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A few weeks ago, when I was up in Monteverde, cold, wet and miserable with fever, I felt the strong urge to write and complain about the rain. Prior to that, I enjoyed three sunny September weeks here in Cahuita of perfect hot, dry weather, but as soon as I ventured out on a trip to San José and up the green mountain, my spirit was soddened as quickly as my clothes. I was caught almost daily in pouring rain, keeping me constantly damp, if not soaked, until I was able to escape inside and change into dry clothes. Eventually I succumbed to “la gripe”, Costa Rican for all that ails you. Last April, after experiencing the desert conditions of Los Angeles in California, I swore I would never speak harshly again about water replenishing our thirsty earth, but it doesn’t take many days of walking about dripping wet and cold to forget one’s best intentions.

At our bush home in Cahuita, we are constantly stoking the cooking fire, and its smoke swirls through the rancho and steeps our hanging clothes like curing sausages. A comfortable odor here, it becomes a foreign acrid smell when you hit the urban life of San José with its fresh scents of soaps and colognes, or the clean but humid mountain air where that smoked chorizo musk follows you like an poor immigrant from the old country.  Note to self: freshly wash all clothes and dry far from the fire before visiting civilization.

In Monteverde, I stayed with the lovely ladies Deb and Barbara, who took great care of me as I sunk deeper in my sickness, and in the end, in a very ungracious-guest-like-manner, I left them both under the same nasty weather. The worst of the whole thing was that I had gone to Monteverde with the intention of spending a few hours each day with the ever-recuperating Wolf, but I only managed to visit him one morning and then didn’t dare return with my germs. I missed a bunch of other events as well, but it was the anticipated Wolf time that I really regretted.

To update Wolf’s continuing medical adventures, he continues on a roller coaster, slowing going up the track of wellness, only to crest and slip down another precarious slope. However, I believe that as of this writing (as per a phone call with his son Benito last night) Wolf is doing okay. He had the first of his cataract operations a couple of days ago. I hope that this will mean that while he is laid up with his other conditions, he will at least be able to read again. Often he has been feeling punk enough not to want to do anything, and he is not a television watcher – indeed, the Guindons don’t even own one. However, once he is feeling better yet is still not very mobile, he can at least amuse himself by reading, something that the cataracts have been making almost impossible. He delayed the operation once while he was recuperating from the pacemaker episode, but now he has at least one eye open and I trust he has a date for the second eye. 

His heart and pacemaker seem to be working well together according to his check-ups. A change in insulin as well as a more rigid regimen of testing his sugar levels will hopefully mean that he will get better control of his diabetes. He has been told, once again, to drink more water to keep flushing his liver and kidneys of all the medication he takes (Wolf is still trying to come to terms with the fact that coffee is not water). A few days before I visited him, Wolf had a bad urinary tract infection. Combined with his chronic prostate issues, it resulted in the placement of a catheter. Although he wasn’t happy about it at the time, he seems to have made some adjustments and now is finally able to eliminate his liquid wastes with less pain and problem than he has had for a couple of years now.

Carambola!  As he told me, a few weeks ago he hit a low point that he thought he wouldn’t return from, but he’s once again feeling like there is a light at the end of the tunnel (not THAT LIGHT), and fortunately his strong spirit is still soaring. Unfortunately, his ever-suffering wife, Lucky, who has become a nurse despite a lifelong desire to never be one, recently took a fall and broke (I believe) a rib, something that is known to be very painful yet seldom fatal. So she has taken at least a couple of bumpy trips down the mountain with Wolf and their son Berto in his car to various medical appointments, no doubt grimacing from the pain but stoically carrying on. Ai yi yi, don’t you think enough is enough for these good folks? 

I did manage to get over my sickness in time to participate in workshops for the nature guides at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Mercedes Diaz, head of Environmental Education at the Reserve, asked me to repeat the presentation I had given last year on the history of Bosqueterno S.A., the original watershed reserve that the Quaker community had set aside. So I went up to the Reserve and despite technical problems, a lingering fever and rain pounding on the roof, I told the guides this important story of the beginnings of conservation in Monteverde. I finished that last mountain day wrapped in the warmth of my friendship with Patricia Jiménez, aided by dry blankets, hot conversation and healing wine.

The raging Rio Concepcion and a bit of the highway

 

All said and done, I was happy to leave the cold mountain and continue my wandering, challenged by the treachery of the Costa Rican highways during this very wet rainy season. A new highway was opened less than a year ago connecting San José with Caldera on the Pacific coast but due to very poor construction and very adequate corruption, such a terrible job was done that this new and important highway out of the heart of the country has been sporadically closed like a blocked artery constantly requiring surgery. The old highway that passes San Ramon was also closed when a bridge was washed out meaning that both of the main routes west of the central valley were cut off or clogged up. You take your chances moving about a mountainous, overly-underdeveloped country like Costa Rica, especially in the rainy season.

Despite bus delays, I eventually got to visit with people I consider family – the Montero/Martinez gang – one branch having moved from San Carlos to Palmares recently. I also had a chance to visit a different branch of the same family in Sarchi on my way to Monteverde.  A year had passed since I saw some of these folks so it was a wonderful time of catching up and seeing their new or improved homes.

In Sarchi, I was thrilled to see Claudio’s organic lettuce operation and made notes as I think that Roberto and I can use some of his ideas to grow some vegetables here on the Caribbean, something that we struggle with constantly (too much sun, too much rain, too hot, not enough soil fertility, voracious ants, every other bug, etc.).

I spent several days near la Fortuna with Zulay Martinez, and wrote about this in the last post as we spent a day at the CRiterio Film Festival…if you haven’t read it, take a look and try to see some of those documentaries. I love being in that region of Costa Rica and Zulay has been one of my closest Tica friends for 20 years. The sun was shining, it was warm and mostly dry, so the time was completely enjoyable and I was only sorry that it was so short.

Before returning to the east coast, I went to San José for an important meeting with the Editoriales de la Universidad de Costa Rica and the Tropical Science Center. Thanks to the enthusiasm of a few men – first, Carlos Hernandez, the director of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve; secondly Javier Espeleta, the new director of the TSC, and now Julian Monge, the editor at EUCR – the translation of Walking with Wolf should see the light in the first half of 2011. Wolf’s son, Carlos, completed the translation a year ago, but editing etc. is still to be done. However, with the energy and commitment of these men behind us, I believe that Wolf and I will be celebrating Caminando con Wolf in the foreseeable future. His health concerns have helped to push these very busy men into action, a positive side benefit to all of Wolf’s trouble. 

While in the city, I stayed with my good friend Myrna Castro and her new husband Ron, and her talented daughter Veronica. We were all busy, but they provided me with a 6-star hotel, a mother’s care and always interesting chatter while I was there. Vero took me to a bar I’d never been to, Anocheser, in San Pedro, where musicians gather after their gigs and the music carries on through the night. A small intimate place, the night featured a series of singers, strumming guitars to songs that everyone in the place knew and sang along with (except me, of course, who only knew a few of the Spanish lyrics). Note to self: learn more Spanish lyrics.

I went to visit Lorena Rodriguez, a good friend and very talented designer. Although I went to see her just to visit and catch up on life, the day turned into a design-fest. When I told her that I was getting ready to build a little casita on the land I have just purchased here on the Caribbean, she sat me down at her computer and we started turning my ideas into reality. Hours later, the house details that had been brewing in my mind, aided by her extensive experience and creative juices, along with a fantastic computer design program, could be seen in full color, in scale, and we were even able to take a cyber- walk through the casita to make sure it all felt good. Incredible! Once again, I am so appreciative to Lore for dropping what she was doing and helping me (as she did last year when she fussed over my preparations for my visit to the Canadian Ambassador’s house to meet the Governor General).

Now I have a very workable plan for a humble 5 meter by 7 meter casita that I plan on building on my little piece of land just across the stream from Roberto. I’ve had a couple of frustrations with the buying of the land but in the end, all seems to be in order. I know why I’ve waited twenty years to buy land here. However, this is a property with title and no legal problems, and I’ve had a surveyor come and we are now just waiting for the land survey to be completed, and I think all will be fine although I’m expecting each step to involve frustration. The most difficult thing could be that our relatively isolated but very peaceful life here in the jungle could be changing as our road gets busier, land is bought up, buildings are constructed and electricity is soon to come. You can’t stop progress but you can certainly disagree with its definition.

We had a disagreement over the actual property line with the woman who is buying the land immediately next door but hopefully that has been settled. Roberto and I went out the other day and placed a makeshift fencerow along the boundary line as dictated by the woman who sold me the land, and now we wait and hope that we will all be in agreement. Roberto thinks I should erect a proper fence of barbed wire but I can’t stand the idea. Instead I plan on planting a variety of hibiscus, crotons and other colorful fast growing plants to mark the edge of the property. I told him that I would erect a real fence if I felt it was necessary one day – he shakes his masculine head of dreads. As we discuss issues around land ownership, security and building houses, I’m not sure if it is gender issues, personal experiences or cultural issues that cause our differing opinions, but in the end, it’s my property, my money and my problem. And Roberto’s prerogative to say, “I told you so”.

As I wrote at the beginning, I was feeling like complaining about rain, but once I returned to hot and sunny Cahuita, to the trials of land purchasing and house design, to Roberto’s delicious coconut-cooking and Miel’s amusing antics, and to the very low water level of our little stream, well, I decided I didn’t have to whine about wetness anymore. I brought a new simple battery-operated radio (see former post about radio problems) and it has brought music back into our daily lives – as well as a connection to the news of the world, including the amazing rescue of the 33 miners in Chile. They say that a billion people were watching or listening to the rescue operation – what a nice thought, that so many people across the globe would be focused on something that is positive, not warlike, and has nothing to do with sports.

And as I write this from the shelter of the rancho, our first day of east coast rain has come – beginning with a thunderous pouring in the night and lingering as a mellow shower all day long. Our gasping little stream has swelled again, its renewed current rushing along its banks, washing nature’s refuse back out to the sea, the moisture triggering a brighter twinkle in the green eye of the forest,  and cleansing our sun-baked souls. Ah, what a sweet rain it is.

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Happy New Year folks! Greetings out of the swirling mists of Monteverde, light precipitation aided by the intense winds that have been building over the last week. December was so kind to us (maybe not to the rainforest creatures, but to us, the humanoids) that when the winds and raindrops hit a few days ago, we felt assaulted. Yet we know that this is the weather that is normal for here and appropriate weather is what makes the world go round, along with love, so I’ll just shut up about that now. 

Love and weather – one can always talk about one or the other. I’m afraid that my rasta beauty Roberto is going to have to leave soon and return to his hot home on the Caribbean coast, partly due to things needing to get done, partly due to weather – he’s not leaving the apartment so much these days as the temperature drops and the wind pushes. We’ve had some company so that is always good – if you don’t want to go outside, it’s always nice for friends to come calling.

The festive season is over but because schools here don’t return for another week and the university students (children of the locals) who are visiting for the holidays don’t have to go back to the US for awhile, it feels like everything is still in slow-mo. It seems to me that in Canada, the first Monday after New Years is the day that everything kicks back into action. Well here, as in so many other ways, we are in Costa Rican time and so we slowly (but surely?) return to normal business….it needs to happen soon since I have a lot to do and am running out of excuses.

On the day after Christmas, we went to the beautiful amphitheatre at Bromelias and saw a band from Seattle – the Massy Ferguson band. It was a stunning night – the big ol moon that was slowing turning blue, no wind – which is important in this outside venue, good music. Although I didn’t know them, I remember Tony Mann and his wife who lived here before and they came back with the band that Tony plays keyboards with. They played mostly original music and we enjoyed their show – not in the least because they had a sound that reminded me of the Marshall Tucker Band – they covered “Can’t You See”, one of my all time favorite songs – and if you like a cover of a fav song, you know that the band’s done good. The lead singer/guitarist/flautist is Ethan Anderson – a great front guy, talented and charismatic. Twas a real perty night in Monteverde.

After that, my good friend Zulay, along with her sister Hilda, niece Gabriela, nephew Jason and friend Willie, came for a quick visit to Monteverde. I lived with Zulay both here in Monteverde years ago and over on her farm in San Carlos – this was a whirlwind (like the wind) tour because the others hadn’t been in Monteverde before (well, Jason, when he was 4) and so they came, they saw, they left. I spent some time with them, visiting the house where Zulay and I (and her ex-husband Vicente) had lived back in the mid-90s. These folks have been super kind to me over the years – truly, they are my Costa Rican family – so whenever I can in any small way repay their hospitality, I’m thrilled. Willie just survived a very serious motorcycle accident – hit broadside, thrown far, some head injuries – and is still feeling the effects, but it was good to see him alive.

Zulay and I went to the Guindon Sunday dinner after Christmas. It was a surprise for the family who hadn’t seen Zulay in awhile. It was wonderful to see Wolf’s son, Carlos and Lidieth – he who has recently translated Walking with Wolf into Tico-Spanish, his wife who hasn’t been here in a few years though I visited them both last spring in New Hampshire. When we entered the house, I immediately noticed that there was a new network of tree limbs strung about the ceiling (and decorated with Christmas bells and baubles) – this would be for the sloth that Benito has been mothering since last spring – now the sloth can leave her basket and crawl around on the limbs, eat the hibiscus flowers, and feel very much at home. She’s into biting now so one can’t pet her as before, and when she gets looking real fat they have to get her outside so that she can poop, but besides all those minor details, she looks like she is very comfortable in the hospitable Guindon home. It was joyous to spend an evening with the family, getting to know more grandchildren, the next generation, and their friends. Every time I am with this clan, I feel phenomenally lucky to be included – to have ever met Wolf, to have persevered with his story, and to have been received warmly by his family.

New Year’s Eve was a wow night here – big full blue moon, no wind, hot night. Kadeho, a rock band from San José, came to Mata e Cana, the newly renovated cool place to be (formerly La Taverna, the old cool place to be) in Santa Elena. Roberto and I went, we danced, we danced some more, and the night was spectacular. I believe in bringing in the new year with positive vibes – be it dance, love, great friends and food – whatever, as long as it’s positive – we are heading for another great year. I don’t take that for granted, having had some miserable First Nights in the past followed by some challenging years. Life.

Then came my good friends from La Sabanilla – Myrna and her daughters Sofia and Veronica. We have been friends since Myrna’s ex-husband, Luis Zumbado, played here in 1999 at the Monteverde Music Festival when I was caring for the house of the musicians. Myrna split with Luis about five years ago and suffered. But now she is about to marry a very nice man from Houston Texas, Ron, and she brought him here to introduce him to me.

Along with her daughters – the sexy-saxophonist Sofia, and the lovely violinista Veronica – well, we’ve all been girlfriends for years now and it was wonderful to see everyone happy. And to meet this very deep-thinking, gentle man who has put a smile back on the face of my friend Myrna.

At the same time, I’ve been helping another friend, Tanya, a Canadian with many years of being in Monteverde, while she recovers from splitting with her husband of 35 years. I’ve been the house-whisperer – helping her get rid of stuff, hugging her when the raw emotion is too much, encouraging her as she makes her plans to move on. Accompanied by her beautiful border collie, Elly (my favorite kinda dog in the world), we’ve worked our way thru boxes of arts supplies, music, and books. There is nothing more cleansing than getting rid of all that extra stuff we accumulate. She has a beautiful home in the woods, looking out across the treetops at the  Monteverde vista – the Gulf of Nicoya, the sunset, the future. I have grown to love this woman, surrounded by pain but on her way to an exciting future. Remember, when one door closes….

As the winds blow and the darkness settles in, Roberto and I are getting ready to go dancing in Santa Elena. I’ve been watching the cooks at the restaurant next door as they pluck chickens that will soon go on their BBQ spit. I think this is very illegal – slaughtering fresh birds at a restaurant. I can’t help but wonder if the wrong order came (“we said fresh, not breathing”) and the cooks just adapted to the situation. Not a safe place for a chicken to be crossing the street. 

 

This last week in Monteverde, my concern has been for los animales de la calle, the street dogs, cats and well… as we walk the roads, going here and there, in a two-kilometer stretch we have seen five dead dogs and two dead armadillos! What is going on? Are the animals suicidal, suffering from seasonal depression, or are the car drivers feeling a maniacal urge to kill? I’m not sure what is happening – the paving of the road here, in the congested area of Cerro Plano, could mean it is simply bad luck on behalf of animals being out on the road in the dark, being victims, but it is also possible that there is something more sinister happening. Way too much roadkill going on.

Miel, our lovely cat who prefers drinking from the tap

 

Ai yi yi…right when I wanted to talk about peace, love and grooviness, a dead armadillo appeared – Roberto would have skinned it and made a tasty dinner – better that than pure waste. In this crazy world of ours, life throws us these things – love doesn’t always prevail, shit happens. Sometimes we suffer, sometimes we prosper. Happy 2010 my friends.

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.

I somehow find myself in my last week in Costa Rica.  No matter how long I’m here, whether two months or six months, the time flies by.  I never get to everything I want to, I don’t see everyone I want to, but I always seem to manage to experience a new part of the country and see some old friends who I missed the last time around.  This year has been no exception – what has been exceptional has been the addition of Walking with Wolf  in my life and now it is in the community and the country. 

A book has a long life and so what I have missed in promoting it this time I will get to the next time.  Wolf and I are still waiting for the interview that we did with Alex Leff of the English paper the Tico Times to appear.  A month has passed and it hasn’t shown up, yet it was a great interview we thought.  When I contacted Alex a couple of weeks ago about the state of the article, he admitted to me that he was still working on it but was having a problem interpreting Wolf from the taped conversation that we had.  He said, ”I have a renewed appreciation of just what was involved for you in writing this book”. As in, how did I understand Wolf? Let’s just call it a sixth sense, luck and determination. So there is now only one Friday left, the publication day for Tico Times, before I leave.  Who knows if the story will be there.  I will start it all up again when I return next winter so am not worried. 

The negotiations for the Spanish translation have also been stalled as we awaited word from Wolf’s son, Carlos, who lives and works in the northeastern USA.  I just got word from him that he can’t come up with a price but does want to do the work.  So before I leave, perhaps we’ll have a chance for one serious conversation with the Tropical Science Center who is interested in financing it, otherwise thank goodness for the internet and cheap long distance phone plans. This too will happen when it should.

The book is in many bookstores and selling.  And those who have read it seem to really like it and appreciate the history it relates. For this, I am most grateful.

I have returned to San Carlos, to the base of Arenal Volcano, to be with my friends, the Martinez family, for a few days before I go.  The last week I experienced a number of strange health issues.  I had a twenty-four hour virus in Monteverde that felt like I had been hit by a truck, every bone and muscle, particularly my neck, very painful.  It passed, but the sore neck part of it returned the day I got here and I’ve been receiving nightly neck massages which have helped. The virus didn’t affect my stomach or give me a headache, so I think that it isn’t dengue. One never knows around the tropics.

The other problem is the continuing saga of a bug bite that I got while on the Caribbean, that the folks here are quite sure is a nasty little number called papalamoya.  Most Ticos I know, especially the ones who have lived part of their lives in the country, have big scars (usually round patches of rippled skin) from this bug that gets into their blood and takes forever to cure.  The treatment usually involves injections of something nastier than the bug venum.  In my eighteen years coming to Costa Rica, I’ve been waiting on two things – a scorpion bite and papalamoya.  So far, I’ve evaded the scorpion bite, but I may finally have been caught by the bug that causes the other.  I’m not really sure if it is a botfly or a sand fly or what it is (I’ve heard many versions) but I know the scar.  So I am now using a country treatment – I’m using a cow drug called sulphatiasol ground up with fresh nutmeg and some of my own saliva which I plaster on the bite.  Slowly but surely the big wound is shrinking in size and doesn’t look as nasty, but the new tough skin that the treatment forms must be softened and washed off a couple times a day and more guck put on and, well, it’s a process.  The good news is that it hasn’t erupted anywhere else in my body, meaning that the venom hasn’t traveled in my bloodstream – she says hopefully. If I end up with a small scar on the back of my leg from this, well, it only makes me more Tica, something I am already in my heart and soul. In which case I will wear it like a badge of honor.

The final piece of bad news before I get to some good, is that last night, after we arrived back from our day spent on the beautiful Rio Celeste, we received the horrible news that Zulay’s nephew, Victor, who was just here with us up until a couple of days ago, had been shot by robbers trying to steal his motorcycle in the city of Alajuela.  Unfortunately this is a more common occurrence here now.  In fact, people say that they, los ladrones, will shoot you for a cell phone.  I refuse to be overrun with fear and I’m not convinced that Costa Rica has become more crime-riddled than anywhere else, but I do know that the difference of rich and poor in this country has grown and the influx of serious drug-related activity has increased and this all means that it feels at times like there is a general air of lawlessness.  My great sadness for the whole country is the amount of fear that people live with here.  If they watch the news in the evening, they go to bed with these images of robberies and assaults on the streets in their heads.  It reminds me of when I was young, living in the very safe suburban city of Burlington in southern Ontario, but we watched the Buffalo, New York, TV stations.  It became very obvious over the years that some of these stations started their newscasts with all the street crime and police reports and so we were assaulted nightly with images of killings and armed robberies – as a kid I got very nervous, but sooner or later we realized that this was affecting us and we stopped watching those stations.  And the news wasn’t even about our locality,  where this stuff seldom happened, but it made us feel unsafe as well.

Now here in Costa Rica, people are living with this fear everywhere, in some places much more justified than in others.  And when crime hits a family personally, as it just has this family, then it only reinforces the terrible possibilities.  Victor, who is only 19 years old,  as well as two of his brothers, has been assaulted before (while being robbed), and the story right now about last night is that he refused to give the motorcycle to the guys, who shot him in the lung, and then fled – well, my dear Victor, hand over the bike, please.  But who knows what passes in the mind at a moment such as that? Anyway, I believe he is going to be okay, even if he loses his lung (and as this is published, he is past the danger).  At least he is alive. And he kept his motorcycle. But a very troubling day for this family.

Before this tragedy yesterday, ten of us piled into two cars and drove fifty kilometers north of here to the town of Guatuso.  Another fifteen kilometers or so, down a rough rocky road, took us to the entrance to Tenorio National Park and the magical Rio Celeste.  I only started hearing about this place about two years ago, when it captured my attention and imagination, and find that it now shows up more and more in articles in tourist guides and newspapers.  I know that as word gets out, people will go there, and am always happy to be there before the crowds, although there were several Ticos visiting, being the end of a 2 week school holiday.  What a beautiful place.

The deep turquoise color of the river is caused by the convergence of two rivers which carry certain minerals – you can smell the sulphur – on which studies are being done to determine just what chemical reaction is occurring.  We entered the area from the ”backside”.  There is another entrance into Tenorio National Park from a place called Bijagua, from which I think the hike is longer. From our entrance, we hiked on very beautifully maintained wide muddy trails (remember, I know what rough trails in these mountains are). 

You can walk to the teñidoras, the convergence of the two rivers where you see a grey-green river mixing with a yellowish river and very distinctly, at a line, becoming this brilliant blue. We walked in pure jungle, with twittering birds and a large variety of tropical plants and trees hanging over us, along with the occasional roar of Arenal Volcano but more often the loud cracking of thunder.  Somehow we didn’t receive more than a drop of water on us, even though the thunder around us was ominous. 

The trail was only maybe four kilometers long to get to everything – the convergence, the waterfall, the hot springs as well as a lookout and blue lagoon – unfortunately we didn’t make it to the last two because of time and that increasing threat of a big storm. The waterfall was out of the movies, the shady path along the cascading blue and white water was inviting, the meandering turquoise like a liquid jewel, and the hot springs were super hot.  As in, you couldn’t put your hand into the water in places, it was boiling hot.  In other places the cool mountain water flushed the hot water and created very comfortable pools to sit in, but if you happened to move out of the cool current and touch the hot mineral water, it scalded.  Incredible.

We spent about four hours hiking and playing in the waters until the threatening storm sent us back to the car – and sure enough, we were just back on the road when the downpour came.  Driving back from Guatuso we were facing Arenal Volcano which went in and out of clouds all the way, and lightning appeared and disappeared in various parts of the sky all the way home providing a light show of special effects.  It is places like this and days like this that make Costa Rica the phenomenally intriguing place that it is – sadly, the spell is broken when you return home to bad news, but the splendour of the day isn’t negated, only temporarily replaced by life’s reality checks.

  Andrey in front of the huge ceiba, The Tree of Peace near Rio Celeste

It is morning – you can tell by the chorus of birdcalls and the chanting of the howler monkey.  I think it is going to rain for, according to Wolf, the monkeys sing out at dawn and dusk but also to complain that the rains are coming.  It is so hot and humid here in San Carlos, and the clouds are sitting so low, that I’d say the howler is probably correct.  I think it is going to pour.

  HOWLER MONKEY WAITING ON RAIN

Last week while I was still in Monteverde, I was soundly asleep when all of a sudden there was a huge roar right outside my window.  A congo (howler) was in the tree not ten feet from my window, about twenty feet from my bed.  He was so close that I could hear the roar gurgling up in his throat, like coffee rising in the stem of the percolator getting ready to boil.  I’ve heard these roars a hundred times, from a tent in the forest, and from a tree at the side of a trail.  But nothing prepared me for the force that came out of that monkey that morning at 5 a.m.  I woke with a start at the sound of it, looked at the clock, realized I had no intention of staying awake and once my heart beat slowed, I thought about falling back to sleep.  However, every time I was just about back in dreamland, the guy started roaring again.  I ended up lying in bed just listening to that roar in his throat building in force until he released his monkey-like cockadoodledo.  Later in the day I ran into a neighbor who asked me if I had heard that monkey – how could I have missed him?  She also couldn’t get back to sleep – a second monkey in a different troop was close to her house and these two guys seemed intent on keeping us awake that morning. 

I can hear one outside now but he is probably half a mile away, which is an acceptable distance, so his roar is no louder than the rumble from the volcano.  I’m up already anyway, getting ready to pack and leave for Alajuela and a family fiesta with Zulay before heading into San José for the big interview with the Tico Times tomorrow. The other thing that is telling me it is morning is the aroma coming from the kitchen – fresh Costa Rican coffee and gallo pinto (rice and beans) made with Lizano, the Costa Rican condiment of choice. 

Last night we had Nectaly, Zulay’s cousin, over so we made a big pot of olla de carne – that is, a meat and vegetable soup/stew. I love this dish as it gives you a little of the redder-than-usual beef that is pasture fed along with a wide selection of the root crops, squashes and other veggies which are common here but more difficult to find imported in Canada – yucca, yampi, tekiske, elote, ayote, chayote, camote…bueno, there are many. 

 

Nectaly waiting for Zulay to serve up the olla de carne

 

 

The last few days here we have been feasting on tamales which in Costa Rica are made with a milled and cooked corn mash, rolled with some vegies and chicken or pork inside leaves from the banana family and steamed; pejibayes, served with mayonnaise, which is the fruit of a specific palm tree and a food that sustained the natives for centuries and my absolutely favorite food here; breadfruit, a ball of dense vegetable that grows on the most beautiful large-leafed tree I know; and the nuts of the castaña, the false breadfruit tree. 

  A COSTA RICAN TAMALE

  THE BEAUTIFUL CASTANA, COUSIN OF THE GLORIOUS BREADFRUIT

I’ve been lucky in my life here in Costa Rica to have been introduced by my Tico friends to a wide variety of exotic fruits and vegetables, animals and even insects. I’ve spent hours pulling snails, sea cockroaches and other small critters out of tidal pools and off the rocks, then painstakingly cleaning the sand and refuse out of them to make a seafood and rice gastronomic delight. I’ve tried a bit of everything including iguana, armadillo (both with chickeny or rabbity-like meat), tepizcuentle (a small rodent-type animal that is known to be the best meat around and is now farmed – and truly tasty), and my first year here I ate turtle.  I know that it was completely not right but I was staying with locals at the time on the Caribbean and they were still killing turtles for food then.  And as I ate the tender pieces of juicy meat served in a spicy salsa, I have to say I understood immediately why people would eat these now endangered creatures – they are the filet mignon of the sea, a little bit fine steak, a little bit lobster.  I also very politically-incorrectly sucked a turtle egg one night, but I won’t get into that….the event just about wiped out my reputation as having a social-conscience and all I can say is that it seemed like a good idea at the time.

 BREADFRUIT CENTERPIECE AND 4-FRUIT JUICE

Most people when they come to Costa Rica eat rice and beans in some form or other, as well as rice with chicken or shrimp, or casada – the daily meal named after what wives serve up for their husbands, combining a mixture of the more inexpensive foods that can be served up on anyone’s table (rice, beans, cabbage salad, ripe plantain and a protein such as egg, cheese, or meat), fresh fish at the beach, chicken or pork when inland.  But if you get outside of the restaurants, and are willing to try new foods, there is no end to the variety here.  Papaya, mango, pineapple, avocado and banana are common and can be bought anywhere – when in season, they are of course much sweeter and tastier here than you would ever experience with imported ones in the northern world.  But there is also caimito, mamones chinos, guanabanas, guayabas, well the list goes on. And each one has its own flavor and texture.  I’ve learned that mamones (a variety of lychee nut) are great for traveling as you crack open the colorful spikey skin and get a grape-like juicy treat from inside with a minimum of fuss and mess; that green mangos with salt and lime are very satisfying to curb your hunger; that there are a whole bunch of different fruits that involve sucking sweet white flesh from around large seeds inside pods, such as guavas or anona or cacao; that there are several varieties of citrus, including lemons and limes as we know them, but also sweet or sour, orange or green limones and oranges; that there is a tree that grows little fruit that taste like cookies and I never remember what they are really called so I just call it the cookie tree and love the little fruit whenever I find them; and that nanci,  a small yellow fruit the size of a small crabapple, can be soaked in guaro, the national cane liquor, making what I call an authentic Tico martini.

 

 

A sampling of Tico food – a partially-used breadfruit (which became the centerpiece above); the nuts of its cousin, the castaña; pejiballes; papaya; creamy avocado and the leftovers of a tamale.

 

 

Of course in many parts of the country the influence of foreigners has brought new kinds of cooking, new spices, new flavors.  When I first came in 1990, I couldn’t find a satisfying piece of pizza if my life depended on it (and sometimes I felt like it did) but now I’d say that the pizza you can get here, often in Italian-owned restaurants, is better than what I find in Canada (or you can go to Pizza Hut if you are so inclined).  The variety of fish – red snapper, tilapia, seabass, calamari, shrimp – often cooked with a generous dose of garlic, keeps my seal-like tendencies very satisfied. I wouldn’t say that in general Costa Rica is known for its fine cuisine, but the freshness of its food often balances out the simplicity of its preparation. The jar of hot chili peppers, onions and vinegar that is often sitting waiting on the table as a condiment adds some spicy flavor.  And the large presence of other cultures here means that you can find fusion-foods to die for in communities all over the country.

Then there is the question of red beans verses black beans – there is a whole discussion here about the intelligence, virility and general sex appeal of those who indulge in one type or the other (and we are talking daily), depending on which community you are in, but I’ve never really formed an opinion on that so will stay out of the controversy. But I will give you a small cooking tip – when preparing black bean dip to serve with nachos, a little leftover strong coffee and a touch of sugar adds great flavor.  Mmmmmm, coffee, time to get the day started. 

 

Beautiful Marilyn, Zulay’s niece – raised on red or black???

  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

November 2018
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