Author Archives: SORREL DOWNER

Monkey Jumps

I’ve seen monkeys work up the courage to jump, change their minds, jump and miss, but I’d never seen a monkey bridge, so I’ve included it – please excuse the quality.

I thought about posting this under the title ‘Neck Exercises’. For the first month or so, it was a case of ratcheting my head backwards over a series of notches until my chin was pointed to the sky and I was ready for monkey action, but eventually my neck got longer and more flexible, ending up like one of those cheap desk lamps. There are three of Costa Rica’s four monkey species in abundance here: howlers, capuchins and spider monkeys.  Capuchins are deemed to be the most intelligent, however spider monkeys are the most riveting; fluid movers who appear to have a lot of fun.

I thought a lot about Jane Goodall, the British primatologist, as I waited under trees getting bitten.  Jane Goodall has a long, bendy neck. Goodall winged her way into studying chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania without experience or qualifications (which, with the support of Louis Leakey, she swiftly accumulated), and it was her intuitive, fresh  observations that revolutionised our thinking about primates and our uncomfortably close evolutionary connections with them.  Her findings were shocking and amazing: evidence of toolmaking, the extent of group collaboration, cannibalism, but her anthromorphic approach, the way she named the individuals she followed – David Greybeard, Fifi and Flo, and Mike, and attributed, as critics would say, personalities, was controversial. Is still.

That was in the 60s. Suggesting – or rather, pointing out, that primates have fun, is still not a fashionable scientific concept, but I defy anyone to spend time watching  spider monkeys in the wild and identify what we regard as human emotions and motivations in their behaviour, from affection, fear, and joy to cheekiness, sneakiness, plotting and cooperation.


Incidentally Jane Goodall circa 1960-1969 (minus the time studying for a PhD at Cambridge) is someone I very much wanted to be, as I grew up devouring old, damp National Geographics and books like Innocent Killers and Grub: the Bush Baby (okay, that’s confusing because I also wanted to be Grub – why did we have to live in a house? why couldn’t we live in a makeshift river camp?). Satisfying observations, a life in the wild, contributions to conservation; flip flops, shorts and Landrovers, and married to the rakish Baron Hugo van Lawick – it all looked great.



I refer you to Being Jane Goodall in an old copy of National Geographic. And Innocent Killers is still a great read.





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Everything in the Garden is Lovely

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There is order in the Costa Rican rainforest, but sometimes it goes all green and woozy and everything unravels until it all seems wild and chaotic, and I crave a garden (preferably a walled garden with lupins and hollyhocks). The manicured lawns and overflowing flower beds  and shrubberies of the hotel grounds are all the more beautiful for being an anachronism in this overwhelmingly man-free environment; something familiar in a place that is wonderfully strange.  There are no walls or hollyhocks, but tropical species, ginger, heliconia, frangipani, hibiscus, orchids, palms, acacia and so on, spruced up and kept in check, make up for it.  Marino, the gardener, is a happy man, always whistling, and the views – whether over the grass or up to the sky, are soothing.

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Praying Mantis Washing Head

I’d never before seen a praying mantis cleaning his face like a cat. This one – disguised as a leaf with extended throrax and shield (and rescued from behind the shutters) is clearly preparing for close-ups.

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Hummingbird in a Cone

First thing in the morning as I stand yawning in the doorway of the house in the woods, a hummingbird comes buzzing over and hovers urgently, vertical like a seahorse, a short distance from the end of my nose. After six seconds, she fixes me with a stare, turns and whirs off into the forest. Initially I considered whether she might be saying ‘Come quickly! All the big birds are attacking us little birds, and we need your help’, but when I spotted her nest, I realised she was saying ‘You’ve seen nothing. Tell no-one, and keep away or you’ll get a jab where it hurts. Right?’

She is a long-billed hermit hummingbird, and she’s been building a conical nest suspended from a low palm frond a few feet from my door. She puts about four hours in a day, disappearing into the forest and returning a couple of minutes later with stuff trailing from her beak, leaf matter and straw-fine twigs, soft petals, and strands from spiders’ webs. She uses the strong strands to bind the nest to the leaf, flying in a tight spiral to wind each one around the nest and leaf bundle, and pressing them into place with her chest. Then she attends to the interior, sitting in it like a scoop in a cone and shuffling about to tamp down the surfaces. She has the afternoons off.

I once found an egg-cup style hummingbird’s nest lined with a finely-woven layer of gold. I’d cut George’s hair in the garden, and the bird had gathered it. It was  the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. This conical nest isn’t pretty, but it’s an ingenious design in a top location. Palm fronds are tough, corrugated and end in a point, and the harder it rains, the more they bow down to the ground, giving a steeper surface for the rain to run off. The hummingbird’s nest, tucked underneath in the arch of the leaf, always well-protected – and hidden, is almost completely enclosed in a deluge.

I saw her in the forest a couple of days ago, but generally now she is in the nest with only a white-tipped tail visible. She has probably laid a couple of eggs which should hatch in two or three weeks. It was a real privilege watching her build the nest, but now, in order to minimise the risk of her abandoning them, I’m going to stay well away.


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What Passes for Holiday Reading

osanightlifebooksMost of the people who come to the hotel look intelligent. I find that encouraging because it suggests they will lie in hammocks reading interesting, controversial, provocative books and then deposit them in the hotel’s leave-your-old-book library on the way out. Every so often I head up there and scan the bookshelves for new stock, and without fail I am amazed. Which of the raucous group that were dive-bombing the pool read I, Claudius? Was it the elderly law professor who lay in bed reading A Secret Affair? And which one of them arrived in a tropical paradise with Only The Paranoid Survive? Well, I can only imagine.

I’m not sure what a left book collection says about a hotel or its guests, if anything – after all if you love a book, you are less likely to leave it behind, but I’ve trawled through enough hotel book collections to know there are patterns and trends, that books at remote wilderness lodges and tropical beach resorts break down into 60% rubbish books*, 20% retro classics, 10% heavy or what, 10% new gems. Anyway, it was raining and I was bored, and so here’s a snapshot of what visitors to the Osa brought for holiday reading this season.

  • David Manuel, A Matter of Roses
  • Cathy Kelly, Past Secrets
  • Michael Connelly, Wonderland Avenue
  • Andrew Vachess, Mask Market
  • Tom Wolfe, A Man in Full
  • James Lee Burns, Jesus Out to Sea
  • Nigel Farndale, The Blasphemer
  • Katherine Paleson, The Same Stuff as Stars
  • Valerie Georgeson, Whispering Roses
  • Ann Tyler, Noah’s Compass
  • Jeffry Deaver, The Cold Moon
  • Karen Thompson Walker, The Age of Miracles
  • Martina Cole, The Graft
  • Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook
  • Michael Crichton, The Lost World
  • Mark Haddon, Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night-time
  • Scott McGough, Magic: the Gathering
  • William Asman, De Cassandra Paradox
  • David Baldacci, Onder Druk
  • Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question
  • Ridley Pearson, The Pied Piper
  • Harry Markopolis, No-One Would Listen
  • Ruth Rendell, Rottweiler
  • John le Carre, A Perfect Spy
  • Dan Brown, Meteor
  • BJ Daniels, The Crime Scene at Cardwell Ranch
  • Joanne Harris, Peaches for Monsieur le Cure
  • Mary Balogh, A Secret Affair
  • Gordon Korman, Son of the Mob
  • John D MacDonald, The Neon Jungle
  • Tess Gerritson, De Mephisto Club
  • Jeanette Winterson, The Passion
  • John Updike, The Witches of Eastwick
  • Andrew S Grove, Only the Paranoid Survive
  • John Fowles, Daniel Martin
  • P.B. Kerr, Children of the Lamp
  • Joanne Dobson, The Raven & The Nightingale
  • Kai Bird & Michael J Sherwin, Oppenheimer
  • Mary Lynn Baxter, One Summer Evening
  • Jean M Auel, The Shelters of Stone
  • Michael Ridpath, Der Spekulant Roman
  • Great Sporting Mistakes
  • Raymond Chandler, Mord im Regen
  • Nicholas Sparks, Safe Haven
  • Sherry Sontag & Christopher Drew, Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage.

*Re rubbish books  – usually summarised as ‘Tough loner LAPD cop is on the trail of a serial killer when his pedigree shih tzu, Snuffy, unearths a particularly fresh-looking bone  . . .’ – obviously I read them, and I love them, but they are still rubbish books. I’ve never been sufficiently ill or bored or lonely to finish a Dan Brown.

I forgot to take a picture, so this – for any eagle-eyed spine readers – is actually a snapshot taken in Fitz’s library at the beach, where, inevitably, we find a similar mix of the good, the bad, and inspiring discarded books.

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I ended up in Costa Rica first time round because to ship the pick-up truck from Panama to Colombia and continue the New York to Tierra del Fuego jaunt involved dry heat, delays, expense, innumerable bribes or chorizos, and a high risk of petty crime. After six months on the road, and having had most possessions already stolen by 15 year-old crackheads in Belize while interviewing the Minister of Tourism for a travel feature), I didn’t fancy it, and staying put seemed a better option than going on. Most foreigners land here as tourists, a smattering still as hoteliers and retirees, but the first wave of visitors to Costa Rica came in search of gold.

It must have been frustrating for Spanish conquistadores, who saw plenty of gold dangling from the various body parts of indigenous indians, but struggled to find the source despite wooing and / or killing many of the tribal leaders. Still, they saw enough to keep trying, and wrote boastfully and optimistically about the wealth of gold here in order to secure the money they needed for further expeditions to find it.

(Having said that, there’s a description in the 16th century ‘Tree-Dwelling Indians of the Lowlands of Panama’ that makes it all sound really easy. Court correspondent, De Bry, describes how two courageous noblemen sent by Columbus on a reconnaissance trip into the interior had come across seven rivers: “In the sands of these rivers gold was found, which the Indians, who acted as their escort, proceeded in their presence to collect in the following manner: they dug a hole in the sand about the depth of an arm, merely scooping the sand out of this trough with the right and left hands. They extracted the grains of gold, which they afterwards presented to the Spaniards. Some declared they saw grains as big as peas. I have seen with my own eyes a shapeless ingot similar to a round river stone, which was . . . afterwards brought to Spain; it weighed nine ounces.”)

Costa Rica is named for the rich coast that Christopher Columbus described during his voyage down the Atlantic coast of Central America (1502-1504), although in fact gold hunters would have been better off on the Pacific coast, and specifically here in the Osa where pre-Colombian figures buried by the Diquis Indians have been dug up from time to time, and where the discovery of high quality gold around what is now Sirena Ranger Station sparked a gold rush in the early 1930s.

From time to time the Americans got involved, setting up a massive dredging operation off the coast of Carate in the 1940s, and later dragging heavy machinery into the jungle to work the rivers, but most of the mining and sifting was done – and is done – in laboriously low-tech fashion by oreros holed up in rough – rough – riverbank camps in the mountainous jungle. When United Fruit pulled out leaving huge unemployment locally, the number of miners on the Osa swelled to at least 3000. A few struck lucky, but most were subsistence goldminers, spending their days in icy rivers, their nights on mud under plastic sheeting, and, every few weeks, blowing whatever they’d found on guaro, rice, beans and prostitutes in Puerto Jimenez and Sierpe and the other hubs of Osa civilisation. Don Jorge’s Las Vegas bar in Sierpe took gold dust for beer until fairly recently, and there are places that still do.

From time to time they were joined by foreign adventurers like the French, Greek, Moroccan, Albanian Cizia Zykë, a foul yet charismatic – or maybe that’s psychopathic – chancer who wrote a repellant and riveting page-turner ‘Oro’ about his gold-mining fiasco here in the 70s.

Zyke, a former Foreign Legionnaire, gathered a motley crew of losers and fugitives, and spent a couple of years blasting, rock shifting and panning in rivers, snorting coke, drinking guaro and dragging under-age girls into the undergrowth. Throughout his life he carved himself a number of careers, running a night club in Buenos Aires, working as an interior decorator in Ecuador, racketeering in Toronto, setting up a floating casino in French Guyana and doing something in the Sahara – and there are plenty in Costa Rica with a similar CV, but gold miner team management wasn’t his forte and eventually his men hated him sufficiently to turn him into the authorities on drug trafficking, counterfeiting and intimidation charges. He escaped to Panama while awaiting trial and became a bestselling author before dying in France, aged 62, a couple of years ago.

Like many miners, he was camping in what is now the Corcovado National Park, and the government felt that mining and the stuff that goes with it in these parts – the river pollution, the tunnelling, the hunting and trapping, the gun-toting and the anaesthetising drugs and alcohol use, didn’t belong in an ‘ecotouristic’ experience. Since the founding of the park in 1978 there has been a (mainly steady) tussle between miners and park authorities. Initially there was a big effort to relocate them, and even some help to get ex-miners into tourism, with funding for tourist accommodation at Dos Brazos for example, but it all feels a bit fake and forced, and there are still many indigent miners in the park sifting for grains of gold in a low-key, old-style way. There’s a sporadic attempt to track them down (my neighbour, Carmen, still quivers when she remembers how armed rangers with flashlights surrounded the house thinking she was harbouring one), but it takes a lot of energy, cash and manpower and the penalties are feeble – for example, four miners caught a couple of months ago got imprisoned for three months each and are bound to go back.

This forest swallows up a lot of non-pristine activity. People live here, and not everyone wants to be a waiter; they hunt and farm, and fish and mine, just as they always have – and a lot of them like doing it because they get to live on a remote mountain surrounded by la naturaleza. Environmental conservation and the expectations of your average foreign ecotourist are tricky concepts for an uneducated miner living in a remote shack to grasp. They don’t care. Given there is little gold left, leaving them to it and investing the policing money into a more achievable goal might be the best course of action. What do I know.

Weirdly though, these illegal, untraceable goldminers are becoming one of the park’s tourist attractions, with an increasing number of guides and tour operators offering visitors, tired of monkeys and macaws, a chance to pay $50 for a hike uphill for a few hours and look at one. Oh, look! Poor people. That really is odd on many different levels.

Incidentally, there’s a great (old) post on Mark Meadow’s blog on ecotourists, goldminers, illegal activities, a night at a goldminer’s camp (not part of an organised tour), and he also mentions the next classic-by-a-foreigner-prospecting-for-gold-in-the-depths-of-the-Osa on my reading list: Goldwalker by Patrick Jay O’Connell (sadly not currently stocked in Fitz’s library).

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