Working a fulltime field gig abroad like this is in some ways like living a double life. For work, I’m either outside in the forest all day getting sweaty, muddy, scratched, and bug-bitten. My clothes are drab, worn, splattered with god-knows-what, and selected for functionality. At home, I’m a recluse, spending my time recovering, catching up on sleep, processing data in an office, and generally trying to find a little peace of mind (ie, privacy). I rarely wear pants.
But this is Costa Rica. People here have a high standard of hygiene, dress, and etiquette. You are expected to spend time getting to know your neighbors and community. Social events are all day (or all-night) affairs. In some ways, it’s the polar opposite of what’s expected from a field researcher, a terrible, terrible irony. Which meant that I was faced with a significant challenge last night: the annual Tope Nacional.
Once a year, our tiny town hosts a nationwide Tope, a event that combines horse parades, rodeo, county fair, block party, and drinking. Lots of drinking. It lasts several days, culminating in a 1000+ parade of prize horses around the streets, with the riders dressed as cowboys strutting their stuff and belting out traditional songs. While I can be a bit of a misanthrope–sleep deprivation and festering chigger bites or no–and generally shy away from large crowds, I resolved to make an effort to get involved on this final night, especially since I had been invited by a local friend who I’m going to call Jorge. It would be a valuable cultural experience, and I really need to get out of the house once in a while.
Jorge took me to the start of the event, where trailer after trailer pulled up and unloaded a number of horses that dwarfed the town’s normal human population. I soon learned that it was impolite to walk around without a beer in one’s hand, open container laws be damned, and after several I was thankful that Costa Rican beer is light enough to be bitter water. We picked a spot to watch the caballeros go by, whereupon Jorge started wolf-whistling at any and all women who passed by, they did their best to ignore him, and I did my best to pretend he was a stranger to me.
When the event started, I learned that the riders would march their horses together grouped by the province or town they represented, and stop their horses at outdoor bars for drinks along the way. The riders and the horses, that is. Yes, most cowboys would down a quick rum, while shotgunning a cold brew into their horse’s foaming mouth. The streets soon became a mess of fallen cans, and the gutters ran with a mixture of spilled drinks and horse piss.
Jorge and I ended up in a crowd, backed against a bar by a phalanx of thirsty riders and thirstier beasts. He knew the bartender, and she let us behind the bar to avoid the crush. However, in the chaos, someone grabbed my shoulder from over the bar, and I turned to see a cowboy-hatted man waving a bill in my face and gesturing to the drinks. I served him, but he was immediately replaced by someone else. So I ended up inadvertently tending outdoor bar to a bunch of cowboys and their horses. No one seemed to mind, and I got a few free cold ones.
My energy didn’t last long. I met up with some coworkers and we hit up the street food and music scene. We drank some more, and I think I lasted about 5 minutes on the dance floor while the party started to spin around me. Priding myself on at least making an effort to be social like a normal human being, I clocked in around 11, far past my normal working bedtime.
And you know what? I had a good time. Living the double life of a foreign field naturalist means sacrifice and occasionally getting out of the comfort zone. One annual equine fiesta isn’t too much to ask, and I played it safe, not drinking too much or staying out too late to be ready for fieldwork again and all that nature could through at me. I drifted off to the lingering sounds of the party a few blocks away, fulfilled and content.
At least, that is until around 4am when I felt cold paws and matted fur climb over my forehead in the dark. Fearing rats–or, illogically, mongoose–I jumped up and spent several minutes with my disturbed roommates trying to find the culprit. When it started knocking over things on the shelf, I was only slightly relieved to find that it was not a rat but rather a baby possum, although God knows how it even got inside the house, let alone on my bed.
I grabbed it by the scruff and while it drooled and played dead, my thoughts were as follows: What the hell, nature? I make an effort to be human and this is what you do to me? Send vermin into my own room, for Christ’s sake?
I mean, what’s the point? Why pretend? Did I enter some kind of dark pact with wild animals at some point? Is this revenge from the primeval gods? Can’t I just get one night of peace, one night to indulge the culture in which I live, that tolerates my animal-related behavior the rest of the year?
I threw the possum into a box, taped it up, and left it out in the kitchen for my housemates to find. I’ll release it later. Let it get out of its comfort zone, and maybe lose some sleep. Serves it right.