Super Bowl Monkey

I just realized I drafted this, but never posted it. Man, this month has been a mess.

I’m a bad American. I don’t own any guns, I speak more than one language, and I don’t care one bit about American football. The very fact that I have to specify the modifier “American” should clue you in to where I stand on the sport. So the fact that the last day of my trip fell upon Super Bowl Sunday came to me as a surprise, until I was reminded of it by the friend whose house I was staying at in Manuel Antonio.

Now, she’s a proper fan. A real red-blooded gridiron goon. So I was honored by her invitation to join the party. Better yet, another friend there was British, and I knew that watching her watch the American watch football would be the real entertainment. So I agreed to participate in the festivities the best way I know how: by grilling dinner.

I don’t want this to become a food blog, but god damn do I love doing this.

I had a perfect setup on a little ledge overlooking a quiet side street. The view was lovely, surrounded by the trees and vines of the ever-encroaching jungle. This being mid Dry Season, many flowers were in bloom and the air smelled great, only embellished by my signature barbecue chicken, veggies, and pineapple over open coals.

And wouldn’t you know it, the monkeys thought so too. Because not even half an hour in, a full troop of squirrel monkeys showed up.

Yep, should’ve seen that coming.

I don’t think I’ve talked about these guys much. When I refer to “monkeys” with a dark tone and shiver of revulsion, I’m usually thinking of capuchins. Or howlers, the fecal bombardiers with voices like unmuffled motorcycles. Or spider monkeys, the rare and enigmatic canopy dwellers. But here’s a quick rundown of Costa Rica’s fourth species: Saimiri oerstedii.

These.

Central American (or Red-Backed) Squirrel Monkeys are the smallest monkey in Costa Rica. They are known locally as “mono titi,” which can be confusing since an unrelated South American monkey is known in English as the Titi Monkey. However, this species is found along the South Pacific Coast of Costa Rica and into Panama, and is still considered Endangered along its range.

Highly social and omnivorous, squirrel monkeys travel in large troops of up to a hundred (usually about half that), foraging for insects, fruit, and small animals much in the same way as capuchins. However, unlike the capuchins of my woeful field days, their group structure is much less hierarchal and more egalitarian, with multiple mating pairs and no dominant alphas. As a result (or consequence; gotta love evolution), they are much less aggressive.

If these had been capuchins, it would’ve ended with one of us in the hospital.

But they are still opportunistic little bandits. Not to mention clever and persistent thieves, especially around human areas where they have learned to steal and beg for food. And while local conservation efforts in the MA area have led to a recovery of the local endemic subspecies, this has meant that they are far more abundant and bold around humans. As I rediscovered.

The group moved in from all sides, quickly surrounding me and the grill from rooftops, fences, and electrical wires. I shouted and waved kitchen implements at them, threatening to add them to the fire if they should dare to touch my food. They ignored me. Instead, they coordinated small advances, darting in and out just out of range, testing my defenses. I ended up practically straddling the grill, standing over the food to shield it with my own body, turning chicken with one hand while snapping tongs at marauding monkeys with the other.

I would never eat a monkey, but I would sure as hell cook one.

Ultimately, I held them off. Not one single dirty little primate laid his filthy hands upon a morsel of my food. The group eventually moved on in search of easier swag. But the victory was not without cost. In my rush to finish the meat before the monkeys got to it, some wings weren’t fully cooked all the way through and had to be finished in the microwave. Not my finest moment. At least the monkeys were sent away, disappointed and hungry. I consider that a win any day.

Oh, and there was a football game too at some point. I guess.

A Day in the Life of a Real Naturalist

Years back, an ecolodge I worked for commissioned me to write a guest post for their blog. It was supposed to be a “Day in the Life of a Naturalist” post, and someone had heard that I had my own personal blog going at the time. However, the boss clearly had no idea of the tone of said personal blog and its, shall we say, irreverence. The piece I wrote was true to form and, while accurate, didn’t really fit with the professional, family-friendly official page. It was rather off-brand. So the Director himself decided it was in need of much re-writing, a task he did on his own.

And I didn’t even mention ants.

The resulting post wasn’t so much re-written as ghost-written. Gone was the spite and sarcasm. Gone were the gory details. Gone was the actual day in the actual life of an actual naturalist. In its place was a squeaky-clean bit of G-rated ecotour propaganda. I allowed it to be posted only with my name removed, and decided to post my original work on my own blog.

But then I remembered that I was under contract, and that technically what I had written belonged to the organization. Plus, I was under a kind of NDA and some details pertained to work. Plus, I was trying to be professional, and didn’t want my employer to think I was a dick.

Well I just learned that that place is no longer in business so they can’t do squat! Below is my original post, along with their edits in bold.

My day begins at 5am dawn when the monkeys wake me up by dropping guavas on my roof. My first coherent thought is deciding whether or not to go outside and yell at them to imagine all the animals I’m going to see today. Then I shake the spiders out of put on my boots and head to the dining hall where I fill myself with as much rice, beans, and strong coffee as is medically possible eat breakfast and drink a cup of coffee. This is the jungle and I can’t waste daylight.

Monkeys are awful little tree gremlins interesting creatures.

The first tour of the day is usually birdwatching. After passing out binoculars, and helping the one or two chuckleheads who try to use them backwards, we head out to see what’s around. Depending on the year, we can get all sorts of migrants and visitors from the Northern Hemisphere flying in and making a lot of noise. Sometimes we see migratory birds too. The campus is great place for birding, with plenty of open areas, forested habitat, flowers, fruit, and tall trees. Sometimes we visit a ledge overlooking the river with a great view of the valley, which also happens to be my favorite spot to pee a very relaxing place.

If nothing is scheduled, I like to head over to the campus farm to lend a hand. Agriculture in the Tropics is a never-ending rewarding job, as the growing season is year-round. The food goes right from the dirt to the kitchen. Lunch is typical Costa Rican food, generally organic rice, local beans, homegrown veggies, and a meat dish with fresh fruit. Along with, of course, more coffee.

Ok, he was trying to plug the farm here. I get that.

Afternoons are for more activities. If we’re in luck, we’re hosting a researcher, and they always need someone to play Tonto an experienced guide. Or Sherpa a helpful assistant. Throughout my time here, I’ve assisted with forestry techs, bat catchers scientists, herpers biologists who study reptiles and amphibians, butterfly geeks lepidopterists, and camera trap nerds specialists. Onsite, we have our own research on seed dispersal, reforestation, mycology, and a poor resident moth intern who stays up all night counting bugs an ongoing moth survey.

Throughout the day, I like to make myself available to guests to tell stories, point out animals, and answer their questions. I hear all sorts of things. “What was that animal we saw that looked like a large guinea pig?” Probably an agouti. “We heard a strange call last night.” This is where I start making animal sounds until they hear the right one help them find out what it was. “Is it true that there’s a bug that lays its eggs in your brain?” Um, not sure about that one. No, but the Director once got bit by a botfly.

What he hell, man? That isn’t even MY anecdote.

Dinner is similar to lunch, and afterward is my favorite activity: night hike. A few hours after sunset, I pass out flashlights, slap on some bugspray, and hit the trails with a group of wary excited guests in tow. Nighttime is when the jungle really comes alive. We can count on seeing all sorts of critters nocturnal wildlife, from massive insects, ghostly owls, and absolute hordes of frogs. If we’re lucky, we might even see a kinkajou which is a Costa Rican mammal that looks like a large squirrel. We often rarely see snakes.

Exhausted, delighted, and very sweaty, everyone heads back to the cabins to dream of weird animals they’ve never seen before. It’s been another day in the life of a naturalist.

So You Don’t Want to Be a Naturalist Anymore

So you’ve decided to change careers. The life of a naturalist just isn’t for you. Maybe you’re tired of being constantly bug-bitten and mammal-mauled. Maybe the apocalyptic scale of climate change has you despairing for environmental work. Maybe you’d like to for once in your life make some actual money.

I’m not giving up my dream just yet. But as a naturalist who has, at times, had to support my career with jobs outside my field, I thought I’d offer this self-help guide to readjusting back into normal, civilized, adult life. Here goes.

I know it sounds crazy, but there exists a job without ants.

Rewrite Your Resume

If you have a science background, you’ve been taught to prepare your resume/CV a certain way. To just pack that baby with every study, research project, lab activity, and field gig you were remotely a part of, and describe each one with as technical of wording as possible. Extra points for being as taxonomically specific as possible. Double points for including Latin words that barely qualify as English.

Well now you’re applying for a normal job and guess what? Not only does no-one give a crap about that, they will barely understand it. Some poor recruiting manager doesn’t want to have to scan through a list of “research experiences” involving animals they’ve never heard of. Especially if the work was unpaid and, let’s be honest, it was unpaid wasn’t it?

For example, I recently applied to an ordinary job for the season. I edited down my Research section greatly, and changed things like “conducted a species assemblage of amphibians across a geographic gradient” to “Studied frogs in the jungle.” Much more palatable. “Comparison of interspecific sexual and territorial behavior of damselfies” became “Made horny bugs fight each other. For science.” And anything involving the collection of feces…yeah, I removed that entirely. That sure made the document shorter.

Man, not even spellcheck knows what a damselfly is

Change Your Appearance

Did you know there are other colors for clothing besides green, brown, grey, and other drab earth tones? Did you know that some people buy clothing with appearance in mind, not function? That there are other factors to take into account other than a fabric’s ability to resist mold, scratches, and animal blood?

Strange as it seems, you may find yourself in a job where your appearance matters. You may be expected to meet something called “professional standards” of dress, grooming, and general hygiene. You will not be allowed to wear clothes that are stained or torn, even if they function just fine. You will be expected to shave and cut your hair, despite your protests that it will all grow back anyway.

It’s rough, but think of it as an adaptation. Civil camouflage. Clothes shopping is just gathering materials. Now go out and get yourself a makeover. Get dressed. Wear perfume. Put on makeup. Cut your hair. Do your nails. Take a bath, you dirty hippy.

Stop Telling Stories, Seriously Just Shut Up Because No One Believes You

Another personal anecdote: a while back on a construction gig, a coworker noticed the scars on my hand. He asked where they came from. I told him, “monkeys.” That guy never spoke to me again.

Yes, a monkey. And I still see his face in my dreams…

It’s a naturalist thing. Fieldwork talk. Research station stories. We all do it, all trying to share and impress and one-up. We talk about the places we’ve been. The adventures we’ve had. The animals we’ve seen, studied, or fought. The tales border on the ludicrous and push the limits of believability because that’s the point.

But back here in the real world? That junk is straight out of animal planet. Fantasy that belongs on television. Best case: people will think you’re full of shit. Worse case: they will think you’re insane. Most likely: a bit of both. So learn from my mistakes, mistakes I keep making over and over wherever I go, and curb that kind of behavior.

Bottom line: what happens in the jungle stays in the jungle. Or at least let it out carefully, gradually, bit by bit over time.

Also, maybe don’t talk about snakes so much. Can’t hurt.

All Part of the Job

Hey, I just found a way to recover a bunch of photos from an old memory card that I thought was broken! This was from about a year and a half ago, when I was in Costa Rica working at that rescue center. Ok, so it’s mostly more pictures of bugs and snakes, but…enjoy, I guess?

Are you at all surprised?

Man, I’m really reaching for content here. No, that’s not true. I got plenty more photos and a million more stories on backlog that I could use to regularly keep this blog active. So why the dry spells?

It’s just that this started as a kind of release. A side project, something completely different. I would spend most of my days outside, wandering in the forest, taking photos and screaming obscenities at wildlife, then come back to hop on the internet for a quick minute. It was the one place where I could say everything I couldn’t say on tours, or to students, and this was OK because it was mostly anonymous. I would pour out my thoughts, unfiltered and unedited, dump some photos, jot down some snark, and hit post with minimal effort. It was my one little corner of my life associated with technology and social media, and I was Ok with that.

But I went legit this year. Started a business. Established an online presence. Designed my own website with a professional work email. Even put my face on social media–friends and consultants convinced me to get a Facebook and Instagram page. I drew the line at TikTok, though. And YouTube, for now. I will consider OnlyFans, however.

“Subscribe to watch me catch snakes. For Premium members, I’ll do it without that hat.”

And that took work. Time, money, and a whole lot of mental energy. I’m a private person, and putting all this together, keeping it active and relevant, is exhausting. But it’s my job now, so I get it done without too much griping. But now this kind of thing feels like work. This blog feels like work. So it’s less fun, less of the release it used to be.

The blogging, that is. Catching snakes will always be fun.

So, will I continue Pura Vida Stories?

The answer is yes. Absolutely yes.

Because remember what I said earlier, about this being everything I can’t say on tours? My need to do that is go exponential if I ever start guiding fulltime. I’m absolutely going to need that release, that anonymous corner of my life where I can spill all. I won’t be talking about clients, or betraying anyone’s trust, but I’m sure to rack up more crazy stories worth telling and hopefully get more photos that are due wordy explanations. More wildlife encounters. And I will never escape ants.

So I’m going to keep this up, and try to keep it compartmentalized. Separate from my professional life. As anonymous as I can. So if you know who I am, please keep this in mind for posting comments or sharing. God help me if clients find this before a trip.

God help them, too.

Sense-less

I’ve talked before about how smell is an important often overlooked sense, but even more so in the jungle. Between the blooming flowers, ripening fruit, decomposing organic matter, and sweating human bodies, the experience just isn’t the same without it.

Which means that most of my stories and photos lack a certain essential element. A particular context. So to remedy that, I’m going to provide the next set of photos with instructions on how to fully experience them, nasally. And I’ve gone through my last trip’s album to pick out ones that are especially memorable.

Note that I did not say “pleasant”

The Rainforests of Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast–what remains of them–are one of the few places left to see White-lipped peccary, a kind of wild pig. Known as “javelina” in the Southern US, here they are called “Saino” and used to run in herds of up to a hundred. Now, due to habitat loss and overhunting, there are few left and they are very skittish. The best way to see them is to track them, following your nose until you get close enough to hear the clacking of their tusks. Or stake out one of their mud wallows, as I did.

To fully experience a peccary trail, wear the same shorts to the gym every day for a week. Then, stick them in a bucket, add a couple dozen bad eggs, pour in a gallon of gasoline, and let that sit for about a month. Then uncover and inhale deeply. That, my friends, is what peccaries smell like.

Reminds me of freshman year.

Millipedes are a common sight in the Tropics, and they can get rather large. Don’t worry–they’re harmless. It’s only centipedes that sting. Millipedes just eat decaying organic matter and when threatened, curl into a ball and release a distinct smell.

Millipedes smell like almonds. Seriously, just like almonds. Just like an amaretto latte in some species. The reason is cyanide: almonds contain trace amounts of cyanide, which is what millipedes release as a defense. Oh, did I say they were harmless? I meant they’re harmless to touch. Yeah, don’t eat them. Because, y’know, cyanide.

And wash your hands too.

Finally, something that is not native to Costa Rica, but has been naturalized and now flourishes: ylang-ylang. This fragrant tree releases its scent mainly at night to attract nocturnal pollinators. In many parts of the world, including its original home of Southeast Asia, it is made into fancy perfumes and used for aromatherapy.

Ylang-ylang smells wonderful. There is no way to fully describe the sensation of sitting below a ylang-ylang tree in full bloom, or to properly explain the associated feelings of enchantment, decadence, and pure joy. It’s just too rich. It feels almost wrong, somehow, or self-indulgent. It’s a guilty pleasure. It should be a sin to smell something this good. To experience this, to go to a fancy perfume store, find the most expensive bottle, and just smash that sucker on the floor. The resulting smell, as well as the perversely gleeful guilt at your transgression, just might suffice. Next, eat a chocolate chip cookie. Now you’re getting it.

You deserve it.

Smell ya later.

Just Saying No

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.

You try chasing monkeys through the jungle for a living. See if it doesn’t turn your wardrobe into “Tropical hobo ranger.”

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.

“A psychotropic vine?” “No! God dammit!”

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. Will not. Sell you weed.

So please stop asking.

Preparations

I’m so unprepared for the jungle right now.

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.

I need a real-life training montage

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?”

“Or bitten by a snake. Or a spider. Point is, how are you still alive?”

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.

Wow, was this really five years ago? Time flies when you’re having a really, really good time.

I like to think I have a slightly better plan now, at least.

You Might Be a Wildlife Biologist (or a Farmer) If…

(I thought I’d elaborate on the similarities between the two jobs, using my least favorite joke template)

…when you look at an animal, you’re picturing it dead and cut open.

…all your clothes are stained, but you can’t remember from which animal and from which fluid.

…you work with animals and then immediately eat lunch without washing your hands because sweat and dirt are just as good as soap.

…your best scars are teeth marks.

And you are proud of every one. Maybe a little too proud.

…you shop at thrift stores because you feel too guilty to ruin new clothes.

…when you think about sex, at least some part of your mind is thinking about breeding inherited traits.

…you always carry a knife because of course you do, and why is everyone so bothered by this?

…you have been literally deeper in shit than anyone else, and it no longer bothers you.

…you’re better with animals than you are with people, even if you don’t like said animals.

Especially if you don’t like said animals.

…your fashion palette consists of earthtones, various greens, grey, dark grey, Realtree, and occasionally faded denim.

…if you own a car, it smells like your work.

…you have a very, very complicated love-hate relationship with the weather.

…you will casually tell people you caught X horrible disease from an animal and not notice their confused, horrified expressions.

Yeah, the goats gave me herpes again. Wait, where are you all going?

…your feet are a crime scene.

…in your dreams, you fight animals.

…in your nightmares, you have a desk job.

…if you have an intern, they are disposable.

Actually, having been an intern, I can say this probably applies to most jobs.

…you have heard and/or seen your coworkers peeing. Often not five meters away from where you’re working.

…you have a vastly different perception of the word “organic” than the rest of the world.

…you get to wear a great hat.

Costa Rica in My Mind

I’ve got Costa Rica on the brain.

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.

A-hem.

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.

Smell the monkeys.

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.

Ooh, I’m going to regret saying that, aren’t I?

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.

Ok, definitely going to regret saying that.

Destinations

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.

I also still wake up to the sounds of large birds. Like this turkey, right outside my bathroom window. It watched me while I peed. Power move, turkey.

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.

Chief difference: fewer monkeys, more newts.

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.

Cue obligatory jungle noises.

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.

I will find you a snake. That is guaranteed.

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.