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The iconic Eden of our dreams, or at least the Eden of mine, looks like a great African savanna. Wildlife wanders peacefully, nonchalantly, every animal having a place and order. It’s a place of balance, and the beauty and peace comes from that balance. And if I had to be even more specific about what it looks like, if I had to draw a postcard of Eden, if would be a savanna teeming with elephants towering over the land and more species of animals than I could imagine dotting the grasslands around them. Since I couldn’t imagine all of them, I’d draw the ones I know, like lions and zebras and giraffes, and then just a bunch of dots to represent all the other creatures. And in the background, looming above it all, a big mountain like a volcano. Turns out, what I would have drawn is basically Amboseli National Park in Kenya. I didn’t really know anything about what it looked like, but I wanted to go there because it’s renowned for its exceptional population of elephants. I learned, but only after I’d decided I wanted to go for the elephants, that Mt. Kilimanjaro is located there on the border with Tanzania.
So it was an interesting experience to literally drive into the Eden of my dreams. (Although there have never been safari vehicles in my imaginary Eden, haha.) It felt a little surreal. I came to East Africa on a private safari with my mom who, after seeing my photos from safaris in southern Africa and hearing tales from her friends and family who had gone on safari, decided this was something she wanted to do herself. So, it was my first safari in East Africa, and her first safari ever. I’ve had the pleasure of accompanying several other people on their first experiences with African wildlife, and it’s such a pleasure to see the reactions of people to their first animals sightings ... and of course it reminds me of the thrill of my own. But I have to say, my mom’s reactions were a particularly integral part of the fun of this safari. Whenever I get beside myself with excitement over seeing wildlife, I guess I know where that gene comes from, haha: My excitement is exceeded only by hers.
I got recommendations of parks to see from other acquaintances well-traveled among East African game parks. I gave these parks as an itinerary to Elly at Endless Safaris Ltd., and he designed our trip and we got the pleasure of having he himself as our guide.
So I’ve decided to title my series of posts from this trip, “Pockets of Eden,” as everywhere we went really exemplified that space in my psyche that until now I had to just imagine based on books, TV, and other peoples’ photos. Unfortunately the human sphere of sub-Saharan Africa is widely un-Edenic, shall we say, with endemic corruption and exploitation of both human and natural resources on a scale perhaps unparalleled in the rest of the world. And then on top of that there are the dark undercurrents of things like witchcraft culture. Although I’ve exposed some of that world in Namibia to you, much of the witchcraft culture exists just as powerfully and pervasively in other areas of Africa. So the Edens are reduced to pockets in the whole fabric of sub-Saharan Africa. They are threatened by poachers and habitat loss, so they are delicate and precarious Edens, pockets whose threads are so close to unraveling.
I have often said, probably even here on the blog, that if everyone could go on safari just once, there would be no wildlife crisis. There would still be pressures, overpopulation still creates those, but people would be motivated to figure out how to solve those pressures without extinguishing the wildlife. One night at dinner, my mom exclaimed the same thing. “If everyone could go on safari just once, no one would want to kill these animals!” Basically she was echoing the sage sentiment of Baba Dioum: In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught." Going on safari is teaching yourself and others about African wildlife. As soon as you know what the elephants do, how they protect their young, how the wildebeests fill the horizon, how the lion cubs play, how the colorful birds sing and spread their wings, you can’t help but love them. Then you will want to protect them. Trophy hunters, I can’t explain them. But they’re the minority. I recently saw a wonderful film called, “The Babushkas of Chernobyl,” in which one of the elderly ladies said, “Some people look in a puddle and see the sky, some people see themselves, and some people see nothing.” She shrugged her shoulders. “That’s the way it is.”
So I'd love to share some of Amboseli with you. I’ll split into two posts.
We spent our first night upon landing in Nairobi in the splendid Hemingway Hotel. Then headed out after breakfast to Amboseli. With, of course, some obligatory cow herd road blocks.
First glimpses of Mt. Kilimanjaro!
Now we are inside the park. For some sense of scale what it’s like to be at the foot of it, try to spot the two safari vehicles in the foreground. It's the world's tallest free-standing mountain -- in other words, it's not part of a mountain range like Everest or Denali.
So for my mom's virgin evening game drive, Elly and his driver, Harrison, parked us at an elephant crossing, where they move from their daytime grazing on the plains toward the foot of the mountain. We saw more elephants than I have ever seen together in one place. Heck, probably more than I've seen in any one entire safari. Although we didn’t keep actual count, we’re sure it was well over 200 elephants. They just kept coming and coming over the horizon, crossing the road in front of and behind our vehicle, less than a stone’s throw away from the car -- like if a particularly weak infant were throwing a pebble, she'd hit an elephant. I’ve seen a lot of elephants at close range, but not in these numbers, so I was very excited ... but my mom was completely beside herself. “I had no idea we’d see so many elephants! And that they’d be so close!” Haha, I came to find out later that she had been imagining we'd be looking through binoculars most of the time.
We stayed at Ol Tukai Lodge in a cabin that faced the mountain. Elephants often grazed in the marsh just a short distance from the cabin. And the lodge has its suite of typical hospitality staff – the waiter and waitresses, bartenders, bell hops, reception staff, etc. And then one of the most hilarious jobs I’ve seen – baboon watchmen: Masaai men who stand around the edges of the eating patios with slingshots. Everywhere else I’ve been in Africa, the vervet monkeys are pests at lodges and campgrounds. Here it is baboons! Baboons scare the heck out of me. They have enormous canines and can get really aggressive. The babies are cute, but the adults … yikes! Here my mom was going to eat a little snack on the porch of our cabin and within minutes a huge baboon had come over to get a little piece for himself. Mom beat a hasty retreat into the cabin! So we found out the staff wasn’t kidding about not taking any food away from the restaurant. And stupid me, I reinforced the veracity of the staff’s warnings a day later, not thinking about taking away a chipati back to my cabin! Ooops. Fortunately no altercation with the baboon.
Went to bed and woke up with Kilimanjaro as the dramatic backdrop. A majestic ode to the past volcanic activity of this region ... once it was a violent fiery field, and now it lays so still and serene. A friendly reminder that everything changes.
One magical morning we got up in the pre-dawn to find the waters full of pink flamingos.
Flamingos are cool and especially en masse. So a photo like this is all about color. Pink band in the blue, bracketed by yellow and green, and topped again with blue. I feel like a cake decorator or something when I say that.
But the bird I was most excited to see was the gray crowned crane!! Yes, double exclamation mark. Actually, that’s understatement. Let’s add a few more … !!! I first met these birds in Uganda and fell deeply in love with them. But Uganda was way back in 2012 and since then, my safaris have all been in southern Africa, where I have not encountered them. So in the interim, the lilac breasted roller became my favorite. But after being reunited with the gray crowned crane, I feel drawn back to my first love.
Another animal I was excited to see early on in this trip was the spotted hyena. I’ve seen a few of them in southern Africa. Usually at least one per trip. But my last safari in the Okavango, I didn’t see any, even though they are one of the most prominent features of the nighttime audio landscape anywhere in wild Africa. So I was happy to encounter them again. Here they were finishing up a meal just past dawn. Some shenanigans going on about who got the last bits.
So I was happy to see some creatures I hadn’t in awhile, but pleased as well to see the usual suspects. Like zebras! And especially when I saw a new behavior … zebra breakdancing! I saw them doing a roller derby in Moremi, Botswana. And here I saw them breakdancing. I think people generally do not give zebras enough credit for the breadth of their interests and talents.
Another usual suspect: the cape buffalo. Generally a cantankerous creature, they have their tender moments. And warthogs! A lot of people call them ugly, but I find them to have a certain charm. I love how they put their tails straight up in the air when they run, and all the little piglets running after the mum: I think they’re pretty cute.
So although the baboons were scary at our lodge, the vervets were as cute as ever. They are pesky but not scary. Well, except once at the UWEC one attacked me as I was walking home carrying leftover pizza. But as a general rule, I love watching and photographing vervets. And it always feels like, “Oh, I’m in Africa again!” every time they’re around. Though actually this was really the only place we saw much of them during our East Africa trip.
A water spigot leaking little drips of water. Vervet says, "Mine! Mine! All mine!"
But I think the single-most comforting thing, the thing that makes me sigh, “Ah, I’m in Africa again,” is the sunsets. Red and orange with the savanna dust, blanketing the entire sky, acacia trees punctuating the landscape.
And a sunset leads to a marvelous sunrise and a whole new day of excitement. Seldom do I feel so motivated to get up before dawn! But on safari I wake up full of anticipation, almost jittery from the hope of what we might see juxtaposed with the suppression of expectation, because nothing is guaranteed. But there's the knowledge that we’ll see *something* even if just one amazing animal. I feel like a kid on Christmas morning who just can’t wait to see what’s in those packages under the tree ... On safari: what is today’s dawn towing behind it?
In Amboseli it towed lots of elephants every day! Me and my mom and our guide, Elly, thrilled with the elephants just outside the vehicle:
This greenery was right near our lodge, basically in the “driveway” to the lodge. Goodbye mom and tot, we’ll see you tomorrow!
An unusual topic for a post ... I'm quite sure I haven't made an entire feature article out of souvenirs acquired on a trip! Even though I've gotten some pretty cool stuff over the years. Most notably in Iran and second notably on my two trips to northern China. But this trip was even more unique in terms of souvenir acquisition, and frankly, I never expected it to be the kind of trip or place where I would be coming home with ANY, let alone a big basketful!
I will explain the details of my time in Armila, Panama, in a future post, so for now let me just give you the bare bones. I went to this village in the indigenous province of Guna Yala in southeastern Panama, very near to the Colombian border, as a participant in an artist's residency program, La Wayaka Current. I'll plug them in every article I write about this trip, because I whole-heartedly endorse them and the experience they provide after having been in one of their programs.
I spent three weeks in this traditional village of Armila with six other artists and two "guides" who have been making friends and connections in the village for several years and they functioned as our translators also. The villagers speak their native language of Kuna and also Spanish. (the lingua franca among the artists was English)
We lived right in the middle of the community and our time was our own. But our host, "Nacho" nickname for Ignacio, provided several presentations for anyone who was interested (which was all of us), explaining their folklore and mythology, and demonstrating some of their traditional crafts, etc. After each of the craft presentations, the items were so cool and unique, I couldn't help but want some! (as with most of the other artists) Unlike the craft souvenirs I often get, a lot of these weren't just items you set around your house for display, but rather the things that the villagers themselves use and wear in daily life. So that makes them more cool in my eyes.
So I'll show you the sum of my loot and then explain each item. I can tell already this is going to end up being a lengthy post! But I hope it will maintain your attention and interest. So ... excluding my wrist wini and one necklace I forgot to include, here is the collection of my souvenirs.
Where shall I begin?! Well, let's start with the molas -- the blouses -- as they are one of the signature expressions of the traditional culture, worn by the women, and girls are to wear the colorful ones after they reach puberty. These and the winis -- the beads covering their legs and forearms -- are the hallmarks of traditional female Guna attire. They don't wear them just for show for foreigners, as few foreigners are even allowed to hang out in the village. This is really what they wear. Sorry for the stiff poses, but we couldn't really take casual photographs (I'll explain in another post), but these women kindly agreed to pose for me. They illustrate the dressing traditions of which I speak.
In the old days, molas and winis were made out of natural materials found in the jungle and sea. I could diverge into a tangent here on the wealth of such material, but I'll refrain for now. After contact with western civilization, going back to the Spanish conquest in Central America, they began incorporating more "western" materials so that now instead of seeds and dried berries, bark and sea shells, they use manufactured beads and fabric. It's still super cool and unique.
So the decorative cotton fabric "panels" on the molas are created by adding layers of fabric on top of each other, one at a time. It looks like they have cut down through the layers to expose the bottom ones, but in fact, the top layer is cut out a little bit smaller than the bottom layer to leave some visible parts of the layer underneath. The quality (and price of) a mola is judged by how many layers of fabric are used and by the fineness of the stitching that is added in designs on top. The density of the images and geometric designs has a significance in that the molas are not only clothing, but protection against evil spirits, and spirits can settle into the empty spaces, so the objective is to leave little empty space. You'll notice that the ones the Guna women are wearing are packed with lines and shapes.
You can rip off the stomach panel, the essence of the mola, and attach a new one to the sleeve/chest frame. Fellow artist, Yoon, and I both liked this turtle mola. The shirts have a mola pattern on both front and back, so the woman who made the shirt (I wish I had thought to take a picture of it as a whole) detached the molas and Yoon bought one and I bought the other. So one had been the stomach-side and one the back side. The woman standing between us is the one who made our turtle molas. Molas are only sold in Panama and Colombia, the countries where the Guna people live. They are considered a cultural heritage and the Guna have forbidden their sale outside of these two countries.
So I ended up with the turtle and then I bought another one from our host, Nacho's wife Gladys, who is a very accomplished and prolific mola-maker. Her design depicts rainbows, which was a common theme in the molas.
Now, if you know me personally, you might know how much I love bracelets. And perhaps also that jewelry is one of the most common souvenirs I buy because it doesn't require shelf space, it doesn't have to be dusted, and every time I wear it I think of my trip. So ... when I learned we could have our own wini made, I was SO down for that!
I would love to describe the scene for you inside the wini-maker's house, but I'll save that for another time, it's lengthy. Fellow artist, Judit, and I had winis made by the same craftswoman. Judit is from Spain, so she could speak to the woman in Spanish which was super helpful for me. We went together to get wrist winis made, then I returned a second time alone to get one for my ankle.
The remarkable thing about the winis is they're made from a single string wrapped around and around. It looks like a series of hoops stacked on top of one another, but it's just one string. It's created directly onto your wrist so the design is perfect and fits your arm perfectly. I picked out the colors and the design (the lady drew several on a piece of paper and said I could choose from those) for my two winis. To get the tiny beads onto the needle, the women just jiggle the needle around inside the dish of beads rather than trying to pick up the tiny beads one at a time! First pic, I took of Judit having her wini made, second photo she took of me. You get a glimpse of the interior of a typical bamboo stick hut with dirt floor.
Here are some close-ups of my designs. They each took about an hour and a half to make. USD$5 each. I felt guilty paying so little for so much time. So considering how long it took for such relatively small winis, I can only imagine the hours put into winis that extend all the way up their forearms and calves.
I didn't buy this mola, I wore it on loan, along with all the other artists who borrowed one for a couple of the cultural events we attended. They look kind of uncomfortable to wear, but it really wasn't uncomfortable at all for me. The skirts are just pieces of fabric you wrap around your waist. This pic also shows my wrist wini, and it was purely coincidental I chose a mola that matched the colors of my wini! I guess subconsciously I am drawn to them!
I found some pretty cool things while wandering the beaches on my own. Seashells, of course. I'm a compulsive seashell collector. I can't help it. I love picking them up, each one a little treasure to marvel at, it's a very meditative activity for me to walk along the beach looking for perfect ones. So I collected a bunch and then left most of them behind in our yard in Armila. But I kept ones that were unlike anything I have in my existing collection. I've never found such perfect conch shells or ones as large as the white ones at top of photo.
Something I certainly have never seen anywhere else was the remains of leatherback turtle eggs. Armila is one of the most important leatherback nesting sites in the world. Mostly you see the broken remains of ones that baby turtles hatched out of. But I found this one that appears to have crumpled down and started to decompose. When I found it, I was pretty convinced it was some kind of dried up sponge creature or something. But I was very wrong. Our guide, Luz, suspected the egg and we confirmed it with Nacho. I thought it was really interesting the lattice-like structure and how you can see through part of the outside.
And then I found on the beach this complete tortoise shell! It was sitting on the beach amid piles of other stuff ... seaweed, driftwood, and tons of trash (I'll address that in another post). I had been walking along cataloging some of the things in the trash, so I had my nose to the ground, so to speak, when I found it. It took me a moment to recognize what it was I was seeing. I turned it over to discover the fleshy animal parts were nearly 100% gone. A few very minor bits of rubbery flesh were still attached to the spinal area and around the edges. I figured if I set it in the sun, they would dry up and I could easily pull them out.
This was pretty early on in the trip, so I set it outside our hut but it didn't dry up or decompose quite as easily and completely as I thought it would. So as time was winding down, I realized I was going to have to figure out how to scrape out the last clinging bits myself. But we had no tools of any kind that would help. (Just as an example of how you couldn't just run to a store and buy something, first there is no such thing as a hardware store, you probably have to go all the way to Panama City or maybe over to Colombia to get an electric drill. There was exactly one in the entire village so people had to share it. We learned this because Yoon and Chung asked if there was one they could use for their art project.)
So what to do? I took the shell down to the river bank and washed it out really well and tried just pulling on the bits, but they were very firmly attached to the shell, no wonder they were the last to decompose. I was feeling like I was just going to have to wrap it up super tightly (because the flesh is what was still giving it a smell of death) and deal with it at home. Then I looked down in the water and saw a couple of crab claws. There are crabs all over this area, when we first arrived it was mating season and they were all over on the land, too! So crab parts are everywhere. I picked up the claws, a small one and larger one, and tested their points ... they weren't fabulously sharp, but it was the only thing even remotely pointy I had found.
So I started scraping away the inside of my tortoise shell with a crab claw at the river's edge. I felt deliciously Paleolithic. I've spent time in the past doing archaeological surface inventories of Paleolithic artifacts in Colorado, and I had a special appreciation of utilizing my natural world in this unlikely situation. If you've followed my adventures through the world, you know I've done some pretty unusual things ... have a lot of party anecdotes, "Well one time I found myself doing such and such." And then there was the time I was cleaning out a tortoise shell with a crab claw.
Some of the kids came over curious to see what I was doing. I think they thought I was very strange in my endeavor. In the end, I still couldn't get off some bits. But I remembered a fellow artist Jeffrey had brought a pair of boxcutters with him, just as part of a general artist's tool kit, not knowing what he might end up wanting to make here. I'll explain everyone's project in a future post. With only one unbroken blade left, it was in fact a crucial tool in his project, but he kindly loaned it to me to cut off the last bits. So hurray!! At home, I soaked it in some bleach water and then some vinegar water (after Googling how to preserve a tortoise shell). Then I put several coats of spray lacquer on it. Here is the underside I so neatly cleaned.
But before I got it home ... I was in a conundrum about how to safely transport it in my luggage so the outer scales wouldn't get damaged, as a few of them were already coming a little loose and peeling up. My suitcase was just a large duffle bag on wheels, so I didn't have any nice protective pockets or anything. Then, we were given another craft demonstration by a man who makes baskets and fans out of the local plants. The plant from which the traditional baskets are made is called naiwar. Both the bark and the leaf buds can be used in weaving. He learned the skill from his father, who learned from his father, and back down the line. It's a family skill. I'd actually seen him sitting outside near the river on several days making a basket. I had thought of asking if I could take a photo of what he was making, but in the end he came and demonstrated for us.
We each had the opportunity to try the weaving ourselves. I was hopelessly incompetent at it and gave up after only a few rows. Compare ... my attempt versus the masterful basket, haha.
Well, our guide Eduardo who had been translating for us, said that we could buy baskets and fans from the weaver (and there was another weaver in town who made hats). A little light bulb went on in my head and I asked if he could make a custom basket for my tortoise shell for me to take it home in. Yes! So I retrieved the shell and he measured it, and a few days later, for a whopping USD $7, got my custom basket, even with a handle!
I only had a $10 bill and he didn't have change (he doesn't have a shop or anything, you just go to his house). But it happened that the fans cost $3, so I bought one of those to make the purchase an even $10.
I still wrapped the shell in plastic and packed the rest of the basket with clothes and it made the journey home perfectly.
You might wonder what is so interesting about a wooden stake. Well, this was not something I purchased or found.
This was an extra special gift from Manuel, one of the village sahilas. The sahila are the elders in the village, and he is a medicine man and spiritual leader in the community. Over the years that the La Wayaka Current residency has been operating in Armila (12 weeks each year -- four 3-week residencies), the guides have established a particularly close relationship with Manuel. And last year he said he wanted to start doing a special ceremony for the visiting artists. I don't know if Manuel is doing this for each of the four groups that come through in a year, but he did one last year and for us this year (the first group of the year).
This particular piece of wood is from the sabwe tree. (I didn't actually confirm the spelling of that, but it sounds like "saab-way.") There are a lot of hardwood trees deep in the surrounding jungle and the Guna believe they have special spiritual properties in terms of protecting people from harm and evil spirits, etc. Manuel has become too old to forage for medicinal plants and hardwoods in the jungle himself, but he has a protégé who now collects them for Manuel and will eventually take over as a medicine man. So anyway, the apprentice collected a variety of woods and cut them into these stake shapes. I think each of us received a different type of wood, he said the name as he handed them out.
Now, to awaken the properties of every plant, be it medicinal or spiritual, the Guna medicine men sing to the plants. I think it's so lovely. When they cut them, they sing to them, and when they get ready to utilize them, they sing to them.
So his apprentice handed Manuel a bag full of these stakes and he began singing to awaken them. Shortly after he began, somebody next door started up an extremely loud machine, it sounded to me something like a chain saw or weed cutter. So there we are inside his hut trying to have this special traditional spiritual ceremony and we could hardly hear Manuel over this intrusive piece of modern equipment. It was kind of surreal, actually. I tried very hard not to be annoyed, because Manuel seemed unaffected, he just kept on singing. I didn't want to fill that sacred space with negative energy, so I just let the scene be what it was. About the time Manuel finished singing, the machine went off. Whew.
Now the apprentice handed each of us the stake and told us the tree name. Then Manuel sang again to "activate" the spiritual properties of the woods, now that they were awake. This time, it was nice and quiet as he sang the ancient songs he learned from medicine men before him. It was very cool. As in neat, not temperature. It was hot in the hut! An experience not common for foreigners to have ... my favorite thing about travel off the beaten path: those special moments.
I wondered how the other people were taking the ceremony, as I don't know them well enough to know if they would find it sacred or hokey. But everyone seemed to take it seriously. I did. Why not. I asked how to care for the wood and where to keep it, and I intend to honor the spirit in which it was given. Eduardo showed me that he carries the stake given to him last year by Manuel in his little pouch he wears everywhere.
So those are the items that are unique to Armila, to the Guna people, and special to me. The other items on the table (in the photograph of full collection) I bought from some Colombian artisans who came to Armila for the turtle festival, which I'll write about in a future post. At the bottom of the picture of my full collection: two choker necklaces and two ankle bracelets (and one necklace I forgot to include). And this little turtle carving. It looks like it's carved from stone, but it's the seed of a tree, called a tagua seed. Eduardo told me they call it "vegetable ivory" ... in other words, the plant equivalent of an elephant tusk because of how hard and ivory-like it is. If you Google tagua, Wikipedia tells us that the scientific name, Phytelephas, means elephant plant. If only the Asian cultures who prize ivory for carving would use tagua seeds instead. Anyway, I thought it was really cute and appropriate to Armila, the turtle hatching from an egg.
There were four artisans at the festival, and I bought something from three of them. Because the festival was so small, and I think we foreigners were the primary customers, and we stood out so clearly, spending time looking at the craft tables, I felt badly that I had left out one vendor, haha. So I bought one thing from him, too, just to make it even. The prices were so cheap, I could afford to splurge and buy such a cache of goodies!
So, my friends, there is an introduction to Armila, to some of the Guna tribal traditions, and to my residency, through my souvenirs. I plan to share more about all of those topics in future posts, so if they interest you, stay tuned!
Mid-November in Tamarindo, Costa Rica, was lovely. I was bracing for brutal heat and humidity, being an equatorial climate, but the beach at Tamarindo provides a nice breeze most of the time that brings the comfort level for this high-altitude Colorado mountain girl into the tolerable range. Evenings were perfect, watching the sunsets each night on the beach.
I'm not typically one for a beach vacation since I don't sunbathe or surf. But I ended up spending hours and hours boogie-boarding in the splendidly perfect boogie-able waves. Really, it's the most fun I've ever had boogie-boarding, which I hadn't done since I was a kid. This is the first time I ever took a cell phone with me traveling. I gave in. I couldn't help it. A selfie at the beach.
And one of the neatest discoveries was the erosional artwork the tide made in the sand each morning ... see the pics at Shara Sees Artful Sand and Seashells at the Seashore. These utterly adorable variegated squirrels darted around the beach-side patios and bars looking for yummy tourist tidbits.
When I learned my family had chosen Costa Rica for family vacation, the first thing I thought of and determined to do was find sloths! It turned out we needed to travel quite far inland into the rainforest region to see them. So Erik and I took a shuttle van to La Fortuna and spent the night. You can see some of the other beautiful animals we saw there in my post, A Glimpse of Costa Rica, but here I present to you sloths! I can't write "sloths" without an accompanying exclamation point because when I say the word in my head, it sounds exclamatory, as I was so excited to see them. We saw this two-toed sloth in the trees along the Bogarin Trail. He was very close. I had made jokes with friends beforehand about hoping to get some pictures of sloths! but being worried I might not have a fast enough shutter speed to capture them racing through the forest. That seemed like a ludicrous scenario, but funny enough, this guy was moving astonishingly quickly through the trees, and as the light was dim and I was trying to find a good ISO and aperture to capture him with, I almost missed him! Erik said, "He's racing away!"
You may have learned from previous African safari adventures that I lose my little mind for a minute when I'm super excited over a particular animal sighting. Takes me a minute to get my camera wits about me. This three-toed male sloth was more obliging and sat nice and still (in the even dimmer light). Doesn't he look happy? I think he's smiling at me.
As we left the park, we spotted this rodent critter poking around the bushes. We had to ask the staff what it was: an agouti: rodent found in Central and South American rainforests.
One other curious thing was saw along the trail was these pink bananas. Who knew? I figured one of their defining traits was being yellow! (or green before being ripe)
I was also captivated by these multi-colored tree trunks. I don't know what kind of trees they are. (if you know, feel free to send me a note!)
On our way back from the park, we stopped off at La Fortuna pub when we saw it was a microbrewery. I was delighted to find they had a chili beer on tap. I love a well-integrated chili beer. Being beer enthusiasts, we struck up a conversation with the proprietor ... kind of accidentally because I jokingly asked him when he was tapping the next keg in his garage. He said, "next weekend," and looked at me like, "how do we know each other?" I laughed and said I was just kidding, but that sparked off extensive conversation, numerous beers, and before we left, he had brought out some special home-brew in bottles he kept in the back and only served to friends. So presumably, we are now friends.
La Fortuna is a pleasant town, with a small downtown area, a few blocks square with plenty of restaurants and cafes and a park. At night while we ate dinner at an open-air restaurant, we watched a little dog run around the deserted streets in a Santa Claus sweater. Random. It feels like a real Costa Rican town, unlike Tamarindo that feels just like a tourist town.
Everywhere is green fecundity and flowers. This is a yard near our digs, Hotel Secreto. I thought it was a nice hotel for budget accommodations.
Although I was completely satisfied with our sloth sightings on the Bogarin Trail, we had signed up for another tour in the morning through Callidryas Tours. We hit what I would consider a jackpot on this early morning tour. In total, I think we spotted 15 sloths! Driving in the van on the way to the place our guide, Gerald, and his spotter had selected to look for them, he asked us -- there were three other people on the tour with us -- what we knew about sloths!. After a brief period of silence, I volunteered that they move so slowly that algae grows on their fur. "Yes!" Gerald said, sounding slightly surprised and surely pleased with my impressive knowledge (ha), which I gleaned from guess where ... a True Facts episode about them. I don't think it's *because* they move slowly that the algae grows, but I imagine a slow-moving creature enhances its growth capabilities.
So yes, sloth fur often looks green because of the algae growing on it. I'm kind of figuring sloths! don't smell all that great. But I haven't been close enough to one to know. Another interesting thing about them is their weight. I made a comment while looking at one with Gerald that I was surprised such a small limb on a tree could support the sloth we were looking at. He said, "How much do you think they weigh? Whatever you think, I bet it's not anywhere close." Given this clue, I guessed what I thought was a ridiculously low number (and lower than anyone else in the group guessed). I guessed 12 pounds because that's how much most of my cats weigh (excluding the legendary Mister). Nope! Can you guess?? The three-toed sloths! we were looking at, he said weighed about 9 pounds. That's because they have hollow bones like birds do. So this male weighs less than my cats. How do I know it's a male? Because of that brown stripe on his back.
Fortunately the highlight of our sloth viewing experience involved a non-racing sloth. It was early in the morning and after the spotter pointed up to this particular one, he set up a tripod with a monocular on it. Is that a word? I don't know. But instead of binoculars, it just had one eye-piece like a telescope does. And what did he notice after looking through it?? I was not the only one who squealed with excitement when he announced it was a female with a baby. Practically jumping up and down, I waited my turn to see the baby and could just make out its little face nestled against mom as they hung upside down in the tree. Then with a choir of angels sounding in the background, a ray of sunshine found its way through the thick cover of leaves directly onto the baby and mom.
That pic was taken with my cell phone camera help up to the monocular thingy. Gerald said that, kind of like reptiles, the warmth of the sun encourages the sloths! to move from their otherwise predominantly stationary positions. The baby emerged and began scratching its chin and then its mom's chin. I really can't think of another situation in which people are beside themselves with joy over an animal simply scratching themselves. But these are sloths! Any movement is terribly exciting. There was a couple on their honeymoon on the tour and they were just as giddy as I was.
By the way, it happened to be Thanksgiving Day when this precious little bundle with wicked claws peeked out at us, and what are the odds it would be right in the middle of a sunbeam in the rainforest. Pretty cool. We saw some pretty remarkable non-mammalian critters on this tour, as well. See my post, "A Glimpse of Costa Rica: Everything But Mammals," to meet them. The other mammal we encountered this day was another delightful variegated squirrel, trying to blend in to the bird buffet and snag some goodies from his feathered friends. (friends?? I don't know)
So. With mission accomplished in La Fortuna, we decided to spend the afternoon until our shuttle van departure back to Tamarindo at the La Fortuna Waterfall. I had read reviews of it on Trip Advisor, and most of them mentioned thick throngs of tourists, almost unbearable to some reviewers. It was so close to town that I decided to go anyway because of the convenience and I love waterfalls. I just steeled myself for the crowds, at least I knew to expect them. But I don't know if we were there on an anomalous day or if the reviewers were hyper-sensitive to other people being around, but we found it sparsely populated, had all the viewpoints to ourselves, and enjoyed a nice lunch in the cafe before heading "home."
I mentioned the butterfly garden, palace to a lone butterfly, in the previous post. There was also an orchid trail. I was very excited about this. I love orchids and am always trying to grow them at home, with mixed success. Shortly before leaving for this trip I learned from a David Attenborough show that the type of flower that has the most species on earth is the orchid! Who knew? I always thought they were relatively rare and exotic plants. Turns out they're profuse, and after walking through this garden, we got a feel for how widely they differ in size and shape. But, like the butterfly garden, only a few of the orchids were actually currently blooming. We saw the others from the pictures on the tags next to where each one grows. Here are a few of the ones we saw in bloom. The first ones look to me just like little people ... like a man and woman dancing together, man in pants behind the woman in a dress, in some kind of traditional costume.
Erik and I cracked up over this sign in the garden because the human figure looks totally evil with her slanted eyes and frowny mouth. Why do they presume it's girls who will pick the orchids??
This path through the garden was blocked off and was already being digested by the jungle. It reminded us of when we were in Tikal in Guatemala, a guide told us that they have to "shave" the ruins regularly to keep them from being digested like this. It's why it's so difficult to locate cultural remains of Central American civilizations!
A pretty non-orchid flower. I don't know the name of it.
The textures in the rainforest are so captivating. I learned the word "fecundity" from Annie Dillard in her book, "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek." It's a good word. I thought of it a lot, almost continually, walking through these dense rainforests around La Fortuna. That, and "diversity." The rest of the time I was either squealing over critters or admiring with an almost empty mind the colors and textures that Mother Nature wields every single moment of every single day in every corner of the planet.
Besides sloth-seeking and boogie-boarding, we did a few other activities in Tamarindo. One was kayaking through a mangrove swamp with interesting flora and a troupe of howler monkeys. Another was going out with a guide to try to find nesting turtles on the beach. We saw one, it wasn't a leatherback, but it was very, very large! We watched her digging a nest, and in the end she didn't lay any eggs but retreated to the ocean, dissatisfied with that nest. The guide said that from the time the female forms the eggs inside her, they can stay there for three to four days, so she has several days to perfect her nest.
The other activity was ziplining. From what I gather, this is perhaps the number one activity advertised throughout Costa Rica. It was fun. Erik and I had done it before many years earlier in Guatemala when the activity first came onto the scene, and it was much more low-budget. This place had very good equipment (as evaluated by my brother, a world-class rock climber) and was very professional, helping my 82-year old mom handle the course with ease. Hi mom! She might not like me sharing her age, but the guides exclaimed that by far she was the oldest client they'd ever had. Mainly I bring that up to say that it is a fun activity that, while perhaps not exactly adrenaline-pumping for the more adventurous, can be enjoyed by anybody. There were also small children, I'm guessing maybe 7 or 8 years old in our group.
This little dog was offering a list of other activities available, but we didn't book any. Though it would have been fun to book with him, watch him write our reservation ticket with his little paws and give us change with a wagging tail.
If you want to check out Tamarindo yourself, I recommend the small boutique hotel we stayed at a short walk from the beach, Ten North Tamarindo Beach Hotel. I thought this tri-colored tree trunk was interesting in the hotel's small courtyard.
please note all photos in this post may be viewed larger by opening them in a new tab (right-click)
This title isn't to imply that Costa Rica has everything but mammals ... just that this post will cover several classes of animals, but not mammals ... will save those for the next post. (Mostly they will be sloths!)
I seem to say this a lot in recent years: there's not a whole lot of rhyme or reason to why I break up and categorize photos in the posts the way that I do. It's just too many photos to put them all in a single post! So here I decided to share some of the other classes of animals we saw -- reptiles, amphibians, birds and insects. Birds aside, the other categories don't normally see a lot of action from my camera shutter. But there were some very interesting and beautiful critters in the rainforest to capture in my camera.
The first truly exotic animal we saw was the scarlet macaw on our way from Tamarindo Beach to La Fortuna. (Most pics in this article came from La Fortuna.) Of all the brilliant, exotic birds we saw in Costa Rica, the scarlet macaw took the cake. We saw a bunch, but they weren't in a tranquil rainforest or nature reserve ... of all bizarre places, a colony had taken up nesting at this place that's basically a transfer station for long distance shuttle buses, where passengers switch shuttles. There are two cafes and a souvenir shop and a large private building with fenced-off grounds, and several very large trees. The macaws roost in these trees, right next to a very busy traffic intersection where huge trucks and buses continually pass, and shuttle passengers mill in the parking lot gawking at them. There are signs saying not to feed the wildlife. But I wonder what compels them to stay in such an unlikely and very "un-naturey" place. In any case, it worked well for me to see them!
One of the creatures that Costa Rica is most famous for is the poison dart frog. My interest level in amphibians in general is pretty close to nil. The only thing I like about frogs is the noises they make. But we saw several types of frogs that were simply beautiful, and one was the brightly-colored poison dart frog, which is very, very small. I knew they were small, but I was surprised to see them only about half the length of my thumb. The frog in the third pic has his throat sack fully expanded in mid-ribbet. I think he looks hilarious and decidedly grumpy.
I don't know if the United States has a national frog (I suppose I could Google it), but this is the national frog of Costa Rica -- the red-eyed leaf frog. It's a little unfortunate he's perched on such a brightly colored flower, it makes it harder to discern the color of his toes, so contrasted to his body. But the most remarkable thing about him is the nictitating membrane over his eyeball. Just like many other animals, such as birds and domestic cats, this frog has an "inner eyelid" called a nictitating membrane that can close over the eyeball to protect it without the animal having to close its "normal" skin eyelid. But this is the trippiest inner eyelid I've ever seen. The frog can still see through its protective latticework. Which is totally cool, but it prevents you from fully understanding why it's called the "red-eyed" tree frog. But I'm going to suppose your imagination is bright enough to figure it out.
Here's one of the many awesome things about photography: I think it's cool to capture an animal, especially an uncommonly-captured animal, in my camera no matter what that animal is. Under normal living circumstances, lizards and amphibians and most insects, and most definitely snakes, would cause me to react in a spectrum of ways from mumbling a slight "ew," to a gasp and a step backward, to full-on running and screaming (big spiders cause that). I haven't run unexpectedly into a snake in the true wild when we are both on the ground (so by saying that, I just ensured that such an encounter is imminent), so I'm not sure what my reaction would be, but I'm theorizing something polar to my reaction to spiders ... something like paralysis and maybe some pant peeing. Well anyway, when our guide on one of the sloth tours (Callidryas Tours, which I recommend, as well as our specific guide, Gerald) asked us if we wanted to slightly delay our breakfast in the bird garden to go see if a viper was still around where he'd seen it yesterday, I found myself excitedly saying, "Yes!" I guess maybe I think with a guide, he will ensure my safety. (?) I don't know, but the prospect of getting a good photo of a venomous snake actually excited me.
So we walked a short distance down a path through the rainforest and then the guide stepped off the trail just a few steps and told us to be very careful as he motioned us toward him. Now, when he said let's go see a viper, I imagined a regular-sized snake, which to me means something like maybe 4 or 6 feet long, maybe a slightly plump tube. Briefly, scenes of other gigantic snakes I've encountered flashed through my head and I did worry slightly it would be one of those ... (for example, in Botswana, and the craziest day of my life in Uganda). So imagine my surprise when I followed the guide's pointing finger down to this teeny-tiny little snake curled up on a leaf. My goodness, how would you even spot that tramping through the forest? It just makes you realize that there are critters absolutely everywhere that we never even see. The first pic is blurry, sorry, camera had a hard time focusing on its head, but it gives you the sense of scale for how tiny it was. Its venom, though, would not have merely a tiny effect on me! or you! The second pic, you can see his creepy iconic viper head.
So after getting some pics of this delightful (ha) fellow -- though, I must admit, its coloring, almost pastel, and pattern is really quite lovely -- we walked back to a little outdoor cafe to eat breakfast. But along the way, we saw what ultimately I would name as the coolest thing I witnessed in Costa Rica: a virtual river of leaf-cutter ants. Now, I've only seen this incredible society of insects on TV nature shows, and found them fascinating on TV. The evening before, Erik and I ran across them by ourselves walking through a park where we took a different sloth tour. It was getting very dim, after sunset, and we already knew well enough (from previous traveling experiences) we did not want to get stuck out in the rainforest in the dark, and therefore didn't spend too much time watching them. So this second spotting it was fun to be able to really watch them at leisure.
It's really something else to be walking along through the forest and look down to see this line of leaf bits moving briskly down the trail beside you. Then you bend down and look closely to see there are just as many ants carrying leaf bits back to their nest as there are ants heading back empty-handed to the leaf source to cut more down. I did not have a camera on me with macro capabilities, so I really couldn't get a worthy picture. I tried videoing them on our little cell phone camera, but it didn't do the scene justice either. But you can see in the photo a little patch of the ants carrying their leaves ... now imagine that's not just a patch but a continuous line that flanks the path, crosses the path, goes over rocks and under tree roots, is so well-worn that there is an actual groove that the ant corps has worn into the ground. Can you guess how long this line of ants stretches? The guide said for one kilometer. I followed it for as long as I could until it disappeared into a wall of bushes. But just imagine following a constant stream of moving leaf bits, carried on the backs of ants, for a kilometer. I don't know how to really describe it and how interesting, unexpected, unique and rather phenomenal it is.
Want to learn more about leaf cutter ants and what they do with all those leaves? As long as you are not a "mature audience only" and have a sense of humor, check out the True Facts episode. It's the quickest and most entertaining way to learn about them. Freaky little them.
OK, so anyway, after making it to the breakfast table, we enjoyed watching an array of colorful birds come to their own breakfast at little feeding stations sporting a variety of fruit, set up just outside the cafe to attract birds for the tourists to be able to see. So ... here is a sampling of who we saw at the avian breakfast table.
The red-legged honeycreeper. I barely caught a glimpse of his legs here, but rest assured, they are red.
And a juvenile red-legged honeycreeper. I had to ask around my Facebook birder friends to get this ID ... I figured it was a completely different bird! But it's just a young 'un, above is the adult.
This green honeycreeper was happily perched on a banana until he had to share it with Costa Rica's national bird, the clay-colored thrush. I think it's a little amusing that for all the super colorful exotic-looking birds in the country, they chose a rather plain brown one to represent it.
The national bird seems to have a lot to say to the surrounding birds at the breakfast table. Here he's having words with a blue-gray tanager.
Before breakfast while we were in the field looking for sloths and poison dart frogs, our guide spotted this toucan and got a picture of it for me by putting my cell phone camera up to his binocular scope thing (looks like a telescope but operates like powerful binoculars). Ain't a picture to write home about, but it proves I saw one!
Elsewhere in La Fortuna, on a nature trail called the Bogarin Trail, we saw this boat-billed heron, which I've also spotted in Mexico.
We didn't see as much wildlife on this walking tour, but what was remarkable about it is that this park used to be just muddy pasture land for cows. Then Giovanni Bogarin decided to turn the land into a nature preserve and trail. Who would have a thought to turn a cow pasture into a nature park? Well, someone who understands the fecundity of rainforests, I guess. Do you know what Mr. Bogarin did to start and grow this dense, lush rainforest full of birds, snakes, leaf cutter ants (the first ones we saw) and sloths? I was rather astonished at the answer: nothing. Nada. Didn't plant seeds, didn't import animals, didn't water or tend anything. He simply didn't clear away anything that grew naturally, which otherwise the cows would graze down if it was pasture land. Birds from nearby areas brought seeds over in their poop. In the rich volcanic soil and copious rain, the seeds grew vigorously all on their own. Once there was some plant life, birds began to stay and hang out in the trees and bushes. And after that, other animals moved in to the habitat, continually seeding and growing itself and providing plant food for herbivores and subsequently meat for carnivores.
This is the pasture land. We're standing inside the Bogarin park looking over the fence that sequesters this urban rainforest from the pasture.
The area within the Bogarin preserve now looks more like this:
And how long do you think it took for this amazing transformation to take place? To go from Picture 1 to Picture 2? It's been 25 years since Mr. Bogarin stopped grazing cows on the land. Someone fluent in rainforest ecology could tell that, as our guide explained, an older rainforest has much taller trees, but I wouldn't have realized that until he told us.
It's so dense, you couldn't walk through it without a machete or something to clear your way! If you step off the pathway, it feels immediately claustrophobic, surrounded by plants so numerous they seem somehow voracious, like carnivores, waiting to devour me and ingest me into the forest mass. And of course now we know that tiny little vipers and other poisonous snakes and frogs can lurk anywhere, on any of these leaves we brush against!
Closer to home, we had this visitor, or perhaps he was hotel staff, at our hotel most days. We stayed at Ten North Beach Hotel in Tamarindo, and I have to say that I'd really recommend it. A small hotel, only a few minutes' walk from the beach, but far enough away to feel quiet, calm and secluded. Just a few apartments on the bottom level and rooms on the second level, all in a square around a courtyard with a small swimming pool and lounging beanbags in a sand pit. If you're in an apartment (as we were), they serve you hot breakfast right to your patio, and if you're in a room, you eat in the small courtyard. Anyhoo ... this was our iguana friend, often to be found on the roof tiles.
One of the most enjoyable activities we did while staying in Tamarindo was going to the beach to watch the sunset each night. Birds flew overhead.
Every evening on the way back home, tons of birds would be perching on the electrical wires over the street, settling in to roost for the night. The sound of them all was quite impressive. I didn't get particularly representative photos of how many there would be, as sometimes a long wire was covered with birds shoulder-to-shoulder, but here are a few captured on my phone camera.
I leave you with one last non-mammal creature ... in accordance with the title of this post. A butterfly, with a damaged wing, but pretty nonetheless, in the "butterfly garden" at La Fortuna Waterfall. And BTW, it was the only butterfly we saw there! haha. Presumably at some point in the year there will be more to justify the label, "garden." Or else this guy's got a palatial pad all to himself.
I don't normally give a nod to the accommodations we stay in, since I'm in the business of narrating, not rating and recommending, but I'm kind of changing my tune that I should start mentioning businesses that make our trips enjoyable, as I often get contacted with requests on how to do what I've written about. So Erik and I stayed at the very affordable Hotel Secreto for our overnight excursion to La Fortuna. Very well located for walking to restaurants and even to the Bogarin Trail. Very nice proprietor, and a mama and baby sloth hanging out in a tree right outside the reception area! And we very much enjoyed several rounds of beer at the La Fortuna pub, I believe the only craft-beer brewery in that area. Delicious beers and a super friendly proprietor with whom we chatted for quite awhile.
One evening in Chobe National Park in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, we came across a dead elephant, a young bull, in the bush. Alone, collapsed on his side. There were no predator marks on it nor any other animals near it. The scene was spookily quiet. We asked our guide what happened to the elephant, he said perhaps some illness or perhaps just the heat if the elephant had gotten dehydrated, it wasn't uncommon. (in case you’re wondering if it’s hot there, see my post, "A Typical Day") He said we should come back in the morning, the local lion pride would surely be feasting on it by then. The death of this elephant, lying all alone, seemed intolerably sad, although it was nothing more or less than the natural course of a life in the wild.
We drove back to camp at dusk. We could make out lappet-faced vultures and other carrion eaters perched silently on the bare branches of skeleton trees nearby. As night unfurled her cloak around us, their features melted away to become ominous silhouettes in the dusky sky.
The phrase, "the dark heart of nature," kept floating around in my head. This is the first safari I've been on where I noticed so many injuries on the animals and saw so many dead. I've seen some injured zebras before (from lion attacks) and maybe another injury or two, but the beauty of this place, the Okavango Delta, was regularly balanced with the harsh underside of that thriving grace. Is it that I simply saw more animals? That we spent more time in the parks (the longest safari I've been on)? Is it a harsher place? Looking through my photos, even aside from the obvious injuries we saw, I found many animals with smaller wounds and infections. Maybe my camera is just better? Even the little lions in Khwai had boo-boos all over their legs and paws.
Some of these animals I didn't even take a picture of, it felt awkward to capture the suffering. In Savuti, we saw a wild dog with a broken front leg, it was just dangling down uselessly from the completely broken bone. Another guide said a hyena had injured it in a scuffle for food almost a week earlier! And yet that dog was still leading the pack like an alpha on three legs, though it must be in excruciating pain. One of the mornings in Khwai when we were watching the wild dog pups, the entire pack abruptly took off chasing an impala and one little puppy was left behind, looking all around for his mates. Then one more came through the bushes and so it was two of them frantically looking around like precious lost souls; they had expressions of panic on their little faces. I felt so bad for them, they eventually disappeared together into a bush -- at least they had each other. Our guide said the previous year the pack lost all its pups.
The first baboon has a large gash on the underside of its forearm; the second mother baboon is thriving in spite of her injury (or perhaps a deformity since birth).
There was one day in Chobe that I thought of to myself as "the morning of death." We saw two dead elephants -- the one mentioned above and one in the river -- a dead and half-eaten genet on the ground, a dead impala in a tree that a leopard had stashed, a zebra that had been attacked by a lion, his hind quarter just a big square of red raw flesh. And later that night a baby elephant limping and falling behind its mother, putting no weight on its front foot. Our guide said it wouldn't last.
But I did take pictures of the elephant that collapsed next to the bush. Everyone, including myself, was keen to see the local lions feed on the elephant. Why should we be yearning to witness something so gruesome? We wanted to see the raw side of nature for ourselves; we wanted a proximity to reality, beyond the pretty perfectly-posed animals, to see how they stay alive, watch them feasting with the savagery of an apathetic nature.
But in the end, it wasn’t savage at all. The young lions were playing with the trunk like a toy and gnawing on the dense tusk. It was hard to be much more upset about that than watching a domestic cat play with an insect or a dead mouse.
It was fascinating to get a sense of scale for the elephant when a lion’s head would practically disappear inside the hole that had been opened up in its neck.
One little cub was bloated into a food coma, his tummy stuffed taut like a balloon. That was downright adorable. He won’t be needing to eat for a few more days!
A hopeful black-backed jackal kept his distance from the lions, waiting patiently for them to leave or fall asleep before stepping in to grab a meal for himself. He stood in the distance and eventually curled into a ball and took a nap to pass the time until it was his turn at the feeding trough.
Seeing the dead elephant the night before lying unmolested, untouched, simply collapsed, from heat or thirst perhaps, was profoundly more sad than seeing it torn and burrowed into, lying partially eaten in the sun. To have fallen alone seems more tragic than to be a part in the proverbial circle of life, the epic dramas that result from the struggle of predator against prey. I was glad to see him taken into this circle.
Still, "the dark heart of nature" kept running through my mind. It still does. Is it a dark heart or an apathetic heart that beats in the wilderness? It seems dark because there is life and therefore joy in death, and we would feel like monsters if we saw human death in the same way. But to be left alone in indifference, for such a majestic animal to decompose and disintegrate, to be embraced only by lifeless forces -- wind, rain, sun -- feels more emotionally brutal. Which is weird that a lack of emotion in the universe evokes a stronger emotion in me. So I guess I'd rather there be a dark heart than no heart.
And the young lion cubs live another day. :-)