biologists in the know, I found out two importants things: if you put iodine on a suspicious bite right from the offset, you may prevent the growth of the eggs inside you. If you have a torsalo larva growing, put some oil on it – it will suffocate the beast and make it impossible for it to brace its little arms and hold on while you are trying to squeeze it out – instead you have greased its way. Zepol also works (sore muscle ointment) as an irritant for the the little intruders.
There are the sand flies (or maybe mosquitos) that cause papalomoyo (leishmaniasis) whose bite won’t heal and continues to grow into a huge scar of eaten flesh on your body. I’ve now experienced papalomoyo myself and have also had the intense pleasure(?) of extracting both the larva and the grown botfly out of Roberto’s backside. It is hard to explain the sensation of seeing the little hairs on the head of the creature appearing and then the fat maggot coming out. It is hard to squeeze the flesh of the person you love while they try not to scream in pain, but quite satisfying when the little bug pops out as if exploded from a cannon. Roberto has some great stories about these bugs but I don’t think I need to share them here as I can feel you squirming already. My work here is done.
The stream of water that flows through Roberto’s finca is fresh and clean and teaming with his little fish friends, his piranhitas, who clean his pots in a frenzy and nibble on your body when you sit in the aqua pools. He has seen a jaguarundi skulking about the banana plants and wild pigs rooting about as well as domestic ones that have come wandering down from a neighbor’s property. The bird, insect and amphibian songs fill the atmosphere throughout the day and all night long, coming at you from the tops of the trees to the forest floor, reaching a crescendo at dawn and dusk, songs I’ve never heard before. And the monkeys come to keep an eye on his progress as Roberto rebuilds his little hut.
One overcast gloomy day, we went for a walk north of town to where a friend of Roberto’s lived until he passed away recently. It was a sad day for Roberto who will miss his friend Jerry Lee. We passed the grown over ruins of Cahuita, houses that either had served their time and were abandoned, or which were never completed beyond someone’s dreams. The lush vegetation crawls everywhere and strangles everything it can.
We returned by the Black Beach, named for its black volcanic sand (that alone its great Reggae Bar), which was full with the flotsam and jetsam vomited from the sea after the weeks and months of rain. The beach was almost non-existent, replaced by mostly soggy organic refuse and the ubiquitous plastic bottles that wash up from everywhere. I couldn’t help but think of Roberto’s father, Bato, who lived much of his life in wild constructions on the beach made by materials the sea had deposited at his feet (see East Coast Pleasures post). It was a melancholy day already and the waves of debris that we walked through kept us quieter than usual.
The wet weather of the last few months seems to be affecting the wildlife. On the trail through Cahuita National Park, a lovely path just a few feet inland from the beach where you can walk in the shade, I saw two eyelash palm vipers one morning. I have only ever seen these in pictures yet by the end of the week I had seen four. Whether they were the same two seen twice or not, I don’t know, but they were sitting so close to the path, wrapped around small bushes, that a tourist, intent on watching a bird up high in the trees, was warned by the passing park ranger to move out of striking distance as they are quite venomous. The poor birdwatcher hadn’t realized how close he was to this bright yellow serpent. They are usually a little further back in the forest, not so noticeable, but the wet swampy land must have driven them to the drier ground of the pathway.
For three days and nights, sodden by intermittent showers, the howler monkeys roared. Well, they didn’t just roar, they moaned and groaned and lamented and pleaded and cried and chanted and carried on in a way that even Roberto, who has lived here most of his life, had to admit was very strange. I have certainly never heard them go on like this. We started getting a little paranoid when they seemed to react to our every move though we were inside the cabin we had rented (at Villa Delmar, a quiet grouping of cabins with kitchens on the edge of town, very sweet place.) We started looking out the window to the branches where the monkeys were perched, to see if they were watching us with binoculars they had stolen from some distracted tourist. I will never forget this chorus of primates and how they provided a mournful soundtrack to our own restlessness throughout these wet dreamy days.
A highlight of the week was heading up to the Sloth Sanctuary just north of Cahuita. Also known as Aviarios del Caribe, a bird sanctuary created in 1972 by a couple from Cahuita, it has become better known for its rehabilitation services for injured and orphaned sloths since receiving its first infant in 1992. This sloth is still there, Buttercup is her name, and I think she may have been Spielberg’s inspiration for E-T.
Roberto and his daughter had taken a baby sloth there that they had found in October and he knew that I would be fascinated by the place. So we went up and met the babies left behind when their mothers have been killed, the amputees whose limbs were lost to electrical wires or road accidents, and the long-term residents whose luck brought them from whatever danger they had encountered to the tender loving care of the Arroyo family.
Besides nursing the injured back to health and reintroducing the strong back into the wild, the center is very much a place of knowledge and information about sloths (also known as kukulas in Cahuita or peresozos in Spanish, from the word that means lazy.) There is much misinformation and falsehood spread about these gentle animals and the center makes it their duty to correct that as they study and amass understanding about the Bradypus and the Choloepus families (three and two toed sloths). It is well worth a stop at the Sloth Sanctuary, even if you never thought about these beautiful, humble soft little creatures before. There is perhaps a lot to be learned by their vegetarian, pacifistic and slow-moving ways. The world could no doubt benefit from their example of simple non-aggressive living. I think the Dalai Lama would be proud of the sloths as well as the people at the sloth center who have taken on their rehabilitation and protection.
I will be returning there in a couple of weeks to take some copies of Walking with Wolf to their gift shop. I look forward to spending a little more time amid their gentle ways and graceful movements. I’ll then walk back into the vibrant green forest to Roberto’s little humble shack and count my blessings. And suspend myself, in true sloth style, in a hammock, slung between trees, and contemplate my next very slow but deliberately pacifistic move which, I think, involves writing another book.