Costa Rica

A Little Bite, Please~

The puffed up cop leaned against our pickup holding the expired registration and Alan’s driver’s license.

Casting his eyes toward heaven he said, “Huy, putchica.”

I guess the best translation for this is, “Ouch, life sucks.” Literally it’s more like “Ouch, little whore,” and they use it for all sorts of occasions the way we use, son of a bitch.

But I knew exactly what he was telling me.

It was a first for me. Almost twenty years living here and I’ve never paid what they call chorizo— sometimes called mordida, which I think says it better– for anything.

Mordida, the little bite. It says it all.

In a communally idiotic decision, the Costa Rican government decided that all license plate stickers, or marchamos, would be due in December of every year. I’m sure this was decided back at the turn of the twentieth century when there were all of 500 cars in the entire country. This means that a person must pay for their stickers in December or they will be faced with fines, or worse, removal of their license plates until the fees are paid.

This necessitated all of us stand in line at a local and, I might add, rare government office where these stickers were available. Last year, miracle of miracles, the Internet made its appearance in the country as a viable tool for a bureaucratically bogged down system. I paid for my marchamos online and they were sent to our post office box. ¡Que facile!

I paid for ours online again this year on the fifteenth of December and haven’t seen our stickers yet.

We had to go to the capital, San Jose, to buy tires for the car. A slow leak in the right rear tire has made it plain that it was time. We waited until after the New Year, checked the Post office–no hay marchamos. We drove to Limon and stopped off at the local Institute de Nacional Seguros office (INS).

There, I was just able to wedge my way in, pressed against the wall by a horde of dejected marchamo seekers and asked the guard about getting a verification of payment for my Internet receipt, which I waved in his face. He managed to risk life and limb and asked the clerk about my request, returning with the sad news that I would need to take a fecha and wait my turn.

We decided to take the risk and made it as far as Siquirres, where we met our chesty little cop. I showed him our receipt, proving we had paid for the marchamos and I explained about how it wasn’t our fault they had not arrived yet. He was unimpressed. According to him unless a lawyer notarized the receipt, it was no good. I suggested that he let us go and we would find a lawyer in Siguirres to notarize the paper.

“But they will charge you 12,000 Colones for that,” He said.

“That’s fine,” I countered.

“If I give you a ticket, it will cost you 16,000 Colones and you’ll have to come to court here in Siquirres on January 14th.”

“Then, let me go and we’ll go get the notary.”

This is when he rolled his eyes toward heaven and uttered the comment about little whores or how tough life can be. At this point I opened my wallet where he could see a 5000 Colone bill- about ten dollars.

He threw the receipt through the window onto my lap, but retained the registration and Alan’s license as collateral, and said, “Go get it attended to.”

I handed the five thousand to him and he handed the documents back to me.

Just a little bite.

We finally found an INS office in San Jose this afternoon that wasn’t too crowded. It was also one hour before their closing time and they were processing paperwork like bookies. I was in and out in fifteen minutes with our new registration and window sticker for 2008.

Huy, putchica, another year done. We have to have the car’s annual mechanical check in March…

The Thing on My Desk~

I love it when things like this happen to me. Alan and I went into town yesterday to run some errands and to phone our lawyer, out of the earshot of the hired help. Our neighbors– the ones we have land disputes with– pulled a pistol on our land surveyors the other day and we needed to plan the police visit here to address the issue, but never mind that.

When I got home there was this thing on my desk. I wasn’t exactly sure what to call it. It was a bit wilted so at first I thought it was a mushroom and then I thought it was an orchid. Today, after much searching on the Internet, I found this peculiar little plant our hired hand, José Domingo, left for me. He is always doing things like that. He knows I love the extraordinary, the weird, and the mysterious things we have all about us in this jungle– neighbors aside.

At first, once I got over thinking it was a mushroom or an orchid, I thought it was a pitcher plant, those creepy insect-eating plants like the one in Little Shop of Horrors. After much searching, I finally found my plant. Aristolochia.

This plant genus has over 500 species, and is also known as birthwort or pipevine, an allusion to the Meerschaum pipes once common in the Netherlands. They are clematis-like vines that like semi-shade and tend to cascade down the sides of trees at the jungle’s edge. The one José left for me yesterday looks exactly like this one. There were two more still hanging on the the vine.A bit more research reveals that this plant is not, in fact, an insectivore, but uses the same principal to pollinate itself. , Bees and butterflies are attracted to its highly aromatic scent. Once they alight to collect nectar, a sticky substance on the hairs of the trumpet-like flower entraps them. Unlike their insectivore relatives, however, the Aristolochia traps the insect for only a short time. Then the fine hairs that line the throat of the flower dissolve to free the insect, now covered in pollen.

According to the web sites I consulted, Aristolochia, or birthwort, was used as long ago as ancient Egyptian times to assist women in childbirth. Like a natural version of pitocin, it was used to help women expel the placenta after the birth of the baby. Other genuses were used to treat snakebite and worm infestations. It has ceased to be a widely used because it also contains toxic levels of aristolchic acid, which can be fatal to humans.

So, I won’t use it, but it certainly is interesting to know about, and I love it. I love it more than my neighbors, that’s for sure.

The Kingbird Convention

Tropical Kingbirds in an avacado tree-
photo by Jack Chamberlain

Yesterday, at lunch, we had the most spectacular show. Swooping down out of the sky came a whole flock of birds we have never seen here before. They had absolutely no fear of the Kiskadees, who screamed their lungs out at them and finally left in disgust.

Instead, these new guys took over the front yard foraging and generally having a great social time of it. There were several varieties, and it took us awhile to realize that they were all traveling together. We began looking at them with the binoculars and then referred to our Stiles and Skutch, Birds of Costa Rica.

It appears the Kingbirds have arrived from the north for the winter. There were Eastern Kingbirds, Western Kingbirds as well as our local Tropical Kingbirds.

They are relatively small (about 6-7 inches) but aggressive bird. In fact Tyrannus, their family name, means tyrant or despot. They take no guff from anyone. Our bird book describes them as “aerial hawking insectivores.” I’ll say.

After I realized what they were I told Alan, “No wonder they weren’t intimidated by those pesky Kiskadees. When you grow up in big families you get pretty tough skin.” Like some Catholic kids I have known, they emerge from a nest of multiple siblings with the older ones stomping on the heads of the younger ones for lack of space.

They were all similar in size; the only thing differentiating them was the color of their shirts and jackets. The eastern variety was wearing a buff colored shirt an outer jacket of deep steel-grey. Eastern Kingbird is a misnomer as it also nests as far west of the Mississippi as Oregon and British Columbia. The Western and Tropical Kingbird are so difficult to tell apart from a distance as to be near impossible for an amateur bird watcher like me. Both had tawny to pale yellow shirts on and their jackets were grayish-brown. According to our book one has a slightly hooked beak, the other straight.

They were simply joyful to have arrived in the tropics. Swooping and doing aerobatics, they romped about for a couple of hours feasting on bugs and flying insects. When they got tired, they literally sat down beside each other on the fence railing and seemed to have a chat, then resumed their festivities.

I think, from what I’ve read, that they will depart soon–if not already– for Columbia, where they winter. At least we didn’t see any today. But, there must be a big party planned in Columbia soon.

And perhaps we will see them when they head north in the spring.


This picture was taken on August 18th. Three weeks later the nest is empty, the chicks gone. We first noticed the nest because the bush is right off our front porch, at the bottom of the stairs leading out into the yard. Alan saw a small seedeater fly into the bush and went to investigate.

Seedeaters are what Kenn Kaufman in his wonderful book, Kingbird Highway*, refers to as LBJ’s, or Little Black Jobs. Non-descript small black birds with a white tip on their wings, they spend a good amount of time in front of our house foraging for, yes, seeds.

The nest was hunkered down about thigh high in an ornamental shrub well camouflaged in the branches. We made daily visits to the bush waiting expectantly for the eggs to hatch. Finally, about two weeks ago, one of the chicks appeared. It was so young it looked like someone had peeled the shell off an embryo. It lay on the floor of the nest without moving; I thought it was dead. All the blood vessels were visible through its translucent skin. It appeared so fragile I couldn’t imagine it surviving. The other egg remained intact, but a day later we had two. They were both totally inanimate for a few days afterward.

As they grew, doubling in size every day it seemed, the two LBJ’s began to look like someone had chewed up some fruit leather and spat a wad in the bottom of the nest.

Then entered the eating stage. Mom and dad flew back and forth hauling untold amounts of seeds for these insatiable babes. If we approached the bush and barely touched the branches two enormous mouths flew open as though hardwired to the movement of the shrub. We couldn’t tell where they were anymore because they were black at the bottom of a very dark nest, but their beaks were bright yellow, providing a target for mom and dad.

We journeyed to the capital last week to send Alan north to visit family, and when I returned home the nest was empty. There are lots of seedeaters out and about this morning, but I can’t tell if any of them are new to the group.

* Kingbird Highway is one of my all time favorite books. At 16, Kenn Kaufmann dropped out of high school and went on a yearlong birding adventure hitch hiking across America from Alaska to Maine and back again.

Reading this book I learned a good deal about birders, who are very different from bird watchers, and loved his lyrical writing about nature and his adventures. It is a great book.

Kenn kaufmann has also written several other books for birders but this one is memoir about freedom, coming of age (in a most unconventional way), and a passion in life. He must have had extraordinary parents. Check it out twice, as Joe Bob used to say.

Cleaning Up Around the Place

Sunday is my usual day for doing laundry and getting the house in order. I am not someone who is creative while living in clutter, so if I want to write I must clean first.

I was on my way to the laundry room yesterday morning with a load of sheets from our bed. The “laundry room” is actually on our back porch– one of the many benefits of living in the tropics; not everything has to be indoors. I opened the back door and headed down the steps where I found my husband, a bemused look on his face, standing where I needed to go.

“Check this out,” he said. I looked in the direction his chin jutted and saw a river of black ants flowing across our sidewalk. Army ants, or, as we call them, cleaning ants.

They don’t come very often but when they do, watch out!

Like the flooding Mississippi they flowed over and around everything on our sidewalk. At the head of the torrent they spread out, and our porch and sidewalk became a delta with multiple channels of them foraging in every crack and crevice.

I tried to imagine myself as a small frog or a cockroach, minding my own business, when suddenly, over the hill, a horde of warlike Huns descend killing everything in their path.

Army ants, also called driver ants, are migratory insects. Blind, they communicate using smell and vibration to feel they way forward in their constant hunt for food. They have no home, as do most ants, but bivouac overnight, constantly on the move.

They were in our house for all of thirty minutes I would guess. We watched as they scaled our bathroom wall making the side of it appear antiqued with the living cracks that scurried back and forth. They advanced at an alarming rate. Scouts scurried ahead and returned passing information to the oncoming ranks like bumper cars.

An anole sat at my husband’s feet, his head cocked to one side as the current of ants flowed past him. He had no fear of them, which is more than I can say for any cockroach found in their path. There are other jungle denizens–birds and lizards– that follow the army ants gobbling up any escapees from their marauding runs. The anole happily waited for any moth or fly that might be driven from cover.

As soon as it started it was over. Suddenly we noticed that there were larger numbers headed upstream than down. Like spawning salmon more and more of them fought the oncoming current of their brethren– the bumper car messages indicating a turn in the stream. Soon they were gone.

But my husband ran into them again over by his shop later in the day. They had redeployed over there ravaging that area. He made a misstep and ended up with a welt on his foot the size of an acorn. It still hurts today.