Costa Rica: A Narrow Escape

 

It came as no surprise that I had been bitten by a tick and had the tick disease – Lyme or some other debilitating ailment. After all, I was living in the Costa Rican jungle with 13 animals, 4 of which had tested positive for Ehrlichiosis, another tick disease. It had been a particularly dry dry season and the ticks were partying wildly out there in the dense flora, or so I thought. Then I heard that a house could actually blossom with a tick infestation — started by one pregnant tick that dropped off an animal in the house. She could lay 1000 eggs in a house. It seemed ticks were partying wildly inside my home. Tick disease is no joke — I knew people who had it, and it messes with every aspect of a person’s body and life. I did not want it, and here I had it.

We had been removing ticks from dogs for over a month when I saw a small, somewhat painful lump on my stomach. I mean really small, minuscule would be the best word to describe what I saw. But — I reasoned to myself — those 1000 newborn ticks would be infinitesimal in size. A full grown tick is only the size of a match head. I dug at the thing with my inept tweezers, trying to remove it from my flesh. I could still see a tiny something sticking out from my flesh, and — did I just see it move!? Some of the ticks we removed from the dogs were alive and their creepy little arms and legs would wave around as you transported them, via tweezers, to the drowning jar. ‘Help, help’ — they would seem to be pleading for their lives. I even saw one climb out of the water and up the inside wall of the jar. It very nearly escaped before being plunged back into the drink. We were merciless in the elimination of every tick we encountered imbedded in the flesh of our charges. Still, four out of five dogs tested positive for Ehrlichiosis disease. And the fifth had been on antibiotics for it during the time the others were acquiring it. Nothing like a jungle dog to keep you busy and broke.

But the dogs were all on their prescribed meds. Surely our home was not beset by an infestation and my imagination had simply been overly sensitized by this month-long tick debacle. I put a small bandaid with ointment onto the wound I had created with the tweezers, and said nothing to Aaron, my partner in this jungle enterprise. I only needed his help to tend to the five puncture holes left in my back when one of the eight cats in our care, all supposedly domestic cats but clearly with a measure of insanity thrown in, flung herself at my back for no apparent reason, and clung on with the claws of one paw as her weight dragged her downwards. The tick I would keep to myself.

A day or so passed and it was time to change my bandaids. I yanked them all off and jumped into the shower. Drying off, I was horrified to spot in the mirror a rosy circle around the tick wound! Immediately I checked google for Lyme disease images and, sure enough, my rosy circle looked exactly like the one in the photograph. Well, it was no real surprise — did I really think I was going to come out of this tick fiasco unscathed? And was this house actually a festering breeding ground of near-invisible baby ticks, all skittering around famished for a blood meal? I flew into a whirlwind of panicked brainwork: Where was the closest doctor? How would I get there? Carless, we were a 20 minute walk on a rough jungle road, just to the bus stop. The bus system is notoriously unreliable; a taxi — or a person with a rust bucket vehicle who needs money — is notoriously pricey. I phoned the local medico and spoke in broken Spanish while the receptionist replied in broken English. After telling him my dilemma he said, ‘Oh, you have the tick out? Then don’t worry, it’s all okay now’. He must have missed the part about the red circular rash though I repeated it several times. It actually seemed that he had no interest in understanding what was happening with this pesky extrañjero who was intruding upon his day, nor did he seem compelled to even pretend to possess a hair of empathy for her circumstances. I convinced the man to book me an appointment with the doctor for the next day, composing in my mind a lecture on the possibility that he was temperamentally unsuited for his current vocation.

I had been periodically checking the site where the tiny perpetrator had infected me. At one point I wondered if the red rash wasn’t fading a tiny bit. A bit later I was examining the offending spot in the bathroom mirror when my eyes happened to fall on the claw wounds. Hm. Did they seem to have red rings around them also? Was it possible to get tick disease from the claws of an infected cat? My mind reeled with the mystery of it all. Could I have multiple tick infections; was I a seething hotbed of Lyme disease or Ehrlichiosis?

As the clouds of mystery slowly dissipated and the solution dawned brightly, sheepish relief flooded over me like a tidal wave. The bandaids — purchased here in Costa Rica and clearly made with some caustic type of glue — had caused the red rings! I didn’t have Lyme disease! Our home was not infested! The sky opened up and angels appeared, singing on high — some were even tooting on those horns that you see in the religious pictures. I had had tick disease and I was cured!

 

 

Note: This story is dedicated to my friends who do/did have tick disease — I wish the cure was this simple for them.

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Costa Rica: By Night …

 

Shuffling groggily to and from el baño with my flashlight is a nightly event in our Costa Rican Tico casa. Not wanting any surprises from unknown creatures under my bare feet — cockroaches, geckoes, whatever — I shine it on the floor before stepping out of bed. I had been increasingly aware of a resident gecko or two on the ceiling of our bedroom. Kind of amused, I do not feel unfriendly towards them and their seemingly random chirping. Yet, I had come to consider the possibility of a gecko falling on me in the night while I slept, or — perhaps worse — pooping on me. I have been known to awaken from sleep to find myself snoring lightly with my mouth open — yuch, what a revolting possibility this brings to mind! It was with this thought, as I was on my return trip to bed last night, that I casually shone my light at the ceiling and high on the walls in an attempt to locate a critter.

I was instantly startled awake by the appearance in my beam of a critter! Not a gecko but an enormous scorpion sprawled across the wall above where my sleeping head had lain not minutes before! The scream was out of me and Aaron was on his feet — it seemed in the same millisecond — well before he was awake. When he spotted the intruder, his horror mirrored mine. After all, Aaron is an actual arachnophobe. At that point everything went into a whirl — we decided without words that it would have to die, since there was no safe way to trap such a huge, dangerous beast. In a fluster of brooms and scuttling and tumbling and scrambling-into-hiding scorpion, and prancing and shrieking people — which I am positive lasted at least an hour — the scorpion eventually lost the battle of hide and seek.

 

In that moment, though relieved to not be wondering if it was on the loose, hiding in our bedroom and no longer having to elude the creature, I felt quite ashamed and sorry. (In our defence, we had never before killed a scorpion but always caught and released them outside. This one was just so huge and daunting — and so near to me asleep in my bed. Somehow it seemed a particular affront to my safety.) The poor thing had no desire to harm us. It was large enough to be a pregnant female; perhaps she was looking for a place to have her babies. I felt sick inside at what we had done. Still I couldn’t truthfully say I was regretful. My stomach knotted with an irrational sense of self defence mixed with guilt, at having taken the life of a creature bent on minding its own business — feeding, procreating, the basic stuff of life.

But still — how will I ever turn off the lights or shut my eyes in my Tico bedroom again?

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The above photo is yet another scorpion that was encountered in our front yard, just steps from where we had been bathing the dogs moments before. Great camouflage!

Note: It should be mentioned that we have heard from locals in Central America, that the younger and smaller the scorpion, the more poison, therefore pain and other symptoms, the recipient of the sting is likely to experience. It is explained that a young scorpion has less control over the dose, whereas a more experienced one wants to save the lethal dose for its prey.

Costa Rica: Breath of the Jungle

FLORA & FAUNA

Photo credits:

Most wildlife & birds: Aaron White
Most plantlife & others: Kath Perreault

 

 

 

In planning our travel in Central America, Costa Rica was not on the itinerary, mostly due to the high cost of living and westernized culture we had heard about. Our interest was piqued, however, by tales of abundant wildlife and natural phenomena. Perhaps we would spend one expensive week there, and do the rest of our time in Guatamala, Nicaragua and Panamá. That was the plan — that is, until we saw an ad for a two month care situation in the jungle near Dominicalito, Costa Rica. Long story short, we got the gig and here we are, with two free months in a Tico casa in a remote jungle, in exchange for caring for pets (13 rescue dogs and cats! — see my last story for details).

 

 

Our Costa Rican experience began in San Jose, where we booked a shuttle bus to Matapalo Beach on the Pacific coast. We were scheduled to spend a week as innkeepers, filling in for friends from Canada before going on to our Dominicalito destination. When the driver pulled in for a rest stop at Rio Tarcoles, shops and bańos, and pointed me towards the ‘cocodrilos’, I expected a couple of tourist-friendly beasts to be paddling around in the rio hoping for picnic scraps. I was astonished to witness about 25 enormous crocodiles basking and swimming along in the river below a high bridge. Sure, it is a popular tourist attraction, drawing hoards of oglers each year. Nonetheless, my reaction to the sight of the powerful creatures below was visceral — I was both horrified and mesmerized. I had no doubt these reptiles were wild enough to devour me for lunch if I made a false step on that bridge and ended up in the water below.

 

 

Our first evening at Matapalo, we expected to flake out early with travel exhaustion. Not so. When a kerfuffle broke out at a neighbour’s home, we were treated to a lengthy display of shenanigans from a troop of local white faced monkeys, as they swooped from tree to tree, scampering over a rooftop and mischievously taunting the dogs by shaking palm fronds at them. Highly amusing! We then headed to the beach to experience an outstanding sunset performance in oranges and pinks, just happening to encounter a 3-toed sloth draped lethargically over a tree branch. When the creature did make a move, it was with such painful languidness that I felt like I was watching a suspenseful movie, wondering where that 3-toed paw would land. We marvelled at our first live sloth and crocodile sightings, all in our first hours in Costa Rica! Over the week at Matapalo we were to see several sloths, even a mother with baby on board, as well as repeated visits from monkeys. Easy to see why ‘monkey’ is a term used for impish and rambunctious beings. Aaron captured the classic beauty of a wide variety of birdlife — herons, egrets, ibis, stilts —fishing on a laguna nearby. However, I think I am happy to report that I did not see the crocodiles that were reported to be spotted swimming in the ocean at the mouth of nearby rivers.

 

 

Our time at Matapalo was definitely one of exceptional wildlife experiences, as we wrapped up the week with an unexpected encounter with a mama sea turtle! It was past mating and gestation season so we weren’t even looking for the signs. After dinner with friends, Aaron took a stroll out to the beach to gaze at the stars. He was momentarily puzzled to see some odd looking ATV tracks in the sand, before realizing it was the track of a turtle! We followed her trail to discover a sea turtle, her shell about 2’ in diameter, energetically carving out a hole with her flippers. After the mother turtle laid her eggs and made her exhausted way back to the sea, our new European friend stayed with the eggs all night, guarding them against night poachers that were seen skulking about. In the morning a conservationist was called in to relocate the eggs to a safe spot. We moved on to our next adventure at Dominicalito a couple of hours south, with dreams of young turtles making their arduous yet joyous way to the sea.
(Turtle photo by Stefan Schmidt)

 

 

Iguanas and geckos abound in Costa Rica. At Dominical Beach I spotted an iguana shooting out of sight up a palm tree — it must have been two feet long, without the tail! As I walked the beach one evening, I was delighted to spot in my path, this perfect little seahorse. So now I know they really exist, are not like unicorns and dragons, much as they seem to be like creatures.

 

 

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D8FDBFEE-F777-4DC4-B90A-83DAD8C53395Arrival at our jungle casa (kennel), thirteen needy pets launched at us in one stroke, you would expect there to be little else but those animals to capture our attention. Still, it was impossible to overlook the massive shift of sensual experience which happens with immersion in a Costa Rican jungle. Though it was dry season and had not rained in months, the very air felt swampy — heavy, humid and hot. Growing gills to breathe did not seem out of the question. And the volume! My head filled with a cacophony of sound unlike anything I had experienced. Chirping, whistling, buzzing, clicking, hooting, roaring — why, there are even creatures that produce car alarm sounds and wolf whistles, not to mention the gutteral roar of howler monkeys! Though their growls are a frequent sound in the background, beginning at 4 or 5 a.m., the monkeys themselves are shy and elusive. We saw our first troop just last evening at nightfall. The feisty creatures invaded our yard and seemed to be demanding that we vacate the premises with suitable threatening growls and advancement towards us. We made a hasty retreat inside with the dogs, still unable to get good shots. Aaron has had opportunity to shoot the friendlier white faced monkeys, right in our back yard, as seen below.

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‘Seething with life’, cliche though the phrase may be, is likely the most apt way to describe this jungle. Butterflies of many colours abound, and of course, we spent much time trying to capture the magnificent blue morpho butterfly with our cameras. Elusive as they are massive, we only managed to get distant, slow motion video, unloadable here. However, I have included a google image of the famous creature, much larger than the fabulous blue metallic butterfly beside it. Other insects, crawling and flying creatures — cicadas, grasshoppers and locusts up to 4” long, moths, dragon flies, cockroaches, giant banana spiders, scorpions, leaf cutter ants, the impressive golden carpenter ant which is pure art!, fireflies and more, whose names I don’t know — all cohabit in this jungle and some join in song with a multitude of birds to create a discordant kind of harmony. Below see photos of many of the above mentioned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Density of plant life and the constant shedding, cycling of leaves and blossoms, is another remarkable feature of the jungle. Everywhere are blankets of dead leaves, crackling on the jungle floor and creating colourful images in the stream beds. Particularly fascinating are the epiphytes, plants which exist on air. Attaching themselves to a tree yet not a parasite, these plants draw their moisture and nutrients from the air and rain. Orchids can be epiphytes though not all are. I confess to often not knowing if a particular abundant jungle plant is wild, cultured or perhaps even gone-wild. We enjoyed fresh bananas from our tree, and remain hopeful about the mini pineapples we see growing — exotic backyard bounty to us northerners!

 

 

How creatures such as agouti and coatimundi find their way through this dense mass of undergrowth is a mystery, though this feature may be a source of comfort and refuge for them. I was lucky enough to see an agouti at about 4 feet away, as it escaped capture, though there was no Kodak moment as it appeared and disappeared into a hole instantly. The coatimundi is another small jungle creature. Though I know that the jaguar is native to these jungles, it is generally not seen near human habitation.

The famous Costa Rican toucan makes a raucous cry. Below is a frequent morning visitor to our backyard tree as we enjoyed our coffee. Many birds of this jungle seem to be elusive yet vocal, however below are some that Aaron managed to capture with his patient and skillful telephoto lens — black vultures, hummingbirds, yellow headed caracara, trogon and the great kiskadee.

 

 

It has been a most educational nature experience — this jungle saga — both in the ways of the jungle and the ways of rescue animals! Below are sweet Zuma & Bigote.

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