Cleaning Up Around the Place

Sunday is my usual day for doing laundry and getting the house in order. I am not someone who is creative while living in clutter, so if I want to write I must clean first.

I was on my way to the laundry room yesterday morning with a load of sheets from our bed. The “laundry room” is actually on our back porch– one of the many benefits of living in the tropics; not everything has to be indoors. I opened the back door and headed down the steps where I found my husband, a bemused look on his face, standing where I needed to go.

“Check this out,” he said. I looked in the direction his chin jutted and saw a river of black ants flowing across our sidewalk. Army ants, or, as we call them, cleaning ants.

They don’t come very often but when they do, watch out!

Like the flooding Mississippi they flowed over and around everything on our sidewalk. At the head of the torrent they spread out, and our porch and sidewalk became a delta with multiple channels of them foraging in every crack and crevice.

I tried to imagine myself as a small frog or a cockroach, minding my own business, when suddenly, over the hill, a horde of warlike Huns descend killing everything in their path.

Army ants, also called driver ants, are migratory insects. Blind, they communicate using smell and vibration to feel they way forward in their constant hunt for food. They have no home, as do most ants, but bivouac overnight, constantly on the move.

They were in our house for all of thirty minutes I would guess. We watched as they scaled our bathroom wall making the side of it appear antiqued with the living cracks that scurried back and forth. They advanced at an alarming rate. Scouts scurried ahead and returned passing information to the oncoming ranks like bumper cars.

An anole sat at my husband’s feet, his head cocked to one side as the current of ants flowed past him. He had no fear of them, which is more than I can say for any cockroach found in their path. There are other jungle denizens–birds and lizards– that follow the army ants gobbling up any escapees from their marauding runs. The anole happily waited for any moth or fly that might be driven from cover.

As soon as it started it was over. Suddenly we noticed that there were larger numbers headed upstream than down. Like spawning salmon more and more of them fought the oncoming current of their brethren– the bumper car messages indicating a turn in the stream. Soon they were gone.

But my husband ran into them again over by his shop later in the day. They had redeployed over there ravaging that area. He made a misstep and ended up with a welt on his foot the size of an acorn. It still hurts today.

Breakfast With the Howlers

photo by Sally Retecki

Howler monkeys wake with the first light of the day and if they are outside my bedroom window, I do too. I’m not one to sleep late, but I still consider 4:30 to be nighttime. I knew it was going to be an early morning today, because last night, while I showered, I saw them through the open bathroom window swinging through the upper branches of the trees next to our house. It was late enough for me to know that they had decided to take up residence there for the night.

Sure enough, by 4:15 this morning there was a racket outside my bedroom window that practically shook the walls of our wooden house. Howlers are the loudest land animal on the planet and sound like a cross between a dog barking and a pig using a megaphone. A Dr. Doolittle kind of animal.

“ARGH ARGH ARGH,” from the big male outside my window, returned by calls from other dominant males across the jungle, “argh argh argh.”

They have a special hollow and elongated hyoid bone in their throats that allows air to pass in large quantities, and thus they are able to project their voices at such thunderous volumes. Their conversations resonated back and forth like this for about fifteen minutes until I got up to make breakfast and go sit on the porch to watch the day unfold.

The Mantled howler monkey (Alouatta palliata) or mono congo is the largest monkey in the Americas. Part of the Baboon family, they are big stocky beasts with dark brown to black fur and most adults have a long yellow or brown saddle, earning them the name Mantled howler. The face is naked, black and bearded like a Baboon. The males weigh in at fifteen pounds, the females a bit less. They live in troops, and a dominant male, who stakes out a territory where they live and feed, leads each troop. The male fends off unwanted intruders using his voice. Something I did not have to be told this morning.

While I sat drinking my morning tea, a great circus show unfolded across the clearing, or potrero as it is called in Spanish. On the other side of the potrero is a two hundred yard swath of jungle separating us from the Caribbean coastline. This stand of old trees is over one hundred feet high and quite dense. The howlers spend plenty of time back there foraging, and this year a big tree fell during a windstorm creating a hole in their usual jungle roadway.

A rustling in the trees made me aware that the troop was approaching the damaged area. Then one started across. It was the big male. He climbed to the very top of the tree above the abyss, crept out onto the upper limb as far as possible, and, as the branch began to bend under his weight, he let go free falling into the tree below––his arms flung out to catch anything available.

The landing was spectacular. Falling into a tree about 20-feet below him, he grabbed onto a branch. The extra burden carried him and the branch another 10-feet or so, the limb bending like a bow under his weight. Once reaching its maximum arc, the branch simply snapped back into its original position leaving the big guy sitting on his new perch.

The adrenaline rush must have been intense for the monkey. It was for me, watching! He sat there for a few minutes recovering his composure before ambling off to his breakfast table a few trees down. Then the rest of the family followed in exactly the same path: moms, babies, aunts and cousins. The little ones simply flung themselves at the abyss, practicing their monkey version of extreme sports.

I went in the house to make my own breakfast.

Maybe tonight they will find accomadations a bit further away, and I’ll be able to sleep a little later tomorrow.

Red Letter Day!

This essay of mine has rattled around in the offices of editors from The New York Times to AARP. It needed a home and finally found one at Notre Dame magazine under the encouraging hand of Carol Schaal, their editor.

This is my first sale, so for me it is momentous, significant, historic, noteworthy, and consequential. Hey, can you say Red Letter?

A special thank you has to go to my friend, Gary Presley, for his steadfast opinion that the piece was worth that oh-so-sought-after commodity: money. He consistently recommended that I not settle for “the lights” when I could be paid. I feel honored and humbled to share space with him in such a
prestigious publication.

You can find both of our essays at Notre Dame magazine’s summer issue on the web. Look for us under Perspectives.

I have touted IWW to anyone who would listen since I joined last fall sometime. The exact date escapes me, but the feeling of community support remains. Any writer will find a wealth of constructive help through the Lists, but beginning writers, especially, will find it instructive. Look at the link in this blog under the IWW (Internet Writing Workshop) logo.

Jungle Cats and the Old Revision Blues

 There it was resting among the other animals at the roadside stand. It looked as though it needed a home, and I happened to have had 15,000 Colones itching to get out of my purse. So our newest pet, a jaguar, carved from balsa wood by a young Indio-artisan outside of Cahuita, is at home here in Punt Uva. He seemed to enjoy the ride home and is now perched in a perfect hunting position atop our bookcase.

We stopped by the artisan’s stand while coming home from a day in town that had a fifty-fifty success rate attached to it. The norm here.

Our annual revision on the car is due this month, so we drove up to the center and sat in the blazing sun waiting for over an hour, even with an appointment. Once it was our turn we proceeded through the checks. I know the revision’s upside is to make up for all those years where cars had no inspection whatsoever, and often would sidle down the road at us like crabs, the suspension out of alignment. Or, perhaps it is because of the myriad of cars we have met at night, driving without any lights, or the thousands of trucks we have come up behind who have no brake lights at all. The new inspection is needed but, really, they have over-reacted. I told my husband I believe they are in cahoots with the banks and the new car dealers. Nowhere in the world, I think, do they check vehicles as thoroughly as they do Costa Rica.

The first station checked all of our lights, turn signals, seat belts, window cranks, wipers and washer, as well as the condition of the interior of the cab. Did we have the required fire extinguisher? Check. Did we have the required emergency triangle? Roger. Years ago they used to use a bush chopped and laid on the highway for an emergency flare; we are still cautious when we see a branch on the road. One never knows when they might revert to the old ways.

We passed the first station with flying colors. The second station checked the emissions of the vehicle. Perfect. They also checked the condition of our shocks. We drove over a little apparatus on the floor of the station and it vibrated the car up and down. To pass we had to have greater than 45% of our shock capacity intact. We passed that station as well. Next we proceeded to the breaks section of the inspection. Again we drove over a small measuring device and my husband was told to push the break slowly but firmly. Here is where we failed. The front brakes were fine, they said, but the rear left needed some attention. They sent us on through the rest of the inspection line.

The third station is like a lube pit and one of the attendants crawled under the truck to look for leaks and loose fittings. Bingo.

There is an item the 1987 Jeep Comanche Metric-ton pickup came stock with called a load leveling sensor. One year when Johnny Abrams was care taking the truck for us, he ran into a problem with it. Rather than fix it, or save it, he simply threw it away. We have been unable to find one– be it a new product or a junkyard item. Jeep has informed us they quit making them. The revision boys passed us last year and the year before without it. They want it this year. They even knew the name of it this year. I think they want us to buy a new car.

Once we got our failure notice we went back to Limon and had a wonderful meal at the Black Star Line, originally built by Marcus Garvey as a community hall, but now a huge restaurant. We had our usual casado- a plate of rice, red beans, stewed meat, and a little shredded cabbage salad. Once finished, we proceeded on to the National Insurance Office and paid our yearly fees for the workman’s compensation for our hired man, José. It was fairly late by then and we needed to head home. It’s only 35 miles, but it takes two-and-a-half hour to drive over the pot-holed road. Usually I never mention stopping at the little artisan’s shop I’ve been eyeing for some time now. Today I wanted to stop whether we were tired or not.

A very nice man gave us the tour of his complete menagerie including: macaws, crocodiles, anteaters, turtles, various other animals and a few insects as well. I swear I heard the jaguar whisper my name, “Sarita, take me home with you.” How could I refuse that?

So he sits atop my bookcase crouched and ready for an ambush. My husband is out under the truck working on brakes and a fake load-leveling device. We will give the boys at the revision another go in a few weeks. It’s alright. Almost everything here requires two trips to get
anything done. Maybe I’ll stop by the artisan’s shop again.

Everything Wiggly and Poisonous

Everything Wiggly and Poisonous, or, When the Damnedest Things Turn Up in the Most Unexpected Places.

I’m still a little jumpy today. I just put in a load of laundry, and as I emptied a hamper full of towels into the washing machine, something jumped out of the basket and onto my head. I nearly fell over backward before discovering it was just a small tree frog that had taken refuge in my linens. It is going to take awhile to come down from my current hyper-vigilant state.

When we first moved here, our neighbors in Punta Uva warned us repeatedly about snakes. “Don’t walk in the jungle without a machete, ” is what they told Alan. What they told me was their belief that women didn’t belong in the jungle in the first place. Just seeing a man bitten by a snake could bring bad luck to my family. They were adamant. I wasn’t keen on seeing one either, but sometimes a snake is just where it is at the very same time you are.

Although Australia tops the list with theirs, Costa Rica follows close behind with some of the deadliest snakes on the planet. There are thirteen species of pit vipers here. The Bushmaster (Lachesis muta), called Matabuey in Costa Rica, leads the group for size. The largest of the venomous snakes in the Americas, they grow up the 3.5 meters in length, are a soft tan color with a darker brown stripe running down their backs, and a V-pattern down their sides.

The Fer-de-Lance (Bothrops asperi), called Terciopelo is here. This is by far the most feared by the locals. Terciopelo are more common than the Bushmaster and grow up to 2.25 meters in length. Their telltale tan to dark brown diamond markings overlay a charcoal grey body, making them very hard to spot in the bush. This was the snake I encountered yesterday, but it sure as hell wasn’t in the bush!

We can romp with numerous Eye Lash vipers and the Coral, of course, both false and real. I have yet to meet a man who stopped to repeat the famous rhyme: “red to black, venom lack, red to yellow, dead a fellow,” before perfunctorily killing a Coral of any kind.

I’ve heard lots of stories about men being bitten by snakes, the most vulnerable being those who chop bush for a living. Choppers use a forked stick about a meter in length to assist them in their work. Assuming they are right-handed, they carry the stick in their left hand pulling the bush up and away from them while chopping with a machete, held in their right. If there should be a snake they haven’t scared away with their footsteps, or the chopping itself, they are likely to disturb it with this action. The men can be bitten anywhere, but the left side of the body, or underarm, is typical as the snake strikes out from under the disturbed camouflage.

The other frequent victims of snakebite are people walking along the road at night. Snakes will often come to the road because it radiates heat stored up from the day. They like to bask on the warm asphalt and hunt small animals doing the same. Walking here at night without a flashlight is ill advised. I know of two people who were bitten this way. One died and the other was in the hospital for about a month on antivenin and dialysis, due to complications.

We also have snakes that, while not venomous, are no less lethal. The Boa is a common resident of our world and we treat it with respect.

Our neighbor, Johnee Brown, told us a Boa story once (when we were still on friendly terms). He said had a cow that was close to calving, so he was checking on her every day. One morning he went to the potrero where he was keeping her, and found a huge Boa in the process of ingesting her newborn calf. Johnee said he killed the snake because, as he put it, “I didn’t want him to get the habit.”

I have since learned a bit about Boas. They can suffocate an adult person in a matter of minutes, squeezing tighter every time the victim tries to take a breath. The exertion of the squeeze can actually stop the heart. And, if they manage to get a wrap on the victim’s neck they can snap it with one constriction. They also fracture bones during the constriction process, so the victim becomes more pliable for eventual ingestion.

Over the years of living here, we have learned never to touch a tree trunk before looking at it first. When we are out in the jungle we use a walking stick or machete for balance rather than to rely on a low-lying limb to stabilize ourselves. We walk looking at our feet rather than gazing upwards at the many toucans, parrots, and other spectacular birds that might be flying by. We keep our property chopped short because snakes don’t like short grass, and have very few shrubs or ornamental plants close to the house. Neither of us have been bitten by a snake.

Yesterday, Alan and I went up to Bribri– the county seat–to pay the garbage bill for the year. It was the usual trip over extremely bad road. It’s been raining here so there was a lot of water standing on the road. We picked our way through the mud, potholes, and general muck in our aging, but dependable, Jeep pickup. The trip took about an hour. We got to Bribri, parked in front of the building, and I asked Alan if he wanted to go into the offices with me. I got the answer I expected. So I left him in the car and went in to pay the bill. I was probably gone about ten minutes.

I was feeling quite proud of myself for getting the chore done in such short order. Normally, bureaucratic jobs of this nature are more involved but today was just and in-and-out operation. I opened the passenger door of the truck, jumped into the seat, and, before I closed the door, started to tell him about how I’d gotten the job done. Something caught my eye.

I looked down and to my right. There, just in front of my knees, was a snake emerging from a hole where the hinges of the door meet the body of the truck. It took a split second to react, but I remember thinking: This can’t be right. How could there be a God damned snake in my car? A high, quavering voice I hardly recognized as my own said, “Oh M’God. Snake… Snake!” All of what happened next probably happened in about five or six seconds, but it was as though time had stopped for the snake and me. Our eyes locked and we were frozen together in time.

The snake’s head was about two inches around. At first it headed straight toward me suspended in mid air sliding its thick body along over the bottom hinge of the door. That was bad enough, but then it hinged back against itself as if to strike, or perhaps to slither further out into the cab of the truck. It easily had enough tension stored to strike my knees, which were now impossibly close to it. Twelve inches. No more. I could see the light brown hash marks on his side. The two pits in its face between the eyes and nostrils, and that triangular shaped head identified it for sure. No doubt about it. Terciopelo.

It looked annoyed. It was probably hot and shaken up by the trip. When I opened the door it must have sensed cooler air and came there to escape the engine heat. It waved about in mid air looking for an escape route. I sucked my stomach in and drew my chest and face as far away from it as possible. My breath was ragged. My knees were so close to it now, I was afraid it would use them as its next landing zone. I had to get out.

I began to swing my legs around to get out of the truck when it struck at me. It seemed to happen in slow motion. At that point, I was half the way out of the vehicle and turning back was not an option. Alan said as I piled out of the truck, the snake struck twice more, snapping at the air to its right and then again, to the left. It didn’t use all of its incredible force or extend itself fully. It if had I would have been struck for sure.

Once out, I slammed the door shut hoping to catch it in the hinge. No such luck. Alan said while I was getting out he watched the snake first strike, and then turn and go back inside the fender wall, rolling over the hinge in the process. He estimated the snake was about a meter in length and about ten centimeters in circumference at its thickest. It is amazing how much can happen in a short period of time. How fast a snake can move.

According to one website, the average venom injected by the Terciopelo is about 105mg, although they can deliver as much as 310mg. A fatal dose for humans is 50mg. They went on to say, however, that not all bites are envenomed. Venomous snakes are able to regulate the amount of venom depending on the age and size of their intended victim. I suppose that would mean it would have used all it could for me, being as I am just slightly larger than a rabbit, for instance.

The website also went on to say that Terciopelo venom is hemotoxic and causes havoc with the circulatory system. Unless given antivenin, the victim is very likely to die. Complications with clotting factors are the number one cause of death from these bites. As the blood becomes more and more coagulated, the body begins to throw clots to the coronary arteries causing cardiac arrest. There is also evidence that suggests pulmonary artery blockade can also occur.

In the old days there used to be bush snake specialists in this area of Costa Rica. These people knew jungles plants that could save a man’s life. One of my neighbors, Rogelio Smith, is a one of the last surviving people here who practiced the trade. He is eighty years old now, but still remembers those days. He’s told me about it but will not reveal the native plants he used. He says the government made it illegal to pass down the information after the antivenin was made more readily available.

I imagine they would use some kind of plant with an anticoagulant property. There are several likely plants that grow here. Guaco (Mikania guaco) is one, but, as I said, Rogelio won’t tell me. He is very frail these days and the lore will likely pass off with him when he goes.

So, here we were in Bribri with a Terciopelo in our car. Granted it was not in the cab, or not that we knew of, anyway. Alan gingerly opened the driver’s side door and, after a secure look around, released the hood. He then carefully raised the hood and we both peered down into the bowels of our truck motor. Not a snake to be seen. It had not slithered across the road either– I was keeping one eye on my sandaled feet. We figured it was still in there somewhere.

“I’ll go get some repellent,” I said, and ran across the street and bought a can of “Off” at the grocery store. Snakes have a strong sense of smell and, I reasoned, wouldn’t much care for mosquito repellent. I returned, and Alan cautiously opened up my side of the truck where the snake was last seen. No snake. He sprayed repellent into the space the snake was currently calling home and slammed the door shut again. We waited. No snake emerged from under the truck. We were at a stand off.

During this time we discussed the anatomy of our car. The only reasonable explanation was that, at some point, the snake crawled up the wheel well– last night? Two weeks ago?– and found an entry into the space between the exterior paneling of the truck and the inner wheel well. The only exit was either how it got in, or the way he tried to get out when I encountered it. “Well, if we keep the door shut he can’t get at us,” I offered, hopefully.

“Unless, of course, there are snake sized holes in the firewall of the dash,” Alan countered.

“Great.” I suddenly became very aware of just how much rust the old Jeep has endured after almost twenty years in the tropics.

“Well, we can’t stay here all night. I guess we’ll take a chance.” That would have been Alan speaking. I was ready to leave the keys in it and walk away forever. Maybe put a sign in the window that read, “Please steal this car, Terciopelo inside.”

“Let’s go get something to eat, ” he said. “Maybe it’ll leave while we have lunch.” I wasn’t very hungry, but I wasn’t very eager for the hour ride back home with a snake in our car either. Cautiously, I opened my side of the truck, peered into the dark hole- now a snake home-, jumped in, and slammed the door.

We ate lunch at a little café in Bribri, and after telling the proprietor about our adventures he kept a close watch on the car while we ate. I am certain the snake would have been seen if it had left the truck. During lunch we got advice about how to deal with the situation. One customer suggested we spray in there with insecticide. I explained I’d already used mosquito repellent. “It is very dangerous to have a snake in the car.” The understatement for all time. We thanked them for their concerns, though.

The drive back was uneventful. Although Alan said I rode in my seat like a nine-year-old school girl, sitting ramrod straight, my knees bent, and feet tucked as far away from the dash as I could get them. At one point the bead seat cover brushed up against the back of my calf and I just about went right out through the open window.

I kept a good eye on the floorboards the entire trip home.

We have not encountered the snake again. It may well still be in there today. Alan says, “When he gets hungry, he’ll leave.”

So, how often do snakes eat, anyway?

Ethnocentric Japan

Japan. Ethnocentric Japan. It gives one a feel for how it must be to come to the US as a non-English speaking tourist; we do things the way we think is best and damned the rest who can’t figure it out. That is the same attitude the Japanese operate under, and if you don’t like it they feel okay about you leaving.

Almost all signs are in Kanji, one of three Japanese alphabets. Not since I was eighteen and a fresh traveler visiting Greece have I been in a country where I had no idea if I was entering a bank or a restaurant. My son has a great story about entering what he thought was an ATM when he first came to Japan only to discover after being unable to locate the card slot for his bankcard, he was actually in a rice weighing station for the neighborhood.

A person has to learn the train and subway system by time rather than by destination. Although they do put the towns in our Latin alphabet in larger towns, the majority of smaller towns only have Kanji. However, because the Japanese are habitually punctual, you can bet that if your train is bound for a certain place from a certain track at, say, 10:53 it will be your train. Get on it and you’re sure to get to your destination.

The conductors wear little blue suits and white cotton driving gloves. Every so often on the route they will point to a marker on the track, then to their watch, and then a time table stating when they are due at that particular point in the journey. My son tells me that, although he thought it was a myth, in fact the train companies have sued families of suicide victims who chose the train as a method of exiting this world because it put them behind schedule.

The Japanese have a fondness for vending machines that borders on the irrational. The second day we were there we stopped at a machine to pick up some water. Sam’s friend, Jack, climbed back into the van drinking a “Depresso.” It was a canned semblance of espresso and not very good he said, but we all got a laugh out of the beverage name.

I would guess the amount of items sold out of vending machines must edge up into the billions per year. Everything can be bought out of a machine; there are sports drinks (Pocari Sweat), soft drinks, green tea, canned flan, rice crackers, chips, and anything else you might think of. All I could think about was the tons of garbage generated by these distribution systems, so I was stunned by the lack of litter I found during my stay there. Every public place has a recycling system that shames the US. Stainless steel counters are found everywhere offering the opportunity to recycle everything from cellophane wrappers to plastic bottles.

Japan Notes

 I am still exhausted from this chest cold/pneumonia, but with the aid of antibiotics and lots of aspirin I am able to function, after a fashion. Today I rented a car, drove on the wrong side of the road- on purpose- ate little sweet fish, visited a temple, saw and ancient cherry tree, and slept like a baby.

I had wanted to beg off going to lunch with Yuka’s parents, but my son, Sam, told me this was the only day Mr. Oba had been able to get off from work, and he wanted to take us all out to lunch. My daughter, Meraiah, and her husband, Tim, weren’t able to get there yet- some snafu with their travel agent in Australia sending them off on a non-existent flight to Japan. They arrived the next day having laid over in Kuala Lumpur for a day, but it appeared another family member absent would be a disappointment to Mr. Oba, so I said okay.

We rented a car in the small town of Ogachi and I followed Sam over to Yuka’s parent’s house, which is located about twenty minutes drive from Sam’s house in Wanouchi-Cho. I have driven on the left before, but it is a challenge. I always feel slightly off balance driving on the left, and doing it this time on cold medicine was even worse. It’s that first left hand turn out of an intersection that always throws me, as I think, Oh my God, did I ever even look to the right before diving into the onrush of traffic? Plus, all of the intersections had four-way mirrors for the narrow streets, so I felt even more confused at each turn. But, I managed, and we arrived at the Oba household all in one piece.

All the way there, the mix of power grids, small farms and incredible family gardens overwhelmed me. Japan is the most amazing place I have ever visited because of the juxtaposition of farming and agriculture to urban living. Yuka’s parents, for instance, have been in the rice business for generations. Their rice paddies are near their house, and yet their house is in the middle of a small town. The rice paddies are intermingled with houses and small businesses in the neighborhood, and generally are no bigger than a city lot.
At the corner, just before their house was a small lake, more like a cistern really a mere twenty feet across, where everyday there sat elderly men earnestly fishing for carp. Sam told us that the town stocked the little pond regularly or there would be no carp to fish for. If there were more than two gentlemen there, their lines would become hopelessly tangled. We enjoyed watching those men and their past time.
The house itself is a traditional Japanese house built by Yuka’s grand parents, and maintained by the family ever since. All the rooms have sliding Shoji screens to separate them from the out of doors, as well as each other. Inside the house they had two low tables and no other furniture. We sat on the floor on Tatami mats to visit, and at night slept on futons, which were folded away during the day. Outside, Yuka’s mother has a fabulous garden, which the whole family tends. I recognized eggplants, zucchinis, and many other vegetables, but there were many I didn’t know. She has been kind enough to raise Basil for my son, but she says she thinks it stinks. Cultural differences abound.

Once we all got organized, we drove further out into the country to a little restaurant Yuka’s family has been going to for as long as she can remember. It sits on the banks of a rushing river, Ibi, and its specialty is “little sweet fish.” We were shown to our table, and after removing our shoes, sat cross-legged or straight legged under the table, whatever our complaining knees would tolerate.

Japan in mid-July is muggy and hot; I would say the average temperature was in the mid-eighties, and the humidity about the same. This little restaurant had rigged up an air-conditioning system, of sorts, from the river. Pipes brought the water in off the river upstream, fed it by some kind of soaker hose arrangement onto the roof, where it proceeded to run down the corrugated tin roof in tiny rivulets, cooling us off as we dined.

Apparently Yuka and her mother decided what to order off the menu before we ever sat down, because the waitress began bringing little fish to us almost immediately. All the dishes were of the same fish. The first one was cured in some kind of Teriyaki sauce. It was leathery, but the flesh was surprisingly sweet and tender once it was pulled off the frame, and tasted quite a bit like a small mackerel or sardine. As a side dish we had the same fish pickled in sweet brine along with tiny cucumbers.

The dishes kept coming, and they were all nothing but this small fish. We had them in Hoi sin sauce, or something like it, as sashimi, the carcass still wiggling- the fish was so fresh- and deep-fried in Panko served and with a little soy sauce. Each had its own distinctive flavor, but all were definitely the same fish.

Because the fish was cooked whole, Yuka and her father taught us all how to get the bones and guts out. First we pulled the tail off, then placed the fish on its belly and pressed along the backbone with our chopsticks. Next we broke the skin right behind the head and pulled gently on the head extracting the whole vertebrae as well as all the guts caged within the ribs- clean and simple.
After lunch, Yuka’s father wanted to take us to a temple where his family goes to pray every year on New Year’s Day eve. We drove up the Ibi River into the Mt. Tanigumisan Kejonji Temple area. The route was littered with houses and small farms. I should probably define “small farm” here; it means a piece of property anywhere from a quarter of a city block to an acre. All the rice paddies had been paved and the dirt hauled into their shallow catch basins. The fields were then flooded and planted. We drove through miles of these interspersed with small towns, immaculate gardens and rockwork. Everyone’s house and yard here could be in a book about oriental gardening. All gutters were covered with orderly concrete tiles, which could be easily removed for cleaning.

We arrived in the small town of Tanigumi and wandered up through the cobblestone streets to the temple at the top of the village. The shops and houses in this small village were traditional Japanese with sliding Shoji screens to the out-of-doors. Where some of them had been left partially open, welcoming gardens appeared and a path that beckoned us around a bend into to who-knows-what. The traditional swooping rooflines tiled in glazed ceramics, ornate chains hanging at the eaves to guide rain off the roof making its own music as it falls, made for a very tranquil scene.

This temple has been here for 1200 years, and people have been making their pilgrimages to it for just as long. Yuka says it is one of 33 pilgrimage temples in Japan in honor of the goddess Kannon, or “Goddess of Mercy,” because she can manifest herself in thirty-three forms. As it is traditionally the last in the series of temples visited, the pilgrims remove their pilgrim coats and leave them at the site.

We wandered up the ancient cobblestone walkway- indented from thousands of footsteps before us and, undoubtedly, thousands after us. We were surrounded by ancient and knowing Cedar trees, their fragrance filled the air. The sides of the path were littered with Shogun living quarters and small temples, small Buddha’s and stone animals dressed in cloth hats and cloaks by the monks. The Japanese mix their original Shinto religion with the Buddhist beliefs creating a wonderful mix of shrines and temples in their worship.

Compared to other temples this is very small and intimate and I felt instantly at home there. Perhaps it was the Kannon and the feminine that drew me. It would seem that this was a temple for healing. Yuka’s father came with strips of paper with Kanji scripture written on them. We were to wet them with water and place them on the Buddha in places where we were sick or hurt. My husband, who was wearing two arm braces for his elbow tendonitis, immediately plastered them to the corresponding part of one of the statues. Mr. Oba pointed to my chest, and so I put one on the chest of the Buddha, and began to feel better.

All the temples are set up so the worshiper can draw the deities attention by gonging a bell or striking a wooden mallet against a steel pot three times. The dim sounds of worshippers echoed dully through the forest as we wandered the site.

A Buddhist Monk was on duty and encouraged us to pass down a set of stairs at the side of the main altar. We descended the steep stairs, separated by a small handrail, into complete blackness. The only thing we could do to make our way was to feel blindly for the handrail and the wall. We edged on into sheer blackness, veering ever to the left. Suddenly, the wall sheered off to the right and the little path fell away beneath us. We crept forward, feeling our way with hands only. Suddenly we began to see light in front of us, and then a set of stairs. We exited exactly where we had entered, but on the other side of the handrail. The Monks explained to us that it was an exercise to simulate the feeling of being reborn in the wheel of life.

After the temple we decided to go and see a 1500-year-old cherry tree. It sat on a small farm not far from the temple site. It was simply enormous. The trunk at the bottom is 15 meters around. It has been propped up with poles and guy-wires, but I suppose when we get that old we might need a bit of propping up as well. It must be spectacular in the spring when it blossoms.

It was a fascinating day and I’m so glad I found the strength to go, but by this time I was truly exhausted. We headed home to our beds, and with the aid of Benadryl, Alka-Seltzer Cold Plus and Antibiotics, I slept soundly through the night. There would be more to see the next day.


Headed for Japan with Pnuenomia

July 16, 2006

We got into San Jose last night after probably the single most grueling bus ride I have ever experienced. I told Alan I now know what to expect in Purgatory. Not only was it the excruiatingly uncomfortable seats, but the Latin pop music played at full volume for six solid hours, that wore us down.

For some reason we don’t understand there were thousands of college students in Port when we arrived for the 11a.m. bus. Mepe, the bus company, added another bus that was decrepid even by Costa Rican standards. We got under way late and then discovered that they were taking us by the Turrialba route.

We also had a fellow American passenger who had found sex for the first time, I think, and spent the entire trip necking with the fellow copulator right in front of us. We have had better bus rides. . It was a pretty miserable ride.

We slept like logs last night and feel pretty good today. I am really glad we came up a day early so we have today to recover. Fly tomorrow and arrive PDX about 5 p.m..
Spent the day hiking around San Jose in torrential rain storm that soaked us to the bone. We went to the Continental office to change our seats and they had the air conditioner on full-blast.

July 17, 2006

Woke with a scratchy throat and thought to myself, Uh Oh, I’m probably going to get sick. What was it someone said to me in nursing school, “if you don’t want to get sick keep up the stress level and don’t take any time off.” How true.

July 22,

I am really feeling panicky. The slight cold I felt in San Jose has now mutated into full-blown pneumonia or something along those lines. I have been running temperatures of 102F and unless I take aspirin, tylenol and Aleve on a regular basis, the headache makes me feel as though someone were cleaving my head open with an axe. i am beginning to think I won’t be able to attend the wedding, OR will end up in some Japanese hospital on intravenous antibiotics. I called mike Roberts at St Vincent’s Hospital. He got me on the phone with Brent Russell and I got a script for Zithromax. I started the run the minute I got it filled.

I Finally Get a Cell Phone


Two days before Christmas I went into Port to pick up some supplies for Alan at the local Ferreteria, or hardware store. The items I needed were in the bodega, so I pulled around on a side street, parked the truck and went in to pick up the PVC pipe.

The kid working there was kind enough to cut it in half so I could transport it without bending it. We loaded the pipe, I got back into the truck and turned the key. There was a slight click and then the key spun free in the steering column. I felt a tight sick feeling in the pit of stomach. I might not be a mechanic, but I do know when I am genuinely screwed, and this would be one of those times. If I had had a cell phone I would have used it to call Alan, instead I went to the public phone and called. He never answers the phone, so, next, I walked over to the bus station and found a couple of taxistas loitering the morning away.

I got a price on a round trip to the farm and got in. He took off like he was driving the Dakar Road Race. After about two blocks of speeds that made dogs curl their tails under and slink into the bush, I reached over and clenched his arm telling him I wanted a roundtrip, but it could be tranquilo, please. He got the point and we went out and retrieved Alan and the tool box, banging our way over the potholes, twice, for more enjoyment.

It was just about noon when we got back to the truck. I had parked it outside the bodega on a side street which runs North and South, so we were well situated to catch all the afternoon sun. In temperatures reaching ninety Alan proceeded to try crossing wires to hot-wire us so we could get home. He could get the motor to turn over, but the motor wouldn’t start. Seems these newer (old actually- 1987) automatic transmission Jeeps were built to protect us from thieves, as well as ourselves. Somehow we needed to find the wires that bypassed the transmission and fuel pump. They were not under the hood. We spent about two hours in the blazing sun trying everything we could think of to get her started.

Leaving the car in Port was not an option. We figured she would be stripped to the bones by morning. A couple of people we know came by and offered help. Baco, who drives the local recycling truck and is nephew to our old friend John John came by and called his father in Manzanillo. Ruben was to go around to someone named Philip, who “knew that kinda business good.”

We never heard back, so after about a half hour I walked back to the public phone and stood in line behind two young lotharios who were apparently talking to some girl who had recently been in Port. They kissy-kissied and I listened to them, “Please, you got to pro-mise me. Pro-mise me. When are you comin’ back?” It was endless. While I was waiting I was lucky enough to see Chola, Tun’s ex-wife, and Johnnie, their daughter, strutting down the street in their finest clothes. Both of them had their hair in long extenders in wild shades of purple and blue. Johnnie had just graduated from high school and had a big sash across her chest announcing her as a graduate -2005. Chola couldn’t have been a prouder mother. I gave them both a hug and they went on down the street; they were their own parade. I had been at the phone booth for so long Alan finally locked the car up and came looking for me. When I finally got the phone and reached Ruben, he said, “I speak to the man, but he still here.” It looked like we weren’t getting any help there.

We went over to see Danny, who runs a little tire repair business in the center of Port. Danny said, “You know who know that business, is Danielo. But, he ex-PEN-sive Mon.” On our way back to the car we ran into Andy, who was on our work crew the first year we built our house. He said he was taking a couple to Limon and would ask the guy at the junk yard up Hone Creek way if he could tow us home. Waiting for anybody was no longer an option. It was now getting on past three and the next day was Christmas Eve. Nothing would be moving then. We walked up to Juni Stewart’s house and Juni showed us where Danielo lived. We never would have found him by ourselves. His little hidden house was shoved back in between two others, a tiny trail meandered back to his door.

We talked to him for a bit and in my best Spanish asked him if he knew how to cross wires to bypass the key. How do you say “hot-wire” in Spanish, anyway? Alambrar en caliente? Anyway, He said he knew that business. He would get his tools and be there soon. We went back to the car and about ten minutes later here he came with his tool box- a paper sack with a screw driver sticking out one end.
He lay on the floor of the Jeep, his butt just inside the sill, his feet out the door and his head jammed in between the pedals. With one arm he reached up into the steering column and messed around until he came out with a wad of wires. Once he had them out, he sat for a long time and thought, and thought, and thought. Eventually he took a whole mess of them and twisted them into one. Then he took a single black wire he had left and touched the group. we could hear the fuel pump start and the the car started. He shut it back off and headed home to get some connecters for the final installation.

While this was going on I saw Andy’s brother, Chumbo, across the street at the local liquor store drinking with his pals. Chumbo had been on our work crew too. I walked over and asked him if he had Andy’s number so I could call him to tell the guy at Hone Creek we wouldn’t need him. Chumbo handed me his cell phone and said with slurred speech, “You call.” I told him I couldn’t call because I didn’t know the number. “I tell you; You mark it.” I called Andy who informed me that the deal in Hone Creek was dead. “The guy not working; too close to Christmas,” He said.

Back to the car and our little miracle worker. Our next problem was the automatic gear shift which was locked in park position. Danielo pried the cover off the shifter off and with a huge screw driver began prying at things I thought he had no business prying at. I kept telling Alan to make him quit before he broke something. But, it turned out he knew that business too. He popped something off the shifter and we had a car that started and could be shifted into gear. We drove it that way for about two weeks during “The Christmas.”

We went to san Jose during all of this and looked for the key switch. No one had one, and everyone said the car is too old. We also tried to get my cell phone, but that is a whole chapter to itself. On the way home the wires under the dash caught on fire and we had to pull over and cool everything off, Alan separated the melting wires, disconnected the air-conditioner and we went on home without further incidence.

We went back to San Jose a couple of weeks later, and found a new mechanic who used to own a Jeep Comanche pick-up and loves them. Alan told him about our difficulties and he reached up into the steering column, probed around for a bit, and said, “You need one of these,” holding up a rod that connects from the key to the ignition that he had laying around on his shop floor. He repaired all the wires from the steering column to the motor, fixed the switch rod, and charged us about eighty dollars.

Cell Phones and How to Get Them


I have been driving myself nuts by trying to obtain a cell phone line here. It is really unbelievable how difficult they can make things. There have been lines two days deep of people waiting at the phone company for the 300,000 lines recently made available. You would think that they would be handing them out like candy so they could collect the revenue off the calls, but no. Here you have to prove financial responsibility, have two copies of a Cedula, or other paperwork showing that you are a real person, copies of the receipt showing you purchased the phone in Costa Rica (and paid those all important taxes) and have a copy of a recent phone and electric bill before they can connect you to a line. 

I got all that done and took it to San Jose before Christmas to get connected. Turns out that the woman who took my original application for service put a “C” before my residence visa instead of an “A” and hence they could not connect me. The only person who could make the change was “on vacation.” I will call today to see if she is “off vacation.” Maybe we will get one this week. But, I can tell you that my desire for a phone line dwindles pretty quickly with all the bullshit and the lines. I have lived fourteen years here without one and really don’t find it at the top of my list. But, when I have to make a phone call while we are in San Jose and have to wait behind someone making inane conversation for hours, the desire comes back.