Sunday, March 27, 2011

Insects hiding in the forest

It looked like a leaf had blown into our balcony and stuck to the window, but it turned out to be one of those amazing moths that looks just like a leaf. Because it's strategy is to not move and make like a leaf, it made a very cooperative photographic subject.
This beetle (Chrysina resplendens) looks like it would be easy see in a forest, but apparently with all its reflections it's well camouflaged in the dappled light of a moist cloud forest canopy. It's very unusual to see them at ground level; in all my hiking around Monteverde in the last 10 years, I've only seen one live one. This one was found dead in the library.
This blue morpho butterfly (Morpho peleides limpida) doesn't look well camouflaged; most of the time they don't sit around open like this. This one seemed to have just emerged from its chrysalis and was drying out in the sun.
In its normal posture for feeding or resting, it's almost impossible to find unless you saw it land. If you happen to startle one, you might end up being startled yourself by the flash of brilliant blue as it takes off and starts its crazy, swooping flight.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Street repair Costa Rican style

The street near our house is made of dirt and rocks. It's so steep and rutted in one place that even Costa Ricans with four-wheel drive vehicles avoid it. It's a favorite route for dune buggy type vehicles and all-terrain vehicles that sometimes roar past on weekends, a phenomenon that I find very annoying if I'm walking to the store. It's not a playground, people,  it's our neighborhood street, so please go back to San Jose or where ever you came from. We have enough all-terrain vehicles without having racing models come here.
  If has been raining we walk a long way to avoid the section of the street downhill from our driveway out of fear of falling on the slippery and steep mud. So it was a nice surprise that the municipality did some work on the street this week. First they graded it with this big machine.
Only recently does our town have any machinery this impressive.
 Then they brought several dump truck loads of fill. Just in case you visit Costa Rica and want to talk about road construction, fill is called lastre here, although in other parts of the Spanish speaking world that means ballast.
By local standards this is pretty good lastre, without a lot of dirt in it. Dirt turns into mud when it rains so rocks are much better. Some of the rocks are a bit big—being much larger than shoe boxes; average size of rocks in good lastre is about fist-sized.
  Next step was to spread the lastre around.
We thought it was finished, but perhaps it is a universal of road repair that some things get done in the wrong order. A couple of days later they were back with more heavy equipment and seriously widened the street by making big cuts into the earth banks along the side.
They spread the dirt on top of the lastre, where is will make a lot of mud when it rains. Many people had their driveways dug into and will need to repair them. The street is now wide enough for 2 cars to pass each other and the steep corner is considerably better. Until we go through a rainy season it's not going to be nearly as fun for the ATVs.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Visa vacation: Nicaragua

   Once every season, Mr. Rududu and I need to exit Costa Rica for at least 3 days and get a new tourist visa on reentry. These "visa vacations" have led us on many grand adventures, mostly to Central American countries. We also call these trips the Annual Roast-em Out since we usually go somewhere much hotter than Monteverde. This year we decided to keep things simple and go to Nicaragua. We went there ten years ago and had a very good time attending an intensive Spanish school in the lovely colonial city of Granada. However, an overwhelming memory of the trip was of extreme heat in March—and March is when we need to take our trip. This year we decided to go to the Island of Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua. It was such a great trip we are planning on going back in future years. See the end of the post for the nitty gritty details about the border crossing. Let's go right away to the pretty pictures.
    Ometepe was formed by two volcanoes emerging from the very large Lake Nicaragua. Here's a view of them from the mainland restaurant where we waited for our ferry. A stiff breeze was keeping us comfortable while we nibbled on a tasty fried fish appetizer.
The hotel we stayed at is called El Encanto and it did indeed enchant us. It has just 4 simple rooms and some dorm space. Our small room with private bath was very clean, had good mattresses, screens on the windows and a fan. Almost constant breezes kept us comfortable, although afternoons were a good time for a nap or some quality hammock time on the patio. The owner, Carlos, is developing a beautiful horticultural garden on the grounds instead of growing plantains as he used to. The hotel restaurant was excellent, with many fish, chicken and vegetarian options, all cooked from scratch.
   The hotel has stunning views of the lake and the two volcanoes. This is the view from the dining room. Of all the advantages of El Encanto, what really makes it a great place to stay is Carlos. He speaks both English and Spanish and is helps all his guests with advice and logistics. The first morning we were there he guided the two of us on a birding hike down to a wetland area near the hotel. (Note: this is not a casual stroll. There's very little shade and the rough ground surface makes walking all morning tiring but we found it well worth the effort.) It's always a very special experience to go with a guide that is so enthusiastic about birds and has local knowledge of where to find them.
   Highlights of the morning included hundreds of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, some Double-striped Thick-knees, and a White-tailed Kite. By the end of our stay we had seen over 50 species. The most common bird near the hotel and a fun one to watch is the White-throated Magpie Jay. They are extremely active and led Mr. Rududu a merry chase as he tried to get a decent photo of one.
  Our second day we spent the morning hiking part way up the Maderas Volcano to an overlook. Along the way we saw some of the many petroglyphs on the island, lots of monkeys, and some interesting birds. This howler monkey looked like  he enjoyed a good rest in the heat of the day as much as we did.
The border crossing
   Traveling in Nicargua can be both pleasant and inexpensive. The least pleasant part of going to Nicaragua from Costa Rica is the border crossing. The border area is about 1 Km long and there are numerous stops and checks you need to make, none of which are clearly marked. Long waits are common. An hour and a half seems typical but we've heard it can take 4 hours. Memories of waiting in very slow moving lines at temperatures of about 90F/32C had me dreading it.  Thus, we were a little disoriented when we got out of the cab that brought us from Monteverde and found no line at all at the Costa Rican immigration office.
  If you arrive on an international bus, such as the Tica Bus or Transnica, the bus employees will tell you exactly where to go and what to do. The buses are comfortable and inexpensive. A down side of the bus is that you arrive with a whole crowd of other people that instantly make the line a lot longer. We were lucky to arrive when there were no buses going through. We were told that they seem to be concentrated between 11 and 1; we arrived at 11 in each direction.
   There are lots of guys who want to help you navigate the border if you aren't on a bus. We found it worth a small tip to have one give us the forms and show us where to go. The forms are free, but only available at the head of the line; having them in advance gives you time to fill them out. On the way into Nicaragua, our helper on the Nicaraguan side also was a broker for finding a taxi, although I'm sure we could have done that on our own—and probably found one with seat belts. A cheaper option is to take local buses to and from the border.
  An important advantage of adopting a helper is that all the other ones leave you alone. You can take a pedicab part of the way within the border area to decrease how far you need to walk. It's a nice little splurge—think of it as helping the local economy. It only took us 30 to 35 minutes to make our crossings. The high season in Nicaragua is from December to mid-January and Semana Santa (Holy Week). Border crossings at those times are likely to take a lot longer.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Playing with colors: my thread collection

There's something I find very satisfying about having a lot of colors of something. Remember the joy of the big box of crayons when you were a kid? I haven't really gotten over it. Due to my recent interest in making temari (Japanese style embroidered thread balls), I went and bought a lot of thread.
I felt like buying one of each color but restrained myself. Why so much thread? Not only can I use it to wrap the balls, I've discovered I can also use 4 strands at a time to embroider with. It's cheaper than floss and in some ways easier to use. (I often knit on #0/2mm needles, so maybe it's just that I just keep using smaller and smaller materials. If I ever start knitting with my thread, please do an intervention!) I feel I can justify buying even more colors because it's multipurpose and it doesn't take up nearly as much storage space as a stash of yarn. If we ever need to mend anything, I will be ready.
   I thought the spools looked very pretty next to one of my favorite mola pillows. I think the pillow proves how beautiful a multitude of colors in one place can be.
   I've been working on embroidering balls with local, natural themes. I really like this pattern for swirling dragonflies that I found on Temarikai.
Once the C8 ball is marked, the stitching itself is fast and easy. I also tried a simple band pattern on a C8.
Happily, I'm getting much faster at marking a C8; the first one was a confused struggle that took over 2 hours. I learned on this last ball that it really is worth all the time it takes to tack down my marking lines; these wandered a bit as I stitched. Now I know that it's worth the time and effort.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The national bird of Costa Rica

Costa Rica has many incredible birds: over 800 species, many of them extremely beautiful and colorful. It must have been difficult to pick one bird as the symbol of the country. Consider the choices other Central American countries made for their national birds. (All of them also live in Costa Rica.) Guatemala chose the Resplendent Quetzal; it's much easier to see in Costa Rica and much better protected here.
Belize chose the Keel-billed Toucan, a common bird here that looks great on a postcard or T-shirt.
Both Nicaragua and El Salvador chose the Turquoise-browed Motmot which is common at Northwestern Costa Rica. Its more widely spread relative, the Blue-crowned Motmot is also very beautiful. Honduras chose the Yellow-naped Parrot. Costa Rica could have picked one of its own 17 species of parrots. Panama's majestic Harpy Eagle is rare in Costa Rica, as it is throughout its range. Personally, my choice might have been the elegant Swallow-tailed Kite, which used to nest as far north as the headwaters of the Mississippi. (Maybe some day we will have a movement to bring it back to its ancestral nesting grounds, as we did with the wild turkey.)
   What did Costa Rica pick as it's national symbol? Let's hear a trumpet flourish for the Clay-colored Robin.
It's drab and it's nondescript but well-loved through out this democratic country. Like most robins, it has a lovely song, which is sings tirelessly in almost everyone's garden at the beginning of the rainy season. As ticos say, it calls the rain to come and keep the country green. It reminds me that for many Costa Ricans, it's high praise to call a person humilde –humble or modest. Much as I love seeing Costa Rica's more colorful birds, I enjoy living somewhere the ordinary drab yigüirro is respected—and where many are working to preserve the more colorful and rarer birds that share the country.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Even paradise has garbage

Sad but true, we all produce garbage, even if we live in a beautiful place famous for natural beauty. Where does it go?
The good news: we produce less garbage in Monteverde than in the US. We get no mail at all, much less junk mail. We buy few things that are packaged. No pizza delivery results in no pizza boxes. Orange juice comes out of an orange, not a container. Also, people here just have less stuff and therefore less to throw away. Like many, we compost all organic matter. I used to do worm composting but while I was gone my worms died or decamped. I found that just tossing organics into my compost box works fine; it just breaks down with the help of many insects and microbes.
   When we first lived in Monteverde, one needed to buy special garbage bags with a sticker on them. It didn't cost much from our gringo perspective, but like our neighbors we crammed as much as possible in each bag. And at the time there was a recycling program run by the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. We would carry our cardboard, aluminum cans, bottles and jars to their sorting shed, which fortunately just a short walk for us. About every two weeks we had a medium sized garbage bag holding about 16 gallons/60 liters to take to the corner. Sadly, the recycling program no longer exists and the amount of our trash is considerably more. There is a bin for aluminum cans up at the reserve and I've been told it's OK to bring cans from home to put in it, so I'm doing that. I've heard that part of the problem was finding anyone to take the recyclables. For example, I've been told that recycling steel cans just doesn't happen in Costa Rica.
   The paid garbage bag system had one serious downside: people burnt whatever they could to minimize the number of bags they had to buy. Any windless afternoon, the smell of burning trash, which doubtless included lots of plastic, wafted around us. Some people put out garbage in unofficial bags; since it wasn't picked up, it would sit there or be scattered by the wind or by dogs.
  Now our municipality has a "garbage tax." As homeowners, it cost us $34 this year. (It might not sound like much, but that's more than many people here make in a full day of work.) Garbage can now be put out in any bag. Some neighborhoods have raised boxes to try to keep the dogs and other critters out. One neighborhood has this pretty reminder of what days garbage pickup occurs.
I almost never smell burning trash now. Twice a week, a couple of trucks come up the mountain to pick up our garbage and drive it back down to a big landfill site near sea level. Yes, our garbage has a pretty large carbon footprint.
  If you come to Monteverde as a tourist, what can you to minimize your impact? The thing I wish all tourists here knew: our water here is good and safe. You can help us reduce the amount of garbage here by drinking tap water.