Veronica's Garden

Rachel Creager Ireland on writing, living, the Flint Hills, and the Post Rock Limestone Caryatids

Costa Rica Diary: Jeep-Boat-Jeep to La Fortuna

Lake Arenal lies between Monteverde and La Fortuna, so the most direct route utilizes what’s called a jeep-boat-jeep network. We actually went in a van, but the road was very rugged, bumpy, and steep. In some places I would have wondered if a vehicle could pass, had it not been for the calm confidence of the driver. I sat in the back with my seat belt on, and watched the scenery.

Not far out of Monteverde, the cloud forest gives way to cleared pastures, though the mountain grasslands feel as remote as the forest. There were long stretches of dirt road where we didn’t see another vehicle or person. Some slopes were so steep I wondered that cattle could graze there.

This is a regular route, not a chartered van, so we picked up some other passengers. There were a couple teenaged girls who embarked in Santa Elena, but in a village along the way, we picked up a little girl standing in front of her house. (She turned out to be with the older girls.)

Eventually we stopped in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, next to the lake. When I saw the narrow dirt footpath down to the water, I was glad I had packed lightly, and had everything in a backpack.

The boat was the kind with a roof and open sides, and benches for passengers. Everyone got at least a little spray on us as we zipped across the lake. We saw several great egrets near the shores.

In La Fortuna, we checked into Cabanas Rusticas, which turned out to be not so rustic at all. Korey and Valeria had a cabana to themselves, while the rest of us shared a 2-story, 3-bedroom cabana with a full kitchen. There was a lovely garden surrounding us, and a tiny pool where the girls splashed. The cabanas were built in a log cabin style, but were very well-equipped. There were lots of windows on every side of the building, and doors too, all with shutters that could be easily opened. Upstairs, there was a porch with rocking chairs and a perfect view of the volcano. (Volcan Arenal wasn’t active when we were there, so it looked like a regular mountain, when we could see it through the mist.)

They don’t use window screens much in La Fortuna, which wasn’t really a problem. We didn’t get bugs in the cabin, though when I wrote in my journal in the evening, I could see geckos converging on the ceiling of the porch, to catch the bugs flying around the porch light. One night there was a monarch butterfly flying around the light, skillfully avoiding death by lizard. I was surprised to learn that there are monarchs in Central America, though they don’t migrate as they do up north.

The lack of window screens was uncomfortable for me, even though, clearly, the people who live there all the time don’t think twice about it. I probably never told you, dear readers, that one of the reasons I began studying entomology, many years ago, was as a constructive way to channel my childhood phobia of insects. It mostly allayed my fears, though there are rare times when the thought of creepy things hiding in the shadows gets me paranoid. I managed myself, though, at our stay in La Fortuna, and nothing got me.

Veronica on Winter’s End

Rachel’s had a difficult week, and doesn’t feel like writing tonight. There’s so much writing to be done, but so many expectations to fulfill (though, strangely, when I ask her who holds such expectations, she can never seem to provide a name). She didn’t have a vehicle much of the week, and she’s been trying to get someone to dig up her sewer pipe and replace it, with snow on the ground. So she asked me to write tonight in her stead.

At first I thought, not much happening this time of year. Every creature is still holding its breath, waiting for the days to get just a little longer, just a little warmer. But that’s really not true at all. The juncos (Junco hyemalis), also called snowbirds, have been active and visible all winter, and they are still here for a couple more weeks. The cardinals are nesting, as evidenced by their cheery song. A flock of snow geese (Chen caerulescens) flew over, in a northwesterly direction, marking the full moon. I’ve always wanted to see them on the ground, but to date they have invariably eluded me, rising up and continuing their long migration before I arrive at whatever avian rest area they’ve been reputed to frequent. Nevertheless, it’s a privilege to see them over my head, as they fly to the far north to nest.

And the garden? Well, if you’d leaned close to the ground at just the right moment, after the snow melted, you might have been injured by a garlic sprout shooting up so fast you wouldn’t see it until it poked you in the eye. They’re fully two inches tall now. Well, they were yesterday afternoon, who knows, by now they may be two or three times that height. When the year is winding down, I have to force myself to plant garlic; but its appearance in the early spring brings tears to my eyes, it’s such a relief after the interminable winter.

So that’s what we have this week. Rachel will be back next week, one way or another. The current difficult lunation will pass, she’ll get her meds straightened out, and spring will save us all, eventually, as it always does.

What signs of life are stirring in your neighborhood?

I don't have any bird pictures. I did receive a macro lens for Christmas, and it worked for these ants scavenging the remains of a butterfly which had been a meal for a gecko the night before.

I don’t have any bird pictures. I did receive a macro lens for Christmas, and it worked for these ants scavenging the remains of a butterfly which had been a meal for a gecko the night before.

What Brings People to Veronica’s Garden?

Stats are of passing interest on a Sunday morning when church was cancelled for a couple inches of snow. I don’t get very many search term reports anymore. I don’t know why, but I can guess anyway by what posts people are looking at.

A surrealist poem titled “Neptune Direct” is a current favorite, though I like this other Neptune one too. I think it’s probably astrology enthusiasts who find these, though some are simply searching “Neptune.”

There are still frequent views of one post about dreams about witches, but not the other one.

The entomology joke has a certain niche audience.

Wasp totem continues to be popular, though I haven’t written on wasp for a while. I have four posts, and honestly, I don’t know if I can think of anything else to say on the subject.

People also search other totems, as well as Ted Andrews. He clearly has more fans than haters, though the haters have made themselves known to me, via my stats page.

What do you like about Veronica’s Garden? What would you like more of? What brings you to a blog?

Here’s a cat picture.

Costa Rica Diary: Agritourism

The last activity we did in Monteverde was a tour of El Trapiche, which is an agritourism plantation that grows coffee, sugar, and cacao. This was one of the tamer of our adventures. Our guide (whose name escapes me, but you can see pictures of him on their site linked above) was excellent, very knowledgeable and confident. The tour was quite well-done, and we all enjoyed seeing how these plants grow and become the foods we eat. We took a leisurely walk around the farm while chewing chunks of raw sugar cane, which was tasty though too fibrous to eat whole. We also sampled the fruits of both coffee and cacao, which were also surprisingly sweet and tasty, if not terrifically fleshy. We tasted raw beans of both, and the only surprise there was that anyone ever figured out that fermenting and/or roasting those could lead to a food or beverage so fabulously palatable as coffee and chocolate.

We were treated to a demonstration of the traditional ways of pressing sugar cane. They had a water-powered sugar mill, which was fun to watch. There was also an ox-powered mill, and I admit I was a bit distressed to see oxen wearing on their massive necks a gaily-colored yoke that I probably couldn’t even lift. They only had to walk around the mill once, though, and they didn’t seem any more inclined to stop than they had been to start. Everyone was a safe distance to avoid getting splattered when one of the oxen let out an abundant stream of urine. I think that part is usually machine-powered these days. Then we made the traditional form of sugar by stirring the thickened juice until it hardened into a paste. We took a block of it with us, and used it when we baked and cooked on the rest of the trip.

We harvested coffee beans from a field, and we watched the various machines that sort and roast the beans. We tasted cacao beans in different stages of fermentation. Now, if you’ve ever looked up the etymology of the word chocolate, whatever you found wasn’t true. Forget about the Aztecs and the Mayas. In fact, the word is from cacao and some Latin-derived version of milk. So, if you see a product that is called chocolate, but doesn’t have milk in it, it is really only sweetened cocoa, called chocolate because, you know, marketing. If it doesn’t have milk, it isn’t chocolate.

Please don’t tell that to the people at Chocolove. Or this fabulous lady.

We tasted a shot of guaro (distilled spirit of cane), which was more alcoholic than rum, and nearly came back up as fast as I tossed it down.

To settle that, we finished our tour with a delicious little taco filled with a vegetable called arracache, a drink of cane juice and lemon, and a cup of coffee.

We bought coffee to take with us in the shop. Rowan bought a baseball cap that said “Costa Rica.”

And we were off to La Fortuna.

 

Note: Kevin’s and my photos got mixed up on iphoto, so I have no idea who took which. They’re probably all Kevin’s. Also, since Rowan is wearing the Costa Rica baseball cap on the tour, she can’t have bought it in the gift shop at the end. Oh, now I remember, I think she bought it in Santa Elena the day she made friends with a stray dog and it followed us into the supermarket/souvenir shop . . .

Costa Rica Diary: The Tarzan Swing

I wrote last time about the zip line tour at Selvatura Park, which was great, though I discovered myself to be inexplicably afraid of heights. But the Tarzan swing took the fear to another level.

When I was little, I remember my older brother egging me on to do daring things. He liked that I was more of a risk-taker than my sister. Later I loved roller coasters and other adventurous activities. In my twenties . . . let’s just say I did some risky things without thinking twice. I don’t see myself as person who is afraid to do something exciting.

The Tarzan swing was simply a step off a platform while attached to a cable, so there was no danger of falling. The platform was twelve meters high. We’d already zipped over the forest canopy, a hundred feet or more, so twelve meters should be nothing, right? But, the view from the platform wasn’t especially notable, and the stairs went straight up. I’d done plenty of walking already, and didn’t think I needed the thrill. It was optional, so maybe I’d sit this one out. But my daughters would hear none of it. They’re seven and ten, and full of the enthusiasm of youth. My mother-in-law Pat wasn’t sure she needed the Tarzan swing either, but she doesn’t say no to the girls much. They ran ahead of us up the hill to the bottom of the stairs. “Who’ll go first?” “Baba!” (That’s Pat.)

So everyone in the group decided to do it. I hung back, but the girls pushed Pat to the front of the group. She didn’t seem thrilled to go first, but, like I said, she’s not one to say no. Did she have to do it? She did it. Then the kids, my husband, brother-in-law, his girlfriend, and everyone else in the group, except for one other person who thought it would make her sick.

I’m not a sucker for peer pressure. I can say no. But if my sixty-five-year-old mother-in-law can take the jump, surely I ought to be able to, n’est ce pas? If I’m forty-eight and afraid to do adventurous things, what will I be like when I’m sixty-five? What kind of grandmother will I be?

I decided I wasn’t going to let my mother-in-law be more adventurous than I. I would jump. I didn’t know how, but I would find a way. I tried to think of scary things I’d done. Surely there’ve been plenty. All I could think of was finally getting years of back taxes filed, which was an overwhelming task I’d been positive I couldn’t do. (The refunds funded this trip.) But sitting at a desk under a pile of papers didn’t even seem scary compared to this, so that didn’t help. I thought of that Alanis Morissette song, how did it go? Something like, the minute I jumped off was the minute I touched the ground. Thank you. Thank you India. I liked the song. But it was just a song.

The guide on the platform gave a couple people a bit of a nudge on the back when they hesitated. I thought about telling him to push me. But it might be even scarier to be pushed than to step off voluntarily. When I got to the platform, I told him, “I don’t know if I can do this.”

“Just put your hands right here,” he said reassuringly.

I made myself breathe. I held onto the harness attaching me to the cable. It would hold me anyway, had been tested already, there was nothing to be afraid of, but I was terrified. All I had to do was hold on, and take one step.

He opened the gate. Panic. “I can’t—” I said, and grabbed the railing. Holding onto the railing felt better, even with that gaping opening that threatened to suck me down.

Very calmly, he said, “I need you to put both hands here.”

Yes. Do what he says. It’s probably safer that way, maybe if I fell while holding onto the rail I’d go sideways and tear a knee ligament or something. That would be worse than just doing it the right way. I just have to do it.

I put both hands in place and didn’t wait to be pushed. I closed my eyes and stepped forward.

Half a second of freefall.

Then the cable caught, and it was just like any old playground swing.

It seemed like I should be smiling and laughing, but I didn’t feel happy. When asked how it was, I said, “I did it.” It seemed like that should be triumphant. I’d conquered my fear. I’d beaten the Tarzan swing. But I didn’t feel triumphant either. I just wanted to be back on the ground.

And that seemed wrong too. The whole point of the tour was to have fun, and, no matter hard I looked inside, I couldn’t find any enjoyment there. Maybe it was a waste of money. Maybe I should have stayed back with my father-in-law and enjoyed the entomology museum. I love entomology. Was I just trying to prove I’m not a stick in the mud?

Sitting at my desk here in Kansas, listening to coyotes howl outside, I don’t know the answer to that. But I find if I had the chance right now, I’d march myself right up to that platform and do it again, acrophobia be damned. Because now I know I can, and I’m not going through life dancing with fear like a friend, I’m going to jump right into it. Go ahead fear, suck all the fun out of a day, but you do not win.

Later I told Pat that I’d done it because I didn’t want to be less adventurous than my mother-in-law, and she told me earnestly that she wasn’t sure she was a good role model.

Costa Rica Diary: Zip Lines at Selvatura Park, Monteverde

I think when we were in Monteverde twelve years ago, there was only one zip line tour; now there are several to choose from, and we’d been told Selvatura‘s was the best, with over a dozen lines. The longest stretches a full kilometer. Guides helped us into harnesses, and double checked that they were secure. We were each issued a set of heavy leather gloves and a helmet. We left all valuable items (including cameras) with my father-in-law Mike, who didn’t care to fly that day.

There was a lot of walking up stairs and steep hills. It was good exercise and I didn’t mind. I just loved being in the forest. The zip lines terrified me, though. It was the first time I remember ever being afraid of heights. I don’t remember being particularly scared the last time we did zip lines. I have no idea what was different this time. I couldn’t decide which was more frightening, zipping along high above the tops of the trees, or into thick clouds where I couldn’t see a thing. Once or twice I was so terrified that I just closed my eyes for a few seconds. I willed myself to breathe. There was a woman in our group who was there alone, and she kind of made friends with us. It was a bit of a comfort to me that she seemed even more scared than I was.

At the end of each line was a platform, and some of them were built onto giant trees, which I later found out were kapok trees. As soon as a person was detached from the cable, the guide would click his/her harness onto a cable attached to the tree, so no one could fall to the ground two hundred feet below. One of my favorite moments was standing on the platform, under the protection of a tree whose diameter must have been more than six feet. There was another tree close by —I could almost touch it— that was broken off just above a fork in the trunk. A family of little yellow and gray birds nested there, in the green moss and delicate epiphytic plants above the clouds.

Under certain conditions, a person doesn’t get enough speed to get to the end of the cable. This can happen if there’s a cross wind, or with a lighter person. The kids mostly went with the guides, who were all fine young men who appeared to be under the age of about twenty. If someone came to a stop before they got to the platform, a guide would have to go out, hand over hand on the cable, attach himself to the stalled tourist, and pull her/him to the end. It wasn’t a huge problem, but it slowed the group down and was a bit of a pain in the neck.

For the longest line —a full kilometer— smaller people were attached to each other. Our new friend stepped up and requested to go with my mother-in-law, Pat. I guess something about Pat felt safe to her. The guides had to have a conference to decide how to split us up. I got lucky and ended up going with one of those attractive youths. “You don’t have to do anything,” he said. I asked him his name, I think he said Darius. I held onto my harness while he wrapped his legs around mine. We took off from the platform. I wondered how long it would take. I felt so much safer with a guide than by myself. My only fear was that my arms would give out from gripping the harness, which I only had to hold onto to keep from hanging backwards by the hips. I can do it, I told myself.

Then we were in the clouds, beyond space and time. I think Darius was talking to me, but I couldn’t hear over the zip of the pulleys on the cable. I tried to relax into the harness. Then we were in trees again, approaching the enormous tree that anchored the cable. We stalled out and the guide had to pull us by hand. “It’s not scary with you,” I said. He asked me where I was from.

I said, “Kansas. It’s very different from here. Grass, no trees, open sky.”

He said, “It’s beautiful?”

I said, “Yes, beautiful. Very different beautiful.” We were almost to the platform.

I had to add: “But here it’s magical.”

Then we were on the platform, and it wasn’t even high above the ground.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll tell you about the scariest thing I’ve ever done: the tarzan jump.

As for the photo gallery, the zip line photos all came from the park’s hidden cameras placed in the trees somewhere. They look pretty much the same, so I’m filling in with some more photos from La Colina Lodge.

Margaret Atwood Signs My Kindle Case

Isn’t Margaret Atwood awesome? She’s a brilliant writer, she’s written dozens of influential books, she’s been around for ages but she’s still hip, witty, relevant, and current with social media. When I was in college, The Handmaid’s Tale seemed to say everything that needed to be said on the religious right and their treatment of women. Twenty-five years later, The Year of the Flood has much new commentary to make. She brilliantly (sorry to use that word twice, I can’t help it) captures the language of preachers, the ways religious extremists think, and the ways in which women are both protected and manipulated by religious sects.

Oh Margaret, what more could you do for me? Talk to me about zombies in comparison to popular semi-humans of previous ages (werewolves, vampires, Frankenstein monsters, in historical order). Sign my Kindle case? Totally worth driving 96 miles with a dead credit card in my purse and the engine light blinking all the way. Margaret Atwood rocks!

Kindle Case Autographed By Margaret Atwood

Costa Rica Diary: Hanging Bridges in the Matrix of Life

The Monteverde area has many more ecotourism parks and reserves than it did twelve years ago. Andrea at La Colina Lodge recommended Selvatura Park for a zip line tour, but they have much more to do there than that. We took a walk in the bridges hanging in the cloud forest before our zip line adventure. It might sound pedestrian (no pun intended), but I’d rank it among my favorites of all the wonderful activities we did in Costa Rica.

It’s an understatement to say that it’s wet in the cloud forest. It’s not like the ethereal fog we have infrequently in Kansas. It’s like the air is hypersaturated with moisture. You get thoroughly wet just being in it. We couldn’t quite decide if it was sprinkling or not, and half of us put up the hoods on our rain jackets, half did not. Though there were other people around, we let them walk past us, and lingered in the quiet. We saw a slate-throated redstart and emerald toucanets, and other birds that I wasn’t able to identify.

Epiphytes grow everywhere. Wherever a seed or spore can land, it can grow. Trunks of trees are covered in shades of green, from so many kinds of plants that they would defy counting. The hanging bridges connect the steep sides of the mountains, so we walked among the clouds, wisps of which swirled silently among the trees. Looking down, I’d see a fern with leaves longer than my arms; when I’d crossed the bridge and come down the slope a bit, I could see that huge fern was growing from a crook in a tree, twenty feet off the ground. With so much water, who needs soil to grow in?

In my beloved tallgrass prairie, soil is the source from which springs everything that lives. There are insects and animals in the grass, and in the sky, and in the rivers and ponds; but the grass that anchors it all comes from the soil. It’s a thin but incredibly rich source of nutrients and moisture and the microorganisms that make other life forms possible. Old gardeners will tell you that the key to gardening is to feed the soil. Poets and scientists speak of soil in reverent tones. Soil is the matrix of life.

Monteverde cloud forest is so saturated with water everywhere, that the entire ecosystem itself is that matrix, from the soil up through the underbrush, and on up, two hundred feet into the tops of the trees. Many of the forest’s creatures rarely or never even touch the earth. If the prairie’s soil is a two-dimensional plane, the cloud forest is life exploding into three dimensions.

Amidst this fecundity, my Costa Rica story began to conceive itself. My character would have to journey from San Jose to the cloud forest. (There would be similarities to Maeve’s journey to the prairie, don’t you think?) I told Kevin about this as we walked, and he suggested mixing in some study of botanical medicines. Yes, I thought, she would be sick, seeking healing that couldn’t be found in civilization. What kind of illness? What sickness can only cloud forest heal? Forests are the lungs of the earth, so it would be a lung ailment, one which becomes more prevalent as the forests are inexorably razed. Somehow that led to the question of to what extent plot is necessary. Some authors (myself not included) excel at plot; I find myself moved more by other elements, as a reader and writer. Some books I’ve loved didn’t have much plot. We thought of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as an example of a story with not a lot of plot, but a journey.

If I were to make my story a heroic journey, then the heroine would have eventually to go back to her home, to bring newly acquired wisdom to share with her people. What form would that take? What wisdom will she find, and how will she share it?

I’d thought, I can’t write about this place without being here for a while, living in Costa Rica for months, learning the language and studying the culture. I’ll put this story on the back burner. But once I start talking about a story with Kevin, it takes on a life of its own. The story has no regard for my timelines and preferences. The story does not care that I don’t belong here, that I have deep roots and commitments elsewhere, that my eyes haven’t yet learned how to see this place. The story wills itself to being through me, its vessel. The story has magical power I cannot constrain, especially in this fertile matrix of life.

Cost Rica Diary: Night Hike in the Cloud Forest

La Colina Lodge, outside the town of Santa Elena, feels like a house where generations of hippies have lived and left their mark. The rooms are painted in pretty colors, and there’s a reading room with enough books that I could stay and read for six months, if I didn’t get distracted by the lovely mosaics in the floor. There’s a large yoga room with lots of windows. Andrea the manager was terrific at making recommendations and arranging activities for us.

The first evening we took a night hike at El Refugio. Our guide’s name was Javier. Before we began the hike, he asked us if we’d been to Costa Rica before. It was the first time for everyone in our group except me and Kevin, who had been there twelve years previous, for our honeymoon. He asked how we liked it this time. I said I was enjoying myself more than last time, which had been great. Javier was surprised, and remarked how much things had changed. How, I asked? There had been a lot of development, lots of paving of roads, with more planned. The gravel road we’d come on would soon be paved. He liked the way things were before, but said that the development is needed, in order to compete with other locations, as in the US.

Why compete? I’d love to have had a chance to talk at length with Javier about ecotourism and conservation of the cloud forest, but it was time to begin our hike. It wasn’t until a couple days later that I put together my memories and the place as it is now. Santa Elena was the dusty town we’d ridden into by bus. We were greeted by several people with binders, showing us pictures of rooms, to entice us to stay there. Not having a reservation, we took a chance and followed a man to a family-operated lodging that turned out to be inexpensive and scrupulously clean, and the only person in the family who spoke English was a little girl. That town, as I remember it, had one main, gravel street. Now there are more cross streets, and when I looked for it, I could recognize only one block. Everything seemed to have rotated and expanded. There are ten times as many restaurants, both casual and more upscale, and a supermarket. The town grew so much that I hadn’t recognized it.

Rustic and remote is always my preference when traveling to see nature; so why was I more thrilled to be in this place now? The answer lay not in changes in the place, but in the changes in myself. I’m much happier now, with myself as well as the world, and more able to be present and enjoy the moment. Also, while there is much pleasure to be had in discovering something new for the first time, there’s a special satisfaction in sharing that discovery with loved ones, especially one’s children. To enjoy a place, start by being able to enjoy yourself. Then find someone to share it with.

But I didn’t have time to figure this out, and tell Javier, because it was time to go off into the dark forest. Javier turned out to be an excellent guide. He knew the habits of the animals, and how to find them in the dark. He made a point of telling us that the animals at El Refugio are neither fed nor hunted by humans, and therefore don’t pay much attention to us at all. There were several groups out, and the guides talked to one another via radio, telling each other where they’d seen a coati, a kinkajou, a possum, or a tarantula or a trail of leafcutter ants. He also showed us a sleeping warbler, a walking stick insect more than six inches long, and a pit viper, which had placed itself, obligingly, at a comfortable distance from the path. Javier even walked off the path to get closer to the pit viper to take pictures for us.

We didn’t see any monkeys, which Kevin had hoped for. Monkeys were to come later.

By the time we returned to La Colina we were exhausted. Everything was damp, including the beds. You can’t keep moisture out when you live in cloud forest. I was chilly in bed, but quickly warmed up and fell into a deep sleep.

The Autopsy

It was probably a kitten

As psychologist James Hillman once put it, ‘It was only when science convinced us the Earth was dead that it could begin its autopsy in earnest.’ The greatest act of disobedience to the mechanistic model is to reclaim our empathy with the living planet, our ability to feel.   —Stephen Harrod Buhner, in The Sun, Dec 2014

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