Sunday, February 27, 2011

A super mini-super

We are very fortunate to have an excellent small family-owned grocery store near our house in Monteverde: the Mini Super Montaña. It's only a three minute walk from our house and I'm there almost everyday to pick up something or other. I used to do a lot of shopping downtown where the prices are slightly cheaper, until I realized that after I paid for a taxi to lug the stuff up the big hill home, it cost more and was less fun. At the Mini Super Montaña you are always greeted by a friendly face, such as Victor's.
(Not only are the staff friendly, the store acts as something of a social center for me because I often run into someone I know.) Over the years, Victor and his family members have put up with numerous lapses in my Spanish. Once, instead of asking for cilantro (culantro), I inquired if they sold snake (culebra).
   The store has all the basic groceries and a miniature general store that sells everything from baby clothes to dishes and hardware. The selection of fruits and veggies is not large but they have all the basics, especially if you get there right after one of the frequent deliveries. This photo shows a time when the stock is getting a little low, but as you can see there were still excellent avocados, mangos and pineapples to be had.
Very few fruits or vegetables are refridgerated in Costa Rican stores. (The cilantro is kept in the cooler and that's why I didn't see it.)
  People often ask me if I cook Costa Rican food at home. I like the homemade tortillas that a neighbor makes but I tend to cook mostly Italian recipes. I can find many supplies I need for that such as pasta, canned tomatoes, and olive oil.
  I have to say that the most impressive section of our mini super is the laundry soap shelves. Ticos seem to have a lot of enthusiasm for cleaning products in general as reflected by their spotless homes.
   By far the best feature of the store is the high level of service. I once had one of the staff cheerfully looking for sewing needles for about 5 minutes. When it turned out you could buy them one at a time, I was a big spender and sprang for two of them. (Incidentally, there are quite a few things you can buy just one of—from a stick of butter to a single band aid or aspirin.)  Other services they do are numerous. Victor has been known to come in my taxi to carry a tank of gas into our house. They've let me have mail sent to me there because the mailman doesn't know where we are. I've taken knitting projects over and weighed balls of yarn and parts of sweaters on their scales. I like to feel I'm making their lives just a little more interesting by my odd requests. I know that they are enriching mine in more ways than I can count.


Thursday, February 24, 2011

Paying attention to the little things

   Sometimes during a hike in the Monteverde Reserve a theme seems to evolve. Today it was looking at small things. (We were not distracted by watching any Resplendent Quetzals, although we heard some that we never saw.)  One of my sightings was a small lizard that was only about 2 inches/5cm long. Its camoflage was so cunning that the only reason I spotted it was that it jumped to a different leaf as I walked past.
Once there it tolerated cameras being almost stuck into its face without budging, apparently having a lot of faith in its coloring. I think the shape of its rear feet is really interesting.
   Then I saw these adorable little flowers scattered all over the path in one area. They probably drifted down from high in the forest canopy.
I'm always interested in fungus, especially if it's colorful like these small neon yellow ones growing on a dead tree.
This little metallic gold and black beetle (about 1/2" or 1.25cm) is just as colorful in its own way as one of those big Resplendent Quetzals.  It's interesting to think about all the small creatures that are part of the cloud forest's life.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Another way to play with colorful string

  Several of my hobbies involve playing with string: knitting, kumihimo braiding, crocheting. Just before we left Wisconsin for Costa Rica this January, I had finally taken action on a long-standing interest in temari, Japanese embroidered thread balls. Regretfully I decided that it was impractical to bring a lot of temari supplies with me due to luggage limitations. However, once I got here I found that I could find everything I needed here and my personal temari craze took hold.
   The first thing I found out was that making a nice round ball isn't the result of years of practice. My very first one came out very round. Balls just want to be round because of the tension of wrapping and a ball made this way has a much friendlier feel than one based on a styrofoam ball.
I've used various things for the core: strips of rags, a wadded up recycled plastic bag, or the husks from coffee beans. (In Japan, where the craft has been practiced for some 1000 years, rice husks are a popular material.) I like to put a rattle in the center. I make these from 2 recycled soda bottle caps and some seeds from local cloud forest plants.
   The inner core is wrapped in yarn and then a lot of thread. These are both available in an array of colors from the local general store. The selection of embroidery floss available is staggering because one of the few local handicrafts done to produce souvenirs is embroidery. Most temari stitchers use a heavier thread than floss, but even though it requires more care and time, the results with floss are really lovely. It has a nice sheen and delicacy so I'm glad that circumstances have forced me to try floss.
  The only thing missing was instructions on embroidering the ball. I had brought copies of a few pages explaining the absolute basics of making a ball and dividing it into different segments. The internet came to the rescue. I found Temarikai, a marvelous source of information including many different patterns. There are a few blogs concentrating on temari embroidery. A good post for beginners is on marking the divisions of the ball. My favorite blog is by Barbara Suess. In addition there are a couple of Yahoo groups that fill the niche that Ravelry fills as a social networking site for knitters and crocheters. One is Talk Temari and the other is Temari Challenge. The latter also has a gallery of many photos that can serve as inspiration or eye candy.
  I've been making temari like crazy. I find that wrapping the balls is very relaxing while watching a video. I love playing with the colors and designs when I stitch. Fortunately, giving away temari as gifts is a part of the tradition—or our small house would soon run out of places to put them.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A winning Scrabble team

Why are all these Scrabble players so happy?
To explain, I first need to give you some background because we play Scrabble differently in Monteverde. (Hang on to your hats, Scrabble fanatics and please remember that it's only a game.) There have been regular Scrabble sessions here for many years—about 50. Some currently active players have been playing weekly for almost that long. Not surprisingly, over the years, some local variations of the rules have evolved.
   Several years ago Mr. Rududu and I started attending the Friday afternoon sessions and were introduced to Monteverde Scrabble culture. If you play competitive Scrabble or even just follow the rules on the box, you may be shocked to hear we play with eight tiles (not seven) and reuse blanks. For example, if a blank is on the board represents an N, and you have an N, you can swap it for the blank. You must, however, use the blank on that turn. While Monteverdean players are an exceptionally tolerant lot, a sure way to annoy people is to let them know you have a blank and then hold it in your rack for a long time.
   There is also a list of two and three letter words that are not legal Scrabble words anywhere else. They were found in the Oxford English Dictionary by a local Scrabble player who apparently felt there just weren't enough short words in the regular dictionary that almost no one knows the meaning of.  I think the list predates the use of the official Scrabble dictionary here. These special "Monteverde words" are listed in two little black books available during play. Speaking of that, the games are completely open book. There are numerous dictionaries and "cheat-sheets" available and fishing for words by reading a dictionary is common practice.
  To me, the most notable thing about Monteverde Scrabble games is how cooperative people are, perhaps because most of them are Quakers. Of course everyone likes to win and some people care about it more than others. Yet everyone seems to care a lot about the score you get when you add everyone's score together. The minimum goal of 600 is usually reached. Every once in a while we get up to 700. Last week the group pictured above got 814 on a single game! That involved two "Scrabbles" where someone played all eight of his or her letters and got 50 bonus points. As the game went on and it was evident they were going to get a big group score, there was more and more cooperation and brainstorming for what word each person should play.
   Here's a picture of the board. (Qri is a officially sanctioned Monteverde word, in case you're wondering. I have no idea what it means.) Here's part of their score sheet. Congratulations to the 814 team.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

¡Feliz dia de la amistad!

In Costa Rica and some other Spanish speaking countries, February 14th is celebrated as El dia del amor y la amistad or Day of love and friendship. I like that is has been broadened to be not just a day for sweethearts, but also a day for all friends.
  Here's a couple of friends I photographed in our yard yesterday: Blue-crowned motmots sitting on a sunny branch in our tree. I think they must nest nearby. They come and eat banana at our feeder, especially just at dusk and in the early morning. At dawn they make a soft and deep hoop-hoop call that gives them their name.
  While sitting still, they often slowly move their racket-tipped tail back and forth like the pendulum of a clock, earning them the nickname of pajaro reloj or clock bird. Another nicknames is bobo or fool because they are so trusting of humans. It doesn't seem to be a disadvantage to them because they are common in most parts of Costa Rica and have a range that includes Mexico, Peru and Argentina. They tend to sit still for long periods of time as they scan the area for prey such as large insects and small reptiles and amphibians.
  This species of motmot is one of my favorite birds. The iridescent head feathers and the shading from color to color are equally exquisite in both female and male. Because they are tame and sit still for long periods they are easy to see and photograph. Relatives of kingfishers, they dig long, winding burrows in the ground for their nests. The burrow can be 5 to 14 feet long (1.5-4 meters). Both parents feed their chicks.
They don't seem that foolish to me. ¡Feliz dia de amistad mis amigos!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

My heros: the trail builders

  A nice long hike in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve brings me a deep feeling of peace; for me it's a form of meditation. This morning we caught the 7:30 bus up to the reserve and spent all day on some of the more than 6 miles/10 kilometers of well maintained trails. Among the things I meditate on as I hike is all the work that has gone into creating and maintaining the paths. Today we came upon the trail crew taking a well deserved rest and I asked them to pose for me. Most of the trail guys are not particularly large but they are incredibly tough.
   Over the years, the style of trail building has changed. The first time we hiked in the Monteverde Reserve in 1991, the trails were "cookies" or cross sections of fallen trees, usually covered in wire mesh. Cookies who have lost their mesh are incredibly slippery if wet and they are usually wet because they are in a cloud forest. In between cookies, there were places where we sank in mud almost to the top of our tall rubber boots. These days, that will never happen to you on the trails in the Monteverde Reserve; any good walking shoes are fine.
  Many of the paths are now paved in cement blocks. They are taken by truck to trail heads and carried  as much as a mile/1.6km. on someone's shoulder. Considering the hilly terrain, carrying a couple of cement blocks that far—and I've never seen a trail worker carry just one— is impressive indeed. Bags of fine rock are also carried in to fill the holes in the block. Just thinking about doing that all day makes my knees hurt. In this photo of blocks by a path being improved with cement blocks, you can see some old cookies too.
  In the last few years the preserve has changed to a new style of paths without steps. They install an edge of recycled plastic "wood" and fill the path with rock and fine gravel. This makes the paths a tiny bit more handicapped accessible and lets the trail builders transport some materials part of the way on a sort of wheelbarrow.  However, there is still of lot of human power used in carrying these sacks of fine gravel.
So as I walk along the trails, I'm not only grateful to be in a such a beautiful place, I am immensely grateful to the trail crew. ¡Gracias, amigos!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Monkey business

  A large mammal recently came to our bird feeders. It was a White-throated Capuchin (cebus capucinus) monkey. Although it has a pink face, it is usually called the white-faced capucin or mono cara blanca. The corner of our lot has trees adjacent to a large wooded area running down to a stream so there's no reason that monkeys can't travel from tree to tree right up to our house. Monkeys have not come to our house often and we had personally only seen one at a distance which was acting quite fearful. Extreme alertness and caution is normal monkey behavior around people.
  Thus, I was surprised to look out the bedroom window and see one staring back at me from a branch a few feet away. He jumped up onto the roof, ran down the downspout and leaped onto the little platform where we put fruit out for the birds.
When he arrived, only peels that the birds won't eat were left. He took these banana and papaya peels to a nearby tree and seemed to relish them.
Then he came back for desert: a long drink from the hummingbird feeder. When he approached me as I snapped photos, I found his lack of fear of me a little alarming. Monkeys that have become habituated to people can be a real nuisance and although some people feed monkeys, it's not a good idea. Seeing monkeys is fun, but I would rather see them acting normally in the wild.
He unhooked the hummingbird feeder and took a long drink. When he was done, he unceremoniously dropped it. Next stop was back to the balcony and the other hummingbird feeder. When he dropped that one, a couple of perches broke off. Then he spent a long time licking off his hands and feet, where were covered in sugar water. Having taken a bunch of photos, we decided it was time to discourage his bad habit of associating with Homo sapiens. He didn't seem to really care, but a garbanzo bean from the sling shot was enough to make him retreat a bit. Also, all the food was gone.
   Mr. Rududu had a clever idea to discourage vandalism of the hummingbird feeders: backpack clips. Time will tell if they can use their partially opposable thumbs and intelligence to unhook them. If monkeys come often, we will need to completely reassess our bird feeders.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

We mammals like a sweet drink

   Lazy or tired birdwatchers can take a seat and enjoy the Hummingbird Gallery just outside the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve. You can sit and watch dozens of hummingbirds zipping around to numerous feeders. As far as I know, no one has ever been impaled by a hummingbird but they often fly close enough to graze your head with a wing. (The Hummingbird Gallery also has a nice gift shop and a great free exhibit of nature photos by Michael and Patricia Fogden.) Sheltered from the wind, the patio where the feeders are is nice and warm if the sun has come through the clouds. It's particularly nice to grab a cup of the best coffee in the area at the Cafe Colibrí next door and do some birding from a seated position after a morning of serious hiking.
  When we were there recently, an olingo (Bassaricyon gabbii) came to one of the feeders and had a nice long drink of sugar water. Martín, who works in the gallery, told me the olingo usually visits once a day in the months of January and February. As he remarked, this particular olingo must be the most famous in the world because it makes such an easy photographic subject.
Before you typecast this mostly nocturnal mammal for its fuzzy cuteness, consider this information from Mark Wainwright's The Natural History of Costa Rican Mammals:

"One in Monteverde was seen chasing down a variegated squirrel and killing it with a series of bites to the back of the head. Another Monteverdean individual, which frequently arrives to steal sugar water from feeders at the Hummingbird Gallery, also snags the occasional hummingbird, a demonstration that has horrified more than one group of feeder spectators."

We did not witness any predatory activity but we were quite amazed with how much sugar water he consumed. Olingos also drink nectar in the wild, but I'm sure they never find any other source that is so large.