Know Your Octopus

I lost my watch as soon as we got to Cabo Blanco.  Then I changed into swim trunks.  I was set for the week.

I walked barefoot over the rocks.  My eyes scanned the ground for motion and color.  Tiny mountain ranges and flooded valleys hid bizarre company.  Dianne pointed out what looked like a snail with frills on its back.  “A Mexican dancer,” she told me. “The gills come out of its back and some people think it looks like dresses from Mexican folk dancing.”  I could imagine watching dancers wave their dresses on a stage in Plaza de Armas in Querétaro.

The sun superheated the tide pools and it felt like stepping into a Jacuzzi.  The smell reminded me of summer and California.  The sun cooked my already salted skin.  I spotted a puffer fish stranded in a pool.  I helped Dianne corner it and she picked it from the water.  It inflated in her hands and I couldn’t hold in a laugh.  She lifted its lip and revealed strangely rabbit-like teeth.  I reached out to touch it.

“Careful,” Dianne reached out to stop me.  “Its skin has neurotoxins.  Make sure you don’t have any cuts.”  I didn’t, and I tested its skin.

Mandatory snorkeling began every day around lunch.  They loaned us snorkeling gear and let us loose.   My goal was usually to find a turtle and stay with it as long as I could.  She didn’t mind having a stalker.  I would swim sideways and watch her chomp on algae.  She looked natural cruising near the bottom but when she decided she needed a breath she looked surprisingly out of place.  She would float slowly to the surface and awkwardly take a breath.

The water cooled as I dove and I liked to spend my time sitting on the bottom.  I found a brown spotted eel between some rocks. A long plant from a rock crevice turned out to be lobster’s antennae.  Charlee found and octopus and we took turns floating upside down and watching it change colors.

After snorkeling I could taste salt the rest of the day.  My fingers and toes turned permanently puny.  The salt stayed on my skin and in my hair.

I heard the ocean before falling asleep and it usually woke me in the morning.  I spent my mornings reading in a hammock, but I made sure to take ukulele breaks.

Dianne explained the history of the park.  “It has all the elements of a good story: love, revenge, friendship, murder…” I thought she exaggerated but a wilderness guide actually murdered the eccentric founder of the park.  Cabo Blanco was the first park in Costa Rica and an absolute reserve.  The only people allowed at the station are invited groups.

The remoteness stripped away all distraction.  No ipod.  No computer.  It reminds how much you don’t need them.  Poking your head under a rock and finding an octopus glare back trumps all of youtube.  Although talking animals are funny.

Volcano Kind of Morning

I opened my eyes because the sun crept into my dreams.  Volcan Arenal peaked through a cloud.  I could see it from my bed.  Rainforest filled the gap between the mountain and me.  A lake stretched away from the volcano.  Clouds framed the peak but started to fade as the sun rose. The morning chorus performed and a few birds sallied into the open to show off.  Good morning.

In the afternoon the rain pecks at the tin roof.  Mist starts to close in the forest.  Everything yields from green to grey.  The trails are shaded and it feels like there is nothing beyond the mist.  Vines, thick and climbable, hang down from the trees.  Roy jumps on the swing and floats over the ground.

The air feels cool and I can sense it filling my lungs.  Breathing feels pure like there is something healthy about air this fresh.  My pulse slows down.  The greenness makes the air energizing and relaxing at the same time.

“I travel a lot because I teach at so many field stations, and it can be really tiring,” Mau told us. “But I’d rather invest my money on a farm than monthly visits to a psychiatrist.”  Swinging a machete in the forest will clear your head faster than anything I know.  Walking a trail by alone, with fresh air and bottle water does the same.  You don’t have to think about anything except: “Right foot. Left foot.  Breathe in. Breathe out.”  It lets you forget about the future and lets you live right now.

Beer Soup

I wanted a guitar.  Sita lent me hers and we traded songs until nearly dawn.  It had nylon strings and she painted a tree on the front.  But it didn’t matter much what it looked like, or even sounded like.  A Panamanian man behind me played a quarter coin and a coffee cup for hours.  He relinquished his instrument to teach us a Panamanian indigenous dance.  Mostly it was running in a circle, but after hours of playing music I felt like I was among friends and I relished the moment.

I left San José on a bus at 6 am and reached the pacific side of the Nicoya Peninsula after lunch.  Beautiful crashing surf (like the kind I dream about) greeted me before I even left the bus.  Santa Teresa is my surfing fantasy.

I paddled out that afternoon until I couldn’t move my arms.  I rested enough to try again and ran back to the water.  I watched the sun set from my surfboard that night and all I could think about was the next morning.

I walked down the path to the beach with Jonah.

“There’s no one even out right now,” I yelled.  The waves were breaking perfectly: head high, without a breath of wind.  “I don’t even know what to do with myself.”  I admit I started running towards the waves.  I noticed that Jonah wasn’t running next to me.  He was standing on the path with a puzzled look.

“I’ve never seen you this excited.  You’re like a little kid,” he told me.  I accepted his compliment and continued running toward the water.

We spent days in the ocean and nights by the fire on the beach.  The hostel only had space for two, so Jonah and Roy slept on the beach.  We improvised s’mores and watched the stars.  As I walked back to the hostel and the noise of the ocean faded I envied Roy and Jonah.

Roy told us about a beach he knew on the other side of the peninsula.  We caught a bus to Montezuma.  Savannah bought a pineapple when we switched busses.  When we arrived Roy took us to a path leading to waterfall.  We carried our bags (and our pineapple) up the trail.  I jumped off a rock into the clear pool.  Roy climbed onto the rock under the falls.  I joined him and let the water massage my back.  Some new friends from the hostel in Santa Teresa took a picture for our album cover when Jonah and Savannah climbed up also.  We continued up a steep hill, grabbing at plants and remnants of rope for support.

We took a lunch break at the top of the waterfall, letting the pineapple juice drip over our hands.  The stream cascaded over three steps to get to the pool below.  It dropped off a small rock face into a calm pool with a rope swing to the side.  Then it fell 30 feet into another deep pool before plunging 70 feet off the final cliff.

After lunch Roy launched himself off the second waterfall into the pool below.  After more than a little hesitation we all followed him off the cliff.  For eons mothers have asked, “If Johnny jumped off a cliff would you do it too?”  The answer, for me, is yes.

Andy climbed down from the path.  He used to work for HP but quit his job to travel the world.  I thought of how his co-workers would envy him.  I promise never to turn into the kind of person too afraid to quit their job and do something a little crazy.  He told us about Montezuma and led us to a beautiful view of the ocean on the way down the hill.

We built a campfire on the beach.  Dinner was peanut butter sandwiches and a bottle of rum.  Savannah and Roy ventured into the water.  We met a group of girls who told us about bioluminescent algae in the water.  They splashed near the shore and a few green spots blinked at them.  I followed them and waved my hand underwater, and it lit up neon green.  The waves crept up on us silently, and green flecks dotted the whitewash.

In the morning we rode a bus across the country.  A dog tried to board the bus, but he couldn’t pay the fare.  A ferry took us to Puntarenas and we boarded a new bus.  Jonah and I stood in the aisle trying not to fall asleep because all the seats were occupied.  The next morning we caught the bus from Puerto Viejo to Sixaola in the pouring rain, but it let up in time for us to cross the border into Panama.  A long wooden bridge separates Panama from Costa Rica.  Backpackers mingled with cars and locals as they traveled.  A boat taxi took us to the island chain of Bocas del Toro, just south of the border.

By day out hostel resembled a ten year olds dream.  The entire structure rested like a dock on wooden pillars in the shallows.  The green walls had speakers built in, and never stopped playing music.  The deck outside had two large holes so you can jump in the ocean.  On one side a trampoline perches on the edge of the dock.  Around the corner a set of wooden swings sways over the turquoise water.  I could see the water from my bed.

Someone approached the owner, as we were about to ask for a room.

“Do you have a TV here?” she asked.

“No.  And we never will.  Your on vacation why would you ever want to watch TV,” he responded angrily.

“It rots your brain,” another woman added.

“Then what are you supposed to do when it rains?” she snapped.

“Read a book.  Make a friend.  You’re on vacation, but you will never find a TV here,” he answered in disbelief.  I was almost deterred by the incredible rudeness, but he sold me with the TV comment.

We put our bags down and walked to the grocery store to try and find some popcorn. Accidentally we bought chicken corn, which looks and smells like popcorn but never pops.  The smell and false hope brought Sita to the kitchen.  We shared our failed popcorn and she shared her guitar.  We played songs on the dock while boats of people arrived for a party that night.

Roy and Savannah started painting each other’s faces with watercolors.  Roy gave Sita a blue and gold design stretching down her neck and shoulder.  She advertised for the artists and brought a few new customers.  Jonah’s looked a little dramatic with lots of sharp lines.  It was a little Mike Tysonish.  He may have looked a little too bad ass.  The cocaine dealers were convinced that he wanted some drugs and would hardly leave him alone, but considering his hardcore facial tattoo it’s hard to blame them.

I lost my shoes but we decided to go dancing on a different island anyways.  When we returned the party was ending.  Sita got her guitar from the room and we bid the partygoers farewell with a few songs.  She sang in English and Spanish, always finding something people would sing along with.  When she ran out of songs she made them up and convinced us to join.  The cook started rapping in Spanish over Sita’s guitar, and was surprised when she responded with her own verse.  Roy used a stick and an ashtray.  Savannah improvised a drum from a six-liter water bottle.  We sang until nearly morning, forgetting about anyone who had already gone to bed.

Sita woke me up the next morning to ask if I wanted breakfast.  I wasn’t sure if I was dreaming, and couldn’t tell if the night before was a dream.  Turquoise water winked at me from below the floorboards.  I called that proof enough and accepted breakfast.  We ate banana pancakes with chocolate syrup (the breakfast as well as the architecture was conceived of by a ten year old).  Most people were still asleep so we had the trampoline and swing set to ourselves.

We took a boat with a few friends to another island with a beautiful beach.  We decided to come back the next night to stay.  The beach stretched for nearly a mile with a background of tropical forest.  Mangroves reached over the sand and tried to touch the ocean.  The waves were noisy and constant.

We met Sita, Hanz and Andy when we walked out onto the beach the next morning.  We swam until our fingers pruned.  Jonah invented a game.  Two people stand on a long and you have to try and knock the other person off by rolling the log.  We practiced our handstands as the sky turned pink and walked back to the kitchen in the dark.

We invaded the kitchen and pooled our resources to make a vegetable bean soup.  Ivo shared his beer while Roy and Sita experimented with vegetables.  Andy and Sita shared their Cuban spices with another traveler.  A spear fisherman cooked his catch.  We cooked while we ate and I lost track of time.  I’m not sure we ever even achieved a final product.  It felt more like an exercise in sharing food with others.  Savannah cooked rice.  Jonah chopped carrots.  Andy soaked some vegetables in vinegar.  Hanz played the music and we thanked him for testing all the food for poison.

Andy and Sita left to grab their guitars.  We shared songs and sang together.  We passed around the maracas and the guitars and everyone sang together.  Sita kept all the songs she knew in a book.  She pointed to a song I didn’t recognize.

“It’s a popular Portuguese song,” she told me. “But I don’t think the words are right.  I got them from an Italian in Cuba.  After he gave me the words he admitted that he didn’t really know them.  It’s just what he thought they sounded like.”  She laughed.  “But I guess what you lack in talent you have to make up with confidence.”  Near one o’clock in the morning Andy shared his version of “Born to be Wild”.  We all yelled the chorus with him at the top of our lungs.  We forgot courtesy and decided to live wildly for one song.  Sita stood on the table and strummed along, while we shook the maracas ferociously.  I will never hear a better rendition of that song, and I may never witness a more perfect performance of any song.

On the way home the electricity stopped working at the border.  We waited in line for hours to get our passport stamps.  We made it into Costa Rica half an hour before the border closed.  We boarded our bus, but it wouldn’t start.  We got out and pushed it to get it going.  I made it back to San José shoeless, but I’m comforted by the fact that my Tevas are probably floating somewhere in the ocean enjoying the Caribbean sun.

Blocks en Español

Abigail handed me a box filled with blocks.  Numbers, letters and pictures of animals covered each side of the blocks.  She tried arranged the blocks so that only numbers were showing.  I flipped the blocks so the animals showed.  She corrected my mistake and explained the proper technique in gibberish.  I nodded and kept turning the blocks to the animal pictures. 

“Is that an organ?” I asked my host mom.

“Yes, my husband used to be an organist for a Methodist church,” she said.  “He still plays a little piano but he plays the accordion better.”

A cat inspected me from across the room, and deemed me acceptable.  She approached cautiously and sat on my lap.  Abigail moved to a different spot, so I wouldn’t ruin her game.  A dog burst into the room from outside.  He circled the room with a smile on his face.

Okami turns one in April, and he never runs out of energy.  The big white dog ran laps around the house for hours.  He investigated the furniture, the blocks but mostly ignored me.  I tried to pet him, but he never stopped moving. 

 Abby walked into my room while I played ukulele.  She sat down next to me trying to figure out what I was holding.  I hand her the ukulele.  She couldn’t hold it exactly right, but she like to pluck the strings while it lay in her lap.  I let her strum while I played some chords.  She didn’t have perfect technique, but I think she has potential.

My family seemed like a good fit, but I felt helpless, like a child.  I never knew where I was.  I didn’t know how to get to the supermarket.  I didn’t know where to get a haircut.  I couldn’t understand what people were saying to me.  I was frustrated.  After living in México for so long I should be able to speak Spanish.  I should be able to live with a Costa Rican family.  I should be able to adapt.

I forgot that I’m not in México.  I felt just as helpless when I arrived in Querétaro.  I felt like a child.  I expected to adapt quickly, but I should have known better.  I should have expected challenges like I faced in México.  I didn’t mentally prepare for culture shock.   

On the bus home from school I realized how my expectations were weighing me down, and I tried to change my frame of mind.  I remembered how I dealt with my feelings of helplessness when I arrived in México.  I started taking joy in small successes. 

My house in Costa Rica has a lock on the front gate and a second lock on the front door.  I always have trouble opening them, especially the front door.  I walked to my house and put my key into the lock.  I twisted, but it stuck.  I tried again.  It turned easily.  Success.  One step towards overcoming the obstacle of getting into my house.  I tried the lock on the front door.  I struggled for a minute before my mom took pity on me and opened it from the inside.  Tomorrow my goal is to open both locks before anyone has to save me.  Baby steps.           

Ducks Unlimited

Evening is my favorite part of the day.  The air cools down and the sky changes colors.  The light reflects off the pools of water in the marsh.  The sun silhouettes the birds against the horizon.  It’s not often that I get to watch the sun set every day.  At home I find excuses.  I’m too busy.  I’ll miss dinner.  In Palo Verde there is no excuse.  The orange sky and birds flocks won’t be ignored.

Jonah, Roy, Jeremy and I watched ducks. Our professors tasked us with finding a question, and designing an experiment to answer it.  What makes a duck vigilant?  We had four days to find out.  Every morning we rolled out of bed and walked to the marsh.  I carried a clipboard and a pair of binoculars.  Jeremy and I sat on top of tower overlooking the marsh.  I dangled my feet over the edge and found some birds to watch.

In the morning the air was still cool.  Limpkins sounded like pterodactyls as they fought each other for food.  Cows munched on dead grass.  Occasionally they would march across the march and send the birds flying.  As the cows approached the birds jumped, as one into the air.  They formed a black cloud.  They swirled over the marsh and landed in a new, safer location.  Pink spoonbills flew towards the lagoon, and sometimes joined the ducks for a meal.  On special occasions scarlet macaws flew overhead, announcing their presence with impressive squawks.

We returned to the tower in the afternoon.  Our data collection coincided with the most amiable parts of the day.  The sunset cut the afternoon session short.  Once the sky turned orange we couldn’t count ducks.

We finished watching birds. Jeremy left to go to dinner.  I stayed with my ukulele.

The cows looked at me on the tower.  I went there to sing.  I thought no one would listen, but the cows marched from the other side of the marsh and demanded a concert.  I obliged.  The sky changed colors as I played them my favorite songs.  The frogs started chirping as the light faded.  I played “The Gardner,” but the wind tried to knock me down during the last verse.  I grabbed side of the platform, and the cows left.

We finished our research project, and we left for the beach the next day.

“Let’s swim there.”  Jonah pointed to a strip of sand, isolated by high tide.  We swam towards the empty beach.  Jonah stopped to check if we were swimming in the right direction. “Ouch!”  Jonah yelled. “I think a crab pinched my foot.  It really hurts.”  I walked onto the shore.  Jonah followed.  Blood leaked from a bite on his foot.

“That doesn’t look like a crab,” I told him.  I could see a few teeth marks where jaws had clamped.  We walked back to the station to clean the cut.

“Where’s the first aid kit,” Jonah asked JD. “Something bit me.”  JD leaned down and looked at the cut.

“I think it was a little crocodile,” he said.  The cuts were spaced far apart.  It had to be something with big jaws.  A tooth punctured the top of his foot; the lower jaw had scraped the side of his ankle.

JD told Mau about the bite.  He shrugged.  “It was probably a puffer fish.”


Roy probably threw the mud first, but other suspects are under investigation as well.  I started as a pacifist, but my commitments waned as mud caked my hands and legs.  Jeremy launched a cannonball from twenty yards away.  It nailed my chest and nearly knocked the wind out of me.  I spent most of my time aiming my mud balls at him in retaliation.

“Can someone grab my boot?” Natalie asked in the midst of the crossfire. “My foot came out and now I’m stuck.”  We stopped long enough to pull her boot above ground.  I tried to walk back toward the field station but my leg sunk into mud halfway up my knee.  My foot almost came free of the boot, but I wedged my heel into the side to get free.

My light swung across the lagoon.  I caught four or five glowing eyes reflecting back.  I could see the head of a small caiman near the shore.  The rest only showed their eyes.  I was glad they didn’t take an interest in us, because we couldn’t run very far in the mud.  Gladly we never tested who ran slowest.

From the station the lagoon appeared to start where the water hyacinth ends, but the reality was a muddy swampy mess.

“We walking out to the marsh to try and find caiman,” Savannah told me.

“I’ll catch up I want to wait for everyone else,” I said.

I went back to my room and slipped on my rubber boots.  I walked back outside and turned on my headlamp.  We walked past the soccer field to the lagoon.  On the dry land before the marsh I saw dozens of blue eyes reflecting in the grass.  I knelt down next to one of the bright spots.  A wolf spider ran out from under a patch of grass and dived into a crack.  The ground started to give under our feet, as we got closer to the marsh.  Ten meters from the edge of the open water we stopped short.  We saw the caiman floating on the water, but the mud trapped our feet and we had to stop.  Then we threw mud at each other.

We walked back towards the station.  The mud claimed more than a couple of boots, but we eventually retrieved them all.  We took the mud with us.  The hose worked as a shower.  Julianne sprayed us, fully clothed, to get the mud off.  Mau walked from his room towards us.

“Did someone start a mud fight?” He asked.

“It was the caiman,” Cherron told him.  “We had to fight them off.”

“Just try not to get the mud everywhere,” he told us.  He walked back to his room laughing.


I grabbed my water bottle and a hat before we left for a hike.

“You should bring the ukulele,” Jonah suggested.

I gave him a terrible look that said, “I don’t want to carry it.”

He brought it anyway.

We found the trail past the mango trees and the ranger station.  The leaves cracked under our feet.  The leaves barely had leaves.  We scrambled over a rock.  I hesitated, but I found the trail again.  Howler monkeys barked from a different part of the forest.  It smelled like summer and dry grass.  A cool wind softened the heat.

Charlee turned a corner and scared a vulture.  I saw the station.  The marsh stretched to the river.  The hawks flew below us, looking for a meal.  Howler monkey calls carried from somewhere farther down the hill.  I found the road, and occasionally a car passed.  I could watch that scene for hours.  I forgot the things that trouble me and watched the birds.

Music hasn’t lost its appeal.  I picked up the ukulele and played “Such Great Heights” for no one in particular.

Green Sticks

The bats flew over me looking for insects.  I shone my light towards the tree.  They appeared as flashes across the sky.  I tried to track them, but they evaded my light.  I could hear their squeaks as they checked the air with radar.  Two bright eyes caught my light beam.  I lowered my headlamp and caught a peccarie.  It noticed me watching and wandered up the hill.

A black light illuminated a white wall to attract insects.  Praying mantis stood guard.  They swayed back and forth to find a bug to catch.  A beetle landed on the wall.  It glowed in the black light.

I sipped my coffee with a capuchin for company.  They watched jealously as we ate breakfast.  I walked ot the other side of the tree and the monkey bared his teeth at me.  I walked on the road towards the river.  Spider monkeys picked mangos, and tossed them to the ground.  Capuchins watched from across the road.  They tried to join the mango feast when the others weren’t looking, but the spider monkeys chased them.  A hundred yards further I found six howler monkeys.  They were quiet but I could hear another troupe howling in the forest.

A tower stood on the edge of the marsh.  A rebar ladder, secured with sporadic welds and wire, led to the top.  I climbed to the top.  Plants covered the marsh, but pockets of water appeared sometimes.  It smelled like low tide.  Frogs chirped incessantly.  I couldn’t count the birds.  A flock of whistling ducks carpeted a patch of water.  They talked to each other, but some of them yelled.  It felt like the wind might blow the tower over.

Jonah and I went crocodile hunting at night.  I pointed my light into the marsh as we walked down the dock.  I couldn’t find any of their eyes.  We switched off our lights.  There wasn’t a city for 50 km. We gave up and looked at the stars.