¡Pura Vida! This Mind-Broadening Brought to You By Costa Rica

Here’s what Son One says about Pura Vida, after 9 months in Costa Rica:

Pura vida. Literally: pure life. But don’t bother with a direct translation. In Costa Rica, it’s a greeting, a goodbye, a thank-you, a you’re welcome, a slogan, an exclamation, and an explanation. It’s a proud toast to your country’s victorious soccer team. It’s an energetic call as you land a dorado in the Carribean. It’s a gracious refusal of payment from a local farmer who gives the stranded backpacker a ride to town. And it’s the humble answer to any tourist’s question of “how can it be so pretty here?” “Pura vida.”

Nearly two weeks of livin’ la vida pura has given me plenty to think about. Actually, as you might guess, my experience was mostly visual, so I’ll share more pictures than words this time.

#1. I never really understood the term “biodiversity” until I realized that I almost never saw more than one of the same kind of tree, flower, or fungus in the same spot. Everything’s competing madly with everything else.

"Poor Man's Umbrella."

“Poor Man’s Umbrella.”

Passion Flower. Thought these only came in purple!

Passion Flower. Thought these only came in purple!

Biodiversity ain't always pretty. (Beach Nut)

Biodiversity ain’t always pretty. (Beach Nut)

Plants upon plants upon plants...See any two alike? Right.

Plants upon plants upon plants…See any two alike? Right.

Who cares what it's called? It's so PRETTY!

Who cares what it’s called? It’s so PRETTY!

#2. Costa Rica ought to be a Mecca for gluten-free folks. Rice and beans are eaten at LITERALLY every meal: gallo pinto for breakfast (rice & black beans stir-fried with onions and red bell peppers), beans or bean soup with rice for lunch, and for dinner–you guessed it. Nary a slice of bread, nor did I see any butter for that matter. As for dessert, who needs it when you have the best fruit on the planet? This might be the healthiest travel-eating I’ve ever done.

Note: I don’t generally take pictures of food. So you’ll just have to imagine.

#3. Sometimes other countries’ wild animals don’t quite match your expectations. We happened on some capuchin monkeys harassing an iguana. “Why are they doing that?” we asked our biologist son. His scientific answer: “Monkeys are little shits.”

People think these guys are cute, huh? Yikes.

People think these guys are cute, huh? Yikes.

OK, this olinga's cute. But it's also supposed to be nocturnal, and shy, and hard to spot. Someone should tell it.

OK, this olinga’s cute. But it’s also supposed to be nocturnal, and shy, and hard to spot. Someone should tell it.

And the elusive tapir? This one was LYING IN THE MIDDLE OF OUR PATH and could hardly be bothered to get up.

And the elusive tapir? This one was LYING IN THE MIDDLE OF OUR PATH and could hardly be bothered to get up.

#4. Idea for next blockbuster horror movie: “Strangler Fig.” Seriously, these things are terrifying! They strangle whole trees from the top down, until…shudder…they BECOME the tree.

Tree, or nightmare?

Tree, or nightmare?

This would be beautiful if it weren't so gruesome.

This would be beautiful if it weren’t so gruesome.

#5. Just because a country is “developed” doesn’t mean it matches up to our wealthy, take-everything-for-granted standards. Example: many places we stayed at could not handle toilet paper in their septic systems. And even when we were zipping along on an American-style freeway, we could see that one little dead-engine incident in the opposite lanes had created a miles-long backup, because there was no shoulder, nor any “Rapid Response” state trooper just minutes from the scene. Reminder: appreciate.

No, I did not take pictures of the plumbing or the highways either.

#6. I am far too poor a photographer to capture the color-diversity of Costa Rican birds. The rarest bird of all, the Resplendent Quetzal, I only got to peek at through a scope: look, it’s a Christmas bird! But here are some of my attempts:

J/K. We never saw a real toucan, but I loved the way the Ticos made 'em out of used tires.

J/K. We never saw a real toucan, but I loved the way the Ticos made ’em out of used tires.

This big, gorgeous hummingbird's called a Violet Sabrewing. I want that as my Roller Derby name.

This big, gorgeous hummingbird’s called a Violet Sabrewing. I want that as my Roller Derby name.

Even prettier than its picture in all that tourist schlock: Scarlet Macaw (hey, another great name!)

Even prettier than its picture in all that tourist schlock: Scarlet Macaw (hey, another great name!)

#7. When you’re with a competent guide, the scary creatures are just as exciting as the pretty ones…maybe more so.

Son One's finger--I'm surprised he didn't try to pat the tarantula.

Son One’s finger–I’m surprised he didn’t try to pat the tarantula.

The deadly fer-de-lance. No fingers near this guy.

The deadly fer-de-lance. No fingers near this guy.

Why we didn't swim in the Rio Sierpe.

Why we didn’t swim in the Rio Sierpe.

#8. Beauty is universal. Every Tico we met let us know that yes, they KNEW they were living in Paradise.

Pura Vida...

Pura Vida…

Thanks, Ticos. Thank you for taking so much better care of your incredible land than most countries do. You are providing a very much-needed example. And who needs to flush toilet paper anyway?

...y Pura Vida otra vez...

…y Pura Vida otra vez…


Letting Nature–And My Son–Be My Guide: Off to Costa Rica

Son One has higher internet privacy standards than I do, bless him, so I can’t just re-blog his posts about life as a naturalist in Costa Rica. But in honor of the fact that, by the time you read this, The Mate, Son Two and I will be on our way to visit him (if not already being led through the jungle on a night tour, looking for creepy-crawlies–emphasis on creepy), I thought I’d share a little of his world, in his words and pictures.

Here’s a post from last month:

The thing in the image below is not mold, or shadows, or a water stain.  No, the reason the wall appears to be sprouting a happy trail is because it is covered in a huge mass of Harvestmen.


Harvestmen, or Daddy Longlegs, are arachnids, but they are not spiders.  They are in their own Order Opiliones.  They appear to havee only one body segment, no venom, and do not make silk.  They are completely harmless, and generally nocturnal.  During the day, they often congregate in swarms for defense.  When they gather, they usually shiver, or “bob”, and when taken together the swarms look like a single mass or large furry animal, deterring predators.  This behavior also has the benefit of combining their deterrent scents, another defense.  This is effective enough that sometimes other animals use the aggregations as cover from their own predators.

We came across this group while giving a tour of an abandoned house near the edge of our property.  The house has been neglected for years, and is now the home of several colonies of bats.  The bats were the selling point for the tour, but the Opiliones ended up stealing the show.

I have seen aggregations before, but never this big.  It nearly covered the entire wall.  And what the pictures don’t capture is the fact that it was moving.  Vibrating.  Shimmering.  Each Opilione was bobbing, and bobbing into the one next to it, causing the whole mass to writhe and pulse.

Being a nature enthusiast with poor boundaries, I immediately dared a fellow naturalist to touch it.  He, in turn, demanded I do it first.  So I did.

His caption: "Good luck sleeping tonight."

His caption: “Good luck sleeping tonight.”

It was like petting an overly hairy dog.  Or running your fingers through wiry lace.  Lace with legs.  Legs that moved.  As soon as I did so, however, the Harvestmen’s other defense kicked in and they dropped from the wall, en masse, each one landing on another and causing a chain reaction that resulted in a cascade of delicate little spidery bodies, legs flailing, onto the ground and over my boots.  It was beautiful.

Yup–beautiful. That’s Son One. Can you tell why he loves his job? And why we love reading about it? And why we’re so excited to let him guide us around his beloved cloud forest?

He’s also funny. Here’s another recent post:

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Armadillo

This is one of those stories with no point, but I still have to tell it while it’s still fresh.

We had a family visit represented by three generations:  a grandmother that only spoke Chinese, her daughter who spoke a little English, and a baby that didn’t speak much of anything.  While the language barrier would have been tricky enough, especially in most cases where conversations had to be translated twice and then back-translated every time a question was asked, things went poorly right from the start when immediately after checking in they returned to reception requesting that they be given a different room because theirs had a caterpillar on the door.

Our receptionist wasn’t sure what to make of this, but issued them a different key anyway.  They returned with that one, too.  The reason?  This room had spiders in it.  This level of guest attention continued for the rest of the day and into the next morning, when they returned from the Cloud Forest audibly complaining that they did not see enough animals.  Clearly, these people thought they were in some kind of zoo.  Or maybe a resort.

So this is what I knew before accompanying them on a guided tour of a local coffee farm.  The grandmother complained non-stop during the walk over to the point where her daughter eventually just stopped translating and joined me in trying to ignore her.  I’m sure if I had paid better attention I might have learned the Chinese words for “too hot”, “too steep”, “what the hell is wrong with these cows?”, and “why won’t these dogs stop barking?”, but my mind was on the tour and respecting our host who was giving us a tour or her home and family farm.  The guests’ minds, however, were not.

Instead of greeting our host, they both walked past her and began taking pictures.  They rapid-fired questions faster than I could juggle them in two languages.  For most of the tour and demonstrations, the grandmother kept talking and playing with the baby, who mostly ran wild and overturned baskets of coffee beans.  Our saintly-patient guide and I shared look after look as we skipped ahead in an abridged version of the tour.

However, at one point the farmer’s dogs started going crazy and barking in the bushes.  Her daughter arrived at a run and asked us if we would like to see an armadillo.  She then led us to the spot where two dogs were trying to find purchase on the back half of an armadillo sticking out of a freshly dug hole and quickly vanishing into the ground.  Their claws and teeth just slid off its shell as the terrified creature burrowed further.

While the little girl and her mother tried to hold the dogs at bay, I tried to explain what was going on.

“Look, it’s trying to escape!”  I, too, tried to pry the creature out of its hole, but armadillos are well designed with no edges to speak of when cornered.  It was like trying to pick up a basketball with one hand from out of a toilet bowl, while the basketball is giving off clearly distressed grunts.

“Is that…a turtle?” I was asked.

“No, it’s an armadillo!”

“Can you spell that?”

“A-R—“ and the armadillo kicked about a pint of dirt into my face and mouth.

While I picked dirt out of my teeth, everyone, from the old lady, our guide, and even the baby, howled with laughter.  The dogs returned to their fruitless assault.  The ice broken, the tour went a lot better after that, and we also saw an agouti, an oropendola, some parrots, and even a weasel that darted across the road.

On the walk back, there was far less complaining.  Tiger Grandmom even smiled at one point, and said something to me that her daughter translated.

“She said we saw more animals here than in Monteverde.”

So, am I hoping for a wall of arachnids? Or an armadillo? Or something as cute as this possum?



Know what? I’ll take whatever Nature wants to share with me.Won’t even care if it’s excessively venomous. In fact, that would make Son One will be especially happy.

Not going to blog while traveling, so for now…Happy New Year! Be safe, everyone, and see you in 2016!


Red in Tooth and Claw and Paralysis

Feel the need for an empathy workout? Think of one of the most horrifying creatures you can imagine–GIANT SPIDER!!! Got that? Good. Now try feeling sorry for it.

Having trouble? Don’t worry. My son the naturalist will help you get there. Read on.

Pura Vida Stories

Nature is not a friendly place.  Life is often nasty, brutish, and short, and death is no picnic either.  There are some truly sadistic ways animals have dreamed up to dispatch and consume each other.  Most fish swallow each other whole, leaving the prey to suffocate in a sack of stomach acid.  Spiders immobilize their prey in webs and make them hang there, helpless and dreading, until they decide to liquefy them from the inside.  But even spiders deserve some pity for what can befall them.

Hold on to your stomachs, folks.  This is about to get national geo-graphic.Hold on to your stomachs, folks. This is about to get national geo-graphic.

Pictured above is a tarantula hawk wasp.  The unfortunate critter nearby is a tarantula.  The spider has been stung and paralyzed by the wasp, and can’t move much more than a groggy twitch.  The wasp is currently excavating a burrow in which she will drag the tarantula, safe from the prying…

View original post 205 more words