I leave in July. Flights are booked, reservations made. Precautions taken. Prayers sent. There’s not much else for me to do now but double check itinerary, brush up on my Spanish, and continue to take all necessary COVID precautions while hoping the rest of the world can do the same. After all, if things don’t improve, pandemic/vaccine-wise, then I’m pulling the plug cancelling the trip. No sense taking undue risk.
But this is an important trip for me. Not just because I’m so jungle-starved that I’m starting to have sloth flashbacks, but because this is, in fact, a business trip. A site inspection. A test-run. It just happens to be in a beautiful tropical country that ranks among my favorite places in the world. No, it’s not a vacation. It’ll be work. Shut up.
But four more months!? I’m starting to lose it over here. I can practically feel the sunshine. Taste the mangoes. Hear the frogs and macaws.
But also because I’m really reaching for blog content these days. And photos of farm animals just ain’t cutting it. Yeah, there’s been a good amount of wildlife here, from chicken-stealing eagles in the fields to chicken-playing deer crossing the roads, but I miss cool. The colorful. The weird. The jungle. Hell, I even miss the damn bugs.
So in between everything else I’ll try to throw up another flashback story or two to keep active. After all, writing a memoir seems like less and less of a reality these days so I might as well dig into some of those stories for content. Dig through my old journals and photo archives for lost gems. Maybe generate enough hate for one more rant about ants.
This past year has been weird. When I try to think about what has changed in my life over the last 12 months, I’m stunned by the comparison. Most days, I come home sweaty, my hair tangled with vegetation, and caked with a mixture of dirt and animal feces. Ok, so that much hasn’t changed much from where I was a year ago. But I have relocated thousands of miles, switched from wrangling wild animals to wrangling domestic ones, and generally wear more layers of clothing. And my rice and beans intake has dropped dramatically.
So life’s not bad. But while I do miss pre-pandemic life, bars and cafes and hugs an all that, what’s really got me down is the fact that this isn’t what I planned to do with my life. My career wasn’t exactly derailed, but it sure was put on pause. Agriculture is fine–you’d be hard-pressed to find more honest, wholesome work–but unless you plan on settling down on your own farm one day there isn’t a lot of upward mobility. And dammit, Washington ain’t Costa Rica.
But I have hope now, because with the development of vaccines and the predicted state of the world, I have allowed myself some hope. I’ve bought plane tickets. Yes, I am going back to Costa Rica.
I’ve taken that dream I had of running my own tour operation and finally, finally, started taking the first steps to making it a reality. That guided trip I led a few years back for that family before quitting the Monkeyverse? That will serve as the template for future tours: personalized, responsible, budget trips around the country focusing on lesser-known, quieter, and more rustic locales. Hikes, kayaking, farm tours–all options. Wildlife emphasized. Night hikes a specialty.
See, the idea is to take advantage of what is sure to be a travel boom post-pandemic, when borders are open and people are once again able to cram themselves into packed airplane cabins and breath each others’ air with minimal complaint. This next trip will be a sort of site-inspection, and I plan to hit up some of my old haunts to see who’s still running and able to host guests. Granted, this is all dependent on IF the pandemic improves and IF travel is safe and IF I can survive the next several months without getting kicked by a horse or trampled by a pig or whatever. But with some luck and a whole lot of self-education on how to start a business, I plan to start operations by Summer 2022.
At the very least, I have something to look forward to. A goal, a horizon, a dawn of a new day. A destination to move toward. And I hope you all have your own, too.
I would like to talk a little about the Spanish language.
As I’ve mentioned before, I consider it an obligation to make at least some effort to learn the local language of whatever country you are in, especially if you plan to stay there awhile and do some sort of work. But that doesn’t mean just looking up words in a dictionary or running through some levels in Duolingo. It pays to pay attention to dialect, and understand the nuances and variation of any language. I know it’s hard, but it’s important.
I started studying Spanish in middle school and continued into high school, but the “classroom” Spanish we learned didn’t do much good during my travels in Central America. Part of it was that we were obnoxious teenagers who retained information the way a raincoat retains water. But part of it was that what were taught was traditional formal Spanish that eschewed any sort of slang or idioms that most people use to communicate. And another part was that our teacher, text books, and curriculum were all based on Mexican Spanish exclusively.
That would have been extremely nice to know! Not that there is anything wrong with Mexican Spanish, and it makes sense to teach that to American students, but it is severely limiting to not know that the language you are learning is not as universal as you think! Imagine learning American English and then traveling to Scotland. Or New Zealand.
One embarrassing moment comes to mind: I helped facilitate a tour of a Costa Rican coffee farm to a bunch of Mexican schoolkids. The farmer demonstrated a tool they use, a kind of cut-off machete they call a “chinga.” However, chinga, in Mexico, is the equivalent of the expletive “fuck.” The teacher was mortified. The kids were delighted. “You must use the chinga with both hands,” the farmer told them, unaware. “And push–it–down–deep, like so.”
That was a language discrepancy between two Spanish speakers! And now you can can see the issue when it comes to learning the language altogether. So I can understand the hesitation and reticence to even make the attempt.
Learning and practicing a new language inevitably involves a stage of embarrassment and humiliation. Or several stages. You will sound like an imbecile. You will literally speak like a child. And as your frustrated adult mind struggles to enunciate with limited vocabulary, you will at some point make a mistake and say something nonsensical. Or offensive. Or hilarious.
Another story: One trip, one of the girls was getting a lot of unwanted attention from local men. We tried to teach her to say, “Dejame en paz” or “leave me alone” (literally, “leave me in peace”). To the next guy, she said, “dejame un pez” or “leave me a fish” (literally, “leave me a fish”). However, the guy was so confused that he left, so I guess it worked after all.
Every second language learner has these stories. It is a universally understood process, painful but necessary. All we can do is empathize and laugh about it later. So in the interest of comradery and comedy, I hereby offer my Most Embarrassing Spanish Story, which I partly blame on differences between Spanish dialects and use of slang.
In Puerto Rico, I lived in a field station for a while with a bunch of forestry researchers from various backgrounds. At one dinner, not long after I’d just arrived, a cockroach ran up my leg. I jumped up and said, “I have a bicho in my pants!” using the Costa Rican term “bicho” which is the equivalent of “bug.”
However, in Puerto Rico the word “bicho” is a fairly vulgar term for “penis.” It’s pretty profane, and normally just used as an expletive. Which means I had just announced to a table full of strangers that I had a dick in my pants, thrust one hand down there, and stomped off to the bathroom muttering something about having to deal with it. I didn’t learn about this until days later, when some coworkers explained the difference. I was mortified. They were delighted.
I’m well and settled in to my farm job, getting the most out of my cold-weather gear and eating a lot of kale. I’ve adapted, but am trying not to lose too much of the skillset I honed over the years in the Tropics as a naturalist. After all, while I’m staying active, keeping fit, and eating better than ever (despite second-rate coffee and a lack of tropical fruit, I’ll admit), I can feel myself losing my edge. I can’t remember the last time I had to prepare for a flash flood. I haven’t had to monkey-proof anything in a while. I no longer reflexively check my boots for scorpions, or my bed for ants, or everywhere for snakes. Hey, I never said the edge was necessarily a positive thing.
However, there are remarkably many similarities between farming and wildlife biology. The animals, obviously, but also the close contact with them. You don’t just work with animals, you work with with them. They’re both physical jobs, ones that translate many long brain sessions of planning and coordinating into a lot of grunt work. Then there’s the setting: you work primarily outdoors, in the dirt and mud. Especially the mud.
But the most striking similarity, the thing that has me most flashing back to my naturalist days? The weird.
Both fields require the occasional occupational task that is so weird it borders on the surreal. The unexplainable. Those tasks that may–and do–play a critical role in the farming/research process but, out of context, are so bizarre that you would seem like a lunatic for relating them.
Examples? Things like narrating dragonfly fights. Sniffing field mice to ID subspecies. Conducting amphibious beachhead assaults to capture sleeping seals, frogmen-style. Shoot, a few months ago I thought I had topped out when I was noogying a sloth into submission. I knew we naturalists were a zany bunch.
But farmers have us beat. They train dogs to run in circles around sheep. They stick their hands in every possible orifice of a cow. The other day, I was comparing pig nipples. Pig nipples. We spent what seemed to be an inordinate amount of time elaborating on the variables of number, size, color, and tenderness. Of pig nipples. While screaming piglets ran around us or were held upside down, tiny trotters kicking at the sky. It took ages. The information collected was extensive. Now, I am confident to say that I am a knowledgeable pig nipple expert.
Why? Out of context it sounds insane. But apparently the ability to nurse many offspring is an important quality in a pig, and so a trait worth selecting for in captive breeding. So in a group of piglets that are relatively similar, it’s a good things to look for in keeper pigs. Only the pigs with the best nipples get to keep their testicles, as well as their lives. Ok, so maybe it doesn’t sound much better in context either. Another similarity: neither job is exactly pretty, and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend going into them if you like animals.
In a way, I feel I’ve come full-circle what with the animals. And the weird. Maybe I shouldn’t worry so much about losing my edge.
Since I started this blog (in–wait, let me check…2015!? Seriously?), I’ve been able to generate enough Costa Rica-related content to keep it going. With the end of the pandemic in sight, and the possibility of international travel more than just a distant fantasy, I’ve been going over my old posts drumming up inspiration and ideas for a return trip.
Apparently, during my early days, I wrote about all the things I learned about Costa Rica–the nature, the seasons, the animals,–without even leaving my room. How it was impossible not to learn something each and every day.
The following are lessons I’ve had to learn–or rather, re-learn–since moving back to Washington from Costa Rica just in time for Winter:
There is no such thing as “being cold” in Washington. There is only “being underdressed.”
Beer here is much stronger than the stuff I’ve gotten used to. And it actually tastes like beer.
Bananas are awful. Apples are delicious. This is the opposite of CR.
You can exercise for a little bit without getting really sweaty. This means you don’t have to plan your entire day around a workout and a long shower.
I am still unable to get away from ants. I really am under a curse, this is not a joke, I’m actually serious. Forget Raid, I need an exorcism.
Slippers are not just a thing, they are the greatest thing. Related: cold toes suck.
You drink coffee to stay warm, not just to stay awake.
The day does not end just because the sun goes down. And now it starts before the sun comes up too.
Some (some!) of the wild mushrooms here will not kill you horribly and are, in fact, quite tasty. More importantly: there are few enough species of fungus to tell the edible ones from the toxic ones with enough certainty.
A single lone mosquito in a room is unacceptable. As in, Code Red DEFCON 2 Battle stations all-hands-on-deck kill-it-with-fire levels of response. Same goes for large spiders.
Your local physician, therapist, or nurse will think you’re either a loon or fucking with them when you mention “previous sloth-related injuries.”
Sorry–that’s just the truth of it. The factual, objective truth. There is nothing pleasant about what’s going on outside. On-and-off wind and rain. Just enough sun to make wearing a heavy coat uncomfortable. Nobody likes this. If you do, you’re either lying, or you subconsciously associate the season with pumpkin spice. Get help.
So why am I writing this? Why am I bitching about Washington weather on a blog about Costa Rica? Am I missing it? Am I worried about online traffic? Did I run out of stories to tell?
The real answer is right there: I’m bitching about Washington weather. Me! I’m from here! I used to live here! I grew up dealing with this about 8 months of the year, and did I whine then? Yet I caught myself grumbling the other day, as I was watching the rain fall on all my outdoor plans.
Because yes, this weather is uncomfortable. But you know what? So was the Tropics. I spent my first months and even years in South America adapting to the heat, humidity, and storms. Yes, it took time. Yes, it was kinda scary at times. But after a while, I just dealt with it, and then spent the next few years dealing with other newcomers complain and adapt too.
So the other day, what did I do? I went for a walk. Just pulled on layer after layer of warm clothes and rain gear, slipped on my big ol’ jungle boots, and went outside. Just felt the wind on my face and the rain seep under my collar. Nearly lost my hat. Definitely got soaked down to my socks. Might have splashed in some puddles.
Sometimes the best way to adapt is to just go for it. Jump into the cold pool. Run headlong into discomfort. It worked for me in the jungle. It worked for me again back in Washington. And it’s my go-to self-prescribed response to whining. Especially about the weather.
Life on a small island with no large snakes to speak of has been comfortable, but has left me little inspiration or material. So I went through my old drafts and found this, which I planned to turn into a book at one point. Here’s a sample.
If you’re anything like me, you often find yourself in combat with wild animals. How the fight began–whether from competition for resources, an insult to honor, for the right to eat one another, or because you were just bored–is irrelevant. But due to the great number and wide variety of species that I have fought or still plan to fight, I thought I would submit this to the archive of the internet for the public good.
Please treat the following information with all the respect it deserves. Also, note that if you are already fighting an animal, it is too late to seek advice. You must do battle with nothing but your own wits. Good luck.
The obvious first entry. My bread and butter. A significant threat, a worthy foe. According to one good book I read, snakes have been mankind’s enemy since one gave poor dietary advice to two nudists. Also, they bite.
My experience is extensive and so is my advice about them. Ask anyone who’s spoken to me for more than 5 minutes. But key points to summarize: snakes are only dangerous at one end. This may seem obvious, but remember that once you immobilize that business end you can pretty much do whatever you want. Snakes, it seems, sacrificed their arms and legs in exchange for turning the rest of their body into one large limb, a gamble that may not have necessarily paid off when humans entered the picture. Granted, some snakes are strong enough to overpower a human with the rest of their body, but these are rarely encountered by humans and are usually so large that they lack the energy to go a whole 10 rounds. They tire quickly, and also have vital organs along 70% of their body that are sensitive to a sharp jab or a good tickling.
However, one important caveat: snakes are fast. Faster than you. Don’t be fooled by sluggish behavior–a free head is a bitey head, and can strike from roughly ⅓ a body length away. And some species can jump. But while you cannot be faster than a snake, you can be smarter. Try to predict where the head will go, and then go somewhere else. Wait for it to move, then go for the neck.
Unless it’s a kind that spits, of course. Some do that. And mole vipers bite backwards. You know what? I should probably do an entry just on snakes. Moving on.
Large Flightless Birds
Don’t laugh. Don’t you dare laugh. Ratites and cracids and kin are no joking matter. These ain’t your barnyard chickens, which can already be pretty nasty. Ask anyone who’s gotten on a rooster’s bad side.
These are the birds who haven’t forgotten that they’re dinosaurs. The ones that traded working wings for serious claws. Your ostriches, emus, and rheas. Jungle fowl. Freaking cassowaries. I’ve tangled with a curassow that had been fed only fruit, and was trying to supplement its protein-starved diet with my fingers. Then it flew up to short branches and went for my ears. I soon discovered a reliable technique: the kick. A good hefty kick with a booted foot. Unblockable, Daniel-san. So sweep the leg and watch your surroundings.
Full disclosure: I’ve never fought a bear. But I did hug one once, while it was sedated. It was one of the greatest moments of my life, and I never pass up a chance to tell the story. But while I was in its deep fuzzy embrace, I learned something: bears smell really, really, bad. I thought this was worth keeping in mind. If you do end up fighting a bear, you wouldn’t want to be taken off guard by its stench. Lord knows bears have enough going for them already.
If you are fighting a monkey, you have already screwed up. Terribly. There is no victory here, at least not one with any shred of dignity. There is no way to emerge completely unscathed. Step one is considering the life choices that brought you to this moment. Where did you go wrong?
Monkeys are horrible creatures. Expect the craftiness and dexterity of humans with the raw aggression and strength of a wild animal. I had one capuchin grab me by the hair, yank my scalp back, then shove me face-first into a concrete path. And I was lucky. You don’t know fear until you’ve been curb-stomped by a primate that comes to your knees.
My only advice? Hold nothing back. Use every dirty trick and item at your disposal. Weapons. Fire. Explosives. Feint and scream. Fight Harkonnen-style: deception within deception. Don’t fight with honor because you will receive none in return. Convince that monkey that it will face utter destruction at your hands. Only then will it consider cutting its loses and losing face. In fact, subjugation and dominance is one of the few concepts monkeys understand.
Oh, and note that my experience only extends to New World monkeys, which tend to be small. I’ve never fought, say, a baboon. And I don’t plan to. Baboons eat people.
The reason I’ve been so quiet on this blog is that over the past few weeks I’ve been too busy living in an isolated off-the-grid spot in the rainforest, killing ants,taking pictures of animals, trying to stay dry, and stuffing my face with delicious fruit. But the surprise twist? I’m not in Costa Rica.
I’m in Washington.
Yes, after a long series of flights and layovers, I was finally able to return home and peel off a mask that had gotten pretty funky by that point. Luckily, I was able to settle into a place tucked away in the forest for quarantine, which also made culture shock transition a little easier. And the weather was pretty good too–nothing like the Pacific Northwest in Summer. So I thought I was in a place where I could begin a new chapter in life, try to track down a new career, and close the book on Costa Rica for now. And enjoy all the things I had been missing.
And enjoy them I did. I think my first meal back was bread. Just bread. I had plans to make a sandwich, but once I had my hands on a loaf of real chewy gluten with some sort of French name I took a bite right out of it and didn’t stop until I was down to crumbs. This time of year is also blackberry season, which is about the one kind of fruit that really doesn’t grow well in the Tropics. First chance I got, I reenacted my childhood and picked until my hands were stained purple. And then the beer. My god, the beer. Costa Rica, I love you, but I’ll be willing to commit when you have a dedicated microbrew scene.
Yet on my first morning I went outside with a cup of coffee and watched some deer nibble the grass. White-tailed deer, no less, the exact same species we had back in Manuel Antonio. I munched on fresh fruit that had been picked in the backyard (raspberries, not mangoes, but still). It was surprisingly hot and sunny, although lush. Most of this environment is rainforest, after all. Temperate rainforest. So I joked to myself about never leaving at all.
But then the ants began.
Apparently, the place I’m staying has had an ant problem. That is, previous tenants have complained about a few ants in the kitchen and bathroom. But now I was here. With my vendetta. My nemesis. They got inside my bags. My clothes. The second night I woke up covered with them. Now it’s war.
Perhaps the jungle is a place of mind. You can never leave. Maybe I really am cursed. Maybe this won’t be quite the respite I was hoping for. Maybe I’m not ready for a break after all.
Regardless, I’ll most likely be blogging less but may chime in with an update or flashback story when I have good photos. For now, I’ve got to go bring down some jungle justice on a bunch of pansy-abdomen Washingtonian ants. At least this time there are no monkeys.
I was just sitting down to lunch when the call came: “Snake!”
In the juvenile fantasy in my head where I have my own TV show, this is how each episode would start. I swear, it’s my call to action. My “Your mission, should you choose to accept it…” Here I am, settling down to my rice and beans when an old lady comes running up yelling about snakes. Then I grab my hat and the theme song kicks in.
Yesterday’s episode began as a rerun, with the same poor old long-suffering lady who runs housekeeping on the volunteer dormitory, which has since been turned into onsite staff housing since the shutdown. She’s usually the one to bring me the news, partly because she never stops working but mostly because she is deathly afraid of snakes. Either way, I’m always happy to help, and this time she led me to the outer balcony of the third floor. Up, in the rafters of the awning, was a good sized tree boa.
Now, our building—like many in Costa Rica—has a vaulted roof of corrugated metal. It helps with air flow. However, since the material is corrugated, it doesn’t sit completely flush with the tops of the walls. There are little gaps, gaps just the right size for snakes. Snakes that tend to climb to high places and look for small spaces to sleep in. I’m surprised this doesn’t happen more often. In fact, it was almost exactly a year ago when a parrot snake dropped from the ceiling right onto a ceiling fan, whirled around several times, and was then flung across the room. Oh, and the room was full of volunteers. I was summoned by the screaming.
Anyway, since that time we put up a thin sheet of insulation beneath the corrugated metal, which keeps the animals out of the room but provides even better housing. This snake, as you can see from the photo, was just peeking his head and most of his body outside, probably waiting for the sun to go down to go hunting for small rodents and sleeping birds. Or waiting to ambush bats. Neither of which was relevant to the lady, who refused to sleep beneath a roof infested with snakes.
But the location was complicated. The balcony didn’t go around that side of the building. There was nowhere for me to stand, and no way to grab the snake with any leverage. I could try to monkey-bar from the balcony over to the snake, but then how to grab the snake and climb back with only two hands? Grabbing it with a hook at this distance could injure it, and any way I had already packed my capture kit.
I eventually worked out my strategy: I would tie myself to the balcony with a short length of rope, vault over the rail, then wall-run up to the snake, parkour-style. At the height of my run, I would grab the snake with both hands and then just drop. After stuffing the snake into my shirt, I could then climb the rope back with both hands. Sure, it would be a little risky, but the physics checked out I had done worse.
I already had my belt off and was wrapping it into a makeshift harness when I was struck by something that rarely comes to me: Common sense.
What the fuck was I doing?
I had four days to go until I left Costa Rica. Four. Everything was in place. I was packed and ready to get on a plane. All I had to do was survive until then. The last thing I wanted to do was risk an injury that would take me to the hospital right before an international flight. Also, y’know, death.
Forget TV shows—I’ve seen this movie! The one with veteran cop who gets shot “three days before retirement.” Or the one with the cocky daredevil who gets his comeuppance in the worst way, at the worst time. There’s playing the odds, and then there’s tempting fate. If I had had no travel plans, or fewer commitments, or better health insurance…but no.
So I gritted my teeth and swallowed my pride and did the thing I dread: told everyone I couldn’t do it. Tried and failed to catch the snake with a long stick and watched as it retreated further into the roof. Had to endure the scorn and disappointment of a old lady who will be bunking with her daughter’s family for a few nights. That upper floor is going to be unoccupied for some time.
But at least I’m alive. My survival instinct outweighed my pride. And I can still go home.