19. Aug, 2015

Wildlife in the East and West Coast

Mosquito bites are normally less harmful than crocodile ones!

3 thunderstorms, one American Sniper, 2 bottles of water later we arrived in the midst of San Jose and more immigration tactics. It seems to me that The Americas play all the right notes, but makes all the wrong sounds when it comes  to immigration and security. It looks good, but it tastes a little odd. Uniformed people are everywhere, yet no one seems to be doing anything. I know that that most of immigration and security screening are managed through intelligence, but if you are going to have screens and staff make sure they are all are working. Conquita's cousin seemed to be sitting watching the security camera this time. She is on a stool with her knees apart, spewing sunflower seeds on the ground whilst our bags crashed to the floor. What is the point? is the phrase I think we used! 

Aha! Someone waiting after customs with our hotel name on it - off to Costa lotta! 

It was an easy transition from San Jose to Tortuguero. Gym, breakfast, taxi, bus, bus, boat Tortuguero! 

Journeying on our second bus of the day the landscape changed from mountainous  ones with voluminous low lying clouds in San Jose to fauna similar to that of the UK in La Pavona. Cows and banana plantations became a familiar sight through the rain splattered windows and schools were built on the roadside with each one sitting adjacent to a church or church hall, many of them being Jehovah Witnesses.

The boat ride into the depths of Tortuguero was an absolute thrill, fast and dangerous travel through the rapid and winding waters. The butterflies and dragonflies whizzed alongside the boat as if to welcome and guide us to their home. The sky had brightened to reveal her hazy blue and the birds and jungle beat began playing their songs as we moved along at speeds of up to 30 knots.

We arrived in the heart of the rainforest, met our hosts immediately and were given the orientation tour. Sue, the owner, was a Canadian who seemed distracted by something and later we found out that she was distracted by several things including some rogue employees - ah the challenges of working in foreign systems - I'm sure the big decision to stop dreaming the dream and living it drew her in to set up shop in CR and was probably fuelled by the idyllic and romantic fumes which would have filled the air, but we all know that any business  is extremely hard work and maintaining a guest lodge in Tortugeuro was no exception.

3 guest huts, 1 living accommodation for the owner and 1 for Evar,the handyman, were contained on the island which was easily reached from the main village in just 3 minutes by a river taxi. 

The current residents, other than us, were a German family of 4 adults and Sue's 3 dogs; the latter were clearly the love of Sue's life along with her business. Like the prodigal son she cared passionately about them all and was determined to  make sure that everyone enjoyed the Tortuguero and the life that she loved to live. 

Our hut for the next 7 days was small in comparison to what we had been used to, but perfect. Hammocks littered in the garden hung perfectly inviting you to relax and absorb the best of the jungle tweets! 

Awoken each morning by the beasts' cacophony I became a voyeur on the window of their world as I would peek through the criss-crossed mosquito netted windows - it would be my pleasure to spend 7 nights here. 

Breakfast was eggs, toast and fruit. Undoubtedly I ate the best pineapple of my life, so sweet and juicy the flavour ran deep and I couldn't help but to crave more.

Fruit is pretty much part of the Costa Rican's staple diet. They sell it in the road, in the road side shops and on the buses when they stop for a quick pit stop. The small plastic bagged fruit comes as dried or fresh and always contains a slice of a citrus fruit which is used to squeeze over the other fruits which were probably cultivated and processed that morning. It is not uncommon to see people eating mango, banana, pineapple and melon as their regular snack and just like their juices no Costa Rica fruit would be complete without the added sugar! They seem to add sugar to everything including the bread!

Tortuguero is an extraordinary place. In Bath we have the canal to the rear of our house and the river to the front and they both feed into each other and have their own ecosystems, wildlife and vistas. We regularly catch sight of ducks, herons and if we are lucky kingfishers and pikes - that's it! Tortuguero not only had the jungle, but also a complicated river system as well as the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Together its flora and fauna was ripe for the picking and would stun any talkative child into silence. I was more than ready to swap the sight of the odd duck for a turtle or a Cayman!

We were going to be living a simple life for a few days - simple food+simple needs+jungle+river+ocean= extraordinary and unforgettable experiences, which would certainly keep the risk of boredom at bay for a lifetime. Off we went to explore this majestic scene.

Oh I will forever remember the sights and sounds during the night and days of the Squirrel and spider monkeys, Blue macaws, toucans, mating toads, parrots, howler monkeys, cicadas, geckos, dogs, woodpeckers drilling for bugs, water lapping upon the shore, crickets and Montezuma birds. We saw giant butterflies flitting from plant to plant, blue crabs peeping from their deep holes and leaf cutting ants chasing each other through their ant-made pathways- no complaints of minimum wages from these hardworking beasts! There is nothing mini about these guys and I never tired of watching them carve their life and serve their queen and 'country'!

New residents had arrived on day 2 and they went to the kitchen for the orientation tour with Sue and Evar as we left in a river taxi for lunch. The new residents were a family of 4 Dutch and we would son find out that they were mum and dad - Ely and Benno and daughter and son in law Janieke and Marcel

We ate at the same restaurant on day 2 and again enjoyed a meal of fresh fish, plantain and Caribbean rice (rice and peas to you and me). Tortuguero is heavily influenced by the Caribbean with many natives originating from Jamaica and Nicaragua. It had a different feel to it, more laid back. There were many black faces and men often had dread locks or short Afros. 

We walked up and down the 'village highway' to find an experienced guide who would take us round the island to feast on its life. We stumbled across Castor who was the island's legendary master. He was a fit aged man who spoke with patois tones. When we made the decision of what to do he said that coincidentally he was also collecting the other residents who were staying at our lodge as they too were booked on his tour. What a coincidence indeed. We felt comforted by this as Sue had organised their trip and out of the hundreds of agents to choose from we had chosen one that she, a veteran and a trustworthy lady, would have recommended. Great! We thought we have chosen wisely.

When we returned to our base called Toucan and Tarpon, we told the other residents of our choice

Over breakfast the next day we got to know each other a little better and briefly described our ambitions for the day.

At 8.30 our river taxi beckoned us and we all waltzed down eager to start finding out a little more on our first professionally guided tour of Tortuguero. 

As eager beavers we were keen to make sure that we captured every moment to savour over in later years and so had spent a considerable time researching articles for the best camera that our money could buy. Clutching my camera bag I launched on to the boat. 

'Buenos Dias señor,' I said as I nodded towards the crew. They replied courteously and warned me to watch my head as I entered the lower part of the cabin. I did not watch my head and 'crack'. I chuckled as I nursed my now bruised head with one hand. The Dutch family boarded and finally John got on the small river taxi sitting on the left hand side by the front window. We sped off towards the main island. 

Benno signalled to the crew that the rope used for tethering the boat to the shore was dangling in the water. It seemed Benno agreed with me that that the crew didn't take any notice, as he threw his hands gently up in the air in despair as if to say 'what's the point!' 

Suddenly one of the drivers in red basketball type shorts walked forwards to the front of the boat causing it to wobble slightly; water began to gush in. I could see what was happening and I quickly picked up my bag containing our only valuables. At this point I was not alarmed as this has happened on many occasions on boats I had been on including the recent one in Malaga, a little water on a boat won't cause much trouble. Just pick up your bag Paula and shake off your damp feet later. However, within the next breath I took it was obvious that a little water on a small boat was a big problem. I needed to jump off as it began to quickly sink, clearly this boat could not tolerate any amount of water as it lurched to the right and began to roll over. Marcel, who was sitting on the left, left first. I was later appreciative that he did so quickly making it easier for me to follow his escape route. I knew it was key that I got as far from the boat as possible so that I didn't get caught in it and drown. I swam as far as I thought was safe before turning around and seeing that everyone was in the water and the boat had not only sank but had also capsized. The hull was pointing skywards and the crew and a couple of others were clinging on to it. 

Knowing that there were crocodiles in the water I feared for my life. It wasn't bad enough that my belongings had gone and that everyone else's was in the water too, but the fact that we were dangerously close to the shoreline, with no obvious help in sight made me panic. We were doomed. The guillotine on life felt closer than the breath of life. 

Crocodiles, like any wild animal, will always look for an a opportunity to feed if it is hungry and the easier the meal the more likely it will seize this opportunity. They are amongst the cleverest and most dangerous predatory animals known to man.  The crocs are often drawn into the waters in the morning by the fish who will be following the light from the morning sun. Oh why oh why did I know so much about bloody crocodiles? Ignorance is bliss.

I reached out for one of the 3 floating life vests and swam towards the boat, my heart beating uncontrollably fast as visions of a crocodile racing towards me and the others beneath the waters played like a horror movie in my mind over and over again. I had to get out of the water. I would do anything to get out. Who was going to be first to safety. The race was on. even though we all hoped that everyone would soon be safe there had to be someone who was first. Despite being strangers the Dutch family and John and I were rapidly changing the dynamic of our relationship at a pace.  If one of us had been killed the other one would have probably thought that is terrible, I wish I could have saved them...but we rarely think  -I wish that it was me.

Janieke was the first to get onto the hull of the boat, clutching some things. I tried to but had no strength to do so. The edge of the boat was slippery and my energy levels were waning quickly. The waters were warm but uncomfortable, crocodile massacre stories continued to whizz uncontrollably through my head as my body gave up the fight. As I looked around I could see 2 passenger boats racing over to us. Could these be the rescue boats, could they save us, could they prevent a further tragedy from happening? Could they help erase and rewind those crocodile nightmares? I  remained desperate to get out of the waters. I offered my hand to the first fully loaded passenger boat and tried to alight. Again my body failed to get me out. Time was ticking and crocs' legs were kicking - I could feel it in my bones, or so my mind told me. Once again I tried to board the boat pulling my body weight up onto the landing platform. Nope! Not enough strength. 

'Please just drag me up,' I pleaded to the two scrawny crew guys on the passenger boat. They did so effortlessly and I landed on the platform wet and relieved, but all the time knowing that others were out there suffering. I threw my sodden bag on the boat floor. Onlookers horrified faces stared as they saw the remaining 7 people stranded in the croc infested waters, belongings  and life vests strewn around them. Mascara stained faces and tousled hair suggested that this was a serious accident which could have been fatal, still could if people weren't rescued  from the mouth of the waters and the crocodiles soon. Both boats served as aids and eventually pulled everyone to safety. Men pulled John upon the adjacent rescue boat and at last I could breathe easily again. We were quickly reunited and held each close both in silent tears knowing the nightmare that we had just escaped was over. 

The crocodile photo was taken on the 15th August in Tortuguero, the day after our accident! 

Even though we all survived some will suffer from survivors' syndrome knowing that others suffered more. You envisaged that others' stories are more tragic and more horrific than yours and then the 'if only...' nightmares start to fill your imagination and this is a challenge in itself. John's story, for example, is more horrific than mine as he became trapped in the window of the sinking boat with little hope of escape.

Together we were challenged and together we succeeded in the face of adversity; a rare journey and although Janieke, Marcel, Benno and Ely are wonderful and fun people just the kind you would want to be with you in circumstances like this, but nonetheless one we never want to repeat. 

The loyalty amongst us 6 grew strong as we challenged the status quo and the authorities; a special bond had been ignited and we were ready to pounce on all those who were responsible for this tragedy. It didn't take long for the anger to mount as we landed upon the quay to Toucan and Tarpon; we told mamma bear all about it and the anger and fear were palpable.  

Within minutes Castor and 2 uniformed police officers arrived on a boat. Rewind to Latin America's approach to security, it looks good but tastes odd. This statement was very fitting here. The police asked no questions, other than our name, took no statements, took no photos and Castor's response led John and I to set upon him explaining that our lives were worth nothing more to him than the dollars we had in our pockets. Their lackadaisical approach resulted in us making the decision to leave the island the next day, contacting the British Embassy and trying to find somewhere where we were safe and our lives were worth more than the dollars in our pockets. The challenge was on. 

That said, Sue tried to explain that Castor did care, but his Caribbean demeanour and approach to life differed to ours and even though he didn't show it and he didn't apologise for the accident, he was remorseful and regretted it. Believing her we continued on the canoe boat and the turtle tour later that day. That was a good idea as it was one of the main reasons we came to the island. 

The rest of the day was divided between visiting the police station, seeing turtles hurl themselves upon the shores and lay hundreds of eggs, seeing a variety of animals in the rainforest as the rain literally pelted us whilst on the canoe and seeking an exit strategy from Tortuguero! 

The turtles were a sight to see and I nearly missed this opportunity as I struggled to board the river taxi at night. What if questions flooded my head. What if the boat capsizes again? It is not like it is daytime and there is a lot of traffic around, we will perish for sure with no-one to rescue us. No-one will know we are here, I thought.

Tears streamed down my face as my foot refused to touch the landing platform to enable me to board the boat. I couldn't do it. It couldn't happen again my rational brain thought. But it couldn't happen a first time you had thought previously. Again my thoughts wrestled with each other. Turtles, think turtles, I reassured myself. The thought of seeing a turtle won through and I boarded the boat.

We ran through the village to different parts of the ocean shores as turtles laying eggs don't wait for humans. Seeing a turtle, a rare and vulnerable creature, is always a pleasure. The ecosystem is so fragile here in Tortuguero that you know it is such an honour to witness these majestic creatures. The security surrounding their future is second to none and whilst we were there men were arrested for threatening the lives of turtles. It was a pity our life was not as precious according to the police, who refused to investigate our incident.

The next morning we gathered our precious belongings with the hope that they may have started working again. No such luck. I was now bereft of a Lumix camera, several lenses and my phone, even our binoculars were water logged and useless. 

I ventured out into the jungle to get one last 'hit'. I had done this the day before and just liked sitting there on the logs shouting inside - what was that? - I liked to scare myself with my vivid imagination; but this was a safe place to scare yourself. I loved listening and watching this world unfurl. Macaws and toucans flew overhead and spider monkeys frolicked in the tree tops and scorpions, lizards and snakes crept underfoot. Life could not be better, well perhaps it could be with a LUMIX camera!

The boat ride out of the depths of Tortuguero was an absolute nightmare, too fast and too dangerous as we travelled through the rapid and winding waters. The butterflies and dragonflies still whizzed alongside the boat as if to say goodbye we hope you had a good trip. They only served as an annoying distraction  as I tried to concentrate on how the boat was tilting. Again we shared the ride with Benno, Ely, Janieke and Marcel and, unlike the other passengers, I knew that every twist and every turn was horrifying them as much as it did me. I was glad see the end in sight and say goodbye to the river that I had once loved

A quick hug and a group photo and we headed back to San Jose on a bus.

We had decided to go to the other side of Costa Rica and were happy that it would take us all day. Costa Rica is well set up for the travellers and has easy connections to all parts of its country, so we travelled by taxi and buses to arrive in Playa Hemosa about 6pm. The resort was lovely and the air con and the lack of insects meant that we welcomed the relief from the 26 mosquito bites we were each nursing.

We met two American graduates who had a sunny disposition and a contagious laugh. They too intended to go to the national park in Manuel Antonio, about 80km from where we were staying. An easy transfer on local buses and we were lucky enough to get a Grayline shuttle. When there we opted for the guided tour with William - as you know a typical Costa Rican name! He again, was a fantastic guide. He knew a lot about the animals and wildlife and was entertaining in his delivery, calling me Pauleeta. We loved the sights, smells and sounds of this park. What a great way to spend a Sunday; amidst more jungle beats and wild animals. We delighted in seeing the sloths, both 2 and 3 toed. Such lazy creatures, they only come down out of the trees approximately once a week and sleep for 20 hours a day! I am sure a few people would like that as their ambition, me I can't think of anything worse. Life is for dreaming and living and sometimes even though it is is hard you have to come down out of the clouds more than once a week to see what is out there for you and others.

A public bus ride back to Playa Hermosa, a dip in the pool and I was ready for bed.

Waiting for buses is something that we began to get used to. People are often packed in 4 deep with many mobile phones blaring out the users' favourite tunes. No different to the rides I used to take on the 496 from South Norwood to The Elephant and Castle.

Life was easier in Hermosa, no mosquitoes to worry about. We decided to go into Jaco, a surfers resort and one filled with many ex pats, mostly American who have decided to retire there. High rise condos are a common feature along the 2km strip, but it is no Bangkok, more relaxed and slower, no bright lights, although this was the low season, who knows what comes into town when the sun beats daily in high season!

We enjoyed a day on the empty beach watching the odd surfer ride the waves and share their talents. And had a couple of beers in a bar filled with old people - many of them taking their medication. It had a strange feel. Old men, younger women, again more gentle than Bangkok but the trappings were there.

Amongst the sights on our way back to our hotel we witnessed a pair of octogenarians wearing matching orange t-shirts emblazoned on the back was 'grandma and grandpa' and on the front advertising that they were monkeying around the world. They danced and serenaded each other around the beach cafe which overlooked the Pacific Ocean as we ate traditional foods including pinto beans and chicken. 

We meandered back to the hotel on the main highway listening to the ocean roar reminiscing the successes of the day and discussing the plans for the next.