Dear tourists and travelers, bankers and border agents, friends and strangers, Facebook ads and Amazon algorithms, TSA, DEA, and oh what the hell, the FBI:
I am not a drug dealer.
I know this looks bad. That my travel history is rather suspicious and my passport stamps cover a good portion of Latin America. That I have a certain look: I’m a white dude with long hair and a short beard, and I dress like Macklemore made a baby with Che Guevara. While the Marlboro man watched.
But hear me out: I swear that I’m not a drug dealer. Honest. I don’t even smoke weed.
Yes, I just started a business based in Washington State. With plans to operate in Costa Rica. And yes, that business is named after a plant. But I chose “Liana” because it sounds friendly and is easily parsed in both Spanish and English. But a liana is just a woody vine.
Seriously, I’m not a drug dealer.
So to those afore mentioned officials, please stop judging me and throwing my suspicious looks. And to all my would-be clients, travel companions, hostel hippies and general gringos, I will say this once:
I’ve fallen out of the habit of checking my shoes before putting them on. I haven’t practiced Spanish outside of Duolingo and cursing at livestock. My tolerance for heat and insects is at an all-time low. And I didn’t so much give myself a farmer’s tan as I turned myself into a human croissant–browned on the edges, pasty white in the center, and flaky all over. My ears? Toasted almonds, for the sake of the metaphor.
And I go back to Costa Rica in a little over two weeks.
This whole thing came about because of the pandemic. I mean, I’ve had the dream of running my own tours for some time now. I even worked with a friend who shared that dream, and we joked about one day working a tour business together. But it wasn’t until I was back in Washington during Winter, cold and wet, eating a lot of bacon and kale that I realized that I wasn’t going to get a better opportunity to actually make this thing a reality. So I called up that aforementioned friend and said something along the lines of:
“Hey, we haven’t spoken in like four years. I’m quitting my job and going back to the jungle. Want to come?”
Only it came out more like: “Hello friend, I know it’s been a while, but remember that business idea we once shared? I’ll fly you to Costa Rica if you’re still interested,” because I’ve learned to talk like a normal person.
She responded with, “Are you nuts? Who quits their job during a pandemic? And where the hell have you been, I thought you were eaten by monkeys?”
Only it came out more like: “What an interesting idea. I have other commitments now, but maybe I can come along on this trip as a consultant.”
It’s good to have friends who understand you. Anyway, cut to about six months later, here I am with an LLC, plane tickets, travel plans, and a fresh COVID vaccine, and still I feel utterly unprepared. It’s not just the physiological or the linguistic failings–it’s the mental ones. I’ve changed and adapted to a temperate climate. I’m throwing myself back into a tropical one.
Studying up on my old tropical science textbooks has helped. So has going through my photos and field journals. Shoot, just re-reading these very blog posts from five years ago has helped me get back in the mindset of a tropical naturalist. Especially since considering I started this blog under similar circumstances, after I had just quit a job in the US to run away to the jungle.
I like to think I have a slightly better plan now, at least.
As a funny man once said, “I’m not superstitious, but I’m a little stitious.” I’m a skeptic with an open mind. Black cats don’t bother me unless they’re clawing at my leg for attention. I don’t carry good luck charms unless I think they look cool and I would probably carry them anyway. I don’t believe in astrology unless I’m trying to get laid. After all, I’m a scientist at heart, trained to think rationally and act pragmatically.
But I have to admit, after significant observation and data analysis, that I am under some kind of curse: Animal trouble follows me wherever I go.
No, this is not due to my line of work. Even among biologists, my number of violent, dramatic, or otherwise unusual animal encounters is an outlier. For almost every job I’ve held. In nearly every place I lived.
My first longterm Costa Rica gig, who had the army ants infest his cabin, and his alone? This guy. That forestry job in Puerto Rico? We were told that invasive mongoose were a shy and rarely encountered species, and not a realistic threat even though they occasionally carried rabies. Yet who got bitten by a rabid mongoose, right outside the dorms, no less? Read my post about that. And the monkey house? Sure, we all had our share of monkey attacks, and monkeys throwing things at us, and monkeys peeing on us, but who had a opossum crawl across his face and fuck-no-o’clock in the morning while sleeping in his own goddam bed?
It sure seems like this is a pattern. Houses where I live see an uptick of pest activity when I move in. Farms where I work get more wildlife trouble. And the animal rescue center? Oh, sweet lord. The staff commented that he’d never seen so many snakes in so little time. Monkeys raided the kitchen. The mosquitos were unusually bad. An dang ocelot moved in and started harassing the sanctuary animals.
I’m forced to confront the “why” and seek solutions. Is this karmic justice for my past as a tracker and hunter? Or my past as a wildlife biologist? Or against my general antagonistic attitude to animals who disrespect me? Have I offended some self-righteous nature god?
Either way, I should probably come with a warning label. After all, some of the places I’ve worked (zoos, large animals farms, vet clinics come to mind), the stakes were rather high concerning potential animal trouble. I suppose I should be thankful things weren’t worse. But regardless, I might want to cool it and seek some kind of understanding with the animal kingdom in general to prevent further catastrophe.
I’m going to be running a legitimate guiding outfit soon. I can’t have my past coming back to haunt me in the form of rampaging wildlife and other such close-encounters. Actually, that might be a selling point. I’ll think on this.
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.