Hello world!

Welcome to my first endeavour in the world of blogging.  I am passionate about so many things including the ocean, science, literature, education, music, etc. and hope to bring little bits and pieces of them all here.

Photo by Carrie Schuman; Please Do Not Use Without Permission

Photo by Carrie Schuman; Please Do Not Use Without Permission


Of Mud and Muck

A smattering of clockwork stars filtered through a lens of clean, desolate air and a mineral laden wind, the gears of a lonely night time sky. I am visiting my Aunt and Uncle on their acres of wild property up in Northern Maine, in a little town contiguous to Bar Harbor. They have a small, efficient house set close to jagged shoreline bordering a tidal, estuarine influx.

I throw on a pair of Blue Lugz I’ve had since college. They’re like the boot that will outlive a nuclear holocaust, they look the same as they did when I first started wearing them… And, I have not one but TWO pairs kicking around (Make a mental note, a good friend with  practical footwear in post-apocalyptic times would not be bad to have).

You can walk through the muck of the salt marshes along the shore all the way to the edge of the quiet road their property borders. We’re tottering at the edge of winter here, and at first glance the landscapes muted tones – grey, beige, tan – speak to an impression of dying.  The shore line is littered with the skeletal ghosts of downed trees.

The littering of the small, pitiful empty carapaces of crabs feel like a pirate’s warning. This is not unlike a morose marker of another sort I spotted here last summer. I saw these small snotty circles caught in the marsh grasses at irregular intervals.  It took me a few minutes to realize these were the dismal remains of moon jellies, a cosmopolitan species that experience a population burst (what marine scientists typically call a “bloom”) in the late summer months. The dried whispers of jellyfish that once were, sat withering under the sun while their clueless, unsuspecting brethren bobbed along in small tidal pools entrained nearby in the masses of mud.

Currently, the signs of life here are slight, but appear in unexpected places. I’ve had the ability watch salt marshes turn with the seasons, and the markers of change can be fascinating – the types of color that glitter through your purview, the sounds, and the glimpses of the creatures that slip through. I’ve scared foxes, deer, purple herons – you name, I’ve probably startled it. But even the annual dying of a salt marsh has a certain biological delicacy and beauty to it.

Ahk-toong Bay-Bi Covered – Q Magazine Tips Their Hat to U2 in the Most Flattering Way Possible

Cover of "Achtung Baby"

Cover of Achtung Baby

When I finally switched formats, from tape cassettes to compact discs (cds for the youngins), I can claim, not without a hint of musical snobbery, that U2’s Joshua Tree was my first purchase. Sure, my collection prior to this was littered with the remnants of a tween girl’s love for sugary sweet chick pop (“pop” could be too kind a label, I rocked Expose, Celine Dion, Mariah Carey…). But, the moment U2’s seminal album made it into my hot little hands, I was hooked.  I had a sony discman, and every time Joshua Tree started spinning, my mind wandered, got lost in the roads of sounds, the crunchy rhythms and clean harmonics that rang throughout, and the heady lyrics inspired by the ultimate existential and spiritual journey.

At some point thereafter, Achtung Baby made its way into my lexicon.  If Joshua Tree represents the hopeful, transcendent search for a little old-time religion, Achtung Baby is its antithesis – a sometimes dark journey into obsession, destructive relationships, and the grittier shades reality can sometimes take on, especially apparent in songs like “Acrobat” and “Love is Blindness”.  The often satirical excess was evident in their tours, which harbored ornate stage set-ups complete with walls of television screens and even a belly dancer (who notoriously caught the eye of The Edge, they’ve been together since the Zoo Tv tour). However, some joy is definitively still evident on the album, especially in songs like “Ultra Violet (Baby Light My Way)” and “Trying to Throw Your Arms Around the World”.

Q Magazine, a publication I am woefully unfamiliar with,  has released their latest issue not only featuring U2 on its cover, but also with the free offering of an included cd: “Ahk-toong Bay-Bi Covered,” in answer to the 20th year anniversary of U2’s masterwork. The album features the entire track listing of U2’s original “Achtung Baby,” but with songs helmed by formidable musicians offering up their own unique interpretations. It looks like geography informed most of the choices, as many of the performers hail from over the pond, including England, Ireland, and Scotland.  However, tracks by American performers like The Killers, Patti Smith, and NIN are at home among the finished work.

I have always been hard to please when it came to U2 covers. Given, I do a song or two of theirs at open mic myself so I embrace the hypocritical, but Bono is a bit of a hard act to follow. My rule of thumb has typically been a good cover song takes only the most basic of frameworks from the original,  and generally benefits from some creative re-working. It should be recognizable as the original song, but just barely. Q’s cover album mostly manages to succeed at this. There are a few lackluster tunes, but mostly it’s an exciting time seeing the new places these songs go.  Damien Rice gives “One” his unique treatment of sparsity, and brutal emotional honesty – you can almost hear the sighs littering his lyrical delivery. Patti Smith deconstructs “Until the End of the World” into a dirge-like piano ballad. Garbage’s version of “Who’s Gonna Ride My Wild Horses” has their signature electronic flair and maintains its original desperation as evidenced by lead singer Mason’s often breathy phrasing. In their take on “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)”,  The Killers masterfully capture the charm and bliss present when U2 first recorded track. Jack White channels Screamin’ Jay Hawkins in a delightfully raw rendition of “Love is Blindness”.  This cover album us one to miss at your own risk.

Aventuras en Español

So, my friend Lucas had to listen to me wax obnoxious about Español while we classed up Amato’s on a friday night. The Tufts volleyball team rolled in, several of the women wearing uncomfortably short shorts, giving me goosebumps just at a glance (we’re in Maine mind you, and we’re definitely in the thick of a cold snap).

I am in the midst of a personal journey to learn Spanish, something I never thought I’d bother with. I recall the agony of watching Aladdin’s awkwardly dubbed voice-over while we watched Disney movies in Spanish class during high school. I also remember when a perfectly lovely multi-cultural high school alumn came to talk to us about her daring career as a flight stewardess that called upon her ability to speak Spanish, Portuguese, and English (probably all at the same time. las salidas están aquí y aquí?). However, it  probably did not speak to our linguistic ability when the head of the Spanish department stood up and translated in response to the sea of blank stares blanketing our faces. At that point, I started to consider myself part of the language dis-advantaged: I may be good at a lot of things but language just isn’t one of my “things”. After all, the farther I get from the ennui of my teenager years,  the less elastic my brain becomes, and the less liable I am to pick up a new tongue.

However, I suppose the recent trip to Costa Rica re-kindled a desire to take second look at Spanish, as I start to think about how to travel and spend more time in South America and among the tropical paradise and rainforests.  I also realize that I take some interesting job prospects off the table by limiting the ways I can communicate (including some amazing teaching positions with Ecology Project International, leading student groups to study sea turtles in Costa Rica, or ecology in the Galapagos.)

Thus has started my journey. So far, I’ve been listening to Spanish podcasts on almost a daily basis during my 40ish minute commute to work in the morning. My favorite so far is the Discover Spanish podcast w/Johnny Spanish (y Christina!). They’re a soothing pair that make me feel secure as I repeat the Spanish phrases at their urging while bewildered motorists pass by observing me animatedly talking to myself. I’ve listen to one or two episodes of Coffee Break Spanish which seems to capture the Castillano lisp, as they focus on Spain’s version of the language, while Johnny and Christina cater to the Miami crowd. One other option is the “Survival Spanish” podcast, a more low-fi production with Spanish instructor David Spencer. The first few episodes are brisker, brusquer vehicle than what I’m used to, with a less welcoming tone, and a demand to “escucha y repeata!”, but as the series develops,so does Spencer’s delivery, with useful ways to internalize vocabulary, including spry little songs on the guitar.

I waltz into work and subject at least one of my co-workers to the new phrases I am learning that have no useful context in my current day to day. Quiero cambiar cinquenta y cinco dolares a euros, por favor (I want to change fifty five dolars into euros, please).  ¿cuánto cuesta este anillo (How much does this ring cost?). Tengo un pez de colores (I have a goldfish… This is decidedly untrue.) Tonight I spent a few minutes browsing the web on my phone searching for marine biology terms in Español as Lucas pointed out how absurd it was that I wanted to learn Spanish for marine science job prospects but didn’t know how to even say “ocean” in Spanish. (Ocean is simply “océano”, and sea is “mar.”)so, I now know a whale is a “ballena”, probably in relation to the word “baleen” and have decided that Mi Caballito de Mar (My little seahorse), is my new pet-name for those unfortunate enough to spend too much time with me while I practice my unwieldy new language skills.

So I will keep you posted in how I fare. Right now I am figuring out how to explain to my Costa Rican penpal that my kitten recently broke his leg (dont’cha worry folks, kitty is on the mend and well on his way to being his old, crazy-like-a-fox, self) and is still sporting a slightly medicinal smell. Not exactly covered in the Spanish basics…

I will keep the interested masses (by which I mean all two of you) posted as I wind my way through this new great adventure.  Hasta Pronto todos!

By the way, I will not be offended if anyone corrects any of the half-informed Spanish contained here within. (Save me from my overzealous self!)

Watch your step around the linkage:

http://www.spanishdict.com/ – a useful spanish dictionary site with good translation tools

http://discoverspanish.com/podcast.php – Here’s hoping Johnny y Christina don’t like anything like their animated counterparts

http://radiolingua.com/shows/spanish/coffee-break-spanish/ – Coffee Break Spanish. I like that the girl in the first couple episodes seems to have trouble repeating the pronunciation of words the same way twice. I can relate.

http://www.learnoutloud.com/Podcast-Directory/Languages/Spanish/Learn-Spanish–Survival-Guide-Podcast/20124  – I now know the days of the week thanks to your catchy little song. Thank you sir, or should I say “Muchos gracias, senor!”


Day 8 – Oh The Places We Will Go

This is an especially early morning for the Schuman clan as we need to get to La Mansion Inn for a mysterious 7 am pickup. As luck would have it, we caught Charlie’s call yesterday – the phone started ringing as soon as we stepped foot in the room. We confirmed horseback riding with his friend Claudia, but he was told another couple is interested in coming along and he asks if they can bum a ride with us to Matapalo.

We have no idea what to expect but the relaxed air of Costa Rica has given us open minds and we are channeling “pura vida.” We sit and wait in the lobby until connecting with Darren and Nicole, a couple from LA, the same place Charlie originally hails from. Darren works in law (to be honest, at one point as the day wore on, Darren gave me a much more elegant description of the way his firm works and the exciting things they do for businesses, but I’m not sure I can recount what he told me without screwing it up), and Nicole is a nurse practitioner at a pediatric office. She knows español due to the patient population she works with, and has been surprising the locals most places with her ability keep up with the language. We instantly take a liking to one another and fill the car with chatter as we drive down to Matapalo for an 8 am rendezvous with Charlie.

Horseback Riding with Claudia - Playa Matapalo (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

Matapalo is a little Costa Rican town, more rural and removed from the noise and bustle of the Manuel Antonio/Quepos area. We see kids playing soccer outside a school as we pass over a narrow little bridge, and a man who has precariously piled his whole family on one bicycle. Charlie will later tell us that the population of this area has been unlucky enough to be touched by the ill effects of illegal drugs. It’s not a common problem in the country, but too many playboy tourists have left their mark here. Still, there are lots of smiles and positive people in the community. Matapalo is also not as blemished from the tourism industry and we hold our breath a little when we first see Playa Matapalo.

Charlie meets us at a little soda on a road parallel to the beach and walks us back to Claudia’s house where she and her family are getting horses ready for the morning. She has a quick conversation to determine which horses will suit which rider. Nicole gets Amigo, a very easy horse to ride but who has a bit of a wink in his eye and a propensity for trouble making. Rob gets Caiman, a feisty Tico pony with selective hearing. I ride Shakira, a sassy pony who is a little round in the middle from spending a few months at pasture from a false pregnancy, and who will prompt me to jokingly say during the morning ride – “Hey, I think mine is overheating.” Due to my poor memory, Darren rides a “horse with no name”. Claudia gives a tutorial about riding, instructing us how to comfortably sit in the saddle, not to rely heavily on grasping the horn, to hold the reins with a light touch, and how to motion the horse to turn to the right or left.

My Trusty Steed, Shakira (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

Claudia - a Horse's View (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

We set out to the playa (beach) and begin walking along the longest stretch of uninterrupted white sand I’ve ever laid eyes on, the tidal pools of still water are a rugged mirror reflecting cloud after cloud. I keep pace with Claudia, often leaving everyone else behind and when we wait for our friends to catch up, she lets me practice making circles with Shakira. She reminds us that horses sense intention, and our body language will help us while we ride. There are a handful of dogs running around the horses’ feet, with sabotage on their minds. Rob sidles up with Caiman and we begin asking Claudia about her story.

She tells us she has been in Costa Rica fifteen years, just five shy of Charlie. Her home country is (or was?) Switzerland. She originally was studying big cats and came to CR just for that reason, but somehow fell into working with horses and over time began her own stable. As we talk, the dogs spot little sand crabs along the length of the beach. Most manage to pop back into their holes right before being reached by canine teeth, but one unfortunate crab has become their play thing.

Horse and Mangroves (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

We stop to look at the wild knotted roots of the mangroves. Claudia warns us not to get too close as the other day, one of her horses was up to his belly in the soft, unstable sand. After taking the view in for a few minutes, we head back and the horses become sassier with the notion that they are closer to home. “No, Amigo. No!” echos out a few times as Nicole tries to keep him from extracurricular snacking along the path. Amigo is also the horse to greedily lap up all the coconut milk after Rob shimmies up a tree to get some with Claudia’s help. Mangroves have turned into palms, and fruit trees, including sweet lemon.

Matapalo Palms (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

When the horses are free again to roam riderless, we walk through Claudia’s property. She explains that they built the house themselves. There are many different types of plants,  including fruit trees, herbs and spices, and those with medicinal value.  There is also a host of wild things and happenings right behind her house where some estuarine flow seeps in. A Caiman slithers in to grab a dead chicken thrown to the earth for predators like him. Basilisk lizards with strange crests tug at the other scraps in the yard.  We see a variety of strange birds, including the Northern Jacana, pick through the tree roots for things to eat.

Un ID'ed bird behind Claudia's House (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

We meet Claudia’s gangly little girl Lisa when we sit down to eat guava and star fruit. Nicole is instantly popular when she pulls out a bag of Chips A-Hoy cookies and passes a couple of them to Lisa and her friend that is staying over. Claudia sends us up the street to visit with Charlie. Charlie’s house is  a stone’s throw from the surf and seems to be populated with teenagers. We find out he has family ties with some, and provides mentoring for others.

Northern Jacana (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

We opt to forgo possible excursions to see more waterfalls, or eat at restaurants, all in favor of swimming in salty, sun-kissed waves. They are big here,but more manageable than the ones we encountered at Playa Manuel Antonio. Rob and Darren even spot manta rays riding the crest of the waves towards shore.

Before leaving to spend a full and fun evening with Darren and Nicole including a phenomenal dinner at Kapi Kapi, we promise Charlie we’ll be back the next day for a surf lesson on our final morning before heading to San Jose. The rest of the night is a mix and match of experiences, the quirkiest being our late night trip to the local “super-mercado” where Nicole hones in on this box of Choco (chocolate) Zucaritas. Mind you, just about other sugar cereal you can think of lines the shelves with the original names still in English. Choco Zucaritas however, features a buff Tony the Tiger on his knees in a muddy soccer field, dark skies overhead, in the pouring rain looking like he is channeling some mad emotion. These Tico’s take their frosted flakes seriously here, man! Nicole buys a little one-serving size, and Tony the Tiger soon becomes the Daihatsu mascot. “Tony is my co-pilot”…

Day 7 – Wild Nights Are Calling

View of Casitas Eclipse (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

We sleep in for the first time since setting foot in Costa Rica. We soon discover two things. First of all, anything hand-washed in the name of being practical will never dry… ever. Secondly, our next three breakfasts will be to the strangest soundtrack of US music ever compiled. The newest Red Hot Chili Pepper’s track will be followed with Simon and Garfunkel, and then most distressingly by Kenny G.

The Manuel Antonio National Park is a short drive down the road from where we are staying. We park our little mud-streaked Daihatsu near a bus-stop populated with opportunistic tour guides (who will try to maintain the official air of being associated with park,which they are not). This is what kicks off our fateful encounter with Mauricio, who promises that the amount of wildlife we will see in the park will be negligible with what he can show us for $20 a head, money back guarantee if we don’t agree with his conjecture after half an hour into the tour. This will set off a whirlwind of the wildest stories I have perhaps ever heard from one man. Just a seed of truth would delight me.

Costa Rican stink bug (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

Mauricio has a rugged Swarovski-brand telescope and tripod slung over his shoulder as he leads us into the park after paying his entrance fee (another clue he is not an officially park-sanctioned guide). Right near the entrance, he alerts us to the presence of a species of land crab that dwells in the rainforest. We soon discover, while overly confident and willing to sing his own praises, he is absolutely spot on about his abilities to point out the seemingly elusive wild-life. He has learned the ranges of animals living within the park and once something of note is spotted within the park, it appears a sort of altruistic exchange of information takes places among the guides.

He points out plants along our route – ones used to weave textiles for clothing or other useful purposes, but mostly he focuses on those plants with medicinal value – anti-inflammatory, cholesterol-lowering – the problems a rainforest can solve with more completeness than modern medicine. Mauricio tells us he was raised in the jungle by his mama before the area was turned into a national park, that his uncle was responsible for the now wide-spread availability of anti-venin for snakes such as the Fer-de-Lance and his visage graces an old version of the 2000 colones bill. He explains all this while we munch on the sweet flowers he hands us from a Heliconia plant.

Golden Orb Spider (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

He begins to tell us about his son who is currently studying in the States (Los Estados Unidos) and about his wife that died from cancer when his son was just two years old. But he also tempers the situation with a tale about monkeys who once dragged his baby part-way down the beach while he and his wife swam unknowingly near-by.

In the midst of his recanting, he sets his scope to focus on a baby three-toed sloth all the while relating the somewhat fantastic story of this animal’s relationship with the Cecropia tree it spends the majority of its time in. The Cecropia tree provides the sloth with lots of alkaloids (a diverse group of chemicals, some having medicinal or even toxic effects. This same group of compounds makes poison arrow frogs harmful.) – a good energy source for the sloth. If a sloth has young baby and has to wander from its tree, which happens rarely, it can leave the young sloth nestled among the Cecropia’s dead leaves, where it is well-camouflaged.

Dead cecropia leaves

However, once the baby is old enough to start eating (at around 6 months), Mauricio tells us the mom will leave her offspring in some other type of tree as it is thought the alkaloid content of the Cecropia tree is too strong for the sloth until he has amassed a more significant body weight. (Read more about both the two-toed and three-toed sloth’s ecology here).

Cecropia trees are also known to harbor stinging Azteca ants that have formed a symbiosis with the tree, often living within its core and pouring out of the tree’s trunk to ward off invading insects or other herbivores, and on occasion, an unlucky human or two. However, the sloth can live and eat in the trees un-vexed, primarily due to another partnership formed with the sloth (Sloths also have an untold number of additional relationships with species of insects and algae that can be found living in their coats.). This one may have to do with the habit of the sloth to defecate once a week or less, by carefully creeping to the bottom of the tree, doing its business, then burying its feces. For lack of a better descriptor, the sloth poo is likely an excellent source of nutrients for the ants.

Manuel Antonio - lizard (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

Mauricio describes the emerging problem of Columbian drug runners approaching guides and other lookouts to start serving out as lookouts for them on beaches. Mauricio claims skills as a pilot at a nearby airstrip and says he works for the police in the evenings after his days serving as a park guide. He continues his tales while pulling down a cluster of maroon fruit from a nearby tree. Eating them is a similar process to eating the mamon chin I mentioned in an earlier post. You must bite into the outer skin to get at the tangy fruit inside and suck on it to avoid swallowing the pit. He only knows it by the name “uva”, spanish for “grape.” He hands us small slices of lemon from trees growing right near the sand and explains the salt content of the fruit changes during the dry and rainy seasons. He tells us he and his mama used to leave little dishes of lemon juice out to evaporate and would use the sea salt left behind.

He continues to point out more wildlife, including lesser white-lines bats, golden orb and arrow-shaped spiders, and smooth-billed anis. He carefully pulls down a leaf to show us a tarantula with her spiderlings menacingly nestled in the base of a leaf. Even while leading us out of the park at the end of the tour he is advocating for more local experiences, including trying ceviche from a trusted vendor on the beach – a mix of fresh shellfish, onions, and a local version of cilantro, all marinated in citrus juice which helps to mimic cooking the raw seafood. Costa Ricans often eat the mixture with hot sauce, ketchup, and mayonnaise added to the broth.  There are also men walking the beach with machetes and coconuts, ready to hack off the top and hand you a straw so you can enjoy the milk inside. One of these men is a very tall and skinny man who has the lowest voice I may have ever heard. Mauricio tells us this man once worked in television in has native country of Mexico due to this very trait.

Tarantula and spiderlings (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

We will come back later to swim at a beach bearing the park’s name – Playa Manuel Antonio. It’s a stunning white sand beach. When we ask a local if there are any shells around, he points us to the hollowed-stump of a tree likely downed during some previous storm and crawling with a colony of rather large hermit crabs. My objective of snorkeling around the near-by rocks is quickly left by the wayside as I lose my snorkel not 5 minutes after wading out into the waves. I have never swam in the Pacific and the water is bath-tub warm and very saline.  I also however, have never experienced the sheer engine of energy behind these kind of waves. It is high tide and with just our feet in the surf, there are several occasions when a large wave will pull us under, scrape us along the bottom, and hold us there, never letting us go until it once again ebbs back out to sea. My pockets quickly fill with sand and it becomes evident that if I wish to snorkel or dive in Costa Rica, I will have to book a boat trip or two during my next visit.

We are exhausted. We just manage to take advantage of the hotel’s 50% off Sundays at their restaurant, the gato negro (the black cat) and fall into a dead sleep for the next four or five hours rousing only enough energy afterwards to stumble back into the gato negro for dessert. As we head back to our little villa, we hear the strangest cries emanating from a little owl perched on a nearby tree and are reminded just how wild everything here really is…

Day 6 – With Many Stops Along the Journey

At 5 am, our feline friend “Alejandro” (see previous post) decides to start wailing outside our door in the hope we will let him to roam indiscriminately for a few minutes until he is ready to leave and harass his new found friends next door. Yep folks, cats are the same no matter where you go.

It’s hard to go back to sleep but we get a couple more hours of shut-eye before stumbling off to breakfast. A few different species of hummingbirds amass around feeders hung around the lodge’s porch, including a very large variety known as the violet saberwing. We talk to an older couple who have been to the country 7 or 8 times and are currently in a Spanish immersion school.

Monteverde Orchid Garden (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

Before heading southward to Manual Antonio, we make a stop at the Monteverde Orchid Garden in Santa Elena. At best guess the bubbly girl who shows us through the garden is no more than 19. She reveals that before this job, she worked at the local butterfly garden but was skeeved out by the caterpillars. She appears happy to be surrounded by the scent of flowers. Before starting the walk, she quickly describes the structure all orchids have varying around the theme of petals, sepals, and labellum. While it is counter intuitive, it appears many orchids are actually very minuscule and often epiphytic (they take up real estate on the surface of other, larger plants). She points out flowers that emit delicate odors, and other that have a savory aroma – one in particular smells faintly like chicken soup. Some are exotically strange in their appearance, almost alien. A visual highlight is an orchid whose flowers resemble tiny little people.

Orchids with faces - Monteverde Orchid Garden (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

The beautiful detail of it all, is each orchid has its own unique pollinator – in most cases varieties of insects,  but research has discovered at least one species whose successful pollination hinges on its relationship with a species of mouse. And most of these delicate flowers are fast in an evolutionary battle of seduction, honing their colors, their aromas, their shapes and whatever wiles may be at their disposal all in the name of reproduction. In addition, the success of an orchid is intimately intertwined with fungi that nutrify the orchid through it’s root system, forming a symbiotic complex called a mycorrhiza.

If all those details are not fantastic enough, your last stop at the orchid garden has you on hands and knees,magnifying glass in hand, peering at Platystele jungermannioides, the smallest known flowering orchid in the world (though it looks like it’s record might soon be challenged). Rob has me hold a pencil tip close to the flower for purposes of scale, while he snaps a few photos.

Platystele jungermannioides - Smallest Flowering Orchid (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

We leave Santa Elena to its thoughts and start to wind down towards Manuel Antonio, our last scheduled stop for the trip. Roads slowly turned into paved throughways. We stop at a roadside stand and pick out three or four snacks with a great deal of excited expectation and are sorely disappointed when we find out we have inadvertently purchased some bitter sugared grapefruit along with several other things that look a whole helluva lot better than they taste. Rob also adeptly negotiates with a gas station attendant who tries to overcharge us by $30.

We pass over the Tárcoles River, apparently one of the most sewage-polluted rivers in the country, and park near the police check point, a recent step in discouraging the tourist-targeted mugging incidents the bridge is reputed for. We follow lines of people milling about the sides peering down at the considerably sized specimens of American Crocodile below.

American Crocodile - Tárcoles River (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

Once on the road again, rolling hills soon give way to miles and miles of palm trees planted in long parallel lines. These are African palms, harvested for their oil, a major export of the region. Quepos, the little town above Manual Antonio has a long intimate history with the practice. Manual Antonio hosts the most visited national park in the country.

We check into our hotel, the Casitas Eclipse, and minutes after putting our things down in the top level of the Mediterranean-style villa we will stay in for the next three nights, a Toucan alights on the adjacent tree and starts picking at some berries of the top-most branches.  An afternoon storm that is responsible for knocking out internet access to the region for the next three days passes through throwing out haphazard bolts of lightning. We take a quick and dark walk behind the hotel grounds and find the mother-lode of red-eyed tree frogs on some tarps covering a water trough of some kind.

Red-Eyed Tree Frog (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

We receive sub-par service at El Avion, a restuarant/bar across the street. The bar is constructed in the gutted interior of a cold war era plane. The back of the wine list recounts the history of the airplane,taking great panes to emphasize the United States’ rather large part in shady dealings within Nicaragua during the 80’s. We are seated in the back, and though dinner left something to be desired, I don’t think there exists enough words in the world to convey the view. The combination of murky hillsides set with the small glowing lights of domestic life, the small thin wavering line of the surf, the rolling soundscape of tropical life, the air hung heavy with the dew of the storm, the errant, brilliant effulgence of the dying lightning – all burned a surreal moment into my mind’s memory that I cannot share with anyone who will not see the exact same dream themselves.


Casitas Eclipse Gecko (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

Our evening will next take us to a little bar called “The Bat Cave”, part of an up-scale hotel called “La Mansion Inn.”  Entrance to the bar is granted only via a tiny little door meant to give the place an exotic feel furthered by the simulated cave wall running the length of the bar stools. We watch the hipster Costa Rican bartender mix our drinks (mine a virgin daquiri) with Dexter-like precision, measuring every amount of alcohol being mixed and even donning gloves for some strange reason. It was a spectacle which produced unremarkable drinks. Our whole trip took a more remarkable turn when a man named Charlie walked in to take over bartending for the night. As we soon found out, his style of pouring little swigs of this and that into the blender with a significantly lower dose of precision and some haphazard, all the while producing tasty concoctions, was telling of his personality and take on life as a whole.

After a few minutes of casual conversation, Charlie reveals he is originally from Los Angeles but has lived in Costa Rica for the past twenty years of his life. On a whim, I ask Charlie for some suggestions about things to do in the area, most specifically regarding wildlife. I tell him we are planning on taking Sunday to visit Manuel Antonio National Park as it will be closed on Monday and he promises to get a hold of us and has suggested we meet his friend Claudia, and go horseback riding along the beach in Matapalo, the town where he lives. This will prove to be a fantastic choice but we will not know this for at least another day. For now, we drive back to sleep sated dreams.

Day 5 – With My Head In The Clouds

Monteverde Cloud Forest (http://www.monteverdecostarica.com/)

Monteverde is an interesting place but in some ways represents the lull in our trip. The region is home to a rare type of ecohabitat called cloud forest which is characterized by low-level clouds that sit at canopy-level among the trees. The constant presence of the clouds means the forest is always wet and mossy. The composition of flora and fauna tends to be very different here than elsewhere in Costa Rica. However, wildlife is harder to see here, thus a tricky endeavor during shorter visits like our own. Most people are better served here by an interest in plants. There are hundreds of epiphytic species that use stronger, hardier plants for structural support, but typically derive nutrients from the air that surrounds them (“All I need is the air that I breath…”) and from detritus that accumulates around their roots.

Leaf edges serrated by a bat (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

There are two reserves to visit, the Monteverde Reserve, and the Santa Elana Reserve, named for a nearby town. We choose to visit the Santa Elena Reserve as it’s close to some other interesting local attractions, including the Selvatura Park.

Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011

As we are about to start out for a relaxed hike, we meet a group of graduate students including a PhD canidate from UConn researching ants, who tell us they are headed to biological research station somewhere nearby.  After searching online, their description most likely fits the Monteverde Conservation League, a non-profit dedicated to research, outreach, education, and the preservation of the cloud forest. This work seems even more timely as cloud forests are extremely sensitive to the effects of climate change. Though they have been resilient in response to historical temperature fluctuations, too much warming could affect the characteristic cloud cover here and completely change the hydrological regime.

We start our walk through the forest and start to appreciate most of the diversity we see on a more micro scale. Tiny dew drops that refract the incoming bursts of light. The forest is abuzz with texture, smells, and sounds. Just like every location we will visit during our stay, we hear the constant throb of cicadas in the background, a sort of gregorian chant celebrating the sheer grandiosity of the life force surrounding us.

Small epiphytic plants are abundant in the Costa Rican cloud forest (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

Cloud Forest epiphyte (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

Monteverde Cloud Forest Canopy - light from above (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

There are a few errant clips of bird song and we do manage to spy a collared red start hopping along the path – one of the happiest looking birds I’ve ever seen. Though we’re never lucky enough to see one, Monteverde is also home to a renowned bird called the quetzal.

The last thing we do before heading back to the lodge, is visit the Insect exhibit, “Jewels of the Rainforest.” in Selvatura Park. Both my Lonely Planet and Moon guide list this as a not-to-miss stop. The collection, one of the largest in the world, is the culmination of years of collecting by entomologist Richard Whitten , who moved with his wife to Costa Rica to begin collecting and studying metallic beetles, most likely in the Buprestidae family. The exhibit covers all manner of creepy crawlies however, with wall after wall of them encased in glass.

The highlight of the collection are most certainly the iridescent butterflies positioned ornately in spirals and geometric arrangements, or against other beautiful objects, like peacock feathers, that serve to enhance their natural elegance (Roger Whitten’s wife was said to be responsible). The morpho, a very large shimmering blue butterfly we’ve already seen around the country, is featured heavily in the exhibit. I also love the many delicate examples of glass butterflies, with their barely-there transparent wings on display.

Morpho butterfly - Jewels of the Rainforest Exhibit (http://www.flickr.com/photos/12928926@N06/sets/72157621807255630/)

There are many other examples of insects with less friendly personas. Viewing bird tarantulas, whip spiders, millipedes, parasitic wasps, and Giant Goliath beetles make my skin alight with a crawling sensation. There are walls dedicated to insects vectoring disease in Costa Rica and another showing the great variety of species in Monteverde alone including several ridiculously large spiders and more bullet ants. Though we saw sparse wildlife on our earlier hike, it’s a little unsettling to know what’s going on off trail.

We stop for a little while in the town of Santa Elana and have lunch at a local soda called the traveling man. Rice with pollo (chicken), crispy yucca, plantains, and some variety of local orange soda. The town is small, essentially a triangle of streets loaded with tourist traps, and a few interesting places we make a mental note to visit the next day. We work our way back to the Cloud Forest Lodge for a quiet night. There is yet another cat who seems to target the foreigners for love and affection. He (we’ll just call him “Alejandro”) makes no qualms about following us into our room, curiously checking out our luggage, and making sure to lounge on every inch of free shelf space we have to put our things.  We will later hear him pulling the same con on new arrivals, and meowing with loud intent the next morning at the door of everyone who just might listen…