Our first natural encounter in Costa Rica was not monkeys, as I had hoped, but shit-tons of ants. And unfortunately, this is not an ant problem that you can eradicate. In fact, you may as well strap a pair of antennae to your head and start practicing lifting 50 times your body weight, because this is definitely a case of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”
We have learned to live with the ants, but it wasn’t so easy in the beginning. The first night in the house as we sat on the most uncomfortable futon in existence, Adam was slightly dismayed to find that he happened to be lounging on a large pile of ants who had made an impromptu nest in the folds of the cushion. To make matters worse, as we peered into the pile of scurrying ants, we saw that they were frantically moving little white parcels that looked like tiny grains of rice—ant larvae.Since then we have a tacit understanding. The ants are generally not active during the day. We might see a couple of confused stragglers here and there or a particularly industrious fellow working hard to enlarge that hole that they have begun to eat in the corner of the shower, but it’s in the evening that they come streaming out. And when this happens, they mostly keep to themselves. They avoid crawling on us and I have yet to get bitten my any of the house ants (unlike those little bastard ants at the beach who bite just to hear you curse) which is good because the house ants are, on the whole, quite large. (When an ant is so big that you can clearly discern his facial features, that ant is too big). In return for this good behavior, I only rarely lose it and go stomping around the house grinding ants into the tiles and knocking them into bodies of water and watching them spiral down the drain. And since the ants are such a big part of our lives now, I’ve composed a little poem about them so that someone who has never had this experience can get a feel for living with these complex yet maddening creatures.
Ants on the counter while I’m trying to cook.
Ants on the pages as I’m reading a book.
Ants crawling over every you-know-what.
Ants in my pants and they’re biting my butt.
Ants on my towel as I lie on the sand.
Ants on my feet and ants on my hands.
Ants on the floor and ants on the walls.
Ants in the living room and in the hall.
Ants living life here, wild and free.
Ants on the toilet as I’m trying to pee.
Ants of all colors, shapes, and sizes.
These ants are always full of surprises.
I didn’t say it was a good poem.
Not quite as ubiquitous as the ants, but nevertheless pervasive, are the lizards who have also made themselves at home here. At any time we might see one clinging to the wall pretending to be invisible, streaking across the floor to hide behind the refrigerator, or hanging out of the cat’s mouth as she crunches on a pleasant midday snack. But I actually prefer that lizards hang out in the house. Somebody has to eat the bugs. I’m not going to.
We may not have seen monkeys directly upon arrival, but on the afternoon of our second day, we heard some strange whooping noises coming from somewhere close by. It sounded almost like a dog half growling, half barking. “What is that?” Adam asked.
“I don’t know. Sounds kind of like a dog.”
“It’s not a dog.”
“Well, maybe a bird? A MONKEY!”
I shot from my seat and hurried toward the noise where I found not one, but several howler monkeys calling to each other from the trees.
I stood under the trees staring up at the spectacle. The male monkeys were making a terrible racket hooting and crashing through the branches. Then one of the monkeys calmly swung over and sat right above me. It was a female and after a few seconds I noticed that there was a tiny baby monkey clinging to her side. She sat serenely for a long time and just watched me. I looked into her eyes and could understand perfectly well what she was saying. In human language it would be this: *eye roll and head shake* “Men.”
Along with the house came an outdoor cat that we feed as part of the deal. The caretakers keep the cat food in a lidded bucket on the table on the front porch along with the small bowl that the cat eats out of. And, as one can imagine, anytime you feed a cat outdoors, other animals will be tempted to take their share of the bounty which is why a few nights in to our stay there, I heard a commotion outside in the middle of the night.
I crawled down the ladder from the bedroom and looked out the window to see a raccoon on the small side of a medium sized dog eating the cat food from the bucket. “Get out of here!” I yelled.
Adam called out from above, “What is it?”
“It’s a raccoon.”
“There’s a RACCOON in the house?”
I yelled at the raccoon again and it sized me up through the window. For a second he turned as if to amble away, but then he thought better of it and turned back to continue with his meal. I grabbed the broom next to the door and swung it open. “Be careful,” I heard faintly from upstairs.
I ran outside swinging the broom and that seemed to work just fine. He waddled away into the darkness and I tried to figure out how to stop him from getting into the food again. In the bushes I saw a large rock of about 15 or 20 pounds and I put that on top of the bucket and went back inside.
I crawled back down the ladder, cursing, to find that the raccoon was stronger than I had thought. He was in the process of trying to pry the lid off of the bucket. Again I chased him away with the broom, picked up the bucket, moved the rock out of the way. The sun would rise soon, so he probably wouldn’t be back tonight. But anyone who was up at the hour might have wondered what this crazy gringa was doing waving brooms and hauling rocks around in her underwear at 4:00 AM.
The next night I tried shoving the bucket of food in the corner with the rock on top of it and a chair wedged in front of it. However, in the middle of the night I heard the distinct sound of a chair being dragged across the cement patio. That little bastard! I climbed down the ladder and flung the front door open. The raccoon stood there calmly with his paws still grabbing at the chair legs. I stomped and yelled, but instead of retreating, he started walking towards me. What I really didn’t need at 2:00 in the morning was a possibly rabid raccoon attached to my neck, so I ramped up the craziness and really flung myself around. Finally he figured that it wasn’t worth dealing with this insanity and he disappeared into the night. I brought the cat food inside as the neighbors wondered what kind of primal dance I might have been doing.
The next contestant in the very popular game “Who wants to eat the cat food?”: skunks. Two small ones. The cat had more sense than I did as she sat motionless on the ledge—I assume she’s had some experience. I, not realizing that these were skunks, charged forward to chase them away. Upon grasping their identity, I stopped short and may have left some of those cartoon skid marks on the ground as I tried to avoid being spritzed. My antics did cause them to toddle away, so I put the cat’s food up on the table and hoped that skunks in Central America didn’t have some kind of super-skunk jumping abilities. The next time they came back, they were visibly upset that the food was out of their reach. I peered outside and the one closest to me turned and actually glared at me. Then he walked over to the water bowl, reached out his paw and flipped it over. His tail in the air, he turned and left in a huff.
In this house I am constantly expecting to open a drawer or cabinet and see something that I never knew existed in the world. At any moment I expect to see some Land of the Lost creature come crawling out of a hiding place where it has existed for several millenia. So the other day when I opened the cabinet to find this creature…
well, let’s just say I wasn’t surprised. I shut the door and decided that I didn’t need anything out of that cabinet again.
It turns out that this handsome insect is a whip scorpion, is not an actual scorpion, and is actually totally harmless to humans. It cannot sting or bite, so feel free to pick one up and give it a little pat on the head.
But, if it’s actual scorpions that you want, we’ve got those too. Walking by the door, I saw something in the crack hunched up into a ball clinging to the frame. Upon further inspection, I identified said creature as a scorpion. I’m used to a lot of crawly things, but scorpions are not on my list of approved crawly creatures who get to live. I’m just not comfortable with them especially when they stretch out full-length and wave their claws around menacingly. So Adam took the broom and eventually succeeded in sweeping the scorpion out into the bushes where he is probably plotting his revenge. Just a little while later, a second scorpion went scuttling across the wall. Seriously? Again, Adam grabbed the broom and this time stabbed at its midsection with the broom handle a little overzealously. And much like a gigantic, disgusting zit being popped, scorpion innards went splatting all over the wall, table, and floor. And, of course, this caused a frenzy among the ants who happened to be marching by at that time because who doesn’t want to get themselves some sweet, refreshing scorpion juice?
Probably the most mundane yet horrifying and insidious creature that we’ve encountered is the chigoe flea—a barely visible flea that lives in the sand in tropical areas. We weren’t aware of this creature’s existence until the morning after a night out walking on the beach when we woke up to feet and ankles covered in tiny, yet intensely itchy pink circles. Since they didn’t seem like mosquito bites, I did a little research and uncovered the likely identity of our attackers. While they live in the sand, they are predominately nocturnal. The juvenile fleas will bite for sustenance, but if you’re lucky enough to encounter a pregnant female, (here comes the horrifying part), she can burrow inside your skin and lay her eggs. Then she hangs out feeding on your blood until the eggs hatch, probably giving you a nasty inflection while she’s at it.
So two things happened because of this discovery. First, we had to walk our miserable, itchy feet down to the next town to the pharmacy to get anti-itch ointment. The very helpful woman behind the counter handed it to me and said, “You should wear repellent.” No shit, thanks. Secondly, the next time we were going to be near the sand at twilight, I practically soaked my feet in a bucket of Deep Woods Off and I wore slip on shoes instead of flip-flops. And since I’ve see no baby fleas taking their first steps from inside my foot, I would say it was a success.
Besides the fleas, the beaches themselves are fairly safe. I did get a jelly fish stuck in my shorts and I don’t think I have to say that the incident turned out pretty much like you would expect it to. But the beaches are also a place to watch pelicans elegantly nosedive into the water, spot vibrantly colored tropical fish in the tidepools, see egrets with their long, graceful necks fishing at sunset, or watch hundreds of hermit crabs comically scooting across the sand. And even right from our front door we have the opportunity to observe a staggering variety of species of dragonflies, butterflies, and birds—an ongoing exhibition of mobile works of art. And at night, if we’re lucky, we can see fireflies moving eerily among the trees like tiny UFO’s.
The other day I looked out the window and saw five cows grazing on the front lawn. I yawned and walked over to the fridge to see what there was for breakfast. I’m not sure what’s going to pop up next; the only thing I am sure of is that something will.
3 thoughts on “Wild Costa Rica”
So what did you name your snuggly new whip scorpion? (I would’ve held out for the wombat if I were you…)
Monkeys good! Insects bad!
Hello Karen, I am Patty’s friend from work I have to say I love reading your stories.
Be safe and keep writing…