Saturday, March 28, 2009

More Rest, A Night Hike, Friends From Wisconsin - Thursday 3-26-2009

I talked to three girls from Wisconsin this morning as I wrote and they ate. They had been in Panama for two months staying with a family and doing missionary work for the Jehovah’s Witnesses. We all laugh when they tell me that it will be nice to be home in Wisconsin, where three five-foot-seven, light-skinned, strawberry blond, blue-eyed girls don’t stick out. I laugh harder when they tell me how someone asked them point blank if they were Norwegian, and then how a burned out hippie Vietnam Veteran who’d been living in Panama for God knows how long asked them if they were speaking Swedish when they were clearly speaking English. A quick note about the Wisconsin girls – they’re real cool. Also, I tried my best to remember their names but their names are so similar that I forgot them anyway. I think they are Katie, Kaylee, and Kiley. No, they are not sisters. They are just friends with coordinated names.

After breakfast, Yolanda helps me book my hostel in Playa Tamarindo (3-30-2009 until 4-2-2009), and my transportation to Tamarindo via Greyline ($45). OK, so here is something I’m going to work on while I’m out here – planning less. I’m already in Costa Rica without a real itinerary, but I feel like I should stop booking my moves five days in advance. Yolanda’s son Johnny walks in and offers to take me on a night hike through the private ecological preserve. Yolanda had called the Monteverde Preserve to book me a night hike and found they had closed for the day, so Johnny’s offer interests me. Johnny is a guide at the private ecological preserve and was going to charge me $25, but the Wisconsin girls book too and he charges them $20 because they are a group. I ask to pay $20 too and Johnny relents, eventually. Johnny's 26 and had a baby boy yesterday. He’s not married to the mother, but Yolanda seems OK with that.

At 5:15PM, Johnny, the Wisconsin girls, and I walk about one mile from Manakin Lodge to the private ecological preserve. Johnny is an amazing tour guide. He finds a female tarantula hiding in her hole. Only females live in holes. The males run loose on the forest floor. We listen to him describe how much of the preserve is former banana and coffee farmland turned into secondary forest (replanted forest after the virgin forest had been cut down) by bats. Bats eat their own weight in food every night and so excrete seeds from the fruits they eat several times a night. Johnny tells us that bats are responsible for reforesting about 70 percent of the preserve. Humans played no part in the reforestation besides buying the land and then leaving it alone. He takes us to a huge leafcutter ant mound and tells us that what we see is only a small portion of the colony. Leafcutter colonies can house eight million to nine million ants but only one queen and can span several hundred feet in every direction, Johnny tells us.

The narrow trail is covered by a bed of leaves and branches off confusingly, leading down black, unmarked paths. Signs are sparse. The forest encroaches on us tightly. I do not know how I would find my way through the ecological reserve even by day. Deftly, Johnny guides us up slopes and down into valleys. He tells us this secondary forest has been growing for 25 years. That seems like such a short time considering the towering trees, thick strangler vines, massive roots, and impenetrable undergrowth. As we walk, Johnny shines his light onto tree branches and repeatedly finds sleeping birds. Some birds are orange with black heads and white breasts. Others are brown. Some have green heads and red breasts. Johnny points out leaves with undersides so soft they feel like cloth. He finds an alligator tree sapling, picks some leaves, and wipes his arms with them. Natives and native animals have used these leaves as mosquito repellant for centuries, he informs us. The scent is strong and similar to pine, but sweeter. He says he has been a guide for 12 years and I believe it. We come to a clearing with a bench and the forest opens to the spring sky. We sit for about fifteen minutes and Johnny points out Orion, Taurus, and Gemini. I look for Pisces but can’t find it. I think it’s too late in the season now.

We walk more along the bending, confusing trail when Johnny excitedly points out a cat-sized rat-like creature with large black eyes and a long tail sitting about 25 feet above us in a tree just off the trail. Tonight is only the second time in his life he has seen this animal. We stay awhile as Johnny tells us about the animal. We walk on and Johnny points out a snake the length of my index finger curled on a leaf. Johnny tells me this snake could easily kill a man.

After the night hike, we all walk to the road that leads west to Santa Elena and east to Manakin Lodge. Johnny tells us a bit about the local restaurants and then bids us goodnight. The Wisconsin girls and I walk to Las Palmas, just past Atmosphere Café on the road to Santa Elena, about 1 mile outside of Santa Elena and 500 yards from Manakin Lodge. All the prices are in dollars. Las Palmas is a large, upscale restaurant with reasonable prices, white table linens, and rustic wood paneling. It has plenty of tables but few customers, testament to this year’s poor high season. Try the Hawaiian Pizza for $6.95 (small with four big slices) or $10.95 (large with eight big slices). Their large menu also included other pizzas, pastas, (the fettuccini alfredo looked good), and beef from hamburgers to filet mingon.

For the next ninety minutes, the Wisconsin girls and I have a great conversation about the Jehovah’s Witnesses and negative stereotypes people have about them. The girls answered each of my probing questions about their religion, its tenants, Witness’ obligations, and how it differs from other Christian religions with patience and without judgment. They also maturely handled my favorite question about religion: what if all religions lead to the same place and each religion exists only so that people can choose the path most suited to them. They didn’t buy it because their religion interprets the Bible strictly and does not have room for such metaphysics. I was fascinated to learn that Witnesses, as they call themselves, are taught the pagan origins of much Christmas and Easter symbolism, including the strategic placement of these holidays on top of pre-existing Pagan holidays by the early Christian Church. I’ve read about these topics and was quite impressed that three 20 year olds were familiar with Christmas’ placement over the Roman festivals Saturnalia and the Feast of the Unconquered Sun, even if they couldn’t name those festivals without my prompting. I’m quite comfortable in my Catholicism, watered down and unorthodox as my brand of Catholicism might be, so conversion to their cause wasn’t in the cards. Still, the four of us enjoyed a fine, educational, and deeply interesting conversation about a touchy subject. I talked more easily about religion and the criticisms of religion with these three girls than I can with many people two or three times their age. I hadn’t had such a stimulating conversation about religion since my Hindu friend from business school, Devang, and I talked about Hinduism over steak and pasta in Florence, Italy during Spring Break 2005.

After dinner, we all walk back to Manakin Lodge and call it a night.

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