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Hola From Panama

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Hola from Judy and Dave Kashoff!
Dozens of crabs converged on the screen door of our cabin like creatures from a 1960’s era horror movie. Huge flying insects buzzed round as well–at least one had somehow found its way into our bed, something I discovered when I was awakened by a shout from Dave. I was just falling off to sleep when he shot straight up, slapping at his head. It was some kind of huge flying insect. For the first time in my life I was experiencing too much nature. Perhaps too much jungle. And too much rain. The rainy season was just starting, and we heard rain all the time, but it wasn’t always water coming from the sky, but rather the sound of rain, and each time we heard it, it heralded a different surprise.
When we weren’t being awakened by “Tse Tse Flies the size of eagles” as Dave said (he wants you to know he is quoting Peter Falk in his role in “The Inlaws“), we were startled during the night by the sound of hail. Loud, intermittent hail that sounded to be the size of golf balls. Every once in a while there was an enormous crash that sounded like cannon fire–or like it was raining bowling balls. It left us wondering for a while, but we decided it was coconuts falling on the roof. It turned out the sound was 50 times the size of the object, and was actually a much smaller fruit, but the metal roof amplified the sound. We did have a stunning moment, though, the next day, when a coconut did fall from a tree. I’d heard of people being killed instantly when they happened to unfortunately be in the space between a coconut and its landing spot, and the thought was especially terrifying because in this case a woody frond came with it, landing sharp side down, spearing the ground and embedding itself not far from where we sat.
When we first arrived at the Curu Wildlife Refuge, on the Nicoya Peninsula in western Costa Rica, we walked under the rainforest canopy to the sound of rain. Nothing strange or frightening, just the normal sound of rain, soon accompanied by thunder. But it wasn’t rain. Nor was it thunder. The sound was the Howler Monkey‘s deep throated, rumbling call. And it was not water hitting the leaves on its long way to the earth: it was the husks of something the monkeys were eating. At one point the sound changed to more of a “light shower“, and this time it was liquid falling from the sky. Lucky for us there were many leaves between us and the source, because it was monkey urine, and missed us. We’ve heard stories of monkeys delivering their excrement directly onto tourists with great deliberation. Animosity, however, was absent in these woods, and it was only the inopportune step we needed to be concerned about.
There are three types of monkeys in the jungle of the Nicoya, and many of them can be seen on the “Sendero Finca de Monos”: the Trail of the Monkey Farm. There is no farm, only jungle, but one is certain to find monkeys there–if you can find the trail. At the trailhead, there are no less than 4 wooden signs, 3 of them pointing in two completely different directions for the same track. But it doesn’t matter, every path seemed to lead to some kind of monkey. In addition to the Howler, there is the White Faced Capuchin, who made faces at us as we took dozens of photos, and the Spider Monkey. It was a Spider monkey who walked directly up to me after our first dinner at Curu, and took my hand. She led me first back to the door to the dining hall, hoping for entry, I supposed, and when it was not offered, to various other less interesting destinations. When I got tired of being led around I sat on a ledge. The creature sat next to me, and immediately put her head on my lap.
So I sat a bit while the monkey stretched, curled up “just so” and fell asleep. I didn’t want to disturb this cute behavior, but I can’t just sit and do nothing for long, even with the novelty of a monkey on my lap. Just as I was yearning for something more interesting, a drama began to unfold.  The monkey and I were sitting on a low wall that surrounded a sort of outdoor “foyer”. A huge toad, the largest I’ve ever seen, had found its way into the space, as had a crab. The toad clearly had his (or her) eyes on the crab, whose back was  literally “against the wall”, it’s claws held up in defense. This crab was nearly the size of the toad, and it had sharp claws and a hard shell. I could not imagine what interest the toad might have in it. But the next moment, the toad bolted and leaped towards it’s prey. There was a slight altercation that left the crab unharmed. I’m not so sure about the toad. There were a few more small “battles” until the toad was diverted by some insect, which it captured easily, allowing the crab to scuttle away.
The monkey showed no interest in this little performance. We learned later her name is Fifi, and she doesn’t “take” to just anyone. She had no interest in Dave, for example. But she liked to take my hands and look plaintively up into my eyes. When I finally extricated myself from her embrace, we headed to our bikes to ride back to our cabin. She beat us to it, and grabbed my rear bike tire, holding on tightly, not only with her hand, but as we got closer to take the bike, with a leg and her tail as well! A Spider monkey’s tail is much stronger than her arms. She understood if she could stop my bike I would stay longer. I did, of course.
Once on our bikes, it again sounded like rain as we cycled the long lane in near darkness to a cabin by the sea. This time it was crabs, hundreds of them on the sandy road, who upon our approach, skittled sideways under the many layers of dry leaves lining the pathway. They were the same type of crab the toad showed so much interest in, and the same ones we found covering our “porch“ when we arrived, parting as we walked to our cabin. They kept us busy keeping them out as we attempted to catch the ones that got past us. It was especially difficult herding the one stubborn crustacean who tried hiding first in the shower, then behind the toilet, and finally kept me busy playing “musical trash can“. We didn’t want anyone to be locked away from their homes once we went to bed–from where we observed their bellies as they hung from our screen door. They are only one of five types of crabs we were to see at in Nicoya. Their most distinguishing characteristic are their huge bright orange jack-o-lantern “eyes”  that seemed “painted” on only for show, and along with their other colorful markings, made for a clownish look. Their real eyes, round dark buttons on a sort of antenna, looked like black caviar served individually on short sticks. Their dark backs, bright orange legs and purple claws were similar to one of the other species we would see, but very different from the hermit crabs or the small plain brown ones that blended so well with their environment we had to be careful not to step on one. Or rather, they had to heed our footfalls, they were so well camouflaged.
We watched our step as we walked in the jungles in Central America, not only to avoid stepping on crabs, but more importantly to avoid poisonous snakes. There are one hundred and thirty five species of snakes in Costa Rica, of which seventeen are poisonous. Most will get out of the way when they feel the vibrations of your footfalls, but the most lethal of all, the Fer-de-lance is generally not disturbed by the presence of humans until one accidentally steps on it. If you do, and you want to live to tell about it, you’d better get to the “anti-venom shop” quick (perhaps not found at your local mall). It is the most deadly member of the “Viper” family of snake.
“Watch out! That‘s a Green Viper and its highly venomous!” a woman called out as Dave was struggling to use a rake to grab it from a tree. The snake was wound around a branch holding a nest belonging to two Rufous-naped wrens. Lovely little things with a stripe across their head and patterned wings, we had enjoyed watching them as they fussed about, singing happily as we passed each morning. Now, the birds were shouting obscenities at this intruder, and with good cause: Senor Viper was after their baby. Dave successfully pulled the snake down, where it landed in an area devoid of cover. Traumatized, it quickly found my bicycle and we watched as it wound its way through the back tire, then the gears, reaching my handlebars, where it twisted around, and snaked its way back, exiting my bike from the same place it entered. Having carefully decided this bike was not to be its “get-away vehicle”, he (or she) took a chance and slithered along the ground until it found a real bush, where it was quickly camouflaged. Even in the photo Dave took, it is hard to distinguish the snake’s triangular head from the leaves.
Actually, its head was not exactly triangular, and that was how we identified it later as a “Green Vine Snake”, harmless, not poisonous at all. The only harm done was by us. We were too late to save the baby bird. Although we tried offering it to the snake, she was clearly too upset to accept it, and the result of our interference was that the bird died for naught and the snake went hungry. We were left only with some photos and a feeling of sadness for the parent birds, who were still chattering at the poor creature when we left.
Fortunately, we had no other close encounters with snakes. While hiking we only managed a quick look at a few, as long before we were in danger of stepping too close they slithered quickly into the bushes.  No Fer-de-lance crossed our path. Lizards did: huge ones, slender ones, some quite ferocious looking (though harmless) ones. We saw them mostly on the beach, while we found the Jesus Christ Lizard hanging out by the river. I identified this member of the wildlife community immediately, non-expert that I am, because I first saw it walking (running, really) on the water. When I told Dave I saw one he asked how I knew what it was. He didn’t believe me when I explained that once you know there is such a thing as a Jesus Christ Lizard, seeing it travel is enough for immediate identification. But later, we heard a splash, splash, splash! And Dave’s mouth dropped open as he had his own moment of enlightenment.
There were other things to avoid stepping on. One trail was covered with holes, each with a huge pile of dirt beside it. We thought the creature who dug these tunnels must be large and perhaps dangerous, but eventually we saw the homeowners: they were a harmless creature, another colorful species of crab.
We also needed to watch for the slime of chewed upon, slowly rotting fruit. Animals seemed to enjoy eating bits here and there, leaving their teeth marks on half eaten mangos. Understandable, since it was “raining” mangos while we were there and the trail was strewn with them. At dusk we saw an agouti, a tan colored mammal the size of a small dog , munching on one. A really large rodent, it looks sort of like a huge rat but much cuter. We followed it‘s lead and collected mangos (the freshly fallen ones); along with some nuts it became our regular breakfast.
The trails held other flora we found interesting, and we took photos of flowers and of the trees that seemed so strange to us. Like the tree whose roots looked like metal cable crossing over the path, including the soldered jointed intersections. Other roots curled over and around the trail like huge snakes. There is the Strangler Fig, rainforest trees whose roots extend from its trunk like narrow walls, twisting and turning but holding the tree up in shallow soil, playing the same part as the flying buttresses of Notre Dame. One tree is covered with spikes, others are covered with vines and I was surprised to see cactus in the tropical rain forest. There are trees holding huge termite nests that look like a monkey squatting up there, especially when we heard them rumbling and were searching the canopy to find it with our eyes. The same monkeys that sounded like thunder, and bounced things off leaves, sounding like rain.
We had came to the Nicoya Pennisula from high in the mountains of the Cloud Forest, where the rainy season had already started and it was coming down steady and hard. I heard that same sound on the roof at night when we were sleeping in Curu. I woke up Dave to tell him it was raining, and he told me it was just the sound of the ocean, just a few meters from our cabin door. So we stayed a few more days and watched kinkajous hop on branches from tree to tree, jumping 20 feet through the air, 60 feet above the ground. We saw Kingfishers, lineated woodpeckers, and when we stayed on the trails at dusk we saw bats and night hawks–a bird the size of a chicken who flopped along the path before us: not walking, flying, or hopping: but flopping. Dave said he was searching for his dinner by disturbing insects on the ground, but it looked very strange to me.
Finally, it really did rain, pounding on our metal roof at night, muddying the forest trails in the day and creating a veil between us and the wildlife. The rainy season was now in full force. We heard the downpour was less frequent and more predictable on the Caribbean side of the country, so we decided to head across. I transferred Fifi’s hands from mine to those of the nice young woman who shared our snake experience, checked our panniers for stray crabs, and took a ferry to the mainland. We left the Pacific ocean behind and cycled over the Continental Divide to the other ocean, the Caribbean. There we crossed a rickety wooden bridge over the Sixaola River into Panama. We’ve been here about a month, had some interesting times, but it’s raining here now, too. We’re going to head back to the United States to see what the weather is like there. 

Author: United States Servas, Inc.

Servas is a worldwide cooperative cultural exchange network established in 1948 and composed of member hosts and travelers working together to foster peace, goodwill and mutual respect. Servas seeks to realize these aims by providing opportunities for person-to-person contacts between people of diverse cultures and backgrounds. Our mission includes providing approved US and international travelers with opportunities to be guests of Servas member hosts around the world.

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