5 December 2007
It is the first day of Hanukkah, St. Nick's day, the day I arrived in Israel in 1939--and today, I am at Hotel Bougainvillea in San José, Costa Rica, watching a ballgame of the Baltimore Orioles. When we arrived the air was warm and sticky, but now it is cool and breezy, and rain clouds swirl around the hills which enclose San José and Heredia, a suburban city. Costa Rica is so green, the word "green" seems not strong enough--it is verdant, lush, alive. The urban traffic, on the other hand, is dreadful. The "Odysseys" driiver Diego gave us a quick ride to the hotel just before the big rush, but now t is 3:23 and we still wait for Audrey's friend Leila, who was supposed to arrive at 2.
The day started early--plane from Dulles at 6, take-off at 6:20 or 6:25. We stayed that night with our son Allon, got up around 2:25 at night, showered, dressed, and were driven by him to the airport, supported by strong coffee in sippable cups. The evening before he played wonderfully with his boys, and all of us lit the menorah and sang. Christa looked much better and happier too--less weight and shorter hair fit her very well. For dinner Allon whipped up an enormous batch of potato latkes, using three kinds of potato (russet, big roasters and light brown new potatoes), as well as yams (whose sweetness overcame the potato taste) and 4 big onions. We enjoyed them in all possible ways--with sour cream, apple sauce, cinnamon, chipotle, Indian "chat" spice, black pepper etc. Only the cloves, planted by Allon among the spices as a decoy, were somehow overlooked.
The flight was uneventful. Shortly after we took off, according to Leila (who took off from National Airport), snow began falling in the Washington area, but as predicted it never amounted to much. The plane from Miami, a wide body Airbus 300 (two aisles) crossed Cuba, then the Caribbean, slid along the coast of Nicaragua and CR, then headed inland through low clouds, and when we got below them we could see green land, brown rivers and a town (Cartago?). Then we landed, and after a long wait in line for passport verification and stamping, were met by a smiling guy holding a sign "Odyssey," directing us to the luggage and to Diego, the young man who drives the hourly shuttle to "Hotel Bougainvillea" in Heredia.
During the trip to the hotel, several things became clear. CR seemed much more orderly and prosperous than what we saw in Mexico (though we did pass one small slummy section). The scenery with volcanic peaks bordering a central valley (home to constant rainstorms which seemed to stay distant) was impressive, and rush hour at its peak was as bad as ours--luckily, most traffic flowed in the opposite direction. Diego, who has a baby of 14 months and a 13-year-old stepson, told us that schools had 11 compulsory grades.
Hotel Bougainvillea is beautiful, it is artfully paneled in native wood and has a big garden in the back. Leilah, who had originally told Audrey about the tour and recommended it, arrived around 4 pm, delayed by bad traffic. The three of us then toured the garden, where we encountered many "air plants" (epiphytes), several varieties of banana, wild pineapples (also a bromeliad, type of air plant), a maze in which lurked a minotaur sculpture, a gazebo, sculptures of cranes, etc. We met a guy who toured the mountains on foot and was busy writing up his travelogue. He was waiting for an uncle and aunt from Florida who were joining our group.
Food was great and inexpensive. Audrey and I opted for "traditional CR dish" of plantain, tortilla cooked in cheese, salad with Avocado, rice, black beans and a choice of bass or very tender steak. Before that we had onion soup--full bodied and quite different from the French kind--and garlic bread. And we talked, very pleasant conversation of which no shred stuck in the mind. The gift shop had many worth-while souvenirs, not costly and all made in CR--none from China, none plastic. You could also buy there "Café Britt", even decaf and liquor [Britt is our son-in-law, no relation].
Our group guide is Oliver Acosta, fluent in English from the time he spent at a US school as exchange student in Portland, Oregon. His family is in Puenta Arenas, two hours away (it is on our schedule), and he has two or three young girls. The youngest one liked to say "Oopsi!" whenever anything unexpected turned up, and that phrase was picked up by everyone, as the occasion demanded. Oopsi!
He told about our driver "Triente" Greivin (triente is thirty--no explanation) and about local currency, the Colon, 502 colones per dollar (double the number and divide by 1000, to get the equivalent), but dollars were also accepted. He said the water was drinkable but we could also get it in bottles and should drink a lot, but be careful with fruit, it could give one the runs. On the first day we will visit local sights, then next day we start early--breakfast at 6:30, leave at 7, then a 3 hour drive to the Caño Blanco pier to board a boat. By noon we should be at the hotel at the Tortugero park on the Caribbean shore..
This month of December was viewed in Costa Rica as the start of summer. Seasons and climate differ across the country: down center of the country run two parallel volcanic ridges with a central valley in between, and in "summer" the Atlantic coast is very rainy and humid, while the western coast is dry. The attraction of the country is nature--nearly 40% consists of preserves, national and private. Much of the preserved land is anyway too steep to cultivate and has been kept wild--no hunting, no pets allowed.
We get to meet the group, about a dozen members. Only ones noted now is Leilah Whiting, Audrey's bridge partner through whom we learned of the trip, and Al and Mary Finch of San Antonio. Al is retired from the army, where he served as helicopter pilot in Viet Nam. Mary is a teacher, and had the misfortune of dropping her camera into the Peña Blanco river on which we rafted, so I mailed her a disk with all of my pictures (in the "Imageries" folder).
Oliver explained that Costa Rica consisted of 7 provinces--the capital of San José was separate. Heredia had the smallest and was called "the city of flowers", others were (?) Cartago, Alajuela, west Guancaste in the north, Punta Arenas in the west, and Talamanca. Guancaste was a separate country after 1821 and joined Costa Rica on 25 July 1825; it is named after a big tree with wide bushy top, which is also the national tree of Costa Rica. In the 19th century the country's main product was coffee--now it is first in pineapples, in which it passed Hawaii 5 years ago. It also exports bananas and flowers.
The plan for the day was to visit "Inbio", a nature park-zoo sampling Cost Rica's nature, and then cross to Escazu on the other side of town for lunch, a visit a traditional sugar mill and a demonstration of paper-maché masks made for parades.
Audrey fell asleep reading her book--a chambermaid later found it and put it on the bed. I went to sleep around 9 and woke 6:10, just before the alarm was to go off. Audrey heard me exercise, got up and took a shower, then I did--breakfast was at 7, and at 8 we were on a bus to Inbio, a biological study center and educational exhibit, with samples of different habitats--dry forest, rain forest and intermediate vegetation.
Dry forest is sparser and has shorter trees, while in the rain forest trees try to outdo each other in height, and plants in the shade have large leaves to catch enough light. The exhibit included snakes (behind glass)--a black and red fake coral snake which tries to mimic the very poisonous coral snake, but its color scheme differs--"red next to yellow, kill the fellow". Also saw the larger fer-de-lance, whose toxin dissolves flesh, so anyone bitten needs to get quickly to a hospital for an antitoxin which Costa Rica exports and all hospitals stock. Saw deer, oguti (a giant chipmunk with tail), also the "blue jeans frogs" which have red tops and blue rears. The frogs eat certain ants to make themselves toxic or unpleasantly tasting--if such ants are absent, they feed on other insects which provide nourishment but no protection from predators.
By the way, Costa Rica has no weather forecasts--the weather is too variable, changing in hours. In December the rainy season at the Caribbean starts while in the rest of the country it ends. We saw rain on the slopes above San Rafael while the valley below had sunshine.
A video in Inbio told us that Costa Rica was formed recently, about 3 million years ago--earlier the two oceans were connected, with only a string of islands between South and North America. But after the Caribbean plate collided with the Cocos plate, a land bridge formed, also 3 ridges (shown on Costa Rican coins--with the ocean in front) and about 68 volcanoes, of which 9 were active. Oliver said that about as many existed under water. Arenas was now erupting, and Poas south of San José erupted--in 1955? 1968? Forgot.
Costa Rica is somewhat similar to Hawaii--not just in plants, like its wild pineapples (saw one, with tiny fruit) and epiphytes, but also in its volcanic rocks, which are soft and erode, letting the ample rainfall create deep ravines with fast streams. On the way to lunch our car kept going up and down steep slopes, and Audrey commented "I'd rather avoid driving in Costa Rica, if I had to drive." There was plenty of traffic, but cars did not emit smelly pollution like those in Mexico, because they are inspected annually. Inhabitants are mostly of Spanish and European stock--the original Indian natives were few in number.
Also at Inbio was a cayman--shorter than croc or gator, about 4', with smaller snout--as well as turtles and iguanas, which look prehistoric. They are green or orange when young, brown with black stripes as adults, and they climb trees. A nocturnal frog with bulging red eyes was kept in a cage in a dark room; the lights are turned on at night, so the fellow has day and night interchanged, otherwise it would not come out for visitors. Audrey also thought she spotted a sloth.
Plants are equally diverse. One mimosa co-exists with ants, it feeds them sap and they in return rush to its defense. A hollow palm, with ridges circling it at intervals (like bamboo), has a similar strategy--it is hollow and ants live inside, rushing out through holes when an intruder touches the tree. And birds, including the motmot with twin tail feathers, and the national bird of Costa Rica, the clay-colored robin. Its appearance is unremarkable, but it sings beautifully, with 7 songs that depend on season. April's song is especially beautiful, it is the start of the rainy season [in the west?] and people say it sings to bring the rain. And bees that nest in trees--they do not sting, but they make honey, though the honey is very fluid and not viscous.
The minibus drove to a church in San Rafael, where a woman was waiting to guide us to a cooperative where her family lived. The area was quite steep, winding narrow roads, and it used to be agricultural--farms of cattle, sugar cane, coffee etc., but no terracing. Homes all have elaborate grillwork barring the windows: "The old tradition was to leave windows open, and without grilles animals could come to steal food. Now the animals are gone, but fences and grilles remain, and what is stolen is not food but TVs and microwaves". Some blocks are surrounded by fences with razor wire. Many houses were of adobe, and some tiles above entrance gates looked at least as if they were made of asbestos cement--though Oliver later said they were aluminum with ceramic coating.
Our guide took us to a small hall belonging to the cooperative, with its open front it looked like a large home garage. There we were served a simple lunch of "typical Costa Rican food", cooked all together in a soup--a bit of corn, plantain, potato, boiled beef, some root vegetable (forgot name already), rice and thick flour tortillas, more like pupusas. And some chopped veggies to sprinkle over everything, but no beans. Peasant food, prepared in the adjoining kitchen.
Meanwhile an old fellow skillfully played a wooden marimba outside, a large xylophone with resonator tubes (bamboo sections?) hanging below the struck plates. The place was called "the house of the enchanted white stone" ("El Encato Piedro Blanco"), and the organization was dedicated to saving the area from dense development. Their emblem is a witch riding a broomstick, and for $10 they sold T-shirts with that emblem, made in Colombia (or CR?); bought one for Ilana. They also sold coffee for home use, like the one we drank, finely ground and only of Arabica beans--Oliver said that Costa Rica forbids the planting of the Robusta bean (more caffeine but less tasty--and by the way, the darker the roast of any coffee, the lower its caffeine content). On the way back we passed a coffee plantation, the ripe berries were red and Oliver told us people ate them, for they were sweet. To be suitable for making coffee, they need peeling and drying, then roasting. You wonder who first thought of doing that!
But why the witch? The lady guide, whose English was somewhat simplified, spun a strange story. She said that after WW II "Israelites" came to Costa Rica and celebrated the Sabbath. They put candles in their windows and sang, and locals thought there was something witchy about it. Or some story like that: just as well that we are not lighting Hanukkah candles (should be three for tonight).
We sat next to a lady named Mary Pierce--no relation to the US consul in Haifa with the same name. (She had come from Annapolis and I met her at some party ca. 1958, where she told about her latest problem--getting back home the crew of a bankrupt US ship stuck in Haifa). This one was from Connecticut near Mystic, had 6 kids and 18 grandkids (more on the way, one Chinese). This was her 3rd trip with "Odysseys," and the one to China was especially impressive. Yes, she said, the Chinese still rode massed bikes on special bikeways, but now those flank a 6-lane highway filled with cars bumper to bumper. She had read "The Iron Rooster" but said China had changed greatly since that book was written.
Then up the mountain to an old sugar mill operated by a wrinkled 71-year old man with a pair of oxen, to demonstrate the way this was done a century ago. The man had a supply of cane on hand, and a steel wringer of sorts--he hitched one of the oxen to it ("the better behaved one") and as the ox walked in a circle, he fed cane into the wringer and we saw the juice drip out. Today it no longer pays to make sugar in such pre-industrial fashion--20 buckets of cane juice are boiled down to a conical plinth of sugar, weighing about 1 lb and selling for 370 colon or 75 cents (US grocery stores sell sugar cheaper than that!). A similar mill did operate in the district; after the juice was extracted from the cane, the bagasse that was left could be fed to animals--or after drying, it can fuel the fire under the cauldron into which the juice is poured. Oliver said that sugar was also the base of Guaro, the CR national drink, which I gather is some sort of rum.
The bus then took us uphill to the next stop, a shop making masks, but on the narrow road we met a car and had to back down, to where we could turn around and take an alternate route. That shop was again a rustic-looking shed of wood, very much like the garage next to the road. These are poor farmers or their descendants who have given up their farms, and while CR has something like social security for employed workers who pay into a fund maintaining it, farmers do not participate. (They are served by a public health service for a token payment, though patients sometimes need to wait--patiently--to be attended.)
This is an area in transition, and coming back we could notice the random distribution of prosperity in Costa Rica. While apartment towers rise here and there, and downtown San Rafael has a "Café McDonald" and shopping areas like those of the US, many people must do with humble homes crowding the hillside, often with tin roofs--some painted, some rusting. One building had a sign advertising "Bimbo" bread, which we knew from Mexico.
Higher on the hill was the mask-making workshop, producing grotesque heads about a foot and a half wide. They are made of paper-maché built up around a form, cut in half to remove that form and then reglued and reinforced. The surface is then painted with colored lacquer (white and red dominate), crude representation of the heads of men, women, skulls, policemen, witches etc. In the end each head is mounted atop a "clothed" pole and carried by a man inside, shouldering a cross-brace in the middle. All that was demonstrated to us by the mask-maker's 15-year-old son and two cousins, who peeked out through holes in the body or in the skirt at the bottoms of giant puppets--often padded in the rear for extra bulk. The boys danced for us to the loud music of a boom-box; on carnival processions they dance with the figures for 3 hours, at other times for just one hour. It can be hot work, but this is a family tradition which they plan to continue.
Days are hot here, and tomorrow at Tortugero park on the Caribbean shore they will probably be hotter still. We leave at 6:30--baggage taken out at 5:45, we eat breakfast on the road, then board a boat; some of the baggage (not ours) stays on the bus for the 3 days we are away. My notes say "we will take boat rides through canals, see lots of monkeys, it should be hot and sunny, but will be fun." Oliver's wife Marny is with us (his girls are cared for by relatives). We hear again the reason why Escazú is known as "witch city" (just as Heredia is the city of flowers) and its soccer team is the "Escazú witches," but no mention of "Israelites", it's now "people of different religion and different language." An alternative story we hear is of an Indian woman named Zarate, who fell in love with one of the "whites" and was expelled by the tribe, so she settled in the forest and used herbal medicines to cure many people. They regarded her as a witch, "but a good witch."
Friday, 7 December, day of infamy.
Up around 5:15, showered, put out baggage by 5:45 as told (to be loaded on the bus roof), signed Visa statement for hotel purchases (we return for the last night) and joined the group outside, drinking coffee and eating cookies--breakfast will come later.
By the way, the hotel is booked solid, and Oliver had to stay in another one, with his wife Marny who joined us at dinner, petite, pretty and seemingly much younger than Oliver. She spoke some English--seated across from us--but not enough for real conversation. Today she returns home to Punta Arenas, until then her mother takes care of her kids, and I gave her some NASA cards for them (3D sun). Brought along a stack of such cards, and when we first arrived, Oliver saw me giving one to someone; he pulled out his cell phone (with screen) and showed the same picture--he got it in a 1-day course on astronomy, with a teacher from the university, it appeared on a screen where he photographed it. He'll tell me when to distribute other cards--when we visit a school.
The trip was long, mostly highway 32 which continues to the port of Limon, passing through lush forest, some in the Brasillo (?) National Park, climbing up to 6000', twice the elevation of San José. We passed a tunnel and then descended a long slope to the lowlands. Unfortunately, the road was just 2 lanes wide--3 lanes in spots--and carried a heavy traffic of trucks, often slow ones.
Having descended and crossed a wide river we ate breakfast at some truck stop. It also had a "butterfly garden" enclosed in netting, but only a few butterflies were visible, together with one frantic hummingbird trying to escape, darting back and forth along the back wall. At Siriqini (or a name like that) we turned south onto a road not marked on our map, to Caño Blanco where the canal to the shore begins.
The "highway" on which we rode soon became a potholed gravel road and the bus shook terribly; at the end of the ride the driver crawled under it to check for damage. The road serves large banana plantations of the Del Monte fruit company--we saw signs "Finca (farm) Carmen 1" and "Finca Carmen 2." Banana bunches, still hanging on trees, get wrapped in blue plastic against birds and other pests, and sometimes in a second outer poly wrap. Each plantation contains rows of arches supporting cableways, about 8' high and 6' wide: when a bunch is judged to be sufficiently ripe, it is cut off and hooked to a trolley riding one of those cables, and later when about 25 bunches have accumulated, a worker pulls a hooked-up train of them to the sorting house; he may even move them across the highway, at which time it is temporarily blocked by barriers (like a railroad crossing) and is crossed by a pivoted bridge that connects cableways on both sides.
We stopped next to a sorting house and watched--it is a shed open to the air on its sides, while its roof keeps out rain. Banana workers there (they may be Nicaraguans) work at a hectic pace. Some slice off "hands" of 5-8 bananas and toss them into a water basin, to disinfect them and wash off bugs. Then sorters decide which are of export quality and which go for domestic consumption (animal feed too?). The select ones are wrapped and stacked in boxes.
Banana trees die after producing fruit and are cut down, but usually by then several suckers are growing from their roots, and those provide continuity. All but one are sucker are cut, so typically a fruiting tree stands next to the stump of its predecessor as well as the small tree which will replace it
Outside the sorting house stand coconut vendors--their price is low but I felt I could not take more food. A vendor would strike off the top of a nut with a machete, insert a straw and give it to the buyer. One man displayed a giant elephant beetle, maybe 2.5" long, it crawled along a stick he displayed. A nearby airstrip held some planes--maybe they are used for spraying--and a "company town" of plain concrete buildings was set up for the workers.
And so onwards on the bone-shaking road, until we suddenly emerged at Caño Blanco, the end of a side canal. Cattle grazed on the opposite shore, many boats and tour buses were around, and large construction was in progress. Caño means ditch, but here it is a "channel" dug in the rain forest, connected to a wide channel paralleling the ocean shore, just a small distance inland. It reminds one of the US intracoastal waterway, and Oliver told us it was dug 50-60 years ago to help move timber.
All the way the bus driver kept a lookout for nature sights. At one point he suddenly stopped and backed up, so abruptly that one passenger in the back wondered if the bus following us would stop in time too. He had seen a dead fer-de-lance (French for "velvet", because of its smooth skin), a fairly big greenish snake, its head bashed in, maybe by a car, or by someone who did not want to have a poisonous snake nearby.
Our motor-boat was big and carried 3 parties to Tortugero--ours, a Dutch one and a small party of 6-7 people, led by a very knowledgable Black guy, who unfortunately started conversing with Oliver in Spanish, leaving us wondering what we missed. He had incredibly sharp eyes. He spotted a basilisk, the green "Jesus Christ Lizard" that walks on water, or rather runs on the surface, slapping it with its broad feet to avoid sinking. He also spotted a big cayman in the reeds--and I am not sure whether it was he or Triente (or both) who spotted sloths high in the branches. Sloths live all over Costa Rica, shaggy bundles of fur atop trees (they only go down to defecate), their big head has "a wide grin and bedroom eyes", and they either move very slowly, or just hang by their three-toed limbs in one spot. Rain does not bother them and neither do algae that grow on their fur, and I believe that (like koalas) they feed on leaves which other animals can't digest
We are headed for Tortugero National Park, where sea-turtles (Tortugas) come ashore to lay eggs in the gray sand, and where rangers try to protect eggs and hatchlings. It sits on a narrow slice of land between the canal and the ocean, and a long trip from Caño Blanco. First our boat went on the Caño Blanco itself eastward, towards the ocean: the open land grazed by cattle was quickly replaced by trees, and soon all one saw was lush dense rain forest on both sides, swampy jungle. Then we reached the coastal canal--the forest had been cleared seawards of the junction with Caño Blanco, and on the trip back we saw the breakers of the ocean shore. Then the boat turned left and continued northwards along the canal, flanked by jungle and more jungle. The humidity was oppressive--I am not sure if we got rained on during that trip, but while we were at Tortugero, warm rain in big drops came and went all the time. No wonder Spaniards took their time in settling the country! This jungle-filled coast continues north to Nicaragua and probably south to Panama as well.
Finally we saw piers and buildings, and landed at the Laguna resort of Tortugero (see http://tortuguerovillage.com/english/english.htm). Whoever designed the buildings--especially the one with the gift shop and conference room--quite successfully imitated the style of the Catalan architect Gaudi. Like Gaudi's they seemed to avoid straight lines--windows were round or teardrop shaped, doorways arched, roofs curved like shells with curled edges and even small bridges and benches had Gaudi's touch. They also used curving natural branches and trees in the structure; the banister was made to resemble tree roots. Concrete and stucco were deformed like modeling clay, and only the cabins in the back, where we slept, were boxy and utilitarian, conventional wood structures. We were assigned rooms, and the luggage was brought onto the porches.
That afternoon (I think) we were also taken to the museum of Tortugero--where we found that this coast was frequented by Green Atlantic Turtles, and their protection was first promoted by a US naturalist named Archie Carr, who started his work in 1950. In 1956 he published a book "The Windward Road--Adventures of a Naturalist on Remote Caribbean Shores", in 1959 (?) he formed the Caribbean Conservation Corporation to help create the Tortugero park, itself established in 1970. Affiliated with the University of Florida, he also did extensive conservation work in Florida, where an Archie Carr refuge is maintained south of Canaveral. He was helped by his wife Marjorie and died in 1987, but his son David continues his work.
We also strolled to the nearby beach. Coconuts washed ashore sprout, a few manage to become full-grown palms, while others just lie on the sand among the sea debris. Above the ocean clouds billowed, but the rain kept off. A small village stands next to our guest-house, and there are others around, too.
I have forgotten what dinner was like. I took a shower in the evening--a cold shower which was pure delight. Without air conditioning, it was hard to fall asleep in the sticky humidity, but I finally passed out and woke only at 4:30 am to the sound of pouring rain.
Saturday December 8th
At 5:23 Oliver came around, waking people. We congregated by the coffee machine, munching cookies and guava paste collected the day before. We then went aboard a motor boat--just our group taking this trip--for a nature tour. First stop was a Pakira tree--the "provision tree" for animals. Its blooms start looking like big batons, you can pull the top off and the flower opens in a spray of colored threads, white on the bottom.
Then our attention was directed to the Hinga bird, looking like a cormorant, black wings with white markings--it dives well but flies awkwardly. The female has some brown, and later we saw a young one in a tree. Also toucans with huge bills, a bit hard to make out at a distance.
After a while we encountered monkeys--first squirrel monkeys, then howler monkeys. One guy tried to howl at them and make them respond. Black blobs, white faces and prehensile tails--only new world monkeys have such tails, which help them navigate the canopy. Not easy to spot monkeys, you look for tree branches which move for no reason, while the rest of the tree is still.
Also a basilisk lizard- colored like a leaf, a male with a big crest. And iguanas in the branches, also sloths--told about a moth which latches on sloths during their brief stay on the ground and lays eggs in their fur... in fact, sloth fur is an ecosystem of its own. We looked for otters but none appeared, just different sorts of birds. We rounded an island just north of Mount Tortugero--the remnant of a volcano and the only landmark--then the rains came down and the crew broke out thick blue ponchos. It only stopped when we landed.
Mary is a teacher in San Antonio, she used to live on Hawaii but since her husband was in the army, had lived all over--3 years in Alexandria,Va., also at Fort Eustis near Newport News--and she told us that she happened to be on a beach where turtles emerged. The eggs are laid June to October, they mature in 90 days, so some hatchlings were still coming out even at the time of our visit. They are sand colored, head for the sea, and spectators are not allowed to assist them. One had a stronger flipper on one side which made it move diagonally, but it reached the water. Another fell into a footprint and Mary took a piece of driftwood and placed it as an exit ramp for it. The hatchling ignored it but continued to struggle for 5 minutes, until enough sand was removed from the side to allow it to climb out. She also said that during a beach walk Oliver checked under driftwood, where hatchlings sometimes get stuck, but found none.
Audrey and Leila went to the beach to see if more hatchlings were coming, but rain started and they came back around 11. Later visited the beach again--numbered poles marked trails there; the day grew hot and sunny, but another rainstorm could already be seen in the distance. Birds are everywhere, singing from sunup to sunset. In one tree one could hear a big commotion as birds (grackles?) settled down. A bird with yellow-green feathers flitted on wires in front, hummingbirds were visiting flowers, but most of the activity was inside the foliage.
For lunch we were given steak (thin and marinated), fried plantain, black beans, another kind of bean, and assorted salads. For desert--coconut shreds in brown sugar, whose sweetness overcame all other tastes.
Had another boat trip 2:30-4:20 in the afternoon, with "Johnny." The name "rain forest" is amply justified: the morning had been nice and cool, noontime hot and sunny, and then when we left on the afternoon trip the skies opened up with solid rain until about 4, the time we were returning. Oliver passed out ponchos as we started, but even under them Audrey and I got quite wet; we stripped when we reached our room and I originally wrote these notes wearing swim trunks, while shirt, pants and underclothes were hung up to dry. Water had collected at the bottom of the boat, and I wonder how many photos were fuzzed out by raindrops on the lens.
We saw relatively little, because wildlife tends to hide during a downpour--except for caymans, of which Johnny spotted two small ones, lying still like statues--one atop a rock, brown blending with brown, one with a greenish snout among the reed debris. None moved as we drifted nearby, until the engine started, when the one in the reeds got spooked and jumped into the water.
Elsewhere we saw several gray-blue herons (two young ones), snowy egrets and two boat-billed herons. They are usually nocturnal, but the afternoon was dark enough and one even seemed to have caught something. (As I write this, hard rain started again.)
We also saw the Curacaõ, a big bird with a crest, brown body and black head--inconspicuous while it sat quietly, but spectacular as it flew away. A sun grebe was pointed out, a small bird living near water--not special in appearance but considered rare by birders.
But the rain! We met other boating parties on their way back, and laughed out loud because they looked as bedraggled as we must have been. The rain was tropical and unrelenting, big splashes in the water and some sloshing at the bottom of the boat. The rain still continues as I write this, and humidity is so high that our clothes probably won't dry tonight (I need ask Oliver about laundry drying facilities; the laundry list in the bathroom has outrageous prices, but will dry clothes for half the cost--pants $4 (dry $2), shirt $3 (dry 1.5$). Tomorrow we leave around 9.
The trip is interesting but may be too slanted towards ecology. It would add interest to meet people, to hear from Costa Ricans about their lives and country, not always one and the same person, and not so much leisure time. Personal ties bring the country alive, beyond wildlife and vegetation, it also has stories and experiences. That's what made Horacio special when we visited Mexico.
Talked to Leo, the Black guide of the other group, He has two sisters in Israel, one married there to "Yankel."
Sunday December 9
Audrey slept poorly, although had we stayed up until 10. In the morning we packed our wet jeans, shoes, sandals and underwear in plastic and now (3:49 p.m.) at the La Quinta hotel north of Puerto Viejo (quite far from the sea) they hang in the bathroom and a powerful fan blows at them. When they will dry is uncertain, since intermittent rain keeps falling outside. In the restaurant--about 5 km west of Guapiles, the same place where we also ate on the way to Caño Blanco--we walked in with the sun shining, but then the heavens opened up, making a tremendous racket which rose and fell as the rain hit the tin roof. When the meal was ending, Oliver told us--the moment the rain stops or weakens, run to the bus! It did, and we stood at the exit like parachutists at the open door of a plane, timing our run so that no one would block the bus entrance. As it is, all our stuff is somewhat damp, even the paper I write one.
Up to the restaurant and a bit past it we retraced the route by which we came. Johnny the boatman was an extremely considerate driver, slowing the boat when another came in the opposite direction (other boats usually did the same, but not all), or passing at a creeping pace a local resident paddling a canoe. Once we stopped to watch a crocodile--none but Johnny could tell it from a log, until a wave revealed its snout (there are no 'gators in Costa Rica). He took us on a winding bypass, probably part of Rio Parismina, and there the rain forest thinned down and human habitations were seen, rather plain ones. We saw an old railroad bridge and cattle--Oliver explained these were Zebu and Brahma breeds, originally from India, bred for meat, while European cattle bred for milk lived in the highlands. Many snowy egrets clustered at the steep undercut banks.
At Caño Blanco Oliver pointed out that the water had risen 1-2 feet, because of the rain. When we first arrived we could see the concrete pilings under the dock, but now they were covered.
Quinta means one fifth, which denotes a small farm (a big one is a Finca or Hacienda). We were driven from the hotel to the Tirimbina Natural Preserve on the Sarapiqui river--privately endowed, bought in 1960 by one Robert Hunter, originally a research center of the University of Milwaukee, since 1986 an educational center for eco-visitors, supported by a foundation (http://www.tirimbina.org/). The river is big and fast--there is no lack of water in Costa Rica, or in neighboring Panama, which has plenty of water for raising ships through its canal locks. A large island parted the river, and we were taken there by Willy our guide. A large hanging bridge crossed the water swaying just a little, and enjoyed the view of the wild river, its drifted trees and one islet kept together by just a single large tree.
Also saw there a Monstera vine (an epiphyte, it does not strangle its tree), the Heliconia or "bird of paradise flower," and the Machette tree with flowers that drop seeds the shape of machettes--its wood is good for fences. And many more.
Monday December 10
The attraction of the morning was a Cacao (=cocoa) demonstration, in a small grove where cacao trees were growing among taller ones, because they do best in the shade. Different kinds of cacao exist, and the native species is the small "Creole" (Criollo) which creates good chocolate etc., but is prone to diseases. It was almost wiped out in Costa Rica between 1960 and 1980, and now most of it (60%) comes from Africa (even though it was originally a "new-world" plant), about 40% of all from the Ivory Coast. The "Foriner" (Forastero) species produces big pods on a strong tree, but of lesser quality. "Trinidarium" (Trinitario) is today's preferred hybrid, it comes from Trinidad and has reasonable resistance and quality. After 1980, however, Costa Rica has been growing relatively few cacao trees. (See also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cocoa from which the names in parentheses were copied.)
A cocoa pod pod starts from a tiny flower right on the trunk of a tree or on a big branch, and one of its problems is that it does not last long--for one day it is male, for another female, on the third day it falls off. Pollination is therefore uncertain: originally it depended on a small fly, but in Africa the fly is often absent and the flowers are pollinated by hand. About 30% get pollinated, but only 1.5% produce a pod.--which grows from the trunk--starting green, then turning red (not always), ending ripe and yellow.
As complicated as the production of chocolate is, it was achieved by Aztecs, whose upper class drank it flavored it with spicy chipotle. At Tirimbina we were given a demonstration in a little shed with picnic tables, in the middle of the grove, using a stock of cacao at various stages of production. You split the pod with a sharp rap against a hard surface, then remove the end and extract the seeds, encased in slimy pulp, which can be eaten--South Americans get a juice from it (it is diuretic, but only in appreciable quantities). Central Americans ate the seeds, too, which have a sweet-sour taste like Leechees.
In chocolate production, the seeds are fermented, creating heat which kills the embryo--a banana leaf cover helps the process, and ethanol is produced, but the seeds cannot be cooked--it would destroy the smell. Then the seeds must be dried. In Africa, racks for drying are kept under houses during rain, and rolled out on rails whenever the sun shines. In 2-6 days of drying, the seeds change from yellow to dark, after which they are lightly roasted and separated from their husk. One can chew roasted seeds and get the chocolate taste and Indians used such seeds as currency; they have a finite lifetime and therefore cannot be hoarded.
As visitors, each of us was given a small bag of beans, and encouraged to trade them for postcards. Earlier we were also shown a drying rack, and of course pictures.
After being roasted, the beans are ground--originally, in a stone bowl. From the ground beans the Aztecs produced a chocolate drink, pouring it from standing height to produce foam. Spaniards introduced twirling whisks which simplified the foaming. It is not a cheap crop: a tree creates 40-50 pods per year for about 15 years or more, and a bar of chocolate requires 80 pods. The trees need a lot of rain--about 2000 millimeters annually (around 80") for 70% of the time, at altitudes no more than 800 meters; they take 6 years to start producing and require shade. When cacao was grown in Costa Rica, farmers used to cut down small trees in the forest, leave big ones standing, and plant cacao in-between them.
Cacao contains some caffeine, but its unique chemical is "theobromine" (meaning "food of the Gods") which stimulates the production of serotonin, a brain stimulator, and of flavenols, which widen arteries and thus help the heart pump blood (in the 19th century it was prescribed by hospitals and used against depression). The Kuna Indians of the islands off Panama drink 8 cups a day, have no heart disease and look young. Our guide himself has 2-3 cups each day.
The seeds also contain oil--creole is 40% oil, foriner 60%, hybrid 50%. The oil can be used for chapsticks as cocoa butter or "white chocolate" (consisting of just the oil), suppositories, sunscreen, expensive soaps--and of course, in regular chocolate, though cheap chocolates substitute palm oil.
Chocolate bars have only been made since 1800 because they need an industrial process. They typically contain 5% oil, 75% cocoa, 20% sugar--and today lecithin is used, a better binder than oil. Europe demands that the composition of chocolate be listed on its wrapper. Production starts with conching--grinding the cocoa between rollers about two feet in diameter) again and again, sometimes for two days, until it becomes fine powder. Add dry milk for milk chocolate, then melt, put into a mold and refrigerate.
All this was demonstrated to us by Rudadolfo--he ground the beans and gave us spoons to eat the final product. He also showed us chocolate powder (after conching), melted it in a double boiler, gave us some to drink, also some solid chocolate from the same source, both very rich and a bit gritty.
Then back for lunch... salad, chicken, papaya, black beans, watermelon.
In the afternoon we had various choices. Mary was one of three people who took a zip-line tour, treetop to treetop on 12 or 14 sections of cable. Judy Coren came back completely soaked (in spite of the poncho she wore) and said it was great. Mary also got soaked, also said she enjoyed it, and said that after the first cable the line was no longer scary, and an operator at the end could always brake her descent if she slid too fast.
We on the other hand joined a tour of the nearby pineapple farm, belonging to the Collins Street Bakery in Dallas, Texas. The Collins Farm Bakery has long specialized in fruitcake, showcasing Texan pecan nuts. In 1990 its owners decided to produce their own pineapples in Costa Rica, and ended up with a huge farm, which grows 90% of its pineapple "organic," 10% ordinary (or was it the other way?), and sells part of its production to the Dole company. Both kinds have sweet yellow meat inside, but organic pineapples are green, the way nature makes them, while regular yellow pineapples get their yellow color from a dye injected 10 days before harvest. (Organic fruit is also sweeter, since it is allowed 2 extra months to grow, beyond the usual 12.) In addition, the farm also grows flowers. At its center are a fancy restaurant and a gift shop, and in front of those stand masts with flags of the US, Costa Rica and Texas.
The tour was conducted in an open wagon with benches, shielded from rain by a roof from which transparent plastic sheets could be lowered. Our guide was named Rodiber, a good-looking young man, born in Nicaragua but raised in Guanacaste, where he attended high school. He had worked all sorts of jobs on the pineapple farm.
Pineapples are bromeliads, like epiphytes, and get nourished by their leaves and by whatever chemicals arrive in rainwater. Anyone buying a pineapple can regrow a regular plant from its cut-off head, by sticking it in well-aired mulch--coconut fiber is fine--and watering and feeding the leaves. The role of the roots is minimal. The fertilizer put on top of organic pineapples is a secret of the company--blood meal and fish meal are mentioned, and their density is only 1000 boxes per hectare (8 pineapples to a box?). vs. 6000 for non-organic. In Sarapiqui pineapples are now widely grown, so prices have dropped, and with it the profits of Collins Street Bakery.
When a pineapple is harvested, about 10 "suckers" are usually already growing next to it, and it saves growing time to replant the bigger ones. Then ethylene is added (under a plastic cover?) to stimulate the growth of the fruit, and 3 months later a small pineapple already appears. At 14 months (16 for organic) the pineapples are harvested, in 3 passes: the first two, pickers look for ripe fruits, the 3rd collects everything.
The wagon was towed by a tractor out to the fields where a harvest was under way: a conveyer belt slowly advances sideways across the field, and workers--80% of whom are said to be from Nicaragua--pick the fruits and toss them onto the conveyer, which carries them to a bin on wheels, next to the machine that runs the belt. When the bin is full, it is pulled away and replaced by an empty one.
As we watched, a dark cloud blew towards us, then the rain began, but the workers pulled out yellow slickers and continued. Our guide meanwhile told us that "Colombo" brought some pineapples to the king of Spain, but they did not grow well in Europe. Our wagon stopped next to the field and our guide (or the driver) went out and cut off a few pineapples. With a machete he cut off the top of one and the few roots of the plant, then made a long cut lengthwise, into unequal parts--the thinner bottom to serve as platform, the top to be eaten, and I think he also cut the flanks off the top--then he cut the top into slices like a loaf of bread, and finally with the tip of the machete pushed out alternate slices and invited us to pull some out and sample. It was very sweet. He then repeated the process on the other side, then on another pineapple, and another. It was hard to stop!
We were next driven to the packing house, where pineapples were unloaded onto a conveyor belt, spray-washed as they rose to the main floor (again, a roofed shed open on the sides), their tops were cut and saved separately (for replanting?), then they were sorted, moved indoors, tagged, weighed, put in boxes, finally the boxes were stacked on pallets and rolled to the chilling room. The workers were very fast--I think here the Nicaraguans were in the minority. When the fruit is uniformly chilled, it is shipped--8-10 days in transit, then it keeps for about 20 more. "If you pick a pineapple in a store, lift it by a leaf on top; if that does not come off, it is a fresh one."
We ended on the open-air restaurant, with Piña Coladas in hollowed pineapples and samples of the Collins Street Bakery fruitcake. Delicious.
In the evening we were taken to a nature center for a talk about bats.
A young lady named Wendy gave the presentation, with her was an expert named Bernal, and also an assistant Emanuel who caught the bats in traps. Wendy said that bats have fur and milk and form about 21% of all mammal species. They generally feed at night on insects , homing on them by reflections of high-pitched sounds which they emit--generally several frequencies, like 10-25-50 Khz. The lower frequency locates the insect, the higher ones home on it and identifies them. Many bats have tails and membranes between their legs, used to scoop up insects. About 20% of bats fly by day and eat fruit, and those have eyes adapted to daylight.
Bats have 1-2 babies 1-2 times a year. Some of them latch on a teat and are carried around by mama (ouch!), but since that is a heavy load, other young bats stay back at nurseries. There also exist 3 kinds of vampire bats which drink blood of cows and horses, but contrary to their reputation, it is very rare for them to carry rabies. They do however produce an anticoagulant to keep the blood flowing, and that is now being studied.
Emanuel had caught two bats, brought in white cloth bags. One was brown with soft fur and seemed very uncomfortable: Wendy gave it (after instructions) to Dr. Harris, who was given a leather glove, carried it to a doorway (I think) and released it into the night. Wendy gave the other one to Linda to release, but it did not want to leave, instead it went to roost on her finger. At the end Wendy recaptured it in the cloth bag, to be released later.
Coming back to the car we saw an armadillo scurrying away. Oliver told us that on a previous trip the group heard a big thump and a sloth fell from a tree.
Tuesday December 11
Breakfast at 7, under way at 8. Rain persisted all night and the underwear which hung in front of a fan all day was still damp, as were the socks. The rain came down heavily and its sound on the roof rose and fell in bursts; was this the dry season of Costa Rica? (It was west of the continental divide, but we were still east of it.)
The bus returned to the highway and continued west, through little towns, branching roads, fields of cassava whose root is used like a potato (but more fibrous), it is a small tree about as high as a person. Also papaya, a tree 15-20' high with a compact canopy and green fruits growing just below it, a bit in the style of coconuts. And more pineapple fields, too. Oliver said the soil here was not as rich as further east, and we were also told that Costa Ricans were nicknamed Ticos or Ticas (inhabitants of Ticisia) because of their habit of adding an extra "tico" at the end of words. Fantastico!
We stopped at a restaurant and gift store next to a river and bridge over it--the river flowed at a lower level and trees grew next to it, their canopies rising to the level of the road and the restaurant. The owner had encouraged visitors by attracting and feeding iguanas, many of which could be seen on the tops of trees, looking as if they belonged with the dinosaurs--big orange males, green iguanas of all sizes, resting or moving slowly. The restaurant and gift shop also had a big iguana sign across the top of the wall.
We continued to the Peña Blanca (white hill) river, where three yellow inflated rafts waited to take us on a slow float down the river. Our raft was led by an oarsman named Enzo and it also held Audrey, Leila and me, and also Mary Burke Pierce, who unfortunately kept talking and talking and talking, greatly annoying Audrey. This was no white water, but the current was fast and the boatman was needed to avoid low branches and sunken logs, also to skirt the trees which overhang the river in many places.
It is a very pretty river, flanked by trees most of the way. At one place about 10 little muddy boys were clambering on the steep embankment. At another we saw a young crocodile, about 3' long, resting in the sun, and at still another we found a colony of whitish long-nose bats hanging from the underside of a big branch, with their wings folded; they almost looked like teats on the tree bark. They had long noses for extracting nectar, and they also pollinate flowers.
At one place we heard howler monkeys, barely seen among the branches (look for branches that sway unnaturally), they emit "hoo-hoo" sounds, starting very loud, almost like a dog's bark, but at a distance it is hard to distinguish monkey sounds from those made by tourists or guides. And some sloths--though for old eyes in the shade it is hard to tell dark shaggy sloths on a tree from epiphytes.
Finally we stopped at a place where one could climb out (the rafts were transported back by car), at a small restaurant run by a family which served us a simple lunch, while their 6-year old daughter demonstrated her fancy skirt, probably made by her mother Milagro (miracle) who also sews souvenirs for tourists in a back room. The little girl danced for us and told us she rode a horse bareback quite well, though what she really wanted was a Barbie doll for X-mas. She said she was excited because in 2 months or so she was to start school and meet there many friends--not be isolated in a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere.
As we ate, next to us lay a strange dog of many colors--white with gray stripes, black dots and brown paws.
Our bus then took us then to the town of Tanque, and at an intersection there we turned left to cross the Rio Peña Blanco, and reached La Fortuna--a real town, centered on two main streets, one-way in opposing directions, and a rectangular city park in the middle. We stopped for 30 minutes and Audrey went to shop--Oliver suggested presents to hand out in the school we planned to visit, white school shirts for boys and skirts for girls (these are school uniforms). I looked at canes, at scarfs for Zoe etc., but bought nothing. Lots of hardwood products in this area (even the furniture at Rancho Margot was locally made), not of teak (grown locally and freely cut for lumber, since it is not native), not oak, but very nice and grainy.
La Fortuna sits at the foot of Mt. Arenal, a volcano which even during our trip was active, except that viewed from the town its top was shrouded in clouds all the time. On 15 July 1968 it unexpectedly woke up and a pyroclastic flow from it wiped out a village west of town, causing some 80 deaths. One can still see a side of the mountain denuded of its forest.
Rancho Margot is nestled in a valley on the other side of Arenal, and the road to it, along the shores of big Lake Arenal, is twisty and bumpy, with an occasional houses and a small village. That road is wedged between the volcano and lake Arenal (a large artificial lake, feeding a power station) and the scenery reminds one of Hawaii--deep gullies with rushing streams, forcing the road up and down and up again.
The valley is very pretty and green. The "ranch" has a series of nice rustic guest cottages in which we stayed, and a dining room--as well as some fields and animals. It has tidy gardens and walkways to the buildings (nice if you do not mind climbing the steep hillside), and is in some ways an ecological showcase, even generating its own electricity from a Pelton wheel turbine.
We were led to our room in cottage #10, and I went down to inquire about laundry. Nothing exists, the place is brand new, but I met the owner, Juan Sostheim (email@example.com), who offered me a ride back. The place is named after his mother Rancho Margot, P.O.Box 124-4417 La Fortuna, Costa Rica). He also recognized my German accent--his family had come from the Ruhr valley, and after a while we were talking in German. Turned out that he was Jewish (golden mezuzah on a chain around his neck) and that his parents escaped from Germany to Chile at the last possible moment in 1939. After 1947 they came back in Berlin for 15 years. He believes in organic agriculture and ecology, "wait till you see what we did here." His own house is being built across the valley, meanwhile he lives in the cottage next to ours.
He has 3 grown sons by his first wife--one studied medicine, one music ("not what I call music, but times change") and one studies in Barcelona (?) and may one day take over the ranch. He also has a cute boy about 5 or 6, excited to be with daddy. He is quite proud of Rancho Margot, plans to greatly expand it and to add a bus to take people up the hill. Right now he generates his own gas, gets electric power from a pond and turbine, offers horse riding, rapelling etc., and. And he asked me about space--can we utilize its magnetic energy?
He promised we would see him again at dinner, and advised us to turn out the lights --"the outside lights stay on, and hardly any insects enter." The rancho was started 4 years ago and was still being built, it makes its own furniture of beautiful wood and about 200 people have already stayed here.
Rain again, no wind with it. It seems as if the clouds just keep arriving and unloading.
12 December, Wednesday.
This morning, unfortunately, Audrey got the runs--her body, erupting like Arenal, first produced big chunks (clogging the toilet to where someone had to bring a plunger), then a lava flow. She did not eat breakfast and did not go on the morning trip. A dose of Imodium finally produced a good sign--hunger--and I brought up to her four toasts, jam and ginger ale.
In the morning we visited the "Escuela El Castillo"--address, La Fortuna, San Carlos, Alajuela, Costa Rica--next to the winding gravel road on which we had arrived, along Lake Arenal. The principal was and she has 3 teachers (one man, Jeffry Juarez), 52 school students and 10 more in kindergarten run by Natalia, most of them girls . The school itself is a modest blue building, I think of wood. Quenia would like to add a ceiling to keep down the heat (a fan stood in a corner), replace broken windows, add a fence around the school, tiles on the floor and a playground for the kindergarten. They also have a cook preparing lunch for the kids. The school has a computer, but only teachers may use it.
We gave our presents, including my NASA postcards. The students are all in elementary classes and must wear uniforms--the school can choose the color, but they must always be worn. One girl comes by horse 3 times a week, a 2 hour trip. About half of the class had visited San Jose, but only 2-3 have eaten at a McDonald's.
Some children danced for us--"Sambito dance" with matching scarf, which the dancer waves or "saws" around the neck. This was the time of summer vacation, timed in Costa Rica to allow children help in harvesting coffee beans. There were certainly fewer than 52 kids present. Someone said the school was now making up for time lost when teachers went on strike, but Quenia insisted, that was not true. It officially reopens February 4.
Juan's son Gregory came, he helped me send a message over the internet(to Allon?). He told me he was 20, has lived in the Netherlands and studied economics, but dropped out because the math was too hard. He was still at loose ends, but liked music. I said "that field has too much amateur talent!" and he: "I will try harder, Jews always do." He speaks Hebrew from a Jewish school he attended in San José, and may study business next.
As I climbed up from the dining area, after talking to him, I came to a fork in the walkway, just before some stairs, and one side led into a dark tunnel among tall plants, all green, a view reminding one of the computer game "Myst." I followed that path and ended up in a gully, where a Pelton wheel was noisily turning inside a small building. Then to sugar cane plantings, to a house being built and in its basement, a busy carpentry shop. Using the local hardwood ("teca"--teak) people working there there were not just making doors and furniture (like the ones in our cottage) but also carving sculptures, probably for sale. One had carved an impressive standing horse, another had a horse rearing up, a pair of birds etc. I continued to the cowshed "Lecheria", where a volunteer named Nora (scheduled to stay one more month) was working. Everyone seemed upbeat, glad to show me around,
Finally, I returned to Audrey, who was much better. Many hummingbirds are around, some tried to enter our bungalow and banged against the glass panes.
Talked more to Juan: he was born in Chile and spoke 5 languages (Gregory spoke 6), loved books and had 3000 of them when he got divorced in Brussels. He put them into storage, and in order to make a living rented a bakery from midnight to 6 am, to bake empañadas. They sold well in Brussels and later were even shipped to France, but some competitors (?) got jealous and burned down his storage shed--with the books and also with many irreplaceable family papers, a great loss. His eldest son was now in medical school, a young son studied international management in Barcelona, and Gregory now helped design publicity for Rancho Margot.
In the evening Juan took us to a place on the shore from where he hoped one could see the glow of Arenal lava in the dark. We failed, the mountaintop was completely covered with clouds.
Oliver told more about Costa Rica: the local electrical company ICE (Inst. C.R. Electricidad) gets 95% of its energy from hydroelectric power, 5% from wind, and next day we passed the Tenario power station on Lake Arenal, created to produce electricity. Costa Rica's economy is healthy--even Panama sends students to its medical school--but Nicaragua under Daniel Ortega remains poor, foreign governments do not trust him after he confiscated land and voiced anti-US policy. As a result, it has few open jobs, few banks and many beggars.
Oliver had collected many pictures on his laptop and transferred all but 200 to disk. Then a few weeks ago thieves broke into the house and stole the computer, which upset Marny very much. "But I can make loss good." Trying to recover the pictures, he looked at obvious places where stolen goods were sold, but he never saw his laptop again
He also said that medicine was free in Costa Rica, but the free service was often delayed and skimpy. Except in emergencies, he sends his kids to a private doctor. Addiction to drugs exists, because crack cocaine from Colombia sometimes passes in transit through the country. There is more of marijuana, but by and large the "Ticos" prefer to party with alcohol.
Finally we reached the Pan American Highway, which passes along Costa Rica from Nicaragua to Panama. Two lanes, heavy traffic and many trucks, some slow. Glimpses of craggy mountains to the east, much grazing land, sparse dry forest. Homes have banana trees, and fences are cheaply made by planting trees in a dense row and cutting them short at a height of about 5 feet as they continue growing. Signs advertise "Muflas".
Thursday 13 December 2007
All of today was spent on the road and on water. Much of the time we drove down the Pan-Am highway, which goes from the straits of Magellan to Pt. Barrow in Alaska, except for a swampy stretch in Panama, which no one wants to finish, probably because it would make it even easier to smuggle Colombian drugs north. It is 2 lanes wide and usually lacks shoulders, but is in excellent condition. It also carries heavy traffic, often convoys of cars stuck behind slow trucks; it takes fine judgment and occasional luck to pass slow drivers, because the road has many curves and it is often hard to see far ahead.
(We never saw a Prius hybrid anywhere. Our bus is a Toyota with a diesel engine, and luckily Triente, who said he was 49, is an excellent driver.)
The west of Costa Rica seems more sparsely populated and its vegetation less lush, much of the area is pasture for meat beef, fences are often made of cut wood rather than planted saplings. Oliver said it gets 70" rain per year, but most of that in September and October. Now was the start of the dry season, the land still very green, but many trees had started dropping leaves and some yellow leaves fluttered down as we drove. The Nicoya peninsula, our next base, was greener--there we again saw many planted fences, with post-trees pollarded, topped by big knots from which green shoots rose to 10-15' before they were cut back.
We turned off at the road to Punta Arenas, Oliver's home town, on a spit of land which extended NW like a finger, into the Bay of Nicoya. extending to the NW like a finger. It is framed by two parallel roads along the city (each one, one-way) with railroad tracks in-between: as the land gets narrower, less and less space is left between those. A tree growing next to rails suggests that the last train passed here long ago.
We stopped for lunch at an open restaurant on the ground floor of a pink building, an airy place where a table was waiting for our group. Triente went to buy fuel, we sat down, and then we noticed Oliver hugging and kissing a pretty woman in hot Latin style, at the edge of the restaurant. It was his wife Marny--the older kids were in school, the little one was with grandma, so she decided to meet him here.
The meal was good--all food is good here, and I learned to like plantain and tilapia. Marny followed us in a red pick-up, she attended law classes and Oliver later joked "when we get divorced, will she give me special rates or charge double?" She had a class at 3 but was ready to skip it to be with her husband (the ferry left at 3:30) and it took Oliver a lot of talk to persuade her to attend anyway, even if she was a few minutes late.
Punte Arenas has about 100,000 inhabitants and Oliver lived on the west side of town, about 3-4 blocks from the radio tower. As we drove further out towards the tip, the surroundings grew exceedingly seedy. In most of Costa Rica trash seems to be diligently removed, but here it littered the edges of the road, dwellings were not tidy, and their paint peeled. Once this must have been a pretty city--a grassy promenade lined its west side, a strip-like part extending to the tip, where a big swimming pool had been built, plus a smaller one; but it was all neglected now and littered, the pools were dry and peeling and the fence around them torn. Punta Arenas used to be a big port, but now Costa Rica's main Pacific port has moved a few miles further south; from the ferry we later saw a 4-masted ship anchored there, apparently a sailing vessel. Oliver said the maintenance went downhill after the city took it over from the central government--or maybe vice versa.
By the way, Costa Rica has no income tax, but a sales tax of 13% and also high import duties, which may explain why almost all we bought was "hecho en Costa Rica," even the plastic bags of Hellman's mayonnaise on the tables in Punta Arenas. Rather little plastic stuff is sold, but hardwood items were impressive. Costa Rica recently had a referendum on TLC, an area trade pact, which passed by a narrow margin, but it was still hard to predict changes in the import situation.
The ferry terminal is on the east side, just short of the tip (the land gets a bit wider there), and our bus joined a long line of waiting cars, while another ferry was preparing for a 2:30 pm departure. There is plenty of traffic crossing the bay, and later on arriving at the other side we saw a long line of cars and trucks waiting for the trip back, more than the 5 pm ferry could take, maybe even the 7 pm one. Ferries also cross at 9 pm, but one wonders about latecomers having to wait an extra day.
The ferry terminal is a busy center of commerce. A vendor with a cart was selling meat grilled on a spit, another carried a huge assortment of cell phones and Oliver bought from him a recharger which plugs into the car's lighter outlet, while Triente bought a stack of CDs with popular music. And we just waited. The earlier ferry loaded up and pulled out, Marny left for her class, and after a while our ferry pulled in and we all got aboard, provided with tickets which Oliver had bought.
The ferry was beat-up and not too clean, but ferries tend to look like that, working constantly with no time or money for refurbishment. We ended up (all our group, after a while) on the top deck in clean air--the enclosed passenger space below was quite stuffy and noisy (noise reverberates from steel walls). Cars were on the main deck below.
The passage took about 1.5 hours and was quite pleasant. We sat by the stack (which contained all sorts of vents) and watched Punte Arenas recede, watched young guys play a "fusbol" coin-operated game, watched a kid swing upside-down on the railing, and chatted. We passed some islands, noted how Nicoya was much more forested than the main land, and as we came in, just around sunset, could see the long line of waiting cars. After the ferry arrived and its cars rolled off, one could clearly see that its hull rose appreciably in the water. People were also waiting to board, and one of them, clearly an Israeli, carried a backpack with Hebrew inscription "To the new recruits from the regional council of... (name)."
The "Odysseys" party waited to the end, then we drove down to the next small town and stopped at a supermarket where Oliver and Triente bought fruit and provisions for our lunch next day. Then we piled into the bus and drove in the dark over narrow twisty roads--some paved, some not--to Tango Mar, a resort with palms, clipped lawns, a main dining room and bar with a thatch-covered roof where dinner was served, all reminding one of tourist resorts on Hawaii.
The package tours had quite a good choice of dinners--a mushroom toast appetizer, steak and rice perfectly done, salad and dessert, for which Audrey and I split a flan and a Tres Leches, a creamy Latin concoction, each perfect. And then to bed, dead tired, in room 908 of the main building. It was air-conditioned, and outside our balcony one could hear the Pacific surf pounding.
Mary Finch told us she had taught grades 1-5 until last year, and listening to her gave me enormous respect for her ability as teacher. Two years ago her topic was structures--who could build out of 3 newspapers the tallest structure to support a golf ball? Or with the help of 3 items brought from home, build the longest tunnel in sand? (The winner brought three toilet paper rolls).
They built a model of the Takoma Narrows Bridge and were told of the newspaperman who abandoned his car on the span, with his dog inside; the driver escaped but the dog drowned. "What do you learn from this, kids?" One answer was "when my dad drives away, he always has to get my OK before taking the dog along."
Last year the topic was space--each kid had to study a subject and write a report. She got a woman who had piloted an SR-71 to address the class, and the students launched all kinds of "rockets," from vertical slingshot launch from a chair, to water rockets powered by compressed air or alka-selzer. Where did she get all those ideas? I sincerely wish our grandkids get a teacher like her.
At dinner a well-built lady of uncertain age, wearing a silver necklace, introduced herself as Hilda, the owner, and told us she was from Belgium, where she also had her chefs trained. She hoped we enjoyed our dinner. For some reason she reminded one of the ample Belgian lady in "Asterix in Belgium" where good food is also the main topic.
Juan knew her, and asked us to bring 1-2 brochures of Rancho Margot to her. I did so, and she looked through them. Did she know Juan? "Oh yes, we met." When did you last see him? "Oh, long ago, I don't remember. He's involved in some ecology project, I think."
Later I asked about the name "Tango Mar": what did it mean? "You know, Tango is a dance, and Mar is the sea." I said, that was still a rather strange combination, what did it mean to say? [I wondered about "Tengo," I have]. "Besides, it was also the name of the hotel when I bought it." Now my mental image is of Leonie Helmsley.
Friday 14 December 2007 Audrey's birthday.
It is a strange resort, indeed. Sandwiched between summer homes which only the very rich can afford (empty except for maintenance staff, it seemed), connected by dirt roads to either the Tambor air strip or by narrow roads to the grungy ferry, it is a self-contained resort. If you come here, it will cost you, though you also get marimba music and dancing. You can then swim in a small pool (with bar), stroll on a section of beach and play golf. There is hardly any other place to go, and it is hot and humid outside, even in December.
I tried to swim in the Pacific, but the waves get high even before breaking and tend to sweep a swimmer back to shore. No one else swam and it seemed too much effort to try to reach the calmer water beyond the waves. So there is tomorrow, ours to amuse ourselves--I wish Triente could show us around Nicoya, at least, but no. Audrey said yesterday "I wish we were back home already."
Today (the 14th) we rose late and around 9, I think, drove to the Curu sanctuary, along the seashore between the resort and the ferry terminal. It is a nice example of the forest of western Costa Rica, a bit more open than the eastern rain forest, especially now, in the season when trees drop some of their leaves, carpeting the ground. About 7 or 8 of the group of 14 chose to walk with Oliver around a nature loop trail--sometimes it dipped towards the tangle of branches and trees by the water (some dead, some alive), sometimes it climbed along the steeper slope. We saw the Guanacaste tree, national tree of Costa Rica, a giant mimosa type. We also saw the western iguana--brown with dark stripes--and the western basilicus (at least one of the party claimed to have seen it atop a big log, about 3' to the left of a green vine). I will have to check the photo, to make sure it was a brown lizard and not a brown leaf, like the ones it tries to imitate.
Then at the end of the loop trail Oliver spotted a troop of howler monkeys, black and quite large. He tried to draw them out imitating their cry "ooohh! OOoohh!" but only got a few replies. Then shortly after we left a loud ruckus broke out behind us--I thought two troops must have met in a fight, especially since some yelps had a higher pitch, suggesting excitement. But Oliver said no--they were probably celebrating their success in repelling an invader, namely us. Only the monkeys know the true reason.
We continued a short distance and returned to the picnic tables at the start of the loop trail. Oliver used a small machete to hack open luscious pineapples, mangoes, a small watermelon ("sandia" in Spanish) and papaya, also to cut two of his fingers, of which Mary Finch bandaged at least one with band-aids she carried. He cut palm leaves and sprays of flowers--bouganvillea and others--to create a colorful decorative display on the tabletop. Meanwhile some of the group, wearing swimming trunks, trudged to the nearby beach, to try swim in the bay. But it was a silted estuary, an unsuitable spot, its bottom covered with mud, and to a great distance too shallow for swimming. No one swam, and even Al Finch who got the furthest only reached knee depth.
Near the table and benches a construction crew was working and it paid no attention to us, but two dogs soon appeared--followed by a white-face monkey, then another, then one more, until we lost count at about a dozen or more.
Our size and the presence of the dogs may have kept the monkeys from swiping food off the table, but the rinds of mangoes etc.--still with a lot of fruit on them--were quickly snatched, carried up a tree and in one case even fought over. The box lunches distributed were nothing remarkable--tuna sandwiches (I left half of one to a grateful dog) and fruit juice in small cartons with straws attached (like US school rations). They were "Hecho en Costa Rica" by the Dos Pinõs company, whose emblem (I have a shot!) is exactly the same as that of the (late) Twin Pines Savings and Loan association of Greenbelt, which gave us our first mortgage in 1961.
The capuchin monkeys surrounded us throughout the meal, snatching rinds tossed far away, and I snapped picture after picture until I felt "monkeyed out." Some of them aggressively bared sharp canines, and Oliver said he was once bitten by one. In the end we packed away the excess food (to give to local people) and returned to Tango Mar.
Dinner was buffet at $36.90 each, I guess we eat better in Maryland for half the price, but then again, this was a luxury resort. As I told Oliver--Audrey and I are not really used to luxury, we are not rich and did not seek what "Tango Mar" offered, rather, we wanted to see Costa Rica, understand its people and see what made it different from usual surroundings.
The Sun set around 5:30, and I planned to go with Audrey to watch sunset from the Mirador lookout point marked on a map. But the trail started with a very steep concrete walkway which Audrey hated, and then it crossed a gully on a suspension bridge, at which point Audrey balked and went back. I continued behind some luxury homes with no one around but one gardener, and the "Mirador" was just an open terrace with a concrete table and a few benches. It stands on top of a cliff and could also be reached by car: the view was nice, but not exceptional.
Interestingly, so far we saw few mosquitoes. We never needed the super-strength repellent which Bruce and Michelle Myers (Audrey's niece) lent us, left over from their African safari.
Audrey is sick again, one Imodium pill stopped it but she is still queasy, only ate one of the toasts brought for her breakfast and half of another. I slept hard, exhausted by the heat. Linda and Tom came to our breakfast table, also Judy and Harry Coren (who feels much better), Mary Finch and later also Mary Pierce. Breakfast was OK--coffee, water, omelet with mushrooms, some plantain and potato pancakes--Harry called them "Latkes" but they were quite different from what we know, no onions and not freshly made. He told of one of his patients who gave him an unlabeled bottle of wine, years later he opened it and found in it an unexpected taste of the really good stuff "a $40 bottle for someone used to $2 wine".
Around 10, as promised the day before, Mary Finch guided Tom and me to a nearby waterfall. She had also intended to take Al, her husband, but apparently he was unwell, he stayed in his room during breakfast and she later brought him some of the food. I hope it's nothing threatening: such an active guy, yet so gaunt.
It was a long walk and if Mary had not been such an excellent scout we could have easily gone astray. Here is what I remember--take the road out past the speed bump, it is marked by lights on the ground and at the 2nd light turn left into the forest. Follow a trail leading to a small bridge with one handrail, then climb up a hill among teak (Teca) trees with enormous leaves, palms, bananas and others, quite green for western Costa Rica. Then up again, coming out on a dirt road which led to a T-junction, with a fence on the right. Along the left was what looked like a rail fence, but Mary pointed out the posts were really of concrete, cast in a mold which made it look like wood.
You take the left road at the junction and after a while pass some houses, located above you on the right, with a sign saying they sold food, and on the slope between them and the road, purple ti plants common on Hawaii. Mary said anyone moving into a new house on Hawaii was first expected to plant a ti plant there, otherwise bad luck could follow. She spent several stints on Hawaii, but sold the house there because living costs got too high. Her eldest daughter married a guy from Hawaii, but now they and their two kids lived 8 miles from Mary, which is 30 miles from San Antonio. She also told how she was bitten by a great Dane of her neighbor, and since then carried pepper spray and outdoors also a stick.
Before that, near the bridge, we passed a big "pui" tree in full bloom and quite pretty (the name was provided by Oliver). And after the houses, going down into the forest again, we saw orange fungus on a tree, butterflies and on the way back, squirrels on a tree, with bicolored tails--brown in the middle and gray on the sides. Mary thought they were mating, but if so, our arrival spoiled their fun.
By then we could see the breakers of the shore, but as she had foretold, all we could see of the waterfall was the stream on our right disappearing over a cliff edge. Peering over that edge one could see water splash far below, onto dark rocks which stretched left and right; there seemed no way to get there from the seashore, the cliffs stretched on and on. Perhaps if one took off shoes and waded across the stream, one could get a slightly better view from the other side, but it was not worth the effort.
And so we went back.
Now it is 1 pm, Audrey is asleep, she had a bad night. Her latest worry are TV reports of snowstorms in the US, which could hamper our trip back home. I toofeel drowsy. Maybe turning 76 in two days is something one cannot ignore, even if trying.
Around 2:30 went to the poolside restaurant and for $ 9 ordered a quesadilla appetizer. It was served by a waiter named Nelson ("my mother liked the name"). I also bought a diet coke for Audrey and got in my change a red 1000-colon note, "mil colones." And I am already thinking about my schedule after coming back--meeting Yvonne Pendleton, John Mather and Susana Deustua, finding someone to continue my web project but keeping the rights for publication as an electronic book.
Oliver was by the pool, and later as he went away he promised lists of all the animals and plants we saw. Could I can send him my own notes to check up? Yes, and he also promised his home address and the name of Professor Milagro who had given his astronomy course in September.
16 December 2009
We left early: luggage out by 7, on the bus by 8, passing again through a small town (Bomba--gas station, Pulperia--small grocery). This time the ferry was big and modern, and there wasn't much traffic on the Nicoya end. The Punta Arenas landing however was busy, buses to San José were waiting, a band was playing outside the city building. A cruise ship was anchored down the bay, and it was lottery day.
The road back seemed prettier and cleaner. Some sections still look run-down, but when you look closely, those homes covered by tin roofs are quite decent. We stopped to eat at "Marisqueria (fish restaurant) Leda", overlooking mud flats (it was low tide). A train rattled by, then we reached a big intersection, with ramps crossing above the railroad and a sign "San José 144 km".
But we did not take the straight highway, instead we branched off to rte. 3, a twisty side road parallel to the Pan American highway, lined with pollarded tree fences. The main destination was in the town of Atena, where we stopped at a huge gift store (one wonders what agreement Oliver might have with its owners). A huge selection, including many molas--clothes, purses, mitts etc. of black cloth decorated with designs stitched in layered colorful fabric, the folk art of the Kuna Indians of Panama. Two Indian ladies were sitting in the middle of the store, stitching more molas. We bought some $200 worth of souvenirs--on some items we might have done better at the hotel, but the gift shop there had no molas. Later in fact I bought some $80 worth more at the hotel, so we ended up with enough gifts for all kids and grandkids, for Tehseen and for Julie, and I myself bought a fancy cane--it looks made of rosewood and will be kept at home, to be only used in the park and visits to the library.
Costa Rica's most precious resources may well be its hardwoods. The hotel gift store sold a sampler of 12 kinds, and our big trivet ($ 22) was made of rosewood. The lady at the counter--a young-looking grandma--appended to it a slip, stating:
17 December 2009
Back in Hotel Bougainvillea, I slept like a rock up to 8 am. Rain was drizzling when we went to sleep and also we woke up. At the farewell dinner Marny again accompanied Oliver (she visits a doctor today). The meal was great and as usual, some ingredients needed identification, like the yellow slices next to the rice and steak--not yam, not potatos, but Adnya, a local pumpkin variety. The Caesar salad rested on a bed of guacamole (not spicy) and the dessert slab of pudding came in passion fruit sauce.
We all said our good-byes and at 10 in the morning were driven to the airport by Diego, through traffic which advanced in spurts, a solid line of cars to the Pan Am highway and then to the airport, 6 lanes of fast traffic. In the airport terminal the paperwork seemed rather extensive, but that's what dealing with official institutions is like. Leaving Moscow was worse.
Now I sit in the terminal next to a nonstop guitar player--Vivaldi, Pink Panther, Fiddler on the Roof, many melodies I don't recongnize. Well... Flight 988 to Miami has started boarding. Good bye, La Vida Pura!
Remembering Meriwether Lewis in Costa Rica
Author and Curator: Dr. David P. Stern
Last updated 30 July 2009