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I’m now back in San José, Costa Rica. Let’s get straight to the good news: two days ago, Wolf was released from the hospital. He is now very happily at his home in Monteverde. He is free of infection – may he remain that way for a very long time. He is taking medications that are keeping him alert and relatively clear but also allowing sleep (for everyone). I have spoken with him a couple of times and he is full of plans and optimistic.

On the book front, I have been snarled in the red tape of dealing with a big company, Café Britt, in Costa Rica. My contact there has been very helpful and most supportive, but there are procedures that one can’t get around regarding details like commercial invoices. With the help of the exceptionally wonderful Deb Hamilton in Monteverde (of Chunches Bookstore and the Bellbird Conservation Project) I think I have jumped through the last hoop to get the books into the airport stores for the thirty day trial.  As soon as I know they are on the shelves, barring any more unforeseen issues, I will let y’all know so that you can hopefully spread the word to travelers who may be able to buy a copy and help us secure a bigger contract.

Next week I will continue working with Lester Gomez, who is editing the Spanish translation of the book. We spent several hours together before I went to Guatemala and have many more days of work to finish. He is very keen about the project, even more so after talking directly with me about Wolf, Monteverde and this great project of love. He has become a valuable part of the team that keeps Wolf’s stories spreading further. I think the published book is beginning to come to a boil.

But it is really Guatemala that I want to write about. After those great few days in beautiful Antigua with EDITUS, I went up to San Pedro la Laguna on magical Lake Atitlan. There are other ways of describing this place – spiritual, serene, stunning – but magical is how it seems to me. The clouds and light and winds are constantly shifting. Tinkling laughter floats past, voices of ancient tongues rise then disperse, the spirits of the ancestors linger by the shore caught between the old world of their existence and the new world of change.

Owners of land within one hundred meters of the lake edge keep an eye on the rising water that has already drowned many individuals’ concrete dreams. All eyes are on the Mayan calendar that marks only twenty-two more months before turning its final page and we head precariously into the next five thousand years.

I was visiting my friends Treeza and Rick who built a comfortable beautiful home last year. Their property originally ran from the walking path down to the water’s edge – about 150 feet. In this last year they have lost more than fifty of those precious feet. They had a concrete gateway that is now in the water, their property line moved back substantially.

The good news is they now have waterfront property with American coots and other water birds floating in the marsh, men harvesting tule (reeds used for mats and baskets) from their wooden kayaks, local women washing their endless piles of clothes just over the bamboo fence that surrounds their property.

I was told that the lake, a cauldron surrounded by volcanoes whose slopes host several indigenous villages, has no natural outlet. It is a catch basin and, in the same extreme weather period that the whole world is experiencing, heavy rainfall has kept the lake on a steady rise. It is already the deepest lake in Central America and, it would seem, it’s getting deeper each rainy season.

Last year, the lake and all the living creatures that depend on its benevolence suffered from a serious outbreak of a Lyngbya microorganism (or cyanobacteria) which spread rapidly, forming mats of fibrous scum that floated on the surface. This was fed by the high levels of phosphorous and nitrogen that are in the fertilizers being used around the lake for the coffee crops as well as the wide variety of farm crops – corn, onions, lettuce, strawberries, cabbage and on and on. Untreated sewage flowing directly into the lake from the growing communities, introduced fish species that have diminished populations of endemic feeders, and a rising water temperature (that ol’ global warming) have created an environmental disaster that has affected every aspect of life on this beautiful landscape.

The Kaqchikel and Tz’utujil people continue their subsistence farming, speak their Mayan languages and wear their colourful traditional clothing. The culture is strong but change is everywhere led by these environmental challenges and tourism. Like in all places dependent on that fickle industry, the rise and fall of tourist numbers either over-stresses people and systems at its height or leaves boats empty and vendors’ stalls abandoned when numbers drop. After millennia of clean water supplies, the communities are now warned not to drink the water that alone bathe in it.     

Groups of women and children worked together to remove the mats of scum. There was little of it apparent last week so it is either under control or conditions are less favourable right now. The day Rick and I went out in a kayak, we returned to find a large group of local Mayan fishermen cleaning up the trash – both plastic and natural – along the shore. With the problems they are encountering, it will take a village – as well as a reluctant government’s money and international aid – to take care of this priceless aquatic and volcanic heaven.

People I met when I was in San Pedro two years ago told me that this last year was very hard for the lack of business due to the harsh weather and the bacteria-story keeping tourists away, besides the devastation caused by the rising water level. Then there were the serious landslides that washed many homes down in a river of mud and rock. If there is any truth to the prophesy that there will be mass confusion and disasters in the lead up to 2012, San Pedro may be a micro-example of what is to come.

A Canadian who has been in San Pedro for many years, Dave, lost his home and two of his dogs to a landslide last year. He closed one restaurant and then reopened a new one with new partners called Bubuluski’s. On Friday nights they have “white table cloth dinners” – fixed menu theme dinners. I was there for Romanian night. Felicia, a co-partner in the restaurant and a Romanian, created a beautiful menu of cabbage rolls (sarmale), a vegetable casserole (ghiveci) and tochitura which is tasty roasted pork in wine sauce. There was a fantastic beef salad as an appetizer and a chocolate desert. All this for about $7.50! Food in Guatemala is so cheap and in San Pedro, fantastic food abounds.

I went on a hike one morning with Dave, his two dogs Can Can and Mimi, and Steve, a sweet man from Oregon, through the community of T’zununa to a waterfall. As almost every day at this time of the year is on the lake, it was hot and sunny. We walked in searing sunlight up an exposed rocky trail. I felt the elevation – about 3500 meters or twice that of Monteverde – in my breathing. Arriving to the cool mist of this fresh mountain water stream was a just reward.

Another day I went by boat with another lovely man from Oregon, Michael, to the town of Santiago. I had seen the textiles from this town that feature beautiful embroidered birds and so I went to buy myself a bag with birds on it. Michael is old friends with Dave, the owner of the Posada de Santiago, a hotel and restaurant that’s been growing for 35 years. I have to say that I had a glorious French Onion Soup (of which I’m a connoisseur) for lunch, a tasty Caesar salad and excellent Bloody Mary. Next time on the lake, I’ll return to this restaurant for its great food and the possibility of hearing live music, something it is renowned for.  

One of the hottest food tickets in San Pedro happens only on Sundays. A big red-headed character named Nestor Castillo has created Smokin’ Joe’s BBQ. He started a couple of years ago with his own line of salsas and smoked meats and it has grown into BBQ gone wild! Held at la Piscina – a happening bar and swimming pool scene I wrote a lot about two years ago – Nestor keeps the BBQ hot for a huge menu until he runs out. People now come from all over the lake for his excellent products – meat, chicken and tuna steaks augmented by several sides of salads and vegetable dishes. I think this guy should be on the Food Channel and it is only a matter of time until somebody discovers him both for the great food he makes and his kinda crazy manner, that alone the cool order delivery system he has – a wire strung between where his wife sits at the bar taking orders and Nestor controlling the fire. She slings a clothes-peg carrying the little order paper across the yard with a “whhhhhinggggg” to Nestor. If you go to San pedro, don’t miss it!

Another thing not to miss is this – the finest hot stone massage you could ask for – two hours of slippery rock bliss, herbal seduction and the magic hands of Andrea, another Canadian living the good life in San Pedro. Follow the signs that are on the eastern side of town. For just over $25 US, you can’t beat the rub and you’ll float home to dream of sliding over rocks in a stream of soft fragrant oil.

I want to recommend a nice little hotel – $7 will get you a private room with cable TV and wireless. Hotel San Antonio is along the path heading east from the Pana-dock (where boats come in from Panajachel). I only stayed a couple of nights there as I wanted to be closer to Rick and Treeza’s, but would have been very happy there for ages. Nice people, beautiful rooms, and a little café downstairs open early for all your caffeine needs.  

As I wrote in an earlier blog, I was going to try to find out what the expectations for 2012 were in the center of this Mayan world. I spent awhile talking with a local ashuan, Juan. He has just come back from a tour, attending conferences and gatherings, speaking as a messenger of Mayan thought, and history and prediction. He is also the owner of Big Foot Travel and an expert on things local, touristy, and popular. Another character not to be missed.

I asked him about the changes in his community, on the lake, and the upcoming calendar climax. He is a very funny rather irreverent guy, but speaks about the Mayan prophecy quite seriously. The elders have been predicting much of what is happening – the rising lake, the sliding slopes – but so many people haven’t listened.

Juan’s main message was this – 2012 will be a year of great celebration. Party, as we’ve made it this far and life will go on after! Yes, there will be upheavals, and there will be collapsed systems. The further you are from the natural world and the more dependent on the false gods of money and materialism, the more you may suffer. But the closer you are to Gaia, the Mother Earth, and to the power at the center of the universe – whether you call that power Allah, Manitou, God or Self – the closer you will be to the biggest fiesta of our time.

It seems to me that we have about twenty-two more months to figure some things out. Maybe I’ll make it back to beautiful Lake Atitlan before…I love seeing Rick and Treeza and their friends and appreciate everyone’s hospitality. Thanks guys! In the meantime, it’s back to the jungle for me….

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I’ve been in the house quite a bit lately due to the hurricane-type weather we’ve been having on the green mountain. I have lots to do on my laptop and have internet in the house I’m staying at, so I don’t need to go out in that wind and rain unless there is something on my social calendar that demands it. So Wilkens, Betsy and Cutie Pie, the K-9s, are thrilled – like most of us, they enjoy having company.

V and dogs

A relatively recent phenomena in Monteverde – likely all over Costa Rica – is that there are people trying to deal with the problem of street dogs. Veronica, the mistress of these three dogs, is a very kindhearted woman with a great love for animals. To see any creature suffer, no matter how small, breaks that kind heart of hers. Wilkens is a little terrier she rescued eight years ago in the U.S.; Betsy was found here in Monteverde last September, a strange tiny puppy left in a cardboard box in the middle of the road (a brutal method to let someone else in a car take care of your problem); and Cutie Pie was brought to a spaying clinic that Veronica, her friend Andrea and the local vet had arranged, and she was just too cute to let go.

cp

The problem of hungry, homeless dogs has always been huge in Costa Rica (as it is in many places in the world) but the recent influence of North Americans – who sometimes treat their dogs better than their children – has meant that attitudes are changing. You see more purebred dogs here now. Costa Ricans have caught on to this new attitude and often are happy to get a fancy model dog, but getting them fixed isn’t necessarily a top priority or in some cases an economic reality. That’s why people like Veronica get the local vets to participate in spaying and castrating clinics – to try to limit the amount of unwanted dogs and cats left to wander the streets.

pasture

As I’ve written before, these three dogs have matured a lot in the last months but they are still a gang.  We live in a house near the cliff edge surrounded by bucolic pastures, the feeding trough to a couple of horses, bordered by dense forest, and the dogs run free range out there. Around here, noise pollution means barking dogs – when one starts, the whole neighbourhood responds!  The full moon of the last week has kept Betsy particularly on edge and I wake up with her nightly yowls still ringing in my ears.  Although I love these dogs (usually), I have yet to totally adapt to this new reality in Monteverde.

cane toad

This is a place where wildlife has always come right to your window, if not walked in your door – agouti, pizotes, monkeys, birds, olingos, amphibians, on and on – but the large presence of dogs in the community is changing things. Most houses here now have at least one dog, but many have two, three, four, even five. Once you start rescuing them, it is hard to stop when you know a little dog needs a home. Another reason for people wanting dogs is to protect their homes from the recent rash of robberies (a whole other blog there folks). But the fact that lots of these dogs run free around the houses, often barking incessantly, and more than one dog creates a pack-like mentality, has meant that there are less wildlife sightings near the houses.

2 monkeys

I say that, yet in the next breath I will tell you a tale about the visiting white-faced monkeys. I was sitting here working on my laptop the other day, one of the few beautifully warm and sunny ones we’ve had this week. The top half of the door was open and the dogs were running around outside. I glanced up and noticed the branch of the tree just four feet from the door was frantically nodding up and down. It wasn’t long before the dogs were jumping around, barking up a storm. I went to see what was going on. As I headed out the open door, I stared right into the white-face of a capuchin monkey. I could almost touch it. On further scrutiny, I realized there were four more crawling around the branches – one very young – eating the tree’s little fruits (the kind, I’m sorry, I can’t say).

white face

The dogs, all short-legged, were driven insane by the fact that these smaller creatures were just out of reach. The monkeys were coming down, quite aggressively as white-faced monkeys will be, barring their teeth in primate-sneers and jumping up and down on the branches. I put the puppies in the house where they stayed glued to window, watching the intruders. The monkeys stayed around for at least fifteen minutes, shaking the tree and almost smiling in glee. I’m sure they would have come in the open door if the dogs weren’t there.

sneering monkey

So there you go, my theory of the dogs keeping the wildlife far away already disproven.  But I would still assert that having all these dogs around the Monteverde houses is affecting the behavior of the wild kingdom here. Generally the wild animals have returned in the forest since hunting was banned with the creation of the Reserve and the League decades ago and the critters feel safer. But as more houses are built on the edge of the forest, there are different threats now, and the dog population is definitely one – unless they are tied up or kept inside.   

andy flori

We have a lot of talented cooks around here and a recent addition to the list of culinary treats is the new bread that Andy and Flori are baking. In an outdoor adobe oven, they bake beautiful sourdough, buttermilk, and whole grain breads. They have the oven working in the morning and then take their warm loaves (along with their sweet daughter Mora) around to different places in the community to sell…or you can go out to their home, which happens to be an old homesteading house on Wolf Guindon’s farm. I devoured the first loaf I bought last week while chatting with Andy as Flori and Mora sold the rest – great idea Pan Casero Artesanal!

My Canadian friends, Kevin and Doug Fraser, along with my friend Mercedes (the environmental education coordinator at the Monteverde Reserve), came to dinner the other evening. Doug is an award-winning biology teacher in northeastern Ontario, now also engaged in writing biology textbooks and creating teaching programs, who brought a student group here to San Luis, just below Monteverde, about ten years ago. There was lots of great story-telling, Doug entertaining us with his tales of going to Montreal to be part of Al Gore’s environmental disciples…the chosen ones who learn how to present a slide show based on Gore’s famous documentary spreading the word about climate change. Doug also was chosen to be part of the Cape Farewell project which took a group of students and adult mentors (Doug being one) from across Canada and a variety of other countries on a boat through the Canadian Arctic waters to Iceland and Greenland. A program developed by British artist David Buckland, it combines the creativity of art and the discipline of science along with firsthand experience to teach about the realities of climate change and through the creation of art to inspire action. What an experience! 

frasers

After our interesting evening, the men left the next morning on a hike with Eladio Cruz and another local guide, heading through the Monteverde Reserve, over the Continental Divide and down the Peñas Blancas River valley to Poco Sol – the same hike that makes up the introductory chapter of Walking with Wolf. Unlike the sunny, dry weather we had back in February 1990, they walked in torrential downpours that filled the rivers as well as the paths with raging water. Both Doug and Eladio seemed to be stricken with some kind of bug as well. I had thought about them down there in these last couple days, knowing that what the weather was doing would not be kind to them. They did survive, barely, and called me to come out for a drink last night and told their tale of crossing raging streams only by luck, the constant water rolling down their backs and filling their rubber boots, and their amazement at the fortitude of 62-year-old Eladio…now just a little older than Wolf was when I went on that hike with him in 1990 (he was 60). Even Eladio doubted that they could continue on traversing the heavy waters at one point, and did twice as much walking as the others. He ran back up the steep ridges to try to get reception on his walkie-talkie and cell phone to get help. My Canadian friends were as impressed as I have always been when out in the tropical forest with Eladio, Wolf and the other men like them. What an experience!

bank street

Wolf, Lucky and I shared a panel on the history of Monteverde for a group of aspiring environmental teachers from Bank Street School in the Bronx (New York City). This gig came to me thanks to Marian Howard, a former instructor and now director at the school who hosted me in her home in the Bronx last April. It was wonderful to listen to Lucky since I haven’t heard her tell her own tales of life in early Monteverde in years. Her experiences as a young woman, mother of eight, living as a pioneer, learning to do just about everything in a different way than the way it was done in her home state of Iowa, was fascinating. Wolf, feeling pretty good and talking in a strong voice, added in stories of selling chainsaws and felling trees, the beginning of the cheese factory and the Reserve. I chimed in with additional stories that I’ve gathered, many from the book. It was a very pleasant afternoon that ended in the sale of several books. A good experience!

betsy

This weekend I’m going to help decorate the Friends meeting house for the Sunday afternoon wedding of Jannelle Wilkins, the Executive Director at the Monteverde Institute. I’ve been seeking out peace lilies (callas) and will join a few other folks to make the place beautiful for what will no doubt be a special day. May this crazy wind and rain stop before then – in fact, this morning has dawned clear and bright. And, hopefully, people will leave their dogs at home.

October 2017
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