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Pete arrived in San Jose a few days ago and so far we haven’t killed each other. In fact, we’ve been living it up.

Our first adventure was the Simón Bolívar Zoo in San Jose. It was close to our hostel, and it was cheap. It was also by turns sad and funny.

Our first impression of the zoo was hardly encouraging; there was a tent full of aquariums and terrariums near the entrance, and every single animal was dead. Not sleeping, not temporarily removed for cleaning—they lay stone-dead in their exhibits. Ridiculous.

Come on!  Really?

Come on.

Among other grim spectacles, there was a crucified bat propped up in the corner of its box, and myriad exotic insects and spiders, withered and legless, sprinkled over logs and plastic leaves. It was offensive, not only because these creatures were obviously victims of neglect, but more so because I had paid for admission to this dusty horrorshow, and they were calling it a zoo.

But it got better. They at least enlisted professional taxidermists for the really high-dollar cadavers.

Stuffed

I understand that there’s an inevitable element of imposition—some might say cruelty—in animal captivity, whether for public enjoyment or scientific research. In both cases, something is gained from the animals’ loss of freedom and habitat; experiments on animals save human lives, and zoos raise awareness and support for conservation. But if you’re just going to kill the animals outright and nail them to sticks, you belong in a cage yourself.

That being said, the zoo wasn’t all bad. The spider monkeys were having a hell of a time, from the looks of it. They peed from jungle gyms and wheeled around the yard, fighting and swinging, and then suddenly stopped, returned to their perches, and resumed peeing.

Monkey Pee

Pete Monkeys
Monkey Lettuce

There were lions and a jaguar, too. They seemed less jolly. I don’t know jack about what lions and jaguars want, but I venture that a bigger goddamn cage would be near the top of their list, right after eating whoever stuck them there in the first place. Or better yet, no cage at all. At least just surround them with a moat and let them feel dirt under their paws.

The obviously neurotic jaguar paced the whole time. It padded swiftly and mechanically around and around the concrete floor of the small cage and it was alone and I wanted to shoot it.

jaguar

But we didn’t let the suffering of others, especially animals, stop us from having fun. No way.

Pete Parrot
Me Toucan

A day later we left San Jose for Monteverde—my hood. I’d barely been away for two weeks, but it felt like I was going home.

Our first full day, we enjoyed “The Original Canopy Tour” (the best canopy tour in Monteverde) and went to the San Luis Waterfall with some German and Canadian girls we met at the hostel. The Pensión Santa Elena is the best place to stay in Monteverde—after the Ecolodge San Luis, of course.

The canopy tour starts with a “tarzan swing” like the one at Selvatura Park.

Pete Tarzan 1

In addition to the ziplines, The Original Canopy Tour includes a 150-foot rappel from a platform reached by climbing up the inside of a huge strangler fig:

Me tree

Pete Tree

Pete claims to have a fear of heights, but I’d say he’s either a liar or a hypocrite.

Rappel

Me Rappel

Pete Zip 1

Me n Pete Platform

After the canopy tour, we went to the San Luis Waterfall.

Pete Waterfall

Me n Pete Waterfall

On the hike back, Pete had the idea to climb a vine that hung across the trail.

Pete Vine

Me Vine

Pretty sweet.  That’s all for now.

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Farewell Ecollage

I am officially relieved of my responsibilities at the Ecolodge, and it’s less blissful than I’d anticipated.  I’m sitting on a beanbag in a San Jose hostel, using a stopwatch to avoid exceeding the 30 minute limit on public computer use.  I really, really wish I hadn’t broken my laptop screen.  I’ve got hippies from Denmark glaring holes into the back of my skull, and here I’m just trying to reply to e-mails, coordinate today’s rendezvous with my brother, Pete, and dust the cobwebs off my blog.  And I’m all out of books and magazines.  Gee whiz.

Anyway, I’ve got some more pictures from my Ecolodge days that I’d like to share before I do anything else.  I’ve still got loads of stories to tell and pictures to show, but I’ll hack those out another time.  I’ll call it an “ecollage” tribute.  But let’s see if we can’t top that.  I mean, it’s not even a real collage.

This is the entrance to my bungalow.  I brought this cardboard Geico Caveman cut-out from home to keep me company.  He must have left his manners back home, because he didn’t make a very good first impression (for either of us) on the cleaning staff.  Each of the ladies would, in turn, open the door and reel backwards or fall to the floor, gasping and shouting and crossing themselves in bewilderment and terror.

"Welcome home, Will.  I can tell you've been working hard!"

“Welcome home, Will. I can tell you’ve been working hard!”

This is where I slept.  I later made a fort out of the extra beds, but the maintenance staff were vexed because in the course of their construction I was compelled to “rip” them from the walls to which they had been fastened.  I still think they were overreacting–I gingerly unscrewed each one, and the bungalow suffered only minor cosmetic damage.  They’re just jealous because they didn’t think of it first.

My Room

The resident naturalists and other volunteers hunker down in squalid jungle hovels called “casitas,” or “ant farms” in English, owing both to the tight spacial confinement and a tendency to attract streaming hordes of army ants.  I saw a tarantula on one casita at eye level, right next to the door.  It’s a terrifying neighborhood.

Sure, it looks cozy...

Sure, it looks cozy…

I don’t think army ants sleep.  Check some out:

Army Ants

Army ant story:

Shortly before I left the Ecolodge, I blundered into a swarm of army ants in full attack mode.  (The above photo is from another encounter)  The ants were washing over, through and around a patch of shoulder-high bushes, and insects were pouring out of the brush, fleeing for their lives.

Many were trapped when the patch became surrounded by the ants, and every protruding branch and stem looked like the mast of a sinking clipper ship, teeming with frantic refugees.  Each outcrop was covered by insects and spiders and roaches and rollie-pollies and caterpillars and centipedes and crickets, scrambling and dangling and falling, as the tide of army ants rose deliberately to eat them alive.  I could hear the commotion.  The sound was a steady breeze rolling dry, curled leaves across pavement.  I had to keep moving to keep ahead of the march, occasionally pausing on top of a rock to watch for a moment.  I could see that the ground shimmered with black ants covering an area equal in size to one half of a tennis court (singles).

Every few seconds, one of the hunted creatures (often a large roach) would make a break for it and sprint or flap through the throng of ants toward safety.  Occasionally one escaped to clear ground, but most faltered and succumbed to the swarm, swallowed up by a bold black wad of ants.  Lurking in a tree branch above the melee was a Blue-crowned Motmot.  Army ants are a happy sight for these birds, as they flush out dense herds of prey too preoccupied to be mindful of death from above.

It’s all quite epic.  If I had access to any sort of graphics program, including MSPaint, I’d sketch it out in a crude child’s hand.  But I don’t at the moment.  You’ll just have to use your imagination or Google Image Search.

Moving on.

Coatis sleep high up in the tree-tops.

These coatis are about 60 feet above the ground.

These coatis are about 60 feet above the ground.

And this is where baby coatis sleep when separated from their mothers.  The human in the photo is Manuel, one of the guards at the Ecolodge, and a really nice guy.

Uhhhdorable

Uhhhdorable

We found a snail!

Snail1

Naturally I wanted the snail to appear monstrous in size so Leigh, administrative intern and little person, posed with the creature.

Leigh With Snail

Here are two pictures I took through a scope of the Resplendent Quetzal.  It’s not the national bird, but it is everywhere.  On hats, postcards, keychains, the T-shirt I’m wearing, everywhere.  Because they’re pretty.  But don’t take my word for it:

Quetzal Back

And from the front:

Quetzal Front

I caught a moth:

Moth

How to slaughter a pig:    (I have video, and gory pictures, but if my cockfight and bullriding videos were taken down, I think my more graphic pig kill material would, too.  I’ll show it at home.)
1. Bring half a drum of water to a rolling boil
We wait for the water to boil

2. Wrangle the pig out of the pen and tie up his legs.

3. Smash him on the head with the blunt side of an axe.

Sarah With Axe

4. Sink a long knife at the base of his neck to pierce the heart.

5. Put him on a table.

Pig on a Table

6. Pour the boiling water to soften the pig’s hide for scraping.

7. Scrape!

Sarah Scraping

8. Cut the pig into pieces, and put the organs in a sack!

Bucket of Organs

9. Play with pig parts!

If you think this is gross, imagine my perspective in this pose

If you think this is gross, imagine my perspective in this pose

We went to more rodeos!
Us at Bulls
I bought a Batman mask!
Us at Bulls 2
The lipstick-wearing pirate giving me bunny ears is a rodeo clown.  All of the rodeo clowns were rambunctious transvestites.  What a country.
Well, that was quick and dirty, but it’s all I have time for.  Pete’s coming in this evening and I imagine we’ll get into something worth sharing soon enough.  Adios.

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…it’s their fingers that count!

I just got back from a ten-day excursion to the Caribbean coasts of Panamá and Costa Rica.  I went with Sarah (from Bloodsport!) and Rachel, a resident naturalist.  The entire trip they talked about visiting the Aviarios Del Caribe Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica.  They had been sold on the idea by this video of a baby two-fingered sloth, recorded on-site.  They said it would be cute.

So we went.  And it was cute.

From L to R: three-fingered sloth, Sarah Wells, two-toed sloth

From L to R: three-fingered sloth, Sarah Wells, two-fingered sloth

Even the bathrooms were endearing, which is always a welcome surprise in rural Costa Rica.

mw

Next to the bathrooms was a “Wall of Learning,” where we learned.  First, we learned that the common ancestor of modern sloths was a huge, terrestrial herbivore.  The sloths’ ancestors took to the trees to escape predators on land, and adopted a laid-back, inconspicuous lifestyle.

giant-sloth

Geology Minute! As you can see, the Central American landmass is relatively young. It was formed by the slow collision of the Pacific Plate and the Caribbean Plate. The Pacific Plate slid beneath the Caribbean, and the ensuing underwater volcanic activity began forming islands. Indeed, the landmass known today as the Isthmus of Panama—through which we toiled to dig a canal—was but an archipelago as recently as 4 million years ago.

And second-of-ly, I learned that the animals we call “sloths” belong to two very distinct families, no more closely related to each other than they are to armadillos or anteaters:

order

But let’s meet some real sloths.

This is Buttercup, and she loves you.

buttercup

Buttercup is a 17-year-old, three-fingered sloth, and the story of the Aviarios Sanctuary begins with her.

In 1991 the Limón earthquake destroyed the country home of Luis and Judy Arroyo.  They rebuilt it as a boutique hotel, and offered tours of their rich rain forest property.  In 1992, three neighborhood girls brought an orphaned three-fingered sloth to their doorstep.

“We named her Buttercup. Finding very little useful information about sloths, we learned from experience – and a very hefty dose of common sense! Then, another sloth arrived. And another. Before long, we became known as authorities on sloth rescue and rearing – and sloths kept coming. Buttercup became the most loved and photographed sloth in the world.”

I didn’t get to meet Mrs. Arroyo, but I met Luis when he mistook me and my companions for the new volunteers scheduled to arrive that day.   This majestic portrait of the Sloth Godfather hangs in the gift shop, and it says more than I could hope to about a man with whom I spoke only briefly.

slothfather

Let’s say goodbye to Buttercup for now, and go check on the little ones.

hugcup

Bye, Buttercup

The sanctuary is home to more than 150 sloths, including more than a dozen babies in warm, fluffy, slowly churning heaps.  Since sloths reared together in captivity do not breed, these babies were orphaned, either in the wild or in captivity, born to dying mothers brought to the sanctuary too late.

pileobabies

This is Fozzy, a two-fingered toddler:

waka waka

waka waka!

Fozzy is about 11 months old, I think, which is toddler-age for a sloth.  I might be talking out of my ass here, but I can’t be that far off.  Sloths reach adulthood around age 3, and they can live beyond 30.  Fozzy is particularly rambunctious; he continually pawed at our tour guide and twice sallied from his crate, languidly craning to bite her arm.

fozzygrab

His roommates were chiller:

slothpile

Sloths are natural-born yawners

So what’s the difference between two fingers and three, besides a finger, smartasses?  Well, I’ll let Wikipedia help me tell you about both.  I hope you learn something.

First, Choloepus hoffmanni, known commonly as the two-fingered sloth.

Two-toed sloths spend most of their time in trees, though they may travel on the ground to move to a new tree, and are excellent swimmers. They are strictly nocturnal, moving slowly through the canopy after dark, munching on leaves. The name “sloth” means “lazy,” but the slow movements of this animal are actually an adaptation for surviving on a low-energy diet of leaves. These sloths have half the metabolic rate of a mammal of the same size. Sloths have very poor eyesight and hearing, and rely almost entirely on their senses of touch and smell to find food.”

Note: While adult two-fingered sloths are strictly nocturnal, juveniles are often awake and active during daylight hours.

Asleep.  What a surprise.

Two toes = sleep during the day (nocturnal)

Two-toed sloths hang from tree branches, suspended by their huge, hook-like claws, which are two to three inches long. Sloths sometimes are found hanging off trees after they die. Nearly everything a sloth does, including eating, sleeping, mating, and giving birth, is done while hanging from the branches in the trees. The only time that sloths are normally found right side up is when they go down to the ground to defecate, which they only do about once every 5 days.”

Another note: when sloths do defecate, they can lose up to one third of their body weight.  Whoosh!

twotoedskeleton

Sloths have many predators, including the jaguar, eagles, and large snakes. If threatened, sloths can defend themselves by slashing out at a predator with their huge claws or biting with their sharp cheek teeth. However, a sloth’s main defense is to avoid being attacked in the first place. The two-toed sloth can survive wounds that would be fatal to another mammal its size.

The sloth’s slow, deliberate movements and algae-covered fur make them difficult for predators to spot from a distance. Their treetop home is also out of reach for many larger predators. Their long, coarse fur also protects them from sun and rain. Their fur, unlike other mammals, flows from belly to top, not top to belly. This is so that when it rains, and they are hanging upside down, the rain slides off the fur easily.”

Yes, he's sucking his fingers

Yes, he's sucking his fingers

And three-fingered sloths?  I’m borrowing part of the Wikipedia entry for Bradypus variegatus, or the brown-throated sloth, one of several species of three-fingered sloth, and the most common in my area.

It is the most widespread and common species of the group, being found in many different kinds of environments, including evergreen and dry forests and in highly perturbed natural areas.

It is a solitary, nocturnal and diurnal animal, feeding on leaves of many species of trees.

The female of the species is known to emit a loud, shrill scream during the mating season to attract males. It is a cry that sounds like “ay ay”. This scream has been remarked to sound exactly like that of a woman screaming. The male can be identified by a black stripe surrounded by orange fur on its back between the shoulders.”

We did indeed hear that scream, and I was shocked that a docile creature like Buttercup could make such a racket.

buttercupneck

Three fingers = active during the day (diurnal)

Note how her neck is twisted in the photo above.  Three-fingered sloths can turn their heads up to 270 degrees, which is helpful when you spend life upside-down.  This remarkable ability is facilitated by extra vertebrae, visible in the photo below.

skeletonneck

The Brown-throated sloth has grayish-brown to beige color fur and it is very coarse and stiff. A sloth has a round head and on it there are two eyes, a blunt nose, peg-like teeth, and ears that are not visible. The tail of a sloth is very small.

Over parts of its range, the Brown-throated Sloth overlaps the range of Hoffmann’s Two-toed Sloth. Where this overlap occurs, the three-toed sloth tends to be smaller and more numerous than its relative, being more active in moving through the forest and maintaining more diurnal activity.”

But that’s not all!  Three-fingered sloths are ecosystems.  Somewhat like the cecropia tree (which is only slightly less mobile) three-fingered sloths host a symbiotic commonwealth of beetles, moths, molds and algae that thrives within their nappy fur.

The algae and mold naturally camouflage the sloth by turning it green.  Insects feed on the algae, including a species of moth, Bradipodicola hahneli, more commonly called the “sloth moth.”  The sloth moth lays its eggs in the sloth’s poop.  The eggs later hatch and the brood flies off to find another sloth.  Miraculous.

The sloths at the sanctuary are algae-free because they don’t get wet all the time the way they would in the wild.  This hardly diminishes their quality of life, as sloths have been known to starve to death in the wild during prolonged periods of rain.  That’s right⎯starve. Sloths need to keep warm in order to nourish the good bacteria in their bellies that help digest the pounds upon pounds of leaves they eat.  If they can’t get warm, they can’t digest their food.  Sloths can starve to death with full bellies.

With the Internets as my witnesses, I anoint you all sloth experts.  Now let me show you my baby pictures:

openmouth

twotoedbaby

Sleepy Sloth (VIDEO)

Yes, that's a teddy bear

Yes, he's cuddling a teddy bear

triceratops

tongueout

This itsy-bitsy baby sloth arrived at the sanctuary with fungus in his fur, so he got shaved.  To keep him warm, special jammies were made from socks.

jammy2

That does look cozy.

jammy1

jammyface

jammysleep

Sweet dreams.

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momzipping2

That’s my mom humming along a zipline in Selvatura Park.  A guide is with her for extra weight because that particular cable (one of 18) is one kilometer in length.  If you get stuck in the middle of that line, you better have already gone to the bathroom.

alex-zipping1

 

momnalex1

Selvatura Park is a really cool place with loads to see and do, but they pay people to tell you all about that, so I refer you to their Web site, linked above, if you care to learn more.  The Ecolodge makes arrangements for our guests to visit there, and it’s something every visitor should do.  

Something every visitor might not be willing to do, however, is the “tarzan swing” toward the end of the zipline canopy tour.  But how can you know you won’t enjoy being shoved off a twenty-foot scaffold to swoop inches above a concrete platform, unless you try it?  I’m pleased to report that both my sister and mother are qualified to take an informed stance on the issue.  Here’s what they had to say:

(Video)

Mom

Alex

Afterward we visited the Hummingbird Garden, where we actually heard the birds humming.  The Nahuatl word for hummingbird is huitzil, an onomatopoeia describing the sound of their wings.  Imagine a dozen enormous bumblebees around you.  These weren’t skittish at all, and I was able to get quite close.

greenhummer

At present count, Costa Rica is home to some 51 species of hummingbird.  14 species are found in Monteverde.  This one is a coppery-headed emerald, and it is endemic to Costa Rica, meaning that it is found nowhere else.  Costa Rica, especially the Monteverde area, teems with such unique fauna.  

She looks to be a female; males of the species sport rich stains of copper plumage.  This difference is an example of sexual dimorphism, a common pattern in wildlife that is especially pronounced in birds.  Obviously one expects some vital anatomical differences between males and females of any species, but whether or not a male gets to appreciate them firsthand hinges on making a good first impression.  A good first impression, in turn, hinges on being physically conspicuous—that is, attractive.  I’m sure this is old news to every living thing on the planet, but it’s a rich topic, full of surprises.  Like this

greenhead1

Below is a violet sabrewing.  They’re big—the males push six inches—but they are not proportionally territorially aggressive in the wild.  In the garden, however, they were rambunctious, driving smaller species from feeders.  This is a male.  The female sabrewing has violet only on her throat, and is otherwise green and gray.  This guy doesn’t seem to fit his own description, either, but this is an effect of lighting and perspective.  The male sabrewing’s coruscating plumage plays the spectrum from B to V, and they don’t hold still very long, even when feeding.  This is the best shot I got.  

saberwing2

Here is a hummingbird nest, discovered on a tour of the Butterfly Garden.  My thumb is for scale.  

hummernest2

The Selvatura Butterfly Garden is a vast enclosure full of flowers and butterflies.  We explored it as a guided tour audience, but I didn’t listen to anything the guy said. No, that’s not true.  I remember only that at the end the poor kid bungled a Costa Rican joke that, due to his poor English and the fact that puns generally don’t translate, made absolutely no sense.

far-pavilions

There was a nursery of chrysalises in a cabinet, and clumsy newborn butterflies falling out.

nursery

And this is how they’re made.

bugporn

This butterfly frightens predators by mimicking a snake’s head.

 

Not a real snake

Not a real snake

That’s all for today.  Butterflies bore me.  Let’s go to the beach.

ellasbeach1

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Outside

Outside

 

Inside

Inside

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Guys!  Come quick!  It’s a dead monkey!  Like, fell right out of a damn tree!  Make sure your speakers aren’t muted.

Click me!

I shot video because I thought the audible reactions of the gathered giddy rubberneckers would be worth preserving.  The guy working the sack is Scott, resident naturalist and one of my favorite people.  

And here is a gratuitous picture of myself (one of your favorite people, no doubt) to replace the mental image of cold, dead monkey face.

You

You're welcome

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wethree

Last Saturday my mom and my younger sister showed up at the Ecolodge San Luis.  They have since returned home with sunburns and stories.  I was excited to see them—indeed, it proved to be a week full of novelty—but I am also relieved by their departure.  I don’t know if it’s truly possible to have too much fun, but we must have been close.  Don’t believe me?  My mom held a snake on the first day.  

c

On our first full day we took a cab up to Santa Elena to visit the Serpentarium, eat lunch at an overpriced tourist trap, and explore the Orchid Garden.  The Serpentarium is exactly what it sounds like, with one invaluable exception: it doesn’t smell like you have actually been swallowed alive by an exhibit.  This is key.  Visitors to the reptile exhibit at the Tulsa Zoo are scourged by a stench so profane that it can only be black magic wrought by the spirits of dead Indians, upon whose pagan graves the blasphemous House of Reptiles surely rests.  It’s distracting, to say the least.

Not to say that the Serpentarium isn’t gross at times; there’s a whole exhibit of pickled reptiles in jars, set against a collage of snake-bite wound photos.  I’ll show you some.  No, I won’t, actually.  They’re ghastly, and definitely worse than any of my cockfight videos that got taken down.  “Sorry” to some, “you’re welcome” to others.  Have some cute instead:

a

Please don't crap red flower on my white tee

Om nom nom

I don’t really know anything about these two snakes, except that the first is a juvenile and the second is pretty.  I’m kinda burned out on learning about animals for the time being.

juvenile

prettysnake

Moving on!  After the Serpentarium we hiked to the center of town to eat.  We went to the restaurant at the Tree House Hotel.  I do not recommend eating there, simply because the food is expensive but otherwise unremarkable.  

We then walked to the supermarket, where we bought several bottles of wine and a little something for me to share with my colleagues.  Naturally the burden of carrying all of this for the rest of the afternoon fell on me.  That doesn’t sound like much, but I also carry about 25 pounds of gravel in my backpack to keep my daily waterfall treks challenging.  I tell you this only to help explain the absence of photos from the Orchid Garden we then toured, for I quickly grew resentful of every blossom that delayed our progress toward the bench I knew to be at the trail’s end.  

When we finally got there, I sat down, cheered up, and snapped this Motmot.  It’s a fairly common bird here, but impressive nonetheless.

Turquoise-browed Motmot

Turquoise-browed Motmot

When we got home, we hiked the Camino Real.  I was impressed by the girls’ stamina that day.

a

 

Well, that does it for the first day.  More to come.  Lots more.

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