No Relief for the Wretched

Warning: This is gonna be one of those nasty stories.

With a full crew and a full house, privacy and peace of mind is a hot commodity here in the monkeyverse. Not that I have a problem with any of my coworkers specifically–it’s just that my comfort level is far beyond a tiny house crowded with people, especially if those people are generally sweaty, muddy, and stinking of monkeys.

I can usually turn to the forest to provide the solace I need. Since losing track of the monkey group a few days ago, we’ve had to spend many hours tracking them down or staking out popular feeding sites. This provides us with precious down time, something I desperately need.

It’s not like these bastards are likely to provide.

But the onslaught of claustrophobia and cabin fever must be getting to me, because in my reverie I let my guard down. I forgot that while the jungle may be my solace, it is not my friend. Nature here has no interest in making me comfortable or letting me relax. An I paid for my hubris in a terrible way. A terrible, painful, humiliating way.

Yesterday I had to–excuse the expression–take a dump, and found a massive hollow tree with nice, wide buttress roots. I checked the ground for ants and snakes, but must have missed the narrow fissure between two roots. It was low to the ground and tilted down, hard to see but perfect for the wasps nesting inside.

It’s still better than some public toilets I’ve seen

They didn’t emerge until I had my pants off and was practically squatting over them. Then they went for the first and most presentable target they saw. It was…an unexpected sensation, to say the least.

The first thing I did was to leap forward and yell loudly. My pants were still around my ankles, and I was too scared to pull them up for fear of trapping the wasps inside. I just swatted them through my legs, then tripped and fell against the tree. Immediately a swarm of bats poured out, twittering, into the flailing human.

Eh, still better than some public toilets I’ve seen.

I had to stagger a few meters away before the wasps showed me mercy. Then I took care of business in peace. Wiping was one of the most painful things I’ve done to myself. The itching lasted all day. I never thought I would be so grateful to go home to a tiny, crowded house.


The Water is Wide and Deep and Fast and Might have Crocodiles

This current rainy season seems to be making up for the brief drought we experienced over the last month or so. Every day, tall stormheads sprout up like mushrooms by late morning, and by noon they start to creep over the land, dumping rain as they go, thundering all the while.

And leaving behind spectacular sunsets.

With such narrow and discrete showers, we can often feel the effects of nearby storms even when they aren’t currently drenching us. Damp air carries the sounds of thunder for miles. Slight breezes carry the scent of mud and wet foliage. The rumpled valleys and rolling hills of this region quickly fill up and form streams and rivers that swell along their whole lengths.

That last one is a problem for us especially, since monkeys often lead us over little trickles of water that we easily ignore. It isn’t until heavy rains upstream turn them into torrents that we realize that a), we should have paid more attention to the weather and b), we might have to sit and wait for a while.

One river we regularly cross here is only ankle-deep, with a few stepstones above water. The other day, a park guard alerted us that the approaching storm had already been filling the rivers upstream, and that we should contact our other party who had crossed. They answered just as the downpour began. By the time they reached the river–sprinting, not even bothering with ponchos–it was about calf-height, and they just forded through. A few hours later, it was chest-height, had spread about 30 extra meters in width, and was full of small trees being carried by the current. If they hadn’t crossed when they did, they would have been stuck on the wrong side until the water had gone back down.

This guy should be standing on dry land.

Crossing rivers is no joke. Water is deceptively strong, and its strength is exponential to its depth and speed. Even little rivers, shin-deep, can sweep you off your feet, especially when wearing a full unbalanced backpack and walking on loose stones. Ever tried to right yourself while tangled in straps and your nose and mouth are filling with muddy water? I once fall and got my pack caught on an underwater snag. I couldn’t find the buckles and couldn’t keep my head out of the water. I had to cut myself free, and always carry a knife within arms reach when I hike how.

Another time I found a river that was deep, but not too swift. The channel had spread and allowed it to move slowly. I took off my boots and lifted my pack over my head to keep it dry, priding myself on foresight. It wasn’t until I was halfway across and neck-deep that I saw the crocodile. It was about 2 meters long and lying on a bank upstream. it helps to pay attention to more than just the water.

Crocodiles rarely ever attack people, but won’t say no to a stupid drowning hiker.

My advice for crossing a river that has risen from the rain is this: use common sense. If it looks still passable, loosen your bag, unbuckle your straps, and walk carefully, picking your steps with care. Maybe carry a stick, and have the smallest person go in the middle of the group. Don’t bother walking on rocks; you’ll probably slip and wet boots are a worthy sacrifice for not drowning. If the water is too deep or too fast, just wait it out.

If, however, you feel that you must cross a flooded river despite the danger, I have a handy 3-step guide:

  1. Don’t.
  2. Stay put and get comfortable.
  3. The fuck is wrong with you?

A Trip Down Memory Lane

This past week included my 5-day monthly vacation, a period I had planned to use to go visit Panama. I was all set with a bus ticket and itinerary, but got less than 100km down the Panamerican before the bus stopped before a roadblock of tanker trucks and protesters holding banners.

Turns out, local fisherman were protesting new regulations, and decided to close off several portions of the only highway through the country until their demands were addressed. I joined confused commuters, panicky tourists, and disgruntled truckers in the crowds as we milled about around stopped vehicles, trying our best to stay out of the sun. With no concession in sight, and no concrete news on hand, I decided to bail and turned around, resolving to walk to the nearest hotel. I hiked past over 15 kilometers of stopped vehicles in hot sun and pouring rain until I came to a decision: screw Panama. Tomorrow, I was going to catch the first bus to a place were I could get a real vacation: Monteverde.

God, I’ve missed this place.

Which is how, about 24 hours later, I was seated in my favorite spot in the world, the porch of UGA Costa Rica, watching birds fly by and sipping fantastic coffee. The smell of fresh cooking lingered in the air, mixing with the mist coming down from the mountains.  A coati ambled passed, eyes only for the banana trees. Somewhere nearby, the interns were arguing about the correct name for “eyelash viper.”

Some things never change.

It was just what I needed. A return to the quiet life, cool climate, and lack of monkeys. I felt like I still new every inch of the place. I visited a few of my old haunts–the frog pond was still alive with over five species breeding at once, the leafcutter ant megacity was booming, rumors still persisted about puma sightings in the fields. The only changes? Some hurricane damage still lingered from Nate in 2017, and a few new small ecolodges and tour businesses had popped up in the town. But it still felt like the same San Luis.

Hey fellas. Been a while. What’s new?

I chatted with the interns, combining the collective knowledge of our separate cohorts. We swapped guiding stories. They took me on a couple hikes which really ended up being cooperative wildlife walks–all good. They filled me in on the latest ecological data, and I showed them a few tracking tricks.

However, I did not impart to them my technique for butterfly-ninjutsu. Those secrets are my own.

I’m back to work now, but feel refreshed and rejuvenated. A little guilty, though–while I was enjoying coffee and mountain wildlife, my fellow bus riders were still sweating it on the side of the highway, fruitlessly waiting for a clearance that wouldn’t come until 2am the next morning. Some ended up waiting for 17 hours. Glad I followed my instincts and cut my losses when I did. Panama will have to wait.

Machete Therapy

Making a trail through a temperate forest is a simple process: pick a direction, hack away the plants, clear the debris, maybe reroute around some larger trees, and then just keep tramping down the path with booted feet. The vegetation usually learns its lesson, and after a while you have a more-or-less permanent open trail.

Not so in the tropics. Here, the forest either ignores your puny efforts to make any sort of open space, or else laughs in your face. “Is that disturbance I feel? Meet vines that grow year-round.” “Oh, what’s that? You were planning on walking where those bushes just grew up?” “I’m sorry, was that your trail I just dropped a tree on?” Freshly-cut rails disappear practically overnight, trail markers are swallowed up by moss and vines, and any negative space is quickly reclaimed by sun-hungry plants.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and the tropics is nature on crack.

But still, our project requires the occasional passage that isn’t pure thorn scrub and wasp nests, so the last day of each month is spent maintaining–or rather, reclaiming–some of our “trails.” With the whole forest to work with, this means that each trail gets attention about once a year, plenty of time to vanish beneath vines, shoots, and debris. Some disappear completely. The coverage is mainly light, but thick and often elastic. Thus, into play comes the trailblazer’s best friend: the machete.

I’ve mentioned before how in a climate like this, nearly every campesino, field researcher, and park personnel carries around one of the large knives at all times. People seem practiced with them, even at a young age. I’ve seen children wielding blades nearly as long as they are, opening coconuts and the like. The things are practically an extension of their arm, and the safety skills are ingrained.

In the hands of a foreigner, a machete becomes–at best–a novelty weapon or–at worst–a toy. It becomes a cool sword; a stage prop. Many’s the time I’ve unthinkingly handed off a machete to a student or tourist, later to turn around and see them swinging it like a swashbuckler. Or trying to actually use it and endangering everyone around them.

Now, I’ve spent enough hours in agriculture or trail maintenance to properly use one, and to know better than to keep it out of the hands of the swordplay-inclined. It really is the best tool for clearing away fast-growing vegetation, and during trail clearing days it serves another more psychological purpose: therapy.

Tail clearing is the one time to–literally–cut loose and release all pent-up frustration, putting it behind the slashes and chops and you brutalize the forest that for the last month has been making your life miserable. It’s a glorious example of constructive destruction–guilt-free, necessary, and utterly cathartic. It’s exercise, psychology, and science rolled into one.

Especially since we’re not allowed to kill the monkeys.

As I cut and hacked, I pictured every monkey that had ever peed on me or fled halfway through a follow. I imagined every ant, mosquito, and wasp that had tormented me as vines and shoots I obliterated. Bushes and shrubs were every ignorant bureaucrat and border agent who had needlessly complicated my work here.

Sap flowed and leaves fell. Stems crashed and bark shriveled. I sweated and grunted. Blisters formed on my hands, simmered, then erupted. My machete became my fury, my revenge, my human technological advantage against the landscape that had made me hurt, itch, sting, fester, and bleed for so long.

R-selection? Disturbance-positive? Fuck you. I am Man–hear me roar!

God, I needed that.

With a Little Help From My Enemies

Every now and then, one monkey will utter a short, sharp, barking cough, usually from a perch while staring down at the ground. When it does so, the rest of the group immediately leaps for higher branches and some join in on the call. It’s a classic example of group cooperation–the sound is a snake alarm.

Monkeys, much like humans, recognize that some species of snakes are dangerous. It is a positively selected trait to point out the potential threat to fellow monkeys, and sure enough most members of the group will take turns staring down the snake as if noting the location. Sometimes they add their own alarms or throw things. The snakes usually just curl up and wait for the monkeys to leave.

I don’t blame them in the slightest.

However, yesterday an alarm call went out that sent the group into a frenzy. The monkeys didn’t just climb higher–they bolted. The alarms took on a deeper, louder tone. Juveniles took turns joining older males in open threat displays as they bared their teeth and broke branches onto a space between two large rocks. By following their gaze, I found what they were looking at–it was a boa.

This—well, partially. Better photos below.

Boas, unlike rattlesnakes and other vipers, aren’t just potential threats. They are potential predators. Large ones are known to prey on monkeys, although this is rare. The monkeys must have recognized this particular species, even though it was hidden in fallen leaves up to its nose. How they spotted it, I have no idea. All I know is that their concern may have had some merit. When the group moved on, I took a stick and jostled the leaves. Then I watched as the largest boa I have ever seen emerged into the sunlight.

Big, reptile, eats monkeys–what’s not to love?

Based on the size of the hiding spot, I guessed the snake would be about three, maybe three-and-a-half feet. This one was closer to six. Female, freshly molted, glistening in the sun. I gave her tail a little tug and she obliged by exposing her full length before disappearing into a new cave between rocks, her head still exposed as if daring me to try that again.

“Make my day.”

I hear that boas around here can get over ten feet long. I’ll have to keep my eyes out, and ears open for more snake alarms. Never thought I’d appreciate monkeys for being loud and irritable.

Shockingly Familiar

After putting the monkeys to bed one evening, I was walking back through an open pasture in the dark when up ahead I caught some eyeshine. It was bright yellow-orange, low to the ground, and perfectly still. It had been a slow week, and I was practically salivating at the thought of some big juicy exotic megafauna, so I crept closer, flashlight in front and camera at the ready.

Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be a rabbit. Specifically, an Eastern Cottontail, the exact same species I used to chase out of vegetable gardens back in the Eastern US. Practically identical to the Desert Cottontails I used to see all the time in California.

Another time this happened and it turned out to be an opossum, an animal so ugly that its defense mechanism is pity.

Something similar happened again when we were staking out monkeys near some ripe fruit trees. I heard a crash and looked up just in time to see a White-Tailed Deer trot into the brush. I stared for a minute, unable to process that I had just seen. After all, this is Costa Rica, home of wild jungle animals, and I had just seen a perfectly normal deer.

Which is, of course, utter bullshit. Wilderness familiarity creates a kind of bias in our minds. I’ve mentioned before how most Ticos treat monkeys as–at best–distractions, or–at worst–pests–to the disbelief of tourists. The opposite is also true. To me, harkening from North America, I think of deer as rats with antlers. Where I’m from, they’re more of a traffic hazard than an actual animal. Rabbits are little better.

I have no such prejudice for snakes, though, even the familiar ones. Go figure.

But to see familiar species here is almost surreal, especially in combination with characteristically tropical flora and fauna. The same applies to plants. Several days now, I’ve followed monkeys to large, knobby trees with brittle, serrate leaves. The first time, I squinted to identify the fruits they were eating, until I looked down at the familiar crunching sound beneath my feet. Acorns! The trees were oaks.


How dare you. Drop those acorns right this minute and go eat some mangoes.

Oak trees? In the tropics? Covered in monkeys? My brain couldn’t parse that. To me, an oak is something you find in a temperate grassland, surrounded by sage scrub and willows. It’s not supposed to be draped in epiphytes and parrots.

It’s important to keep in mind that terms like “tropical” and “temperate” don’t define specific boundaries. All ecozones are gradients, and species can have any sort of distribution. Nothing says that they have to stay in their designated culturally-biased region, according to perceptions of confused naturalists. And the local abundance can vary. Deer may be car-stopping antlered vermin back home, but here they’re the second-largest land animal, hunted to near extinction. Rabbits are still rabbits, though.

This still looks wrong to me, somehow.


Sitting and Waiting

The other day, a coworker and I were staking out a long stretch of trail, trying to find the monkeys. It was still early morning, and we were seated on a berm with good line of sight, ears straining for telltale screams and crashes. It’s easier to locate monkeys by sound than by sight, so I usually tend to equalize my ears and unfocus my eyes, relying on other senses. I guess it was pure luck, then, that I happened to glance down the path as a puma stepped out of the woods.

It was low and tawny–smaller and darker than its cousins in North America, even considering the fact that it was clearly a juvenile. It was completely silent and made no sound as it emerged from the brush onto the rough sand of the trail.

I wasn’t fast enough to get a picture. I usually keep my camera in a kind of underarm holster so I can whip it out like a quickdrawing gunslinger at the first sign of movement, but this time I was crouched with the camera in my pocket. I only had time to hiss a warning to my friend, who turned just as the puma looked up, turned tail, and vanished. We got a good full-frontal look at it, though, and another as it returned the opposite direction, giving us a deliberate look before melting into the tangle. Clearly, it was wary of humans, but curious. But what surprised me most was that it hadn’t noticed us sooner.

Trackers, like the animals we’re trying to find, generally rely on one of two strategies: stalking, or sit-and-wait. Both pretty self-explanatory. Whether to use one or the other depends on many things, such as terrain, weather, and time of day, but mostly on the prey itself.

If your target is generally slow moving and tends to spend a lot of time in one area, it’s worth your time to follow it silently and nab it while it’s foraging or grooming or sleeping. If, however, your target is highly mobile tends to eat on the go, or seeks out sporadic and dynamic food sources, it’s a better use of your time to find a likely forage spot and stake it out, waiting in ambush with camera or net or teeth and claws.

Monkeys, however, can do either, so for them you have to pick a strategy and hope for the best.

So how then to catch a predator, so to speak? In a way, you have to think indirectly. Pumas feed mainly on large herbivores, which makes the pumas more effective stalkers. To find one, you have to be a sit-and-wait. Only, it’s hard to figure a good place to see one, since they leave practically no trail. And you have to be completely silent, as silent as they are. And be constantly on alert. And be very, very, lucky.

In a way, it’s worth thinking like the animal you want to track. Or think like its predator. Or even its prey. Act like it–become the cat. Except for the pouncing. Pouncing on wildlife is frowned upon.

Some more so than others.