Escape from Red Frog

Well, here we are, back in the saddle again. Not literally, obviously. After almost exactly nine months at the dock, we are finally moving again. Of course, saying good-bye to all our new friends was hard, but we’ll probably come back… someday. Aaron and I got paid for all those months at Agua Dulce, and it amounted to quite a lot. The Woods had known that we were leaving soon, and threw us a see-you-later party a few days before, so we got all our farewells in. Leaving a place where you have made friends is always tough, but it was time.

Red Frog Marina

(View of Red Frog Marina from the Wood’s house at Agua Dulce)

We first went out to Isla Popa, and had a goodbye dinner with some more friends. We spent the night, then motored all day to Escudo de Veraguas, a crinkly-edged island to the east. We went snorkeling the next morning at the “mermaid lagoon,” in the words of a certain small crew member.

Escudo de Veraguas

Then we took an over-night passage to the canal zone. We motored up the Rio Chagres as far as the spillway, and spent the day kayaking, fishing, and trying to spot crocodiles.

Rio Chagres

The next morning, we picked up the hook and motored past anchored container ships to Shelter Bay Marina. It is a popular hangout for cruisers getting ready for the canal transit, and there were plenty of other kids. We went there because of its proximity to the canal and Panama City.

Port of Colon

(Port of Colon, Caribbean side of the Panama Canal)

Next up: we take another overland field trip to the capital, visit some museums, do some shopping, and see the famous Panama Canal before moving on to Linton Bay in time to meet friends for Thanksgiving…

 Geography Report: Costa Rica

Basic Facts

Capital: San Jose

People/Customs: Population is about 4.9 million. Most Costa Ricans, or “Ticos,” are mestizo, descended from Spanish settlers and natives, but Costa Rica is a multi-ethnic country. There are still some indigenous tribes living in Costa Rica.

Language: Spanish is the official language; local dialects are also spoken, like Bribri, Patois, and Mekatelyu.

Climate: Costa Rica has a tropical climate with two distinct seasons: dry season (December to April), and rainy season (May to November), temperature and precipitation are affected by elevation and two bodies of water, the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.

Food/Farming: Costa Rica’s most important crop is coffee. There are also large rice, banana, and sugarcane plantations. Costa Rica also produces cattle for beef and dairy, poultry and eggs, teak wood, beans, palm oil, oranges, mangoes, pineapples, and other fruits and vegetables. A typical Costa Rican meal, or “casada tipica,” consists of meat or chicken, rice and beans, tortillas, salad or roasted vegetable, and fried plantains.

Government: Costa Rica is a democratic republic with a constitution defining three branches of government. The current president is Luis Guillermo Solis.

Currency: Costa Rican Colόn, or CRC. It takes 573 CRCs to make $1 USD.

Art/Music/Culture: Costa Ricans usually learn to dance at an early age. Merengue, salsa, cumbia and dub are the four main Costa Rican dances in addition to traditional folk dancing with costumes. Over time, Spanish beats mixed with the indigenous tunes and made a new kind of music special to Costa Rica. Local artisans produce crafts like decorative oxcarts, wooden carvings, pottery, leather work, and jewelry. Holidays celebrated in Costa Rica include: Christmas, New Year’s Day, Easter and Holy Week, Fiesta de Los Diablitos, Independence Day on September 15, and Labor Day on May 1.

History

Before Christopher Columbus came to Costa Rica in 1502, there were hundreds of thousands of natives from different tribes. There is archaeological evidence that they traded with other tribes in the lands of North Central America and South America. When Columbus “discovered” Costa Rica, he was on his fourth trip to the New World. He confronted a hurricane, was blown off course, and landed in Costa Rica. He traded with the natives and claimed to see more gold in 2 days than he had in 4 years on Hispaniola–that is how Costa Rica, or “Rich Coast,” got is lasting name. It became a Spanish Colony in the 1560s, but San Jose was not established until 1737. By then, the Indian population had been all but destroyed by disease and hard labor, and only a few tribes survived in the jungle.

For the Spanish, Costa Rica did not live up to its name because its wealth is in the cultivation of the rich volcanic soil and not in mined minerals. Costa Rica’s history is also unique in the Caribbean because it never had a slave-based economy. Instead, smaller self-sufficient farms of the Central Valley became the precursor to a rural democracy. However, as in all the other Spanish colonies, society was ruled by men, with power being held by white landowners and the Catholic Church.

Spain ruled Costa Rica until September 15, 1821, when they became independent. Costa Rica separated from Spain peacefully, but without Spanish control, conflicts inside the country arose, leading to a short civil war. The Liberals gained control, moved the capital to San Jose, and joined the CAF, Central American Federation. In 1824, the Nicoya-Guanacaste province left Nicaragua and joined Costa Rica. While other Central American countries struggled with long, bloody civil wars, Costa Rica remained relatively peaceful and was able to focus on agriculture and infrastructure.

When it was discovered that the highlands of the Central Valley were perfect for growing coffee, the government subsidized the planting of saplings. By the mid-1800s, Costa Rica was growing and processing coffee for European markets. By the century’s end, coffee represented 90% of the country’s exports. The coffee processors, rather than plantation owners, became the country’s ruling elite.

In 1890, the first railroad was completed by an American railroad man, Minor Keith, in order to transport coffee to the coast. He planted banana plants along the tracks, which he eventually began export to the United States. The fruit became so popular that by the end of the 1900s, banana exports surpassed coffee, and Costa Rica became the world’s top banana producer. Banana money bought power—the United Fruit company controlled local politics and communications. But in 1913 a disease struck the banana plantations and ended the powerful monopoly.

Despite following the normal Central American pattern of dictatorship and civil war in the first half of the 20th century, Costa Rican leader Jose Figueres Ferrar established the world’s first unarmed democracy (meaning Costa Rica has no military) in 1949. Costa Rica got dragged into the conflicts with the United States and Nicaragua in the 1970s, but the elections of 1984 reaffirmed their commitment to peace. President Oscar Arias later won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in negotiating a peace plan which ended the conflicts.

After the rise and fall of coffee and bananas, the most valuable resource of Costa Rica turned out to be the wilderness itself. Starting with a nature conservation area in 1963, the “Green Economic Revolution” began with a few tourists coming to see the rainforest, but now about one-third of Costa Rica’s land is preserved as nature reserves, wildlife refuges, and national parks. It has a successful tourism-based economy, with people coming from all around the world to enjoy the natural beauty the country has to offer.

Land forms/Flora and Fauna

Costa Rica is bordered by Nicaragua to the north, Panama to the southeast, the Pacific Ocean to the west, and the Caribbean Sea to the east. Costa Rica has 51,060 square kilometers (19,714 square miles). It has cloud forests, mangrove wetland, rain forests, desert, beaches, pastureland, volcanic mountains, and coastal farmland (banana and pineapple plantations). It is known for its diverse flora and fauna. Native birds include: the Scarlet Macaw, toucans, hummingbirds, Magpie Jays, Quetzals, Blue-crowned Motmots, and Northern Jacanas. Some of the mammals are Spider monkeys, Howler monkeys, Squirrel monkeys, sloths, Pacific Spotted Dolphins, Pumas, Margays, Pygmy Anteaters, Capuchin monkeys, Tapirs, Jaguars, many species of bats, Humpback whales, and Coati. There are also Caimans, Jesus Lizards, Leatherback turtles, Eyelash Viper snakes, boa constrictors, and many species of frogs, as well as insects and arachnids like scorpions, tarantulas, Blue Morpho butterflies, stick bugs, and fireflies, to name a few.

Things to do

Surfing on the Pacific side (Guanacaste Province), ficus tree climbing in Monteverde, night walk in Monteverde Cloud Forest (Curicancha Reserve), white water rafting, kayaking in rivers or mangroves, coffee tour in the mountains, Arenal Volcano National Park (hanging bridges, hot springs, and ziplining), Bat Jungle in Monteverde, waterfall tours, horseback riding, nature hikes in Manuel Antonio National Park or Corcorvado National Park, and other wildlife tours and refuges.

Bibliography

McCarthy, Carolyn, and G. Benchwich, J. S. Brown, J. Hecht, T. Spurling, I. Stewart, L.Vidgen, and M. Voorhees. “Costa Rica,” Central America on a Shoestring. Lonely Planet Publications, 2013.

For more information, look at these websites:

https://www.costarica.com/travel/geography-of-costa-rica/

https://www.govisitcostarica.com/travelInfo/floraFauna.asp

https://www.lonelyplanet.com/costa-rica/history

Blood, Sweat, and Gasoline

Located on Isla Bastimentos in Bocas del Toro, Panama, Agua Dulce is a small, privately-owned marina run by a guy named Bobby and his family, who have been living in the area for years. We heard about them from some friends we had met in the Keys who used to work there. When we got to Bocas, we looked them up. They have a reasonably long dock, a workshop with metal-working, canvas, and fiberglass sections, a guest house, and a medical clinic, in addition to their own house and large multi-purpose building. They have three home-schooled kids, a boy and two girls, ages 6, 10, and 14, respectively, so at least there are some other kids nearby with which to play.

Previous to our acquaintance, I had been consistently finishing my school work before noon, and had a surplus of free time, so the idea of getting a job sounded pretty good. I started driving the dinghy the two-and-a-half miles to Agua Dulce every day at around 1:00, to volunteer until 5:00. I basically did clean-up/sorting chores or helped a guy named Ben who works there, with whatever he was doing. A lot of the stuff there is related to panga work (local fiberglass motorboats), such as welded stainless tops, painting, motor work and replacement, wood floor pieces, and fiberglass, though they also do boat storage and other things. Ben does all the welding and metalworking, from door handles to tops for pangas, and taught me how to sand down and polish the welds to make them smooth and shiny. I also stripped things like cleats, lights, D-rings, and steering systems off of boats that needed to be sanded and painted. The sanding and fiberglass is handled by “the guys,” a group of indigenous workers hired from the two adjacent villages, led by Felipe, the most experienced of them.

Aaron at Work

Ever since I started working there, I noticed that the guys watched me a lot. One day I needed an extra hand, and asked one of them for help. Though my Spanish was not very good, I was able to tell him what I wanted, and it worked out fine. A couple of days later, now that they knew we could communicate, they asked me what my name was, so I told them. A week later, though I was sure that they knew my name, they started calling me “Crosh.” I didn’t find out what that meant for another couple of months, and as it turns out, the English equivalent in their native dialect is “skinny guy.”

There are several funny anecdotes about the guys, like one time when Ben, Bobby, and I were working on a boat and using the Sawzall. Michael (one of the guys) walked up and asked (in Spanish, of course) “Do you need the Jiggy-Jiggy?” and pointed to the Sawzall. We gave it to him, and when he was gone we all started laughing. The Inspiration for the name of this blog post came one especially hot day when I spent two-and-a-half hours pumping mixed gas out of a boat that was getting a four-stroke motor. I ended up soaked in sweat and fuel, and getting a cut on my hand, hence the blood, sweat, and gasoline.

Bucket Wall, by Eli

After a month or so, Eli began joining me every day, taking over most of my cleaning and organizing jobs, so I leveled up to tasks like preparing motors for removal and installing steering systems on boats. We got to know the place, where all the tools were kept, the names of most of the workers, and got into a regular routine. When a customer wants his boat totally sanded down and repainted, it is taken up the canal and pulled up onto the bank. It is then stripped (my job), sanded down (the guys), and whatever fiber-glassing is needed is done before it is painted. When it is ready, Felipe paints the exterior whatever color the customer wants, then paints the interior gray with black-and-white speckles, and then paints the bottom. Then we reassemble it and make a couple of improvements. If he wants a welded top, then Ben makes it, installs it, and then we give the boat back to him.

The canvas guy, Geoff, had to leave Panama for a month this past summer, and was later followed by Ben. While they were gone, it was just Bobby, the new addition, Zack, and us, working. Until then, we were referred to as “the Interns,” but after we took over some of Ben’s jobs, Bobby started paying us $3 an hour to do what we had been doing for nothing. When Ben got back, Bobby left for his first vacation in three years, leaving Ben to keep things under control until he got back, and nothing went horribly wrong.

I’d like to say that my performance is flawless, but I really can’t, because I still make mistakes now and then, like drilling a hole too big, or breaking off a screw. But that’s another thing I like about Agua Dulce: it’s a good learning environment. Bobby accepts that mistakes are made, and that everyone is still learning, so when someone messes up, we just try to find a solution, and learn from the mistake. The whole experience has been a good way to: (A) fill a couple of empty hours every day, (B) learn some good skills that I’ll use for the rest of my life, (C) hang out with some cool people, and (D) earn a couple of bucks.

Rock and Roll

I just turned 15, and in accordance with family tradition, we did something fun and memorable. I had been wanting to go four-wheeling for a while, and this seemed like a good opportunity. There are miles of jungle and beach trails on Isla Colon, and you can rent an ATV for a half- or full-day. So we made a reservation for 10:00 AM for Eli, Dad, and me on the 21st of September (my birthday).

Flying Pirates, Bocas

When we got there, we had to sign some paperwork, then they showed us where to go on a map, showed us how to use the quads (gear shifting, brakes, etc.), and sent us on our way. The first part was a stretch of road, and we used the easy terrain to get used to the vehicles. At the end of the road, we reached the Flying Pirates property, and turned onto a trail that led off into the jungle. The trees and bushes turned to scrub, and the trail to sand. This is when it started to become difficult.

The trail was somewhat compacted, but it was littered with chunks of rock and other debris, then it sloped down to water on the right. We each got stuck at least once on this stretch, and needed each other’s help to get unstuck. Then came the mud pit: it was about 1 foot deep, 30 feet long, and very uneven. It was actually just a short stretch of really bumpy ground submerged in water. The guy who gave us the quads had warned us about this; he said you had to keep up momentum to prevent from flooding the engine. They had even put up a sign that said, “You can do it,” and we did. Eli went first, and gunned the throttle, bouncing and getting thrown around the whole way. I wasn’t any better; I also used too much throttle, lost control, and ran up on the bank, nearly rolling over. Dad went through without a problem. On the other side, we had to stop and get off, because the engines got wet and were steaming like crazy.

Next up was the Blue Lagoon. The Blue Lagoon is one of the places you can reach on the trails, and is like a giant limestone tide-pool in which you can swim. We were hot, so we jumped in and went for a blessedly cool swim. The next segment of the trail was fairly difficult, and we each got stuck a couple of times. Most notably, there was a mud pit with a deceptively dry crust into which Eli plunged headlong. It created a typical scene with someone bogged down in the mud, spinning their wheels like crazy. Luckily, each of our vehicles was equipped with a rope on a bracket on the front, and Dad hooked Eli’s around his differential, and hauled him out of there.

We also got lost once, and went ahead on foot to scope out the trail. When we got back, my quad wouldn’t start. We thought it was a dead battery, and were pretty worried, until we figured out that the starter was jammed. After banging on it a couple of times, we got it going again. We then encountered a hill that might be considered hard for some people to hike up, let alone drive up on ATVs! Dad, of course, went up with no problem (he always makes it on the first try!), then Eli tried. He went right up, lost control, and began rolling down the side, off the trail. He quickly got off the ATV, and it rolled a little farther before hitting a tree. We then worked together to lift it up and roll it back to the bottom of the hill to try again. There were other times like these, when we just had to gas it, hold on tight, and try to stay on the trail.

On the way back, now that we were familiar with the vehicles we could go much faster—and are those things fast! Fast enough that when my helmet began to blow off of my head, I decided to slow down. When we got back, we had cold sodas (or in Dad’s case, cold beers), watched the parrot-mascot, “Maestro,” climb up the wall, and checked out the shop. Flying Pirates has a good number of ATVs, some of which are being repaired, and they run a pretty big operation, modifying, and even building their own vehicles. The people were also super-friendly and relaxed, which made us feel even more comfortable. To sum up, it was a loud, fast, dangerous activity, and pretty much the best birthday I’ve ever had.

Trip to Costa Rica, Part II

We spent an afternoon driving to Santa Elena, a small tourist town in the mountainous region of the Monteverde Cloud Forest, about halfway along the route between San Juanillo and San Jose. The house we rented had been built 65 years ago, but was now part of the Curicancha Nature Reserve. It was built of wood, and had a stone fireplace and huge picture windows looking out into the forest. We arrived late in the afternoon, and had time only to settle in and relax in our new place and make a plan of attack for the next day.

Vista, Monteverde, Costa Rica

We had one full day with which to explore the area. Over breakfast the next morning, we tried to decide what exactly we wanted to do. On the way in, for example, we had seen signs advertising “Treetop Climbing.” This sounded fun and exotic, so we looked it up. Turns out, you had to pay 50 bucks per-person to climb a 130-foot-tall ficus tree with a hollow inside. Of course, there was also a 12-year age limit, supervision, and safety equipment. It still looked cool, but further research revealed a grove of DIY climbing trees that were a lot closer and could be used at one’s own risk at a 100% discount. Mom also found a horseback riding tour place, and a guided night-hike. Dad stayed at the house to work, so Mom and all us kids piled into the car to look for a tree.

It was close by, and not hard to find at all. We parked by the road, and followed a trail into the woods. We passed several other large and worthy trees before we came to the best one. It was very large and impressive, with two trunks that joined about 50 feet up, and then rose together before branching out at about 70 feet. It looked like something you’d find on Dagobah.

Ficus Tree Climbing

A strangler fig (in the ficus family, similar to a banyan tree) is not exactly a parasite, but it acts like one. A bird eats a fig and lands on the branch of a different kind of tree. The bird deposits the seed. The seed sprouts in the canopy of said tree, and begins to put down roots. The ficus grows up and around the host, using it for support, stealing moisture and nutrients from the soil and hogging sunlight, until the host is completely “strangled,” and dies. It then begins to rot away, but by then, the ficus is too tall and strong to notice a gaping cavity right through its middle.

On this particular tree, the main trunk was tilted at a 30-degree angle, and the cavity where the host tree had rotted away was only partially enclosed, with rib-like strands of wood forming a ladder on the inside slope. Climbing up was childishly easy, but very cool. It was like climbing up the spinal column of a brontosaurus. The view from the top was excellent, wherever there was a gap in the branches. I would have tried to climb out on a limb, but at the last moment, I happened to notice that I was seventy feet off the ground, and decided against it.

Strangler Fig, Interior

We descended and had a snack, then drove to the Bat Jungle, a sort of live bat museum. There was a room curtained off from sunlight which was filled with trees, bananas, and dishes of fruit, and where the cycle of day and night had been reversed so that guests could see the bats when they were active. It was late evening in the bat room when we arrived at mid-morning, and the bats were flapping around behind the glass, or hanging upside down, some of them nibbling chunks of papaya or mango. The museum houses mostly frugivores, as insectivores would have required a prohibitive number of buckets of live insects for food. The bloodsucking vampire bats were also not included, for obvious reasons. We are no strangers to bats, but it was still interesting to see them up close, especially the nectivorous “humming-bat” which uses its ridiculously long tongue to drink from flowers, or hummingbird feeders, in this case.

We returned to the house and ate lunch. The girls went out horseback riding, while Aaron, Sam, and I played a game of Monopoly. When they came back, we had an early dinner and got ready to go on a night hike. We drove up to the main entrance of the Curicancha Nature Reserve, and paid the entrance fee. Dad had to go back to the house to get his tennis shoes. When he returned, the guide handed out flashlights, and we set out. It was 6:30, and the sun was only just setting, but under the trees it soon grew dark. Most animals in the jungle are only nocturnal, and mainly live in the canopy. The guide said that we might not see much, and I believed it would be a miracle if we saw anything at all. And so, we trudged off into the dark and gloomy forest, never to return (for a few hours, anyway).

It was a bit creepy, walking under the dark trees, with the sounds of frogs and insects all around. We didn’t see any kinkajous or arboreal porcupines (darn!), but we did see a woodpecker-like bird with which the guide seemed most impressed. There were also many spiders. They were mostly wolf spiders, but the guide did know where to find a Red-kneed Tarantula, and I saw a second one further along the trail. Oh yeah, and did I mention the fluorescent scorpions? Scorpions glow an eerie green under a black light, and the guide showed us a whole tree-full.

Fluorescent Scorpion, Nightwalk in Monteverde

Once, while stopped at a frog-filled pond, we saw rabbit. It quickly moved off, and after a short discussion on the evils of global warming, so did we. We arrived back at the parking lot at about nine, with some of the smaller family members dragging their feet. We thanked the guide, turned in our flashlights, and went back to the house.

The next morning, we got up late, ate breakfast, washed the car, packed up, mooched around while the slow packers finished, loaded up the car, double-checked the house, actually got in the car, and left Monteverde. We then proceeded to become very lost. We eventually found our way back to San Jose, and we dropped mom and the car off at the car rental place while we went to check into the hotel. At the check-in desk, the receptionist said that, due to the gigantic futbol (soccer) match between Costa Rica and Mexico, all the rooms were full. Well, almost full. The presidential suite on the tenth floor was free, and she was so sorry, and would we mind? We shrugged, and said that it would be alright. She even gave us a complimentary bottle of water. We coolly handed our luggage off to the bellhop, and then sprinted for the elevators, grinning like maniacs. We left Aaron behind to receive Mom, and got settled in our posh new rooms.

After dropping my bag off, I went back down to wait with Aaron, and plan the bamboozlement of Mom. We had been scheming together for about twenty minutes, how we would deliver the bad news that the hotel had overbooked and had to cram all seven of us into one room (only to surprise her when we entered our suite), when Dad came down, and sent us up. Mom was late. Very late. Dad left us at the room, and went to wait for her at the rental car office. They eventually showed up at the room as the sun was setting, and Mom seemed inordinately glad to see us.

It turned out that at the car rental office, she had been informed that we would be charged two hundred dollars for leaving the gas tank partially empty (due to the difficulty of finding an easily-accessible gas station on our way back to San Jose) and been advised to “go around the corner” to the gas station to fill up. Of course, the roads were clogged with traffic, police barricades, and crowds of face-painted, flag-waving fans (futbol match, remember!), and she had gotten hopelessly lost trying to find her way back in rush-hour traffic. No experience of a new country would be complete without having to ask strangers for help in broken Spanish!

San Jose Traffic

We celebrated our successful trip by dressing up and going to dinner at the Japanese restaurant in the hotel, and returned to our luxurious rooms to get some sleep.

Kids, San Jose, Costa Rica

We got up at five for breakfast, the shuttle arrived at six, and off we went. I spent most of the ride back to Panama writing on the computer or reading my book. We had no problems at the border crossing (since we had purchased completely-unnecessary, refundable airplane tickets for flights to our home country). We arrived at Almirante, took the boat to Bocas, then hired a taxi to take us to the marina, arriving at the boat by late afternoon.

Our road trip was a great vacation, but it was also a learning experience and a chance to see another part of Central America, one we were not planning to visit by boat. What we saw of Costa Rica was very different from what we’ve seen of Panama. While still a third-world country, it seems more developed than Panama. Costa Rica realized a few decades ago that their natural beauty was a resource to be exploited. As a result, their eco-tourism industry blossomed, they capitalized on Nature, and it became a very popular vacation destination.

My conclusion: Costa Rica is very touristy. This is both a blessing and a curse. One the one hand, tourism means that natural areas are preserved and that activities are more convenient, organized, and established. But on the other hand, everything is more expensive, and feels less authentic. The locals are used to gringos, and are more likely to speak English, and tourist installations have somewhat marred the otherwise stunning wilderness. Panama, on the other hand, retains is wildness, but lacks a sense of appreciation and preservation of what the country has.

Trip to Costa Rica, Part I

We seem to have formed a habit of taking overland trips. This time, it was the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. It had been a while since we had gone on a family vacation, and we wanted something a little different. After seemingly endless weeks of planning, the Deciders eventually managed to get our transportation and lodging lined up. We decided on a week at a large rental house in the hills above San Juanillo, Guanacaste province, a detour at another rental house in Santa Elena, Monteverde, and a one-day layover each way at a hotel in San Jose. We looked forward to a week-and-a-half of surfing, nature trails, and a different country.

The first part of the journey was familiar:  water taxis to Bocas and Almirante, and a van to wherever we were going. This happened to be the border crossing. We had to disembark, check out of Panama, take our bags across the bridge to Costa Rica, and check in. Then it was another bus to Puerto Viejo for a lunch stop, and still another bus to San Jose.

The drive through Costa Rica was very different from Panama. We passed vast plantations of banana trees, acres of pineapple fields, forests of bamboo, and wide rivers. The buildings and towns we passed also seemed to be sturdier and more well-built than what we saw along the Panama road. The drive was very beautiful, and became even moreso once we entered the mountains. We busied ourselves with reading, attempting to sleep, and looking out the windows. I got out the computer and started writing this blog post, with Nirvana in my headphones and green farmland and rainforest flashing past my window.

We eventually arrived at the hotel in San Jose, after 10 hours of riding in the back of the van. We checked in, and went out for dinner. The next morning, we rented a car, and started driving out to San Juanillo. This drive was also different from the day before. After a long “quick stop” at a Walmart (a Walmart!) to get internet and some miscellaneous items, we left the snarled traffic and absurdly steep and swarming roads of San Jose for rolling green hills and mountains. We drove through forest, over wide, deep river gorges, and past verdant pasture-land.

We were supposed to arrive at the house at four, but of course we were very late. I don’t blame us. The house was out in the middle of nowhere, and the maze of dirt roads was nearly impossible as it grew darker. We eventually made it. The groundskeeper gave us a tour, we took a quick swim and had dinner, and flopped tiredly into bed.

The house was large and well-appointed, with three air-conditioned bedrooms, a deep pool, a widow’s walk, and a beautiful and unobstructed view of the Pacific Ocean. It was located on a hill in the middle of the Los Sueños nature preserve, and the nearest neighbors, also on hills, were at least a three-minutes’ drive away.

Casa del Sol, Guanacaste, Costa Rica

Casa del Sol, Guanacaste, Costa Rica

Probably the best (and sometimes the worst) part about the house was its close proximity to nature. We regularly saw bands of howler monkeys in the trees around the house, and heard them hollering at each other in the late afternoon.

Howler Monkeys

Blue Morpho butterflies became commonplace, and we even saw a pack of coati in a tree on the last day at the house. At around 9 o’clock at night, frogs spontaneously appeared on the pool deck, and started croaking up a storm. Dozens of geckos also came out at night, and it was fun to watch them stalk bugs across the ceiling. There was a wasp nest the size of a grapefruit hanging from the eaves, and moths, crickets, and other insects became regular companions. It wasn’t that the house was unclean, just that it was surrounded by nature, and insects rule the earth.

On Sunday, our third day in Costa Rica, we went exploring in the car. We drove for miles, reconnoitering the local towns, forming an idea of what we wanted to do with our week, and generally getting the lay of the land. The network of dirt roads connecting San Juanillo, Nosara, and the other coastal towns could only be called dirt roads in the loosest sense of the term. They were more like mud roads, with a healthy dose of potholes, stream fords, and largish rocks. We decided, after much experimentation, that driving slowly in our Hyundai Santa Fe 4×4 over this type of uneven terrain only made the ride longer and rougher. No, the idea was to drive as fast as was safe, and only slow down when confronted with a deep trough, a turn, or a river. Then, we just had to hold on to our seatbelts like rodeo cowboys as the car bucked and shook around us. The degraded condition of the roads was not kind to the poor car. Over the course of the trip, we got it covered in mud, knocked loose a piece of plastic trim, and lost a license plate. On Saturday, we woke up to discover that one of the tires was flat, and Dad had to change it before we could go anywhere.

The next few days were all about surfing. Paul, the guy who rented us the house, recommended Cacho’s Surf School on Playa Guiones, Nosara, so we went over there. At least some of us had a little previous experience surfing, but we all needed lessons.

Surf Lessons

The Pacific waves ware rolling and green, and the shallow slope of the beach allowed for some very long rides. Playa Guiones is supposedly one of the best places for beginning surfers. We were certainly not disappointed. We started out on the white water, the waves that had already broken, but by Wednesday, we were surfing the green water (but not very well). We did meet Cacho, but we were taught by the surf instructors, Hector and Steven, who spoke very good English.

Aaron Surfing, Playa Guiones

Catch a Wave

Cacho gave us some sort of deal by which we would pay at the end of the week for all the lessons and board rentals, and get a discount. In addition to surfing, the Surf School also did river kayak tours that included hiking and waterfalls. Being semi-avid hikers and not-so-avid kayakers, but very enthusiastic waterfall-jumpers, we scheduled a hike/kayak for Thursday.

Unfortunately, the weather had different plans. It rained all Wednesday afternoon and night, and when we tried to drive to Nosara early Thursday morning, the first ford was swollen with water from the mountains. While we sat in the car deliberating about whether to proceed, a hapless pickup truck attempted the crossing and bogged down. After about a minute of watching them struggle, we decided that they needed help, and went out to lend a few hands. We waded out into the muddy stream, and after a couple minutes of pushing and shoving, we got the truck unstuck. It was unexpectedly fun, and everybody had a good laugh when the local man was sprayed with mud from the tire as the truck clambered its way to freedom. The good deed for the day accomplished, we turned back to enjoy a day of resting and doing nothing.

We tried again the next day, which was sunny and clear. We all (Dad included) drove over to Nosara, where we met Hector and Karel (who also works at Cacho’s). They loaded up the kayaks onto an ATV trailer, and we followed them out of town to the start of the hiking trail. While Dad followed Karel to a place where he could wait for us at the mouth of the river, Hector took us up to the mountain stream. It was more of a walk than a hike, through cow pastures and rainforest. The waterfalls were quite beautiful. We hiked upstream and played in the rushing water for a while. Then we went back downstream to where we would start the next part of the excursion.

The river was broad, shallow, and very muddy. After the recent rain, there was a good current. We had a quick snack, boarded the kayaks, and started off. River kayaking is different than ocean kayaking. You don’t have to paddle as much for propulsion, as the current generally carries you along. However, steering is extra-difficult because in addition to going where you want to go, you also have to counteract the kayak’s infuriating tendency to hit the riverbank, T-bone other kayaks, and take bends sideways. Another thing that I did not realize when I signed up was just how long we would be out on the river. I thought that we would be mostly hiking and swimming, and therefor neglected to put on sufficient sunscreen. As it turned out, we were on the river a rather long time, about three hours, and there weren’t many shady trees growing in the middle of the stream. Let us just say that I greatly improved my tan the hard way.

However, it wasn’t as bad as all that. It was actually quite nice, with the jungle on either side, or fields of cattle, and every now and then an island with small trees or bushes. The rapids were fun, even if we sometimes got hung up on tree branches. Even the occasional capsize was a refreshing break from the heat and relative monotony. We saw a number of blue herons fishing by the riverside, and occasionally a Jesus Lizard dashing for shore across the surface of the water. We even saw one or two small crocodiles lounging on the banks, though Hector assured us that there were bigger ones around. The river eventually dumped us out at the ocean near Ostional, and there was Dad waiting with the car.

On Friday, our last day in San Juanillo, we all went to Playa Guiones. We had another successful day of surfing the green waves with Hector and Steven, and Rachel caught some waves too.

Little Surfer Girl

Afterward, we went out to lunch, packed our bags, and cleaned the house in preparation to leave the next day for the mountains.

To be continued…

 

The Land of Plenty

 

Things are quiet in Panamá right now, a time of the year when it rains quite a bit and ex-pats tend to head north to visit friends and family during the North American summer. We decided to stay here, despite our fears of getting cabin fever during “rainy season.” As it turns out, the islands in the Bocas archipelago have weather patterns that are less predictable than on the mainland. Somewhere on mainland Panama, it rains every day during this season, but here where we are, you might have two or three rainy days in a row, then a sunny one. Or a rainy night and an overcast day. One month might be rainier than another, but there really are no “seasons” at all—one big happy summer day after another. Gray days, while they may seem drearier than sunny ones, provide a respite from the intense heat of the sun, so I don’t mind them so much.

Sunset Bocas

For the remaining residents at the marina, we had a 4th of July potluck (several Brits were participants, but we decided against a re-enactment), but even there, with friends wearing stars and stripes, I felt no pang of nostalgia or longing to “go home.” It seems that all I miss of my mother country are the people I love there, and the ease with which one can get what one wants.

I have only been back to the United States (a.k.a. the Land of Plenty) one time in the last 15 months. I took a trip in June to see a couple of my best friends and go to my 20th college reunion in Middlebury, Vermont. It was a 6-day-girlfriend-extravaganza, starting with a midnight road trip from Boston to Portland, Maine (thank you, Kimberly!) and continuing with shopping, chatting, a second road trip to and from Vermont (thank you, Heather!), the sharing of bottles of wine, eating, laughing, more shopping, and finishing with late-night packing, and early morning coffee on the way to the airport. It was the perfect get-away.

Mattapoisett Light

Heather and Tanya at Texas Falls

I loved seeing the aerial view of where we live in Panama and the whole Canal system. It’s easy to get tunnel-vision here and forget about the outside world, so getting out of Bocas was like a breath of fresh air. On the other hand, after being away for just a few days, I began to miss my tribe, my tropical-jungle-island home, and hearing Spanish on a daily basis.

I had a bit of reverse culture shock in the U.S. First, the speed at which everything moves is dizzying.  “Island time” is a very real thing, and I’ve been on it for a long time. I felt something similar to the dread I have of driving into Miami from the Florida Keys, only magnified. Everyone seems so harried and stressed out, and not just in the Boston airport, either.

Also, I underestimated the stormy political climate of the United States right now. I get my news when I want it from the internet, and rarely see a television, so I don’t have to be inundated with images and headlines repeated ad nauseum.  When I do see a TV, it’s usually in Spanish and often headlining not some stupid thing the new U.S. President has said or done, but what’s going on in Venezuela.

Finally, I had forgotten how wonderful it is to go into a store, be surrounded by people speaking English, and find almost anything I didn’t even know I needed. I had ordered some things to get shipped to Heather’s, but I did a little shopping as well, and I was overwhelmed by all the shiny stuff! I was paralyzed in the stores and had to be rescued (more than once). I had brought a duffle stuffed with gifts, thinking I could use it to bring back a few things. Ha! I had to borrow a giant duffle from Kimberly (one she had used for the self-same purpose). I lugged it home like Santa Claus, and my little helpers happily unpacked all those goodies from the Land of Plenty!

The contrast of My Life on a Boat and the lives of my Middlebury classmates was startling, and not just to me. I was afraid of the old inferiority-complex, having gone to a prestigious institution whose classmates are among the influential movers-and-shakers in the world. And what did I do with my over-priced New England education? Got married, quit my career just as I was getting good at it, had five kids, and left suburbia for the Simple Life. That doesn’t sound very impressive. But it all depends on how you measure success—more than a few times, I was met by startled admiration from people I would never have guessed think that I’m living the proverbial dream.

Student Center, Middlebury, VT

In truth, going back to America cured me of wanting to go back to America. Thrown into relief, I was reminded why my life is beautiful—the life of my own choosing, with a career in education and home management, and all in a location and at a pace where I can really enjoy it. Sure, I miss my family and friends more than I like to admit, and ordering things online and paying for shipping to Central America is pricey, but I wouldn’t trade the experiences we’ve had for the convenience of staying Stateside.

See Turtles

The van rumbles to a stop, and you get out onto the deserted sandy road. You hear the crashing of the surf in the darkness. Behind you, the other members of your group exit the transporte colectivo. There is excited chatter from the kids. The guide leads the small group of eight into the pitch-black interior of the beach shack. There, using only a dim reddish light, he tells you all about the turtles. It is a little after 8 PM and you have just taken a rough taxi ride across Isla Colon to Bluff Beach, to see the sea turtles.

For a few short months, both the hawksbill and leatherback species lay their eggs on the beaches of Panamá. The eggs laid in April are also hatching this month. However, the guide does not guarantee that you will see anything at all. He sends out two guys, also from the Turtle Conservancy, to run ahead, and signal with a red flashlight if they find any turtles. At last, you all step out onto the beach, and start walking.

You quickly draw ahead of the others. It is very dark, with no moon and no artificial light. The only illumination comes from the stars overhead. In front of you, the big dipper is low on the horizon, reminding you of escaped slaves on the underground railroad, following the drinking gourd to freedom.

The sand is damp and uneven beneath your feet. When you step down, tiny flashes of green appear between your toes. You’ve never seen bioluminescence in the sand before.

On your left is the jungle, dark and brooding, alive with the sounds of frogs, insects, and other creatures. Occasionally, a light from a house or passing car stabs out through the trees, before being swallowed by the dense foliage.

On your right is the ocean. The black lumps of eight-foot swells break and crash in a never-ending thunderous cacophony. The white foam appears luminous in the starlight as it rushes to swallow your feet.

There is a very dreamlike quality to the night. You feel as if you could walk on forever, impervious to fatigue. All sense of time and distance are lost. The Milky Way arches above, like a thin band of clouds. Behind you, dimly heard, the rest of the group chatters away.

A small child runs on her short legs to catch up with you. She walks with you for a while, and asks, “How many stars are there?” “Billions,” you answer. “OK,” she says, and runs back to her friends, no doubt to resolve some trivial dispute. You are disappointed that she can’t appreciate the contemplation of the universe in silence.

You have been walking for maybe an hour when the guide spots the red signal lights of the runners. They have found something. You all hurry to see what they have found.

It is a leatherback turtle, digging a nest in the sand. She is by far the largest turtle you have ever seen, with a shell over five feet long. Careful to stay out of her field of view, you all kneel in the damp sand behind her to watch as she uses her back flippers to scoop the sand from her three-foot-deep hole. Presently, she stops digging. One of the runners produces a plastic bag, and places it in the hole. The guide explains that the turtle chose a bad place for her nest, and that the eggs will not hatch if they are laid in the water in the bottom. They will be reburied in a dry hole to increase the chances of survival.

A few minutes later, the first white baseball-sized egg rolls into the bag. You all sit enthralled, as if in front of a movie, as the huge turtle lays about a hundred eggs. Then, the first runner reaches into the hole, and deftly pulls the bulging bag back out without disrupting the mother, who begins the laborious task of filling the hole, completely unaware that it is empty.

The guide checks his watch, and says that it’s time to go. You stand up, sweep the sand from your clothes, and start the long walk back to the taxi. You have witnessed something rare and almost magical: a leatherback, probably the last of the season, laying her eggs on a starlit beach.

Swarming at Sunset

Yesterday we witnessed a natural phenomenon that had us scratching our heads and mildly worried. Zillions of insects with helicopter-like wings rose up out of the jungle after a heavy rain into the calm evening air. After a brief-but-frantic flight, they landed, dropped their wings and disappeared. Most of them landed ashore, some of them landed on the surface of the water or the docks, and a few hundred landed on our boat. This morning, we went looking for the survivors, but all we found were hundreds of black wings. What were they?

If you guessed termites, you would be correct. There are two common types of termites: subterranean and dry-wood or “powderpost.” The West Indian Powderpost might infest a wooden boat, boring into the wood, making a nest inside it, and slowly eating away at and weakening it. The subterranean variety, after the nuptial flight, dig a hole in the ground, mate, and lay eggs, creating a nest underground and mud-tunnels up to wooden structures. So which ones did we find on Take Two?

Turns out the easiest way to differentiate one type from the other is by looking at the wings. Using our microscope and a very helpful University of Florida website, I was able to identify exactly which species left wings all over the cockpit and decks of our boat. Thankfully, they were the subterranean variety, having taken flight from their jungle homes on Isla Bastimentos, looking for deadwood in the rain forest, not cedar, mahogany, teak, or cold-molded marine plywood, all of which are part of Take Two’s construction. One mystery remains, though: where did all the termites go? We dug around in some cockpit lockers and failed to find a single bug.

Add that to the other mysterious visitors we’ve had on Take Two recently, like the fruit bat that nibbled bananas in our fruit bowl in the middle of the night, or the little brown beetles we picked up in Colombia that attracted our new “pet” geckos. Despite our living in a floating home, we get a surprising number of critters aboard, not all of them welcome.

Panamá!

That’s right, folks, that wee little strip of land connecting good ole’ North and South America. Home of the Panama Canal, Manuel Noriega, and Chiquita Bananas. We’ve been living in the expat republic for several months now, and it’s pretty good. Panama seems like your typical Central American third-world country. The jungle is green, the sun is hot, and the rain is wet. Take Two is situated at Red Frog Beach Resort and Marina, on Isla Bastimentos. Bocas Town, the primary settlement, lies on Isla Colon, another large island a few miles to the north.

Bocas Waterfront

Aesthetically speaking, Bocas del Toro is a cool place. The islands are very different from the low limestone Cays in the Bahamas, or the rocky desert of Bonaire. They are rolling and hilly, rimmed with mangroves and covered with lush green jungle. Dotting the coasts of the islands are indigenous villages and gringo houses. The sides facing the Caribbean Sea have beautiful white-sand beaches lined with coconut palms.

San Cristobal

There are five basic types of people in Bocas. First, you have the Panameños, the Spanish-speaking Panamanians, that live in Bocas town and the surrounding area. Then there are the indigenous peoples. They live in small villages spread around the islands, paddle around in dugout cayucos, fish, and sell coconuts. There are also many people of African descent, as well as Chinese people. And last, but certainly not least, there are the gringos, the white people not born in Latin America. This category can be further sorted into to two sub-categories, with a few exceptions. In the first are the expat retirees, people generally over 50, who spend all or some of the year in Bocas. In the second, you have the backpackers, young singles or couples that migrate through Central and South America in an unending river with nothing but their flip-flops and the contents of their ever-present backpacks.

The preferred mode of transport for the non-indigenous people is the panga. A panga is a medium-sized fiberglass fishing/work boat, with a fabric sun-shade and oversize outboard. They are used by Panameños and gringos alike, and most of them seem to be in a perpetual state of disrepair. The closest equivalent land vehicle is the minibus.

Panga Ride

Since we arrived at Red Frog, we have made a few friends. The most notable is the family that owns Agua Dulce, the other marina on Isla Bastimentos. In addition to running a marina, they house volunteers, do panga and boat repair, and run a small medical clinic for the indigenous people. They have three kids who are home-schooled, fluent in Spanish, and reasonably good at ping-pong.

Rachel's Sixth

On weekdays, Aaron and I take the dinghy over and work at the shop from 1:00-5:00. The work varies from grinding metal and sanding boats, to cutting fiberglass and polishing T-tops. Once, I made a handle for a spigot that had rusted off. Despite the lack of pay (we are often referred to as ‘the interns’), the difficulty/danger of the work, and the fact that we frequently come home looking like chimney sweeps, it beats sitting around doing nothing and we get credit for high school “shop class.”

Every Tuesday, Mom and one lucky volunteer catch the free marina water taxi to Bocas town for groceries and packages. This involves hauling the Red Wagon all over town, in and out of five or six separate stores of varying degrees of cleanliness, and somehow dragging a weeks’ worth of food back to the taxi dock before one o’clock. The main duty of the lucky volunteer is to assist in the portage of the goods. He or she is also usually rewarded with a special treat of some kind. The weekly grocery haul sometimes lasts us less than a week, so further resupply excursions to the small marina store may be required.

On many weekends, we take the boat out of the marina and spend a night or two at anchor. This is the first place we have been able to do this easily. There are innumerable mangrove islands and coral reefs to explore in Bocas, and very few other boats, so it feels like we have the place to ourselves. We spend the weekend swimming, climbing the rigging, wake-boarding, and just generally remembering what it feels like to cruise on a sailboat.

Wakeboarding

The water is pretty clear around here, but the snorkeling is not so great. There are a few good spots that we know about, but most of the coral is patchy and not very interesting. Of course, we are a bit spoiled in that department; compared to the Bahamas, the Virgin Islands, or Bonaire, poor Panama just is not that impressive. One thing it seems to have in abundance is lion-fish. One time while we were anchored out, Sam, Dad, and I speared over eight of the nasty little buggers in one afternoon. Unfortunately, they were too small to be worth the effort of filleting.

All the insects are extremely numerous and virile, from the army ants that will carry you off, too the Hercules beetles that will knock you over. The chitras, the local brand of biting no-see-um, are particularly irritating… or they would be, if we didn’t run the AC all night (and all day, as we are doing disturbingly more and more often). Mosquitos are less of a problem then we had originally anticipated, although rainy season has yet to start. I am very glad of this fact, given the quantity of readily available parasites just waiting for the opportunity to infect and permanently maim you (go Google Leishmaniasis or botfly to see what I mean).

Male Hercules Beetle

Aside from a trip to the interior to see the mountains and cloud forests, we have not done a lot of overland travel while we’ve been here. Our proximity to Costa Rica and the Pacific Coast of Central America makes those tempting destinations for future family outings. We’d also like to cruise back toward the islands of San Blas, and to central Panama to see the Panama Canal. For now, since Panama is south of the hurricane belt, we’ve decided to stick around and enjoy what this place has to offer.