Sunday, October 25, 2009

Costa Rica

Our border crossing from Panama was easy -- the official asked for our tourist cards, I said we didn't have any, he stamped our passports. The cards seem to be something you get or don't depending on your arrival, and that's a problem or isn't depending on your border official. From Paso Canoas we got ourselves on a bus to Golfito, a little town on the Pacific Coast and checked into El Tucan, our flophouse for the night. From Golfito we took a lancha to Puerto Jimenez, an hour and a half across the gulf.

Jamie, a battered Canadian septuagenarian met us at the dock. He would not have looked out of place sitting on the sidewalk at 6th and Market but his unpressured approach and plethora of apparently solid information won us over. We followed him to the squeaky clean Corner, past trees full of red macaws, and bunked down.

Puerto Jimenez is on the Peninsula Osa, home of Parque Nacional Corcovado and much jungle. It turned out that access to many parts of the park is limited right now, due to the rainy season and to current restoration work. Instead of the trek we had planned in Corcovado we decided to check out Bolita, an outpost in the rainforest on the border of the park. We had the isolated cabin, kitchen and hammocks to ourselves and spent a day hiking to several waterfalls with toucans and other beautiful birds overhead. We saw a couple of types of frogs, one of them tiny and red with green legs. And we slept under mosquito netting with four small black bats roosting on the beam above us.

From Puerto Jimenez we caught the bus for El Palmar and from there to Dominical, a tranquilo little beach town. We checked into Camping Antorchas where Jorge and Deily run a lovely place just off the beach. It is the end of sea turtle egg-laying season and many local organizations are involved in collecting eggs to hatch in protected areas. We met a woman with 3 slightly malformed baby turtles in a plastic bowl, eating shrimp and fattening up for their release.
We spent a day on the beach and then a day hiking in the rain at the eco-retreat Hacienda Baru. In the park the only big animals we saw were pizotes, white nosed coatis. It is wonderful to see these animals walking up tree trunks and nestling down in the crowns of palm trees. We met one on the road and named him Sandwiches.

We were hoping to see sloths in our rainforest time in Costa Rica and moved on to Quepos to check our Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio a bit further north. We stayed in the Mar y Luna hotel in Quepos and took the short bus ride to M.A. where we were treated to at least 5 sloth sightings. They are lovely and strange to watch climing in the trees, moving verrrrry slowly. We also saw a couple of venemous snakes, the eyelash viper and the fer-de-lance, and squirrel and capuchin monkeys. We have still only heard the howler monkeys.

Costa Rica is rather expensive for Central America and we decided to move quickly up to Nicaragua. We met a nice couple from New York on the bus to San Jose who got us excited about Honduras and Mexico, and from San Jose caught the bus for Los Chiles and a river boat to the Nicaraguan border.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Middle Age and Happy Monkeys

As many of you noticed I turned 40 years old on October 9th (thanks for all the emails!) which means I can't go around denying that I am middle aged anymore. I believe life expectancy for a man is in the low to mid 70's, though I suspect surviving adolescence and early adulthood improves this number. Anyway you cut it though, odds say I have lived half my life. Most professional athletes have retired by now, though many writers, artists, and politicians are just getting started. George W. Bush became sober at 40 after an intervention by Mrs. Bush. What would the world be like if he had stayed on the sauce? My guess is Barack Obama doesn't win the Nobel Peace Prize (WHAT?), at least not in his 40's. By 40 Jesus, James Dean, and my mother were all long dead. Somebody said life begins at 40. I guess what I am trying to say is that I have no idea what it means. All I know is that on my 40th birthday I had no urge to buy a Maserati, run off with a secretary, or join a cult. I did, however, greatly enjoy having a squirrel monkey sit on my head.

The reason I had that opportunity is that Hilary and I made our last stop in Panama at the Mono Feliz, an amazingly isolated little outpost on Punta Burica, a peninsula near the border with Costa Rica. After three buses of decreasing size and quality, we made a two and a half hour walk with Pascale and Isabelle (police officers from Montreal who are working with the UN in Haiti training police and soldiers). The path was incredibly muddy. Hilary, aka Boggyfoot, went in over her knee, Isabelle stepped in a patch that swallowed up her entire leg. By the time we got to Mono Feliz we were just about done in. Luckily it was pretty close to paradise.

The Mono Feliz is a group of small simple buildings with a spring fed pool in the jungle next to a beautiful deserted beach. John¨"Juancho" Garvey created the place and lives there with his girlfriend, Luzmila, her kids, and whatever travelers are willing to make it through the mud. It was certainly worth it for us. We enjoyed great company, good food, beautiful scenery, and a huge troop of endangered squirrel monkeys which stopped by at least once a day and would happily relieve you of any bananas you happened to be holding. I finally understand that old saw about the entertainment value of a barrel of monkeys.

I am not not normally a big fan of feeding wild animals, but these monkeys are in no danger of becoming domesticated. They must forage for the real meat of their diet, mostly delicious bugs and bats. Juancho's bananas are just a treat. Central American squirrel monkeys are in trouble partly because of poaching but mostly because of habitat destruction and fragmentation. Juancho's dream is to see Punta Burica turned into a sanctuary for them. It seems unlikely, but if enough people get to meet these monkeys at the Mono Feliz maybe there will be more of an effort to save them.

It is difficult to describe in words a magical place. I hope these pictures give a sense of it. Say hello to our little monkey friends:

The Mono Feliz was also swarming with these colorful crabs, hermit crabs, and huge bugs including this vicious grasshopper-eating spider. We also got to know Pinto the dog who guarded our tent at night and Blaquito the cat who is the only cat I know who enjoys coconut, popcorn and bread and will let you pick it up by its tail.

The jungle flanked beach was breathtaking, especially as the huge cumulus clouds of the rainy season gathered in the sky. Once again, on our final night, we were treated to a spectacular sunset.

We finally tore ourselves away on Sunday, avoiding the mud by walking three hours along the beach to the town of Limones where we were picked up before even attempting to hitchhike by Bernard, an interesting and humorous Iranian expat who lives in Panama and has owned several restaurants that sound delicious. On the way to the bus station he took us for a brief beer at a local rodeo and told us how he came to be a chef. He came from a wealthy family in Iran that had a full time cook. This cook had no professional training or teeth, drank Iranian firewater by the gallon, and smoked like hell. Bernard's mother would page through magazines and point to pictures of dishes she wanted for the following day to feed fifty and the cook would pull it off every time to rave reviews. Bernard figures he must have absorbed a bit of that talent, because when he first opened a hotel and restaurant in Panama, he couldn't find a reliable cook so he just started doing it himself, all kinds of food, again to rave reviews. He loves Panama because his girlfriend, Emily (if I remember correctly) is here, because he can completely avoid the news, and because there is no mail service.

If I got any meaning out of my birthday weekend, other than that it is fun to have a squirrel monkey on my head, it was from Juancho and Bernard. I can picture Jauncho after years of sailing around Central America, picking out his beautiful spot on Punta Burica and settling down to the task of turning it into the monkey paradise it is. I see him living out there with Luzmila and his beloved monkeys, hoping enough tourists will make it through the mud to keep him afloat, and that Club Med will never move in next door. I can imagine Bernard coming to Panama from Iran and creating a completely different and delicious life for himself, one entirely without mail (Yes, Grafton, it is possible). No one taught them to do these things. There is no guidebook for it. Most likely they didn't get a whole lot of encouragement at first. Maybe they still suffer uncertainty and wonder what it is all about, but what I admire about them is that they have had the courage to create an interesting life. I hope Hilary and I, as we enter middle age will have that same courage, so that twenty or thirty years from now we will have as interesting stories to tell as Juancho and Bernard.