Costa Rica

Breakfast With the Howlers


photo by Sally Retecki

Howler monkeys wake with the first light of the day and if they are outside my bedroom window, I do too. I’m not one to sleep late, but I still consider 4:30 to be nighttime. I knew it was going to be an early morning today, because last night, while I showered, I saw them through the open bathroom window swinging through the upper branches of the trees next to our house. It was late enough for me to know that they had decided to take up residence there for the night.

Sure enough, by 4:15 this morning there was a racket outside my bedroom window that practically shook the walls of our wooden house. Howlers are the loudest land animal on the planet and sound like a cross between a dog barking and a pig using a megaphone. A Dr. Doolittle kind of animal.

“ARGH ARGH ARGH,” from the big male outside my window, returned by calls from other dominant males across the jungle, “argh argh argh.”

They have a special hollow and elongated hyoid bone in their throats that allows air to pass in large quantities, and thus they are able to project their voices at such thunderous volumes. Their conversations resonated back and forth like this for about fifteen minutes until I got up to make breakfast and go sit on the porch to watch the day unfold.

The Mantled howler monkey (Alouatta palliata) or mono congo is the largest monkey in the Americas. Part of the Baboon family, they are big stocky beasts with dark brown to black fur and most adults have a long yellow or brown saddle, earning them the name Mantled howler. The face is naked, black and bearded like a Baboon. The males weigh in at fifteen pounds, the females a bit less. They live in troops, and a dominant male, who stakes out a territory where they live and feed, leads each troop. The male fends off unwanted intruders using his voice. Something I did not have to be told this morning.

While I sat drinking my morning tea, a great circus show unfolded across the clearing, or potrero as it is called in Spanish. On the other side of the potrero is a two hundred yard swath of jungle separating us from the Caribbean coastline. This stand of old trees is over one hundred feet high and quite dense. The howlers spend plenty of time back there foraging, and this year a big tree fell during a windstorm creating a hole in their usual jungle roadway.

A rustling in the trees made me aware that the troop was approaching the damaged area. Then one started across. It was the big male. He climbed to the very top of the tree above the abyss, crept out onto the upper limb as far as possible, and, as the branch began to bend under his weight, he let go free falling into the tree below––his arms flung out to catch anything available.

The landing was spectacular. Falling into a tree about 20-feet below him, he grabbed onto a branch. The extra burden carried him and the branch another 10-feet or so, the limb bending like a bow under his weight. Once reaching its maximum arc, the branch simply snapped back into its original position leaving the big guy sitting on his new perch.

The adrenaline rush must have been intense for the monkey. It was for me, watching! He sat there for a few minutes recovering his composure before ambling off to his breakfast table a few trees down. Then the rest of the family followed in exactly the same path: moms, babies, aunts and cousins. The little ones simply flung themselves at the abyss, practicing their monkey version of extreme sports.

I went in the house to make my own breakfast.

Maybe tonight they will find accomadations a bit further away, and I’ll be able to sleep a little later tomorrow.

Jungle Cats and the Old Revision Blues

 There it was resting among the other animals at the roadside stand. It looked as though it needed a home, and I happened to have had 15,000 Colones itching to get out of my purse. So our newest pet, a jaguar, carved from balsa wood by a young Indio-artisan outside of Cahuita, is at home here in Punt Uva. He seemed to enjoy the ride home and is now perched in a perfect hunting position atop our bookcase.

We stopped by the artisan’s stand while coming home from a day in town that had a fifty-fifty success rate attached to it. The norm here.

Our annual revision on the car is due this month, so we drove up to the center and sat in the blazing sun waiting for over an hour, even with an appointment. Once it was our turn we proceeded through the checks. I know the revision’s upside is to make up for all those years where cars had no inspection whatsoever, and often would sidle down the road at us like crabs, the suspension out of alignment. Or, perhaps it is because of the myriad of cars we have met at night, driving without any lights, or the thousands of trucks we have come up behind who have no brake lights at all. The new inspection is needed but, really, they have over-reacted. I told my husband I believe they are in cahoots with the banks and the new car dealers. Nowhere in the world, I think, do they check vehicles as thoroughly as they do Costa Rica.

The first station checked all of our lights, turn signals, seat belts, window cranks, wipers and washer, as well as the condition of the interior of the cab. Did we have the required fire extinguisher? Check. Did we have the required emergency triangle? Roger. Years ago they used to use a bush chopped and laid on the highway for an emergency flare; we are still cautious when we see a branch on the road. One never knows when they might revert to the old ways.

We passed the first station with flying colors. The second station checked the emissions of the vehicle. Perfect. They also checked the condition of our shocks. We drove over a little apparatus on the floor of the station and it vibrated the car up and down. To pass we had to have greater than 45% of our shock capacity intact. We passed that station as well. Next we proceeded to the breaks section of the inspection. Again we drove over a small measuring device and my husband was told to push the break slowly but firmly. Here is where we failed. The front brakes were fine, they said, but the rear left needed some attention. They sent us on through the rest of the inspection line.

The third station is like a lube pit and one of the attendants crawled under the truck to look for leaks and loose fittings. Bingo.

There is an item the 1987 Jeep Comanche Metric-ton pickup came stock with called a load leveling sensor. One year when Johnny Abrams was care taking the truck for us, he ran into a problem with it. Rather than fix it, or save it, he simply threw it away. We have been unable to find one– be it a new product or a junkyard item. Jeep has informed us they quit making them. The revision boys passed us last year and the year before without it. They want it this year. They even knew the name of it this year. I think they want us to buy a new car.

Once we got our failure notice we went back to Limon and had a wonderful meal at the Black Star Line, originally built by Marcus Garvey as a community hall, but now a huge restaurant. We had our usual casado- a plate of rice, red beans, stewed meat, and a little shredded cabbage salad. Once finished, we proceeded on to the National Insurance Office and paid our yearly fees for the workman’s compensation for our hired man, José. It was fairly late by then and we needed to head home. It’s only 35 miles, but it takes two-and-a-half hour to drive over the pot-holed road. Usually I never mention stopping at the little artisan’s shop I’ve been eyeing for some time now. Today I wanted to stop whether we were tired or not.

A very nice man gave us the tour of his complete menagerie including: macaws, crocodiles, anteaters, turtles, various other animals and a few insects as well. I swear I heard the jaguar whisper my name, “Sarita, take me home with you.” How could I refuse that?

So he sits atop my bookcase crouched and ready for an ambush. My husband is out under the truck working on brakes and a fake load-leveling device. We will give the boys at the revision another go in a few weeks. It’s alright. Almost everything here requires two trips to get
anything done. Maybe I’ll stop by the artisan’s shop again.