Veronica's Garden

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

Tag: Monteverde

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.

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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.

Costa Rica Diary: Highway From City to Cloud Forest

Costa Rica Journal

We had a van chartered to take us from San Jose to Monteverde. We were joined by Kevin’s brother Korey, who has lived in Argentina, and his partner Valeria, who is a bona fide native Spanish speaker, from Barcelona. That was nice, because the driver didn’t know a lot of English. We needed to buy a few things, but the stores weren’t open yet, so between Valeria and the driver it was decided that we would take a slightly longer route through San Ramon, where there is a mall that would open about the time we got there. But there was a need to get going.

Central American city driving is exciting. My father-in-law Mike gripped the handle on the back of the seat in front of him, from start to finish. I didn’t hold on, but my hips got sore from leaning into the seat belt as the van swerved and wound through narrow streets. Even when we got onto the main road, the lanes were narrow, and motorcyclists frequently rode the median, just inches away from moving cars and trucks.

“What does ‘Alto’ mean?” my mother-in-law asked. It was obvious that those signs had the international design of a stop sign, but nobody stops for them. She wondered if “Alto” meant “slow,” or “caution.”

“Welcome to Central America,” said Valeria.

Graffiti tells about a city what tour guides will never tell. “La nacion esta miete y quiebra.” With a swastika. Valeria told me “quiebra” is “broke,” but had no clue what “miete” was. I can’t find it in any dictionaries. If you know what that means, tell me in a comment. Another one: “Zombies en la vie [something] policia ¡No!”

The mall in San Ramon was shiny and expensive. Stores were supposed to open at 10:00, but at 10:20 most of them were still dark and gated. Kevin wanted some sunglasses, so he picked out a pair, but it turned out we had misread the price by a factor of ten. $117 went against his usual rule of never paying more than $10 for sunglasses, so he didn’t buy them.

Getting seven Irelands in and out of a mall quickly, even when half the stores are closed, is no easy task, but Valeria urged us on as the driver insisted we couldn’t stay long.

San Ramon is smaller than San Jose, but it still feels urban. Traffic continued to be heavy as we drove through countryside. We were on the Panamerican Highway. After a while, trees gave way to cleared pastures where cattle grazed. The fence posts were stalks of yucca, which looks like a sapling, grows into a small tree, and is harvested repeatedly for food.

Then we were climbing into mountains. Though the road was gravel, it was smoother and wider than I remembered rural roads being from our last visit. Still, it was very curvy and sometimes steep as it hugged the side of the mountain. I noticed traffic had fallen to nothing. I didn’t see other cars for miles. The only people were construction crews, sitting by the road in orange vests with styrofoam carry-out containers on their laps. I said a silent prayer for their safety, sitting on the edge of a mountain highway. Valeria explained that this was why the driver had been in a hurry: this stretch of road was closed for work—widening the road–as long as the workers were working; but vehicles were allowed to pass when the workers were on lunch break. The driver didn’t want to take the alternate route, which was more difficult. We had just made the cut.

Winding and climbing higher, we could see between mountains Lake Arenal on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. There was mist over the ocean, and the tops of the mountains were enveloped in clouds. Here the mountains were much less cleared and cultivated. It felt like we could be the only people for miles.

I watched a massive bank of clouds rolling relentlessly in from the east. But hard as the clouds pressed, they never cleared the top of the mountain, and the west side where we were driving remained serenely clear. We were near the continental divide, where weather coming from the Atlantic Ocean meets weather from the Pacific Ocean, in a perpetual stand-off.

And suddenly we crossed a line, and we were in those clouds. It was cool and moist and the muted light made the greens of the forest more vivid. And on we climbed, up to La Colina Lodge.

I got out of the car and almost cried with relief. Though I hadn’t felt weighed down by the city, coming to the mountain felt like a weight lifting off me. I wouldn’t say it’s light there, with the air thoroughly saturated with water, and the forest dense with life; but there is a lack of the heaviness of the city’s smell of diesel fumes and endless pavement. I like San Jose, but maybe I don’t belong in the city.

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