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.

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.

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.

Missed Connections

You: the couple of tourists feeding the monkeys the other day

Me: the guy who asked you repeatedly to stop feeding the monkeys.

Hi there!

Remember me? No doubt you do—I spoke to you several times, trying to be as polite and professional as I could to explain why it was unsafe, illegal, and irresponsible to give food to wild monkeys. You tried your best to blow me off, but I’m sure I made an impression. It’s just that I had a tour group to attend to, so as I was walking off and saw you giving the monkeys Cheetos I never got a chance to tell you what horrible human beings you are.

You see, I wanted to give you the benefit of the doubt. I know a lot of people don’t have monkeys at home, and really don’t like to use their brains in the slightest, and can’t imagine the consequences of giving them junk food handouts. But that excuse just doesn’t fly since I gave you that flier called “11 Reasons Not to Feed Wildlife.” Although, wait—maybe you can’t read? Did you need me to spell it out in pictures? Pictures like the ones that accompanied the flier? Well, shoot, maybe I should’ve used smaller words.

IMG_4465
YOU. NOT. FEED THIS.

No, the issue here has nothing to do with communication. I made every attempt to be civil, and accommodate for your ignorance. You did something bad, you knew it was bad, and you did it anyway. That makes you a bad person. A stupid person. And for the benefit of everyone else reading this, I’m going to explain just how bad and stupid a thing you did.

First, it was dangerous. Monkeys are aggressive, and common knowledge will tell you this. Also me. I told you this. You or your children could have been bitten. You could have lost a finger. You could have caught a disease. Did you know that monkeys often carry diseases they can pass to humans, including skin parasites, giardia, and the fucking herpes simplex virus? Of course you know because I told you that too, you—oh my god, was this all part of your plan to come up with an excuse to your spouse why you have herpes? Or some perverse weight-loss diet? Are you after a Giardia body?

IMG_4472
“Honey, I swear I got this herpes from a monkey! Wait…”

Second, by feeding the wild animals, you teach them to expect food from all humans, something the rest of us have to deal with long after you’ve crammed your Cheetos-smelling bodies into your crappy rental car and left. Thanks to people like you, this community is now dealing with emboldened, habituated monkeys who regularly shake down or outright rob park visitors, tearing open bags and breaking into houses. The locals call them “la Mafia” now. But I doubt you care about other people. You certainly didn’t care about the volume and behavior of your kids. Although it just occurs to me that this all might have been a misunderstanding because you confused the monkeys for your own ugly children.

IMG_3996
Yeah, I’m seeing it now.

Third, you could make the monkeys sick. Local troops are showing signs of diabetes, tooth decay, sugar addiction, and mouth ulcers from eating too much human food. You might be content to shovel junk into your bodies like grunting swine, but please spare the wildlife. They don’t know any better. You do. Or at least, you should.

IMG_4151
“Leave me out of this.”

I could go on, but since you may as well have used that flyer to wipe Cheeto dust off your monkey-feeding fingers, I won’t waste my time. But the worst part about this isn’t so much that you did it, it’s that you did it in front of your children. You got them involved. You gave them Cheetos to give to monkeys, and told them that was okay. You had them ignore my advice, and deprived them of a chance to learn to be better than you. You arrogant pieces of shit. Do you also tell your kids to ignore their doctor and not wash their hands? To not wear seatbelts? If you want to be such bad parents, why don’t you just give them forks and tell them to tickle electrical sockets? Or go play on train tracks?

Oh, I get it—you don’t like to be disturbed on your vacation. You don’t like to be told what to do. You thought I was bothering your fun. Fuck you. I was trying to help you. You chose to be assholes. Do you also go to Niagara Falls and piss over the edge? Go to Paris and grope the Venus de Milo? Being on vacation doesn’t give you that right. People live here. You just visit.

IMG_4479
Seriously, what is wrong with you?

So leave. Get back on your crappy rental and get out of here. For your next trip, you can go to Alaska and cuddle the bears. Or go to Australia and tease the sharks. I don’t care. Just don’t come back.

Also talk to your doctor, you might have herpes.

A Funny Thing Happened to Me Last Week

This last week I did something I haven’t done in I-don’t-know-how-long: I went on vacation.

I mean a real pleasure trip–not a border run, not a location scout, not an expedition. Completely non-work related, completely self-indulgent, and completely disconnected. I left my phone and computer behind. Went utterly off the grid. Did nothing but enjoy myself without ambition. I cannot remember the last time I did that.

Don’t get me wrong–I’m not complaining. Part of the blessing of my work is that I get to travel and explore exciting places, doing things like catching snakes and climbing trees to rescue sloths. I’m constantly surrounded by natural beauty.

IMG_4778
I mean, I work with these things. I really can’t complain.

But the flipside of that is I am often extremely busy. My time off–when I get it–is saved for critical border runs and international travel expense is saved for infrequent trips home. Currently, I’m in a position that requires a lot of logistics and coordination across several time zones, so I am rarely away from my phone. On grounds, I carry a radio. I’m on call all day, over 6 days a week. True “time off” isn’t really a thing, and when I do get it I’m usually too tired or stingy to do anything but stay home, sleep in, and catch up on my own work.

But this time, I made a point of moving things around to cover my job and returned to one of my old haunts in the Osa Peninsula, an underrated and nearly unheard-of location without a single bar of cell service for kilometers. Power came from solar panels. Water came from the stream. AC came from the wind. Food came from–actually, we were pretty set in that department. I’m talking fresh fish every night, caught right off the private beach in a private cove.

IMG_4787
Just to be clear: I had the best ceviche in my life which had just come from right there. While enjoying this view.

But that’s just my point! It was a completely isolated, closed system, just myself, a couple guys doing maintenance, and a handful of spider monkeys who sat outside the front porch eating breadnuts in the branches of a tree. Paradise.

IMG_4834
Am I right, spider monkeys?

I chilled like I’ve never chilled before. Like I’ve never needed to chill before. Just relaxed, read, played guitar, and walked around the forest. Ok, so I had a little adventure when I caught sight of a tayra and ran after it, camera in hand and vision tunneling on the target. Ran right into a patch of quicksand. Went up to my knees in a flash. Rookie mistake. I’ll never see those boots again.

IMG_4821
After all that, this was the best photo I managed to get. Definitely not worth two boots.

I think I finally understand the mentality of the tourist who comes to just sit on the beach. The backpackers who just want to sit in a hammock. Me, I’ve never wanted to waste a moment hear and usually turn my trips into, well, adventures. I don’t relax well. It’s a habit. Or maybe a curse.

IMG_4792
Oh yeah, there was a waterfall. I seriously cannot rate this place highly enough.

But it worked. I feel so refreshed. Ready to go back to work and the backlog of emails awaiting me. Ready to endure the stories of rampant snakes and guests they had to deal with in my absence. It’s rather nice to be missed.

Bathroom Break

My lack of attention to this blog is due to my computer, or rather lack of it. Whether it succumbed to the humidity, ant raids, or a wayward gecko in the motherboard I’ll never know. All I know is I have to make do with this loaned tablet, which has a roughly 3-second delay, occasionally shuts off without warning, and only then turns back on when the moon is in phase or something. Plus, it can’t read my photos. So for now I’m posting this old draft I wrote a while ago but never put up for some reason.

The tour this morning was interrupted by a scream from the women’s lavatory.

The screamer in question, a visiting middle-aged British lady, emerged about about a fraction of a second later. “There’s a bat in the loo!”

I paused, having been caught mid-intro in front of the rest of the group. We hadn’t even left the lobby yet. “Oh yeah, they roost in there. They seem to like the vaulted shingle ceilings.” This didn’t seem to satisfy her in the slightest. “They’re called White-Lined Bats,” I added, trying to be helpful.

IMG_4735
“Also called the Less Sac-winged Bat? Saccopteryx leptura? Nothing? Ma’am, please stop screaming.”

Maybe she was embarrassed for shrieking in front of a bunch of strangers. Maybe she took offence to my tone, as if I had responded to her saying “there’s a draft in here” or “I love what you’ve done with the place,” as opposed to what she meant to communicate, namely “My God I’m under attack from horrible winged vermin while trying to have a wee.”

I chalked it down to a cultural miscommunication. After all, there are, indeed, usually bats in the bathrooms here. The bathrooms tend to be fairly large, quiet, cool rooms facing towards the back of buildings for discretion, and the aforementioned vaulted shingle ceilings create nice little rough ledges for them to hook their claws on as they roost upside down. Seeing bats overhead is an everyday occurrence for me, or rather four or five times a day (more if I’ve had coffee). Having bats around the buildings is beneficial, in fact, as many species in Costa Rica including the White-Lined are insectivorous, and I like to think they put a good dent in the mosquito population. It’s all very convenient.

But I can’t speak for the status of bats in England. Or bathrooms, for that matter. I’ve never been there. And judging by that otherwise calm lady’s reaction, I’m guessing they aren’t what you’d call commonplace. Bats, that is.

IMG_4733
Or bathrooms, for that matter. Hey, like I said: I’ve never been to England.

Bats, too, have the unfortunate quality of falling into the memetic clade of “nasty things” along with snakes, rats, spiders, and most other arthropods. They are a symbol of fear. Whether this phobia is innate, a perversion of some evolutionary survival instinct (rabies carriers?), or culturally transmitted due to some association with darkness, I admit bats aren’t doing themselves any favors with all that frantic fluttering about in enclosed spaces. Perving on people in bathrooms isn’t helping either.

But it’s all pretty unfair. While bats are known carriers of rabies, rabies rates are fairly low in Costa Rica, especially among bats like White-Lined which favor smaller fluid groups to massive cave colonies you get elsewhere. In fact, most bats here prefer to hang open-air on the underside of trees, in rolled up leaves, or inside hanging heliconias that they fold over into tents. They are not aggressive, and rarely bite people who aren’t trying to catch them (although see my earlier post about vampire bats for a rare exception to this). They are shy, and sensitive to light and sound.

But mostly, bats are too numerous here to fly into a panic over. Especially if they’re motionless, trying to have a good day’s sleep while pesky humans keep entering their homes trying to relieve themselves. I probably should have said that to the lady instead, not that it would have mattered. After that little episode, I imagine she was done with this place, done with this jungle, and quite possibly done with all of Costa Rica. She left in a bit of a huff. Come to think of it, she didn’t even wash her hands.

 

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.

IMG_4691
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.

IMG_4463
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.

IMG_4703
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.

IMG_4688
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.

Why Costa Rica Isn’t a Third World Country

Perhaps a better title for this would be in the form of the inverse question: “Why is Costa Rica a third world country?”, or more accurately, “why do people keep coming here under the impression that it is a third world country?”, which someone has done, today, again.

I’ve had the question, many, many times. Today was, for me, the final straw. This post has been a long time coming. I’m so worked up, I’m going to start writing directly to those people. I mean, seriously, tell me–why?  What gave you the idea that this was some kind of backwater?

Is it because of the amenities? The lack of infrastructure? The dirt roads? Sounds to me like you think Costa Rica is rural. Which it is, for the most part. It’s quite rural–most of the countryside with lots of open land where people work to produce food. Food. You know, the thing that goes to cities and suburbs to get eaten. Well, it comes from here.

IMG_0232
This. Comes from here. For you to eat. You like food? Then buckle up.

Is it because you feel unsafe? Is cleanliness, hygiene, and civic sanitation not what you’re used to? Are the drivers too crazy here? Are there more snakes than you have at home? Ok, for those last two, you actually have a point here. But hey, everything comes at a cost. For you Americans (and please, you knew it was Americans I was talking about, didn’t you?) your chances of dying back home are much higher due to all the heavy traffic and far-too-common-to-be-remotely-funny shootings. Now who’s civilized?

Is it because of wealth? Money in the bank? You feeling smug because your dollar works so well here? Well, first of all, good luck paying high-season tourist prices, American dollar or no. Second, since when did money become synonymous with richness? Yes, poverty is poverty, and nothing can make up for a family’s ability to have access to clean water, food, and healthcare, but the majority of Costa Ricans have that. Plus they live here. Where mangos grow on trees.

IMG_4604
Money may not grow on trees, but these do. Maybe this was the gold Columbus was after.

And don’t give me that PC “Developed vs Developing” crap. That’s hardly better. Why should a country with fewer buildings and money be considered “developing,” as if it still had work to do? Costa Rica is so “developing” that it had fully renewable power for 2017. It’s so “developing” it’s mean life expectancy is greater than in the US. It’s so “developing” it still remains the first and only country in the world to actually increase its forest coverage, not just halt its destruction.

You better not even get me started on GDP. GDP is essentially the measure of money changing hands, which can be increased and exploited by massive short-sighted and extractive business. It’s a terrible measure of a county’s worth. Might as well stand for Godawful Description of Prosperity.

IMG_0003
Grossly Deluding and Patronizing? Generalization: Dumb and Pisspoor? Ghastly Destruction of Pandas?

Jesus, what is it with you arrogant dillweeds? Do you not like getting woken up by roosters in the street? Most of the world lives this way, you privileged jackass! Why don’t you shut up about the geckos on the ceiling and eat the fresh fruit I literally picked in the back yard! Or better yet go back to your energy-sink of a consumptive “developed” lifestyle. I swear, sometimes I just…just…rrglrglarrr…

Sorry, folks. I’ve taken a break and picked this up again after a much-needed cup of coffee. It’s been a long day. Oh god, why did I ever think I was cut out for the hospitality industry? At least this blog is anonymous.

My point is, Costa Rica isn’t perfect. Nowhere is. It has its faults, sure. Street signs and addresses don’t exist. Law enforcement is generally stretched pretty thin. The postal system is a joke. There’s plenty of room for improvement.

IMG_1368
Costa Rica, I love you, but…it’s true. I have a better chance of sending a letter with this pigeon than getting an international post shipped on time.

But don’t come here acting like this place is a colony. Don’t mistake “different” for “lesser.” Don’t whine when you can’t find your favorite brand of cereal, or have to wait our a rainstorm, or can’t get constant wifi. Some of those things are a bonus, if you ask me.

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.

IMG_4584
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.

IMG_3191
“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.

mac Pictures-aus 001
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.

IMG_4532
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.

45
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.

img_4312
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.

img_4374
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.

img_4344
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.

img_4257
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.