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After arriving on the bus last night in Monteverde, I let myself into the spacious apartment where I’ll be based for the next two months. I’ve never been in here so I had to search for light switches. Before I found any, the remnants of the full moon broke out from behind a large nocturnal cloud and illuminated the scene for me. The main room has three walls of windows gazing out on the tops of trees, close enough to touch. In short order I settled down on the couch to finish the book I’ve been reading and fell into a cool slumber.

The first thing my eyes gazed on this morning was the busy life in those tree tops around me. No less than a dozen varieties of birds were almost lined up on a branch, peering in on me – multi-hued euphonias, lime-green chlorophonias, shiny blue dacnis, motmots, tanagers – an incredible smorgasbord of winged delicacies, all so close I could count their feathers. The main attraction for them, and in turn for me, is the Ficus pertusa tree, full of ripening small red fruits. Welcome home to Monteverde!

I was just as excited when I walked out of the airport last week in San José and saw not only my lovely Rasta-bird Roberto waiting in the crowd with open arms, but also my friends Zulay and Hilda Martinez. Zulay’s husband Keith happened to be on the same plane as me, returning after several months in Canada to his San Carlos home. It was a surprise to see him walk down the aisle on the plane in Toronto and take his assigned seat right next to me! We had a chance to visit and then I had a little time upon arrival to talk with Zulay and her sister. Tucky, the sister of another friend in northern Ontario, was also on the same plane. I always say that Canadians in Costa Rica have only three degrees of separation, unlike the American six! This plane ride seemed to illustrate my point.

Roberto and I spent the week on his land outside Cahuita on the Caribbean. The three months’ separation passed like it had never been. It was both sunny and wet, hot and at times a little cool. A year ago, there was so much rain on the Caribbean that Roberto lost his home to a tidal river wave that washed it all to sea, but this year the rains both there and up here on the mountain have been minimal…which is not good for a rainforest but nice for sun worshippers.

There was enough rain while I was there one day to watch the Rio Suarez, what I call the moat, rise up by a couple feet. Each time this happens, the banks erode a little, the sandbars shift, and the river takes a slightly altered course. This season, a wonderfully deep and wide swimming hole has been created and I took advantage to bathe and soak up the sun on the new sandy beach that now exists. That will all have changed by the time I return there in a couple months. Being at Roberto’s is always full of surprises.

The huge higueron that hovers over the rancho and supports the hammock was absolutely full of fruit. Its little green figs were more abundant this year than Roberto has ever seen. They started dropping just before I got there but the whole week we were being bombed by these little green missiles. They’d drop like a metal shot on the zinc roof in the middle of the night awakening us and each morning we’d have to rake the pathways or you’d feel like you were walking on ball-bearings. Literally thousands fell – neither of us were directly targeted but we seriously questioned if you couldn’t be struck down in the event of a direct hit. The monkeys and oropendulas were having a hay (Hey!) day up there. When the wind rustled the treetops the bombing increased. By the time all those figs come down, I’m sure the count will be approaching a million or quadrillion, whichever comes first.

We were visited by the usual vast array of bugs and amphibians. My little friends the green and black dart frogs were hopping about each day, as well as the geckos, lizards and salamanders. Due to the season, there were more pesky insects like mosquitoes, bush lice, sand fleas and who-knows-what-else than usual. Life in the jungle can’t always be fun. 

Throughout the week I was reading the book, Warriors of the Rainbow – A Chronicle of the Greenpeace Movement by Robert Hunter. I met Bob in 1989 on the blockade in Temagami where he came as both a supporter of the cause as well as an environmental reporter based in Toronto at the time. Bob was one of the founders of Greenpeace back in the 1970s on the west coast of Canada, a true warrior for the planet who put himself in danger multiple times to fight the mass insanity while maybe going a little insane himself. He also used his journalistic skills to make media waves around the world and bring attention to the crimes of nuclear proliferation, bomb testing, and the slaughter of whales and seals. I tell a story in Walking with Wolf about the discussion he brought to our fire circle on the blockade. What are you willing to do in defense of the defenseless in this world? What kind of activist are you going to be?

Reading this book while floating in the hammock in the peaceful jungle meant that I could stay calmer than I would have been if I was reading this book amidst news reports back in Canada – including the preparation of people heading to Copenhagen for the climate talks this month. Yes, we continue to make bits of progress, but at this point, with all the information known about the dangers inherent in the nuclear industry, about the futility of war, the disappearance of species and natural habitats, the earth’s very struggle to survive as the beautiful organism that it is – it is hard to fathom what the hell is taking us so long to get our collective act together and change the course we are on before we fall off the cliff. Actually, not so hard to fathom – it mostly comes back to the greed of the wealthy few, desperation of the poor masses and the apathy of the rest.

Roberto and I had a conversation about Greenpeace last year. He said that he thought that they were racist (though he’s not inclined to condemnation usually) or else why have they never taken up some of the issues directly affecting the equatorial countries in Africa and Latin America…specifically we were talking at the time about the big fruit corporations that run the banana and pineapple plantations (Dole, Del Monte, Chiquita) and have been leveling the forests, polluting the waters and poisoning the earth and its poor inhabitants for a bunch of fresh bananas for decades. I still have no answer for that, except that I always imagined that Greenpeace took on what it could and with a world so full of major insanity, it couldn’t take on everything. It was started by people in the northern hemisphere and seemed to radiate over the oceans going where nuclear tests were being conducted and whales were trying to survive. I don’t know what Greenpeace is today and which major struggles it continues with, I only know there has never been a shortage of issues to choose from.

Warriors of the Rainbow is an emotional account of activism of a serious kind in the 70s. I was starting on my own road of shit-disturbing at the time. Unfortunately so much hasn’t changed. Each decade, the activists, the environmentalists, the poets and the radicals claim that there is a new wave of commitment and real change coming. And yet the real changes have been small, the biggest waves remain that of consumerism and disrespect and greed – reinforced by the media, profited and advertised by corporations, allowed and bought into by the rest of us. I will never believe that social struggle is useless – lots of wrongs do get righted – whether it comes in the form of eco-warriors throwing themselves between the harpoon and the whale, angry youths taking to the streets,  mass meditation striving for a new global emotional and spiritual health, or a simple man such as Wolf Guindon wandering for years through a forest that actually managed to get protected. There is room in this world for all kinds of activism – it is more important to do something, anything, than to do nothing. Even old Greenpeacers criticize the very organization that they founded with so much heart and anger, claiming it gives people something to appease their consciences if they make a donation. But one has to sincerely wonder just how close to that cliff we have to get before we truly start rising to the challenge and living in a way that will bring health and sanity and security to all the species including our own. I wish all those committed individuals and collective forces much luck over there in Copenhagen.

 Just a quick update on Mr. Wolf – I spent yesterday with him. He seems to be coming around to the fact that he has to really watch his water intake and his diet and his energy output if he wants to not be having the “episodes” that have been plaguing him. His spirit is strong as usual. It is wonderful to be here with him as we prepare for the publication of the Spanish edition of Caminando con Wolf and he prepares to have his second knee operated on in a few months. The translation has been done and is now in the hands of the Tropical Science Center…Wolf and I see it as our task to keep them focused and keep the push on.

In the meantime, I’m off to a meeting with the board of Bosqueterno to discuss the history I have been working on for them. I’m enjoying this apartment with the singing colorful birds outside its windows – it will be even nicer when Roberto comes up to join me next week – there is a big open kitchen for him to work his culinary magic in. As I have said so many times in this blog, it is while surrounded by the simple beauty of our natural world and the love of friends, family and like-minded people (and good food and music) that I feel truly blessed and richly alive – even if at other moments I fear we are living in one big earthly insane asylum, quickly watching the planet fade to the washed-out green of our attendants’ uniforms.

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  BROMELIAS

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. 

  Jason, Andrey, Zulay, Keíla, Horacio sharing the wealth

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.

          2 kinds of heliconia

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. 

  The ducks have their pond   Soon we’ll have ours

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.

  The beautiful Arenal 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.

  Zulay and Vilma Martinez with Arenal volcano

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.

  Gerardo and Jimmy Morales selling their produce

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.

  Horacio offering up breadfruit

September 2019
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