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Life on the green mountain is sweet – and these days kinda like some strange movie. I guess it is partly due to the season – as Christmas gets closer, there are fiestas galore, special art markets for shoppers, and a proliferation of Santa wannabes. This is the third time I’ve been in Costa Rica for the pre-festive season – the last time was probably twelve years ago – and it seems to me that everything has spun out of control and is starting to resemble the excess of North America more and more.

But I won’t go on about consumerism and commercialism – I’ve spent enough time on this blog in the last few months talking about that stuff. No, no, I won’t be a Scrooge this year. I’m happy to be here and look forward to all the tamales and trimmings (especially the fine art form of tinsel creations I equate this country with) that go with a Costa Rican Christmas, even if some of the traditions have taken on a rather glossy hue. It is a time to spread love and enjoy friends and try not to be a glutton.

Like my new pal, Miel, the spoiled kitty I live with, it is sometimes better just to window shop than to indulge in everything that comes our way…we all need a bell around our neck in this season to remind us not to eat everything in sight.

The evening after I arrived last week, it was the 3rd annual Festival de Luces – not quite a Santa Claus Parade, but something close. I walked from my home here in Cerro Plano, through the gathering marching bands and primping floats, to El Centro, that is downtown Santa Elena. There was already a huge crowd gathered, and by the time the parade passed through a couple of hours later, there were more people assembled on that 100 meters of Main Street than I had ever seen before.

In fact, I’m sure there aren’t this many people living in the town, that alone the surrounding area. Turns out that bands had come from as far away as Puntarenas, Bijagua, Miramar – there were buses full of excited kids in sparkly costumes with their marching band instruments – drums, horns, batons and a great proliferation of vertical glockenspiels! And the bands must have brought their mothers, fathers, uncles, grandmothers – well, I don’t know what the official count was, but there were a zillion people squished into the little downtown core of Santa Elena.

Since it was so crowded on the street, I went up onto the balcony of Bohemias, a lovely restaurant owned by a lovely woman, Arecelly. This gave me a squirrel’s-eye view of the craziness on the street as well as a chance to sip a glass of wine.

It wasn’t long before I was truly wondering if I had stepped into a Fellini film – in the “pre-parade show” the street crowds were entertained by fire stick twirlers, energetic gymnasts, a Mexican dance troupe (with big bright incredibly shiny costumes),

the local police making a pass through in marching formation (I really hope that some of them were from elsewhere, as I hate to think there are this many policia in this town). These performers were all joined by vendors selling blinking Santa hats with out-of-control dogs running everywhere. The full moon had just passed but was still a large presence in the sky, the clouds came and went, the mists spit down from time to time, rock band dry ice shot swirls of fog throughout the area (or was that the smoke from a kitchen on fire?)  

And I’m not sure when devil’s red horns became a part of the Christmas story, but there must have been a post-Halloween fire sale on, for they were everywhere! Half the town was looking kinda diabolical.

And then the parade began. It was heralded in by a local woman, Doña Virginia Zamora, who gets around town in a golf cart – she was all decorated for the occasion. In my photo, she looks more like a visiting UFO, but in all honesty, that night, I’m not sure we would have noticed an alien ship as being out of place.

There were several bands, as I said earlier, from all over. They were all at least good and some were excellent – I particularly liked the band from Bijagua. They all had cute outfits in gold, red, blue or silver (and blinking Santa hats or glowing devil horns.) The parade would move along about twenty feet and then stop, giving each band and float the chance to be admired by each segment of the crowd. This makes for an extremely slow parade. I felt sorry for the last band which was from Puntarenas, because we surely had heard every Christmas carol known to mankind by then, played by glockenspiel and trumpet, and reinforced by very enthusiastic drummers on their snare drums, bass drums and percussion kits, so I don’t think they got the same enthusiastic greeting that the first bands did.

Are you feeling the headache setting in yet?

There was also about ten floats – the most impressive being a backhoe turned into a lit-up dragon – the cutest being a fairy castle filled with princesses and princes – the most “Monteverdian” being a garden of earthly delights accompanied by walking orchids, ladybugs, jaguars, and a variety of flashy birds.

This was all followed by a fireworks display, but I had gone the opposite way and headed home, my festive cup already overflowing. I felt that somehow little Santa Elena and rural Monteverde had turned into a bustling city in the three months I had been in Canada.

The next day I had a meeting with the board of Bosqueterno S.A., to discuss the communications work and history-writing I’m doing for them. All seems good though I still have lots of work to do – creating a power point presentation, setting up a blog for them, finishing the story-telling. It will be much easier to do it here with all the resources around me.

Wolf and I have replenished the many local store shelves with our book for the Christmas shopping season. Walking with Wolf has been selling well, particularly in certain stores. I found out that Alan Masters, who runs one of the CIEE groups (visiting tropical biology university students from all over the US), bought copies for all of his thirty students. Apparently a few had read it and were talking it up – a couple of the students had even chosen to take this course in Monteverde after reading the book. This had happened before I returned, but Wolf had sat and signed all the books one day at the Reserve after he and Lucky gave a talk on the history of the community to the group. I haven’t bumped into Alan yet, but will be giving him a very big hug when I do see him.

I’ve spent many mornings this week with Wolf at the entrance to the Reserve, being bathed in sunshine, visiting my Reserve family, meeting tourists, eating the great sandwiches at the Santamaria’s Family Sodita next door (highly recommended), and discussing with Don Carlos the progress of the Spanish translation.   Progress report – slow, but sure.

One of the coolest new things at the Reserve was that they have installed motion-sensor cameras in the forest. The Environmental Education crew (my good friend Mercedes and Wolf’s granddaughter Hazel) have a camera set up near a tree only a few hundred meters from the reception area where animal scratches had been observed. Mercedes showed me the pictures they’ve taken in the last month – of a puma, jaguarundi, tayra, and peccaries. Incredible, this much wildlife so close to the busy center of the Reserve.

There was also the Christmas Art Fair at the Quaker school – where the phenomenally-talented community artists gather and display and hopefully sell their original creations. Of course there is also lots of food available and all the proceeds help the school. I am not a great shopper and didn’t need anything and don’t want to spend money, so only bought snacks. I could never have made up my mind between all the beautiful things available so just didn’t even bother to think about it. (The photo is Benito Guindon’s pine needle baskets)

Instead it was a day of socializing and oohing and aahing over the art as well as the new babies in town.

Last night was Open Mike at the newly remodeled Bromelias. One of the most beautiful spots in Monteverde, it is the lovechild of Patricia Maynard, who has created a stunning building, amphitheatre and gardens where you can go to hear great music while sitting by the bonfire under the starry sky. It is a little off the beaten track and its location makes it a difficult go for Patri, but anyone who knows the place is always charmed by its special vibe. She has started this open talent night and in this town there is no shortage. Hopefully this will grow into a well attended and magical evening for local and visiting musicians and the rest of us who enjoy the music.

The week took a turn for me when I was contacted by the Canadian Embassy. In October, I received an email from my pal Jose Pablo, the Economic Officer who had helped secure generous funding from the Embassy for the translation of our book last March. He said that he wanted to invite me to an event on Sunday December 13 that had to do with a “senior level” visit.

 I was happy to be invited and was excited and then I didn’t hear anything else.  A couple of days ago, I emailed him, asking if I was still invited to whatever the thing was. The next day I had an email from him, explaining that Canada’s Governor General, the interesting Michaelle Jean, would be on an official visit to Costa Rica. There had been a plan to have a conservation/green program for her and that is what I was to be part of.  Unfortunately this part of the visit was cancelled, and so, so sorry, maybe next time.  Boo Hoo.

Two email messages later, I opened up an official invite from the Canadian Ambassador to Costa Rica, Neil Reeder, to a formal reception next Monday night for the Governor General at the Official Residence of the Ambassador. No more boo hoo! Great excitement instead…until I realized that I now need a formal costume – dress, shoes, shawl, bag – well, you know, FORMAL! So I’ve spent the last two days wandering around Monteverde, borrowing all the necessities from friends here. I have the dress, the shawl, going to try on a couple of pairs of shoes today – thank goodness that women love to play dress-up! The lovely ladies here on the mountain are looking in their closets and helping me pull this off in a very short time with no money!

My friend Melody came by and cut and hennaed my hair (it got too red this time – as I bought the wrong color – but my dress is red, so it will be okay) and also cut my friend Corrie’s hair. Melody also lent me the red and silver dress that I’m building my costume around.

I will head down the mountain tomorrow to San José to meet my Texas friend, Caroline Crimm, who is finishing up her research down there; to go and enjoy a number of Costa Rican musical groups who are participating in a free outdoor concert in support of the International March for Peace and Non-Violence; to rendezvous with Roberto, who is coming from Cahuita and returning to the mountain with me; and now, to meet the Queen – well, not exactly the Queen, but as close as we get to her in Canada.

Once again, Fellini films fill my mind, and si, la dolce vita es dolcita!

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The day after my return to Monteverde from the Caribbean, I was invited to go on a hike to Vera Cruz. This is land a little to the southwest of Monteverde, some owned by the Reserve as well as private farmlands – we would call this cattle range country in Canada. Luis Angel Obando, our friendly forest guard, was accompanying a group of youths, the Junior Rangers led by Dulce Wilson, to a mysterious place called the Casa de la Piedra – the House of Stone. The forest guards get out on regular patrols on trails all over the large expanse of Reserve land, looking for signs of squatters, hunters and tree poachers, and can often incorporate their trips with guiding groups to various destinations. Mercedes Diaz, who is Head of Environmental Education at the Reserve, decided to accompany the group and would lead them in an exercise about making environmentally-sound decisions. The last person in the group was Rosai, another forest guard, who would stay with the group once they were settled – and take care of the two characters who I think worked the hardest of all, the two pack horses. Although I had barely got my beach clothes out of my own pack, I didn’t want to miss the chance to go overnight into the forest.

  Wolf, Sylvia, Lucky & I

 

The sad part of this for me was the fact that this was the first time that I was going on a trip into the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve without Wolf Guindon. It has been several months since he decided not to go on long hikes. His knee is bothering him, he gets tired, and he has lost a bit of the spirit for the long treks, although he walks the couple of kilometers back and forth to the Reserve most days. He is good on flat stretches but there isn’t much of this land that stays flat for very long, and the long slogs up and down the hills are getting too difficult to be fun for him. So he didn’t want to join us and I felt the loss. Luis is now Head of Protection, the position that Wolf created and held for more than a couple of decades. Luis in many ways is just like Wolf – full of energy and strength and humor and patience – and his love for being in the forest is constantly apparent. But Wolf is a very unique man and nobody will truly follow exactly in his footsteps. The day before the hike, I did walk with Wolf to his farm to meet Lucky’s niece, Sylvia, and we made our way through the beautiful bullpen.  This is the St. Augustine pasture carved out of the old forest by the Campbell family where huge trees were left standing to provide habitat and shade and felled ones were left laying to rot – one of my most favorite places in Monteverde, that alone the world.

 

So on Thursday morning, Luis and Rosai picked me up in the trusty Suzuki and after getting Mercedes, we drove down to the meeting spot in San Luis. There we met Edgar who had brought the two horses and we were to wait for Dulce’s group to arrive. The meeting time was ten a.m. but what with one thing and another, we didn’t get on the trail until one p.m. A group of twenty-one kids between the ages of nine and sixteen made up the pack. The horses had been employed to carry the bulk of the provisions – tents, food, stoves – well, those poor animals were wider than they were high by the time they were loaded down.

Better them than me I suppose. By the time we got to our camping spot, my respect for these creatures had grown immensely. The trail was part old roadway, part groomed trail, but much of it was cattle paths through old pastures. Although the sun was beating down on us as we were getting our equipment ready, we weren’t very long on the trail before the rain started and stayed with us until close to four hours later when we were settled for the night.

 

Of course Luis and Rosai were the only ones who knew where we were going and what to expect.  I’ve put my faith in these men of the forest so many times and have always been rewarded for the experience, so I don’t question, I just follow. But adding a group of this size to the mix was even more challenging – I know that Luis has many years of experience assisting groups of foreign students as well as Costa Ricans in their travels in the forest. But we got started very late and the rain slowed us down – we were trekking through thick mud much of the time – and although the Casa de la Piedra was our destination, Luis kept reconsidering our possibilities of where we could spend the night. How far could we get before dark? How tired, wet and cold would these poor kids be? And where was there water safe for drinking, meaning a mountain stream, nearby? His concern was only apparent because his usually smiling face looked a little pensive, although I doubt that many in the group would have noticed. But I could tell he was always thinking about just how far this slow-moving group could reasonably get before nightfall, which here is roughly 6 o’clock.

 

The land we walked through was beautiful. We could see layers of ridges, some cleared for pasture, some covered in new growth forest, with deep forested valleys in between. The Reserve had bought a lot of this land fifteen years ago and so the forest has been regenerating but some of the ridges were so windswept and severe with a sandy soil that only bushes and grasses could grow. Other pockets were well into a new generation of forest. There were some working pastures still, with bright specks on the distant hillsides representing cows. In other places, we could stand on the ridge and look into down upon the huge cedros and higuerons, the big ol’ trees stretching above the rest of the forested valleys. Luis’ keen eyes and ears could pick out white-faced monkeys playing a kilometer away, so high up in trees that you had to wonder what happened if by chance they ever lost their grasp.

 

Around 5 o’clock we arrived at an abandoned homestead that used to belong to someone named Pipé. It was a small flat pasture of long grass with the remains of a cabin on it. The views stretched west to the Gulf of Nicoya and there was a stream a few minutes walk away. We were still about an hour and a half from the magical stone house and it was going to get dark fast, so the decision was made to stay. Well! I’ve never seen such a disciplined group of kids in my life, although I haven’t hung out with many armies before, although I did work for years at a canoe camp in northern Ontario.

 

Dulce had those kids in formation, taking care of the necessary tasks, so fast that I couldn’t believe it. It was decided that they would all stay on the wooden floor under the roof in the cabin which would also protect our gear and where we could cook and not get wet. They immediately set up a large tent outside one of the doorways to use as a changing room for this mixed crowd of boys and girls. Dulce set the rules of where people could walk with boots or not – since we had walked through so much mud, and would continue to be wet and dirty, it was imperative that once the plastic tarps were down for sleeping, nobody should walk there in boots.

 

Rosai unpacked those poor horses who had trogged through the mud, up the steep inclines, in the narrow hollows that defined the path, with hundreds of pounds of weight – how they keep their balance and their humor (I’m sure horses must have a sense of humor), I’ll never know. They were then tethered loosely to trees and left alone to lazily eat the lush grass of the pasture which I can attest they did all night long. Luis set up two tents that the guards and Mercedes and I would sleep in, to have a little space from the large pack of youths. Mercedes and Rosai went down to the stream with containers to get water. I set up the stove and started what water we had boiling to get some hot coffee into us as quick as possible. We were all soaked and tired and it was going to get dark fast. It wasn’t that cold by mountain standards but the wind was blowing and everyone was chilled. I set up the second stove in the middle of the cabin for the kids to gather around like a campfire. In this wet world, it isn’t as typical to have a bonfire outside as in Canada – between the wet wood and wind, it can be almost impossible to start sometimes. They did have plans to make one later and one of the boys chopped out a fire pit in the pasture. Those older boys never stopped working from the time they arrived – at least they stayed much warmer that way. The younger ones were tired and stood about shivering, waiting for the tent to be put up so they could get inside and change into dryer clothes. I gathered whatever water was left from personal water bottles and put a pot on to heat on the second stove so they could have hot chocolate. Beyond that, Dulce and her group were pretty much on their own, and we four adults took care of ourselves. We made a great supper of hot soup, rice, tuna, pejivalles I had cooked and brought along to eat with mayonnaise, and shared the organic avocado that my friend Roberto had given me from his land in Cahuita. It tasted really good up there on the mountainside.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After dinner, Mercedes did her exercise with the kids while Luis, Rosai and I spent the evening laying in the tent together, talking, staying warm. We were all asleep by 9:30 I would think, but awake long enough to see the waxing moon brighten up the sky and the sparks of the fireflies twinkling throughout the forest.

 

The next morning, after lots of coffee and a good breakfast, Luis took Mercedes and I ahead of the rest to go and see the infamous Casa de la Piedra. We hiked through the wet forest in bright sunshine, up and up, until we got to the top of a ridge where we had a full 360 degree view of the ridges all around us.  It was pure sand that only supported a type of miniature pampas grass and alpine plants.

There was the remains of a recent landslide which would have taken us a couple of hundred feet down without stopping. The misty clouds hung low in the valleys and the sun kept us warm despite the strong wind. We then descended down, down, down into the forested valley of Rio La Nica (who knows how and why these rivers get their names – Luis imagined that somebody brought a Nicaraguan wife here and therefore this river got called La Nica).

 

The river was a beauty – huge rocks strewn about by mythical giants, white water tumbling down various channels only to meet up again in pools of clear water, tropical ferns and vines hanging down over the banks as if to drink.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Luis showed us the first “Casa de la Piedra” which was a huge triangular conglomeration of rocks, trees, and strangler fig roots – maybe forty feet high and immense. We continued down the river edge until we were walking beside a massive wall of rock – and this was the outside wall of the House of Stone. Around the corner and up a rocky ledge and we entered a cave – maybe twenty-five feet deep and twenty feet high but narrow enough to touch both walls with outstretched arms, light streaming in from breaks in the rock above – it was impressive.

 

Bats flew about as we disturbed their daytime slumber with our flashlights and camera flashes. Luis told us that people used to live amongst these rocks – in fact, one of the young employees at the Reserve apparently was born in the house of stone.

 

When Rosai, Dulce and the rest of the group arrived, we left and went down to a pool in the river.  Mercedes put on her bathing suit but spent most of the time sitting on a rock in the sun, shivering.  Luis wouldn’t even go near the water.

 

I, on the other hand, northern bush babe that I be, swam like a seal in the channel of rushing white water that came through the rocks, happy as a Canadian clam. The mountainous water was about the temperature that the northern lakes I swim in generally get to at the height of summer. I could have stayed there all day and I suspect I will take the opportunity to go back to this rocky spa again just for the chance to swim.

 

We quickly had to get dressed and start the long slog back up, up, up the trail – we stopped on the top of the ridge where Luis had cell phone reception so he could call his kids and check in.  Cell phone in one hand, machete in the other, GPS receiver in his pocket – this is a modern day forest guard.

 

Luis, Mercedes and I quickly ate some lunch and packed up, leaving Rosai and the group to stay another night. We got on the trail around three in the afternoon and moved quickly as the afternoon rain came down on us. We had flashlights with us but didn’t really want to be walking in the dark. Luis took us on shortcuts – although Wolf wasn’t with us, I was reminded of him often. Luis would point out some piece of trail that Wolf had hacked out while short-cutting his way through the forest, or some tree where during a rest stop Wolf had told some funny story. Wolf’s spirit is so omnipresent in this forest that he will be felt here forever. Luis is very much like Wolf, but whereas Luis would say, as the night was closing in on us and he was deciding which animal trail to follow to cut down our travel time, “we might end up lost” – I know from experience that Wolf would never admit to being lost – he’d just say we may end up in a different place than we hoped to be.

 

The final bit of Luis’ shortcut took us through a cattle pasture of very rough walking in horrible mud churned by animal hooves – but with beautiful views of the sun setting beyond the ridges and the clouds settling down into the valleys as if to sleep for the night. We came over a ridge top and heard a mad-sounding cow ahead of us. As Mercedes and I caught up to Luis, he told us that it was a mother cow who had just delivered her baby – you could see the very young calf hidden down on the hillside in the grass – and the mother was acting mad to keep the rest of the cattle – and us – away from her newborn. Mercedes and I – non-farmers that we be – were a bit worried as we made our way past this angry large-horned mother but Luis just made jokes and said it was all show. The other cattle were more interested in us than the calf and in the end, we were all amused. 

 

We made it back to Edgar and the jeep in San Luis right as darkness gathered around us. I was at home by 7, unpacked and showered by 7:30 and sound asleep by eight, accompanied by dreams of clouds floating by me, long grass wrapping around my ankles, and a bed of mud cushioning my sore body.  It was all perfect, except for the missing Wolf.

 

 

 

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 Sunday afternoon.  I’m back at my wireless aerie here at Bob and Susana’s Cabure Cafe.  The soft clouds are floating about, obscuring the treetops and reducing the view of the ocean today, but the sun is on the other side of the clouds and so it is warm and bright.  Monteverde’s mists change the scene as constantly as our lives do – we go from great moments of clarity to dark clouds on our horizons to foggy obscurity and back to sun-sparkling visual bounty. Life constantly sends us down different paths and the peek around the next corner is sometimes taken with great anticipation, other times with great trepidation.

Wolf and I made a presentation yesterday to a group of visiting administrators from protected areas throughout the world from Conservation International.  Representatives of Ghana, Guyana, Brazil and Figi along with a dozen other countries were there.  We didn’t have more than a little time as their program was already very full, but it was nice to talk about the book and Wolf’s contribution to conservation to a group of people who participate in this work in protected areas every day.  I never write down anything when I talk in front of groups and then often wish I had remembered to say such and such. However, I forgive myself and carry on. With each presentation, I’m sure I’ll get better, but it is also a matter of gearing what we say to our audience, adapting to English or Spanish, and the amount of time we have.  It was an honor to have the time that we did to speak with these people – we left before we had a chance to sell books and our friend Mercedes was going to take care of that in the coffee break.  Hope we sold some as just to know that Walking with Wolf would maybe end up in southeast Asia, Africa or South America soon is very exciting.

One place the book is going is to the Ukraine.  This is very poignant for me, as my father’s parents were both from the Ukraine, having arrived as teenagers on the Canadian prairies in the early 1900s.  My last name, Chornook, is the result of a Canadian customs agent’s choice of spelling – my grandfather was the only one of his family who was given this spelling from his original name Cherniuk.  A woman here in Monteverde, Betsy, bought a book to send to her son who is a peace corp worker stationed in the Ukraine.  So it was exciting to sign the book with the hopes that her son may run into one of my Cherniuk relatives while sitting with a traiga of vodka in a cafe.

The Quaker meeting this morning was, as always, silent – up until the last ten minutes or so.  The first person to stand and speak was local biologist Mills Tandy who stood and thanked Wolf and I for writing the book and speaking so honestly about the community and recording this important history.  He said, “I’ve waited with great anticipation for this book since I heard about it and have to say that it has far exceeded my expectations.”  Well, his words brought tears to my eyes and they stayed there for the remainder of the meeting.

When it got to what is called after-thoughts, that is the moment after we have broken the silence and greeted each other but a chance is given for further thoughts to be expressed, Wolf’s wife Lucky stood up and, fighting her tears, talked about how people come and go in this community but so often come back and are always welcomed – and that is what makes it the dynamic place it is.  Her son Antonio, wife Adair and their children Skye and Sam are headed back to Connecticut after one full year here. They left in a taxi for the airport right after meeting.  Well this comment by Lucky started an outpouring of similar messages by a number of people both retiterating her thoughts or expressing something similar.  Katy Van Dusen spoke about Ann Kreigel, a woman who lived here back in the 70s and then died suddenly and prematurely in the early 90s after being bitten by a squirrel.  She had had a profound effect on Katy’s life and on many other programs and events in the community and was a great example of someone who came and left their valuable contribution here.  Her sudden and early death was a reminder about the importance of expressing your love for those you care about each day.  Katy also spoke through tears.  It was hard to break up the meeting today – people seemed to want to stay and share their appreciation for this community and this meeting that gives us all a chance to be reflective, communal, spiritual and social all at once.

It is also Father’s Day and that of course makes me think of my father, Andy Chornook, who I write about briefly in Walking with Wolf, who died of cancer very quickly after diagnosis in 1996, twelve years ago.  How the time has gone by.  And thinking about that makes me think of the people I now know who are struggling with this nasty disease:  my friend Lori Yates’ mother in Hamilton, who has just started chemo for lung cancer; Monteverde’s friend, Andy Sninsky, who is in Austria being treated for what is maybe bone cancer, maybe leukemia, maybe something else – Andy and his wife Inge have run the Good Times quarterly magazine that highlights Costa Rican and Nicaraguan tourism destinations for several years and have done a number of pieces of early publicity for our book.  Wolf and I, as the rest of the community, have them in our hearts.  And a female Andy, Andy Walker, who has lived for a few years with her talented family here in Monteverde and just left a day or two ago for further treatments in Texas on a difficult melanoma.  Our thoughts follow her as well.

These tales of cancer diagnosis, treatments, survival and sadness go on relentlessly.  As a survivor myself, I both identify with the fear and the difficulty, but also send messages of encouragement and strength. None of it is easy and I’m forever greatful to have lived to tell my own story as well as Wolf’s. For the most part I look down the trail with excitement and courage, but I know all too well just how scary that unknown bend in the trail can be.

ON TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN

 

Last night was the apex moment for Walking with Wolf. We’ve hit the summit and start down the backside now. What a night!  Actually what a couple of days before what a night! Global warming causing extreme weather brought near hurricane turmoil to Costa Rica at a time of the year when you just don’t expect this weather. We thought it was going to ruin the celebratory book launch, but in fact it was all perfect, including a last-minute change in the weather. 

 

 It is normally quite still here at this time of the year, unlike November till March when the winds can be ferocious and, minimally, are constant.  But starting Wednesday afternoon it got real blustery, adding extra kick to what was already curtains of rain. Incredible! Wolf, Lucky & I spent the morning hunched around the woodstove, wondering how many people would possibly make their way out at night in this nasty weather. I said that the only people we could count on were the forest guards and the maintenance guys from the Monteverde Reserve since this is just what they do – go out in whatever the conditions are. So coming through the storm to the presentation, to eat bocitas and drink coffee all the while staying in a dry warm building, is easy for them.  As it turned out, they were the one group who didn’t show up.

 

 The rain was coming horizontally with such force that you just can’t stay dry unless you are completely covered in rubber. The old jeep we were using to carry the books from the house down to Bromelias Music Garden was almost as wet inside as out, the water entering wherever it could. Antonio Guindon’s wife Adair was driving me and the books down at 2 p.m..  At 12:30 water was everywhere – puddles consolidating into rivers, a downpour of rain that was also a sidepour, and the humidity hovering as a heavy mist that kept things wet even when the faucet turned off for a few minutes. I was thoroughly soaked just running out to the barn. I wrapped the three boxes of books in plastic and kept hoping that the rain would subside when it was time to go.  And, miracle of miracles, it did!

 

At about 1 p.m. as we took the bagged boxes out to the vehicle and wrapped them in a dry tarp inside the jeep, the frequency of the raindrops definitely lessened.  By the time Adair and I got to Bromelias and unloaded the boxes shortly after 2, we were only working in heavy mist.  By the time people started coming around 5, even the mist was lighter. The winds stopped sometime mid-afternoon and by evening, it was just a thin fog that was blurring the night air, deadening the sounds, bringing serenity.

 

It had been such bad weather that roads were washed out, people’s houses shifted – the newspaper was filled with stories of landslides and flooding throughout western Costa Rica. So even with the change in weather, many people wouldn’t be heading out after such a harsh day. However about seventy-five did and together we enjoyed a warm and cozy night in beautiful Bromelias.       

 

My friend Mercedes at the Reserve helped me put together about 180 photos that we projected from my laptop – those from the book, other old pictures I had scanned that didn’t make the book, pictures from our hikes, many of Wolf, a few from Canada or the beach thrown in.  These ran constantly as a backdrop through the evening. Russell Danao played his beautiful vibraphone – high-end marimbas. He played at the Havana Jazz Festival this year. He kindly accepted our request to grace the evening with his music. As people came out of the fog and into the amber light of the room, they took their seats and watched the slideshow and listened to Russell’s jazz-toned and classical vibras. 

 

People brought bite-size food and sweets, we had coffee and juice prepared, and Patri had the bar open, though this wasn’t a drinking crowd. We set up a table with a buncha books, it looked great, all those little Walking with Wolfs piled there. To introduce the evening, I had asked Mark Wainwright, our friend who read an early draft of the book and gave me valuable editorial comments. He is an artist, biologist, teacher and writer himself – and in many ways has mentored me (younger pup that he is). It meant a lot to me that he would introduce the evening.  He didn’t really want to do it – doesn’t like being on stage though he is great – and had very firm plans to go off onto the trails looking for the elusive golden toad or any other amphibian he could find.  Since the rains started, it is prime frogging season and Mark is a frogger who has already found two missing species thought to be extinct. So he wasn’t going to be able to be at the presentation. Then due to the extreme weather, he didn’t go into the forest. Mark did a wonderful, funny and super kind introduction to the book, Wolf and myself.  Then Gary Diller, one of the story tellers in Walking with Wolf, read a poem about Wolf that he had been inspired to write yesterday in all that rain. It was a nice addition to the evening.

 

Wolf got up and very emotionally talked about the beginning of the concern in the community for the forest.  He reiterated the thought that “all those who wander are not lost,” his mantra. I was amazed how well he got through talking, as I knew he was fighting those ever-ready Guindon tears. He then passed the microphone to me and I said my little piece – that we hoped to have a Spanish translation in the works, and I apologized for any discrepancies with how community people remember the events we discuss, and I thanked people who were there for their contributions – then I read some pages from the book. It all felt real good, the people were wonderful, and the whole night just rolled out smooth as pie dough.

 

We sold about sixty books and I knew there were many people missing who have said that they would buying in quantity. Mary Stuckey Newswanger bought ten books and then handed me a copy of a book that she has been working on with her brother – she and I have spent a lot of time at the side of the road talking about our books over the past couple of years. At the end of the evening, people were able to walk out into the misty night air without getting soaked.  Patri and I went to Moon Shiva, our pal Nir’s place, for dinner.  Great new chef there, loved loved loved the food – Nir has always run a beautiful restaurant – has for about five years now – but when the chefs change so does the food.  Three guitar players were playing – Irish ex-pat Robert Dean who toured with Sinead O’Connor before moving to Monteverde, and Andres and Bernardo, hot local talent – it was great music and a bit of dancing. Off to Fish’s new bar for some more dancing. Through the night it would hit me every once in awhile – this was the climax of eighteen years of a certain thought, a vague plan, a lasting commitment, our book.

 

 

To finish this hugely long story, the reason the forest guards weren’t at the presentation, considering how much they would have wanted to be there to support their mentor Wolf, was that they were doing what they had to do – that is, go out to help a group of people who were down in Penas Blancas and needed to be assisted to come out of the forest. The vague details are that the guards and maintenance crew had to head out early in the morning in the worst of that bad weather, through the torrential rain and dropping branches, around the mudslides and over the raging streams. They escorted the group across the streams with cables, cleared away tree falls, and carried their packs through the pouring rain and thick mud. They didn’t get out of the forest until after 7 p.m. so they missed the celebration.

 

A few years ago, Wolf wouldn’t have made it to his own book launch – he would have been with the other men doing their job – making jokes, ignoring the brutal weather, helping troubled hikers to get back to civilization, no doubt filling them with hot coffee before they got started. The forest guards are the jungle version of fire fighters – heading into what most people walk away from. I was so sorry they weren’t there, but find the reason quite poetic.     

Rain is pounding down on the zinc roof of Wolf and Lucky’s house, making conversation difficult, but finally giving me a chance to write from Monteverde. Aah yes, the cloud forest in the rainy season – not for the faint of heart but paradise for those with webbed feet. Actually it has been so dry here that water was being rationed in the community up until the rains started in earnest about a week ago. Looks like I got here right on time. The humidity has cranked up the clamminess, the landscape is a collage of intense greens, and the dirt roads are slowly becoming water-filled ditches supporting small gravel islands. 

 

 

I was so busy with getting the book ready and preparing to leave my home and garden for a couple of months, that I wasn’t thinking so much about where I was going, other than to Wolf’s house to present him with his book. But in very short order, upon my arrival in Costa Rica, my heart has filled with the warmth of the Guindon family, the anticipation in the community for Walking with Wolf, and the enchantment of the place. The last time I was here in this particular season, the beginning of the rainy season, was 1990, my first year here.  I had forgotten how the view from up on the mountain in May, looking over the Nicoya peninsula to the Pacific, is this magical world of clouds, mountains, water, and sky –  these elements merge and mingle and seem to get turned upside down, in a way that even Stephen Spielberg couldn’t capture with an arsenal of special effects. When I woke up on Thursday morning, just as day was breaking, and looked out the windows to the west, my breath was taken away by the layers of color and shadow suspended on the shifting horizon. I grabbed my camera and went out to try to capture it (a picture here isn’t worth the thousand words it would take to describe the scene) – I startled two masked tityras, beautiful white birds with pink and black facial markings, who were feeding in a guayaba tree and didn’t notice me right away.  They fluttered about grabbing the small fruit, only five feet from me, until they realized that I was there and flew off. 

Welcome back to Monteverde…

 

The flight down was fast (those individual TV screens on the planes are great – two movies of your choice and you’re here); the books arrived safe and sound (did I mention how expensive they were as extra baggage? – Kaching); customs didn’t look once at me that alone twice; and as soon as I got through to the wall of windows at the exit, there were Lucky and Wolf, smiling and waving.  As promised, the Reserve’s four-wheel drive, army-fatigue-green, Toyota crew cab truck-limo, complete with Beto the chauffeur, had come to pick me and the books up.  We waited until we were in a restaurant to unveil the books – and, as hoped, Wolf and Lucky were very excited and pleased. We had our first moment of celebrity – the waitress saw the cover and looked at Wolf and asked if that was him – and then saw my photo on the back – and was thrilled to be serving two such important people! HA! Not like we got a free meal or anything, but it was fun for all of us nonetheless. 

 

We didn’t make it up the mountain to Monteverde, normally about a three to four hour trip from the airport, until 9 that night. They were putting in a culvert on the highway and there was only one lane open and they were letting the traffic going to the city pass much more frequently than those of us heading to the country.  We spent close to three hours inching forward in fits and starts, Lucky playing old tunes on the harmonica, Beto and I getting out to tempt fate with the oncoming traffic, Wolf picking up the book from time to time, checking to see if it was real.  By the time we got up the mountain, there was nothing left but sleep. But we were very, very happy.

 

 

On Thursday morning we took the book up to Carlos Hernandez, the director at the Reserve. He insists that the Tropical Science Center (who owns and administers the Reserve) is serious about wanting to finance a Spanish translation. I told him that although I think this is wonderful, I don’t want to give up the rights to the book and also want to control the translating process (new little control freak that I’ve become – makes me wonder just what kind of parent I might have been after all…).  I believe he is on Wolf’s and my side in this – he took copies to give to the members of the board of the TSC.  I suggested that he have someone who is fluent in English read the book first and make sure they are still interested. He suggested that I check out how much the translation itself might cost and who we might employ to do it. We will proceed from there. But my immediate feeling was a good one, that he understands how personal the project is for Wolf and I, and that he will represent us well to the board. 

 

We made our rounds showing off the book (one last baby comparison – the book’s cover really is soft like a baby’s bum, I swear).  Our friends Mercedes Diaz and Luis Angel Obando, who show up in the last chapter of Walking with Wolf, were thrilled to finally get their copy – immediately plans were started for the fiesta, la presentacion del libro, and we started selling books. Lucky began reading and her reaction has been wonderful (although she did find an error deep in the book – a factual one, not just a difference of memory from her husband – I think I will leave it ambiguous and see how many people catch this error….hopefully not too many more will be found). 

 

Leaving Wolf and Lucky with the book safely in hand, I jumped on a bus on Friday morning and returned to the big city of San José to meet up with my friend Patricia Maynard. She was taking a group of Latin American literature students from the University of Georgia around town to a variety of cultural events.  I sat in on talks by our musician friends Edin Solis of Editus and Jaime Gamboa of Malpais on the historical context and present day reality of Costa Rican music. They both tried to convince the American students, who listed reggaeton as one of their favorite genres of music, that songwriting which includes poetry and composition that is more than three chords is of more value than easy, commercial music – I’m not sure if they convinced the students, but Edin and Jaime spoke with such passion that I would hope they at least made them think. We had a great meal at the Café Arco Iris and watched Alejandro Toceti – now a kind of Cultural Attache with the government, but who we’ve known as a beautiful dancer, whose every muscle speaks even when he stands still – tell stories with his body. We finished our day with a night of hot dancing at Jazz Café in San Pedro – Manuel Monestel and his ever-changing Afro-Caribbean band, Cantoamerica, kept us jumping to salsa, calypso and reggae. Since my years involved in the music festival in Monteverde, all these musicians have remained great friends and a night of hearing them play only whets my appetite for more.

 

The next day we had the great privilege of a visit with Daniel Villegas, one of the top authors and playwrights in Costa Rica. He studied years ago in Europe as well as Los Angeles and New York City at The Artists Studio. Not only was his conversation colorful and informative, but for me, the new young author that I be, it was very touching. When he spoke about how he found inspiration, how stories can be told, and the most important thing being to write honestly and about what is real in your life – well, I like to think that I have tried to do that with Walking with Wolf.  I humbly gave him a copy of our book. He accepted it graciously, though who knows if he will ever read it.  But it was the first instance where I presented myself as an author with a book I am proud of and wasn’t embarrassed to share it with such a distinguished writer.

 

I came back up the mountain in time for the Quaker meeting on Sunday.  After the hour of silence, when it came time for introductions by visitors and announcements, I confirmed the rumors to those present, that I had indeed returned with the book in hand (I had left last May stating I wouldn’t return until the book was truly a book). I invited everyone to the celebration to be held later this week at Bromelias Café, on Thursday, May 29th at 5 p.m. I then presented Jean Stuckey, the head of the Monteverde library committee, with a signed copy of Walking with Wolf.  The dedication reads:

 

“For the Monteverde Friends Library, my favorite library in the world. It is with the greatest pleasure that we give you our book to be placed on your musty shelves. With love, Kay and the Wolf”.

 

I’m on my way there now to help catalogue it and place it on the shelf!

 

 

 

 

      

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