Saturday, July 26, 2008


I was cycling by the snake man’s yesterday and he called me in. he had a 10 foot boa curled up below the sink in his bathroom. She was beautiful; fat, sleek, almost marbled in her scales, curled elegantly with her head resting upon her tail. I could feel her smoothness and her weight just in looking at her. someone had seen her below his house, he was very happy to be rid of her: his cats had been disappearing. It was lucky he hadn’t killed her, perhaps because she really was big. The snake man said when he grabbed behind her head she simply pushed her head back and trapped his hand – tightly – between her head and her spine. It took two men to carry her. She certainly looked strong and very heavy. She was a chocolate brown with tawny patches above, a creamy mottled with lichen green below. He was going to take her far out into the forest. She’s the second boa I’ve seen here.

The first was on a walk home last year. It was when I lived in Guanacaste and wasn’t so wary of snakes. I was scrambling up the hill path I used every evening. Hoss was before me and a friend visiting from the States was behind. Suddenly Hoss stopped and his energy changed from forward scout to cautious uncertainty. I pulled him back and there just by the path was a big boa, maybe 7 feet. His head was up and he was moving it from side to side. I think Hoss was happy to be pushed behind me. I shone my torch directly at him and slowly he receded. He was no threat to us. Beautiful though, very creamy colouring with large uneven patches of a greenish toned brown.

I found a dead snail eating snake on the path. He was about 20 inches long, dark grey with black stripes, below a cream flecked with black. I didn’t look too closely – the ants had found him also.

five fruits

Fruit season has begun in an explosion of scents, colours and forms. I’ve encountered four fruits brand new to me this week and rediscovered another. The mangosteen tree is a beautiful triangular shaped tree with dark green shiny leaves, it reaches about 15 feet in height. The fruits are like a child’s drawing of ‘fruit’ – round and plump and purple with a pretty, leathery dark beige/purple cap. Opening the fruit reveals a soft intensely purple flesh which cushions three seeds enveloped in white goop, much like the cacao seeds have. It is this white goop that one eats. The taste is strong and to me it tasted like tamarind: tart, sweet and sour. I liked it very much but was sorry to see so much of the fruit was inedible.
The second fruit grows on what looks like a cecropia tree. The fruits grow in clusters and look like large muscadet grapes. They too have sweet white flesh surrounding a hard heart shaped seed which dries with a green coppery tint. We can’t find the fruit in any books or on the internet, but we believe it comes from Brazil. There are several trees growing in ordered rows in an old established orchard, so we know they are edible!
The third fruit is either a gnip or a local lychee depending on who you ask. It is smallish, green and slightly ovoid and grows in clusters. I don’t know what the tree looks like but the leaf is long and pointed, and leathery, a little like a eucalyptus. Inside the thin green shell the flesh is tan and soft and surrounds a hard egg elliptical seed. Very sweet and juicy.
The fourth fruit is nanci. These small round fruits grow on large stately trees. The fruits look like large currants and are orangey yellow. Inside the flesh is again a clearish white and surrounds a single small black pip. They are not so sweet and the ones I had tasted overripe to me, in fact they tasted of blue cheese! In Guanacaste these fruits are much larger, about the size of kumquats, here 15 would fit on my palm.
The fifth fruit is breadfruit. In the past I’ve waited for these fruits to become soft before I opened them. This time I cooked it as a vegetable. George says, “when there’s breadfruit, don’t need no bread”, and he’s right. I shallow fried thin slices with garlic and chili, the taste was fabulous, like overly soft fried potatoes, but smoother and with more taste. Difficult to describe. And very filling.

Saturday, July 19, 2008


We are harvesting at the beach, no, gleaning is a better word. Recent storms and who knows what have washed a lot of seaweed in. It’s beautiful stuff, not the heavy bladderwrack that filled my childhood in Scotland, or the giant kelp that washed up on the Californian Pacific: these are small bundles of fairy foliage, in reds and metallic blues with tiny globular air sacks, almost like moss. It’s easy to gather, and a bit like a ‘treasure’ chest, for hidden within and amongst the seaweed are many bright colourful objects: plastic trash. We gather a trash bag of plastic for every 2 of seaweed. Rainbows of bottlecaps; toys; shoes; so many straws; nylon rope; bottles, especially those little sample bottles one finds in hotels (or cruise ships??); toothbrushes; wrappers, and then minutia - shreds and shards of plastic.

Plastics, like diamonds, are forever. The pieces we gathered were, in the main, recognizable, and in this tropical sea probably looked enough like colourful fish, to be swallowed by turtles, birds and larger fishes. The shards and shreds, and straws, being smaller were probably being seen as food by smaller sea creatures. The action of waves, water and sun which has ground rock to sand and worn shells to dust, will over time wear plastic pieces into smaller and smaller ‘mouthfuls’ for smaller and smaller ocean species. “Nurdles” the raw materials of plastic production find their way by the billions into the ocean every year, as do polyethylene beads which are increasingly being used as exfoliants in products as diverse as paint scourers and body creams: just the right size and colours to be confused for fish eggs. Plastic particles are small enough to enter the very bottom of the oceanic food chain, eaten by larger creatures plastic trash is accumulating in the stomachs and intestines of most of the world’s sea creatures. In a study of fulmars washed ashore in the North Sea, Richard Thompson (University of Plymouth marine biologist), found 95% had an average of 44 pieces of plastic in their stomachs.

Of course there’s more: from ‘The World Without Us’:

“free-floating toxins from all kinds of sources – copy paper, automobile grease, coolant fluids, old fluorescent tubes, and infamous discharges by General Electric and Monsanto plants directly into streams and rivers – readily stick to the surfaces of free-floating plastic. One study directly correlated ingested plastic with PCBs in the fat tissue of puffins. The astonishing part was the amount . . . the plastic pellets that the birds ate concentrate poisons to levels as high as 1 million times their normal occurrence in seawater.”

What to do? Be aware, be conscious. Don’t buy overpackaged items, support companies which use recycled materials, reuse those recyclables. Avoid plastic bags like the plague . . . and pick up trash.

Seaweed Emulsion

Seaweed along with a good nitrogen supply can deliver everything a plant may want: up to 60 trace elements, natural growth hormones, natural disease control and a great food for beneficial fungi. Strong stuff!
Making the emulsion is simple.

First rinse the seaweed (or let it sit out in a couple of tropical storms!), to leach out salt and sand. Chop enough to fill a bucket then add water – rainwater is best. Adding molasses will speed up the process, a ½ cup will do. Let the bucket sit covered for a week stirring every day to aerate. When a foamy, filmy, yeasty surface develops the emulsion is ready. The emulsion is best diluted, 1 part emulsion to up to 5 parts water. Use as a ground soak or as a foliar spray.


This morning I woke to a dark house, I tried the light. Nothing. It’s not unusual for power cuts, especially after a night of heavy rain, but something felt different. Maybe a branch had knocked down the line. I went to look. I looked and looked at the place where my power line was yesterday, but there was nothing there. There are two power cables leading from the road to the houses. Our neighbour’s was there. They have the higher cable, we the lower. Ours was simply gone. I walked to the road, yes, there about 10 metres in from the road was what was left of our cable, cut and hanging in a sad, naked mess. Someone had stolen the cable. How . . . low. Cables, like everything else in Costa Rica have recently undergone a price hike, cables by 40%. So now people are just stealing them. Can you believe it? I walked back to the house staring at the place where the cable should be. It’s 200 metres from the road to the house, that’s a lot of cable. Then I got worried, what if they came to the house and why didn’t I hear them and why didn’t the dogs bark, and who were they? No point in calling the cops, no point at all. They probably wouldn’t even come out for it. There’s no point, they wouldn’t catch the thieves, and if they did they would in all likelihood be bought off.

Costa Rica is no place for law enforcement. Firstly the police make $200 a month, so bribes are taken just like tips. Secondly the police are never locals. They are stationed in different parts of the country, live in the police station for three weeks and then are moved somewhere else. The idea is that non local cops will not be part of the community and therefore not have family ties or friendships with lawbreakers. Perhaps, but the result is that I who have lived here 10 months can point out the thieves, the drug dealers, the thugs, but the cops who have no frame of reference, can’t. Every time they start with a clean slate – they don’t know where to even begin. And the community is tight, the thief or attacker or dealer is always someone’s brother, son, nephew and the family will take gather round them, maybe even threaten revenge. Then, if the amount stolen is less than $210 it doesn’t count, it’s not really considered theft. If there is no sign of breaking and entering then it’s not treated seriously, the thinking being that the ladron just wandered in and ‘found’ your valuables. And lastly it is fairly acceptable to take from foreigners because we have more. Yes, that last is true, most of the time, but it’s hardwon and certainly not easily replaced. And what the hell kind of reasoning is that anyway????

It’ll cost $700 to replace the cable. For me that’s a month and a half’s wages. And with new cable, who knows if they won’t just come back next week?

This is the kind of thing that makes people leave. Lack of trust is very tiring.


It’s been an odd week. Sunday was a blur with new ideas, high energy and inspiration. Monday was the opposite in every way until a dip in the ocean balanced me out. Tuesday was laden with internet followed by delightful social surprises, and today has been a social buzz for this normal recluse. Talk about extremes and facets. Odd.

I’m working on a web site which I’m excited about. All my confusion and conflicted emotions around land purchase in this area finally burst with an idea: a guide to responsible land purchase in Costa Rica. Rather simple, but something I can get behind, at least feel I’m doing something. It’s a work in process, I’ll publish the url when I can. Thank you to Bryan for working on the site and Jon for critiquing.

Another idea: I want a stall at the farmers’ market. Two reasons: firstly I have some beautiful organic wild harvested and homegrown goodies, and secondly I think I need to make some effort at being social, and the farmers’ market is the one place where everyone gathers. Okay, a third: I like making things. So today Heather and I trooped to the beach and gathered seaweed to make seaweed emulsion, and noni for noni tea.

Friday, July 11, 2008

worthy reads

I’m reading a couple of books just now: ‘Sea Change: A Message of the Oceans’, by Sylvia Earle, and ‘The World Without Us’ by Alan Weisman. ‘Sea Change’ is part memoir, part natural history, part warning about what we are doing to the world’s oceans. Full of beautiful descriptions of sea creatures from Humpback whales to the bioluminescence of millions of krill, Earle fills you with the beauty in the first part and then delivers a strong message of what we are doing, exactly, to Humpbacks and krill in the second. Having lived almost all my life near the coast watching sea water – slate grey, black brown, green, turquoise blue, lap against shores – boulders, shingle, shells, red, black or white sand, I’ve had the greatest respect for the ocean, and a total ignorance of what really happens below those waters. With Earle’s book, and I just finished, ‘Underwater to get out of the Rain’ by Trevor Norton, I’m learning a little more and becoming increasingly convinced about what we have to do to keep our world a livable environment.
I’m re-reading ‘The World Without Us’. This is a brilliant ecology book. It delves into what would happen if humans were to suddenly and completely disappear. Thus it takes a very serious, and potentially incredibly depressing subject – what we are doing to our planet, and works backwards, outlining the way nature would rebalance the environment. It’s a fascinating read and while it delivers a powerful illustration of how, especially in the last 50 years or so, we have really damaged the planet, it’s written with such affection for both humanity and nature that one feels that recovery is not only possible, but probable. I really believe that this book should be required reading in every 10th grade class. And again in every University.

Starfruit and Chili Preserve

1 pound starfruit
3 – 4 chilies, depending on taste and heat of chili
Juice of 1 lime
2 inches ginger
½ cup unrefined sugar
½ teaspoon of cinnamon, optional

Finely chop all ingredients and cook uncovered over low heat for 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. You may need to add a little water, red wine or orange juice. While hot pour into sterilized jars. A sweet sour spicy preserve, great with cheese and bread. I can imagine it would be wonderful with stilton (not having tasted stilton in 2 years, I can only imagine).

Starfruit (Carambola) Salsa

2 starfruit
Juice of ½ lime
½ chili, or to taste
2 teaspoons of unrefined sugar or 1 teaspoon of honey
½ red onion
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

Finely chop the starfruit, onion and chili. Mix all ingredients together and leave to blend for at least 2 hours. Serve with tortilla chips.

today's harvest

Today was a good day: 2 pineapples, two handfuls of cherry tomatoes and a dozen starfruit (carambola). The beds I made by piling heaps of dead leaves over and again has become the most delicious compost. I started the piles 3 months ago. The only issue I can see is that it looks like it needs nitrogen – some west Indian creeper was growing from it and the leaves were much more yellow than the patch growing from the clay soil beside it.
I was very happy to take the starfruit: it’s the first time the tree has given fruit and there is quite a lot, it’s difficult to see as the fruit is the same colour as many of the leaves and each side of the fruit is the same shape as the leaf, so you have to be standing at the right angle to see the fruit. I made a chili relish and a salsa.

waking frog

A red eyed tree frog visited last night and spent the day sleeping on the deck. Sleeping he’s paler, the colour of a banana leaf, and in profile he is streamlined, clamped tight shut against the surface he’s clinging to, all limbs tucked in. Above he is green, below he is pale yellow with blue or purple vertical stripes on his sides and orange and blue legs with big orange feet. His eyes are blood red with a black elliptical pupil.
I happened to be passing him at dusk just as he awoke. He was several shades of darker green, like the colour of a old fern. He raised up and stretched just like a cat, arching his back, straining his skinny legs so they shook with the stretch. And he yawned. I’ve never seen a frog yawn before, it was the same as you or I, a great big mouthed gape and the skin of his neck folded upon itself several times. He closed his mouth and blinked and then with one leap jumped over 8 times his length and landed on a vertical post in the most perfect impersonation of spiderman: you know the pose with back legs apart and crouched, hands almost together below his chest? At that very moment the frog chorus began and he turned his head to the direction of the closest sounds. He looked very alert, clearly listening and watching and then off he went in great bounds towards the others.

This morning I shared the bathroom with a toad. He was delightfully full and round and his front legs were bent out at the elbows, his feet tucked under him like an old man with rickets. The line of his mouth took up the bottom of his head, such a wide mouth, I think as wide as mine. He was an olive brown above and a muddy cream below. His eyes were black and he watched me with his head slightly cocked. I marveled at the difference between this stately, rotund, placid fellow and last night’s athlete with the spiderman crawl and the go faster stripes.

muscle rub

A good long day in the garden can leave muscles sore and tight. This recipe makes a super simple and effective muscle rub which also eases sprains. And it’s actually good enough to eat.

Wide mouthed jar
Sesame oil

Fill the wide mouthed jar 2/3rds full with grated ginger and turmeric and finely chopped lemongrass, add sesame oil to fill the jar. Screw on lid and shake vigorously. Leave in a warm spot for up to two weeks shaking daily. After two weeks strain oil into dark glass bottle. Spread this warming, relaxing oil into sore muscles or sprains.

If you live in the new world tropics, add juanilama, hoja de estrella and zorillo for a super muscle rub / insect bite oil.


A friend got bitten by a snake last night. I wasn’t with him, but I was passing on my bike when he and his wife and dog came bursting out of the undergrowth trying to stop a car. Heather was wide eyed with panic, the dog was going crazy, and Cache looked like he was trying to hold it all together. They got a lift home on a truck and I followed stopping to get the snake man on the way. I was expecting us all to get in the car and drive to the clinic. But he was sitting on the grass sipping water while Heather piled green clay on the bite and on the machete cut above it. He said he felt fine.
It was dusk and they had been climbing around a fallen tree. Bad idea really. Dusk and dawn are big snake times. He said the snake had just leapt out bit and disappeared in an instant. From the description it sounded like a hog nosed pit viper: it was short, about 18 inches, dark brown with a red vertebral line, stocky, triangular head and it had been coiled up. The bite marks were about a good ½ inch apart. He had got bitten right on the ankle bone, a vein ran between the incisions. He said he felt something like a sting and looked down and saw the snake. He swiped at it with the machete and managed to cut his leg. The bite bled a lot and Heather sucked on it before running into the street. Vipers venom causes the blood to flow to the extremities, with great swelling and burning at the site. After 20 minutes Cache was feeling nothing, except tingling where the machete had sliced him. There was no swelling and he was totally coherent. His heart was fast. The snake man arrived and looked at the puncture holes and wanted to go find the snake. It was dark, no-one else wanted to go. Heather had started feeding Cache mother in law tongue (Sansevieria) and rubbing it on the incisions. The snake man said the clinic wouldn’t give anti-venom until he began to react, everyone thought he might as well wait at home. We swapped snake stories and then scorpion stories and then stories of things that had died mysteriously. And we waited. Nothing happened. The snake man said that 70% of bites were dry and this, after 3 hours of nothing, certainly seemed like a dry bite. Heather gave me a lift home. He was lucky. Snake boots from now on.

Chili Spread

I’m delighted that I can use tomatoes, chilies and ginger from the garden, all organic too!
Pound of tomatoes
3 – 4 chilies
2 inches ginger
3 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons unrefined sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ cup of red wine

Finely chop tomatoes, chilies, garlic and ginger. Mix all ingredients in pan and simmer for 30 minutes until everything is soft, and the smell is overpoweringly good. Spread on bread with a little cream chess, or use with vegetables.

back to the garden

Back to the garden
It seems a quiet season. I’ve been spending time harvesting bananas and pineapple and drying, drying, drying. There are scotch bonnet chilies to be plucked too and cherry tomatoes. I made a chili spread this morning which I’ll test out on the bread that’s rising on the deck.

My weed whacker is slowly whacking its way through the garden. I can handle about an hour and a half of whacking before my eyes start to vibrate and my sweeps get faster and more hysterical. Then it’s time to stop. We really do have a lot of grass.

I have sweet peppers to plant out today and the third generation of pumpkin. I’m disappointed with the second generation, the leaves are small and the growth is slow, not a hint of the luxurious, abundant foliage of the first generation. And they seem to be susceptible to grasshoppers this time too. The seeds came from the first batch, and all the first batch came from one pumpkin. I wonder if it’s too much interbreeding? Is this possible? I don’t know if I’ll get any pumpkins from this second planting.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Joni Mitchell in my head

How does the song go, “Going to camp out on the land, going to try to get my soul free . . . got to get ourselves back to the garden”?
Today I went with friends to look at a piece of ‘the garden’ they want to buy. We drove into the hills over rutted dirt roads, pulled off eventually and walked the rest of the way. It’s beautiful back there, a different microclimate, hotter, stiller. The noise is different: the birds are louder than the insects. A keel billed toucan flew across our path, a 6 foot black and yellow snake disappeared before us. We passed the shack where the cat man lives. The shack is maybe 12 foot square and made of recycled scraps of wood, pieced together like a linear jigsaw puzzle, some had been painted long before in previous incarnations and so the house looked mottled in pinks, blues, yellows, greens. The sides we could see from the path were hung with plastic crates, bicycle baskets, little fishing net hammocks. There were cats in every available space. Kittens of various ages were scampering or staggering on the ground. Before the house was a structure with a tin roof and walls made of sewn together rice bags, more cats sat inside. The smell of cat shit was strong. The cat man appeared from behind the shack. He knows my friends by now and was full of smiles. Did we want a cat? No. But we had brought him some bread. He is old, early 80s, thin and wiry. His wide smile reveals one tooth and his eyes are a pale brown. The knuckles on his hands are huge. He’s worked all his life and clearly continues to do so, his shack was surrounded by banana, cacao, coffee, cassava and malanga.
Further on we came to the farm. We went to see Don Ulysses the farmer. Ulysses isn’t quite as old as the cat man. He is thin and wiry, with short shaven hair and a strong curved nose. His pants, like the cat man’s are held up with bailing twine. He has several teeth. He’s smoking a roll up cigarette and hacking. He has no cats but chickens everywhere. His house is a stronger shack made with posts. The lower level is storage, he lives above. Most of the space upstairs is open with a room at the back. His kitchen is outside under a tin roof. There’s no electricity, his stove is clay with a space for fire and a metal grate for pots – a barbeque. There are chicken sheds made of sticks and bailing twine. Around the house are cacao, banana, breadfruit and citrus trees.
Don Ulysses is angry and frustrated. He wants to sell his farm and has a contract with a woman we know. His farm is 14 hectares and he wants it bought in one piece. The deal is that he will be paid in installments until the end of the year. He wants $80,000 for the farm. My friends want to buy 2 hectares and have the cash ready. (They are paying $8,000 per hectare, the woman is making a nice easy profit for being in the middle.) But there are complications, she’s stalling and doesn’t have the money for the installments, he’s tied into a contract and can’t sell off a smaller parcel and two sets of lawyers are involved. It’s officially ‘frontier land’ being only 2 kilometers from Panama and that makes it all harder. As a simple farmer he doesn’t understand why it’s so complicated. Selling it is clearly difficult for him – it’s been his family’s land for over a century, but he’s getting sick and can no longer work it.
We walked out through cow pastures to the parcel my friends want. It is beautiful. Open pasture land with frequent graceful kapok and almendra shade trees. Natural springs feeding clear pools full of fish and frogs. The land is bordered by indigenous reserve – virgin rainforest for miles and miles. Looking into it was looking into darkness, dense vegetation all the way to the canopy. Their parcel is an irregular shaped field sitting on a small hill backed by jungle. There is a natural spring and a low marshy spot filled with malanga. Sitting where the house would be we looked out to forest, to the east was another pasture, to the west flatter grazing land, neighbours would be hidden from view. The sun was behind us, the house would be in shadow in the afternoon. There was plenty of room for growing a garden. Not enough for goats. It is beautiful. I was surprised at how familiar it looked – a green cow pasture with a wire strand fence surrounded by big trees. It didn’t look tropical. It looked a bit like Guanacaste, and a bit like home.

So many people here have the same dream: buy a piece of land, retreat. More and more people are arriving. Ulysses is selling his farm for a lot of money, it’s completely and absolutely unaffordable to a native. And he is frustrated because these white folks, who obviously drove and who have cell phones and whos’ pants are held up with belts won’t give him this money, which for white folks is so little. Via Campesina is a peasant organization which campaigns for land for peasants to work sustainably. I completely support it. And yet here I am supporting my friends in their purchase of this part of the ‘garden’ which will give Ulysses and his family comfort and ease for the rest of their lives but take away another piece of land from native Costa Ricans. It’ll never return to working farmland, it’ll never again be owned by Costa Ricans. Things are changing here rapidly. Ulysses has worked hard all his life, it’s his land. He can do whatever he wants with it. The world is changing, if borders are to become meaningless then land should be owned by whoever will respect and care for it. It’s grazing land, the cattle are for meat. My friends will build a house (and a cabin for guests), they will put in a garden, it will all be very green, very eco-friendly. They will drive 40 minutes to school each way.

There’s a billboard in the horse field next to the school. It wasn’t there yesterday. It advertises a development of 12 luxury villas with security and beach access and “Italian Standards”. The architects drawing shows an ugly two story blue structure with a deck, one can just make out that the car in the garage is a mercedes.
“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot, with a pink hotel, a boutique and a swinging hot spot.” Sing it Joni.
“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone . . . “

Young Jack

There are a lot of street dogs here, and somehow many of them make it through life: skinny, riddled with worms, ticks, fleas, mange and god knows what else, but many make it. Everything here is tough, from the people to the horses, to the dogs to the damn mosquitoes. You can tell which foreigners live here by how tough they are, how weathered, rangy, leathery they look.

A dog has been living at school for maybe 2 months. We thought he belonged to our neighbours. He ‘s rail thin, belly full of worms, missing hair in patches. From what I can see he lives on the scraps that go to our compost. And he’s a sweet loving young dog: happy to see you, eager to please, mellow beyond words: he lets the cat eat from the compost first and hasn’t chased a single chicken. Because of his condition we asked the neighbours to pull themselves together and he disappeared for a few days. I was worried – they don’t seem to be animal lovers. But a week later he returned same as ever. The children fed him more scraps and I began to take more care of him. School has been out for a week, but yesterday we had a meeting. He appeared crying, could barely walk. He’s all swollen underneath, with several deep cuts that could be barbed wire or perhaps stones. The flesh around his genitals is inflamed, raised, leaking puss and fluid, it looks like he has an abscess at the top of a back leg. He is a mess. He wouldn’t let us touch his back end.

I fed him and with a friend tried to put a sulphur ointment on his inflammation and hydrogen peroxide on his wounds. He howled and cried the whole time. The vet came out this morning and gave him a shot for the pain and inflammation. She’ll be back tomorrow to tranquilize him and have a better look. He’ll make it, he’s a survivor. She thinks a car hit him. Someone went to the neighbours. They say he’s not theirs. This is good, he’s now free to be taken care of. I have the closest relationship to him among the staff at school, so he’s now my responsibility, at least until he is well again. He looks to me like a Jack, such a nice dog. I can’t bring him home – he has too many parasites and one vet bill is enough. And anyway he couldn’t walk that far. He will continue to live at school until he’s clear of worms and mange at least, then we’ll re-access the situation. We have several new families moving to the area – one of them surely will want a dog.

Hoss came to me when he was two months old, a month after I arrived in Costa Rica. Lady J turned up on my doorstep last May and didn’t leave. I really don’t want another dog. Hoss and LJ are a perfect pair, a third would shift the balance. Young Jack is a lovely dog and it will be easy to find him a home when he’s fit and healthy.

torcelos and terciopelos

There are many creatures here: something like 5% of the world’s animal species live in Costa Rica, and each must find its place within the whole. What to eat, where to eat, when to eat, how to avoid being eaten, how to find a mate, how to create future generations – everyone has their own niche world within the greater various ecosystems.
As a westerner, growing up in Scotland where the most dangerous animal is the rarely seen adder, (the bears and wolves hunted to extinction), I have a conditioned faith that nature is benign. And as a human living in the world’s temperate zones, it largely is: one must search fairly hard to find a grizzly or a rattlesnake or a puma.
Beyond those temperate zones nature, not man, holds the balance. (For the moment: pollution is man’s best weapon against nature and enters into areas where man hasn’t yet taken over.) In such places, man like everyone else must find his or her place. Here, on the edge of the jungle I see nature in her glory daily, whether it be the smell of death and decay from a ditch and circling vultures, to a wasp entering a hole in my chair carrying a paralyzed caterpillar, to the giant orange horsefly with the huge emerald eyes that just bit my leg. As a human at the top of the food chain it still looks fairly benign. But yesterday was book marked by two creatures who’s particular little niche world I would rather not encounter.

Torcelos (a type of bot fly) are rather nasty. The adults are large, bright green, squat and have no working mouth parts. After breeding the female catches mosquitoes and deposits her eggs on their proboscis. When the mosquito bites an egg enters the wound, soon hatches and the grub begins to grow. It lives below the skin feeding on its host for up to two months before pupating. It’s fairly easy to identify a torcelo – the skin is raised in a hard lump, usually discoloured like a bruise and there is a neat round hole, about a millimeter across on the side of the bump. If you discover it early it’s fairly easy to kill it – either squeeze it out (a knuckle size lump holds a 5 millimeter grub), or suffocate it. There are various folk cures, from tying a piece of meat to the lump, to rubbing with mashed hoja de estrella leaves to coating with gasoline. When the grub gets bigger it has to be cut out. Hoss once had one which had grown unnoticed for three weeks (he was staying with friends). When the vet took it out it was half the length of my finger, I couldn’t look, even the vet was horrified. There seems to be a season and we seem to be in it. Hoss has/had 4, clearly a heavily laden mosquito. Luckily I spotted them within a day and coated them with green oil (sulphur, camphor, citronella suspended in oil). It killed them quickly and now we are dealing with his body’s absorption of the matter, hydrogen peroxide and another green oil coating just to make sure. But Young Jack has a big one that sticks out like a third hip bone. It’ll have to be cut out. And we can’t do it yet given the pain and sensitivity he is experiencing in that region.

Terciopelos are often called the most feared animal in Latin America. They are in the viper family and are fairly excitable as snakes go – stories of them attacking rather than retreating are not uncommon. They are rather large too – the females on this coast average 66 inches (over a metre and a half), maximum recorded length is 97 inches. They have long hinged fangs which lie against the roof of the mouth. When they bite the fangs rotate forward into a stabbing position and their hypodermic needle fineness directs venom deep into the tissue. The venom is full of tissue destroying chemicals and digestive enzymes: when a human is bitten up to a third of the blood supply leaves the system and floods extremities or the intestines, the resulting drop in pressure stops the heart. In non fatal bites there is often permanent damage to the kidneys or lungs and to the site of the bite. The snakes look a little like rattlesnakes, brown with a chevron pattern of darker brown outlined in white or cream. They have narrow necks and triangular heads with large eyes and the typical heat sensitive viper pit between eyes and nostrils. They are creamy white or yellow on their underside and their lower jaw is also a pale yellow – their other Spanish name means yellow beard. And like rattlers they shake their tail when threatened, it produces a humming sound. Last night I was going to the banana box and one was lying, rather casually I thought, on the steps. I was rather taken aback. We looked at each other for a while; me trying to determine whether I could wield a machete with any real direction or effect on the steps in the dark, he realizing I probably wasn’t a threat and I certainly wasn’t prey. And then he left. Slowly, unperturbed, exploring a couple of crannies before entering the bathroom and then out of my sight. I didn’t follow him to make sure he really left. He was about 4 feet long. I like snakes, but I wouldn’t call him pretty: the markings are beautiful, but the neck is very narrow and the head a blunt arrow, he looks unbalanced. I was as close as I’d ever like to be. He was no more than 5 foot away, but down 4 steps – there was no danger. I was very very glad the dogs were sleeping inside. I woke this morning thinking I should have scared him or threatened him, chased him off. I don’t know why I didn’t, maybe that old conditioned faith in blind ignorance, maybe trust in the universe, after all I saw him at the top of the stairs.


I spent a large part of last night propped between two buckets. The lesson: when one opens a coconut and the water seems slightly fizzy, don’t drink it!

critical mass

I’ve just reached critical mass with my mosquito bites. That’s it, I’ve had enough. My feet are just two red lumpy appendages that itch and burn. I’ve even been bitten on the soles. I’m totally fed up with the staccato slapping of my body, the blur of smashed mosquitoes and that smoky ash residue they leave when swiped. I’m over the smears of blood. I wish I had socks. I wish I had some incense. I wish they would just curl up and die somewhere far from me. I’ve been munching raw garlic, eating ginger and chili and still they bite me, what gives? I’ve put my magic oil on to sooth the itching and it’s not working.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Green Banana Curry

Green, or unripe, bananas can be used as a vegetable, just like plantain. Watch out for juice from their skins, it will stain! Or you could do like the locals and clean your hands with petrol afterwards.

A dozen firm green bananas, or 8 plantains
Water and grated flesh from a coconut
2 inches of fresh ginger
½ to 1½ inches of chili, depending on taste and type
3 cloves garlic
1 lime
1 teaspoon curry powder, or to taste
Few lime leaves if available
1 spoonful of honey, or to taste
Splash soy sauce
Oil for cooking

Cut the skin from the bananas and chop. Add to salted water with a splash of lime, bring to boil and simmer 10 minutes or until the bananas are soft, like boiled potatoes.

Meanwhile finely chop garlic, ginger and chili and cook in oil until softened, add chopped lime leaves and curry powder and cook on low heat stirring constantly for another 2 minutes. Add bananas along with some of their cooking water, stir to coat thoroughly and cook on low heat for 5 minutes. Add coconut water and flesh, the juice of the lime (if it’s organic throw in the peel and flesh too), a splash of soy and the honey. Stir well, cover and allow to simmer quietly for another 15 – 20 minutes. After cooking let it sit for another 2 to 3 hours for the flavours to fully work their magic. Can be served hot or cold.

snake in the bathroom

There’s a snake in the bathroom, what are you gonna do there’s a snake in the bathroom has it come for you? No, it came for the toads. It gave me a fright though, turning on the light and seeing a bright red snake with a black head and a yellow band on its neck searching out corners, completely unperturbed by the light or my presence. I on the other hand was rather perturbed. I hadn’t seen this one before but red, black and yellow is a coral snake’s signature and I had told myself that the single black and yellow band could be juvenile colouring. Coral snakes aren’t aggressive but they are deadly and I didn’t really want share the bathroom with one. I played with the idea of catching it but this was not the time. I wished it well and told it not to return, and kept my eye peeled.
But it wasn’t a coral snake. It was a juvenile mussurana. Mussuranas are ‘good’ snakes to have around, because even though this one was looking for toads, they mostly eat other snakes. They are venomous with rear fangs and they constrict. They attack by lunging themselves at their prey coiling around it and biting to paralyze. The incredibly noxious venom of even the baddest of the bad vipers doesn’t harm it. Scientists are studying mussuranas and the Brazilian government is considering special breed and release centres for them as a snake control tool. But surely we remember what happens to such plans (cane toads in Australia, perch in the Canadian lakes, to name just two manmade natural disasters). Anyway I wish now I hadn’t told it not to return, hopefully it wasn’t listening.

Mr. Hansel pays a visit

George came over this afternoon. He’s been threatening to for months and today finally made it with a bottle of homebrew, 3 giant avocadoes from his tree and an apple, “to sweeten your mouth”. He filled the afternoon with stories and gardening advice. George’s family came here in the early 1900s from Jamaica via Columbia. They settled with 6 other families this last stretch of southern Caribbean before Panama. They fished and they farmed cacao. That was when most of the coast was Jamaican and Mosquite – a blend of Nicaraguan Indians and former African slaves who moved steadily south until they could find peace. The Costa Rican indigenous people, here the BriBri, stayed in the mountains away from the coast. The ticos stayed around Limon or up in the hills. The life they had sounds good. They fished and hunted and put together gardens in the sandy soil by the beach: papaya, banana, plantain, melon, sugar cane, taro and yucca while they cleared the jungle and planted cacao and orchards of fruit trees: breadfruit, avocado, mango, akee, soursop, citrus, nutmeg, cinnamon. Then they waited for the trees to grow. Cacao are short shade loving trees so they cleared the bush and left the big trees. This was all virgin land, jaguars and crocodiles, macaws and harpy eagles. And mosquitoes. They brought their medicinal plants with them. Work was hard but living was easy: lobsters and crabs were so plentiful they almost walked into the cooking pot, bananas and coconuts fell from the trees into the embers. The kids too young to clear land caught dinner.

Rondon is now the famous local dish. Rondon means run down and is a stew of whatever was found that day. George kept telling me, “everything was fresh, there were no iceboxes, no chemicals, it was all fresh, all organic, all good for the body”. There’s no recipe.
Take fish, crab, prawn, lobster or a combination and cook with chopped plantain, taro, yucca, breadfruit, pumpkin or sweet potato, in whichever combination you have that day. Add the water and flesh of a grated coconut, chopped ginger and chili, black pepper and salt, perhaps a little nutmeg or cinnamon and cook slowly until it smells done.

weed whacker

I did it, I finally bought a weed whacker. There’s a lot of lawn in the garden, despite our efforts to lay beds and plant things, there’s a lot of grass. We have a ‘gardener’, a very lovely 19 year old indigenous 7th day Adventist. But he works full time for a hotel an hours cycle ride away and we get him every other month when we heckle the hotel enough. It’s not a practical arrangement, and I’m very bad at heckling. The grass wasn’t quite as high as an elephant’s eye, but easily 5 times taller than any lurking fer-de-lance and it looked overwhelmingly messy. I’d been intending to buy a weed whacker for at least the last 2 months, it had become a bit of an issue.

Firstly there was the petrol or electric question. All of the men who cut grass for money have big heavy petrol powered machines. They look like samurais as they also wear heavy ground length leather aprons and a mesh mask covering their face. The whacker is supported by straps which adorn shoulders and wrap around waists. Cycling round a corner and being met by a grass cutter holding his still running (people do so like to waste petrol here) engine singing, surrounded by clouds of gas smoke and a green haze of slowly descending vegetative particles, his small form enlarged and given great authority by his ‘armor’, is to suddenly realize and give thanks that one lives in a peaceful country and this is not some warrior out of control with blood lust, but a local earning $14 for sweating several litres under his garb for a whole day’s work.

As I would be doing the ‘whacking’ I wouldn’t need such a big heavy –or expensive – machine. And as there would be no need to do the entire lawn in one day, I didn’t need so powerful a motor. Petrol powered gives more freedom: one isn’t limited by cord or the need for power outlets. But I found myself unable to buy a petrol machine, simply because of the petrol itself. I know this is hypocritical and I claim no superiority in being a bicycle owner: I miss driving, there are times when I wish I had a car. And I know that most of my food arrives here thanks to various petrol powered grain harvesters, delivery trucks, fork lift trucks, trains, ships and buses. And I know that the weed whacker itself would be made out of parts that themselves were possible because of the petrochemical industry. All this I knew and the argument went back and forth in my head when I could have been thinking other things. The clincher was that all electrical energy in Costa Rica comes from hydroelectric stations and this was easier for me to justify in my ignorance. Of course it then turned out that the electrical models were more expensive because of the power cords.

It really has taken me two months to finally come to the decision to buy a small electric model. I not only went back and forth between the two power sources, but also whether I should really own a whacker, whether it wouldn’t be better to hire or borrow one, or simply pay someone else to cut the grass. In the end convenience won out – as is so often the case. The power cord was more expensive than the machine. I have 40 metres of cord, which should I think be long enough, given there’s a house at either end of the garden. The cord came as just that and I bought plugs for either end. It’s been years since I’ve wired a plug, years since those university days where fuses were often blown and tinfoil kept whole apartments running. The copper wire was surprisingly thick and set me off into another mental spin: I’ve recently finished ‘Conversations with an Archdruid’ which follows the brilliant conservationist David Bower on three trips into the wilderness. The first trip was to a mountain he was defending against the opening of a copper mine. As I wired the plug images of pristine mountains and copper mines drifted in and out of my head. The fine wire bundled into stiff copper rope in my fingers had come a long way, and from where? What processes had it undergone to end up in the jungle of Costa Rica? The electricity here is very simple, cables and wires are in clear evidence hanging from trees, dangling from roofs, miles and miles and miles of it, all tucked inside black or white plastic. How much ore, how many mountains had become empty pits? The only point to such questions is to raise awareness of one’s impact upon the land. The wire is already here, the damage done so that I can have power in the middle of the garden. But I have direct control over my purchases: perhaps a petrol powered machine would have been a better choice. Perhaps paying someone else would have been more appropriate.
Nevertheless, all doubts cast aside, I can now cut the grass. And when the rain stops I shall.