Category Archives: Hot

Instruction Manuals

IMG_7379Back at the beach house, there are instructions for the ship to shore radio (also useful as shore to hotel radio: ‘If the tractor is coming down again today please can you bring a bag of ice and leave it at the boathouse?’) and also old guides and manuals for dealing with various location-specific problems, like heatstroke and ants. My favourite is Common Sense Pest Control Quarterly which I’ve read cover to cover several times, while sitting in the swivel chair with the rain battering on the roof.

In The Naked Jungle, (1954), Charlton Heston and Eleanor Parker battle to save a plantation house that stands in the path of a two mile wide column of army ants. I can’t remember what they do. Fitz told me that once he had  a massive column of army ants left-righting their way up to the house, and the advice he got from his jefe de campo was to let them come on through, the theory being they’d give the place a good clean-up and then move on. That is common sense, although it’s not the advice they gave in the Quarterly. (It’s also possibly apocryphal, given that at least four people have told me that tale.) It’s not what I did either when we had a gang of ants marching towards the house after the first of the rains once in San Jose, partly because I had a baby in there, and it didn’t seem right. We poured a strip of paraffin and lit it to make a firewall, and off they scampered (possibly with hastily made plans to regroup in a garden down the track).

It’s good to read up, and be prepared. I had a kind of manual on babies sent from England when George was born. It was pretty useful on topics such as how to gently support a baby’s head, and what temperature to run their tub, but not too helpful on what to do when you’re trying to lay a baby down for a rest and your house starts falling apart and sliding down the mountainside on account of minor earthquakes and poor construction.

So instruction manuals have their limitations. I’d probably put them in the same category as a hope and a prayer.

Something else no manual here covers, is tsunamis. Not infrequently, particularly when there have been a small tremors, I study the terrain behind the house, which is at first steep, and then vertical, generally impenetrable, and somewhere not to go unless you have a thing for fer-de-lance snakes. I think it’s also where the puma lives.  ‘Yeah! Right! Well, good luck with that!’ Brad Kittel of Tiny Texas Houses said, making a ‘bad idea, man’ face, when he asked where I was off to next, after our interview wrapped up, explaining in detail how the ice caps are melting, and great slabs the size of countries or counties or states are on the brink of crashing into the ocean – right now – creating great walls of sea and flooding coastlines around the world.

I think that’s why I like reading Common Sense Pest Control Quarterly. A lot of things in life seem daunting. Ants, I can cope with.

Advertisements

Crabs Bomb Costa Rican Beach

night of the crabAt least that’s what it looks like.  As the sun set, the beach was a flat plain. Now look at it. They have been busy in their mysterious ways, and now there is no sign of them.  Crabs, and particularly hermit crabs, are underrated as an Osa beach attraction, and if there is a more relaxing way to spend an afternoon than with a spot of hermit crab racing (obstacles optional), followed by a cold beer in a sunny, sandy-bottomed, ocean view rockpool, and then with a trashy novel in a wide hammock, I haven’t discovered it yet.

Rare Sighting

I was standing in a river bothering leafcutter ants when I heard the distant slash of a machete.  I waited quietly, and eventually was rewarded with a glimpse of the lesser spotted Fitz, making his way upstream.  Although this is his natural habitat, sightings of this lone male in the wild are rare nowadays.

Discovery of New Ocean!

balboa

I am (intermittently) hard at work on a book about people who came to these parts and why, and what they did when they got here. Vasco Núñez de Balboa, a fit and fearless, conniving and bloodthirsty gold thief, is one of my personal favourites. If his name was truncated and modified slightly to Babba, I think he would be better known. But of course it won’t be. Anyway, it’s the anniversary of his Big Day today . . . sort of.

V N de Balboa was born in Extremadura, Spain. (Anyone who has been there might understand the appeal of sailor or New World explorer as a career choice in an old place that is predominately dry and flat). His career didn’t start well (or end well – more of that later), and after some low key exploration, he washed up in Hispaniola where he got into debt. His fortunes changed by a fluke of fate when he hopped aboard a ship bound for San Sebastian, one of Spain’s first colonies, discovered the few remaining survivors half-starved and largely insane (evidence of cannibalism – say no more), transferred them to a new spot they called Santa Maria la Antigua de Darien, in what’s now Panama. He acted as temporary governor until the court-appointed official, Pedro Arias, (‘the cruel’) was sent out to take up his post.

Obviously at this point he had to find some other way of making his name and fortune, and, at the start of September 1513, decided to go inland, and up into the mountains in search of gold, taking with him a mob of leftover settlers and sailors. He didn’t find the gold, but he did find the Pacific Ocean, which, given the limitations of cartography at that point, was quite a surprise.

So Balboa goes down in history as the first European to spot the Pacific, 500 years ago today . . . or maybe tomorrow, or next week. The momentous event is said to have taken place on September 25th by some, and September 26th by others, and in the contemporary account below, on the ‘7th day of the calends of October’.

Regardless of when exactly he did it, he described his adventures in letters to Peter Martyr, Europe’s answer to a press agency. Martyr, the Apostolic Pronotary and Royal Counsellor to the Sovereign Pontiff Leo X, both paraphrased and embellished Balboa’s news in his riveting letter to his master.

We have received letters both from him and from several of his companions,” Martyr informed the Pope, “written in military style, and informing us that he had crossed the mountain-chain dividing our ocean from the hitherto unknown south sea. No letter from Capri concerning Sejanus was ever written in prouder language. I shall only report the events related in that correspondence which are worthy of mention.”

He continues, explaining how Balboa, demoted from the position of governor, determined instead to be the first to find gold: “Vasco Nuñez ill endured inaction, for his is an ardent nature, impatient of repose, and perhaps he feared that another might rob him of the honour of the discovery . . . He summoned around him some veterans of Darien and the majority of those who had come from Hispaniola in the hope of finding gold, thus forming a small troop of a hundred and ninety men, with whom he set out on the calends of September of the past year, 1513.”

Martyr describes how Balboa negotiated the support of a powerful tribal leader, or Cacique, called Poncha, who provided men to guide the Spaniards. Just as well, because the journey was fraught with danger:

“They passed through inaccessible defiles inhabited by ferocious beasts, and they climbed steep mountains . . . Thanks to Poncha’s men and the labours of the bearers, Vasco scaled rugged mountains, crossed several large rivers, either by means of improvised bridges or by throwing beams from one bank to another, and always succeeded in keeping his men in health.”

Those of a sensitive nature should skip this next bits.

“Before reaching the summit of the mountain-chain, the Spaniards traversed the province of Quarequa, of which the ruler, who bears the same name, came to meet them; as is customary in that country, he was armed with bows and arrows, and heavy, two-handed swords of wood. They also carry sticks with burnt points, which they throw with great skill. Quarequa’s reception was haughty and hostile, his disposition being to oppose the advance of such a numerous army. He asked where the Spaniards were going and what they wanted, and in reply to the interpreter’s answer, he responded: “Let them retrace their steps, if they do not wish to be killed to the last man.” He stepped out in front of his men, dressed, as were all his chiefs, while the rest of his people were naked. He attacked the Spaniards who did not yield; nor was the battle prolonged, for their musket-fire convinced the natives that they commanded the thunder and lightning. Unable to face the arrows of our archers, they turned and fled, and the Spaniards cut off the arm of one, the leg or hip of another, and from some their heads at one stroke, like butchers cutting up beef and mutton for market. Six hundred, including the cacique, were thus slain like brute beasts.

“Vasco discovered that the village of Quarequa was stained by the foulest vice. The king’s brother and a number of other courtiers were dressed as women, and according to the accounts of the neighbours shared the same passion. Vasco ordered forty of them to be torn to pieces by dogs. The Spaniards commonly used their dogs in fighting against these naked people, and the dogs threw themselves upon them as though they were wild boars or timid deer. ”

Back to the ‘discovery’ of the Pacific:

“Leaving some of his companions who had fallen ill from the incessant fatigue and hardships to which they were not inured, at Quarequa, Vasco, led by native guides, marched towards the summit of the mountain-chain.

“From the village of Poncha to the spot where the southern ocean is visible is a six days’ ordinary march, but he only covered the distance in twenty-five days, after many adventures and great privations. On the seventh day of the calends of October, a Quarequa guide showed him a peak from the summit of which the southern ocean is visible. Vasco looked longingly at it. He commanded a halt, and went alone to scale the peak, being the first to reach its top. Kneeling upon the ground, he raised his hands to heaven and saluted the south sea; according to his account, he gave thanks to God and to all the saints for having reserved this glory for him, an ordinary man, devoid alike of experience and authority. Concluding his prayers in military fashion, he waved his hand to some of his companions, and showed them the object of their desires. Kneeling again, he prayed the Heavenly Mediator, and especially the Virgin Mother of God, to favour his expedition and to allow him to explore the region that stretched below him. All his companions, shouting for joy, did likewise. Prouder than Hannibal showing Italy and the Alps to his soldiers, Vasco Nuñez promised great riches to his men. ‘Behold the much-desired ocean! Behold! all ye men, who have shared such efforts, behold the country of which the son of Comogre and other natives told us such wonders!’ ”

“As a symbol of possession he built a heap of stones in the form of an altar, and that posterity might not accuse them of falsehood, they inscribed the name of the King of Castile here and there on the tree trunks on both slopes of that summit, erecting several heaps of stones.”

“Not only is Vasco Nuñez reconciled to the Catholic King, [Ferdinand]who was formerly vexed with him, but he now enjoys the highest favour. For the King has loaded him and the majority of his men with privileges and honours, and has rewarded their daring exploits.”

Yes well, that sort of honour-loading seldom ends well. Pedro Arias, Governor of Darien, didn’t appreciate having to take all matters of importance to Balboa, the new Adelantado of the South Sea, and the regions of  Panama and Coiba, and in January 1519 set him up and had him beheaded for treason.

The letters from Martyr to the Pope are compiled in the most excellent De Orbe Novo. I also found an account of Balboa in a school book under the headings ‘Early Life and Exploration’, ‘Seeing the Pacific Ocean’,  and ‘Death’.  The picture is borrowed from Fine Art America  (available as cards, prints, etc), and chosen because that’s what you’d do if you discovered an ocean, isn’t it? You’d run into it with all your clothes on.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Jaguarundi Wildlife ID

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I still haven’t seen the puma.  It is beginning to feel pantomime-esque. It is behind me, surely? Fitz has not seen it either, and he’s been living here since the 1970s. His theory is that the puma gives him a wide berth because he has a jaguar spirit watching over him, or he is a jaguar spirit, or something like that, a ‘fact’ that was revealed to him as he ran naked and painted blue, through the forests of Peru, having ingested plenty of ayahuasca in the company of a shaman.  For a successful, cynical, sceptical, in some ways normal person, he is touchingly open to mystical baloney. Anyway, the basic thinking is that because in the game of  rock paper scissors , jaguar beats puma, the puma beats a respectful retreat when it hears him coming. I m not sure where that leaves me, unless I too have a jaguar spirit, which he says I will never know unless I go to Peru take ayahuasca and run naked and blue through the forests at night, which is not something I can see myself doing anytime soon.

However, walking near the plantain at the back of the beach today, I bumped into what looked like a super-sized weasel, dark, dark brown with hint of grey, and with long fat legs, a long fat tail, and the face of a cross cat. It was chewing with its mouth open (although on reflection, it may have been baring its teeth), and looked at me for several minutes as waves broke on the shore, and I considered whether or not to reach for my camera (I did not). It then slunk off in no particular hurry.

Back at the house I created a detailed artist’s impression on my phone (pictured), and, opening Mammals of Costa Rica at the jaguarundi page, spotted him immediately. The fact jaguarundis are supposedly common, detracted only slightly from the encounter. Incidentally, they also come in russet and pale tan, and a female can give birth to litter that includes cubs of each colour, much like a cat.

Tagged , ,

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.

 

 

 

 

Tagged , , , , , , , ,
Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: