A very belated entry


So this entry was supposed to be about 2/3rds of the way through our trip, but I think it has turned out to be the last one. Not for any tragic reasons! But we came back to the US for a month so I could teach summer school, and while we were there Zach got a job offer that was too good to pass up. So now I’m in Pittsburgh, and he’s in Ohio, and we haven’t seen a deadly snake or heard a howler monkey or almost stepped on a poison dart frog for at least a month now.

I did want to post one last entry, however, to explain how we did not get killed by a shovel-wielding mass murderer.

At the end of May we hugged Jan and Frank goodbye and set off towards the Poas Volcano and the Caribbean coast.  The plan was to stop overnight in a town just outside of San Jose, so we would have the entire next day to really savor the brain-melting traffic of the nation’s capital.  We had hoped to spend that night camping, but the only national park along our path was Tapanti, ‘the coldest, wettest park in Costa Rica.’  So the new plan became to take the road through the park to one of the many hotels on the other side.

Maps in Central America suck. We have three different maps, one electronic and two paper, all of which contradict each other and none of which is consistently right. Navigation is the second hardest part of driving down here. (Second only to the actual act of driving, and trying to avoid both the booby-traps (who needs sewer covers on a highway? Not Honduras!) and your fellow drivers, who clearly believe they were going to a better place and appear to be in one hell of a hurry to shuffle off this particular mortal coil.)

So when we planned our shortcut through the Tapanti Park, we checked several maps.  Look, I even learned how to make a screen capture just so I could show you a picture of Google’s map!




We wanted to take the road through the park, but first – was it on the GPS?  Check!  Was it on the paper map?  Check!  They all agree – awesome!

map?  Check!  They all agree! Awesome!

By the time we finally stopped in the middle of our ‘road,’ unwilling to go any further, we were two miles into the park, it had begun to rain, and it too dark to see past our headlights.  Our poor, valiant truck was pointed down a steep incline, and when we got out to investigate what lay around the bend I almost fell – the road was pure rain-slick red clay.

We inched carefully around a ninety-degree turn in the road, and saw a long dark shadow in the path ahead.  As we got closer, it resolved itself into a ditch.  A ditch far deeper than our tires, sloped alarmingly towards the drop-off, and leaving nowhere near enough room for us to pass.


The good news, at that point, was that there was no decision left to be made.  Backwards up a mile of clay hills in the dark wasn’t happening. Forward through the ditch was completely impossible. We couldn’t sleep in the truck, because it was at a 30-degree angle, (and also because I was a little worried it would slide right off the mountain in the middle of the night), so we pulled the tent and sleeping bags out of the truck, hiked down the road until we found a grassy flat spot, and fell asleep to the sound of the incessant rain and the distant howler monkeys.


The next morning we awoke to find that the rain had stopped, the truck was right where we’d left it, and we seemed to be on a movie set for some prehistoric adventure movie.  Weird, twisty trees poked out of the mist, flocks of silent birds wheeled overhead, and we were the only humans in sight.


The ditch looked even worse by the light of day, but we figured that maybe we could fill it in to get past that one part.  We were just a mile from the end of the road (according to our traitorous maps) so we set off downhill to see if we were indeed almost through the worst of it.


We were not.

Giving a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘standing in the middle of the road’

Well.  Clearly forward wasn’t an option.  How about backward?  We walked back to the truck.  I swear it looked reproachful as we clambered up the slippery hill towards it.

Backwards involved going uphill on wet clay too slippery to walk on, without a turnaround for about half a mile. Forwards featured a five-foot deep ditch. After walking back and forth a few more times and debating which horn of our dilemma was less likely to get us killed, we wedged the sand-tracks under the tires and put the truck in reverse.

I have few regrets in my life, but now added to that short list is my failure to turn the camera on video for what came next.  I’d put it away, thinking that I would be needed to walk along next to the truck, pointing out potholes and giving steering advice as Zach crept slowly upwards.  Because I am from the city and have no clue how to get a stuck truck unstuck. Instead, the truck gave a groan, the wheels caught the sand-tracks, and she went SHOOTING up that bumpy hill like a goosed racehorse.  It skidded left, then right, then perilously close to the cliff edge, and made it almost to the top before the tires started to spin and she came to a stop.

This was going to be easy! I slid-ran down to grab the sand-tracks and we set them up under the wheels again. Nothing happened. We scootched them a little further under the treads. They spun fruitlessly.

As we stared at the truck in exasperation, a floppy, mangy little dog came over the hill. A minute behind him came the first human we’d seen since yesterday afternoon.

I feel like my memory of what this guy actually looked like isn’t too reliable at this point. There were definitely fewer than the average number of teeth, an odd assortment of shirts and coats, and pants that were decidedly dirt-colored. Enormous work boots flapped untied around his sockless feet.  I think there was an unsettling gleam in his eyes even at the start, but imagination may be adding that detail.

The part I do remember very clearly was that his dog, who had come up for scratches and seemed happy to see us, would not go anywhere near him.

In Spanish, he told us that he’d seen our truck go by last night and he’d wondered where the heck we thought we were going. He seemed delighted by our stupidity, and equally determined not to leave until we did. Over the next few hours, as we painstakingly squealed up the hill inch by inch, he alternated between actually being helpful, making terrible suggestions that would have broken our truck (and loudly declaring that we had to listen to him because he was older than us) and explaining repeatedly that if it started raining again we’d be stuck there until the dry season.  He said that the year before, another car had tried to go even further than we had, and they had to get a tow truck to pull them out, and THAT got stuck and a second tow truck came to rescue them both.

His dog moved with the shade of the truck every time we gained a few feet, but still wouldn’t come near the guy.

Finally, as we paused to catch our breath, he turned to me and said, “You know there was a serial killer here in Costa Rica in the eighties.”

“No, I never heard anything about that.”

“Yes, he was a very bad guy.  He killed twenty-three people.”

“Well, good thing he’s gone now.”

“No, they never caught him.  He just disappeared.”

(long, thoughtful pause)

“But he’s still alive.  I know who he is.  I’m the only one who knows.”

(…longer pause)

“Usually, he would find travelers lost in the woods.  A couple, like you, they would get lost, and then they would never be seen again.  Does that scare you?”


“NO!  We’re both really strong.  And really good fighters.  Besides, I’d cut his head off with our big… shovel…” and here I trail off as I look over and remember that our stout, six foot long shovel is currently in his gnarly hands.

He laughs.  We laugh.  The subject changes, and I reclaim the shovel as soon as he sets it down and do not let it go for the next two hours.

We finally figured out that we had to clean the mud out of the sand-tracks every time we used them, and as the sun climbed higher the mud dried up a little bit we started to gain yards instead of inches with every attempt. Finally, in the early afternoon, we backed into the turnaround and pulled forward onto a gravel road, covered in red clay, hollering with triumph, and acutely relieved to not have been murdered with a shovel.




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Bugs bugs bugs

Frank’s little mutt-dog Alacita is curled up on the couch to my left, and Missy the German Shepherd is trying to crawl onto my lap from the right.  Missy is slowly, lovingly licking everything within reach, which unfortunately includes the computer, and when I move it further away from her damp smooches Alacita stretches her little head across the keyboard and quirks her eyebrows up at me with her well-practiced poor-little-doggy face.  It’s especially effective tonight, thanks to the bare patch in the middle of her forehead that the vet shaved off to get to the wound on her head.  Alacita’s had a rough week.

A few days ago I was trying to take a photo of the lizard who’s been hanging out in our bathroom, and as I took crappy picture after crappy picture I realized that 1) cobwebby bathroom ceilings make terrible backdrops and 2) it’s kind of weird that we’ve seen so many lizards here and so few snakes.  Immediately I looked around at the rafters behind me, because that’s the kind of thing where as soon as you think it, you see a snake and think what a weird coincidence that was, right?  But the rafters were empty, and I gave up on the little brown lizard and went back out to the garden to finish weeding.  Or rather, to continue weeding in the certain knowledge that it will never, ever be finished.

Here is a different little brown lizard instead. Some of the really tiny ones will hop right onto your hand.

It was a weird animal day in general:  I tried to keep Missy from eating a wasp that turned out to be a moth in disguise,

Those fluffy antenna are a dead giveaway.

Zach found an ant that looked like a spider because its butt had fallen off,

He didn’t seem to notice that he was missing his entire abdomen for a good fifteen minutes, until all of a sudden he stopped trying to eat my pen and started stumbling drunkenly in circles.

and I pulled a bunch of ticks off the dogs and threw them into the creek while reflecting how strange it was that the dogs were constantly covered in those things yet neither Zach nor I have had one yet.  This time the coincidence-imps were paying attention; ten minutes later I felt something crawling inside my left sleeve and found (of course) a hopeful tick, who followed his friends to sleep inside the fishes.  (Ticks are hard to squash, but after a few botched attempts at killing them with a machete I discovered that the tiny fish in the creek make a much more efficient and satisfying disposal squad.)

As dark fell, Zach went to get the laundry in off the line.  A few seconds later I heard a most un-Zach-like noise and he came flailing back to grab a headlamp.  While walking across the grass in the dark, he had stuck his foot right between two mating cane toads.  Judging from the look on his face, it was not an enjoyable experience.  I bet they looked displeased as well, but then these guys always look kind of cranky.

These are the same cane toads that are currently wreaking ecological havoc as an invasive species in Australia, but they’re native here in Central America and no problem. They are, however, shockingly dumb – if you startle one it just hops in a straight line until it hits a tree and then sits there staring at it, totally flummoxed.

Finally, after dinner I came out of the cabin to find Missy stalking slowly towards the little bridge that spans a creek to connect our cabin to the bathroom.  I gave her a friendly poke, but instead of the usual tail wag she flinched, gave me a quick nervous glance, and took another slow step forward.  I looked ahead to see what she was so transfixed by… and saw, stretched across the path just a few feet in front of her, a familiarly patterned snake whose wide triangular head was unmistakable even in that dim light.

I called Missy and she turned around immediately (thankfully – trying to pull her away by the tail was Plan B, but she’s a big girl) and I shooed her into the cabin.  The snake had pulled back a bit by the time we came back with a light, but the vertical pupils and unique coloration were clear – it was a fer-de-lance, one of the deadliest snakes in Costa Rica.

Of the many poisonous snakes in Costa Rica, the fer-de-lance is the most feared.  They  are responsible for almost half the annual snakebites here.  Most people that get bitten these days survive thanks to the ready supply of antivenin, but may suffer from paralysis and memory loss, and if they don’t get help fast enough the skin over the entire affected limb can turn black and slough off.

It had never before occurred to me that there would be a legitimate reason to kill a native snake that was minding its own business, and maybe if it had just been Zach and me we could have just been extra careful for the rest of our stay… but there were three dogs running around the cabin night and day, and fer-de-lances are infamous not only for their potent venom but also for their unusually aggressive nature.  After a few minutes’ deliberation and several heartfelt apologies to the snake, the poor guy was dispatched with a shovel.

I feel sad for the snake, and guilty that he died for such a small offense as trespassing into our front yard.  He was beautiful, and he was here first.  But he was just way too well-armed to make a good neighbor.

Frank said he’s found a few fer-de-lances on the farm in the dozen or so years he’s lived here, but usually they’re far enough away from the houses and garden that he can just shoo them back into the woods.  Ronnie and Christian, the two guys who have been working here for years, found and killed one a few years ago, and some previous WWOOFers said they’d seen two during their stay, but generally fer-de-lance sightings have been reassuringly few and far between.  However…

Just few days later, Ronnie and Christian uncovered another fer-de-lance while clearing brush along the driveway.  Alacita usually follows them around all morning, and she saw it first – she was on the snake before the guys knew what was happening.  Ronnie waded into the fray and bashed the snake with a machete, and when Zach and I got there the snake was dead and Alacita was sitting on a rock, enjoying the attention while both men carefully searched her for puncture wounds.

Incredibly, there didn’t seem to be a scratch on her.  Apparently even mongooses (mongeese?) are often no match for a fer-de-lance because these snakes are so much faster than cobras, the mongoose’s traditional enemy, but this little dog must have bit down on just the right spot.  We stared at the dead snake while Ronnie told us horror stories about people who’d been bitten and hadn’t gotten to help in time, until finally the call of the weeds became too loud to ignore and we headed back towards the garden.

Alacita started after us, but as she trotted along her tail began to droop.  She stopped in the middle of the path and sat down slowly, with her head tilted strangely, then sank onto the ground.  Upon reinspection we found a small spot of blood in the middle of her forehead – her miraculous escape had not been as complete as we’d thought.

Obviously, this story has a happy ending or I wouldn’t be pushing her little head off this keyboard tonight.  Frank took her to the vet, who said that it looked like she’d been barely grazed and wouldn’t even need any antivenin.  She came home to bellyrubs and tuna, and was running around again with her tail flying within hours.

She’s usually much cuter than this, but the only photo I have is of her trying to shove Zach’s toe into her ear.

Phew!  So, for a change of pace from the flesh-melting snakes living in our backyard, who wants to see an adorable grasshopper?  He was not at all cooperative about posing for a picture – he kept leaping onto the camera lens whenever it got too close.

Is this the Orthopteran version of mooning the photographer?

Finally he stopped to chew on his foot for a few seconds.

This one was even cooler, and even tinier.

And THESE guys!  Holy cow!  Frank has a bunch of books out in the tool shed, and when I picked this dusty one up it made a strange cracking sound.  On the back side were some broken mud tubes and a tangle of twitching legs.

Those are all spiders, and they’re all alive.  Barely.  There are wasps that hunt down spiders, paralyze them with a well-placed sting, and stuff their still-living bodies down into a tube that the female constructs from mud ferried over one mouthful at a time.  Then she lays eggs in each tube and seals it up.  When the larvae hatch, they have a still-fresh spider breakfast waiting for them.  Blerg.

Last, but in absolutely no way least, are these lovelies that I found under the sink in the other cabin.

I was ALMOST positive I knew what they were and that they were harmless, but without checking in first with the all-knowing Wikipedia gods I just couldn’t touch those things.  It turns out that they are indeed harmless – they’re tailless whipscorpions, or amblypigids, and they’re probably doing a bang-up job of keeping all the other creepy crawlies out of the bathroom.  They can’t see very well, but they use those crazy long legs to feel around in the dark, and even to communicate with each other by touch.  They’re really amazing bugs… but MAN am I glad they’re smaller than we are.

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Gralinskis in Costa Rica, Take 2

This one is from a few weeks ago – I keep writing these and not getting to an Internet place to post them.

On a rainy Mother’s Day night, Zach’s folks showed up at a bus station in San Isidro.  They had come to visit us for a week, completing the Costa Rican Gralinski Trifecta.

We spent four days at the farm, stuffing them full of bananas and ogling the local flora and fauna.  We visited the neighborhood cows, who are kind of bizarre looking:

Tom called them mango ears, and now that’s all I can see when I look at these guys.

Zach and his dad went fishing, and although they didn’t catch anything Zach’s dad did get a video of a basilisk running around on the river, which I think is at least nine times better than a dead fish.

We went to the beach to say hi to the Pacific, which was lovely,

and drove home over the mountains in the rain, which became a little more exciting than we’d intended when a tree came crashing down onto the road right in front of us.  There was no time to brake and no room to swerve; we kept going right over the end of the tree.  Luckily, amazingly luckily, the tree was just short enough that we passed over the thin branches at the top and drove on with a grill full of leaves and not a scratch on anyone.

On Thursday we went to the market, then wandered towards the sound of a marching band to find an oxcart parade in progress.  Painted oxcarts are a Costa Rican tradition, and there were dozens of them lined up along the street, being pulled along very slowly by enormous, patient pairs of oxen.

Ginny, did you know you took a picture of a cow picking its nose with its tongue?

Afterwards, we drove back up to Monteverde.  To get there we had to cross the Tarcoles bridge again, where the crocodiles hang out.  This time there was a large, non-nimble-looking man down in the deep mud right next to the crocodiles, waving his arms around and yelling at them.  When that failed to attract their attention, he started throwing gobs of mud at their heads.  The photographer behind him had clearly paid good money to get pictures of a crocodile trying to eat someone, but the huge reptiles were unmoved and she finally gave up and left.

In Monteverde we stayed at La Colina Lodge, where I fell in love with a turkey.

That little noodley thing on her face moves around when she eats. It’s freaking weird.

She used to have a little chicken friend, but a wandering dog ate it.  Now she follows the guests around and settles down at the foot of your chair like a well-trained dog.  She likes it when you scratch her weird little knobby naked head.

La Colina also had a nesting pair of emerald toucanets right alongside the driveway.  They were living in an enlarged woodpecker hole, and every half hour or they would switch places on the nest.  If the one out foraging was late coming back, the other one sitting on the nest would start poking its head out and looking around in what appeared to be the bird version of “What’s taking so long?”

Speaking of which – Ginny, that nest full of eggs behind the bathroom door that you were worried about?  They turned out just fine.


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Last night, as I was kneading bread dough in our little outdoor kitchen, a small dark shape scurried behind me and stopped in front of the oven.  Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be not the mouse I had expected but a large maroon crab, waving his eyestalks in unison and pointedly showing his claws.  A few seconds later he scuttled sideways behind the compost bucket* and refused to come out.  In retrospect, if our kitchen is going to be infested with small crunchy things, crabs are a pretty good option.  They can’t get on the counters, fly into your food, give you itchy bumps or stab you in the foot with a poisonous spikey tail.

*Do you think they made up the word ‘scuttle’ just to describe the movement of crabs?  It sounds so appropriately crabby.  If someone told you “I just saw something scuttle behind that rock,” you would assume it was a crab, right?  Me too.

A couple of weeks ago, we traveled to Monteverde, a small mountain town about five hours northwest that was founded by Quaker dairy farmers in the 1950s.  The Quakers and cows are still there, but the big attraction in Monteverde nowadays is the assortment of cloud forest reserves in the area and the enormous diversity of animals and plants that call them home.

Like many previous travelers, we didn’t actually see much of that famous wildlife when we visited the Monteverde preserve.  We were the first people to hike our particular trail that morning (judging from the number of spiderwebs still stretched across it, which we thoughtfully cleared for the next hikers with our faces), but we appeared to be the only things moving on the forest floor.  Above us, however, the canopy was alive with trills and squeaks and rustling vegetation.  One call, that echoed through the forest all day, sounded like rusty wind chimes, or a squeaky gate blowing in the wind.  Another large black bird made a loud rattle as it glided (glode?  No, that sounds even weirder) from tree to tree.  According to Zach, it sounded exactly like a jake brake.

At one point, I decided I was going to pick a plant and find every bug on it, thinking there must be SOMETHING interesting in all those leaves.  And there was!  First I found this guy:

A jumping spider and his breakfast.

And then I turned up another leaf and found something rather larger.

It was still pretty early, and this little guy was so cold he was stiff.  I wasn’t even sure he was alive, but in response to an exploratory poke his coils tightened and a head popped out from the bottom of the pile.  Although lizards and cane toads are a daily sight, this was one of the first snakes we’ve seen.  Other than a few quickly-disappearing squiggles in the underbrush, the only other snakes around here are tiny black guys that live in the dirt here at the farm.  Zach has found them a couple times while digging, and they slide right back into the upturned soil in seconds.

They actually have a really beautiful iridescent sheen in the sunlight, but it doesn’t come out in pictures.

That snake was about it for wildlife in the Monteverde Preserve.  It was a lovely place to hike, though, and there were leafcutter ants along the trail that had been walking the same path for so long they’d worn a groove into the earth.

A little after noon a few clouds started sliding up the valley, and within an hour the cloud forest was socked in.

Later that day, we stopped at a café just outside the entrance to the park.  The front yard was full of hummingbird feeders, and the feeders were covered with hummingbirds.  They were zipping around like the sugar-high sucrose addicts that they are, and sometimes one would buzz right past your head way too fast to see.   I think Hitchcock missed an opportunity with all those crows and seagulls he cast in The Birds.  Sure, they have scary looking beaks, but an angry hummnigbird would be terrifying.  You’d never know where it was, and they’re so pointy!

On Sunday morning, we went to Quaker meeting in an old wooden building just a few miles up the road from where we’d spent the night.  They have a translator to make it a bilingual service, and some of the original founders of Monteverde were there.  There was also a woman with a cloth tied around her waist, the contents of which proved to be the world’s most silent-worship-friendly animal.

Thanks for the photo, Kate!

She was adorable, and much softer than I’d expected.  The fur of an adult sloth is kind of awesomely disgusting.  There is algae and moss growing on them, and several species of moth have evolved to spend most of their lives deep in that greenish pelt.  After mating, a female moth searches out a sloth and burrows into the fur.  She spends the rest of her life on the sloth, waiting for an especially weird sloth behavior.  Sloths, although they are helpless on land, climb down to the ground once a week in order to poop.  When they do, the moth crawls down to the business end and lays her eggs in what I have just decided should be called sloffal.

This baby sloth had been found alone on the side of the road.  Since sloths can’t really walk on land (although they can swim!), if a baby gets dropped there’s not much the mother can do to get it back.  Fortunately this one had found a surrogate mother.  It really was cute, but there was something a little disconcerting about its gaze.  Her eyes were an opaque brown, with no discernible pupil or iris, making her look almost blind.

We left Monteverde on a different road than the one we’d arrived on, trying out an experimental route that would follow the shore of Lake Arenal for several miles and turn north right past the volcano.  However, one of the early sections of the route we’d planned was just a dotted line on the map – a ‘path’, according to the legend.  With hope in our hearts and an alternate route in our back pocket, we followed the winding gravel roads north and arrived at our dotted line to find postcard-perfect views of Arenal Volcano above rolling green hills and the nicest gravel road we’d seen all day.

The dotted line safely behind us, we reached the lake, crossed a slightly sketchy-looking bridge and found ourselves driving along a beautiful lakeside road, with miles of jungle broken only by the occasional small farm.

I keep meaning to take a picture of the truck going through a creek, since it’s still a rather novel experience and it looks all hardcore and whatnot, so when we came to a good-sized one I splashed upstream and got my photo.  Look!  It’s a truck crossing a creek!

The trip along the south side of the lake took almost two hours – the road was rough, and there were toucans and monkeys and more leafcutter ants and other things that could not be properly inspected from a moving vehicle.  Finally we came to a spot where a creek poured out onto the road, and we followed it down to where it joined a small river, far larger than anything we’d crossed before.  Zach and I rolled up our pants and waded through it to check the depth, and were relieved to find that it had a rocky bottom and just barely came up to our knees.  I turned around to hop back into the truck, when Zach said “Maybe we should check a little further up – I think we’re on an island.”

Oh dear.

Fifty feet further, we found the other branch of the river.  It was at least twice as wide as the one we’d just walked across, and the current was racing past.  We hiked our pants up a little higher and waded out to where a man was standing alone inthe middle of the river,  the first person we’d seen in hours.

The water was well over our knees by the time we reached him, and we stood there and blinked at each other for a moment or two.  I asked him whether he thought we had any chance of making it across in a pickup, and he said sure, it was no problemo with four wheel drive.  I asked him if he’d ever done it himself, and he said no… but his Jeep was parked on the far bank, and he’d be happy to pull us out if we got stuck.

The only other way out was to retrace our steps over hours of gravel roads, and we were already behind schedule.  After checking with our new friend one more time to make sure I’d correctly interpreted his offer to rescue us if need be, we slogged back through the rushing water.

The first river was no problem, but as we approached the second I was not at all reassured to see our would-be savior standing on the far bank, using his camera to video our ‘problemo-free’ crossing attempt.  Fortunately, this tale has a happily boring ending.  The bottom third of the doors got a good wash, but our trusty Frontier made it through with nary a hiccup.  Unfortunately, I was so busy dancing around like an anxious monkey that I messed something up with the camera, and completely failed at getting an exponentially more hardcore river-crossing picture.

The rest of the trip home was pretty straightforward, although rush hour traffic in San Jose made me kind of miss driving through rivers.


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I Am Not a Birder

That is my new mantra.  I know and love many self-identified birders, and birds are great.  (They can fly and sometimes they’re shiny!  What’s not to like?)  I even signed up for a morning bird course in college with the renowned Bill Buskirk, but lasted just one week before I realized that they were actually serious about that 5:30 wake-up time.

But – have you ever gone for a walk with a binocular-wielding birder?  Particularly in a new and exciting place, that may be home to new and exciting birds?  They start speaking in tongues, about yellow-bottom one-eyed burblers and polka-dotted buffleheads and scaly-throated leaftossers, while pointing at a speck in a far-off treetop, and I’m always left feeling a little guilty that I can’t share in their excitement… and a little relieved.

So despite a childhood spent enthusiastically memorizing reptile and insect field guides, I’ve been very comfortable with my lack of knowledge of all things feathered.  However, Costa Rica is putting my willful ignorance to the test with these problematically fantastic birds.  Birds with a scarlet butts and iridescent purple hummingbirds and three-foot tall hot pink things.  A bird with a bright yellow tail that makes a noise like ripping fabric and the wonderfully awkward toucans.  The Costa Rican bird guide (I didn’t buy it!  It was already here at the farm!) keeps creeping up to the top of the pile of books on the coffee table, and I keep finding myself taking pictures of birds so I can look them up later.  I’m afraid this is a precariously slippery slope I’m perched on.

(Which would make me a member of the Passeriformes, commonly known as perching birds.  Please send help.)

These are roseate spoonbills, and they are fabulous.


This is a keel-billed toucan. They are goofy looking, and also fabulous. Imagine having a nose as long as your torso! You could sell ad space. Or Bedazzle it!


This is an oropendela. They make weird noises and build hanging nests up to six feet long, and they hate being photographed.

And there are parrots! Just flying around as if they were normal birds!

This is some kind of heron. I could look it up, but I won’t, because I am not a birder.

But there is one species of bird with which I am beginning to have serious issues.  A word about roosters, if you will.

This is the type of rooster that I grew up with.  Roosters are a bit scarce in Chicago, so until about ten years ago all the roosters I knew were of the two-dimensional variety from the cardboard pages of books like “Our Farm Friends.”  They live out in the country, love to sit on fenceposts, and just as the sun peeks over the horizon they give a proud Cock-A-Doodle-Doo to wake up Farmer Bob.

Actual roosters, however, have clearly never read Our Farm Friends.  They live in every town in Central America, they love to sit next to our truck, and they start making their loud, hoarse, prolonged squawk while the sun is still a distant memory.  And they keep doing it, for hours, only pausing for intervals carefully calculated to let you hope “Maybe THIS time he’s done for good.”

This is a rooster, but he is not crowing. Notice how it’s daylight? He is now quietly recuperating from his pre-dawn exertions.

This is also not a rooster crowing, but while we were on the topic I thought I’d mention that turkey gobbles sound absolutely hysterical and isn’t this a cool picture that Zach took?

The good news is, I’ve been trying to reconcile my vegetarianism with the idea of keeping chickens for eggs when we get back to the States, and a sticking point has been what to do with the fluffy little chicks that grow up to be boys instead of laying hens.  I wasn’t at all sure I could eat a chicken that I’d raised myself, but at this rate I’ll be chasing them around the yard barefoot with a machete at four in the morning.

We’ve been here at the blessedly rooster-free Finca La Puebla for a little over a month now.  Neither of us has turned yellow from banana over-consumption, but the dirt under my nails may never come out.  (Here, Mom, I’ll save you the trouble: “What else is new?”)  We only have to work twenty hours a week, so we’ve taken a few trips with our free time and covered a fair bit of the country – not hard when said country is the size of West Virginia.

Near the end of Lisa and Mike’s stay, we went to the beach.  The Pacific coast is about an hour’s drive south, and the beaches are mostly empty now that the week-long celebration of Semana Santa is over.  We went out and got knocked around by waves for a while, until Zach and Mike decided the day would be incomplete without coconuts.  Like most beaches down here, this one had coconut palms just beyond the high-tide line, but the coconuts themselves were well out of reach.  For one person, at least.

Three matching fruits are irresistible to a juggler.

Our last day together we drove to… I’ve forgotten the name, but there was a treehouse and a waterfall and it was really completely lovely.

You have to scramble upriver to get to the waterfall, and in one rocky pool we found a baby basilisk.  He ran from rock to rock right over the water, so quickly that when he was moving all you could see was the row of splashes left on the surface by his pinwheeling feet.  Finally he headed straight towards Lisa, and when he was a couple feet away he suddenly seemed to notice that there was a pair of legs in front of him.  He stopped running – and immediately sank like a stone.

Crested basilisks grow to be about two feet long.  There is a fully-grown one that likes to hang out near the pool at Frank’s, but I don’t know if the adults can run over water as easily as babies.  This guy looks pretty massive, and seems much more inclined to run up a tree and glower at you.

We also went up to Monteverde for a long weekend, but I can’t write about that now because I promised not to put any bug pictures in this one.  Hey, here’s a picture that I meant to post months ago.  This is our host family in San Pedro:

The mom is the one in the middle.



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Happy Chocolate-Covered Chocolate Day!

I can almost die happy.  I still haven’t seen a narwhal or a giant cuttlefish, but today we made chocolate-covered chocolate beans and I’m almost too blissed out to type, I just want to make rows and rows of these 🙂 🙂 🙂   Um –  I was going to take a photograph to post here, but they seem to have all disappeared already.

We’re staying for the next six weeks at Finca La Puebla, a little farm in Costa Rica owned by a Canadian expat named Frank.  There were five of us at the beginning, since Zach’s sister Lisa and her husband Mike came down to visit for a week.  Now it’s just us, Frank, three dogs, and a cat who, true to her species, would rather sit on the keyboard than on the sofa.  Would you like to say hi, Chloe?                             Huh.   That would have worked better if she’d stood on some keys instead of the space bar.  Oh, now the dog’s jealous.  Meet Missy.

Her real name is Miss Georgia O’Keefe, and her other nicknames are Get-Out-Of-The-Garden and Leave-the-Cat-Alone. And Sweetheart.

Frank claims to grow coffee, but really this place is absolutely infested with bananas.  There are plenty of coffee bushes, sure, but they are quite literally overshadowed by the banana trees.

Cows in the bananas. They did not belong there, so we got to chase them back onto the road by running at them with sticks and hollering. It was great fun.

The naughty bananas get strung up in a cage. Please say 'naughty banana' out loud several times with a British accent.

Did you know that a bunch of bananas make a great bird feeder?  It’s true.  Hang a hundred pounds or so of bananas from a tree and all kinds of critters show up.

This guy doesn't appear to eat the bananas, but he does hang out nearby a lot. He's a blue-crowned motmot, which is also fun to say in British.

There’s a cute little grey and white thing that comes at night to drag a banana or two up into the trees, but he’s hard to photograph because, well, it’s dark.  Frank’s wildlife book says he’s a four-eyed opossum.  They have regular opossums here too – we walked by one in the middle of road a few days ago, flat on his side with bulging eyes and his tongue hanging out.  A few steps later I stopped and turned around, as it dawned on me that not only was this a rocky driveway where traffic moves at a walking pace, but that critter didn’t have a visible scratch on him.  As I leaned closer to look at his giant ratty face and unblinking eyes his ribcage suddenly lifted in one deep breath.  Freaked me the heck out, but I guess that’s exactly what I deserve for inspecting insufficiently killed roadkill.

Anyways.  Bananas.  We’ve eaten them plain and fried, we’ve cooked them in pancakes and banana bread, we’re dried them (to save for later?  In case of banana shortage??), we’ve blended them into smoothies and pureed them with ginger to make energy bars.  Every time we walk out into the coffee/banana plantation there’s another tree down and another bunch to carry up to the delighted birds.

Lisa shows the bananas who’s boss

Mike shows the bananas who’s boss... by carrying them around. I may have this one backwards.

There are a lot of other cool things growing here, too.  There are several cacao trees, with pods in various stages of tantalizing not-yet-readiness dangling from the branches.  There are a variety of citrus trees, including face-twistingly sour oranges and sweet, enormous lemons.  There are several tropical fruits that I’m not sure how to spell, and a vegetable garden that reveals a deep fondness for geometry and cabbage.

There is also a fantastic variety of bugs, several of which are currently trying to fly into my computer screen.  We found a stick insect right next to the cabin.

Sticky hung off Mike’s ear by one foot for a while – not sure how this is a convincing stick impersonation. Maybe he was having a King of the World moment?

The coolest ones show up at night.  Twice now we’ve had swarms of mating termites, which delighted the apparently insectivorous cat, and every few nights something huge shows up.

This guy patrolled the outside of Lisa’s mosquito netting for a couple of nights.

We’ve been commenting on the weird lightning bugs since we got to Guatemala – not only are they brighter than the ones back home, but they zip through the trees like they’ve been poaching Frank’s coffee beans.  Finally, we found the culprits.

I know what you’re thinking: “That’s not a firefly!  That’s just a click beetle, albeit one of the largest I’ve ever seen!”  True!  I couldn’t have said it better myself.  But this is a really cool click beetle – he lights up!

Bioluminescent Elateridae!

According to the bug scientist lady that Lisa and Mike met later, this little guy has one the brightest lights out of all the bioluminescent bugs in the whole world.  And!  He has TWO different colors!  If he’s scared, those eyespots light up green.  But when he flies, a different spot on his belly glows yellow-orange!

There are also ants.  I’m getting a little sick of ants.  I’m feeling a little betrayed, actually.  I really like ants.  I wrote a twenty-three page paper on ants.  I used to try and nudge them away from the ant traps my less myrmecophilicly inclined housemates put out in the kitchen.  But they are everywhere and if you get too close to one of their invisible nests they swarm out and sting you and it feels like tiny bees.  And then, if you’re Zach, you swell up for two days, and if you’re me you wake up scratching madly in the middle of the night and run around looking for anti-itch cream in the dark and stub your toe and say some not very nice words about ants.

They also infested our couch.  If you’ve ever used the expression “he’s got ant in his pants,” I hope you used it correctly, to refer to a person trying to simultaneously shake vigorously and whirl around to see his own butt.

But!  We did see army ants on the march, which was both amazing and terrifying!  On one of our first days here, right around dusk, Mike noticed something flopping around in the bushes.  It was a worm, completely covered in ants.  Other bugs were pouring out of the leaf litter, all rushing in the same direction.  And behind them, marching in columns like the aptly named creatures that they are, were thousands of advancing ants.  The few insects that didn’t get out of the way in time were dismembered in minutes.  It was slightly less entertaining when they changed course and came straight for the cabin, but we headed them off with a moat of dish soap and they disappeared back into the night.

Are you sick of bugs yet?  I’m sorry.  No bugs next time, I promise.  Unless we find a Hercules beetle.


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I Heart Costa Rica

Oh my gosh monkeys!!!!

We entered Costa Rica after another long border crossing, which featured the usual treks to far-flung offices to get copies of all our documentation in triplicate, along with the new wrinkle of watching the entire border office g on break as we arrived.  We finally made it through, leaving behind the miles-long line of resigned truckers, and half an hour past the border we drove by one of the coolest things I’ve seen yet on this trip: right on the Pan American highway, with trucks roaring by in both directions, a white horse was calmly doing a near-perfect piaffe.  For the non-horsey among you, a piaffe is (roughly) where a horse trots in place while maintaining the rhythm and footfalls of a normal trot, and it’s really really hard.  At the fancy-pants barn I last worked at, among the eighty dressage horses in various levels of training only two could pull off a piaffe – and here was a random horse doing it on the side of the highway!  Zach, sensitively divining from my open-mouthed hyperventilating that I wanted to go back, turned the car around and wove back through town until we came out right in front of the horse and rider.  He piaffed in the middle of the road, he passaged (exaggerated slow-motion trot, also super fancy) up onto the sidewalk, then his rider dismounted and he did a final piaffe/passage in hand through a gate as we burst into applause and his rider gave us a smile and a wave without missing a beat.

Unfortunately, even before that detour we had gotten a bit behind schedule and we still had several miles of rocky road* between us and our intended campsite at Playa Blanca, so we changed plans and camped on a beach not far from the highway.

*Not, tragically, to be interpreted as thousands of feet of marshmallow-studded chocolate ice cream, although that would have been at least as cool as the horse.

A hundred yards away from our campsite was a police station where the friendly officers told us it was free to camp on the beach but a donation would be appreciated.  Sure, what’s a few thousand colones between friends?*  We watched crabs scurry across the sand in the moonlight, fell asleep to the sound of the waves for the first time in months, and woke up to hundreds of birds going crazy out in the bay.  Just like our second morning in Baja, a school of small fish had gotten trapped in the shallow waters and was being enthusiastically devoured.  Pelicans sure look goofy when they dive – they skim over enormous waves at high speed with the barest twitch of a wingtip, the epitome of grace and control, but when they’re going after fish they climb into the air, tuck their heads down, then kind of stall out and fall into the water face-first.  Unlike the little white birds we saw arrowing sleekly into the water, the pelicans splash down with flailing wings and come up with full throat pouches ridiculously  a-wobble .  I love them.

*The money situation has become officially ridiculous.  With the exception of Mexico, every country we’ve entered has had currency at a higher exchange rate than the one before.  Guatemala’s quetzales (which intriguingly appeared to feature a portrait of Kim Jung-il) traded at almost eight per US dollar.  Honduras gave us 19 lempiras per dollar, and Nicaragua was 23 cordobas.  Costa Rica’s colon, which was originally supposed to be equivalent to a dollar, is now trading at roughly 500 colones per dollar.  The prices here are, unfortunately, about equivalent to what you would pay for similar items in the States, which results in staggeringly high numbers at the bottoms of receipts.  On the other hand, ATMs show bank account balances that make you want to take all the money out at once, throw it into a pit and swim around in it quackeling madly.

Later that day, we headed for Playa Blanca, only to find it covered in jellyfish.  Nobody volunteered to test whether these particular jellies were of the friendly or ouchy persuasion, so we backtracked to a different beach that was covered in tiny crabs instead.  We camped that night at the rangers’ station at the entrance to the park, and in the morning looked up amid a sudden hail of sticks and leaves to see two different species of monkeys browsing in the treetops above our truck!

Howler monkey. Note – does not so much howl as make a noise like an angry water buffalo. With laryngitis. And maybe a couple demonic possessions. It is not a comforting noise the first time you hear it at 4 AM.

Capuchin monkey? The Spanish name translates to ‘white-faced monkey’. They all looked vaguely worried.

I thought from the funky hairdo that this was a colobus, but apparently those live in Africa. So then I thought I'd discovered the beginning of an intercontinental monkey invasion. Then Wikipedia told me this is a mantled howler monkey, so you do not need to worry. Phew.

This is not a monkey, but we saw him in the park and I think he climbs trees and eats bananas. Close enough?

It was really hard to concentrate on not burning the pancakes.  Or, as they are adorably called here, panqueques.  After several hours of chasing rustling treetops with a camera in one hand and a spatula in the other, we headed south to spend Tom and James’ last two days with us in Playa del Coco.  The beach there was beautiful, but the high tide line was covered with spiky balls a little smaller than a coconut that, upon closer inspection, turned out to be hundreds of inflated, dead puffer fish.

This guy has been collecting the dead fish, dousing them in gasoline, and burning them for the past week. He said he usually fills three of those sacks every day.

There were some baby sting rays and a few trigger fish washed up as well, but the vast majority of the dead fish were spiny puffers.  Apparently we had arrived in the midst of a red tide, which is an unusually high concentration of a normally harmless protist (a dinoflagellate – say it, it’s fun!) that creates toxins that can kill fish and sicken people who eat tainted shellfish.  The locals we talked to said the puffers are especially sensitive to the toxins.  The good news, I guess, is that it’s not necessarily caused by humans.

At the end of the month, we dropped Tom and James off at the airport.  We’ll miss you guys!  You will be fondly remembered every time I hear a particularly excruciating pun or wonder what that sticky spot on the steering wheel is.

lTigOhtMs (He demanded his name on our blog in lights.)

As we were driving away from the airport, I saw what looked like the world’s biggest grasshopper on a window.  Zach backed the car up the ramp* so I could check it out and sure enough, it was the world’s biggest grasshopper.  This thing was easily as long as my hand.  Unfortunately, I realized after the first few pictures that I was standing on a chair outside an international airport holding a camera up to the window to take photos, and someone might take exception to that, so I ran off before I remembered to take a picture with something else in it for scale.

*Alternate title for this post: Melissa gets excited and Zach backtracks to humor her

Hey, you know what’s even more exciting than grasshoppers?  Toucans!  These little guys are called fiery-billed aracaris, and they are insanely cute.

This is the last one, I promise. But they're so darn photogenic! Look, this guy is throwing his food around! So much cuter than when I do it!


This one is a chestnut-mandibled toucan, and he was huge.

We also saw these guys, which are not the most poisonous of the poison arrow frogs but still a very, very bad idea to lick.  The first one we saw took refuge under a log, but Zach spotted another one on the far bank so I headed towards that one – and yelped when something hopped out from under my foot.

Google results for "Can a frog poison me through my foot skin?" were inconclusive. Also: Look, Ginny! A picture of me in the blog!

Oh!  And speaking of bad things to lick, we saw these guys under the Tarcoles bridge.

Lots of them.

That’s it for exciting animals.  Good night!  Or good whatever-time-of-day-it-is-for-you!



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