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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Kingfisher

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Baby iguana

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Mangroves

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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.

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