Twenty days into our first Trusted Housesitters house and pet care position, and I just now have the time and space to breathe and put the experience into words. We are in Costa Rica, near a tiny village called Dominicalito, living in a Tico house in the jungle — caring for 13 pets: 5 dogs and 8 cats, all rescue animals! Yup. We came into the situation eyes wide open, nobody twisted our arms. After all, two months in Costa Rica, rent free! Being animal lovers, it was easy to convince ourselves that the pets would only be a bonus. All that animal love! When we discussed the prospect, we agreed, ‘Sure it will be hectic at times with all that dog exercising and pet feeding’. There would be logistics to work out, of course, but it was clearly a windfall for us.
Turns out, there were a few factors we had not considered. March being the hottest month of the year in this area, up to 94F/34C temps daily, is one unconsidered factor. No a/c. That’s a whole lot of hot and humid; we find ourselves feeling something akin to sopping wet dishrags much of the time. I have learned what it is to have my entire body slick with sweat, so slick I could probably be mistaken for a water slide.
In the photos, the property appeared to be fenced – well, it kind of is, but the gate is broken! Which means dogs, given any freedom to explore as dogs must do, will go AWOL in the jungle at times. Never mind the worry when, at 10 p.m., the final of the five drags himself through the door, covered in mud. Imagine my dismay when, casually examining one dog’s ears, I discovered about five apparently famished jungle ticks securely latched and feeding. Further investigation found all dogs had ticks and one was actually infested. In about a week we’ve removed at least 100 ticks from her. She is said to have ‘sweet meat’ and to attract the little parasites, a fascinating tick fact I did not know. This work is not only time consuming but hugely disgusting! Another mesmerizing tick fact I recently became apprised of: it is possible to have a tick infestation in a home. One pregnant, blood engorged tick (that drops off a dog) can lay 1000 eggs in your house. With that in mind, yes, we have reconciled ourselves to carrying out daily and rigorous tick population control. (And the dogs are treated regularly with Nexgard. Imagine if they weren’t!) The google image below is a pretty good facsimile of the creatures we have been pulling from our charges. We are a little preoccupied at the time, to be taking photos of the nasty parasites ourselves.
According to the ad, a 15 minute walk takes one to the highway where a bus can be ridden to Dominical or Uvita, where groceries and other amenities can be purchased. Perhaps if you race down the road in power mode, or if you are a 19 year old athlete, the walk is 15 minutes. But who power walks or jogs in 90+F temps? It takes us 20+ minutes walking quickly on the gravel, multi-potholed road, prancing across a flood to keep our shoes dry. The way back (exhausted, stinking hot and loaded down with supplies) is all uphill, with a couple of steep patches at the end. Timing for this segment is closer to 30 minutes. And then there is the actual catching of a bus. We have learned in our 3 weeks here that if you are at the highway 15 minutes earlier than the schedule indicates, in the off chance that the bus arrives early, and are willing to wait 45 minutes beyond the scheduled arrival time – there is a possibility you will catch a bus to your desired location. You are probably standing in the hot sun during this time, waiting to (maybe) catch a bus. One time we even caught a bus 10 minutes before the scheduled time! Hitchhikers are not picked up in Costa Rica. Trust me, I know — if anyone would be cut some slack on this unspoken ‘rule’ – two white haired, red faced, sweating senior citizens with too many bags to carry, would likely be chosen. Of five hitching attempts we have been picked up once, by three surfers from Spain who made the mistake of making eye contact with us.
Now before you accuse me of being one of those travellers who go to a foreign country and want everything to be run exactly the way we do it at home, and spend all their time complaining about the differences — I’m NOT LIKE THAT at all. I love the differences – it’s why I travel. I embrace whatever culture I am partaking of, with curiosity, openness and warmth. It’s just that — this has been a HARD 20 days!! Never mind cultural differences, it’s just been WAY harder than I expected to care for 13 pets on a remote acreage in a humid tropical jungle, that’s all.
However, now that we have a (kind of) routine that (kind of) works, let me breathe out and tell you about the fabulous aspects of being in a remote tropical jungle caring for 13 animals. I’ll start with the wildlife! Oh my, it really is true what they say about the abundance of wildlife inhabiting Costa Rican jungles.
We begin our day before dawn, awakened by the haunting call of the howler monkeys. Rising by 6, when it’s not exactly cool but less hot, we are blessed by the wafting presence of blue morpho butterflies — enormous, luminous, blue-winged and fluttering their way along jungle pathways, finding food before the heat comes. While they come in droves from daylight on, by 8 and rising temperatures, they are no longer to be found. An elusive creature, the blue morpho passes so quickly that it is hard to photograph or video, however I am sharing this google images photo below.
Toucans are daily visitors to our trees and we often discover we’re being spied on while having our coffee on the back deck. Craziest looking birds, I swear they aren’t real but are cartoon characters. And that beak! How do they fly with that huge thing jutting out front? (Photo credit: Aaron White)
Howler monkeys, when calling at dusk, give our jungle retreat a decidedly ‘heart of darkness’ feel, with their warning and ferocious tone. While we saw numerous howlers at Tikal in Guatamala, their Costa Rican cousins seem to be more timid as we have not seen one, despite hearing them frequently throughout every day. Their wildcat-like call has actually become a part of the fabric of constant background sounds in the jungle, along with insects and birdsong. The clicking, whistling, buzzing, hooting, whirring stream of sound here is punctuated randomly by sharp bird calls and howler rumbles, all sounds flowing together into one weighty soundtrack that screams of aliveness. (Or, in the case of the following photo of Nelly with an iguana conquest, the ongoing fight for survival among the jungle creatures.)
Other creatures I’ve seen here in the Dominicalito jungle are coatimundi, iguanas, butterflies in many colours (even lime green), geckos, cicadas, 4” grasshoppers, a sneaky stick bug disguised as a brown twig, that got temporarily entangled in my floor sweepings (it flew away in a flash of rusty orange after I freed it!) and many varieties of birds. Of course we have also seen a couple examples of the (justifiably, in my opinion) maligned cockroach. Add the multitude of vivid floral offerings, plants and fruit trees and, barring the last mentioned creature, it has been pure joy to encounter a jungle seething with life. We’re eating bananas grown in our yard, ripened on our counter!
Another bonus, just recently acknowledged to myself, is the physical strength I am gaining through the care and exercising of these animals, added to the crap shoot of heading to town for supplies. In retirement, my biggest complaint (maybe the only one) has been losing my fitness routine. Well, it seems that, despite the difficulty of climbing a rough gravel road, uphill and loaded down, sweating under the sizzling sun, some part of this misery is actually good for me.
What else is to love about this experience? Well, the pets of course! Truth is, I was in love the minute I (almost) stepped through the door. There was such a cacophony of beasts all clamouring to greet me that I couldn’t actually move through the doorway in one step. I needed to stop and introduce myself first. After three weeks of chaos — through trial and error we are discovering the idiosyncrasies of each pet’s personality, likes and dislikes. Having established some routines and boundaries, it is far more manageable than our first mad week here, and almost beginning to feel liveable — for the next six weeks, that is. I have no doubt we will both be jubilant to part ways with our jungle kennel and soar to the cool climes and civilized espresso shops of Canada, with a sense of wonder at the accomplishment of this, at times, seemingly undoable task.
ADDENDUM: I will say, though, that eight cats is just WAY too many cats for any home to house! Though there are times now that things are positively relaxed around our little jungle casa. (Still —No danger of me ever becoming the neighbourhood cat lady…)