Mary cried all Wednesday–the day before our first trip to the interior of Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula.  Upon arrival at the colonial city of Mérida and finding our small hotel, we walked to Santa Ana Square, planning to eat dinner. We quickly learned Thursday is fiesta night.

There were street vendors, live music, and dancing. The restaurant we had chosen was packed. We were relieved to find two inside seats next to a noisy bar at an adjacent establishment.

The waiter took our order, began to turn, shook his head, leaned back toward us and in perfect English, said, “Why?” “I have to ask. Why?” He had recognized we were from the US. This was the Thursday after Donald Trump had been elected President.

A year later, at the small ruin of Becán near the village of Xujpil, a man sweeping some ancient steps, tested our Spanish by asking if we were from the US. When we responded affirmatively, he humbly asked if we thought people in Mexico were bad. He wanted to know if all Americans thought the way our President did. What about us? How did we find the people we were encountering? Did we believe what our president said about Mexicans? We assured him we were ashamed and embarrassed as were many North Americans.  Indeed, we were proud to tell him this was our second trip in 13 months to small villages and ruins in the Yucatán, and everyone we met had been “muy amable.”

In truth, before the first trip, we had trepidation. Mexico’s reputation for corruption and violence worried us. I tracked down an ex-pat—a birder who had lived for a decade in Progreso on Yucatán’s northern coast. I called her. We spoke at length. Two comments from her stood out. She said the only murder she could remember in 10 years was between two Canadians. Second, she advised that when driving in rural areas while birding, “if you see a side road you want to try, go ahead and do it. It will be safe.”

Sadly, violence has spread to the eastern coast of the Yucatán. There are too many people and too much money flowing through Cancun and the Riviera Maya not to attract the drug cartels. We had no intention of going near that area. We knew it from trips to Isla Cozumel in the 1980s. To those familiar with the area today: imagine—my 1984 journal entry describes arriving at Playa del Carman on a small ferry and noting only one person, “a nearly naked girl,” sunbathing on the beach. Now there are numerous hotels, even casinos, and people everywhere.

We also visited Tulum in the early 1980s. There were no hotels. There was no entrance fee. No restaurants. There were a couple of local vendors selling handicrafts and a handful of tourists. A quick internet search now yields dozens of hotels. The area is also known for gourmet dining.

We snorkeled at Xel Há. We were the only visitors. The pool was at the end of a potholed, unpaved road. Now, it is part of a major resort with a daily entry fee exceeding $100. The same was true of Akumal. Then, a couple of small palapas served a simple lunch of fish, vegetables, and a beer. Now, besides massive hotels, there is a major residential development with high rises and time shares. Fortunately, as my ex-pat contact had informed me, the interior of the Yucatán has not yet succumbed to the tourism juggernaut.

We rented a car from a local garage in Mérida. They did not require any paperwork beyond what we had provided by email. A man met us at the airport, handed us keys and told us to call when we needed the car picked up. He was walking away. I asked, “Don’t you need to be paid?” “Pay me when you return,” he said over his shoulder. The thought that we had been handed a stolen car did cross our minds, but this business had great reviews. Two years later, we confidently rented from them again.

That first night we arrived hungry, several hours after dark. Our small hotel in Mérida was 5 or 6 blocks from Santa Ana square. “Can you call a taxi; we asked the proprietor?” “It is faster if you walk,” he said. “It is safe.” That was the first of many nighttime walks on those streets during our two visits to Mérida. The streetlights are dim, the buildings tall and mostly dark. Occasionally, some locals would pass us, but mostly there was no one else. Were we lucky? Were we naive? In many US cities, I would have felt less secure. The next year we stayed in Campeche City, on the west coast of the peninsula, and had the same experience.

It is risky to generalize because Mérida shares the same problems with any large city. Nonetheless, it was notable when, two years later, at a small cafe, we talked to the owner-chefs who had recently moved after more than a decade of living in Miami. He was French. She was originally from Mexico City. They had two teenaged sons. They related how they had visited Mérida and decided it was a much better place to raise their sons than in the US.

Our comfort with the people and the countryside only increased as we traveled. On that first trip, we spent most of a day with two young men who had a three-wheeled scooter with which they could carry two passengers in the back. We hired them from a street corner in the village of Homún to take us to some cenotes. They enjoyed it as much as we did, bouncing down the dirt roads, then swimming, telling jokes, all with much laughter.

Some cenotes have concrete steps, some have steel ladders. These boys took us to one with a rickety ladder fashioned from tree limbs. Though shaky, it seemed stout enough. Mary and I gingerly began our descent. One of the young men, impatient with our slow progress, scooted out on a large vine and flipped into the water. We had each of these locations to ourselves.  We had agreed on a price but had not discussed how many cenotes we would visit. After swimming in three, it was late; we had to leave.  Both of our hosts were visibly disappointed. They had planned to take us to one more.

Another time, at the small ruin of Xlapak, where afternoon birding had been enticing, I asked the guard if it was possible to enter at 6AM, two hours before opening. The gate could easily be stepped over and I promised to pay him as I left. “I’ll meet you,” he said.  And he was there at 6AM. Later, the Canadian woman who owned the cabin where we were staying said, “I hope you gave him a big tip!”  She enjoyed the local people, she said. Her workers were invariably dependable and honest. As for the guard at the ruin, she said, “They are not paid nearly enough for what they do.” This was true. We had observed how clean and well-kept were these minor ruins. I suppose the guards had little else to do. We usually had to sign a register. Sometimes it had been a week since the previous visitor. Nonetheless, the jungle grows aggressively. Leaves fall throughout the year. There would always be maintenance to perform, besides ensuring that no looting or vandalism occurred.

In the beginning, our exploration of ruins had been the usual. The first one we visited from Mérida was Chichén Itzá. It is magnificent. I had wanted to visit because of its history and a sense of sex and mystery I remembered from an old movie: Against All Odds.

Wary of the expected crowds (~two million annually, pre-covid), we arrived before opening and were through the gate before most tourist buses unloaded. We were able to spend a peaceful half-hour at the famous cenote as I endeavored to listen for the difference in the vocalizations of the nearly identical Tropical and Couch’s Kingbirds.

Vendors were everywhere. There were hundreds. We marveled at how many there were and how so many sold the same wares. How did any of them earn a useful amount of money? As bus after bus unloaded, some portions of the ruins became packed shoulder to shoulder. We were happy to have visited, but also ready to leave.

Next, we visited Uxmal, nearly as famous as Chichén Itzá and deservedly known as the major ruin with the most intricate decoration.   Believed to be completed near the zenith of Mayan civilization, the buildings such as The House of Turtles and the House of the Magician have ornate friezes and carvings.  The setting, because there are some hills, allows one to comprehend the totality of the site, something inhibited at Chichén Itzá because climbing on pyramids at these sites is now prohibited.

During our trips, we visited several large ruins. For example, Edzna, near Campeche City and Ek Balam near Vallodolid are major ruins even if visitation is sparse.  At the latter, a guard at the entrance asked if we were from the US. He said, “no one ever comes here from the US.” In fact, after each of these trips, Mary and I questioned whether we had heard any English spoken so long as we were at a location not frequented by tour buses from the Riviera Maya.

We discovered minor ruins by accident. We had an unexpected free afternoon during our initial visit to Mérida. We were already on the Northwest side of the city having visited a wetland to look for birds. I noted a ruin on our map, Sihunchen, that was only a few miles outside the city. Our gps unit recognized a hamlet, San Antonio Chel, close by the ruin, so we decided to see what we could find.

Once out of Mérida, we found ourselves off pavement driving through tropical dry forest. Road conditions required slow driving and we were rewarded with a perfect view of a Lesser Roadrunner.  It obligingly stopped for inspection and a photo before darting into the bush.

Arriving at San Antonio Chel, we saw a small church on a public square but no one on the street. A road from the square seemed to head in the correct direction so we continued, hoping there would be a sign at the ruin. After a few miles, we saw a sign for rental cabins, but otherwise only more dry jungle.

A few minutes later, we chanced upon some men repairing a bridge. We were able to communicate sufficiently to understand that the location with the cabins was our destination. Upon return, we found the gate locked. I was bold enough to climb over the fence. Almost immediately, I spied a workman raking leaves. He waved me back, gesturing that he would open the gate for us.

Once inside, the man pointed at a small interpretive sign and returned to his work. We had a wonderful afternoon. There were a few cabins that appeared in good condition. Possibly these were used at other times of the year or maybe reserved for groups.

Now, however, we had encountered Sihunchen as our first minor ruin available for solo exploration. The trails among the small building sites were clear. There were helpful interpretive signs that we could read with our basic Spanish.

Site Description at Sihunchen

There was limited restoration.  We climbed one small pyramid that only had enough vegetation removed for a single path to the top. How amazing to have this place to ourselves.

Unsurprisingly, there was a lot of wildlife. I was excited to see my first flock of Ocellated Turkeys. Considering their riotous colors, this bird may be the Americas closest contender to peacocks. We saw hummingbirds, mixed flocks with up to seven species of neotropical warblers, and many flycatchers including, appropriately, the endemic Yucatán Flycatcher.

It is no longer easy to have such a sense of discovery when traveling. The visit to Sihunchen was a rare example—climbing a fence, having a gate unlocked, and a ruin to ourselves. On a later trip, although entrance to the site was open, the guard opened the fabulous stucco frieze at Balamku.  The frieze, depicting Mayan rulers and a sacred mountain is 16.8 m (55 ft) long and 1.75 m (5.7 ft) high.

Our interest in the Mayans had begun with those early trips to Cozumel in the 1980s. I had read John L. Stephens’ famous books (Incidents of Travel in Yucatán, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán) describing his explorations with illustrator Frederick Catherwood in the 1840s.  I had acquired and read translations of books written near the time of the Conquest and several by more recent explorers.

Recent decades have been rich with new discoveries. Mary and I read articles and watched documentaries as they appeared. Indeed, between our early visits in the 1980s and our recent trips, a young researcher proved that the glyphs on Mayan stellae (large rock slabs) and on buildings were language, a history, not simply names and dates as had been assumed.

It was remarkable to learn that the young researcher who had deciphered these writings was spurned until the old guard of Mayan researchers passed away. I have always believed we should listen more to younger voices; here was another example.

All this explains why, on our third trip, we were descending into Aktun Usil with Lourdes. We had met Lourdes at Oxkintok—a small ruin southwest of Mérida. We were fortunate to have good directions. The road was an obscure track. The small sign for the ruin, unattached on one side and hanging sideways from the other, was not visible from the highway.

As with most small Mayan ruins, Oxkintok had a small guard house where a fee was collected. Then, we were free to explore.

For a ruin such as Oxkintok, archaeologists and anthropologists had, of course, been there before us. Thus, from the internet, we could find maps and explanations. From our studies, we understood the differences in the various Mayan periods and could compare architectural styles from site to site.  Often some stabilization and restoration had been accomplished, but unlike the highly-publicized and well-known locations such as Chichén Itzá , at minor ruins such as Oxkintok, we could climb the small pyramids and enter most of the buildings.

Most of the locations were safe enough.

Becán has larger pyramids than most of the small ruins but they are so steep that thick ropes are suspended to use for safety. Climbing those was exhilarating. From the top, in the far distance, the great pyramids at Calakmul were visible.

The only time I was fearful was at the ruins of Xpujil.  I climbed interior steps to the top of one of the structures.  The steps were of such great age and use that they were worn into a downward slant.   They were also thick with dust. The ascent was not too bad, but coming down, the fine dust filled my eyes in the already dim stairway. The slippery and thick layer of dust combined with the angle of the steps was precarious.  The tunnel was just wide enough that I could not brace myself against the sides. There were no handholds.  I was unnerved.  If I had slipped, I would have tumbled all the way to the bottom. I was relieved to emerge safely. It was fascinating to wander these sites on our own, giving us both a sense of discovery as well as wonder at the sophistication in construction exhibited by the Maya. 

Lourdes, a young lady with strongly Mayan features, had been at Oxkintok’s entry displaying photos of paintings. We believed she was offering to guide us through Oxkintok, so we declined. However, on departure, we realized we had seen nothing like her photos. She was talking to the guard, so we approached and asked where the paintings were. How had we missed them? Finally, we understood they were at a nearby site, in a cave actually. Showing that site was her guiding gig. “Why not?” We thought.

Lourdes had a bicycle but gestured that she needed to board our car. We cleared space for her, and she directed us back down the road about a mile and onto a little-used dirt track. Plants and brush were rubbing against the undercarriage and then we emerged onto a limestone slab.  I looked quizzically at Mary, not wanting to blow a tire on the sharp rock and wondering how far we had to go.

Abruptly, Lourdes told us to stop. We followed her through the brush toward a small hill below which was an opening to a cavern.

Mary and Lourdes Entering the Cavern

Ultimately, we learned the site, Aktun Usil, had been featured in an article in National Geographic. With a strong flashlight, we could see carvings and paintings on the ceiling and walls. It became apparent, and as explained to us by Lourdes, this cavern, now dry, had once been a cenote and water source. As we wandered the cave, Lourdes showed us small carved shrines and recent offerings because the cave was still sacred to some of the locals. Certainly, others have seen Aktun Usil, but our unexpected, private tour was a treat.

Large Stone Face Carved into the Cavern Wall

As we returned Lourdes to her bicycle, we told her we were going to Chacmultun the following day after spending the night in Santa Elena. She suggested we not return to the highway but continue on the road past Oxkintok. We could bisect an area of jungle we would otherwise have had to circumnavigate.

The map on our gps showed no road but depicted the little dot representing our car as passing through a green expanse. A few times, vegetation scraped both sides of our car. Meeting another vehicle would have been problematic. Luckily, we encountered no one and emerged onto the highway, saving considerable driving time.

Chacmultun, in contrast to Oxkintok, was not a collection of buildings on a plain, but several groups of structures including one upon a rare steep hill. Having more natural relief here, building on the heights yielded the advantage of a pyramid without the need to construct one. We spent most of a day exploring and climbing on the buildings. Birding here was excellent and we saw no one else.

Our favorite large ruin was Calakmul. Current studies are revealing both how large the site is and that Calakmul was likely more important than Chichén Itzá, Uxmal and the other more well-known locations.  Calakmul is also a Biosphere Reserve; the largest intact forest in the Americas besides what remains of the Amazon. Located on the border with Belize and Guatemala, the site is two hours from a main road and 1 1/2 hours from a hotel.  Thus, there are no souvenir vendors nor many visitors.  Because so much is unexcavated and unrestored, combined with its remote location, Calakmul combines the sense of discovery of the minor sites with feelings of mystery and magnificence because of its size and complexity.
The tallest pyramid at Calakmul is an impressive 55m, nearly twice as tall as the Pyramid of Kukulkan (30m) at Chichén Itzá.  And this pyramid could be climbed. The views were magnificent: a vast expanse of dark, green jungle broken by an occasional mound—signifying another ancient site.

View from Calakmul’s Largest Pyramid

Wildlife was abundant: Ocellated Turkeys, Great Curassows, deer, foxes, agoutis, spider and howler monkeys. I also enjoyed an excellent view of a Black-throated Blue Warbler—a species which nests mostly along the US-Canadian border.

Visiting such a variety of sites allowed us to observe how the architecture became more intricate and then declined in conjunction with the progress and decline of the Mayan civilization. The so-called pre-Classic period began about 250CE. Their civilization reached its zenith about 900CE and then declined precipitously. The collapse occurred before the Conquest resulting in much scholarship to understand why. Overpopulation, overexploitation of the shallow soil and drought have all been blamed and collectively these provide a lesson for hubristic societies today.

Besides the quantity and richness of the lesser-known ruins, we had under-appreciated the Yucatán’s wildlife and birding. Near the small town of Chuburná, we visited wetlands replete with a variety of herons, shorebirds, and large flocks of American Flamingoes. South of Campeche, we found a tiny beach area where, while swimming, we saw an endangered West Indian Manatee.

Jungle birding was excellent. I realized virtually any species found in Belize, a popular destination for birders, is found in this area of Mexico.  Examples are near endemic rarities such as Rose-throated Tanager and the poorly named Gray-throated Chat (It has a bright red belly).  I found the latter by recognizing the correct habitat off of a side-road near the ruin of Dzibilchaltún. 

This area is also the primary wintering grounds for many neotropical migrants such as Magnolia Warblers and Least Flycatchers which were abundant.  Besides these, there are also several endemics—species found nowhere else. Many have names beginning, appropriately enough with Yucatán: Yucatán Flycatcher, Yucatán Jay, Yucatán Nightjar and more.

Our most extraordinary wildlife experience, however, was the “bat volcano,” located 1 ½ hours east of Escarcega, almost to the village of Xpujil.  More than three million bats emerge each evening.  The bats reside in caverns at the base of a steep cylindrical sinkhole approximately 50m deep and an equal distance in diameter. Near dusk, bats pour out of the fissures that surround the bottom of the deep hole. There are so many bats the breeze caused by their wings is felt on the bodies of on-lookers and rustles the leaves in the trees.

As usual, however, it was birding, the elusive Rose-throated Tanager, which led to our memorable visit to the small village of Xocen.   Via Facebook, I messaged the “Yucatán Jay Birders Club.” I had noted interesting birds listed by the club posted on eBird.   The “Club” was born when some young men from the village recognized there were unusual birds on their lands. They realized birders like me would pay for access and for help finding the birds. The young men from the village were all busy but fortunately, Joel, a young guide from Mérida, worked with the group and was available.

Once Joel and I had agreed upon dates and fees, I asked whether there would be anything of interest to occupy Mary while I was birding.  Entertaining non-birders was part of the plan, it seemed. Joel said Mary should certainly come along.

We arrived at the village early one morning and followed Joel to a small traditional hut. As with elsewhere in the Yucatán, traditional Mayan villages are disappearing. Modern buildings already had a significant presence and had lined the entrance road. The little compound we were led to had several traditional huts made of sticks packed with mud and thatched with palm fronds. Mary was introduced to a couple of ladies in traditional Mayan clothing. Joel and I went birding.

The birding was everything I hoped for. We quickly found a female Rose-throated Tanager. I was excited to see the rare bird, even though females are a dull yellow brown. We found many other species, mostly wintering neotropical migrants such as Hooded and Worm-eating Warblers. As noon approached, I was beginning to think that was all we would find.  Fortunately, in quick succession we found a male Rose-throated Tanager and my other major target, Gray-collared Becard. I was elated!

As we returned for lunch, I wondered how Mary’s morning had been. She was happy but said she had felt awkward.  The ladies showed her crafts and she had bought a few, but mostly, she observed as they performed their normal routines.  She learned how the village ladies had pooled scarce finances and purchased their own grinder for corn. Corn tortillas are the dietary staple and each morning, a bag of previously par-boiled corn is ground into masa for use in tortillas. Mary also observed the slaughtering and cleaning of the chicken that went into a pot for our lunch.  Mary said she felt warmly welcomed, but that it was embarrassing to have a part in turning an ordinary day of a fading culture into a “show.”    In fact, the corn-to-tortillas process was something we were privileged to observe. Although these tasks are performed throughout Central and South America, and have been for centuries, they are disappearing.

There was a small griddle set at an angle over a wood fire. Here is where the grandmother sat on a small stool most of the day.  She would grab some of the coarse masa dough and deftly form a golf ball sized piece and pat it down with her fingertips to form a flat thin disk from the center out. The tortilla was then tossed on the griddle as she reached for another handful of masa. With timing learned over generations, she would reach for the tortilla at just the right time and flip it to cook the other side as she prepared the next. When finished, she removed the tortilla from the griddle and tossed it on a pile.

We ate first and were provided with forks. I noticed the family simply used their tortillas as both food and utensil. Although still common throughout Mexico and Central America, it was exciting to participate in the real thing, sitting with the family, watching the tortillas made and eating a stewed chicken as they had done for generations.

How long will these practices persist? How long until it becomes solely a reenactment performed for tourists? Already, one of the younger generation in this family had constructed a separate dwelling—out of concrete blocks and including electric lights.

Others had left for school or for jobs that morning on their motorcycles. What will happen when the grandmother passes away? Will the younger generation simply buy mass-produced tortillas at the local OXXO store that we had passed on the entrance road? Will they buy their chicken there too?

I had seen their milpas, patches of corn, while birding. Among the housing and cooking structures, were herbs and food plants in small pots. But, we also saw encroachment of modernity. Traditionally, bones and inedible trash are thrown in the jungle. Native creatures soon made this human detritus vanish. Unfortunately, now that products wrapped in plastic and foil have found their way into the village, these now fluttered from nearby bushes. While birding, I had observed unsightly piles of garbage dumped randomly. Will the younger generation realize in time how much such practices threaten their future?

That afternoon, Joel took us to meet the head of the village, an elderly man. I should note here that I asked Joel if a tip was expected and he replied, “No, we are just visiting.” As we toured the village, we never saw a hint of anything but pride in their culture and pleasure that we had come for a visit.

The village elder and his family had a compound separate from the rest of the village and town. There were several traditional thatched huts and covered outside basins for doing laundry and cooking. There were a few animals inside of fences constructed of the same native wood as the huts.  It was important to our host that we see the cemetery where his ancestors were buried. The “Day of the Dead,” would arrive in a couple of weeks, and here the family would decorate these graves and spend the night celebrating their deceased family members. 

The beekeeping was also fascinating. The native bees (Melipona beecheii) are not as productive as are our non-native bees. They reside in a log with small holes.  They are endangered, probably because of loss of habitat and changes in flora in the jungle. We may have seen one of the last people obtaining honey in this manner.

Traditional Beekeeping in the Yucatán

What is most important about Xocen, however, is the belief that it is the Center of the World—a conviction honored by The Church of the Three Crosses.  The three crosses are central to the cult of the Speaking Cross. The Speaking Cross cult developed during the Caste War* when the Mayans attempted to evict their Spanish opressors. Early in the war, the Mayans might have successfully driven out the Spanish, but they ceased engagement when it was time to return home to do their planting.

The Church of the Three Crosses

Skirmishes continued for more than 50 years (1847 into the early 1900s). Near what is now Filipe Carrillo Puerto, a Maya man found a cross at the base of a tree next to a cenote. The cross spoke to him, giving him instructions on how to battle the Spanish. Over the years, people gave offerings to the cross and eventually a religion grew from it.

Joel introduced us to the priest whose demeaner was grave and respectful. We were welcomed into the small church with only the admonition that photography was prohibited. On the altar, were three crosses–one of stone, one wood, and one painted green. All three were covered with traditional Mayan dresses. and adornments. The altar was filled with disparate objects: plants, clothing, even toys such as a doll. These must have been offerings. On tables in front were lighted candles, apparently serving the same purpose as they do in Christian churches

Afterwards, in front of the church, we bowed our heads as the priest blessed us with fronds of a sacred plant that had been dipped in the nearby spring. We felt solemn and blessed ourselves. After all, we were at Xocen, the “Center of the World.”

*The Caste War was a major conflict.  That its occurrence is unknown throughout most of the Americas is unconscionable.  Overall, it is a story of native people rebelling against colonialism. Sadly, US business interests played a significant role in the death and destruction.  The best single history is: The Caste War of Yucatan, by Neslon Reed, Stanford University Press.


With me along some Strip of Herbage strown

That just divides the desert from the sown,

Where name of Slave and Sultán scarce is known,

And pity Sultán Máhmúd on his Throne.

[Verse X from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (E. Fitzgerald, translator)]

I think of Sultán Máhmúd” while I spit another watermelon seed at the scurrying hermit crabs.  They whisk the seeds away to eat later. 

Melon juice drips on my bare chest.  I am sitting on the edge of the wooden porch.  I do not want a sticky surface to walk on.  A sticky body?  No worries.  The ocean is a mere 30 meters away.   In a few moments, as the waves cleanse my body, I’ll watch Magnificent Frigatebirds sail gracefully overhead. They will likely be joined by Black and Turkey Vultures and Brown Pelicans. 

The hot sun will soon assert itself.  I will leave the ocean, rinse off the salt water at the outdoor shower, return to the porch and resume reading. My book is interesting.  Nevertheless, reading for long periods eventually makes me drowsy.  But, after a snack, a swim and a cooling shower, reading will, again, be peaceful and natural. 

Poor “Sultán Máhmúd”

The world is full of Sultán Máhmúds.  Always wanting more money or more power or a bigger house.  They are a mystery to me.  In much of business, and particularly in politics, they vie for the various thrones even though they could “buy and sell” me many times over.  I do not understand why. 

I have seen them on vacation. They fly into the airport in Liberia and are whisked by a driver to the Hilton or the Hyatt or a clone of such. A bracelet is put on their arms. A wave, and waiters race to do their bidding.  Evenings require a decision of which theme restaurant to attend. 

I worked for a man once who drove a Porsche, stayed only at the finest places, and ate at the best restaurants.  He loved passing a $50 bill to the maître-d to ensure we were treated royally.  He was always thinking about work. His marriage failed.  He would have hated this place.  

Here, on occasion, dinner consists of bean tostadas.  Other days, we knock on a door to let the cook at a local restaurant know there are clients for dinner.  On go the lights.  We take one of the three or four tables and order. 

We bring our own coffee and other staples purchased on the long drive from San Jose.  Two days a week, the fruit and vegetable truck arrives. We buy a papaya, a few more mangoes and a melon.

There really is so much wrong here.  After all, the name of this beach is Zancudo—the word for mosquito in Spanish.  How did it get that name?  We sleep under a mosquito net.

Larger creatures can enter too. Once, I had to catch a bat and put it back outside.  Another time I shared the shower with a small bird.

The cabin is a single room with a small bathroom/shower. The kitchen is a hot plate next to the sink.  The village’s only road, unpaved, is next to our cabin. Most mornings a motorcycle or two rattles by at 4 or 4:30, and then a truck loudly rumbles along bouncing through the potholes.

The beach is rarely cleaned. At the margin of high tide, there is every sort of plastic trash.  It is unsightly unless one finds beauty in the bright blue of a discarded flip-flop or the day-glo green of an old bleach bottle.  If barefoot, one steps carefully through the plastic and other flotsam, mostly coconut shells, to enter the ocean. 

There’s no beachcombing here either.  Shells are almost absent because the beach has such a long, slight slope.  The plastic mess, however, can be convenient.  One time we needed plastic utensils and found them easily after only a few moments of searching. 

There are no rules for the beach so randomly a 4-wheeler or a motorbike noisily passes by.

And the sand! Its brown, not brilliant white.  The water isn’t Caribbean or Hawaiian Blue either.  Not that its roily or dirty, but the soft sandy bottom, despite the gentle wave action, prevents the clarity loved by divers and snorkelers.  Waves and surfing can be found an hour or so farther down the coast at Pavones.

I am a birder.  That must explain why I am here.  The bird list as of February 2022 is 242 species–poor by Costa Rican standards.  Less than two hours to the northwest is Esquinas Rainforest lodge with a list of 398 – or drive northeast for a similar distance, up the hill to San Vito, and there is the Las Cruces Biological station run by the Organization for Tropical Studies.  The list at Las Cruces is 460.

I do go birding here.  There’s an old dock which allows access to the midst of some mangroves.  To find it, I look for the mound where the village piles its garbage and turn toward the river/estuary.  The old dock is broken.  In the middle, I hang on to a rusty railing to keep from sliding off the broken concrete and lower myself to the shattered pieces lying in the mud—if the water isn’t too high to preclude passage.  Then, I pull myself up the slanted slab on the other side and continue.

Behind our cabin and across the road are more mangroves.  This area seems to be the alternate dump site for the village inhabitants. There are crabs scurrying about consuming the detritus.  The mud slurps at my shoes, but I can work my way inside for about 3 meters and see what birds might be present.

As I write, my next visit to this place, the 13th, is already planned.  If I come here so often, it must be because it is inexpensive.  

Indeed, I would like to claim that adherence to one of my favorite quotes from Thoreau, “my greatest skill has been to want but little,” explains why I am here.  I have been fortunate to care little what someone else has.    I retired earlier than many of my contemporaries.  I felt like the overarching goal of my career was to obtain time, not money. This is one of my favorite places to spend that time.

I am here because I like it.

Clearly, I need to start again.  Yes, Zancudo means mosquito. I suspect the name may deter more visitors than do the insects.  They are no worse here than anywhere else in the lowland tropics.  Something I like, however, is that this is a beach where you can’t buy a t-shirt with its name on it. 

The cabin, while small, is spotless.  Everything works.  The time for walking to the beach is measured in seconds. 

The people are friendly.  The little restaurants serve excellent food. 

We avoid holidays. The rest of the time the beach is nearly deserted.  We have many photos taken first to the north and then to the south, showing 200m or more of the beach, and there are no other people.  If others are present, it is usually one or two and not close by. 

Those early morning noisy vehicles? There are only two or three.  We always arise about 5 anyway.  That way I can be in the water and watch the Brown Pelicans as they travel from the west end of the beach, where they spend the night, to the east where the foraging must be better.

The pelicans sail along the crest of the near-shore waves employing “wave-slope soaring.”  They take advantage of the lift provided by “localized updrafts caused by traveling ocean surface gravity waves”–an explanation, taken from a scientific paper, that makes it sound like Quantum Mechanics. 

I keep only enough of my head above water to breathe. I want the pelicans to think I am a floating coconut so they will pass overhead.  They are not fooled.  They move over a meter or two, but I still hear the whoosh of air from their wings.  

I watch the sun as it rises through the beachside palm trees, eventually shining brightly on me and the water.  Soon enough it will be time for coffee and fresh fruit on the shady porch. 

While it is necessary to step over trash on the way to the water, when the tide is out there might be 30-40 meters of soft, clean sand to cross before meeting the placid surf.  Then you might walk another 30 or 40 meters, only sloshed slightly by gentle waves, until the water reaches your chin.  It can be a warm, calm swimming pool. 

After dark, preferably on a moonless night, the bioluminescence of phytoplankton brightens your swim.   Then, when you exit the ocean, if the tide is out, the entire night sky, star-by-star, may be reflected on the beach. 

 A small motorbike or 4-wheeler may go flying by at any time—but there probably won’t be another for an hour or two.

That dirt road with the noisy motorcyles is all that separates the cabin from the mangroves. The trash is unpleasant, but most of the creatures one expects in that habitat are present.  Consequently, within 10-20 meters of the cabin, I have seen Cocoa Woodcreepers and Common Black Hawks.  Most days, a Bright-rumped Attila reminds us to eat it-eat it- eat it nooww.  Often there is a Black-hooded Antshrike, whose call has been described as an “accelerating chuckle.”   

Red-lored Parrots and Orange-chinned Parakeets regularly perch in the taller trees.  Even better, the obligate dwellers of the mangroves are also present: Mangrove Yellow Warbler, Boat-billed Heron, Panama Flycatcher and the endemic Mangrove Hummingbird.  

And the bird I shared the shower with? It was a Northern Waterthrush.  Where I live in Western Colorado, a Northern Waterthrush sighting is much sought-after.  Here, in the right season, one is often underfoot anytime we walk to the beach.  Sitting on the porch, we see them scurrying about under the shrubs like mice.

Because we only visit annually, it is difficult to assess the abundance of mammals, but we have seen Squirrel Monkeys, White-faced Monkeys and Mantled Howler Monkeys from the cabin.   The latter sometimes join the occasional motorcycle as our alarm clock. 

On my last visit, near the broken-down dock, I spied a local teenage girl. She waved determinedly at me. At first, I wondered if I was being admonished for trespassing.  Instead, she pointed upwards to show me a Brown-throated Sloth.   Her name was Katia.  In return for her favor, I showed her some birds. 

When I tire of the mangroves and the beach, I drive ten minutes to adjacent rice fields. I decry recent ditching and draining that have eliminated the final vestiges of what were once large wetlands.  But, when the rice fields are being plowed and many insects are exposed, the bird life is dramatic. Black and Turkey vultures are the most visible and common, but Swainson’s and Common Black Hawks also soar over the fields.   Wood storks and a variety of other waders are present: Great, Snowy and Cattle Egrets, Great Blue, Green, and Little Blue Herons, and Bare-throated Tiger Herons. 

Although Zancudo’s bird list is not stunning, there are Costa Rican rarities.  My only sightings of Sapphire-throated Hummingbird and Veraguan Mango are here.  Other Panamanian species that might be seen include Savannah and Gray-lined Hawks, Pearl Kite and Red-breasted Meadowlark.

My only meaningful complaints are the coming changes.  Quiet locations such as this are vanishing. Since we have been coming a one-lane bridge has replaced a ferry.  Much of the road has been paved. The last 40 kilometers formerly required two hours.  Now, we complete the drive in half the time.   The owner of the last sizable forest tract has divided it into lots. None have sold–yet.  Don’t buy one!



Isn’t the title a non-sequitur?  Birders do not have bad days.  Sure, some days are better than others, but even if target birds are not found, searching for wildlife is always fun.  Nonetheless, if you asked me if there ever was a bad day, well, yes there was. 

Imagine this. You are outside. The sky is dull gray.  Above you, way up in the sky, is an enormous swimming pool. Hold that thought.  

It began when our guide and driver picked us up in the pre-dawn from our little hotel in Cuzco, Peru.  I could see our young guide, Ellie, was distressed the moment she saw me.  You are a birder, she said.  

Later she lamented, As soon as I saw those big binoculars, I knew.  Through some mix-up, her company had not provided a birding guide. I later suspected they sent her because no one else wanted the assignment.  She was a young guide, new to the company. It was just my wife Mary and I, so tips would not be what they could be with a larger group. It was early April–the off-season.  Bad weather was a possibility.

Fortunately, Ellie had an engaging personality, was good company, and was eager to please.  Our ultimate destination was famous among birders, Manu Jungle Lodge, reachable only by boat. Ellie told us she had contacted the staff that morning.  There had been a huge storm.  The lodge was damaged, but we could still come.

The Madre de Dios river was at such a high stage, however, that we had to cancel some birding and leave earlier in order to spend extra time fighting the current and avoiding obstacles in the small boat. Moreover, stopping for bird and wildlife viewing enroute was also off the agenda because of the flood.

Despite the setbacks, this was Peruvian Amazonia! We were exhilarated by the constant flyovers of macaws and the expansive view of massive thunderheads rising above the sea of green jungle.    We enjoyed waving to the riverside inhabitants.  Often, they were bouncing along in much smaller boats with their tiny motors, known as peke-pekes because of their sound. 

Madre de Dios River in Flood

Ellie explained that some were trying to scavenge the large logs floating by.  Logging itself was illegal but salvaging a downed tree might provide enough income for months.   We were feeling satisfied, even if we had already missed many birding opportunities.  Perhaps, because of fighting so much current and dodging so much flotsam; we needed a fuel stop at the only small village on this part of the river, Boca Manu. From here we would leave the Madre de Dios and head upstream on the Manu River. 

Remarkably, the proprietor of the small riverside fuel station could not be bothered to fuel the boat during his lunch break.  Or, maybe it was our boatman who conspired with him to lengthen the interval with some food and drinks before we were once again headed upriver.  There was no birding.  We waited in the village bar and marveled at the moldy pool table covered only by a thatched roof.   While the day slipped away, a pet parrot added to my consternation by perching on the back of my chair and persistently nibbling on my hat.    

Birding at Boca Manu

Although Manu National Park is truly trackless wilderness, there was a park entrance pass that was needed and a park ranger to be found.  We slowly motored upstream past our lodge to find the small, thatched roof structure that served as park headquarters.  They already had our names on a list. No money was exchanged—that was probably taken care of in Cuzco.  The only reason I could fathom for the check-in was to waste another couple of hours.  

At last, in the proverbial gathering darkness, we reached our destination.   The lodge was, perhaps, 200 meters from the river. The boat “dock” consisted of a mudbank that required scrambling up two to three meters  

Birds and wildlife were everywhere.  There must have been 100 Squirrel Monkeys overhead almost immediately.  I managed brief looks at interesting birds—a Purplish Jay and a Yellow-rumped Cacique.  I only wished there had been more daylight.  Being so near the equator, sunset passes quickly and we were soon in the dark at the lodge, but not until we reviewed the damage. 

The storm had brought down many trees. Luckily, the sleeping quarters, kitchen, and dining area were not damaged, but the separate bathroom/shower building had suffered a direct hit wiping out one-quarter of it.  An outdoor cooking area and some storage buildings were demolished.  Most of the trail system associated with the lodge was so badly-damaged, it was impassable.  The lodge workers, most of them life-long residents of the area, said it was the worst storm in anyone’s memory. They had gone out during the storm to hang on to the concrete pilings that supported the lodge, fearing a tree would crush them if they stayed inside.  

We were the only guests, which was good because rooms were small cubicles with partial walls.  Guests were not allowed outside after dark.  Both Fer-de-lance and Bushmasters, two of the world’s most dangerous snakes, were present, as were caimans.  (The Black Caiman is the most abundant native crocodilian and supposedly there was a 15-footer in the lake.)  

As for nature calls during the night, we were handed a bucket.  But there was beer and wine, and the food was good.  Ellie had apologized about her lack of knowledge of birds, but she had already proven to be a good spotter and a hard worker.  We planned a morning bird walk for 5:15AM.  I went to bed expecting a great day.

Just before dawn the rain began.  I will go birding in almost any weather. But this rain went beyond “almost.”  I asked that you imagine standing outside under a swimming pool.  Now imagine the bottom of the pool suddenly vanishes.  No wind. It was not a pounding rain.  It was a heavy, thick onslaught of water, a vertical flood.  We did not even bother to find Ellie to discuss our options. We stayed in bed. 

Near mid-day, the rain decreased, and we had some time in the forest.  The trails were gone.  Where blown-down trees did not block the way, the path was underwater.  We sloshed rather than hiked.   Birding itself consisted of Ellie spotting the bird which I would attempt to identify. This limited the number of species checked off, but they were all new to me and I had a fine time.  I remember lifting a glass of wine to my wife that evening as I perused a guidebook on Peruvian birds and saying, What could be better than this?

But that night, the roaring rain returned, and so, came THE DAY.  Anyone with tropical birding knowledge would recognize the area we were in, Manu National Park, as one of the most biodiverse locations in the world.  How could it be possible on my second day in the park to find only three species of birds new to me and identify just a handful in an entire day outside? Here’s how.

A crucial objective of our visit was to see Giant Otters, an endangered species found only on oxbow lakes in Amazonia.  Indeed, my non-birding wife was especially desirous of seeing them. This trip, for once, had a wildlife viewing objective as important to her as seeing birds were to me.

Oxbow lakes also harbor wonderful exotic birds with beautiful and intriguing names such as Hoatzin, Rufescent Tiger-Heron and Black-capped Donocobius.  We had seen these the evening before from our lodge’s small, jungle catamaran–a platform balanced between two dugout canoes.  Sadly, we did not see the resident Giant Otters.  The lodge workers speculated that the otters had moved out because the high water had breached one end of the lake.  An oxbow lake, a few hours upriver, was now considered the most likely location for viewing. 

Otters are active in the early morning, so we needed to leave just as it was light enough to see.  I remember Ellie telling us that she and the boatman had discussed whether it was safe to go, and decided it was. We should have taken that as a cue after hearing roaring rain again that night.

The trail to the dock was now under a few inches of water. I heard birds calling all about but had to ignore them to watch my feet and not be tripped by submerged roots and fallen limbs.   We had been instructed not to reach for nearby shrubs and branches for balance as we splashed along because every insect, spider, and snake would have climbed out of the water.  My stomach was churning as much as the river as we rushed our way past a tantalizing mixed flock.  I noticed that Mary was simply silent.

Later, when I asked, Mary said she had decided to be silent because if she openly acknowledged her fear; she would have insisted we return.   Her desire to see the otters was also a motivation. 

When we reached the “dock,” which you recall was a mudbank, we were shocked to see that the river had risen more than a meter. Instead of having to scramble down a 2-3 meter bank, we had to one-by-one stand on the edge of the bank and step down into the boat.  The boatman held the boat in place by gunning the engine against the current.

Mary and I stepped in.  Then came Ellie.  I can still see the crack forming in the top of the bank as she walked to the edge.  The bank collapsed.  She fell into the river. 

Fortunately, she was able to grab the side of the boat or it would have been a dangerous rescue situation.  The swift water would have quickly carried Ellie downriver with few places to reach shore.  

With the boatman’s help, Ellie dragged herself into the boat.  She threw back and wrung out her long, black hair to shake off the water and then turned on her camera.  She smiled, regaining her composure, looked over to me and said, It’s ok.  But I had noticed something else.  What about your binoculars? I asked.  She jumped up feeling all around. She had already told us that guides have to supply their own gear and that her binoculars were her biggest expense.  (Binoculars that can stand up to the tropics, typically cost much more than a “good-enough” camera.)   Now, they were gone.  There was no hope of looking for them.  Nothing to do now but head for the oxbow lake and the otters.  

Ellie sat glumly in the back of the boat, wet and cold in the early morning. I understood enough Spanish to hear her tell the boatman she would not make enough money from this trip to replace the binoculars.  

I had been eagerly looking forward to this boat ride because the boatmen are adept at spotting wildlife, especially birds, and then maneuvering the boat so clients can have easy views. Not this time. The river was in such major flood and there was so much flotsam that all attention had to be focused on navigation.  Several times there was a loud “thump” as we hit a submerged log. The wild-eyed terror in my wife’s eyes did not help.  I too could visualize hitting something big enough to overturn the boat or break the propeller.  The going was slow, but eventually, to our relief, we reached the “short” trail to the oxbow lake. The boatman, after tying off the boat, motioned for us to stay seated. He went off for a few minutes and returned to tell us that parts of the trail were three to four feet underwater.  

The boatman and Ellie conferred.  We understood later they debated whether to return to the lodge or to try another trail.  We wished we had been able to vote to return, but we were not asked.  

More bumping upstream in the boat found us at a different trail, which we now learned was known as the “long” trail.  This trail had only a foot or two of water. We had to move with great care to avoid falling and because of the extra effort of lifting water-laden boots over the many obstacles.  Not wanting to soak my binoculars and camera, I had been anxious on the boat.  That anxiety was now replaced by desperation at the bird shapes I detected with my peripheral vision and the sounds I could not even acknowledge as we slogged and splashed.   I realized we were probably too late in the day if the otters followed their normal behavior pattern. At least, I thought, the birding will be sensational.

Our conveyance at the lake, just as at our lodge, was a platform balanced by a dugout canoe on each side.  Both dugouts, however, were overflowing with water. 

Imagine my frustration.  It was now almost noon.  The best time for birding was over.  I was thinking, If we had stayed at the lodge, I would have seen 50 species by now.  I had only seen a couple on the perilous boat ride. 

The boatman handed me a half-broken old milk jug for bailing.  It promptly shattered.  I was desperate to get into the lake to see some birds!  Wasn’t that why we had come? The boatman looked at my as if I was crazy as I bailed frantically with my bare hands. He and Ellie calmly splashed water from the other side with the small paddles. Finally, the boat floated, after a fashion.  It was clumsy and slow anyway—more so now because it was so waterlogged.  

Slowly, we turned the boat around and with the boatman in one of the dugouts and Ellie paddling in the other, we headed into the lake.  Almost immediately, Ellie began to describe a bird we had not seen. Where? I said. There! she said, as she jumped up and pointed, just as she had pointed out wildlife last night on the lake at our lodge. Except, our lodge’s catamaran lacked the 2×4 frame over the dugouts– the one into which she had just rammed her head. 

Now Ellie lay, crumpled on the platform. We tried to help her up. We tried to commiserate.  She just kept her head down, covered by her arm, waving her other hand to tell us to stay away.  The night before she had described her guide training, and how she was a recent graduate.  Now I was thinking, she’s been taught, you must never cry in front of clients.  After several minutes and several futile tries to help her, all of which elicited her waving response, she sat up, blinking back tears. She pointed the boatman onward. I said, I’ll paddle. She only nodded and sat forlornly on the platform.

You guessed the rest.  We paddled all about the lake. I could not paddle and look for birds at the same time, and although a few flew by, no one was in any mood other than to see the damn otters and get out of here.  But there were no otters to be seen.  We were too late in the day. Hot and sweaty, we returned to the trail and trudged back to the boat.

Ellie revived and pointed out a few plants, but mostly all we wanted was for the perilous boat ride to be over.  Our return was enlivened by the loss of the so-called dock, and the river having risen another meter. The boatman had to run the boat up near the edge, and with the motor revved, he could hold it in place for a few seconds.  One passenger would jump into the arms of one of the waiting workmen. Then another circuit was made, and then a third until we were all out. The boatman waved good-bye and motored off.  Slogging back to the lodge in the near darkness, I was taunted, maybe haunted, by the cries of unfamiliar birds whose silhouettes I could barely make out against the darkening sky. 

Fortunately, this “bad” day was part of a much longer trip which encompassed many wonderful experiences.  We had spent two days at Manu Cloud Forest Lodge where we watched eight Cock-of-the-Rocks displaying simultaneously.  That sight was worth the entire trip.   And, even on the bad day, here is what I wrote in my journal about the last minutes of sunlight: Back at the lodge, I walked out and sat on the dock. As the sun set, a capped heron flew by in the golden light with its plumes seemingly on fire. A small leafless bush emerging from the flooded lake had a white-winged swallow on every branch. A social flycatcher screamed—there was a faint rainbow to be seen in the gathering mist—maybe this hadn’t been what we wanted, but it was quite a memorable day.  


Unfortunately, our adventure was not over.  Typically, egress from Manu Lodge is via a 4hr boat ride followed by a 4 hr drive ending up in Puerto Maldonado from where we would fly to Lima and home.  The rains, however, had flooded some roads such that we had to go by boat for more than 200 miles and ten hours.  Because of the trip’s length, we had to leave at first light.  There was so much water, the lodge workers used a dugout to ferry our luggage to where the small riverboat would pick us up. We had to wade in the dark through water up to our waists in some places—again, being careful not to touch any surrounding branches.  Fortunately, no one fell.

Wading to the Boat Dock

Having to do the long boat ride, was more bad luck because the ordinary route to Puerto Maldonado offered some birding. We were warned that this river trip was going to be a mad dash with no wildlife or other stops because of the distance and the need to avoid hitting flotsam. Moreover, as we were to learn, with the river in flood, there were no banks to approach.  At mid-day, when a bath room stop was becoming critical, there were no safe places to land because the river was out of its banks.  All of us were “up to our eyeballs” by the time we could make a landing.

Our destination was within the Laberinto district, Tambopata Province. Reviewing the map today, I believe it was at the small town of Fortuna—a very rough looking place.  This was the supply center and access point for an illegal gold mining boom. All the nasty elements associated with a “gold rush” were evident. The river had been full of dredges blowing river sand all over. None of these activities are legal. They are destroying the river and the jungle. The surrounding countryside was devastated.

The village was full of rough looking people including obvious prostitutes.  Although it wasn’t apparent what might have changed, Ellie told us it would not have been safe for us to be in that village even a couple of years earlier. She related having seen boatloads of prostitutes being taken to the dredging camps when she had embarked from here as part of her guide training a few years previous.  

A couple of unkempt men walked to about 3 meters from us and stood and stared–one for at least 15 minutes.  Was he deciding whether to rob us or was he lamenting the loss of the previous lawlessness when he would not have had to decide? It was unnerving.  

Ellie said we should not wander about. I did enter a store to buy soft drinks and had to endure boring stares of the others inside.  Outside, there were numerous men with bicycle taxis waiting for fares that never came.  There was a long line of “peke-peke’s” at the dock, run-down, cobbled together buildings, and stray dogs.  The place was sad both in terms of what is happening to the environment and that any humans should have to live like this.  

It also struck me how we gringos are so at the mercy of our hired help in such situations.  We had Ellie, a diminutive young woman and our boatman who, at least, was a native of the area.  He mostly spoke his native language, knowing only rudimentary Spanish and no English at all. He left to find us a ride to Puerto Maldonado as we sat feeling very conspicuous.  

Finally, after what seemed a long time with no sign of our boatman, he returned and indicated a car would be coming.   We were relieved until we saw the car.  I do not recall now, the make and year, but it was something like an early 1960s Ford Falcon—ancient, small, beat-up and rusty.  We piled in.

Ellie told us the drive would be about two hours.  The dirt road was in reasonable condition considering the recent rain but I mouthed the word “lunatic” to Mary, referring to the driver, as we bounced along much too fast for the conditions.  We kept a hand up to keep our heads from being bashed against the roof as we bounced mostly through jungle scrub.  I continued to be chagrined as unfamiliar birds flew up from the roadside bushes or passed overhead. And then, abruptly, after one particularly jarring jolt, the car stopped.

The sun was now at the horizon. It would be dark soon.  When discussing the incident later, Mary and I had the same thought, this is where we get assaulted.  The car had stopped inexplicably. We were, in our minds, in the middle of nowhere. We had seen no other vehicles.  We had no defense. There were no cellphones here.  We looked around to see where the driver’s accomplices might be hiding.

The driver mumbled and gestured.  He raised the hood, pulled wires off, and replaced them.  Then he slammed the hood and attempted to start the car.  The starter was grinding away, but the engine was apparently not getting any gas.  I am no mechanic, but there seemed to be no reason or plan for what the driver did under the hood.  The fact that there had not been any obvious repair had made me suspicious.

Was he waiting for someone? Or, if this is innocent, are we going to spend the night out here?

 It was as if he thought banging on various engine parts would cause the engine to have a change of heart and start.   Miraculously, after at least 20 minutes and several more excursions under the hood, the car, as inexplicably as it died, suddenly started.  Later, in our hotel room in Puerto Maldonado, we breathed a great sigh of relief. I hope to go back to Manu someday, but in the dry season!


¡Anonnas, Zapotes, Maracuyas, Carambolas, Guanabanas!  Estaban en una mesa en la pequeña sala de estar, un regalo de bienvenida de Don Tino.  Más tarde, Raquel nos dijo que su padre había estado en una reunión recaudando dinero para una sinfonía.  Antes de llegar a casa, se había desviado al mercado para comprar frutas tropicales que sospechaba que nunca habíamos probado.  Eso fue en abril de 1989, nuestra primera visita a Costa Rica.  

Mi esposa, mis hijos y yo habíamos estado en el país menos de dos horas.  Una hora antes, cuando salíamos de Inmigración, nos preguntamos.  ¿Alguien se reunieron con nosotros?  ¿Se entendieron los arreglos?  Todo lo que teníamos que seguir era una conversación telefónica incómoda.  Incluso ahora que nuestro español es mucho mejor, las llamadas telefónicas, debido a la falta de comunicación no verbal, siguen siendo difíciles.  Raquel, esperando con su hermano Alfredo y su hermana Margarita, su marido y sus tres hijos, nos dijo que también se había preguntado si llegaríamos.

Conocimos a Raquel en septiembre de 1988.  Raquel era una Profesora y Asesora de Estudios Sociales del Ministerio de Educación Pública de Costa Rica.  Ella era parte del grupo de 20 Directoras lideres de Escuelas Publicas de Costa Rica, becadas por la Agencia Internacional para el Desarrollo (AID) de los Estados Unidos de América.  Teníamos interés en Costa Rica.  Había leído que era seguro visitarlo y tenía vistas maravillosas, incluyendo aves maravillosas.  Reconociendo esto como una oportunidad para aprender más sobre el país, nos ofrecimos como voluntarios para ser una familia anfitriona y proporcionar algunas comidas y una habitación.  A menudo hemos dicho que ser asignada a Raquel de ese gran grupo de damas fue la forma en que ganamos la lotería.

Estábamos sentados tranquilamente en nuestro porche una noche.  Hasta ahora, la visita de Raquel había consistido en comidas educadas con breves pero inútiles intentos de comunicación autoconscientes.  Me volví hacia Raquel y le dije ¿Cerveza?  Oh Sí, dijo con una gran sonrisa.  Compartir esa cerveza provocó risas mientras nos relajábamos y aprendíamos lo bien que se podía lograr la comprensión mutua con una combinación de “Spanglish” y gestos con las manos.  Nos enamoramos de la calidez desinhibida de Raquel y de la aceptación inmediata de todos.  Décadas más tarde, miramos hacia atrás a los amigos y familiares que hemos traído con nosotros a Costa Rica.  Siempre les aconsejamos que deben estar preparados para conocer a su nuevo mejor amigo.  Así es como siempre va.   

Una de esas tardes mientras charlaba en el porche, Raquel, soltera en ese momento, describió a su gran familia y a las sobrinas y sobrinos que tenían las mismas edades que nuestros hijos Ann y Adam.  Ella nos animó a visitarnos e insistió en que traemos a nuestros hijos.  Esa fue la génesis de nuestra primera velada costarricense y la mesa de frutas extrañas.

El padre de Raquel, Constantino Bolaños Valerio, o Don Tino nos recibió amablemente cuando llegamos a su casa.  La mayoría de la familia inmediata estaba presente, al igual que dos de las mejores amigas de Raquel, Saida e Hilda, dos maravillosas damas cuya compañía hemos disfrutado muchas veces desde entonces.  

De hecho, como Raquel generosamente nos mostró su país, conocimos más amigos y generalmente estábamos acompañados por uno o más de los hermanos de Raquel y sus hijos, así como por su madre, la encantadora Doña Corina.  Corina fue muy divertida, siempre exhibiendo una sonrisa expansiva, una risa exuberante y abrazos para todos.  Don Tino era reservado, pero cuando entraba en una habitación, siempre era una presencia.  Todos eran deferente para el patriarca.  

¡Corina abrazando a Adam con Don Tino mirando! 

Esa primera noche descendió al caos.  Además de nuestros dos hijos, Ann y Adam, había seis más de diez años o menos (Mario Federico, Marco, Ana Sofía, Mauricio, Natalia, Patricia).  Recuerdo a una niña pequeña que se acercó a mí durante el bedlam de esa primera noche y con fuerza y conspicuamente haciendo sonidos de galimatías en mi cara.  Era su forma de expresar cómo le sonaban las palabras que salían de nuestras bocas.  (Cuatro años más tarde, cuando la visitamos, nos saludó con “Hi, How are you?”  Raquel nos dijo antes de esa visita, que la niña, ahora de siete años, había preguntado cuantas palabras ella necesitaba hablar con nosotros.  Esta joven es ahora abogada, y de acuerdo con sus hermanos y primos, habla un inglés excelente).  De los trece adultos, solo dos, el hermano de Raquel, Alfredo, y su esposa Viviana, hablaban ambos idiomas.

Sin embargo, hubo una cantidad significativa de cerveza que redujo las inhibiciones lo suficiente como para facilitar los intentos frecuentes de comunicación, muchos de los cuales resultaron en un ciclo de retroalimentación de más intentos y risas más fuertes.  Esa noche creó un sentido indeleble de solidaridad intercultural.  Después, Mary y yo nos maravillamos de nuestra buena fortuna.

Cuando hizo ruido, Don Tino se retiró a su habitación.  No lo vimos hasta la mañana siguiente.  Nos despertamos y lo encontramos haciendo tortillas.  Fueron devorados tan codiciosamente por Ann y Adam, que hubo que hacer extras.  Don Tino estaba tan contento, las lágrimas brotaban en sus ojos.  Se acercó a mí y me dijo en un inglés con mucho acento: I am sorry.  I do not speak English.  I wish I could converse with you.  ¡Qué sentimiento tan extraordinario!  Éramos los extraños que llegamos a su país e invadimos su casa sin saber el idioma.  Traté de decirle lo agradecidos que estábamos por su generosidad.  Mi español era terrible, esperaba que supiera lo que intentaba decir.

Además de las tortillas de esa primera mañana, Don Tino disfrutó haciendo una variedad de dulces tradicionales.  Recuerdo pomelo confitado o azucarado y una mezcla de coco con leche y azúcar.  Raquel se divirtió diciendo que por lo general no cocinaba nada, pero le dimos una excusa para que también pudiera comer ‘las dulces‘.

Mary y mis antecedentes familiares estaban reservados.  En mi familia inmediata, la compañía era rara.  No recuerdo una sola vez que un visitante pasara la noche.  En consecuencia, nos preocupaba ser una imposición y habíamos planeado salir a la mañana siguiente para visitar la Reserva del Bosque Nuboso de Monteverde.  Fue una aventura tanto alquilar el vehículo como navegar por el campo.  Raquel nos llevó a la carretera para evitar que nos perdiéramos.  

No en vano, siendo esto antes de Google Maps y Waze, cuando volvimos a Heredia, nos confundimos en el laberinto de calles.  En ese momento, los ticos (como los costarricenses se refieren a sí mismos) se burlaban de la idea de direcciones, números de casas y rutas de carreteras.  Todas las direcciones se basaron en puntos de referencia.  Afortunadamente, pudimos explicarnos a alguien en una gasolinera y él marcó el número de Raquel y nos explicó dónde estábamos.  Raquel apareció con un carro llena de gente.  Todavía puedo ver el vehículo lleno con todos riendo.  Encontraron nuestra difícil situación hilarante.  Los seguimos de regreso a la casa a otra fiesta, esta vez con una comida de ceviche y Olla de Carne.  Este último es una sabrosa sopa o guiso con trozos de carne y una variedad de verduras que incluyen yuca y maíz en la mazorca.  Reconocimos que estábamos siendo honrados con una comida tradicional navideña cuando escuchamos a los demás en broma deseándose Feliz Navidad y Feliz Año Nuevo.  

Al día siguiente fue el cumpleaños de Mary.  La hermana menor de Raquel, Marta, había conspirado con nuestra hija, Ann, para hacer un pastel.  Luego, la mayoría de nosotros fuimos a El Castillo, un club con piscina, pista de patinaje y hermosos jardines.  Había bailarines folclóricos y una comida tradicional.  Raquel había avisado al maestro de ceremonias y toda la multitud le cantó a Mary.   Más tarde, en la casa, descubrimos que Eduardo, el hermano menor muy querido de Raquel, que tiene síndrome de Down, había lamido el glaseado del pastel.  Apropiadamente, nadie dijo una palabra y el pastel fue cortado en rodajas y comido como si nada hubiera pasado.  Qué inolvidable 40 cumpleaños para María.

Además, inolvidable fue nuestra salida.  Raquel no pudo llevarnos al aeropuerto por un conflicto laboral así que fuimos con Margarita, su marido Mario, su hijo Marco y Corina.  Cuando salimos del auto y caminamos hacia la puerta, vimos que estaban llorando.  Tal vez, pensaron que nunca nos volverían a ver. ¡Poco sabían!

Me siento tímido al admitir que, ahora más de 30 años después, nos hemos quedado con ellos en al menos 30 ocasiones diferentes.  Nuestra aceptación fue tan completa, sin embargo, que Raquel dijo que nos conocieron como “Los Nics” para ser consistentes con las otras familias, “Los Chavas” (para los Chavarrías), “Los Freers” y así sucesivamente.

De hecho, la segunda vez que llegamos, de nuevo con inquietud por lo bien que nos habíamos comunicado, nos encontramos con diecisiete personas que nos bañaron con confeti.  Nos sentimos como estrellas de rock.  De vuelta en su casa, un grupo aún más grande estaba esperando, esta vez aumentado por la hermana de Raquel, Eugenia, su esposo y sus cuatro hijos.  Una vez más, ¡fue una fiesta!

Como antes, Don Tino supervisó nuestra muestra de alimentos auténticos.  Una mañana, él y Corina se levantaron temprano preparándonos un desayuno campesino tradicional que incluía agua dulce, una bebida caliente hecha de caña de azúcar porque los campesinos no podían pagar el café.

En esta visita, pasamos más tiempo en la ciudad.  Tengo un recuerdo particular de una tarde lluviosa después de un día lluvioso.  El padre de Raquel y yo estábamos parados en la entrada de la casa.  Don Tino inició una conversación sobre la lluvia (Lluvia, Lluvia).  Nuestra conversación, debido a las dificultades del idioma, no fue muy profunda, pero fue larga.  Le dije a Raquel lo mucho que lo disfruté.  Ella respondió que su padre también lo hizo y que hablaba despacio y no le importaba hacerlo.  

Nuestros viajes siempre incluyeron un tiempo considerable disfrutando de la selva tropical, aprendiendo sobre la vida silvestre y buscando aves.  Para evitar el tráfico, generalmente salimos de la ciudad antes de las 6 de la mañana.  Me maravillé de lo ocupado que estaba todo.  Gente que va a trabajar o que ya está trabajando.  Vendedores ambulantes instalando sus productos.  Gente caminando por todas partes.    

En ese viaje, sin embargo, Raquel nos presentó otro aspecto de la “vida silvestre” de Costa Rica.  Nuestros hijos habían sido invitados a pasar la noche con una de las otras familias.  Raquel había sugerido previamente que fuéramos a la discoteca.  ¡Esta vez no teníamos excusa!  Tuvimos una noche sensacional seguida de una mañana temprano, yendo a varios clubes nocturnos.  ¡La última parada fue en la “Ciudad de Noche”, un centro comercial de clubes nocturnos que cerró a las 5 de la mañana!  Era una noche de semana, pero estaba lleno.   Un área tenía varias bandas de mariachis.  Las canciones eran familiares para la multitud porque muchos cantaban.  Recuerdo a un hombre, solo, cerveza en una mano, pero los brazos separados cantando apasionadamente.  No había gringos a la vista.  Qué experiencia tan increíble.   Raquel podría haber tenido poder de permanencia para el cierre de las 5 de la mañana, pero no nosotros.  Llegamos a su casa como a las 4.  Sin niños, pudimos dormir hasta las 10.  Después de ver el ajetreo de las calles temprano en la mañana y luego experimentar cuántas personas estaban en los clubes nocturnos tan tarde, nos preguntamos El Costarricense duerme:  ?El Costarricense duerme?

Un día más tarde, nos embarcamos en Rara Avis, nuestra primera visita y el escenario de gran parte de mi libro, TEN JUNGLE DAYS.   Aunque nos encantó allí, nos perdimos la diversión que estábamos teniendo en la ciudad y acortamos el viaje en un día para poder regresar temprano, algo que hicimos más de una vez.  ¡Fue demasiado divertido!  Esta vez, fue Viernes Santo.  Nos esperaba un plato de palmito, con arroz y pollo, una comida tradicional para la temporada.   

Los padres de Raquel estaban ocupados decorando un pequeño brillo en su calle en preparación para una procesión, una de las ocho en Heredia, nos informó Raquel.  El santuario, que representa una de las “estaciones de la cruz”, fue bendecido por el párroco cuando pasó en procesión.  Raquel se divirtió porque este sacerdote era “muy gordo” e incapaz de caminar muy lejos.  Estaba bendiciendo solemnemente los santuarios mientras viajaba en una limusina abierta. 

Luego caminamos hasta la iglesia cercana, construida en 1797.  Aquí, una multitud se había reunido alrededor de títeres de María de 2 metros de altura y los apóstoles Pedro y Juan.  Hubo oraciones y cantos.  Luego, los títeres abandonaron el área para “buscar a Jesús”.  

Al día siguiente, nos encontramos con una procesión muy solemne.  En el frente había clérigos, una cruz, estandartes y un gran grupo de tamborileros.  Los tambores rítmicos y repetitivos reforzaron el estado de ánimo sombrío.  Detrás del clero, los estandartes y los tamborileros, había un gran grupo de penitentes turnándose para llevar una pesada estatua de la Virgen María.   Raquel explicó que participar en la procesión y, sobre todo llevar la estatua, se hizo para pedir la intercesión de María con su hijo para que se contestaran las oraciones.  Fue desgarrador ver a mujeres ancianas que tenían dificultades para caminar pidiendo turnos e intentando cargar la pesada estatua.  La expresión de la fe fue impresionante.  

La última noche del viaje, me sentí honrado cuando Don Tino caminó desde su habitación hacia la gran reunión, y lentamente me preguntó: ¿Beberás whisky?  Con usted?  Le respondí, ¡Claro!  Raquel me dijo más tarde que este era un ritual de aceptación para los pretendientes de sus hijas.  Me sentí halagado.   Hizo un gesto a la gran reunión y dijo que alquilarían un avión, y todos vendrían a visitarnos.  Luego, con Alfredo traduciendo, dijo que nuestra visita no era para Raquel, sino que era especial para todos ellos.  Una vez más, nos quedamos impresionados por nuestra buena fortuna de haber sido abrazados por esta familia.

Un terremoto significativo ocurrió unos días más tarde.  No solo murieron casi cincuenta personas, sino que un restaurante al que habíamos ido con Raquel en la ciudad costera atlántica de Limón había sido arrasado.  He relatado que las conversaciones telefónicas eran una aventura en aquellos días, pero nos preocupamos por nuestros amigos.   Llamamos y solo don Tino estaba en casa.  Fueron necesarios unos momentos antes de que nos reconociéramos.  Mi casa, dijo, ¡bien!  Nos dimos cuenta de que estaba satisfecho con nuestra preocupación.  

Debo dejar de mencionar que nos sorprendió en nuestra siguiente visita al notar que muchos edificios gubernamentales en Heredia habían sufrido daños severos, pero poco más.  La antigua iglesia del barrio de Raquel, perdió uno de sus numerales de su fecha de construcción de 1797 pero por lo demás salió ilesa, le preguntamos a Raquel al respecto, y ella se rió, solo los edificios construidos por ‘Low-Bid’ se cayeron.

Este tercer viaje, en 1993, siguió lo que se convirtió en un patrón familiar, llegada y una fiesta, unos días en Rara Avis, luego de regreso a la ciudad para más visitas familiares y fiestas.  A veces teníamos solo una semana con fines de semana contiguos, a veces dos semanas.  

De vuelta en la ciudad, Marta había preparado una cena a la luz de las velas porque habíamos mencionado que era nuestro aniversario.  Gente tan reflexiva.  Aprendimos a tener cuidado con nuestras palabras porque nuestros amigos harían cualquier cosa para complacernos.  Una vez, admiré una hermosa placa pintada nueva en la pared de la casa de Raquel.  Ninguna cantidad de protestas podría superar su deseo de que lo tuviéramos.  Ahora cuelga maravillosamente en nuestra casa.  

Luego fue un picnic en un terreno propiedad del hermano de Raquel, Tino, el homónimo de su padre.  Varios recuerdos persisten de ese día y del siguiente. Mary y yo admitimos que éramos padres “tensos”, criados de esa manera y por temperamento.  Los niños iniciaron un incendio y corrían con palos ardiendo.  Fueron observados, pero nadie dijo nada.  Mary y yo nos miramos, preguntándonos por qué nadie intervino.  Estábamos convencidos de que algo terrible sucedería.  Nada lo hizo.   

Más tarde, los niños fueron llevados a un parque de diversiones.  Cabalgamos junto con Margarita y Mario para recuperarlos.  En el camino, se perdieron.  Muchas parejas discuten y se culpan mutuamente en tales circunstancias.  A Mary y a mí nos va bien, pensamos, pero aún así nos volvemos testarudos y tensos.  En cambio, Margarita y Mario pensaron que era una gran broma y se rieron como un par de adolescentes.  Cuánto había que aprender de nuestra “Familia Tica”.

Al día siguiente, almorzamos con la hermana de Raquel, Eugenia, y su familia: su esposo Eduardo y sus cuatro hijos.  Me sorprendió.  Tenían un aro de baloncesto.  Me encanta el baloncesto.  Recibí premios por jugar en mi pequeña escuela secundaria y jugué intramuros en la universidad y en la liga de la ciudad en Grand Junction.  Adam y yo jugamos bastante en nuestro patio trasero.   “Futbal” es el deporte nacional de Costa Rica.  ¿Por qué había un aro de baloncesto en los Chavarrías?  Pronto me enteré de que el esposo de Eugenia, Eduardo, había estado en el equipo nacional.  Noté una sonrisa irónica cuando me vio disparar un par de veces y me di cuenta de que podía jugar.  Luego, a pesar de que ahora era fumador y tenía un poco de sobrepeso, se quedó allí y se hundió disparo tras disparo.  Escribí en mi diario que solo se perdió dos de los 30, un nivel de precisión con el que solo podía soñar.

Al día siguiente, estábamos de vuelta en su casa.  No recuerdo los detalles, pero Raquel, Mary, Corina y Eugenia estaban dentro charlando y cocinando.  Todos los demás se habían ido, excepto yo y el hermano menor de Raquel, Eduardo, el que tenía síndrome de Down.  Recogió la pelota de baloncesto y disparó.  Me recuperé.  Volvió a disparar.  Me recuperé.  Pronto estaba pensando, en todas las cosas que podría estar haciendo.  Debería estar escribiendo en mi diario.  Debería estar limpiando las fotos de mi cámara.  ¿Cómo puedo salir de esto?, pensé.  Él disparó y yo reboté.  Mi amigo Nic, dijo Eduardo mientras hacía una canasta, bombeó el puño y gritó feliz.  Pasó demasiado tiempo antes de que me diera cuenta.  No hay nada mejor que hacer para mí.  Esto es exactamente lo que debería estar haciendo.  Eduardo siguió disparando y yo seguí repuntando.  Pasaron dos horas pacíficas antes de que nos interrumpieron.  Tuve una tarde maravillosa.

Esa noche, nuestra última del viaje, el padre de Raquel me regaló una maquinilla de afeitar.  Parecía avergonzado por el acto, pero lo aprecié mucho.  Entendí que quería darme algo, pero no quería agregar a nuestra colección de camisetas y recuerdos.  Disfruté hablando con él y aprecié su cuidadosa anunciación y el ritmo lento de sus palabras.  Entonces las madres y los niños vinieron a despedirse rápidamente y tuvieron pequeños regalos para Ann y Adam.  Cuando todos se fueron, Adán estaba sollozando porque teníamos que irnos por la mañana.  Marta entró en su habitación y salió con otro regalo, una pipa de pastor, para él.

En 1995, Raquel se había casado, dando ahora a la familia inmediata un tercer “Mario”.  Debido a que ella y su nuevo esposo vivían en un pequeño apartamento, nos quedamos con su hermano Alfredo, su esposa Viviana y sus dos hijos, Patricia y Carolina.  Inclinarse por sus vidas, su investigación agrícola y su tiempo en los Estados Unidos fue fascinante.  Viviana, oriunda de Argentina, nos introdujo en el mate y la tradicional bombilla de acero inoxidable para beberlo.  

Cuando vimos a Don Tino en ese viaje, tristemente, dijo Estoy enfermo, aunque sus hijos se apresuraron a decirnos que, aunque sus quejas eran considerables, todavía iba a su “club” en San José todos los días.

Raquel nos había mostrado el “club”, ¡My father love! dijo.  Era un edificio elegante.  Si bien nunca estuvimos seguros de su título de trabajo, Don Tino se había retirado de una posición de importancia sustancial dentro del gobierno.   Raquel tiene una foto de él y Corina yendo a un evento formal.  Tino es majestuoso, de pie sobre Corina, en unos escalones, con corbata negra ligeramente torcida.  Podíamos imaginar lo que estaba sucediendo dentro de ese club: los ahora retirados ex líderes del país tomando café y resolviendo los problemas de Costa Rica y del mundo.

Como de costumbre, habíamos alquilado un coche y visitado algunas reservas forestales.  De vuelta en la ciudad, planeamos una excursión de un día a un resort de playa favorecido por la familia, Punta Leona.  Dos de los “primos” fueron con nosotros, los hermanos Daniel y Eduardo.  Raquel se sorprendió de que pudieran ir, diciendo que su hermana, Eugenia, era muy protectora.  Ella nos dijo que era otro ejemplo de cómo éramos parte de la familia.  Por supuesto, la propia Raquel nos hizo prometer que no dejaríamos que los chicos entraran en el agua más allá de las rodillas.  ¡Derecha!  ¿Cuatro adolescentes?  Me hubiera gustado verla tratar de lograr ese tipo de control.  

Nuestra siguiente visita, tres años después, en 1998, no comenzó bien.  Nuestra hija Ann ya estaba en Costa Rica participando en un curso intensivo de español.  En ese momento pensamos que la razón por la que nadie nos recibió en el aeropuerto, todos estaban en una fiesta familiar, incluida Ann, fue mi culpa.  De todos modos, las fechas se habían confundido. Mary y yo soportamos las súplicas de numerosos taxistas y agentes de viajes en la vana convicción de que alguien llegaría.  Finalmente, tomamos el último viaje desde el aeropuerto esa noche y fuimos al Hampton Inn.

Todavía estábamos confundidos sobre los apellidos españoles y cómo deletrearlos.  Raquel y Mario se habían mudado recientemente a su nuevo hogar.  No teníamos ni idea de cuál era su apellido.   Fuimos a un teléfono público, examinamos una guía telefónica y llamamos a varios nombres que pensamos que eran correctos.  Sin respuestas.  Recuerdo que Mary dejó un mensaje diciendo: No sabemos si esto es correcto o no, pero si conoces a Nic y Mary de Colorado, llámanos al Hampton Inn.  Pronto el teléfono comenzó a sonar.  El más humorístico fue del hermano de Raquel, Tino.  Él y su esposa Gisela no entendieron la llamada y estaban a punto de borrarla cuando sus hijos, que ya sabían mucho inglés, comenzaron a insistir, ¡Estan aquí!   Tino finalmente se convenció y nos llamó, al igual que Raquel, Ann y Alfredo.  Este último a menudo se alistó debido a su excelente inglés.  Raquel a veces tenía miedo de que algo se perdiera, así que nos hacía hablar con Alfredo solo para estar segura.  

A la mañana siguiente era domingo y caminamos hasta la plaza central de Heredia, donde había un concierto semanal de la banda.  La plaza siempre estuvo abarrotada de familias.  Varias generaciones asistieron con frecuencia.   Nunca olvidaré la canción que más aplausos trajo: fue introducida como swit yarja brown.  La pronunciación de “Sweet Georgia Brown” fue humorística para mí, pero enfatizó lo mal que sonaba mi español para mis amigos.  A día de hoy, el Mario de Raquel suele tener una expresión de intenso dolor cuando intenta descifrar mi discurso.  

Experimentamos muchos incidentes memorables en este viaje.  Habíamos ido al Parque Nacional Tortuguero y, nuevamente, tuvimos experiencias maravillosas viendo la vida silvestre en la pequeña isla en la que nos alojábamos, así como en viajes en bote por los canales.  Habíamos volado allí, pero arreglamos para que nos entregaran un coche de alquiler en un cierto muelle al norte de Limón, al que nos entregaron en barco.  No había muelle, solo un montón de tierra.  El auto fue entregado sin ningún papeleo por un hombre que no hablaba inglés.  Su autobús se iba, así que prácticamente huyó de nosotros.  Bueno, teníamos las llaves y el coche, así que no hubo problema.

El área estaba en medio de plátanos y plátanos y más plátanos y mientras conducíamos, pronto vimos a la gente mirándonos extrañamente y a los niños riendo.  Estábamos perdidos de nuevo.  Llegamos a una pequeña tienda y enviamos a Ann adentro para obtener instrucciones.  Adam la acompañó.  Cuando salieron, se estaban disparando el uno al otro.  Adam insistía en que los hombres que daban las instrucciones se reían del mal español de Ann.  Ella, que había estado estudiando intensamente y viviendo solo con hispanohablantes, estaba indignada.  

Pronto supimos la razón de la alegría de los hombres.  Siguiendo las indicaciones nos llevó a un puente que nos habría conectado con la carretera principal si no se hubiera derrumbado en aquel terremoto tres años antes.  Ese incidente sigue siendo la única vez que alguien a quien hemos pedido ayuda no cumplió.   

Ese viaje terminó con otra barbacoa familiar.  Toda la familia estuvo allí al menos parte del tiempo.  Lo notable fue que vino don Tino.  Raquel dijo que no había estado fuera de la casa durante meses.  Ella dijo que la razón por la que vino fue para vernos.  

Necesitaba mucha ayuda para subir y bajar del auto e incluso ir al baño, triste para un hombre con un porte tan distinguido.  Me dio una gran sonrisa de saludo.  Nos sentamos y hablamos lo mejor que pudimos durante mucho tiempo.  

Esta vez no hubo escapatoria una vez que la fiesta se volvió bulliciosa.  Todos los adultos estaban hablando, comiendo e interactuando con los quince niños de las familias combinadas.  Don Tino pidió que se moviera su silla para poder sentarse en medio de los niños, un gesto que todos notamos.  Tal vez, fue profético.  Murió diez días después.  

Barbacoa de 1998, faltando solo un par de miembros de la familia, puede ser la última foto de Senior Bolanos (en el medio).

Mary, Adam y yo habíamos regresado a los Estados Unidos, pero Ann todavía estaba allí y estaba incluida en las actividades familiares.  Nos complació poder tener un representante de nuestra familia presente.  Ann se sintió notoria cuando la gente asintieron con la cabeza hacia ella preguntando quién es ese.  Conoció a muchas personas, incluidos dos ex presidentes de la república.   

Ann describió el funeral como espectacular.  Había flores por todas partes, en toda la casa, donde ocurrían las visitas, y en la gran iglesia.  El ataúd, adornado con flores, fue llevado de la casa a la iglesia en una procesión.  La música y el canto eran hermosos y había un ambiente de celebración.  Después, hubo una procesión al estilo de Nueva Orleans al cementerio, dirigida por música, un coro y las flores.  Luego se celebraron nueve días de misas en honor a Don Tino y a los que asistió toda la familia.  Fue un final apropiado para un hombre amable que generosamente aceptó extranjeros en su hogar, los hizo sentir bienvenidos en su país y dejó una familia tan buena como su legado.  


Anonnas, Zapotes, Maracuyas, Carambolas, Guanabanas!  They were on a table in the small living room—a welcoming gift from Don Tino.  Later, Raquel told us her father had been at a meeting raising money for a symphony.  Before coming home, he had detoured to the market to purchase tropical fruits he suspected we had never tasted.  That was April 1989, our first visit to Costa Rica.  

My wife, children, and I had been in the country less than two hours.  An hour previously, as we were exiting Immigration, we wondered.  Would someone meet us?  Were the arrangements understood?  All we had to go on was an awkward phone conversation.  Even now that our Spanish is far better, phone calls, because of the lack of non-verbal communication, remain difficult.  Raquel, waiting with her brother Alfredo and sister Margarita, her husband and three children, told us she also had wondered if we would arrive.  

We met Raquel in September 1988.  She was leader of a group of teachers who visited Grand Junction by means of a grant from USAID (US Agency for International Development).  We had interest in Costa Rica.  I had read it was safe to visit and had marvelous sights including wonderful birds.  Recognizing this as an opportunity to learn more about the country, we volunteered to be a host family and provide some meals and a room.  We have often said being assigned Raquel from that large group of ladies was how we won the lottery

We were sitting quietly on our porch one evening.  Thus far, Raquel’s visit had consisted of polite meals with brief but futile self-conscious attempts at communication.  I turned to Raquel and said Cerveza?  Oh Si, she said with a big smile.  Sharing that beer led to laughter as we relaxed and learned how well mutual understanding could be accomplished with a combination of “Spanglish” and hand gestures.  We fell in love with Raquel’s uninhibited warmth and immediate acceptance of everyone.  Decades later, we look back at the friends and relatives we have brought with us to Costa Rica.  We always advised them to expect to meet their new best friend.  That’s how it always goes.  

One of those evenings while chatting on the porch, Raquel, unmarried at the time, described her large family and the nieces and nephews who were the same ages as our children Ann and Adam.  She encouraged us to visit and insisted we bring our children.  That was the genesis of our first Costa Rican evening and the table of strange fruits.

Raquel’s father, Constantino Bolaños Valerio, or Don Tino welcomed us graciously when we arrived at his home.  Most of the immediate family were present as were two of Raquel’s best friends, Saida and Hilda—two wonderful ladies whose company we have enjoyed many times since.  

Indeed, as Raquel generously showed us her country, we met more friends and were usually accompanied by one or more of Raquel’s siblings and their children as well as her mother–the winsome Doña Corina.  Corina was a hoot—always exhibiting an expansive smile, an exuberant laugh, and having hugs for all.  Don Tino was reserved, but when he entered a room, he was always a presence.  Everyone was deferential to the patriarch.  

 Corina hugging Adam with Don Tino looking on!

That first night descended into chaos.  Besides our two children, Ann and Adam, there were six more ten and under (Mario Federico, Marco, Ana Sofia, Mauricio, Natalia, Patricia).  I remember one toddler walking up to me during that first evening’s bedlam and forcefully and conspicuously making sounds of gibberish in my face.  It was her way of expressing how the words coming from our mouths sounded to her.  (Four years later when we visited, she greeted us with “hello, how are you?”  Raquel told us before that visit, the now seven-year-old, had asked Cuantas palabras?  (How many words?) she needed to talk with us.  This young lady is now a lawyer, and consistent with her siblings and cousins, speaks excellent English.)  Of the thirteen adults, only two, Raquel’s brother Alfredo and his wife Viviana, spoke both languages.

There was, however, a significant amount of beer which lowered inhibitions enough to facilitate frequent attempts at communication—many of which resulted in a feedback loop of more attempts and louder laughter.  That night fashioned an indelible sense of inter-cultural solidarity.  Afterwards, Mary and I marveled at our good fortune.

As it became loud, Don Tino retired to his room.  We did not see him until the next morning.  We awoke to find him making tortillas.  They were devoured so greedily by Ann and Adam, extras had to be made.  Don Tino was so pleased, tears welled in his eyes.  He walked over to me and said in thickly accented English: I am sorry.  I do not speak English.  I wish I could converse with you.  What an extraordinary sentiment!  We were the strangers who came to his country and invaded his home without knowing the language.  I tried to tell him how grateful we were for his generosity.  My Spanish was terrible, I hoped he knew what I attempted to say.

Besides the tortillas that first morning, Don Tino enjoyed making a variety of traditional sweets.  I recall candied or sugared grapefruit and a concoction of coconut with milk and sugar.  Raquel was amused saying he usually did not cook anything, but we gave him an excuse so he could eat ‘las dulces’ (the sweets) too.

Mary and my familial backgrounds were reserved.  In my immediate family, company was rare.  I do not recall a single time when a visitor spent the night.  Accordingly, we worried about being an imposition and had planned to leave the next morning to visit the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.  It was an adventure both renting the vehicle and navigating the countryside.  Raquel led us to the highway to prevent us from being lost. 

Not surprisingly, with this being before Google Maps and Waze, when we returned to Heredia, we became confused in the maze of streets.  At that time, Ticos (as Costa Ricans refer to themselves) scoffed at the idea of addresses, house numbers and highway routes.  All directions were based on landmarks.  Fortunately, we were able to explain ourselves to someone at a gasoline station and he dialed Raquel’s number and explained where we were.  Raquel showed up with a carful of family.  I can still see the full vehicle with everyone laughing.  They found our plight hilarious.  We followed them back to the house to another party—this time with a meal of ceviche and Olla de Carne.  The latter is a tasty soup or stew with pieces of meat, and a variety of vegetables including yuca and corn on the cob.  We recognized we were being honored with a traditional holiday meal when we heard the others jokingly wishing each other Feliz Navidad and Feliz Año Nuevo.  

The next day was Mary’s birthday.  Raquel’s youngest sister, Marta, had conspired with our daughter, Ann to make a cake.  Then most of us went to El Castillo, a club with a pool, skating rink, and beautiful grounds.  There were folk dancers and a traditional meal.  Raquel had tipped off the master of ceremonies and the entire crowd sang to Mary.  Later at the house, we found that Eduardo, Raquel’s much-loved, younger brother, who has Down’s Syndrome, had licked the icing off the cake.  Fittingly, no one said a word and the cake was sliced and eaten as if nothing had happened.  What an unforgettable 40th birthday for Mary.

Also, unforgettable was our departure.  Raquel could not take us to the airport because of a work conflict so we went with Margarita, her husband Mario, their son Marco, and Corina.  As we exited the car and walked to the door, we saw they were crying.  Perhaps, they thought they would never see us again. Little did they know!

I feel sheepish to admit that, now more than 30 years later, we have stayed with them on at least 30 different occasions.  Our acceptance was so complete, however, that Raquel said we became known as “Los Nics” to be consistent with the other families, “Los Chavas” (for the Chavarrias), “Los Freers” and so on.

Indeed, the second time we arrived, again with trepidation about how well we had communicated, we were met by seventeen people who showered us with confetti.  We felt like rock stars.  Back at her home, an even larger group was waiting, this time augmented by Raquel’s sister Eugenia and her husband and four children.  Once again, it was a party! 

As before, Don Tino supervised our sampling of authentic foods.  One morning, he and Corina were up early making us a traditional campesino breakfast which included agua dulce—a hot drink made from sugar cane because the campesinos could not afford coffee.

On this visit, we spent more time in the city.  I have a particular memory of a rainy evening following a rainy day.  Raquel’s father and I were standing at the entryway to the house.  Don Tino began a conversation about the rain (Lluvia, Lluvia).  Our conversation, because of the language difficulties, was not very deep, but it was lengthy.  I told Raquel how much I enjoyed it.  She replied that her father did too and that he spoke slowly and did not mind doing so. 

Our travels always included considerable time enjoying the tropical jungle, learning about the wildlife and looking for birds.  To avoid traffic, we usually left the city before 6AM.  I marveled at how busy everything was.  People going to work or already working.  Street vendors setting up their wares.  People walking everywhere.    

On that trip, however, Raquel introduced us to another aspect of Costa Rica’s “wildlife.”  Our children had been invited to spend the night with one of the other families.  Raquel had suggested previously that we go to the disco.  This time we had no excuse!  We had a sensational evening followed by an early morning, going to several night clubs.  The last stop was at the “Ciudad de Noche,” a mall of night clubs that closed at 5AM!  It was a weeknight, but it was packed.  One area had several mariachi bands.  The songs were familiar to the crowd because many were singing along.  I recall one man, standing alone, beer in one hand, but arms spread wide apart singing passionately.  There were no gringos in sight.  What an amazing experience.   Raquel might have had staying power for the 5AM closing, but not us.  We arrived back at her house about 4.  Sans children, we were able to sleep until about 10.  After seeing the early morning busyness of the streets and then experiencing how many people were at night clubs so late, we wondered Do Costa Rican’s sleep?

A day or so later, we embarked to Rara Avis, our first visit and the setting for much of my book, TEN JUNGLE DAYS.   Although we loved it there, we missed the fun we were having in the city and shortened the trip by a day so we could return early—something we did more than once.  It was too much fun!  This time, it was Good Friday.  Waiting for us was a dish of palmito (heart of palm), with rice and chicken—a traditional meal for the season.  

Raquel’s parents were busy decorating a small shine on their street in preparation for a procession, one of eight in Heredia, Raquel informed us.  The shrine, representing one of the “stations of the cross,” was blessed by the parish priest when he came by in a procession.  Raquel was amused because this priest was “muy gordo,” and unable to walk very far.  He was solemnly blessing the shrines as he rode in an open-topped limousine.

We then walked to the nearby church, built in 1797.  Here, a crowd had gathered around 2-meter-tall puppets of Mary, and the apostles Peter and John.  There were prayers and singing.  Then the puppets left the area to “look for Jesus.” 

On the following day, we encountered a very solemn procession.  At the front were clergy, a cross, banners and a large group of drummers.  Rhythmic and repetitive drumming reinforced the somber mood.  Behind the clergy, the banners, and the drummers, was a large group of penitents taking turns carrying a heavy statue of the Virgin Mary.  Raquel explained that participating in the procession and, especially carrying the statue, was done to request Mary’s intercession with her son to have prayers answered.  It was heart-rending to see elderly women who had difficulty walking begging for turns and attempting to carry the heavy statue.  The expression of faith was impressive. 

The last night of the trip, I was honored when Don Tino walked from his room into the large gathering, and slowly asked me, Will you drink whiskey?  Con usted?  I replied, Claro!  Raquel told me later this was a ritual of acceptance for suitors of his daughters.  I was flattered.   He gestured to the big gathering and said they would charter an airplane, and all come to visit us.  Then, with Alfredo translating, he said our visit was not for Raquel, but was special to all of them.  Once again, we were awed by our good fortune to have been embraced by this family.

A significant earthquake occurred a few days later.  Not only were nearly fifty people killed, but a restaurant we had gone to with Raquel in the Atlantic coastal city of Limon had been flattened.  I have related that phone conversations were an adventure in those days, but we worried about our friends.   We called and only don Tino was home.  A few moments were necessary before we recognized each other.  My house, he said, good!  We could tell he was pleased with our concern. 

I must take an aside to mention that we were surprised on our following visit to notice that many government buildings in Heredia had suffered severe damage, but little else.  The old church in Raquel’s neighborhood, lost one of its numerals from its construction date of 1797 but was otherwise unscathed, We asked Raquel about it, and she laughed, only the buildings built by ‘Low-Bid’ fell down.

This third trip, in 1993, followed what became a familiar pattern, arrival and a party, a few days at Rara Avis, then back to the city for more family visits and parties.  Sometimes we had only a week with adjoining weekends, sometimes two weeks. 

Back in the city, Marta had prepared a candlelight dinner because we had mentioned it was our anniversary.  Such thoughtful people.  We learned to be careful with our words because our friends would do anything to please us.  Once, I admired a beautiful new painted plate on the wall at Raquel’s house.  No amount of protesting could overcome her desire that we should have it.  It now hangs beautifully in our home. 

Then it was a picnic on land owned by Raquel’s brother Tino, her father’s namesake.  Several memories persist from that day and the next. Mary and I admit we were “uptight” parents—raised that way and by temperament.  The kids started a fire and were running around with burning sticks.  They were watched, but no one said anything.  Mary and I looked at each other, wondering why no one intervened.  We were convinced something terrible would happen. Nothing did.  

Later the children were taken to an amusement park.  We rode along with Margarita and Mario to retrieve them.  Along the way, they became lost.  So many couples bicker and blame one another in such circumstances.  Mary and I do well, we think, but still become testy and tense.  Instead, Margarita and Mario thought it was a grand joke and giggled like a couple of teenagers.  How much there was to learn from our “Familia Tica.”

The next day, we had lunch with Raquel’s sister Eugenia and her family—husband Eduardo and their four sons.  I was surprised.  They had a basketball hoop.  I love basketball.  I received awards for playing at my tiny high school and played intramurals in college and in the city league in Grand Junction.  Adam and I played quite a bit in our backyard.   “Futbal” is Costa Rica’s national sport.  Why was there a basketball hoop at the Chavarrias?  I was soon to learn that Eugenia’s husband Eduardo had been on the national team.  I noted a wry smile when he saw me shoot a couple of times and realized I could play.  Then, even though he was now a smoker and a bit overweight, he stood there and sank shot after shot.  I wrote in my journal that he missed only two out of about 30–a level of accuracy of which I could only dream.

The next day, we were back at their house.  I do not recall the specifics, but Raquel, Mary, Corina, and Eugenia were inside chatting and cooking.  Everyone else was gone but me and Raquel’s youngest brother, Eduardo, the one with Down’s Syndrome.  He picked up the basketball and took a shot.  I rebounded.  He shot again.  I rebounded.  Soon I was thinking, of all the things I could be doing.   I should be writing in my journalI should be cleaning up the photos on my camera.  How can I get out of this?  He shot and I rebounded.  Mi amigo Nic, said Eduardo as he made a basket, pumped his fist, and yelled happily.  It was too long before I realized.  There is nothing better for me to do.  This is exactly what I should be doing.  Eduardo continued to shoot, and I continued to rebound.  It was two peaceful hours before we were interrupted.  I had a wonderful afternoon.

That night, our last of the trip, Raquel’s father gave me a razor as a gift.  He seemed embarrassed by the act, but I very much appreciated it.  I understood he wanted to give me something but did not want to add to our collection of t-shirts and souvenirs.  I enjoyed talking with him and appreciated his careful annunciation and the slow pace of his words.  Then the mothers and the children came to say a quick goodbye and had small gifts for Ann and Adam.  When they all had left, Adam was sobbing because we had to leave in the morning.  Marta went into her room and came out with another gift, a shepherd’s pipe, for him.

By 1995, Raquel had married, now giving the immediate family a third “Mario.”  Because she and her new husband lived in a small apartment, we stayed with her brother Alfredo, his wife Viviana and their two children, Patricia and Carolina.  Leaning about their lives, their agricultural research, and their time in the US was fascinating.  Viviana, a native of Argentina, introduced us to maté and the traditional stainless steel bombilla for drinking it. 

When we saw Don Tino on that trip, sadly, he said “Estoy enfermo,” (I’m sick), although his children were quick to tell us that, although his complaining was considerable, he still went to his “club” in San Jose every day.  

Raquel had shown us the “club,” My father love! she said.  It was an elegant building.  While we were never certain of his job title, Don Tino had retired from a position of substantial importance within the government.   Raquel has a photo of he and Corina going to a formal event.  Tino is regal, standing above Corina, on some steps—black tie slightly askew.  We could imagine what was happening inside that club: the now-retired former leaders of the country drinking coffee and solving Costa Rica’s and the world’s problems. 

As usual, we had rented a car and visited some forest reserves.  Back in the city, we planned a daytrip to a beach resort favored by the family, Punta Leona.  Two of the “cousins” went with us, brothers Daniel and Eduardo.  Raquel was surprised they could go, saying her sister, Eugenia, was very protective.  She told us it was another example of how we were part of the family.  Of course, Raquel herself made us promise we would not let the boys enter water more than knee deep.  Right!

Four teenagers?  I would have liked to have seen her try to accomplish that sort of control. 

Our next visit, three years later in 1998, did not begin well.  Our daughter Ann was already in Costa Rica participating in an intensive Spanish course.  At the time we thought the reason no one met us at the airport—they were all at a family party, including Ann—was my fault.  Anyway, the dates had been confused.  Mary and I endured the entreaties of numerous taxi drivers and travel agents in the vain conviction someone would arrive.  Eventually, we took about the last ride from the airport that night and went to the Hampton Inn.

We were still confused about Spanish surnames and how to spell them.  Raquel and Mario had recently moved into their new home.  We had no idea what his surname was.   We went to a pay phone, perused a phone book, and called several names we thought were correct.  No answers.  I remember Mary leaving one message saying, We do not know if this is right or not, but if you know Nic and Mary from Colorado, please call us at the Hampton Inn.  Soon the phone began to ring.  The most humorous was from Raquel’s brother Tino.  He and his wife Gisela did not understand the call and were about to erase it when their children, who already knew a lot of English, began insisting, Estan aqui!  (They are here!).  Tino was eventually convinced and called us, as did Raquel, Ann, and Alfredo.  The latter was often enlisted because of his excellent English.  Raquel would sometimes be afraid something was missed so she would have us talk to Alfredo just to be sure. 

That next morning was a Sunday and we walked to Heredia’s central square where there was a weekly band concert.  The square was always crowded with families.  Several generations were frequently in attendance.   I will never forget the song that brought the most applause—it was introduced as swit yarja brown.  The pronunciation of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” was humorous to me, but it emphasized how bad my Spanish sounded to my friends.  To this day, Raquel’s Mario usually has an expression of intense pain when he tries to decipher my speech. 

We experienced many memorable incidents on this trip.  We had gone to Tortuguero National Park and, again, had wonderful experiences viewing the wildlife on the small island on which we were staying as well as on boat trips on the canals.  We had flown there but arranged to have a rental car delivered to a certain dock north of Limon to which we were delivered by boat.  There was no dock, only a pile of dirt.  The car was delivered without any paperwork by a man who spoke no English.  His bus was leaving so he practically ran from us.  Well, we had the keys and the car, so it was no problem.

The area was in the middle of bananas and bananas and more bananas and as we were driving, we soon saw people looking at us strangely and children laughing.  We were lost again.  We came to a small store and sent Ann inside for directions.  Adam accompanied her.  As they came out, they were sniping at each other.  Adam was insisting the men who gave the directions were laughing at Ann’s bad Spanish.  She, who had been studying intensively and living with only Spanish speakers, was indignant. 

We soon knew the reason for the men’s mirth.  Following the directions led us to a bridge that would have connected us to the main road if it had not collapsed in that earthquake three years previous.  That incident remains the only time anyone we have asked for help did not deliver.  

That trip ended with another family barbecue.  The entire family was there at least part of the time.  The remarkable thing was that don Tino came.  Raquel said he had not been out of the house for months.  She said the reason he came was to see us. 

He needed much help climbing in and out of the car and even going to the bathroom–sad for a man with such distinguished bearing.  He gave me a great smile of greeting.  We sat and talked as best we could for a long time.  

This time there was no escape once the party became boisterous.  The adults were all talking, eating, and interacting with the fifteen children from the combined families.  Don Tino asked that his chair be moved so that he could sit amidst the children—a gesture we all noticed.  Perhaps, he was prescient.  He died ten days later.

1998 barbecue, missing only a couple family members—probably the last photo of Senor Bolanos (in the middle). 

Mary, Adam, and I had returned to the US, but Ann was still there and was included in the family activities.  We were pleased we could have a representative of our family present.  Ann felt conspicuous as heads nodded toward her asking who is that?  She met many people, including two former presidents of the republic. 

Ann described the funeral as spectacular.  There were flowers everywhere—all through the house, where visitation occurred, and at the large church.  The casket, bedecked with flowers, was taken from the house to the church in a procession.  The music and singing were beautiful and there was a celebratory ambience.  Afterwards, there was a New Orleans style procession to the cemetery, led by music, a choir, and the flowers.  Then nine days of masses were held in Don Tino’s honor and attended by the entire family.  It was a fitting finale for a gracious man who generously accepted foreigners into his home, made them feel welcome in his country and left such a fine family as his legacy. 

The Most Difficult Bird

My initial visit to Costa Rica was in 1989. There was not a guidebook for birds. I bought one for adjacent Panama, which was so unhelpful, I barely opened it. When the now classic A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica by Stiles and Skutch was published later that year, I was one of the first owners. This book remains the standard for details about behaviors of Costa Rican birds, but the color plates are too small for many species. Nonetheless, as I thumbed through that first copy, which I eventually wore out, one bird particularly caught my eye–the Rosy Thrush-Tanager.

Thrush-Tanager! Much is happening with that name. Birders recognize thrushes and tanagers as distinct families of perching birds. This is like naming a bird a “duck-goose” or a “sparrow-blackbird.” Which is it? Early taxonomists did not know what to do with it and gave it both names.

Subsequent study indicated it is not a thrush or a tanager. It is monotypic, therefore, not closely related to any other species. Its closest relatives are the non-colorful, open-country snow buntings and longspurs which, except for some southerly seasonal movements, are birds of the far north. The relationship seems especially preposterous considering the Thrush-Tanager’s tropical range, preference for living in thick brush, and bright color. The Thrush-Tanager male is rosy-pink on its face, chest, and belly, contrasting with the jet-black of its back and tail. The female has the same pattern but is rusty-orange where the male is pink.

That first guidebook by Stiles and Skutch was not encouraging to would-be Thrush-Tanager viewers, calling the bird “shy and retiring” and “rare and local.” The bird’s distribution is little more than a spot on the map of Costa Rica as shown in Garrigues and Dean’s The Birds of Costa Rica. Cornell’s eBird website says that it is “skulking and rarely seen.” Indeed, ebird showed that during the first 11 months of 2021, Rosy-thrush Tanagers were reported only on twenty-six separate days in heavily-birded Costa Rica. There were only four days in which more than two were reported.

Worse yet, as noted in the Wikipedia entry, the bird’s favored habitat is “heavily degraded former forest.” In the tropics, such a description is code for dense nearly impenetrable tangles filled with vines, thorns, and thick brush. Moreover, if a formerly forested area was left to degrade, it means the slopes were too steep and the ravines too narrow for crops or pasture. Therein resides another problem. What National Park or biological reserve emphasizes “degraded former forest?”  Consequently, suitable locations for Rosy Thrush-Tanagers are privately-owned, small patches of ravine amidst heavily grazed or farmed land. How does a foreigner even find places to look for a Rosy Thrush-Tanager? Even if you drive by a location that appears suitable, how do you gain access?

In contrast, there are shy, retiring, and skulking birds in the forest reserves. Antpittas, antbirds and Quail-Doves are examples. If you walk the trails often enough, especially at dawn or dusk, you might be lucky and see one of these on your own. You might be super-lucky and encounter an ant swarm which can make it easy for some of these species.

As my life list for Costa Rica grew, the intrigue of seeing a Rosy Thrush-Tanager grew with it. After much research, I have not found a location where a person might walk public trails in hopes of an accidental sighting of a Rosy Thrush-Tanager. I learned of general areas where the Thrush-Tanager was heard and seen, but none had trails or public access.

One area is known for harboring the species—the Dúrika road east of the village of Buenos Aires. A bird guiding friend had suggested locations to stop along the road and call for the Thrush-Tanager. He instructed me on which calls and how to use them. He told me, however, that the road was bad. It could not be accessed without 4wd.

I could rent 4wd, but then an additional problem surfaced. Degraded former forest is not necessarily where accommodations are readily-available. Of the numerous places we have stayed in Costa Rica, not many would be called “sketchy.” Two were because of my quest for the Thrush-Tanager.

Buenos Aires is an agricultural area surrounded by large fields of pineapple. There were no obvious tourist accommodations. Speaking with my guiding friends, I learned they mostly woke up quite early at birding lodges 2 or 3 hours away and drove in the early morning.

This is an area with a large indigenous presence, so we decided to avoid a 3AM start by staying in a new tourist cabin in the village of Salitre at Bribripa Kaneblo a project of the Bribrí—Costa Rica’s largest indigenous group. It was an interesting experience. They were very welcoming and truly hoped to attract tourists. There were 3 or 4 clean, rustic tourist cabins. They had set up an interesting demonstration of their cultural practices. The road, however, was terrible, not because 4wd was required but because of the bone and teeth jarring ruts that required going terribly slow.

The road was bad enough that it took us longer to reach the Thrush-Tanager habitat than if we had stayed further away in Buenos Aires. And then there was the whip scorpion in our room. Although harmless to humans (I read later), waking up to the fearsome appearance of a 6-inch arachnid on the cabin wall was unsettling.

This Tailless Whip Scoprion (Amblypygi) in our room was 6-inches across. We did not know until later that they have no venom and mostly eat cockroaches and worms.

Nonetheless, I encourage anyone who would like to learn about and support the Bribrí to stay at the village. It was secure. They provided simple meals. We were welcomed, but it was not a good place to use as a base for birding.

Anyway, by dawn, the next morning, I was in a location where Rosy Thrush-Tanagers supposedly lived but I saw and heard nothing resembling my quarry. The rest of the morning was equally futile. Meanwhile, my wife Mary was back at the village learning about Bribrí religious practices.

Not one to give up, I convinced my wife to try again on a subsequent visit. We agreed that staying in the nearby town of Buenos Aries made more sense. We had been advised of a small hotel that would be suitable. Unfortunately, repeated attempts to reserve a room by phone and internet failed. We decided we would just show up—which we did—to find it full. We asked the receptionist for help. She suggested another location and indicated that it was dangerous for us to use any of the “cabinas” or “habitaciones” for which we saw a few hand-lettered signs. I should state here, that “dangerous” means with respect to property theft. A rare tourist vehicle in this area is obvious and an invitation for a break-in. (It is worth including here that, as I write this, after approximately thirty trips to Costa Rica, most involving rental cars containing belongings, we have never had an incident.)

We found the “motel” recommended by the receptionist and rented a room. We had never seen anything like it. There were two rows of basic, square concrete block rooms—unattached but side-by-side. Down the middle was a concrete ditch to conduct runoff with barely enough room to access the rooms on either side. The parking area, clearly designed for semi-trucks, and almost full of them, was in front of the rows of rooms. The entire area was enclosed in a high chain-link fence with razor wire on top. Steel posts supported a single large metal roof which covered the entire compound and funneled runoff down the ditch. Finally, a large metal electric gate was used to lockdown the inhabitants.

The room inspection did not go well. Besides the prison-like appearance of unadorned concrete blocks, there were dusty accumulations in many of the mortar joints. If you brushed the dirt or dust, out crawled a small spider.

There was a shower stall, but no shower head, simply a pipe that one turned on and off with a spigot. It did seem that the bedding had been washed but our trust was not high. Fortunately, close inspection of the mattress under the bedding and underneath did not reveal bedbugs. Still, for sleeping, we removed the pillowcases and used clean t-shirts instead.

And then, there was the problem of our timing. We were going to search for a rare nightjar that evening, returning quite late. In addition, I wanted to leave at 4AM to be in the Thrush-Tanager’s habitat by dawn. The guard/gate-operator told us the hours were 6AM to 9 PM. In between, everyone and everything was locked in.

As Mary and I discussed this with consternation, the guard overheard and told us he would be awake when we returned in the evening and that he would get up and open the gate in the AM if we called his phone. This was still another example of what our universal experience with Ticos (Costa Ricans) has been. This place probably had not had a tourist before. This man did not have ownership in what was not a lucrative business anyway, and yet, he offered to do us a favor.

Retaining our valuables with us in the car, we headed up the difficult road. This area is unique because of its extensive grasslands, the Alto Salitre Savannas, an endangered ecosystem of uncertain origin, found nowhere else in the country. Hence, there are birds found nowhere else. One of these was the White-tailed Nightjar. By mid-November 2021, it had been reported on fewer occasions than even the Thrush-Tanager. Of course, the lack of sightings for this bird is also based on the number of people willing to be up on that bumpy rural road after dark, more than an hour from the nearest village. The nightjar was alleged to hunt on a small soccer field located at the top of the range of hills that comprise the grasslands. It is a curious soccer field because it sits atop a rounded ridge and an errant kick could send the ball hundreds of meters down the hillside.

Once we had reached the area, we parked on the roadside and waited for darkness. After it was quite dark, we quickly found a couple of the nightjars flying and displaying on the soccer field. Their white tails flashing in the beam of my flashlight reminded me of tiny propellers.

We were elated. Finding the nightjar had been easy. Even with the long, bumpy ride, we were not going to exceed the 9PM gate closing by much, if at all. We had a tip for a place to eat pizza. Shockingly, the small restaurant was run by a New Yorker who had met the doctor who ran the local clinic when she did some training in New York. The pizza was great and the proprietor, thrilled to have visitors who spoke English, sat, and talked with us. He had an interesting tale, having uprooted himself from one of the largest most diverse cities in the world and relocating to what was a backwater, even by Costa Rican standards.

Fortunately, other than the unnerving aspects of the room, there were no incidents with creepy-crawlies that night—and with the fence and gate, we had no security worries. When we arose well before 5, the gate operator heard me loading the car and opened the gate before we could call him. With a feeling that we had escaped, we headed back up the road. Now all I had to do was find the Thrush-Tanager. Again, I was in the right places at the right time. If there was a bird listening to my recording, he never answered in a manner that I recognized. No luck—not even a hint.

Subsequently, I lamented my lack of success to another one of my bird-guiding friends. He said, “Oh where you are going is too difficult to get close enough. There is an easier place to see it right now. Several people have been finding it. I’ll give you the directions.” I should mention now that this bird can be a bit of a phantom, in that a productive location for a while can become useless ultimately. Anyway, I decided to try the new location on our next trip.

This location was in the village of Volcán, not that far from Buenos Aires but not requiring access on the difficult road. Neither Mary nor I wanted a reprise of our previous accommodations so, we stayed at the nearest birding lodge which was quite a distance requiring us to arise before 4 AM.

Regrettably, despite careful consultation with my friend and having his hand-drawn map, we could not find the location in the early morning darkness. We drove around too much and were frustrated when we finally arrived. No birds were calling and again, none responded to playback. The habitat patch was small and unsurprisingly, not long after, no one was seeing a Rosy Thrush-Tanager there anyway. At this point, I had already expended more effort for a single bird than I ever had. I was now 0-3 and understanding that the only way to see this bird was with a guide.

We had been staying frequently in the small town of San Vito. Although not THE hotspot for Rosy Thrush-Tanagers, I had noticed sporadic nearby reports. They were, however, universally by well-known professional birders at locations difficult to decipher.

I knew a local guide. The first time I asked him about finding the Thrush-Tanager he declined. I knew from the online database eBird that the bird had been found nearby and asked if he could direct me to the locations so I could try by myself, but he demurred. We did spend a morning looking for other species and did very well. When, we returned a year later, I contacted Pepe again and he excitedly told me he knew of a Rosy Thrush-Tanager location with easy access, but it was not nearby. We would have to be on the road at least by 4 AM. Well, why not? I thought.

A long drive on winding roads found us in the small community of El Valle, in the middle of pastures, and mixed cultivation. Pepe had told me that the locals were excited with the idea that a particular bird in their midst might bring ecotourists—birders like me. Pepe had called ahead and obtained permission for us to access the private property. The Thrush-Tanager habitat consisted of narrow ravines between fields. These ravines were much narrower than those near Buenos Aires. It did seem we might more easily access the birds. We could walk mostly in open fields and then enter two or three feet into the ravine and attempt to call the bird.

After a couple of futile tries, one of the birds answered. It was as shy as advertised but it was approaching as Pepe played the call. I detected movement deep in the brush. Was I finally going to see a Rosy Thrush-Tanager? At that very moment, the local alcalde (mayor) of the community arrived with his daughter and their dog to watch the ecotourist. Did I say this bird was shy and skulking? I again detected movement, but the bird was leaving. Then it was gone. No other Thrush-Tanagers responded that morning. Now I was 0-4 and more than ever resigned to never seeing a Rosy Thrush-Tanager.

That second outing with Pepe occurred in the year before the covid-19 pandemic so it was almost two years later when I was again in Costa Rica, this time accompanying a friend who was on a target-trip, that is, one aimed at finding only specific birds that she had not seen elsewhere. We shared a couple of targets, so I was delighted to go along when she invited me.

The Thrush-Tanager was not on the agenda, and besides, Barb related to me that the bird was easy to see in a certain metropolitan park in Panama City, Panama. I had heard this before. There are other examples of rare or difficult-to-see birds that come to a particular feeder or have an isolated population somewhere that has habituated to humans. Well, the bird being easy in Panama City was no help. Not only did I not have intentions of going to Panama, I wanted to see it in Costa Rica.

My wife and I had planned another stay in San Vito, and I knew Pepe and his family had sold their business and moved on. I asked the guide on the target trip, Fito, if he knew other guides in the San Vito area. He enthusiastically suggested Henri Sandi. I knew the name because I had noted some of his eBird reports—occasionally in conjunction with Pepe.

We corresponded by email and Henri said we could try in the San Vito area for the Rosy Thrush-Tanager. He did mention the original location near Buenos Aires as possibly being more of a sure-thing but that would have been a 2-hour drive in the early morning darkness. I was ready to try elsewhere. “All right,” said Henri, “I think I can show you the bird nearby.”

“The bird is easiest to see early,” Henri said, “pick me up at 5.” We had not met before, I learned subsequently that Henri, a few inches shorter than my 5’10,” was a wiry 28. He had not asked about my age, 72 at the time, or conditioning. Henri lived near where Mary and I were staying. I picked him up, we did a few turns down the main road and were soon on a gravel road close to a secondary paved road when he said, “park here.” This path had been cut across a steep slope. There was just room to get the car far enough off the road without having a wheel down in the ravine. Then with a “Don’t trip on that piece of barbed wire,” Henri charged up the slope.

Although the sky was becoming light, it was still dark once we were inside the small trees. The undergrowth was dense shrubbery and vines, and it was steep. I am proud of the conditioning that I maintain, but as I struggled to keep up with Henri, I decided he was a little reckless not to have appraised me of how we were to access the location. I would have told him not to worry, but that did not mean the approach was easy. Besides the steepness, this was the end of October—the rainy season. It had been raining and the slope was very slippery. It occurred to me that Pepe certainly knew of this place. I wondered if he decided discretion was in order — that it was not smart to take someone he did not know up there.

Up we went. We had to make a few zig zags and eventually crossed through a barbed wire fence a couple of times. Again, I am in good shape, but being close to out of breath and having to climb through barbed wire fences on steep, slippery slopes was a challenge. More than once, one of my feet slipped back down the slope and I had to crawl before I could get back up. Another time, I started to slide and performed a tropical “no-no” by grabbing blindly. The sapling that prevented me from falling was covered in thick rose bush-like thorns. I stabbed myself directly in the joint of one of my fingers. It was sore for days. Now bleeding, I still managed to mostly keep up with Henri. Finally, he stopped and said, “this is a good location.”

Unsurprisingly, we were on a small ridge. Deep down in front was the type of shrubbery and small trees we had just busted through on the other side of the ridge. The area below was by no means “open,” but there were “holes” in the vegetation that would allow us to see a bird from a reasonable distance.

A Rosy Thrush-Tanager answered Henri’s playback within minutes. Knowing how much more Henri’s ability to detect the bird exceeded mine, I stayed as close as the slippery ground and steep hillside allowed. “It’s coming,” he said. “There!” “Where?” I responded. He started to describe a location, then shook his head. “It kept going.” He played the call again. Once again, Henri spotted the bird, and I could not see it. “Through that hole in the vegetation,” he said. I missed it again and then the bird left for good. Henri explained that Rosy Thrush-Tanagers, if they are interested in a call, typically make one approach and then they are gone. It is useless to try again for the same bird at that time.

(You might be thinking Henri should have used a laser pointer to help me out, but the vegetation was too thick and the bird’s appearance too brief. It would have been useless.)

Henri thought there was another territory adjacent to this one. We climbed further up the slope and shortly thereafter a second bird responded. Unfortunately, the entire scenario repeated. Henri glimpsed the bird twice and all I saw, finally, was a black flash as the bird detected us. I have a way I classify bird sightings as “sufficient not satisfying,” but this was not sufficient. Even calling what I saw a “flash” overstates what I saw. There was movement and the color black associated with it. Without knowing, it might have been a dead leaf.

As we discussed what I was deeming my abject failure as a birder, it became clear that I had been looking too low. My readings and the photos I had seen of the bird indicated it would be on the ground. “No,” said Henri, “when it responds to a call in this type of vegetation, it often goes up in the trees or shrubs. You are right, otherwise, it is on the ground. But, where there are trees and it is approaching a call, it often hops up into them.”  As I asked him to show me where he had seen the bird, I understood that I had looked under it. With the thick vegetation and the bird’s fleeting appearance, not “getting right on it,” meant not seeing it at all. I was now 0-5.

Disconsolate, we headed back down the slippery slope. I had found something I needed badly, a piece of plastic pipe I could use for a staff. With a staff to support me, I gingerly and safely made it back to the car.

We were both disappointed and then Henri suggested we could try in the afternoon, that sometimes Thrush-Tanagers had an active period about 3PM. I agreed to pick him up about 2:30 and we would try again. Well, the deluge started about 11:30 and, if anything, was going stronger at 2:30. I called Henri and we decided to try again the next morning.

Once again, I picked up Henri at 5 and we climbed the steep slope, now more slippery after the heavy rain, but at least I had my staff. I still lost my footing a few times and had to do a few feet on all fours.

We stopped near where the Thrush-Tanager had responded the previous day. Once again, we had an answer. Once again, Henri spied the bird. “It’s right there in front of you,” he said. I could not find it. He began to explain where the bird was, but it moved. He found it again, “there, right in front,” he said. I still could not find it. “Look in that hole through the shrubbery,” he said. Nope, I could not see it before it moved again.

Henri played the call again, and this time the bird responded within three meters of us. We looked sadly at each other. Between us and the calling bird was as thick a mass of shrubbery and plants as was possible. We knew, as then happened, that after such a close approach, the bird would leave, which we proved by continuing to play the call and receiving silence as the response.

This time, I quizzed Henri very carefully on where he had seen the bird. Which actual limb was it on? I realized there had been a communication problem. Henri’s English is excellent, but it is not his native language, and I took him more literally than he meant. When Henri said, “right there in front of you,” I expected something like 4 or 5 meters and directly in front. He meant it was straight ahead at eye level, but both limbs on which he had seen the bird were at least 20 meters away. With vegetation as thick as it was, if I did not look in just the right “window,” I would miss the bird.

I felt sorry for Henri. He had worked hard to show me the bird. He now had four sightings and I had none. I apologized. Of course, I also felt sorry for me. All this effort over the years: bad accommodations, early mornings, three solo efforts, and three more with guides—all for nothing but a feeling that I was incompetent. I assumed that had been my last chance. It was already as late as when we had quit the day before.

Instead, Henri suggested moving further up the slope and then slightly over the ridge. “I thought I heard one singing down there,” he said. I had not heard it—not surprising with my old inferior ears. Still, it being late, I had lost confidence. We tried one location for a while. No answer. I knew Henri wanted to keep trying for my sake. I formed in my mind what I was going to say. “It’s not your fault, but there’s no point in putting in more time. It is ok with me if you think we should quit.” I almost said this a couple of times, but Henri was intent and then, remarkably, a bird answered.

I heard the Thrush-Tanager down in the ravine in front of us. This time I focused my attention on windows in the vegetation about 25-30 meters away and at about three meters off the ground. Suddenly, there it was–precisely where I was looking. I saw it when Henri did. Not only that, in contrast to Henri’s previous sightings, none of which lasted more than 4 or 5 seconds, this bird remained in sight for at least half a minute as it moved about in a small tree. I had wonderful views of the amazing pink color of its belly and throat, of the bright white superciliaries contrasting with the velvet black back. I was thrilled.

Male Rosy Thrush-Tanager (photo courtesy of Greg R. Homel, Natural Encounters Birding and Wildlife Photography Tours)


Saints Among Us

“Aachee was supposed to take over the store?” My sister said quizzically. “H. E.,” I corrected her. My sister and her husband were renting a cabin in the Chiricahua Mountains in Southeastern Arizona. When she learned the owners were longtime residents, she asked about the Huffman family of nearby Willcox, knowing my wife and I were friends.

The “store,” was The Toggery. It was started by H.E.’s grandfather in 1916 and closed by her 85-year-old mother, Hazel, in 2003. My wife and I had become friends of one of H.E.’s older sisters in 1971, when Mary and I moved from Illinois to Tucson for graduate school.

I will never forget our first visit to Willcox. A little back story is necessary. My family had never traveled one hundred miles beyond the borders of my home state of Illinois. As a child, I loved TV-westerns and nature documentaries. Not many of us remember the old Walt Disney nature programs, eighty of which were narrated by the folksy baritone of Rex Allen, the “last of the singing cowboys.”  I adored those shows.

Willcox was Rex Allen’s hometown! We were there to attend the town’s biggest annual event, Rex Allen Days, when Rex returned to be feted with a parade, dances, and a talent show. The event was the equivalent of the “homecomings” popular in the Midwest. But, there was more! Rex was a friend of the family. He once stopped the parade while it was enroute, called out to Hazel, and ran into the Toggery to buy a pair of pajamas. There’s a great photo of H.E.’s dad, Bruce, with Rex Allen and Slim Pickens. Pickens, another cowboy star, often played Rex’s comic “sidekick.”  He is now better known as Major “King” Kong from the movie “Dr. Strangelove.” 

Bruce Huffman, Rex Allen, Slim Pickens in the Toggery

During that initial visit, I was thinking how not long ago I was in Illinois surrounded by fields of corn and soybeans. Now I was standing on a street seventy miles from the Mexican border surrounded by mountains and cactus-laden desert. The Tombstone parade entry is passing, complete with dancehall girls and men in overcoats with shotguns. Above is a street sign—to the left Tucson, to the right El Paso. What a sight for a wannabe-cowboy Midwesterner who thought he would never go anywhere!

The Toggery itself was both very familiar yet different. I grew up and worked in a family shoe and clothing store. That describes The Toggery except our store did not have a big old safe like the ones always being robbed in the cowboy movies. And here, the emphasis was on Levi jeans not Oshkosh.

And, The Toggery had Stetsons, the famous western hat! I was admiring one. I remarked to my wife, “I’d love to have one of these, but they are too expensive.”  A bit later, Bruce came over. “I saw you looking at the hats. Next week, they go on sale. Half-price! You can’t be here then. Buy one now if you want.” I was excited. I wore it to the dance that night. Fifty years later, that hat remains a prized possession. I have had more occasions than I expected when a cowboy hat was suitable. I have been proud of my very own Stetson.

Later, I told our friend Ann, how nice her dad had been to let me in on the sale. She laughed, “I grew up in that store. Stetsons never go on sale. He must have heard you talking about them. He just wanted you to have one.”

Bruce was a tireless booster of Willcox, his hometown. Among many civic activities, he started a chapter of the “Wildcat Club” to support the University of Arizona (UA). He developed quite a legacy of helping local students enroll and receive financial aid. Bruce had attended the UA himself in the mid-1930s. In 1936, he was the Border Conference Lightweight Boxing Champion, ranked fourth in the nation in his weight class, and received honors as “an outstanding athlete.” Each year the Arizona Letterwinners A-Club presents the T. Bruce Huffman Lettermen’s Award to “a male who has made significant contributions to Arizona Athletics.” 

I never met anyone more sincere than Bruce. Friendly to everyone, he enjoyed giving out a calling card that supposedly had a 10-cent value and made you a stockholder in a mule train with Slugger Huffman as President. I love a photo Ann has of her parents shortly after they were married. Bruce appears so happy he could burst.

The night before the Rex Allen Days Parade we had gathered at the Huffman home, located on 49 Rattlesnake Drive (an address Bruce dreamed up because one was demanded by the Army when he served with the Amphibious Engineers in the Pacific during World War II). On an old piano, Bruce pounded out a few bars and sang a few lines of the old cowboy song “Rancho Grande.” Then he told a crazy story about a wildcat that was much funnier in the telling than in the punchline—which none of us seem to remember. We laughed so hard, we asked Bruce for an encore whenever we returned, and he always obliged. After the parade, Bruce took us around town introducing us as if we were family. I remember having a glass of whiskey with the publisher of the “Arizona Range News” in his office near The Toggery. It was a fantasy.

More about Hazel—also a native Arizonan but born in Tucson. Hazel ran the store until she was 85—many years mostly by herself. She was valedictorian of her UA graduating class and began teaching at Willcox high school before she was twenty. She took an instant liking to Mary and me, telling her daughter Ann “to hang onto those two. You don’t get opportunities for that kind of friendship very often.”  That was prescient of Hazel. The Huffmans became family. I earned a small role in family lore by eating so much of Hazel’s Mexican-style shredded beef, that it has been referred to thereafter as “The Meat That Nic Liked!” Decades later we were included in extended family vacations to the beach in San Diego.

In San Diego, Hazel and I had some long conversations. She was always well-informed on the state of the world and wondered why people “just could not get along.”  She cautioned me, saying “don’t live too long.”  She was then in her late eighties and early nineties and could not walk or hear very well but remained a stalwart. She would take her two hiking poles and have a beach walk with her beloved dog every morning. Once, she visited our off-the-grid cabin in Colorado for a few days when she could no longer manage the walk to the outhouse. She uncomplainingly made use of a lawn chair with a hole in the seat and a bucket underneath.

I never believed she was unhappy for living so long because of the joy she reveled in while interacting with her children and grandchildren. After her death at 92, we scattered her ashes at the beach the following summer. Everyone was invited to say something. I thought of Buddhism’s four Brahma Viharas: Loving Kindness, Joy for the Success of Others, Compassion and Equanimity. I never saw anyone thrill at others’ happiness and manage the awful things of life better than Hazel.

Bruce passed away much too young at 65. The biggest tragedy Hazel faced though, was H.E.’s disease and eventual death at 49. When we met H.E. (given name Helen), she seemed to us as the “different” one in the family in that she was not an academic and athletic achiever, nor had she moved on from Willcox. In High School, however, she had been active in the Marching and Jazz Bands and received recognition as Thespian of the year. She did briefly attend the UA and may have dropped out because of discomfort caused by the onset of the disease that eventually took her life. Thus, H.E. stayed home and worked in the store. Indeed, on one of our early visits, Willcox was promoting itself as the place to visit and shop in “Cowboy Country.”  H.E. was all-in, wearing western clothing and Indian jewelry and displaying “Cowboy Country” stickers on her vehicle.

H.E. was only nineteen when her health issues surfaced. They manifested in odd ways. She would be cold when the weather was anything but. Her skin, especially her fingers, would be tight and painful and her hands would “tingle.”  She began to have difficulty swallowing. It was years before doctors put a name on it. She had a severe form of scleroderma—a dreadful disease that causes tightening of skin and connective tissues including those of internal organs. I do not know that awfulness of one disease is rightly compared to another, but if the idea of ALS is frightening, scleroderma is not a better diagnosis.

We moved from Arizona and usually only saw the family at Thanksgiving when we came to visit. The year-to-year deterioration was shocking. Envision a boisterous celebration including several young children. The adults are jovial, drinking beer and wine. The table is sumptuous. It is Tucson; some celebrants are wearing shorts. Off to the side is a young woman, red-faced, wearing a sweater and gloves. Her dinner is baby food because that is all her failing digestive system can manage. Yet, she is smiling brightly. During conversations, her eyes always sparkled with delight. She is thrilled to see our young children. They love her, of course, without understanding her disease. She asks about us. She does not talk about her ailments. It is only smiles and well wishes for everyone. And she has been keeping up. Cards arrive for birthdays. She knows details of our lives beyond what we know of hers.

I asked our daughter what she remembered of H.E. “Her smile,” she said without hesitation, “and the twinkle in her eyes.”  Then she said, “and she always brought me presents. She didn’t need to. I didn’t expect them, and she always put thought into them. I remember once she brought me a calligraphy set. I never thought of doing calligraphy and I enjoyed it.” None of us could remember H.E. complaining or expressing sadness.

My daughter, Ann, with H.E., circa 1990.

I have always wondered how H.E. did it. And Hazel too! Hazel never complained and rarely expressed frustration as the years went on, many of them without a diagnosis for H.E. She continued to run the store—an elderly widow running it for someone who was slowly dying. I’m sure they needed the store for normalcy, and I know nothing of H.E.’s or Hazel’s private moments in those years. There must have been anguish, but all I saw were bravery, strength, and equanimity.

We are living in a time with few heroes. Polarization and social media magnify every minor indiscretion. Where does one look for encouragement? As a child, in a Roman Catholic elementary school, I was sometimes directed to read The Lives of the Saints for inspiration. Now, fifty or sixty years later, I do not recall anything relevant from those stories. Instead, I think that book could use a new chapter.


His eyes went blank. He was in the same posture as when he seemed to be attentive.  Now, there was a sense of “lights on, no one’s home.” Yet, when I finished, he continued the conversation normally. I suspected this brilliant man’s mind was so far ahead, he had guessed what I was going to say or else my part of the conversation was so simple he could follow it with a fraction of his attention. Meanwhile, his busy mind was working on a significant research problem.

I related this incident to one of the graduate students. Ed said, “it happens to everyone. I keep thinking I’m going to say, ‘Germans suck’ and see what happens.” He never tried it. All of us had too much respect for the apparent part-time listener–Howard V. Malmstadt.

Dr. Malmstadt was the advisor for my senior project at the University of Illinois (UofI)–a requirement for a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry as certified by the American Chemical Society.  The time required and credits awarded comprised most of the senior year.  For all intents and purposes, I was a graduate student and a full-fledged member of “the Malmstadt Group.” 

Chemistry has several subfields and at the end of my junior year, I had to choose one.  It is not an exaggeration to say the difference between an inorganic chemist and an analytical chemist is as big as between a dermatologist and a cardiovascular surgeon.  Although I understood the theory and performed well on exams, Inorganic and Organic Chemistry were unappealing–too much mixing of messy chemicals. Besides, it was dangerous. One of the lab buildings at the UofI was named for a well-known chemist who had famously blown out one of the walls.

Physical Chemistry was simultaneously fascinating and too difficult.  I never regretted the time invested–including the every-Saturday morning 3–4-hour tutorials I needed to learn the material.  The familiarity with advanced mathematics and physics I acquired allowed me to comprehend the underpinnings of cosmology and enough details of atomic theory to understand the measurements I was making. Nonetheless, P-chem was not a possible career choice.  Now, only Analytical Chemistry remained.  Eventually, I came to understand that in the field of Analytical Chemistry, the UofI had no peer.

Before he left the UofI, Dr Malmstadt wrote ten books and published ~150 research papers.  Those numbers are impressive, but what he is known for is the invention of the field of Chemical Instrumentation.  He was the Bill Gates of this field.  This was the early 70s.  Chemical measurements were a variation on mixing chemicals and observing how deep was the color of the resulting solution.  One man pioneered the automation of chemical measurements and insisted that Analytical Chemistry students, yes chemists, take a class he devised called “Electronics for Scientists.”  Now, when you have blood drawn in the morning, and a call from your doctor with a list of results in the afternoon, if you trace the lineage of the instrument used for the measurements, you will find Dr Malmstadt.

Analytical Chemistry is about making better measurements, and more measurements faster.  Ultimately, I learned I had no aptitude for designing and building better instruments.  I liked interpreting measurements.  What intrigued me was the underlying physical characteristics of the substance being measured.  Nonetheless, my brief time working with Dr. Malmstadt had an enormous influence on the direction of my life.  I learned, for example, that in any field there are practitioners who can do things no one else can do–just because some say a technology or experiment cannot be performed at all or performed reliably, does not mean there are not some who can succeed at the task nearly every time.

Dr Malmstadt’s emphasis on communication excellence was another important lesson. His students constantly complained about what a task master he was regarding the quality of their written and oral presentations.   He insisted that the elegance of the presentation match the quality of the research.

My decision to leave the Midwest and attend the University of Arizona (UA) for graduate school was a result of meeting one of Dr Malmstadt’s graduates who was finishing his doctorate and had taken a position there.  The preparation I had working in “the Malmstadt Group,” led the UA to exempt me from most of the usual first-year graduate classes. I had to take the requisite number of units, but instead of taking graduate Analytical Chemistry classes with my peers, I took classes such as one in civil engineering on air pollution monitoring.  Those classes showed me how analytical chemistry produced important data.  I was able to design an interdisciplinary graduate program which was unheard of at the time.

That early start allowed me to ride the crest of the new field of Environmental Chemistry.  My training was unusual.  I had expertise in data interpretation and a solid understanding of how the measurements were made. This was the secret to my career.

Not only had I chosen Analytical Chemistry by process of elimination; I happened to work with Dr Malmstadt for the same reason.  One Analytical Chemistry professor I liked was leaving the university. Another was, perhaps, the world’s leading electrochemist. That field was not for me.  The theory required too much of the physical chemistry I struggled with and it seemed you spent hours setting up complicated and temperamental apparatus that usually failed. If it worked, you got one number.

Another choice was the only professor with whom I ever had a serious run-in.  Receiving a “B” in his laboratory class was one thing, but my lab mate and I received the same grades for each assignment. Yet, he was given an A for the class and I received a B.  Accordingly, I went to see the professor.  He was angry, but I persisted. I had a right to know why my grade was different.  Finally, he said he would change it to an A. He did, but we never spoke again.  I passed him in the halls almost daily for a year and he would not look me in the eye or greet me. 

That is how I chose Dr. Malmstadt; the only remaining analytical chemist in the department, the only one I did not know.  I had no idea of his prominence in the field.  I only knew he worked with big instruments that produced interesting data.  Working with him for nearly a year set up both my career path and where I have lived—but it almost did not happen.

My senior year had begun about three weeks previous.  I had transferred to the UofI in the middle of my sophomore year.  As a junior, I had lived in an apartment with my best friend, but he had married and transferred out-of-state. I had taken heavy class loads and worked at a shoe store on Friday nights and Saturdays.  I had not attempted a social life. I had no close friends.

My 21st birthday had just passed.  I did not receive one birthday wish or call. My present apartment-mate, whom I did not know well, did not know it was my birthday. I was depressed.  Worse yet, I did not know any girls or have any idea how I would meet any. (There had been an understandable family glitch and I had calls and cards from my immediate family a day late.)

Against all of this, I needed to initiate and commit to long hours performing independent research. I had little understanding of what analytical chemists did for a career. I could not see myself investing so many hours in a boring research project and then going to graduate school. I decided to quit.

The program I was in had already required so many extra classes that I could drop senior research and take a lesser chemistry degree. I decided I would go to law school.  Companies liked lawyers with science degrees.  My senior year would be easy. Maybe I could have a social life!  I could go to law school at the UofI and would not need to move for graduate school as chemistry required.

I obtained a drop slip and went to see Dr Malmstadt.  I do not recall whether I received the “blank-eyed stare,” while I explained why I was done with chemistry.  He responded that he knew a corporate lawyer who worked long hours for an enormous annual bonus based on his ability to continue to delay a judgement his company knew they would and should lose. The man earned a “lot of money,” Dr. Malmstadt related, but the work did not sound “interesting.”

Then he said the words that changed my life: “Before I sign the drop slip, why don’t you come in and spend an afternoon with me and we will check out a new instrument that arrived this week.  After that, see how you feel about things.” He explained that the new instrument allegedly could make measurements with a sensitivity greater than what was said possible in the textbook in a class I had finished the previous semester.

We picked an upcoming afternoon and when I arrived, he told his secretary he was not to be bothered. We spent the afternoon, both of us in lab coats, making up the solutions and testing the new instrument. It was so interesting, I decided to continue.  Dr Malmstadt suggested a senior project that was suitable for my skills and interests. I enjoyed the time immensely, and as I have related, the experience set up my eventual career path including where I would live.  Without the experience and the “jump-start” given me by Dr Malmstadt, everything would have been different.  Indeed, a week or so later I met my wife-to-be, and the rest is “history.”

There is one more thing.  Others told me later, and I saw it for myself that year: that was the only time anyone saw Dr Malmstadt wearing a lab coat and working with a student.  The idea of him carving out four to five hours to spend with one person was unheard of.  I was an undergrad. I was not going to complete any research that was publishable. Dr. Malmstadt had more than 10 graduate students in his group—all of them committed to obtaining their PhD, and responsible for thousands of dollars in grant money. Yet, it was me, the lowly undergrad, he did not know, for whom he took the time.  It was many years before I had the perspective to look back and realize how much that afternoon meant to my life.

I spent another 7 years with university research.  I knew many professors. I frequently heard: “teaching only hurts your career by taking time away from research.” Most, if not all, would have signed the drop slip, probably with relief to not have to manage an undergraduate project amidst their busy schedules. For my great fortune, the most famous and successful professor I ever knew is one who did not.

None of us really knows the effect of a small gesture.  I think this man did. His entire career of service to science and teaching reflected it.  Years later, when I understood how momentous was that one afternoon, it occurred to me that I ought to write Dr Malmstadt.  He had moved on and was president of a private university in Hawaii. I never did write that letter. I should have.


 My first encounter with rufous hummingbirds was on the Bluebird Ranch in Northern Arizona. It was an unforgettable sight–dozens of orange hummingbirds zipping about in a large patch of pink bee plant.

When I met my wife-to-be, I had no idea she had close ties to a pioneer ranching family. A small town in south Texas was named after an ancestor—an early banker and judge. Mary’s Great Aunt Gertrude (known as Missy) and Great Uncle Bill owned 36,000 acres in Northern Arizona. You read that right…their ranch encompassed more than 65 square miles.

We were fortunate enough to visit them annually for about a decade before old age led to retirement…and I mean old age. Bill was still working in the branding pen well into his 80s. In those latter years, a cow stepped on him and, characteristically, he did not obtain medical treatment. He was badly hobbled, but he kept on working his cattle. It was poor land…with all of that acreage they ran fewer than 100 head most seasons.

Bill and Gertrude were frugal, losing money most years, but saving it during good times. I remember a visit from a neighbor who had a new truck, a large collection of Navajo Jewelry, and a swimming pool. Some years later that ranch was auctioned from the courthouse steps. Bill and Gertrude’s land eventually sold for millions. Bill’s daughter-in-law always called him Daddy-Bill.  Her voice was loud and high-pitched, annoying actually, but there was an endearing ring to her cry of “Daddy-Bill.”  She’d speak of him while the old cowboy sat at the end of their big oak table chewing slowly on his dinner—inevitably beef. Taciturn hardly describes Bill’s slow speech and the difficulty that it required to get a story started. I knew at the time, that I should be recording those rare stories…that I should take a leave of absence from my job and stay on the ranch for six months and write them all down. I will always regret not doing so.

Daddy Bill

One sad story was when a son, his namesake, died of smallpox. Bill had to hitch a wagon and take the body to town, a several-day task. As he was nearing the ranch on his return, he saw the smoke from an enormous fire. He feared the rest of his family had contracted the disease and died. Instead, some neighbors had arrived and gathered everything associated with young Billy and were burning it.

There were stories of the reattachment of a severed thumb, rescuing small children who had climbed to the top of a windmill and were unable to climb down. Many of the stories concerned their neighbors, the Navajo. Once while we were visiting, several had gone on a “bender” as Bill put it—including, Philip, who had worked for him for years. They arrived in a pickup and were out by a shed apparently stealing ranch equipment to “sell to keep the drunk going,” as Bill stated. Bill grabbed a pistol and hobbled out to them. Soon he returned and we saw the would-be thieves drive off empty-handed. I asked Bill if he’d been afraid, “Naw,” he said. “To them it is all a joke. If they’d stolen that stuff, the joke would have been on me. I caught ‘em, so the joke was on them!”

For Bill, it required many years of working for others to earn enough to buy his own ranch, and by then he was nearly 50.  But, his own ranch was his dream. He accomplished it. He lived on that ranch for 40+ years. If you can find a copy of the 1971 USGS topographic map for the Tolapai Spring quadrangle. You will see it… there on the map–The Roberts Ranch, along with the Bluebird Well.  Why the “Bluebird Well?”  That was because Aunt Gertrude, or Missy, named the ranch for a huge flock of Mountain Bluebirds she spied the first time she saw the property.  There was no house originally. The family slept in two old Navajo Hogans which were eventually stuccoed, wired for electricity, connected with a small bathroom and turned into cabins for guests—like my wife and I.   

In contrast to Bill, Missy had an elegant manner. She always reminded us she was a city girl and that ranch life wasn’t her choice.  Yet, here she was, nearly 60 miles from anything but a small village.  Bill and Missy never had a telephone, relying on a radio for outside communication. Nonetheless, Missy had made her peace with ranch life as she was, perhaps, the most serene person I’ve ever known. 

Deeply religious, she insisted that every visitor recite the “Lord’s Prayer” while holding hands around the dinner table. “And we always say, debts and debtors,” (not trespassers), she would remind us.

When I met Missy, she was nearly blind. Everything in the house had to be placed “just so” because she’d adapted to the specific locations. She still baked pies and made the best beef and bean meals possible. Her hearing was still good. She looked you in the eye during conversations and it was possible to be around her for hours without realizing she couldn’t see. For exercise, she would walk the ranch’s dirt road for about a mile each way. She always found and carried a stone which she deposited on a small pile, which became an impressive tower over time, where she turned back.

Missy had been city-bred, but even in her family, there were frontier stories. One of her earliest memories was living along the border and having to sleep on the roof of the local general store for a time. Her family and the rest of the townspeople climbed up with guns and pulled their ladders up after them. The reason? There were rumors Pancho Villa was in the area and might raid their town. It is easy to understand why I was so enthralled with “the ranch,” as we referred to it.

Bill and Gertrude

Having grown up in the Midwest, all I knew about ranching was from old TV shows. On my first visit, I noticed a bunch of planks floating in a stock tank. I asked Bill about them. “So the birds can get a drink,” he said. Sure enough, I often saw mountain bluebirds alight on the planks and drink their fill while floating about in the breeze.

And now I wonder, Bill was a cattleman. When he referred to himself, it was inevitably as an “old cowpuncher.” I never saw him so excited as when “Old Jethro,” an elderly bull he thought had died, suddenly emerged from the brush and walked by the ranch house. Bill moved as fast as his old legs would take him to get some fresh hay from the barn to feed that old bull.

Did Bill put those planks in the tanks to help the birds, or to keep birds that might have drowned from fouling the water for his cattle? I will believe the former because this was after all, “The Bluebird Ranch.”

This was high desert pinyon and juniper…not that great for birding but I do retain a few memories besides floating bluebirds.  A roadrunner, well to the north of its usual range, once hopped onto the porch.  The cries of Say’s Phoebe’s were ever-present—so much so, that I still can’t see or hear this common bird without thinking of the sandy hills near the ranch house.  And, as noted above, here is where I saw my first rufous hummingbirds. That vision of dozens flitting about on a sunny morning in a field of pink remains one of my most unforgettable sights in a lifetime of nature watching.

Rufous hummingbird populations have dropped drastically since then. I can’t guess if such sights are still possible. Bill and Missy are gone. The ranch is gone. It became part of the Navajo/Hopi resettlement if you recall that controversy. I heard the ranch house and buildings were dismantled. I hope someone still fills the stock tanks with water…and planks.


I was disappointed. I had just finished tramping for an hour up and down a pinyon-juniper canyon looking for a Long-eared Owl.  Stupidly, I had forgotten boots and had worn low hiking shoes.  All I had to show for my sojourn were wet and cold feet.  This canyon is not in the beautiful red rock country either.  Colors were muted. Where there wasn’t snow, there was mud.  I saw plenty of tracks in the snow but neither heard nor saw any creatures.  I looked for whitewash in previously-favored trees. Nothing.

I saw my first Long-eared Owl here about 30 years ago.  I’ve returned many times for a reacquaintance.  The majority of my visits have been successful, but the percentage has been dropping—not because I’m older and less energetic but because there are fewer owls.  Long-eared Owl populations have fallen locally, and possibly world-wide.   This nomadic and furtive species is difficult to monitor.  We know their population is down locally because the habitat loss is obvious.  This area has usually harbored a pair of owls.  I’ll come back in a few weeks and try again.

Back in my car, I kept driving the remote dirt road even though I’d seen no wildlife for miles.  I really thought I’d see an owl.  I thought maybe there would be a Ferruginous or Rough-legged Hawk. Nope. Maybe some antelope!  No, nothing.  Suddenly, flashes of blue.  Lots of flashes. I stopped and lowered a window so I could listen.

According to one of my bird books the call is kwai kwai kwai. Another calls it raa-ah, raa-raa-raa, kya-raa and compares it to a species of seagull.  Maybe you should listen: https://ebird.org/species/pinjay

Some bird calls evoke a landscape. This is one of them. Aldo Leopold, in his essay, Chihuahua and Sonora, spoke of the North Woods in autumn and how everyone knew it was defined by the land, “plus a red maple, plus a ruffed grouse.” “The grouse,” he said, “represents only a millionth of either the mass or the energy of an acre.  Yet subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead.”  “An ecological death, as with the grouse, is inexpressible in terms of contemporary science.”  Leopold further notes that “a philosopher has called this imponderable essence the numenon of material things.”  He then lists other numenons besides the grouse, one being the “piňonero of the juniper foothills.” 

 Piňoneros are what I was watching and listening to.  Known to most as Pinyon Jays, I had read Leopold’s words in the 1970s when I initially encountered them in Western Colorado.  They were abundant.  I enjoyed the idea of them as the numenon, but they’ve slipped away.  Yes, there are those with feeders in the right locations that have their seed wiped out in no time by a big flock.  Indeed, I was looking at 20-30 birds myself.  But I couldn’t easily recall when I’d last had this experience. 

Have you seen the movie or read the book The Big Year? I received a phone call one evening a few years ago. The voice identified itself with the name of one of the protagonists. He said he was doing a “big  year,” that is, trying to see as many birds as possible in one year.  He needed help finding Pinyon Jays.  I was excited. I would meet a birding hero.  Except, I didn’t.  The gentleman was doing a big year. He was a nice guy. We got along well. But, he wasn’t one of the protagonists from the movie. He just happened to have the same name.  Nonetheless, I took him to a number of locations where I’d remembered finding Pinyon Jays over the years. We struck out.  Then I thought of some local feeders where I’d seen Pinyon Jays.  No jays.  I wasn’t able to show him any.  He was disappointed but thanked me for my effort and went on his way.

I went home and started pulling references from my shelves.  A 1992 reference specific to Colorado refers to Pinyon Jays as “”common to abundant” throughout Western Colorado.  On the other hand, the Colorado Breeding Bird Atlas project reported a 15% decline between 1998 and 2016.  The on-line reference, all-about-birds, states that “Pinyon Jays are uncommon and their populations have declined by 85% between 1970 and 2014” and that the species is on track to “lose another half of their remaining population by 2036.” Loss of habitat to grazing and development is a major factor in the decline.  Leopold said, “subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead.” It may already be too late to refer to Pinyon Jays as the “numenon” in our local pinyon-juniper canyons.