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Monkeys in Quepos: 130 Miles to Anywhere

To catch up on our 700-mile road trip across Costa Rica, click here, here, and here. Also, please note these are howler monkeys in Tamarindo. If you ever hear them roar, you’ll never forget it. It’s like King Kong times fifty.

130 Miles to Anywhere

I had been looking for monkeys from the moment I landed in Costa Rica. Actually, I’d been downright searching. But as mangrove day concluded with that cold shower I’d been daydreaming about all afternoon, I still hadn’t seen one.

After my shower, I joined Nora and Rita in our hostess’s open-air living room. Nora had a sparkle in her eye, and I immediately knew something was up. She was leaning over a map of Costa Rica. Rita was flipping through a guidebook with a scarlet macaw on the front.

“You know tomorrow is a day off for the volunteers,” Nora said. “So, we could hang out here all day or maybe head up the coast.”

We were meeting our husbands in Tamarindo in two days. It was 300 miles north, about eight hours of driving time. At that point, we wouldn’t make it there until well after midnight. Besides, our reservation didn’t start for 48 hours. “Head where?” I asked.

Nora shrugged. “Anywhere.”

Anywhere. Three gringas in a third-world Spanish-speaking country going anywhere? At first I thought about that saying, “the devil you know is better than the one you don’t.” Then, I pictured eating another plate of rice and beans and sleeping in a cabin decorated like a prison cell. A cabin with cockroaches.

Rita asked, “Should we vote?”

“We don’t have to vote,” I said.

Within thirty minutes, we packed up our rental car, told the Osa In-Water Project how much we enjoyed our sea turtle adventures, and split. We left Playa Blanca at dusk heading…well, heading anywhere. And maybe, just maybe when we got there I’d see a monkey.

***

We stopped 130 miles later in a small town called Quepos right outside the Manuel Antonio National Park. Nora had driven the whole four hours it took to get there, and it wasn’t an easy drive. The sky grew black. It rained, then rained harder. Street legal dirt bikes, carrying anywhere from one to five passengers and maybe the family dog, passed us on nonexistent shoulders. We got lost, took a thirty-mile detour.

I’d like to say we intentionally picked Quepos because we knew it was one of the top places in Costa Rica for seeing monkeys. But, we honestly had no idea. We picked the town because it was halfway to Tamarindo and had reasonably priced amenities.

Rita had found a two-bed, two-bath apartment on Airbnb for under a hundred bucks per night. In the states, our rental would have rated two stars, but after our cabins in Playa Blanca it was a solid three and a half. We walked to a small market, bought staples, and Rita made gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches, complete with red onions and tomatoes.

That night we sat on the balcony and listened to the sounds of the jungle several hundred yards from our door. Moonlight glimmered off the tin roofs dotting Quepos’s rolling hills. A few streetlights revealed colorful laundry swaying from porches, compact cars and motorcycles parked bumper to bumper on narrow roads.

For the rest of that evening, we sipped on adult beverages and laughed about the acrobatics involved in washing thick hair in a cold shower. We laughed about planting mangrove seeds with our hands and hauling buckets of water to the nursery. We laughed until our sides hurt.

When I had started this trip, I was nervous about fitting in with a group of women. Four days later, I was sitting on a balcony overlooking a jungle, sharing secrets with Rita and Nora that I’ll never share with anyone else.

***

In Quepos, Nora, Rita and I acted like tourists for the first time since we arrived in Costa Rica. We slept late, indulged in hot showers, then found a cute restaurant run by ex-pats where we gorged on veggie omelets, pancakes, and fresh fruit. Not long after breakfast we discovered Nora’s suggestion to head “anywhere” landed us in Costa Rica’s version of Narnia.

We were driving down a steep, winding road when Nora said, “Monkey!”

We doubled back twice but couldn’t find them. So many times before I thought I saw one, but it always ended up being a black squirrel or a swaying palm frond. I wouldn’t believe it until I saw one with my own eyes.

And then I did. Actually, I saw two, two white-faced capuchin monkeys. Nora, Rita, and I squealed like teenage girls. The monkeys were digging the meat out of a coconut in a palm tree. They were so alert and engaged, engaged with their meal and each other. At one point, it looked like they were hugging. Ironically, my search for monkeys ended in a place we never planned on going to in the first place.

Several different species of monkeys live in Manuel Antonio National Park, and the capuchin weren’t the only kind we saw. Later that morning, we strolled down Espadilla Norte, a beach right outside the park’s entrance. The sand was white, ocean blue, breeze carrying the jungle’s flowery scents. Espadilla Norte was far busier than any beach on the Osa Peninsula, but it wasn’t crowded either.

As soon as we turned around and started back, we saw three squirrel monkeys. They were running back and forth from a palm tree to a group of tourists who were feeding them bananas. Before I could pull out my phone for pictures, a few ticos asked the tourists to stop. It’s illegal to feed monkeys in Costa Rica because human hands carry bacteria their immune systems can’t fight.

At one point, a street vendor called to us. We politely waved him off because we thought he wanted to sell us a kebob or trinket. Instead, he pointed at a beige sloth wrapped around a ceiba branch thirty feet above our heads. We only saw his furry body and never his charming face, but we were thrilled anyway.

All in all, it was a perfect day. For three girls going anywhere, we ended up in exactly the right place.

***

The following afternoon Nora, Rita, and I sat at a beachfront restaurant in Tamarindo. We had pulled into town an hour ago. Our husbands would arrive later that evening. Three mojitos in ice-filled glasses sat on our table. A few days ago we couldn’t get a single cube let alone three glasses of them.

We watched surfers jogging into the ocean, bikini-clad women parading along the beach, families walking their dogs. Latin hip-hop played in the background and the smell of burning tiki torches filled the air. If Quepos is Costa Rica’s Narnia, then Tamarindo is Vegas. We were quiet, overwhelmed by the busy energy. We had only been gone for six days, but it felt like a lifetime.

“I changed,” I said.

“Me too,” Rita answered.

“Like something shifted,” Nora agreed.

We’d been through so much together. Like when I got sick in a Ziploc bag outside San Jose because we didn’t know enough Spanish to ask our shuttle-bus driver to pull over. Or when sand fleas attacked Rita, so we soaked in the Gulfo Dulce until we pruned. How Nora drove 130 miles at night in the rain after doing manual labor for six hours. I thought about how we hiked for seven miles through a banana plantation, crossed a crocodile-infested estuary, and planted 27 mangroves on the Osa Peninsula. I thought about a green turtle in Playa Blanca and monkeys in Quepos.

We had ingested so many new experiences so quickly that we had to change. We had to adapt. And we did it together. Finally, social equilibriums acclimated, we raised our glasses and toasted to three gringas on a 700-mile road trip across Costa Rica.

Coming Soon: Monkeys in Quepos

I’ve been procrastinating posting my last story about our 700-mile road trip across Costa Rica for two reasons. One, Mason and I are cleaning and painting my office. It’s hard to think straight in the midst of that obnoxious paint smell.

No exaggeration, I think we donated at least 300 books to Goodwill. Mason had to make two trips to town and one to the recycling center. I’ve talked about our minimalist lifestyle before, but when it comes to books I’m a downright hoarder.

I love the smell of a good book. Am I right readers? Good books have a certain scent. Even dogs recognize it. When Adriana was a puppy, she rarely chewed up my books. But when she did, she always picked my favorites.

I’ve also been putting off finishing my story because I don’t want to say goodbye to Costa Rica. That’s the cool thing about writing. We get to linger in places and moments long after they are over. And with all this craziness going on around us, I’ve been perfectly content hanging out in Quepos with Nora and Rita.

The final Costa Rica post is coming this week. I swear. And it’s all about monkeys. But in order to catch up on our road trip, you should read the first three parts. And well, since we’re all stuck at home… why not?  Click here for a preview. Here for part one. Here for two. And here for three.

Stay safe. And pura vida.

Walking During the Coronavirus

I can’t lie. The coronavirus hasn’t changed our daily schedules much.  If you’ve been reading this blog long enough, you’ll know that I spend more time with dogs than people anyway.

What the coronavirus did change is our employment status. Since Mace and I work in the sports industry, we got laid off for at least the next month. I’ve never been laid off before, but I can tell you that my freaks love it, mainly because we’ve been walking our tails off. During this strange, chaotic time, I can’t recommend walking enough.

Walking is medicine. It helps with the stress. It helps with the isolation.  We’ve been averaging six miles a day, but sometimes we go eight. So, if y’all need some company, live around Nashville and want to walk (from a safe distance of course) please email me: thefarnival@gmail.com. We’ll even let you set the pace 🙂

Have you ever fallen in love with a tree?

Have you ever fallen in love with a tree? I mean felt real affection for one? Before I saw Mr. Pine, I would have shrugged and said sure. In general, I care about all trees. On several occasions, I’ve even been called a tree hugger. But after I met Mr. Pine, I realized I’ve never really been in love with one before he came into my life.

I met him fifteen years ago on the first day we moved to Robertson County, Tennessee. It was love at first sight. Mr. Pine was a majestic spruce, 70-feet tall, 20-feet wide. He lived five yards from our front door. In his prime, when dark green needles and pinecones filled his limbs, he could have modeled Christmas swag in Rockefeller Center or on the White House lawn.

During our first year in the country, my mother-in-law, a real estate agent, had warned we should cut him down because one day he’d crash through our roof. She still tells the story of how horrified we had acted at her suggestion. We had naively answered that Mr. Pine was here long before we arrived, and he would be here long after we left.

Over the years, my feelings for Mr. Pine grew until they reached relationship status, the kind validated with highs and lows. It wasn’t always an easy one. For one thing, he was a prankster who dropped pinecones like water bombs, as though trying to hit us. He could also be a slob. He shed needles all over the deck, walkway, and front porch. The needles got caught in the dogs’ fur or wind, and they spread all over the house. Sometimes, they ended up in our bed.

But his unconditional friendship made up for all his flaws a hundred times over. He was a loyal neighbor who stood his ground through snow, ice, wind, and some wicked southern thunderstorms. He provided privacy for naked sunbathing, shade when we got too hot. Without fail, every single day, he stretched his limbs outside our picture window, coloring every morning in his deep green hue.

Mr. Pine also meant a lot to our neighbors. Goldfinches, cardinals, bluebirds, robins, wrens, and hummingbirds used him as a stop between flights. Countless squirrels and chipmunks found refuge in his branches from our posse of black cats. Once, we had even found a chicken hiding between low-hanging limbs. For fifteen years, he gave more than he ever wanted or needed to everybody he met.

Then, last summer I noticed Mr. Pine’s needles were thinning. I told myself it was the brutal heat. Who could possibly thrive when the heat index topped 100 degrees with 90-percent humidity? Fall came, then winter and still nothing bloomed. By the first week of March, some of his branches were completely bare. I couldn’t deny it any longer. Something was wrong with Mr. Pine.

The tree doctor was muscular, in his thirties, wore a crew cut and sleeveless shirt. Military tattoos covered his biceps and forearms. One read omertà in big black letters. Omertà is Italian slang for a code of silence and loyalty. (I only know this because of my obsession with the Sopranos.) I’m assuming the tree doctor’s tattoo had something to do with his military background because he didn’t sound like a Mafioso. He sounded like a country boy. The first thing he said was, “That thing ain’t nothing but a wind sail.”

I felt like someone had insulted one of our dogs. That thing? A wind sail?! I explained we loved that tree, and if we could do anything to save him, we would.

The tree doctor cocked his head and chuckled, probably thinking, “great, one of those damn tree huggers.” He repeated my mother-in-law’s warning from over a decade ago. If Mr. Pine didn’t come down, he’d crush our roof. Only now, Mr. Pine was sick. He was rotting from the inside out. It was just a matter of time.

I wasn’t at home when they cut him down. I couldn’t watch. Instead, I drove to a gas station parking lot, listened to a podcast about Dolly Parton, and cried. I told myself I was crying because Dolly’s story is so moving, but I knew it was because of Mr. Pine.

Mr. Pine has been gone for twenty-four hours. A stump is all that remains, and its sharp, clean evergreen scent is so strong it fills the living room.  Now, the view outside our picture window is completely unfamiliar and not nearly as beautiful. I’m going to miss him for a long, long time. Mr. Pine taught me what it means to be in love with a tree.

The Quiet Victims of Nashville’s Tornadoes

A strange screaming came from the woods thirty-six hours after tornadoes leveled parts of East Nashville. The tornadoes touched down twenty-plus miles from our house, and local creeks had flooded but nothing more serious. The cries weren’t human, yet we never heard anything like them before.

Mason walked behind our house to investigate and saw our neighbor’s two dogs attacking a deer.  Mason immediately knew the deer was hurt, so hurt he couldn’t or wouldn’t move. His leg looked broken. The animal didn’t have spots but he was too small to be an adult. Mason shooed away the dogs, and they instantly obeyed. The dogs are giant beasts but mostly well behaved and harmless. That hurt deer must have triggered something wild in them, because they had ganged up on him.

The deer stopped screaming as soon as the dogs disappeared. If two domesticated mutts were beating up that defenseless animal, what would happen when the coyotes got to him? And a lot of coyotes live around us. We hear their Wildling-like calls almost daily.

We tried calling Walden’s Puddle, a badass wildlife rehabilitation center outside of Nashville. They had helped us in the past with a fawn and a baby falcon. I got a busy signal. I tried calling every fifteen minutes for the next three hours, but those tornadoes displaced uncountable animals, both domestic and wild. They must have been overwhelmed, and no one ever answered.

As the sun hovered over the tree line, we reluctantly agreed to call the local wildlife commission. We couldn’t let that little guy suffer any more than he had. And a pack of coyotes tearing him apart would be akin to medieval torture.

The Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission sent their game warden.The warden said even if a natural disaster hadn’t overwhelmed Walden’s Puddle, they wouldn’t be able to save the deer. He said a car must have hit him. I don’t know if he was trying to make us feel better, but it didn’t work. I heard the gunshots from my office.  The warden shot him twice, once in the head and once in the chest, and both times I flinched.

In many ways, I feel strange even writing about that deer in reference to the tornadoes because so many people lost so much. Twenty-five people even lost their lives. But, I wouldn’t be an animal activist unless I pointed out how many local nonprofit organizations need help right now, organizations just like Walden’s Puddle. 

Late that night, the moonlight glowed white on the grass. We had so much rain this month that it’s been a long time since I saw moonlight. A coyote suddenly started howling. He was so close it sounded like he stood outside the fence. A few seconds later his pack answered. Their baying rose and fell in that frenzied otherworldly yipping. They had found the dead little deer.

 

Mangrove Day: The Nitty-Gritty of Sea Turtle Rescue

If you missed part one of our 700-mile road trip in Costa Rica, click here. Click here for part two. By the way, this smiling iguana picture has nothing to do with this post’s two subjects, mangroves and sea turtles. But, we did take it in Costa Rica. And I love it so much that I’ve been looking for an excuse to use it.

Mangrove Day, Playa Blanca, Costa Rica

After our first day of volunteering with the Osa In-Water project, I had high hopes about day two, which they called mangrove day. It started out pleasantly enough. Nora, Rita, and I ate rice and beans, toast with homemade marmalade in our hostess’s open-air living room. The living room held several family-size tables that stretched across concrete floors and a TV that took up half a wall. It played telenovelas in hi-definition from morning to night.

Mangrove day even started with a bonus. The day before we had spent six hours trying to catch sea turtles but didn’t catch any. After breakfast, the biologist called us to the beach. She had gone out early that morning and caught a green turtle. It was small and young compared to the ancient ones who can weigh up to 350 pounds.

Rita and I held the turtle’s hind flippers, while Nora logged measurements. We measured her shell and tail, took skin and blood samples, catalogued her tag number. Later, the biologist would enter it in a database they shared with organizations all over the world. With this shared data, they could track migratory patterns, growth rates, and general health information. Finally, after all the measurements were logged, we set her free.

Although that little lady hadn’t been outside the ocean for more than an hour, tears welled up in my eyes. I watched her slow and steady wake ripple along the surface long after her head disappeared. In the brief moments I had spent near her, I recognized her wisdom, the kind that makes her worth saving, the kind that makes people travel thousands of miles from home to see. I also realized that sea turtles are a lot like dogs. Both species have an inner peace that comes from knowing how to live in the moment. If they’ve already figured it out, why is it so hard for us?

***

Releasing that sea turtle into the Gulfo Dulce was the last magical thing that happened on mangrove day. From that moment on, Nora, Rita, and I never stopped sweating. Occasionally, clouds provided shade, but for the most part we worked in 90- degree heat, humidity as thick as Tennessee’s, and didn’t stop working until late afternoon.

It’s not like we are strangers to hard work either. All three of us grow gardens, mow yards, rake leaves, and whack weeds. I currently live in the country with an acre of grass that needs to be maintained nine months a year. Rita and Nora had grown up on a farm. We all had experience at working outside in hot conditions, but gardening with rudimentary equipment in a tropical climate was tougher than the hottest day of weeding the yard.

Our first chore involved planting mangroves. With one veteran research assistant and two newly arrived assistants, we hiked to the nursery across terrain that alternated between sandy coastline and swampland. The nursery was a crude but functional structure. Long pieces of driftwood held up several triangular scrims that covered rows of potted mangroves. We loaded shovels and twenty-seven of the healthiest plants into a wheelbarrow and hiked for several more miles to the project’s reforestation zone.

Until Nora, Rita, and I planted mangroves in Costa’s Rica’s rocky shore, I didn’t realize why they are so fundamental for a healthy coastline. For one thing, they prevent erosion and store enormous amounts of carbon. But, they also provide nesting grounds and homes for sea turtles along with hundreds of other species. Some experts predict whole species would diminish and maybe disappear without them.

We spent a good hour on our plot, three trees per hole, three holes per row. The ground wasn’t only rocky but filled with roots, so we had to stand on the shovels and use our weight to break ground. The shovels had seen better days and often bent under our weight. When we finished planting, we spent the rest of the morning searching for older plots, so that we could count leaves and measure its growth.

Our hike back to the nursery took an extra hour, but that was the second best hour of the day. Because of high tide, we had to take a longer route through a banana plantation. The banana trees towered over our heads. Their lush spiked leaves created a canopy of fragmented light. Actually, the whole hike was surreal, complete with exotic bird sounds and palm oil seeds that crunched under our feet. At one point, Nora, Rita, and I had to cross a small estuary where crocodiles swim, and the water almost reached our knees. While I waded through the murky waters, the thought of bumping into one of those prehistoric meat-eaters did cross my mind. But, I crammed it into a corner. We were in a remote jungle in a foreign country, so what choice did I have?

After lunch, rice and beans with fruit slices, we worked just as hard if not harder than that morning. We carried buckets of water back and forth from the ocean to the nursery and doused every potted tree. Nora, Rita, and I probably carried twenty buckets each that day. Once, we tried cooling off in the Golfo Dulce, but the water was as warm as the air. Sweat dripped between every crevice of our bodies.

Finally, as the sun signaled late afternoon, we started our last chore. Nora, Rita, and I sank onto the ground next to a triangular box that looked like a sandbox, except it was filled with mud. A pile of mangrove seeds sat behind it. By that time, we weren’t thinking about the fact that we were sitting in dirt because it felt so good just to sit. With our hands, we shoveled mud into plastic bags six inches deep and stuck a mangrove seed in each. The dirt underneath my nails was so thick that I couldn’t get them completely clean for days. We hadn’t had warm water in our cabin since we arrived in Playa Blanca two days earlier. After we checked that last chore off our list, I found myself dreaming about one of our cabin’s signature cold showers.

***

There is no denying that mangrove day was a hard, sweaty slog. Our first day of volunteering had been instantly gratifying. It took a lot longer to appreciate our second day. Mangrove day exposed the nitty-gritty of volunteering for a sea turtle conservation group in Costa Rica. It proved that rescuing sea turtles is romantic and rewarding, but it also involves hard manual labor.

Ironically, looking back, mangrove day means more to me than any other I spent in Costa Rica. I’m proud we planted twenty-seven mangroves and hiked seven miles through the jungle. All that hard work had given us a feeling of accomplishment, as though we earned something. And we earned it together. Maybe that’s one of the reasons Nora, Rita, and I became so close during our 700-mile road trip through Costa Rica. Whether we were crossing crocodile-infested estuaries or digging in the mud with our hands, we had each other’s back every step of the way.

Coming up next: One night in Quepos, Costa Rica and A Farewell to a Tree