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.

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