Thursday, April 29, 2010

My personal Shangri-la

One of my favorite places in the world is the San Luis valley.
It's less than 8 km. (5 miles) from our house in Cerro Plano. We have even walked most of the way but usually we take a taxi which takes about 25 minutes—the road is very steep and much of it is unpaved. It's nice to have such a conveniently situated Shangri-la but one's utopia shouldn't be too easy to get to. The mountains forming the valley are very steep and when the mist blows in, it often looks like a Chinese painting.
   Near the top of the valley is the University of Georgia Costa Rica campus—home to the San Luis Ecolodge. It hosts study groups, researchers, and tourists. There's always someone really interesting to talk to at meals. You can find out more about UGA Costa Rica at this link. They have twice been selected as the business of the month by Rain Forest Alliance’s “Eco-Index Sustainable Tourism” program.
   The road up the valley doesn't have a lot of traffic. The Alondro river crosses the it, but the water's usually shallow. Even so, I often take the foot bridge to avoid getting wet feet. Today we saw dozens of morpho butterflies on our hike along the road.

At the end of the road is a path to a tall waterfall.

   We've been going to the Ecolodge for 8 years; I give English classes to the staff and their families. My students are wonderful warm people and I'm so proud of the progress they have made with their English and proud to have them as friends. Yesterday I gave my last classes until next January because we're going back to Wisconsin next week. The only thing making saying goodbye easier is that I will be back. Hasta la vista mis amigos. See you soon.
Some of my students:

Jose Campos

Juan and Manuel with me.
Lili and me.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Happy Birthday Marcela!

We were invited to a party for Marcelas' 50th birthday last night. The family went all out and hired a mariachi band as a surprise for the birthday girl.

The musicians came from a city 2 hours away. Mexican music is very popular in Costa Rica. (We've even been to a local funeral with mariachi music, but that's another story.) Lots of people had a chance to wear the big sombrero and there was lots of dancing.
Many of songs were cumbia rhythm and Russ and I don't know how to dance to that. But when there was something we could polka to, we sprang into action. There were whoops of encouragement for the only gringos there. I'm pretty sure they had never seen folkloric dancing from Wisconsin before.

There was a lot of food, some of it by Gelen who spent the day cooking in honor of her mom's party. I volunteered to bring a cake. Even though it was a large bundt cake we were worried about it serving the 35 or so people there. Gelen decided to serve it at the end after everyone had eaten a lot so there was plenty.

   There was a piñata to swing at. Marcela's husband Juan had it rigged up on a pulley. As he raised and lowered it so it was really hard to hit, he had a huge grin on his face. Eventually lots of candy and a few toys tumbled out. Great party guys and thanks for inviting us!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

A shopping triumph

OK, I have to admit that I am very excited about our new bathroom faucet.
Russ is holding the old one for comparison. Not only is the new one sleek, modern and shiny, it actually shuts off easily and we don't bump our knuckles on the wall using it. It's also longer, so that it's much easier to wash one's hands in the tiny sink in our guest bath. Through the last 9 years, guests have kindly not mentioned the inadequacies of the old faucet. Not to mention that only cold water comes to this sink.
  It took us 9 years to fix this problem because this is the very first faucet we found that would fit our needs. It's a good example of why I find shopping much more interesting in Monteverde. In Wisconsin, if you want something you go to a store or two and buy it. Ho-hum; it's a chore. Or maybe you go on line and a day or two later it's at your door. Where's the challenge? When we do eventually find what we want here, it really makes us very happy.
   Here there are often strange shortages of things—when we first moved into our house we couldn't find coffee cups anywhere in town for a few weeks. Recently there was the desk lamp crisis and we've just spent 4 months trying to get a replacement part of our hot water tank. (It just came into the hardware store. Hooray!)  Many people that live here shop in bigger towns or San Jose where there is more demand for luxury goods like a faucet that cost more than some ticos make in a day (about $20). We are just too plain lazy and too content here to go elsewhere to shop. Not to mention that it might take all the fun out of finding a faucet.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Everyone was at the feria

Saturday from early—7 a.m. I think, although this is information I will never use—until 2p.m. is the local farmers market—la feria. Today everyone seemed to be there. Including lots of cute toddlers. I went with Dylan and his mom, Sarah. Dylan often likes to shop independently. He's two and a half and just used the word bigger correctly in a sentence. Sarah and I agree that he's a genius.
I also ran into Spiderman. When he saw my camera, he assumed an excellent superhero pose.
What you can't see is that under his arms are sort of wing-like attachments. How cool.

I went planning to buy only a papaya, but everything looked so good I got a lot more. My favorite: thin green beans, not thick elderly ones.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The adventure of the ladder

Living in another country and trying to figure out how to get things done can be confusing or frustrating at times. One of my rules of thumb for living in Costa Rica is:

The things you think will be easy are hard and the things that you think will be hard are easy.

Here's an example from this week. Our house is varnished wood. The varnish looks pretty when new but requires a lot of maintenance. Every 3 years it gets so black and moldy we want to get it redone. Finding someone to sand it down and revarnish it wasn't hard this time and the part that is done looks great.
Here is the hard part. Our contractor, who just finished building a huge fancy restaurant downtown, doesn't own a ladder. (He just builds scaffolding when he has to get up high but we don't have lumber just laying around.) Our little wooden ladder that a friend built for us isn't long enough to reach the back of our house which is up on pillars because the lot slopes. Good ladders are very expensive here—perhaps double what a similar ladder would be in the States. So after various calls I located a friend with a long ladder who is willing to lend it to us. Whoops, the contractor only has a motorcycle and the friend's house is pretty far away. He suggested that we go and get it. We don't have a car.

Here comes the easy part. I call one of our favorite taxi drivers, Fabio, who drives us there and gets up on the baking hot roof to tie it on.
He spends lots of extra time on the hot roof because he insists on not cutting our long and inexpensive  rope because it would be a shame to waste it. Then drives us home and charges us what he would charge if he just took us to our friend's house.

Birding note: on the way there we saw a Black-breasted Wood Quail fly across the road. They prefer to walk or run, so it was surprising to see one airborne. Fabio backed up try to see it or the rest of the covey but no luck. Sorry, but I don't have a photo of it.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

¡Viva las Fiestas!

Every year our neighborhood has fiestas. For the kids it's fun to ride on one of the three little rides. There are some interesting foods stands and a sort of horse parade that's fun to see. But for a very small carnival, it makes a lot of noise. Our house is less than 50 meters from the fiesta grounds and the music is so loud that it can be heard over 2 miles away. In our house we hear the commentary on the bull riding accompanied by feedback plus the dance music being run by someone who has serious hearing loss. At least this year the fiestas were only 5 nights instead of the 10 nights they had one year. Ironically, many people don't go because of the noise level. Here's a picture taken during the day before things really got started. 
Well, bah humbug.  So this year we fled from the fiestas and ended up having a really good time. For 3 days and two nights we were down in the peaceful, beautiful world of the San Luis valley, less than 5 miles from our house but an entire world away.

Then we spent two nights at a little place that belongs to some friends.  It's a couple of miles from our house up the mountain and is a lovely and well-run. I would recommend it to anyone that wants a very friendly place to stay for a very reasonable price. It's Mariposa Bed and Breakfast (506-2645-5013 or  English is spoken.) Here's Russ relaxing on our porch.

There are lots of nice details, like these towels in the shape of mariposas (butterflies).

The Mariposa is only a mile from the reserve, and a nice walk. We spent the day there and saw monkeys and lots of interesting birds.

Then we had a wonderful dinner at Tramonti, a restaurant owned by an Italian. It has fantastic pizza but it's a long walk from our house so we don't go often.
So the fiestas got us out of our rut and we had a good time. Viva las fiestas.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Big numbers

I’m sure you’ve heard it all before on public TV: the tropics are home to tremendous diversity. Still, it’s just kind of cool to know that sixty-plus species of bats are in the small area where we live (within 10 kilometers or so) even if I rarely see any. I know the number because today when I picked up my weekly bag of vegetables I saw Richard LaVal, renowned local bat expert. His wife owns an organic veggies-by-subscription business and sometimes when I pick up my bag I see Richard and get to ask him something. It may be about the number of bat species, or it may be if he has change for a 5000 colones bill so I can pay for my veggies. Costa Rica has 0.03% of the world’s land surface and 12% of all it’s bat species. Visitors to Monteverde can learn more about bats at Richard's very well done and entertaining exhibit, the Bat Jungle.
The veggies, by the way, are excellent and it’s always fun to open the bag and see what we got. 

A friend recently suggested I learn about the ferns in Costa Rica. I just can’t get my head around the fact that there are over 1100 species of them and some 350 species in my immediate surroundings. Somehow I feel too intimidated to begin. But I do enjoy the towering tree ferns.

I also find charming the idea that there just in the Monteverde area there are over 500 species of orchids, even if most of them are tiny and up so high in the trees one only sees most of them if a branch they are living on falls down. We tend to concentrate on the big showy ones.
Our friend Lelo has this magnificent collection of Costa Rica's national orchid, the Guaria morada (Guarianthe skinneri) legally moved from various trees on his own farm. Each flower is up to 11 cm. in diameter, or more than 4 inches.
 Or there is this common terrestrial orchid called Bandera española (Epidendrum radicans) which grows on dry sunny hillsides.
 Also in the reserve are over 100 species of  amphibians and reptiles, and tens of thousands of plant species.  All of this diversity draws a host of students and researchers that adds to the wonderful diversity of our human community.
We’ve seen 469 species in Costa Rica. It’s getting harder and harder to do add a bird to our Costa Rican list without traveling elsewhere in the country but I managed to do just that yesterday when a guide friend pointed out an Ornate Hawk-Eagle soaring high overhead. Now we have to find it again so we have hawk-eagle parity. (We’ve both seen up close elsewhere though, so I guess it didn’t hurt quite as bad...) Because there are over 400 species of birds in the Monteverde reserve we sometimes don’t see a particular species for years; there’s a lot of species but not necessarily a lot of individuals. And there are all those leaves getting in the way.
Here's a White-throated Robin. We're seeing a lot of them right now but sometimes they're hard to find.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Goodbye friends....see you soon

We tell people here we are pajereros migratorios. Pajerero is the local word for birders--in other parts of the Spanish-speaking word it means various other things, including someone that is sort of good-for-nothing. Mmmmm.... But in any case we are in Costa Rica when neotropical migrants are here and we enjoy many of the same species in Wisconsin's summer. I sometimes like to imagine that the very same Baltimore Oriole that has been fattening itself up at our banana feeder here for the long journey north might be the very one that we hear singing in Madison. This is an immature, so perhaps we don't hear him sing until the following year. He will be an adult male next fall.
  As a little project this week I've been keeping track of which days we saw at least one oriole. In January and February we saw lots of them everyday. Last week there were suddenly fewer and the last one we saw was on Sunday. Next year I'll have to pay more careful attention because it seems to me that the females disappeared first.
  To learn more about Baltimore Orioles and their migration, go to the Cornell of Laboratory of Ornithology site.

Our fruit feeder is a simple wooden platform that fits over our clothesline pole. It has nails pounded into it (heads up) and I impale bananas or the skins of pineapple, papaya, or mango on it. After many taste tests, the birds have let me know that bananas are by far their favorite. Fortunately bananas only cost about 6 cents each. That's about double what it was 4 years ago, but still not expensive. Which is good, because I've put out up to 8 bananas a day. Cheap entertainment.

Like any feeder, we have a long-tailed furry bird that comes regularly.  Isn't he cute? This is a Variegated Squirrel (Sciurus variegatoides) which comes a great variety of color forms throughout Costa Rica. We are training him to jump off the feeder and into the nearby bush. Then he comes right back.
He has recently performed a very important service. One of the bananas he tried to steal fell to the ground and rotted unnoticed, except by a blue morpho butterfly that came and fed from it at length. Since we rarely see morphos in our yard, we were delighted.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

They were all singing

Seeing any bird in a dense tropical forest is challenging. Seeing one while it's singing is usually about 10 times as hard. Taking a photo of one singing is many times harder than that. So that's part of the reason we love this photo. It's an Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush and lives near our house. Knowing bird sounds or at least being aware of them means we see many more birds than we used to. And it's just kind of cool to know they are there even if one doesn't always see them.

We took the bus up to the Monteverde Cloud Forest reserve yesterday afternoon. It's actually walkable from our house, but it's a long way and at the end of the dry season (aka summer) the road is very dusty. Here's the bus to paradise. Costs about a buck to get there from our house. The afternoon was warm but with some mist and eventually rain.

The magical part of the afternoon was how many birds were singing. As a Costa Rican told me, they are calling for rain. A more scientific explanation is that many birds breed at the beginning of the rainy season which starts in May and are now establishing their territories or trying to attract mates. Yesterday was the first day this year I heard one of my favorite songs--that of the Slaty-backed Nightingale Thrush. On our very first visit to Monteverde in June, 1991, we tried fruitlessly to find the bird that was singing such a beautiful song.  We've since seen the bird, but never singing. Here's a picture of it on the nest.
Hear a Black-faced Solitaire with a Bellbird in the background.

(Note: these pictures were not all taken yesterday. Getting good photos of birds requires lots of time and patience. And luck. All bird photos in my blog unless otherwise noted are the copyrighted property of Russ Kumai and may not be used without permission. Thanks Russ!)

  A bird that has been "singing" since early March is the Three-wattled Bellbird. Part of its "song" is an extremely loud metallic bong that can be hear for over a kilometer. They sing from the top of trees, which makes them very hard to find, but we are familiar with some perches in the reserve and saw one yesterday. There seemed to be three different males trying to attract females. All the males do is look pretty, sing loud, and contribute genetic material. The female chooses which male to mate with and does all the work of raising the family. Apparently female bellbirds find the long dangling wattles very sexy.

Another bird we heard a lot was the Black Guan. When it flies, it makes a loud machine-gun rattle with its wings. Hear it fly.

The most famous bird in the reserve is the Resplendent Quetzal. We didn't see any yesterday, but we know they were there because we heard some singing. Hear the Quetzal.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

What's unusual about this motorcycle?

Yesterday morning I was on my way to the grocery store near our house and was almost blinded by the reflections off this motorcycle parked near our neighbors' house. There are only about 4 miles of paved roads around here and that most roads are dirt--or mud on days like Sunday when it rained, so getting a motorcycle as clean as this is a lot of work.

But in fact, there is nothing particularly unusual about the fact that this moto is spotlessly clean, including the tires. As I ran my errands yesterday, I saw others that were about the same. Ticos are almost fanatical about keeping vehicles clean. Maybe it's that they cost about twice as much as they do in the U.S. because of high import taxes. With the annual income here much lower, a motorcycle or car is a huge investment.

Taxis are also very clean inside and out. One taxista told me that he washes his taxi as many as three times a day. Even on a rainy day, even the floor mats are often spotless.
Another cultural note--besides putting dirty shoes up where they shouldn't be in a spotless van, the thing that most bugs Costa Rican taxi drivers is when foreigners slam the car doors. Many of the vehicles here have fairly light doors.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Shopping at la feria

Every Saturday since a year ago there has been a farmers market in the high school gymnasium. It's a great place to get fresh fruits and vegetables and see lots of friends. It being such a small town we always see people we know, like we used to at the Madison farmers market before it got so huge. However, the produce is quite different from what we get in Madison! There is a fruit vendor that brings up lots of fruit from lower altitudes. His papayas are much riper and sweeter than anything I've found at a regular store in town. I have to be careful carrying home so they don't get smashed.

This week I found something unusual--flowers of yucca quatemalensis. They are called flor de itabo. A young tico friend told me they are "old people's food." That could be because they are very traditional or perhaps because they are quite bitter. The vendor told me to boil them and then fry them with either eggs or tuna. I've had them at Marcela's house and they were delicious so I called and asked Marcela for instructions. My big question was whether to take out the center parts-the sepals--like the vendor said I should, or not. It's pretty time consuming to take them out and fortunately Marcela told me it was OK to leave them in. They are the more bitter part and we liked them.
These fruit are fresh passion fruit, maracuya. The vendor said they would be good in cake. I got further instructions from a tica friend who is a chef that I saw at the feria. I'll be trying to make something with them today. Meanwhile, they are filling our house with a heady aroma.
Life in a different country often presents mysteries. What is this huge pile of lastre (mixture of dirt and rock) doing in the parking lot of the school? I'm sure it will go on some road in the area as fill but why are they piling it up? Are they putting any on the street near our house?
I finished the first sock of this pair. I love the way the colors change in this yarn. These socks will be fraternal--I didn't start the second one with the same color.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Good morning!

Morning--time for a good cup of Costa Rican coffee. Yum. I've been making cafe con leche by heating milk and sugar in the microwave, then sitting the filter on top of the measuring cup and pouring in the water to make the coffee. Not only is it delicious, but also the way the coffee and milk are in layers before I stir really perks me up because it's so pretty and subtle. Enough to make me like the color tan. That in itself is an eye-opener.

Right now I have these beautiful gerbera daisies. There is one store in town that sells flowers on Thursday and Friday. For years I didn't know that, until one day I walked by on a Thursday. It's a difficult decision which flowers to squander $5 or so on--huge clumps of tropical flowers, or something like these daisies. The stems were about 2 feet long!

And meanwhile, this is what is going on outside. We are having our roof painted. It will be green this time. Last time I picked blue and it was pretty, but really, how much time do we spend looking at our roof? It's only visible from a couple of places. So this time we went for the cheapest color. One can also get red.

Notice the clouds and imagine them moving. Clouds almost never sit still around here, thanks to the trade winds.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Visa Vacation: Mexico

Because we are in Costa Rica on a tourist visa, we have to leave the country at least once every 90 days. When we re-enter the country after at least 72 hours we get a new tourist visa. This means we take one "visa vacation" a season. It's a good thing because we enjoy it so much here we might never explore other places otherwise. Past vacations have been to Nicaragua, Guatemala, Panama, and Peru. Twist my arm, I need to take a visa vacation! This year we went to Mexico for the very first time. We took an Exploritas trip -- the organization was formerly Elderhostel. Now we like to call it Exploritis because if traveling is a bug we definitely have it.
The theme of the trip was birding the Mayan ruins of the Yucatán and we had a marvelous
time. We saw almost 200 species of birds but we liked it that our fellow travelers weren't fanatical. Most of the species we had seen before but we did pick up a few new ones that are endemics to that area. Now if one of us would just organize our various birds seen over the years into a life list....
Mr. Rududu managed to get lots of terrific bird photos even though he had to
keep up with the group. My favorite photo is this one of painted buntings.

Of course, we also really enjoyed seeing lots of Mayan ruins and learning about them from our excellent archeology guide. (We also had a birding guide and driver to take care of 14 people in the group.) There is incredible variety from one site to another. There was a lot of ornamentation on some of the buildings like these at Chichén Itzá or the facade of a huge building at Kabah.

Another real surprise were the colorful murals at Bonampak. Exactly how they made beautiful and durable blues and turquoises is not understood as far as I know but it did involve using vegetable dyes like a kind of indigo.

It was quite hot most of the time and one day it got up to 41C / 105 F. That's really hot for visiting archeological sites. Thank goodness for our air-conditioned van. Mr. Rududu bought a very nicely made Panama hat. It's called a jipi-japa. (Sounds like hippy-happa in English.) It stays on well even in a fairly stiff breeze. I

bought the first hat with a brim that I found, which isn't nearly as elegant but served very well its purpose of keeping me from keeling over in
the heat.
Of course, I pursued my interest in food. My favorite food experience of the trip was buying a roll from this vendor with his wares on a bicycle. the variety struck me as typical of a certain exuberance. On the right are a some chicken specialties of the area, which are wrapped in banana leaves and baked in a hole in the ground. Our group had that for lunch one day, except me because I don't eat chicken. I got a very good fuss-budget's special.

Our trip was well organized and very educational as well as fun. Our traveling companions were easy to get along with. In honor of what I saw I am naming my latest knitting project Mayan Dream. The stitch pattern, although I created it before our trip, reminds of the ornamentation on the buildings we saw and the turquoise reminds me of the Bonompak murals. I'm knitting with 2 colorways of Kauni yarn.