7:00 AM saw us back with Cristian, who was going to lead us on a tour of the Monteverde Biological Reserve. He seated us beside the baby seat in his minivan and we drove to pick up a handful of other tour-takers, getting to the park in time to visit the hummingbird garden before feeding time. Cristian filled up the feeders with sugar water and hungry hummingbirds came to sit on our fingers for breakfast.

This was pretty much the expression on Nadja’s face for every nature tour in Costa Rica:

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We spent about 2 1/2 hours on the trails in the park, Cristian using his fancy scope to spot wildlife and help us take pictures. One odd thing about this tour was the emphasis on finding a quetzal – a relatively rare sight. The paths were crowded with tours, and the guides offered each other tips: quetzal seen flying in one place, quetzal call heard in another place. I got myself just as whipped up into the quetzal-hunting frenzy as the rest of the tourists, but I also thought: everything I’m seeing here is rare to me, in the sense of never having seen it before. I did eventually get to view a female quetzal through Cristian’s scope, but I was just as impressed by the spider monkeys and the glass-winged butterfly and the orchids the size of an apple seed.


That's an orchid!

That’s an orchid!

Monteverde Biological Reserve takes up about 25,730 acres of protected land, and only 5% of it is open to the public. There is a mind-blowing range of biodiversity there: 400 species of birds, 100 species of mammals, 1200 species of amphibians, and 2500 species of plants.

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See the snake?

The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life

After taking the super easy public bus back to Santa Elena, we had a “comida tipica” lunch, arroz con pollo for Nadja and casado for me. Casado is beans, rice, salad or cooked veggies (in this case chayote), plantains, fresh fruit, and whatever meat is on hand (usually chicken or fish, but I always got it vegetariano and I didn’t ever leave hungry). You eat it with salsa lizano, the sweet-tart-spicy Costa Rican bottled sauce that sits on every table in the land. I’m already worried the craving for salsa lizano is going to haunt me, the way that pizza I had in Bonefro, Italy, 13 years ago, still haunts me.

On the walk back to the hotel, my hiking boots departed this life. I had worn those things for 5 years, for 3 days of backpacking in the Grand Canyon and on countless hikes all over California, Arizona and the Northwest. But they just did not fit anymore. The bruises finally became intolerable after that long day in Monteverde, and there was no way I could ever put them on again. I am ashamed to admit that I still hauled those boots all the way to Manual Antonio two days later to abandon them at our hostel because I didn’t want Cristian to have to deal with them at the Rainbow Valley Lodge.

We left Nosara on Friday morning, after one last Spanish class and one last breakfast with the magpie jays at Cafe de Paris.

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A short walk through the jungle path to the Kaya Sol Hotel, and we were picked up by a shuttle to take us to Monteverde.

And my soul found peace.

Monteverde is high up in the Tilaran Mountains. It’s home to the original cloud forest and several nature preserves, and ziplining was invented here. But best of all, it’s cold. Blessedly, mistily, high-altitudely cold. After the choking heat of Nosara, I had never been so happy to put on my sweater, leggings and knit cap and take down all the woolly blankets in our room to make the bed. I hugged them. I didn’t care who saw.

We stayed at the Rainbow Valley Lodge, about ten minutes’ walk from the 3-block town of Santa Elena. The hotel is managed by Cristian, a native of Monteverde who has about 6 jobs. At first we were distracted by the pair of dimples with legs that is his one-year-old son, but when we could pay attention, we were totally Prince Charminged by Cristian’s offers to explain in detail all the tours we could take in the area, carry our backpacks down the sheer cliff to our room, and drive us into town for dinner.

The Monteverde area is decorated by a permanent rainbow that lit our way for the next 2 days, when the blowing clouds parted enough to let the sun in. The high winds had blown out the internet connection at the hotel, but I didn’t care. I was content to watch the whole rest of the world’s idea of “bad weather” in bliss.

We did make it into Santa Elena that night, to take the night tour at the Ranario (frog zoo). The frogs and toads of Costa Rica can actually be hard to find in the wild, according to Nadja’s research, so it was worthwhile to follow the staff stand-up comedian from one terrarium to the next and see which animals we shouldn’t lick if we did happen to stumble across them in the jungle.

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We returned to the Rainbow Valley Lodge to fill up our water bottles with the best-tasting water ever to flow out of a tap, and slept in utter mountain quiet and darkness with warm covers on. I dreamed I was in Ireland.

On the 4th day in Nosara, we found the scorpion in our room. I had already taken my trusty half a melatonin pill and dozed off. I’ve been fighting a stubborn bout of insomnia for the past 4 ½ years, and so far the best weapon is melatonin. It has the same magical effect as a cartoon animal being hit on the head with a masonry brick, even if I do still usually wake up at 3 for a good round of worrying that back in 1995 I might have forgotten to feed my friend Dave’s cat while he was out of town. But ten minutes after the early-brick stage of sleep got underway, Nadja let out a series of shrieking swear words that would make the Dread Pirate Roberts blush, because there was a scorpion next to the bed.

We should have used something for scale, but here it is. It was at least as big as your hand. Nadja deposited it back outside with the help of the carafe from the blender we had in the kitchen.

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It’s a Tailless Whiptail Scorpion, and it turns out it can’t hurt you, having no tail. One of its immediate kin was that poor mistreated “spider” in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.




Our 3rd day in Costa Rica, we got up at 5:30 for the River Safari. Circadian rhythm-wise, we were still on home time, where it was 3:30. In the morning. We are not morning people. Although Nadja does better than me when there’s wildlife in the offing. She drove us to the boat launch at the mouth of the two local rivers, Rio Nosara and Rio Montana, and I sat quietly in the passenger seat and muttered to myself about coffee. The River Safari is an early-morning birdwatching tour run by the charming Leroy and Kirsten, two of the many German expatriates living in the area. Leroy handed us into his boat, distributed binoculars and laminated photo cards of the local birds with captions in English, German and Spanish, and for the next two hours he and Kirsten pointed out which sticks and leaves were actually iguanas and herons.

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Baby iguana

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Rio Nosara

That was the day I realized how valuable it was to have a guide. We could have walked beside the river and never seen the rare boat-billed heron one layer back in the forest, and we might have noticed the “iguana kindergarten” of bright green babies on the bank, but would never have seen the pair of mature iguanas lying in a tree, all tree-colored. We could not have explored the mangrove forest except by boat. But the highlight was the tiger heron mating dance. Here’s an idea of what that looks like.

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Tiger herons

We repaired to the upscale La Garta Lodge for coffee (finally!), and stared at the astonishing view of Playa Ostional down the cliff until we had worn out our welcome.

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Playa Ostional

We had discovered by now that the heat was overwhelming, so we had developed a strategy of hurrying between bodies of water we could submerse ourselves in or public places with strong ceiling fans. There’s no such thing as “indoors” here, at least not for restaurants. We lingered over smoothies at Robin’s in downtown Guiones, spent a few precious seconds of relief in the freezing air of the sealed ATM chamber at the bank, and went to Spanish class to enjoy the air conditioning.

That afternoon I read We Were Not the Enemy by Heidi Gurcke Donald. A friend had loaned it to Nadja, and she brought it along and read it first. The book chronicles the lives of a German family who lived in Costa Rica during the early 20th century and who were interned in Texas by the US government during WWII. Yes: Germans, living in Costa Rica, interned by the US. Like the rest of us, I knew about the internment of Americans of Japanese descent on the West Coast. I had heard about POW camps in the US for German prisoners. But the internment of German families was news to me.

It’s a slim little book, barely 100 pages. The narrator was a young child during the internment and tells the story mainly through her mother’s eyes — a woman from California who married a man from Germany and moved with him to San Jose, Costa Rica, in the 1930s. It’s a small slice of a much larger history, but it’s well told, and the strength of the story is its small focus: you get a world of understanding in the day to day details of a North American woman raising young children first as a self-described “pioneer” in Central America, and then on a transport ship to the US in cramped and dangerously unsanitary conditions, and then in a prison camp.

I found the author’s seeming naivete about the US government strangely endearing. I’ve been pretty skeptical all my life of US foreign policy and civil rights. I knew, for example, that US intelligence agencies had been operating in Central America since the mid-twentieth century to protect US corporate interests under the filmy disguise of preventing the growing Latin American socialist movements from reaching the US. It came as no big surprise to learn that the US pushed Costa Rica to freeze the assets of German business owners during WWII with the specific goal of eliminating competition for US corporations operating there. The author did seem surprised. But We Were Not the Enemy is a book about the impact on everyday human lives of those policies, and it’s deeply affecting.

We went to Costa Rica in January! Sorry it took me until now to post about the trip. Rather than bore you with our first day there, which was mainly traveling for 21 hours, missing our flight to Nosara and driving a rental car on death-defying roads in utter darkness to get to the coast, I thought I’d just start off on Day 2. Day 2 was pretty much perfect.

Palm tree outside our window

The palm tree outside our window

The birds of the jungle woke us up at first light, and the howler monkeys. We didn’t actually get a monkey sighting for a few days, but you could hear them screaming in the palm trees above our room. Then the construction started shortly after first light. Nosara is in the throes of a construction boom, and a lot of new housing and tourist sites are just barely in the early stages of digging or framing. The sounds here all day are power tools, hammering, and the constant growl of generators. Then there are the trucks and motorcycles. The roads all over Costa Rica are notoriously awful, and in Nosara they’re all unpaved, unbelievably dusty (it’s the dry season), and more pothole than flat surface. Add that to the (to an American) reckless driving that seems universally encouraged, and you find yourself taking your life into your hands every time you cross the road to the Mini Super Delicias Del Mundo corner store for a popsicle.

We had to be at the Nosara Spanish Institute at 7:00 AM our first day there for placement, so we got up with the bird-and-monkey alarm. Our room at the Kaya Sol Surf Hotel was all tropical comfort: screens and wooden blinds on the windows, furniture made of local woods, cool tile floor, walls in the exact shades of deep spearmint and blinding fuschia that I wore to the 7th Grade Spring Fling in 1987. There was no hot water, but there was no AC either, just a ceiling fan, so a cold shower was actually a welcome relief from the heat.

Our room, decorated by laundry

Our room, decorated by laundry

After inevitably getting lost in the string of tiny commercial districts and rural roads surrounded by jungle that make up the Nosara area, we found ourselves at the language school. Super friendly Marco chatted to us in Spanish and pretended he understood our fumbling answers. We each spent 90 seconds with an instructor and were informed that we would be in class at 1:00 that day. Then Marco won me over forever by making coffee. The Tico way of brewing coffee is with a hanging reusable filter suspended over, in this case, an aluminum pitcher. Coffee is one of Costa Rica’s main modern claims to fame, and this was some of the finest I’ve ever tasted.

We left the school to have breakfast at the Cafe de Paris nearby, where we tried out the national breakfast dish, gallo pinto. It’s a big scoop of red beans and rice with mild spices. We got it with eggs and local fruit and sat watching a magpie jay preening on the back of someone’s chair, and then we went to the beach until class time. Playa Guiones, the beach nearest to our hotel, was full of surfers and locals selling pottery. I tried out my new rash guard and board shorts in the water, hoping no one would think that my wearing a surf costume meant I knew how to surf, and then we sat in the skimpy shade of a palm tree and Nadja tried out her new camera.

Playa Guiones

Playa Guiones

Spanish class was in an airy classroom which soon turned out to be our favorite place in Nosara because it had actual air conditioning.  Rita, our instructor, plunged us right into immersion-style learning and had the 4 of us in class making fools of ourselves trying to answer her questions right away. It was a very good system of learning. I’ve wanted to improve my terrible Spanish forever, and one of the big appeals of Costa Rica as our destination was all the opportunities for language study here.

Nosara Spanish Institute

Nosara Spanish Institute

We spent the heat of the afternoon sitting by the pretty but scummy pool at the Kaya Sol, and had a nice dinner of Thai lettuce wraps at the Guilded Iguana across the road. Then we took the foam futon off the couch in our room and set it on top of the concrete slab of a mattress in the bedroom and slept long vacation sleep.

Here’s the link to my story in Toasted Cheese.

The photo they used is perfect. I really did meet a girl like Edwina in a playground in western Ireland, and the place really did look exactly like that.

Well, it does not rain. It pours.

My book Pretty Peg is going to be published!

I got an email from Harmony Ink Press a few days ago with an offer. I had some seconds of profound shock, then called my girl, who probably thought I was having a medical emergency because we never call, we only text. Also because I was out of breath and unable to form a sentence.

It will be released this summer. I will be happy dancing until then.

My story Edwina is going to be in the March issue of Toasted Cheese!

More on making that CD –

Our first recording session was epic. That was probably the day we got the most tracks down, since Douglass Closson was playing guitar parts on so many songs. I even played guitar on a couple songs that day – definitely my first try at that game.

It was a warm Sunday in April. I wore my lucky Roots hoodie, which was the first thing to go when I got into that toasty little room. James Boblak’s operation, Artspoke Studio, is a compact little building obviously built by hobbits, sandwiched between regular-sized buildings in downtown Berkeley. And with all that equipment plugged in, that cozy space gets mighty warm. I won’t try to go into the types of microphones James used, since other people speak gear so fluently and I don’t, but he had the soundproof room all set up for Doug. There was small talk about the donkey jawbone, which James keeps in there for a Peruvian (James? Peruvian?) band who use it for percussion. He warned me to be prepared if I ever bring in a guest with a dog. Something about being responsible for finding a replacement donkey.

Doug gamely installed himself on the puffy piano bench, removed the car keys and other “auxiliary percussion” from his pockets like the pro he is, and knocked out most of our tracks in one or two takes. I’m a big fan of this guy’s playing. He brings the right kind of drive to a song that needs it, and that’s the perfect foil for my soprano singing. I like some muscle in a song, but I just don’t have the right kind of voice for muscle. He worked out terrific leads on some of the songs, which meant I got to play rhythm. That was a healthy challenge for me, since I’d been playing the same 3 chords at the same level of incompetence for my whole life until I spent the last year finally taking lessons and practicing seriously. Like you’d expect, now I play like someone who’s been playing for one year. James assured me that he can make my playing disappear in the mix.

I wish I could have been able to concentrate on Doug’s playing more that day, but the best way to get his tracks down was for me to sing the vocal outside the soundproof room for him to hear it in his headphones. So I stood behind James and the consoles he apparently lifted from Chief O’Brien’s transporter room, and sang along. Now that’s a whole different experience than being in the room with your bandmates. I’m big on communication with whoever I’m playing with – eye contact is great, and I’ve had my foot stepped on more than once when someone needed my attention – so it’s disorienting at first to have nothing to rely on but your headphones. I could see Doug through a little pane of glass, sort of, but there was glare and he was, like the pro he is, looking at his charts.

I’ve heard people say countless times that recording is all about sound. Seems obvious, until you break it down. There’s no extra communication with the audience when they’re listening to your CD. You can’t smile at them or set the mood by telling a story. Any emotion or nuance you’d put into your performance, it all has to go into their ears. You can’t do ESP with the band either, unless you’re recording live (that’s where everyone plays together). Our approach was tracked instead (one instrument gets recorded at a time).

So my lesson for that first recording session? I rely on my eyes a lot to play music: looking at whoever else is playing, looking at whoever’s listening. Concentrating just on what was coming through my headphones, that took some getting used to.

You probably already know about Navajo Star Wars, but I heard about it yesterday when KPFA’s Bay Native Circle interviewed one of the actors.

From Indian Country Today:

The Navajo Nation Museum is working wth Deluxe Studios and Lucasfilm to produce the adaptation, and when it happens it will be the realization of a three year quest by museum director Manuelito Wheeler. Wheeler’s desire to have a supremely popular film like Star Wars translated into Navajo is culturally motivated. “By preserving the Navajo language and encouraging Navajo youth to learn their language, we will also be preserving Navajo culture,” Wheeler told the Navajo Times.

Read more at http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2013/04/26/star-wars-be-translated-navajo-lukes-and-leias-needed-149051


Here’s a little on the casting process:


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