Wednesday, January 26, 2011

the urban jungle

We'd been waiting for the bus for almost an hour and it was right on time. The only bus bound for San Jose came by at 2pm. We were told by staff to be there at 1:30. Deb thought we should be there at 1pm, just in case. Normally, I may have argued the logic of such a long wait, but not in rural Central America. Our flight left early the next morning in San Jose. We needed to catch our bus. And we did.

We put the bags on some shelves above our seats and settled in for the long ride. I'd been so in and out of sleep during the voyage in that I had no idea how long it was going to be. The bus stopped every now and then to pick up riders, while others would disembark, grab their bags from under the bus and walk away. The only system in place was the honor system. Deb kept a vigilant eye on our bags whenever we stopped while I tried to take some in focus photos out the window. There didn't seem to be any system to the stops either and sometimes they were surprisingly close together. This bus stopped frequently while traveling a great distance and did not adhere to any American concept of what a bus ride should be. The riders, however, were very familiar and a surprising number of them were teenagers with Jansport backpacks texting away intently on bedazzled cellphones.

The countryside was dotted with small houses, bigger resorts, tree farms and grazing cattle. Everything was green and lush and there were a surprising number of lots for sale. There was also a very cool technique that multiple lots utilized for fencemaking. They'd plant a row of trees in a row, then supplement that with branches from similar trees stuck in the ground, all tied together with wire to create a semi-natural fence. The bus had been following the coast for some time and finally turned inland toward the capital just as the sun began setting behind us. The ride had worn out its welcome as it entered its fifth hour and we were anxious to get to San Jose, our hotel, a hot shower, and a delicious meal.

The hotel Deb had booked was near the airport, so it made sense to get off at the airport stop rather than riding all the way into the city center and taking a longer cab ride. We stood against a wall and, before we could even exhale after the long ride, we were set upon by cab drivers wanting our fare. One especially persistent driver wore Deb down to the point where she told him our destination. He reacted with horror and told us a ride to that hotel would exceed $30. The good news was that he knew of a much better hotel that was very nearby and he'd take us there for $5. It even had a pool! I was keen to go to our original reservation destination, but Deb was more open to this new place and since she hadn't given a card number to the first hotel, we had nothing to lose. So we got into the cab and headed toward the unknown.

It didn't take long for us to realize that maybe we'd made a mistake. The streets were dark and nearly deserted. All the businesses, save a few here and there, were shuttered for the night. And I don't mean closed, I mean shuttered, with heavy wooden shutters. Even the narrow streets seemed oddly devoid of cars, making it easy to see the deep canyons that had been dug along the edges of the sidewalk to accommodate all the area's rain. We pulled up to a dingy city motel and got out. The cab driver carried our bags into the lobby and I gave him his fare. Deb checked us in while I paced in the lobby, looking out the window at the neighborhood's denizens. The owner took us to a room on the main floor, conveniently adjacent to the front desk actually. I caught a glimpse of the pool and realized no one would be going for swim in that bacteria factory. Then, speaking of bacteria factories, we were shown our room. After our first fight of the trip we emerged from the room fifteen minutes later and checked out. The owner called us a car and our old cab driver reappeared five minutes later (what are the odds? it's like they know each other). We got back into the cab and asked to be taken to our original hotel.

"How much is it going to be?" I asked our familiar friend.

"About $25," he said as we pulled away from the curb.

"Can you turn on the meter please?" I asked before we'd gone a block.

"Broken," he informed me, "it no work."

I'd dealt with this problem before in New York. Cab drivers are always trying to pull this sort of thing. I made up my mind right then what to do and enjoyed the rest of the ride, especially the sight of our new hotel. It was nothing fancy. Like a Hampton Inn, maybe. Bit still a welcome improvement. We got our all our belongings and Deb took them inside. Then I gave the driver the equivalent of $20 and said "Gracias."

"It's $25," he said.

"I already gave you five. Remember, from before? So you have $25 of my money which is more than you deserve. You aren't getting one cent more. No mas. No mas." Admittedly, it was stupid to go through all this for $5, but I was annoyed, I didn't like this guy, and I didn't like getting ripped off.

"You pay me $5 more," he insisted.

"No mas," I told him, "Call the policia, I don't care."

He looked at me and frowned, not knowing exactly what to do next. When he went back to his car and reached into the glove compartment, I suddenly began to question to wisdom of my stubborn behavior. But when he emerged with nothing more than a calculator, I breathed a sigh of relief and kept on shaking my head. He showed me his math and I showed him mine.

"You're trying to rip me off and I'm not giving you any more money. Your broken meter is your problem, not mine. Call the policia if you don't like it. Call the policia and we'll see whose side they take." I don't know how much of what I was saying he could understand, but I know he knew "policia"and I know he was in no hurry to get them involved. At this point, I knocked on the door and got buzzed into the hotel.

I explained the situation to the desk clerk and he could not have been nicer. He was another one of those folks we met on our trip who arrived at just the right moment and helped us deal with a stressful situation in a friendly, yet professional manner. His demeanor really helped take the edge off the cab driver situation. The cab driver situation, meanwhile, was still waiting outside. He banged on the door and honked his horn, waiting for us to come back out.

"Are there are restaurants nearby that deliver?" we asked, realizing it might be better to stay in tonite.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Z is for zip-line

We woke up early, nervous, and excited. Today was our last full day in Costa Rica. We had to catch the one and only San Jose-bound bus that came by each day at 2pm, but before that we were going zip-lining through the jungle. I'd debated whether or not I should attempt this with my bum knee. I'd been careful throughout the trip and it hadn't been giving me too much trouble. What really gave my knee problems (and still does) is stairs, and outside New York, there really aren't very many stairs. Conversely, our Brooklyn apartment is on the third floor and in order to get to Manhattan I have to traverse a minimum of six flights of stairs (2 in my building, 2 down to subway, and 2 back up). I assumed that we would take a truck up to the top of a nearby hill and then zip-line down. I was wrong.

Deb and I got strapped into our zip-ling gear: a complex mesh of straps with buckles and a harness on it. We got our helmets and they gave me a walking stick. A walking stick that was about to become my best friend in the world. Am I overselling the drama of the situation? I don't believe I am.

We had two guides: Pedro, our guide from the previous day's tour, and Carlos. They led us across the highway and up into the hills above. The terrain got steep quickly and I began using the walking stick to boost myself up to the next step and take some pressure off my knee. It worked for the most part as I took a slow and steady approach. Part of me wondered about the wisdom of making such a steep hike. It reminded of the way I'd felt 17 years before when I was in Spain during my backpacking trip. I'd been through a lot to get to Pamplona in time for the Running of the Bulls. Now I was there, and they were minutes away from opening that big wooden gate. I sat there on the cobblestone street debating my next move. Common sense told me to get the hell out of there and self-preservation agreed. But I didn't. I remember thinking, "When am I going to be in Pamplona again?" And the next two minutes became two of my life's most memorable. Having a bum knee really takes it's toll. I missed walking around aimlessly in New York City. It had always been one of my favorite things to do and it was always something I could afford. I hadn't done it much since hurting my knee. I'd been taking it easy for a long time. But when was I going to be in Costa Rica again?

We didn't see much wildlife, but we did see those little two-toned poison dart frogs. Carlos said that some tourists come just wanting to see such frogs and they leave disappointed. We saw three or four. There were very tiny and intensely colored. Bright colors as only Mother Nature could deliver. They looked delicious, like expensive frog-shaped candy.

We reached the first zip-line and Carlos hooked himself up to show us how it's done, and zip—he was gone, arriving quickly on another platform 100 feet away. Deb went next, bravely stepping up without hesitation. "Lean back," instructed Pedro, "lift up your feet." She did, he gave her a push, and she shot out over the jungle, the ground 70 or 80 feet below. Carlos caught her at the other end and I could hear her laughing; a mix of exhaltation and relief. I went next. I took a deep breath and briefly thought about Toby from "The Office" before Pedro pushed me off. A potent mix of terror and adrenaline hits and you're flying through the air. You look down because you can't not look down. Looking down is what gives you the true perspective of where you are and what you're doing and how high up you are and what will happen to you if this line were to suddenly break. But the line doesn't break and the other platform suddenly looms large. You're coming in a whole lot faster than you'd anticipated. This Carlos guy had better catch me or my knee will be the least of my worries. He does.

But the next time, I'm coming in so fast that my momentum spins us both around and we almost go off the platform. At this point, Carlos tells me that I can slow down my speed my holding the cable with my gloved hand. He doesn't like to tell people this because the slow themselves down so much that they get stuck in the middle of the cable. Then they have to pull themselves in hand-over-hand. The glove-break technique works perfectly for me and I'm able to enjoy going fast and being high up without worrying about crashing into a tree.

Deb, meanwhile has had none of my problems, except that Carlos and Pedro keep having fun at her expense. Pedro would act as though she'd left too early and then Carlos pretends not to notice her coming in fast. I did not know any of this until later. I did, however, see them pull the cable so that she'd bob up and down as she floated from tree to tree. I asked if he could do the same for me and he obliged. One of the zip-lines connected to a platform built onto the tree about 100 feet off the ground. Carlos hooked our belts to the tree for added safety in-between zip-lines. Standing on that platform was probably our most nervous moment. But we were both enjoying ourselves immensely and were disappointed when we got to the last zip-line. We had survived the experience of zip-lining as so many other tourists had done before us. And now we had to walk the rest of the way.

Pedro points out that a huge portion of the hill we're passing is actually home to one mammoth ant colony. The nest is maybe 20-30 feet wide, and just as tall. Remember all those ants carrying little bits of leaves? Well, this is where they were headed. The bits are taken to the nest and used to grow a fungus that serves as food for the entire colony. Riding on top of each piece of leaf is a smaller ant who cleans the leaf to make sure that there aren't any foreign substances, like another kind of fungus, as such a contaminant could destroy the colony's food source. Carlos hit the nest with my walking stick and these huge soldier ants came out to look around. He grabbed one between his thumb and forefinger and showed it to us. It didn't look like the other ants at all, it was twice the size and had a wide alienesque head with massive pincers. Carlos explained that the jaws are so strong, they'll continue to bite even after you pull off their body. Apparently, this trait gets exploited for first aid purposes by using the soldier ant's heads as makeshift stitches to help close up wounds.

After we crossed the highway we happened upon a large troupe of capuchin monkeys. Maybe it was the same one we'd seen the night before. There were about the same number of monkeys. They were in lower in the trees that they'd been the night before and were just hanging out in the sunlight. I really regretted not bringing my camera on the zip-line trek now, especially since we had to go. It was getting late and we could not afford to miss this bus. So we left the monkeys to their monkey lives and went off to shower and pack.

Monday, January 24, 2011

quest for monkeys

We headed out for another trek through the jungle. After getting caught in the dark the previous night, we made sure to give ourselves ample time to find those elusive capuchin monkeys. We walked for some time, never veering far off the path. Although our surroundings were still overwhelmingly foreign, especially the constant sounds, after a couple days the exotic had, by degree, become more familiar.

After spotting a pizote or two, I rounded a corner and saw a dark shape emerge from behind a large tree. It was a large bird, the size of a wild turkey but shaped more like a dodo, stouter and thicker than a turkey. The bird was entirely black, like almost blue-black, with a red mohawk-like crest. I tracked alongside it, trying to get a good picture without getting too close, but the low-level light of the early evening demanded a flash. So, long-story-short, no pictures of the big, black dodo bird with the red hair.

I'd discovered my big bird on a detour and now we were headed toward yesterday's beach at Deb's behest. Our eyes scanned the trees for any signs of curly tails or adorable monkey faces. We ran into another couple who informed us that they'd passed a whole bunch of monkeys further up the trail. (I don't actually know what a large group of monkeys is called. Bunch can be used casually for a group of almost anything. Bananas come in bunches, and monkeys like bananas—so there's that. Okay, I just Googled it and, according the one website I looked at, it is a "cartload of monkeys." But "cartload" is too ridiculous, because it sounds a lot like "shitload," which ironically is what I'd originally written before replacing it with "bunch." The website also said "troop" or "troupe," so let's go with that.)

We were getting close. The other couple had just seen a troupe of monkeys only moments before, in a big tree near the trail bridge. We walked quickly, scanning the trees as best we could without tripping over a root or tree branch. After arriving at the bridge, we scanned the trees in every direction, but there was nothing there. The monkeys were on the move, but we didn't know in which direction. We we heading back in the direction of the camp when we heard the hooting sound Pedro had taught us earlier; the monkeys sounded close. We walked back the length of our troupe expedition to the place where we'd met the other couple. We could hear the monkeys hooting, but were unsure which direction the sound was coming from. Deb walked off softly in one direction, I went in the other. We walked as silently as we could and held our breath, listening for the slightest movement.

Then, off the trail, high in the tree, I saw a monkey walking slowly along a branch. I whispered as loudly as I could to Deb, who had disappeared around a bend on the trail, that I had a monkey in my sights. Luckily, she could hear my loudly quiet news and we soon stood there silently watching the monkey. We could now leave Costa Rica wholly satisfied. It was a great relief.

We heard a loud crashing overheard. Another monkey had just made a rather noisy landing on a huge palm frond high above us. We looked up and could see his silhouette on the huge slatted leaf. He quickly made his way to a long branch from a neighboring tree and scurried quickly to the trunk. Here, he planted his back feet and leapt through the air about ten feet before grabbing another thin leafy branch that swayed heavily under his weight. He climbed it without pause and continued on his way. Then, we heard another crash on the first leaf above us.

Suddenly there were half a dozen monkeys within view all at once. They varied in size, one of them clearly carried a baby monkey on it's belly. Another paused on one tree and repeated banged a small nut against the branch. Still more monkeys arrived. We now counted over a dozen. One by one, they each made there way along the path the monkey had taken. Some of them stopping for a snack at one particularly large palm tree before continuing on their way. It was a monkey rest stop along a monkey highway that we'd been lucky enough to stumble upon during monkey rush hour. We stood there for some time, watching each monkey traverse their tested route at the point where it crossed our trail.

I tried in vain to get a good photo of a monkey for quite some time, but the monkeys were too far away, the light was too low, and I couldn't hold the camera still enough. My best photo is just a blurry approximation of a capuchin monkey. If you'd like a clearer view, I recommend Google Images.

As we walked along the trail, back toward the resort, the monkeys continued their movement through the trees on our right. But their route was much further from the trail now and we could only spy them in the distance now and then.

That night after dinner, Deb and I went for our nightly swim in the pool. While we were submerged, the sky decide to open up and dump a rainforest-sized amount of water us us. And as if that wasn't impressive enough, the power to the resort went out and we were plunged into darkness. It was truly amazing to behold. The surreal beauty of the moment, however, was soon interrupted by a pair of tipsy Canadian couples carrying umbrellas and flashlights. They descended upon our serene scene like drunken Japanese lanterns. Deb fled back to our cabin and I soon followed after imbibing a Crown Royal and Coke. We had to rest up for tomorrow. We were heading to back to San Jose in the early afternoon, but in the morning we were going zip-lining.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

giant spiders, three-toed sloths, and walking sticks

After a good night's sleep and another American breakfast, we headed to the guide post for our guided walking tour of the rainforest. We were driven a couple miles down the road in one of the resort's trucks and dropped off with our guide Pedro. The mid-morning sun was hot as we walked along a trail that ran parallel to the road. Pedro pointed out a massive spider resting on a leaf and I cautiously took a picture of it, not wanting it to leap at my face or spray venom in my eyes. I didn't know exactly what terrors the exotically dangerous animals of the rainforest had in store for us, but I was going to worry about them regardless.

Once we entered the forest, the scene became more similar to the walk Deb and I had taken the previous day. The bright sunlight was hidden by the densely layered canopy of foliage. The few thin streams of light shone sunny spots here and there on leaves and fallen logs. But very little light was lucky enough to reach the jungle floor. As we walked, Pedro told us about the plants and animals indigenous to the area and he'd pose questions to us in a game show manner that was both charming and educational. Pedro was also amazing at spotting animals high up in trees that we would never had noticed without his assistance. He carried a telescope with a tripod and after setting the sights on an animal high in the trees, would invite us to have a look. If you line the lens up just right, you can take photos utilizing the telescope:

We got to see a three-toed sloth languorously eating a finger-shaped fruit high in a tree and a giant black lizard, also high in a tree. Pedro led us to a rickety old bird blind where we could see a huge tree overlooking a wide point in the river. Sitting in the tree were white birds, hundreds of them, as plentiful as fruit, just hanging out, doing what birds do. I was hoping that a loud noise of some kind would startle them and they'd all fly out of the tree at once... but nothing like that happened. Now all of this wildlife was really amazing, don't get me wrong. It's just that we were really hoping to see some monkeys.

Pedro heard monkeys in the trees once or twice, but they were far away. He even cupped his hands over his mouth and did a kind of hooting monkey call, but it didn't seem to attract any real monkeys and we continued on our way. Pedro took us to a a mangrove tree that had the most amazing root system. Each root was thin (about an inch or two), hard as a rock, and up to six feet high. They snaked out from the truck in waves, creating walls of undulating tree roots. And here is a picture in lieu of a thousand more words.

We made our way back toward the pickup point and Pedro's eagle eyes spotted a grey hawk high up in a tree. He zeroed in on it with the telescope and gave Deb and I a closer look. It was odd to see such a familiar looking bird in such an exotic setting. And while we were looking up at the hawk, a more exotic animal, an insect named Phasmatodea, or walking stick insect, fell out of a tree and landed on my arm. This resulted in a surprising lack of surprise on my part and almost no high-pitched shrieking. I think I was stunned by the sheer size of it the thing. It then proceeded to jump onto Deb (she also reacted with surprising nonchalance at having a "Temple of Doom"-sized bug on her). When the aptly named stick walked onto her butt, I took a picture of it.

We met up with Jack and he drove us back to the resort. We had a quick lunch and rested up for one last hike before it got too dark. One last search... for monkeys.

video blog #4: leafcutter ants in Costa Rica

Saturday, January 22, 2011

heart of darkness

I must admit, our first trip to a Central American shore was a bit of a disappointment. The water was a grey mix of roiled sand that resented our trespass. The beach, however, was empty. We had some company from that group of a half-dozen American teenagers and their chaperone, who were apparently on the greatest field trip ever. But even their brief hollering was drown our by the noise of the surf and we didn't even notice their exit. After that, we had the beach to ourselves and we lounged around until we got hungry. Then we took another amazing walk through the jungle and had a very civilized little lunch at the thatched-roof, open-air restaurant in the center of the resort.

Perhaps "resort" conjures up an image of a much bigger complex than Hacienda Baru actually was. There was a front office, a guide post, some small maintenance sheds, the restaurant, a netted butterfly sanctuary, and about a dozen well-built little cabins (some duplexes, others stand-alones) surround a small, bean-shaped swimming pool. A complex system of tiny drainage ditches crisscrossed in every direction to draw the ample amounts of daily rain into the jungle.

It was getting late now and we decided to take another jungle trail before it got too dark. Jack, the soft-spoken American who'd owned the resort for twenty years, told us to make sure to bring flashlights. "You don't want to get caught in the jungle at night," he warned us,"it happened to me once, but never again." After our hike to the beach, we took this advice very seriously and took two flashlights.

The trail on the northside of the resort was different from the southside trail we'd taken to the beach. There were savage looking trees whose bark could bite, as it was covered entirely by giant, razor-sharp thorns (we would find out later that the trees had been planted by ranchers years before as a way to deter monkeys). The terrain here was flatter—there was less canopy, sparser trees and more high grass. But it was no less exotic or intimidating, and as we ventured further from civilization, the twilight crept in and the jungle began again to surround us. The darkness spread from the black corners of the trail and quickly covered the detailed green jungle in a grey haze. We walked briskly and with greater purpose, not knowing exactly how long the trail would take to lead us home.

Deb walked past some fallen palm fronds when something stung her ankle. I took a look, fearing the worst kind of jungle insect, and was relieved to see only a couple of long thin needles sticking out of her ankle. After finding out she was okay, I took a photo for posterity's sake before carefully extracting the offending foliage. As the blackness of night completely consumed us, we tried in vain to illuminate the black trail with our tiny flashlights. Seemingly, on cue, we came to a small, muddy road that we knew from the map would lead us back to Hacienda Baru. We walked along the road in the inky darkness and listened to the orchestral din of the jungle's inhabitants, relived to be out of the canopy. Slowly, we made our way down the road towards dinner.

Before leaving the cabin that morning, I had killed a wasp on the windowsill and left it there. While we were out in the jungle, the jungle had found a way to permeate our room. Hundreds of the tiniest ants I've ever seen had swarmed through the screen to devour the wasp's corpse. I was too impressed to try and stop it; this tiny microcosm of nature presented for our approval. By the next morning, the wasp had been entirely picked clean and only a husk with wings remained.

Despite the fact that it was barely nine o'clock, we were both exhausted from the wealth of experience we'd managed to pack into our first full day in Costa Rica. We turned in after a leisurely swim in the pool and rested up for tomorrow's guided tour of the jungle.

Friday, January 21, 2011

rough waters & hazy sunshine

(editor's note: Forgive me reader, for I have sinned. It has been over three months since my last blog entry. Once the immediacy of the blog faded away, a break from writing commenced. I knew I needed to finish the blog, even if it was now from a historical, contemplative perspective rather than written during spare moments on planes and in hotel rooms. But as time passed, the unfinished blog loomed larger and restarting it seemed an insurmountable task. Days of the week have no names when you're unemployed, and time passed as it often does. Even New Year's came and went. I was going to write on Dec. 29th, but waited because the first was a much more apt day to restart anew once more. And so...)

We walked through the jungle, stepping carefully around snaking tree roots and creeping vines, seeing new things around each bend and marveling at the sight of it all. Here and there, the narrow path was flooded and we tread carefully along the edge of the jungle to avoid getting our feet soaked. At certain points, the path turned into raised wooden docks that carried us over marshes to the next spot of dry land. Ahead on the path, a huge white crane flapped his wings and rose into the air in a majestic whoosh before disappearing into the canopy.

It was hard to know where to look. If you looked down, you would miss the quick glimpses of colorful birds as they darted across the path. If you looked up, your feet could trip or trample the criss-crossing regiments of ants forever carrying tiny bits of leaves into their subterranean tunnels. We kept to the path and tried in vain to take it all in. After crossing a wooden footbridge that carried us over about 100 feet of reedy marshes, we looked up and saw a huge toucan picking something tasty off a tree. Toucans, besides being famous in our minds for hawking breakfast cereal, are so different in design than their North American brethren. With that colorful beak that seems to take up half the bird, it's an animal that screams its exoticism from the rooftops. It was such a treat to see it that we spent far too long standing there staring up at it; leaving only after our necks ached from all the craning.

We could hear the beach now, the sound of the crashing waves mixed with the constant cacophony of the jungle. As we came out from beneath the canopy, there was some sort of low building and a group of American teenagers having something educational explained by a guide. The building turned out to be a turtle hatchery and we continued past them to the beach. The sun was bright and the sky was hazy, which meant we didn't need to put on sunscreen immediately. But I remember thinking we shouldn't forget to put in on later. The beach was empty and populated by tiny holes everywhere; spiders? crabs? snakes? I filled in a few dozen of the holes before we cautiously put our blankets over them.

We couldn't wait to get into the ocean and welcomed the rare opportunity to go into the water together. The beach we usually go to is at Coney Island and someone has to stay on dry land to guard our personal effects. The lack of broken glass, candy wrappers, and bottlecaps in the sand was another welcome change, unfortunately, there was also little chance anyone would come by selling Heinekens. The holes, incidentally, belonged to an innumerable population of small to tiny crabs that scurried hurriedly to the side in all directions.

The water, however, did not seem to want us and kept trying to forcibly throw us back onto the beach. My gimpy knee made balancing against the current especially difficult and once you got out into waist-deep territory, the riptide was just plain rude. Deb and I both got knocked down and sandblasted by the roiling surf. When we regained our footing and wised up enough to get out, our fleeing ankles were pelted by the pilgrimage of tiny rocks being drawn into the insatiable sea. We were about to try once more, when Deb spotted a ray (manta, possibly sting) near her foot and opted out of the Pacific Ocean once and for all. I followed suit and we relaxed on the beach, skipped stones into the angry surf, and forgot to put on sunblock.