I, Naturalist

It’s been a rough couple of months. Between travel restrictions, career, and a debilitating injury, it doesn’t look like I’ll be in Costa Rica again any time soon. So in my boredom and gloom, I got back into something I thought I’d sworn off years ago: a little app called iNaturalist.

It was either that or reach for something else I’d sworn off years ago.

My reasons for dropping iNat are due to a poor first impression. See, the app is designed to be a tool where users can upload photos of living things and then try to ID each other’s photos. Photos can be geotagged and date stamped, and IDs can be as specific as you like. IDs are based on current accepted taxonomy, and can be searched by scientific or common names. If multiple IDs disagree, the app displays the lowest common taxonomic level. Algorithms can automatically suggest IDs based on photos and geography.

But when it was first rolled out, the algorithms had so little data to work from that they were practically useless. There weren’t enough experts using the app to make accurate IDs. And the potential for abuse was too easy.

Years back, I TA-ed for a high school level field course when the new app was included in the curriculum. The instructors, without much foresight, decided that each student had to make 5 IDs a day. There were sixteen students over 2 weeks.

The problems were immediately obvious to me. “So are we going to have to verify 80 photos a day for two weeks?”

No, I was told. iNaturalist would verify the photos automatically.

“But how do we know that the ID is correct? More importantly, how do the students learn anything if all they’re doing is posting a photo and waiting for the app to suggest something?

Brown. Spiny. Suggested ID: hedgehog–iNaturalist, early days.

The activity was abandoned after a few days, and the experience really turned me against the app. But now I see that my initial assessment isn’t fair. Because in the years since, between new features, better code, and a growing community of users, this is quite a neat tool.

I can now, from the comfort of my temperate-latitude home, scroll through photos that are being taken in Costa Rica. I can narrow my search by taxonomy or location. I can help people identify the animals, plants, and even fungi they’re seeing, just like I did as a guide. I can even get an idea of what’s going on–a lot of amateur bird photos suggests the migratory species are showing up. A series of professional, specimen-grade insect closeups means there’s an entomological study going on at one of my old field stations. And I can even keep updated on puma activity around where I had my encounter–most likely, it’s the same cat.

And the community behind this is great. People are generally helpful and supportive. We’re all naturalists enjoying what we do best, and apart from a little bragging here and there, it’s perfectly wholesome. Sure, every now and then I’ll see someone use it to plug a business or social media account, but so far the community is niche enough that there isn’t any abuse or toxicity. Disagreements are kept professional, not mean-spirited. A true gem for the internet.

It’s like Instagram, but exclusively for nature nerds.

I’ve even used it to reconnect with people. Scrolling though CR photos, I saw a couple shots of damselflies with painted abdomens–the same technique we used back in 2016. Messaging the photographer, I asked if they ever worked with my old PI. Turns out, they were one of my coworkers on that project. They were still at it, years later, making little bugs fight for science.

Remember this? That was…wait, six years ago? Jesus!

I don’t often plug anything, especially anything app-related, but this is social media exclusively for things I like. The system isn’t perfect, and still should not be relied on for poor lesson planning, but for now it appears to be serving its purpose and then some. To me, that’s worth sacrificing a little personal metadata or whatever its taking off my phone in exchange for a little guiding-by-proxy. I’m that desperate.

Missed Information

As a naturalist and guide, I like to know (or at least appear to know) a little about everything. To have something to say about anything I might find in my particular habitat. My goal is to be able to, off the top of my head for any given plant or animal, rattle off the name, general classification, ecological role, and a couple of cool facts. For those IDs, one out of three should include personal anecdote or story. For those stories, two out of three should include some kind of bodily horror.

Coati…related to the raccoon…omnivorous and diurnal…once bit me on the ass.

But sometimes I get utterly stumped. It happens. Sometimes a client or student or I will stumble across a creature or plant that I have no idea of. No frame of reference. No clue. And when it happens I can lose my mind.

Now, I am not above uttering my 3 least favorite words (“I, Don’t, Know”). I am perfectly fine swallowing my male academic pride and admitting defeat in the face of identification. And I even relish a little challenge in investigating, trying to pin down an ID of a new encounter.

But in those first few moments, as the confusion sets in? I can get a little dramatic. Especially if it’s something I feel I should know. Or if I run into something I was simply not prepared for. Below are a few of those moments, as I remember them.

#1 Praying-crick-roach

Check out this bug! It’s got the back legs of a cricket, middle legs of a cockroach, and the front legs of a mantis. That’s nuts! It’s like someone glued together three different bugs. An insectoid chimera. A bug manticore. Bugticore?

It’s just so wrong. There’s too much going on her, too many parts on one body. It’s 50% cricket, 50% roach, 50% mantis, and no I did not do that math wrong. 150% of bug. That’s too much bug. Three Orders in one.

Update: I still have no idea what this is.

#2 Blow-Up Frog

What a cute little frog! Never seen this species before. It’s like, 3 centimeters long. Man, there’s so many different kinds here. This is tough. Need to check its feet. Gonna poke it…

Oh my god, he just puffed himself up rose up on his legs as a threat display! Like a tiny wrestler. That’s adorable! You go, little guy. Look at you, all tough and stuff.

Update: Still not sure what this is, but since it came from the Amazon, not Costa Rica, it could be one of hundreds of species.

#3 The Katy Perry Bird

This one has no photo because I never got a visual ID on it. Rather, I heard its call. And it sounds–and I mean really sounds–like the chorus riff from the Katy Perry song Dark Horse. If you know the song, you can hear the call. It’s spot-on. Uncanny. And the fact that I’ve never been able to actually see this bird calling is maddening. Plus, every time I hear the call it puts that song in my head, just like this paragraph put it in yours. Sorry.

Update: Still haven’t IDed this, but friends suggest some kind of antbird.

Other Update: No, I don’t generally listen to Katy Perry. Why do people keep asking me this?

#4 Red-Touching Black Snake

(OK, obviously I knew this was a snake, but the lack of specific knowledge led to a critical incident)

Ok, my PI just handed me a snake. This day rules. I wonder what species it is. I don’t usually handle snakes I can’t ID, but this guy knows best, right? I mean, he’s an entomologist, but should know better than to pass around unknown snakes. He’s got a PhD after all. I’ll ask him…

What do you mean you don’t know what kind of snake it is? It could be a coral snake! What’s that, boss? “Red touches black…?” That rhyme doesn’t work in the Tropics, you bug-loving maniac! Some coral snakes are red and black. You could’ve gotten me killed! I’m never trusting you again.

Update: It was a harmless tree snake.

Other Update: I never trusted him again.

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.

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.

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.

I Prefer a Park Less Traveled

The town of Quepos–and in fact, most of the surrounding coastline–is known for Manuel Antonio National Park. It’s a rare preserved Coastal Tropical Rainforest, one of the last remaining patches in a region hit hard by development and agriculture. It includes some Primary forest, several scenic viewpoints for spotting whales, and some of the most beautiful beaches on Earth.

But even living within spitting distance of this popular destination, I rarely go. Why? Well, besides the fact that I already live in the jungle and see animals all the time, it’s just a little too close. Even though I refer guests there about every day, when I travel for myself it’s to go somewhere a bit more distant and novel. There’s no reason to spend an entrance fee to see what’s already in my own backyard.

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Threatened habitat? Not impressed.

So besides the infrequent guiding gigs or animal pickups, I don’t get there much. But with yesterday being Costa Rican National Park Day and my workplace running a table out front, I had the chance to remember the other reason I don’t go to Manuel Antonio much: the crowds.

MA is one of the most accessible National Parks, and therefore one of the most popular. The road–and businesses–go literally right up to the front gate. Its paths are well-groomed gravel or flat raised platforms. It’s like jungle with training wheels. It’s not even all that big. You could walk the whole thing in a morning at a leisurely pace.

And the animals? Right out there in the open. Fearless. Bold. Practically habituated in some cases. And in some cases, worse.

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Pictured: worse.

Too many people and not enough regulation has led to an obscene amount of human interference with the animals, namely feeding. This has created a situation where the monkeys (of course) are begging or outright robbing people for food. If teased, they have even been known to attack. Last week, I saw an adult male capuchin practically shaking people down as they passed by. He leaped on the backpack of one woman and when she panicked he bit her. Hard. There was blood. I helped her friends chase him off and then advised she seek medical attention.

But even animal animal banditry aside, the park just tends to attract a slightly different crowd than most reserves. Some just come for the beach, and bring with them a different set of expectations and a different level of speaking volume. Even if they are here for the wildlife, guided tours are so common that you can best spot a sloth by just moving from one crowd to the next, looking in the same direction the guides are pointing. It feels like cheating, but it works.

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Although I did spot this bat nursing her young before any of the professional guides did so go me.

None of this is to badmouth Manuel Antonio, or the Park personnel. But be forewarned: this is no Monteverde. This is no Corcovado. You want an easy introduction to jungle hiking and happen to be in the area? Then this is for you. Can’t stand crowds and are seeking more illusive wildlife? I can recommend better.

Manuel Antonio seems to have found its niche. And it doesn’t seem to be about to change. In fact, while I was tabling, a local school orchestra set up by the entrance. It was fine, but chamber music wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. Many of the guests seemed confused as well.

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And the animals? Apparently unconcerned. Guess this deer wasn’t a John Williams fan.

So curb your expectations for Manuel Antonio. If you visit, come early and avoid the worst of the crowds. Aim for the middle of the week. And for the love of everything that’s holy, don’t feed the animals.

Nominal Doubt (With Apologies to Australia)

It finally happened. Something that I had been suspecting and joking about for years–someone actually called me out and accused me of making up animal names.

It’s not like I can blame them. It was on a tour where I had already introduced them to a kinkajou, a coati, and a kiskadee. We heard a shrill scream overhead, and I IDed it as a Caracara.

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The bird so nice they named it twice.

Costa Rica has an interesting history when it comes to animal names. I’ve mentioned this before. Most of the fauna unique to the Tropics–the kinkajous, coatis, tapirs, and cavimorph rodents–have no reference in the Temperate zones and thus require their own unique root names. It doesn’t help that most of these names come from South American indigenous languages, where the first English-speaking naturalists IDed them. It also doesn’t help that most local bird names are onomatopoeic–there usually based off the sound the bird makes. This gives you things like caracara, kiskadee, toledo, and chachalaca.

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“As in, Boom, chachalaca?”–every tourist ever.

I hear Australia has a similar problem. Australia, the land of the wallaby, the quokka, the numbat, and the jongowumpas, names so outlandish to English ears that you probably didn’t even catch that I made one of those up.

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And I’m never telling which.

But back to Costa Rica, where some of our animals sound like rejects from Harry Potter. Lizards here have names like basilisk, or -something dragon, just adding to the mythological flair. Or Pokemon. Have you ever seen a student roll their eyes when you pointed out an olingo? Or gotten a blank stare when you excitedly explained that you could hear a Quetzal? Or heard someone actually snort out loud when you mention the high local density of Titi monkeys? I have.

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It’s pronounced “Tee-Tee” monkeys, you comedians.

Look, I get it. Guides are notorious for hating to say they don’t know an answer. And I’m sure we’ve all had the temptation to bullshit or outright lie. But please give them the benefit of the doubt. Names and sounds are relative. Foreigners might very well react the same to creatures in your backyard. In fact, I had to boot up Google to prove to a skeptical Spaniard what a “marmot” was.

And sometimes the names are important. Disbelieve at your own risk. Here, you really do need to watch out for pica-pica vine. In Madagascar, don’t laugh when they warn you about Fossa. And in Australia, beware of the cassowary, the dingo, and the dreaded furbompowhispel. And yes, I made one of those up. Probably.

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Seriously, don’t laugh about the fossa.

They Came, They Saw, They Birded

There is a whole lot to say about my first independent guided tour of Costa Rica. There were highs and lows. Some highs: ziplining through the Cloud Forest, birdwatching from a hammock strung above a seaside overlook, and kayaking through mangrove forest. Some lows: ziplining late in the day during cold pouring rain, renting a coastal bungalow during peak millipede season, and trying to play human tetris to get several people and their bags into a car that was certainly not–despite what I was assured by the rental company–a “fullsize SUV.” I learned a lot.

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Still didn’t find them a sloth, though. In fact, one of them found this before I did. I’m still pretty salty about that.

Out of professionalism and respect for my client’s privacy, I won’t go into detail on the trip. But bottom line: It went well. Not as great as I’d hoped, but far better than I’d worried. My clients had a good time. And so did I.

This is what I like best about guiding, in concentrated, personalized form. I got to be the one to observe, firsthand, someone’s encounter with their first parrot or monkey. I got to lead them myself through the jungle, pointing out animal signs and explaining the life history of strangler figs. I got to savor their reaction when I prepared them for, and nature delivered upon, leafcutter ant highways or lizards that run across water.

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Jesus Christ!

Everyone was safe. There were no injuries or tropical illnesses. They all respected my rules and heeded my advice on jungle safety. We all stayed on the trails and had no close calls with snakes or whatever.

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Pictured: whatever.

On top of that, the weather was great. It only truly dumped on us once, and that was just enough that I feel vindicated for having warned my people about tropical rain. The usual classic charismatic megafauna of monkeys, coatis, and large snakes made their appearance. Birding was phenomenal: Quetzals in full plumage, toucans right above the cabins, motmots that practically posed for photos and in fact wouldn’t get out of the way after a while.

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Look at this guy, giving a little-the-shoulder-look like a supermodel. He knows he’s pretty.

Costa Rica, you didn’t disappoint. Did us all proud. This was a trip I had been planning for about six months. This is a career path I have been moving towards all my life. I’m back in the Monkeyverse now, hard at work, but with a little luck, plenty of agency, lots of patience, and some newfound confidence, I just might be able to pull this off again in the future.

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.