Howler Monkey Club, Slothfulness and O Canada!

There were 17 travelling companions – 12 Canadians, three from the USA, one tour guide and one driver.   We were on a one week safari followed by one week at La Costa Resort in Costa Rica.

Off the plane in San Jose and there is our Tika Tour guide, the beautiful Patricia, our driver Manuel and our bus.  We are not staying in San Jose so luggage stored, we are on our way to our first safari stop Manuel Antonio Park then to our lodge the Costa Verde.  We stop at Biologica Carara Park for snacks and are surrounded by these squawking, extremely loud monkeys.  Patricia tells us these are howler monkeys and they are found all over Costa Rica, can be quite mischievous and will spit at you.  They emit a loud, grunting cacophony.

A group swings near and I grunt back trying to ape their sound.   Our group follows suit and hence was born the Howler Monkey Club.  For the next 14 days we started the day with a howl, ended it with a howl and howled  at every howler monkey we saw.

Costa Rica abounds with exotic wildlife, enumerable birds unbelievable flora and fauna.   It is all there and accessible.  You will get a front row seat, or choose a back row, to observe mammoth crocodiles, huge iguanas, beautiful hummingbirds, toucans, macaws, armadillos, snakes and more snakes and more.

Our driver stops abruptly and points up into a tree.  Ah!  There is a sloth!  Here is the confirmation that slothfulness is in truth a deadly sin.  The sloth was going from one limb to another a distance of maybe two feet. Manuel parked so we could watch it.  We watched, and watched,  and watched.  We howled at it.  No change just s l o w as molasses movement, almost undetectable.  The sloth had moved maybe ten inches after 20 minutes.  He had not rested.   Watching its slow progress was painful and awesome.

Every day of the safari was memorable.  Every day the Howler Monkey Club got friendlier and more connected.  Every day we perfected our howl and soon Patricia was sending word ahead that she had the greatest group of mostly Canadian tourists who had become Howler Monkeys.  We were not shy going into the next lodge or inn and howling to all and sundry.  It was obvious that we were a happy bunch and that happiness spread.  Soon everyone was talking about the group of happy Canadians who were Howlers.

Then the group split with tears and laughter and hugs and promises to keep in touch as The Howler Monkey Club.  Addresses exchanged,  I was given the complete list as First President.  Our three single ladies were spending the next week at a bird watching sanctuary, others were on safari only and eight of us Canadians were on to La Costa Resort. We howled our farewells.

Patricia had called ahead to let our tour representative at La Costa know the ‘Club’ was on the way.  We were greeted with a banner: “Welcome to the Howler Monkey Club.”  We needed no encouragement.  We did our howling with gusto to the delight and no doubt the horror of some guests. We had the usual introductory talk and bought tour tickets.

The resort was wonderful and at dinner we declared that this was the kind of camping we liked.  We had had an incredible experience roughing it on safari and would not forget the amazing sights but were ready for a bit of sybaritic vacation living.

After a long day of boat riding and barbecue we were eating pizza and having beer.  Our guide told us the next stop would be at the Pirates Cove a new restaurant and inn.  The owners greeted us and we discovered they were Canadians and the business was opened only two days.   Our tour guide had added this stop knowing we were all Canadians.  Instead of howling, I started to sing O Canada and all the Howlers joined in.  The owners cried as they and their two young children sang along. They were from Vancouver, had visited Costa Rica, fell in love with the country and sold everything they owned to buy the bar and inn.

We wished them luck.  Hugs were in abundance.  Next stop Cocos Bar, and then back to La Costa where we closed out the disco.

The Meander:  Travelling is freeing and full of surprises.  The Howler Monkey Club existed for about five years.  We are still in touch with the young honeymooners.  Some years ago I read the obituary of one member and sent a card to his wife.  She wrote back a lovely letter reminiscing about our Howler Monkey Club.  We travel for moments like these.

 

Iguanas and Me

If you travel in Central and South America it is almost a given that you will meet upon an iguana or two.  I have met a few.

Bert was behind the wheel in Venezuela.   It is one of our favourite adventures: rent a car, look at a map and choose a path not yet travelled to see what we may find.   We were assured that roads leading from Puerto La Cruz were all well maintained, even the unpaved ones.   We headed out and it was a beautiful secondary road that wended its way through high grassland, rolling hills and forests.  We passed some tiny villages but were looking for a particular one which, according to the road signs was having a fiesta and rodeo.

We rounded a bend and there in the middle of the road was a magnificent iguana.  It was huge and brown.  It calmly turned its head as Bert braked and looked at us.  It spread its dewlap  which to me looked like a menacing warning flag signalling: “Beware!”  I looked out the window and said: “Shoo”.  Brilliant! Obliquely staring back at me with an insouciance that seemed scornful, the iguana just stood there.  Bert could not go forward, had no room to go around so we just sat and looked at the iguana.   Bert blew the horn, I continued with my awe inspiring ‘shoo’, we threw it a half banana which it sniffed, ate but still it stood motionless.    We too sat immobile.

After perhaps thirty agonizing minutes the iguana waved its head from side to side and with one last supercilious look strolled across the road and disappeared into the bushes.

Our visit to the Galapagos Islands was taken with immense anticipation-  Darwin, Origin of the Species, huge turtles, wildlife endemic to the islands.  WOW!  We scrambled over some rocks and came upon an imposing marine iguana just lying there, basking in the sun.   It resembled its prehistoric dinosaur ancestors.  The guide was saying this was the only lizard that can live and forage in the sea and is found only in the Galapagos.  He also said something about them sneezing salt but I did not hear much as I was just gazing at the fantastic creature that seemed to hold the patent on looking seriously bored.   Soon he had had enough sun and so abandoning his warming ritual he slid into the water and soon was out of sight.  He was ready for lunch and had gone to feed on the algae that grew on the rocks in the sea.

Now it is some years later and we are Colombia.  We were admiring the peacocks, amazingly beautiful parrots, macaws, swans and flamingos.  What a show this was.  We kept finding more and more beautiful birds with different coloration.  Far up in a tree there was a rustling.  We looked up and there was the mother of all iguanas calmly jumping from one branch to another.  This was a green iguana.  They call this the ‘common iguana’.  Nothing about it looked common to me.  It seemed that it was much too large to be jumping from branch to branch which swayed as it landed.

As I looked up, the huge lizard jumped DOWN to the ground. “Jesus, Maria y Jose.”  I thought I would die.  The guide calmly told us they can do that kind of jump without injuring themselves.  Forgive me but I was not concerned about any injury but thinking about one landing on me.  I noticed the only calm one was the guide.  I saw one fellow putting his wife in front of him.  Some knight!  Many in the group looked up to see three more calmly eating the tender shoots seemingly oblivious to the stupid tourists gawking at them in fear and trepidation.

The first iguana I ever met I ate.   It tasted like chicken?   It was being digested before we found out we had eaten iguana.   We were High School students from Jamaica in Mexico City at an International Youth Conference.  We were busy most of the day but had lots of time for sightseeing and cultural visits arranged by the conference organizers or by our host families.  This night we were to be taken to an authentic Mexican restaurant for a fabulous dinner.  The meal was absolutely delicious and we tasted many different dishes. We all loved the meat enchiladas.

On the way home we asked our driver about the great tasting enchiladas.  Our driver did not speak English and was rather silent but suddenly he spoke with animation and very fast but we all heard ‘lagarto’, ‘ muy grande’  ‘delicioso’.  I had stopped listening at ‘lagarto’.  Iguana is food.  I asked: “Iguana?”.  “Si, si. Iguana.  Es muy delicioso.”   There was a collective gasp.  One fellow threw up immediately.   That was good as we concentrated on the clean up and not the iguana meal.

The Meander:  When I consider other culinary delights I have tasted on our travels this is by far one of the least strange though it headed the list for a long time.

Incidentally, the fiesta and rodeo featured a few heads of cattle for auction, some sway-backed horses and a girl of 14 years old who had the voice of an angel. Her family surrounded her and collected tips as she sang.  We could have listened to her forever.

Red Lines

Caregivers make decisions regarding every area of living both for  their loved ones and themselves.  Some are more difficult than others.

Though not inevitable, a decision whether to place your loved one in a Long Term Care facility will arise.  It is better to face the prospect sooner rather than later and learn every aspect of such a move before it becomes necessary.   As I write this, winged dragons are dancing in my stomach.  It is perhaps the most difficult decision a caregiver will ever have to make.

Thank goodness there is no dearth of information, advice, counselling, and help.  They all agree as to when you have to consider this option and the indications you cannot, must not ignore.  The major ones are:

Wandering: Nearly 65% of people with dementia will wander. There have been reports of patients being found a hundred kilometres or more from home.   There may be some elusive memory that triggers the wandering but really there has to be no reason.  That is the nature of dementia.

Falling: Dementia affects mobility especially in the later stages.  This is a particularly worrying one as it involves the safety of your loved one.  Sometimes the situation is aggravated by osteoarthritis, vision problems or other underlying health issues.   Additionally, the carer may not be physically able to care for a loved one who has fallen.  There comes a time when frequency will dictate a move to a more controlled environment.

Aggressive behaviour:  Here the patient becomes a danger to self as well as to the carer, family, friends, and strangers.   This is a crisis situation.  Safety becomes the major consideration.

Sundowning Syndrome:  The darkening day, night time or plain confusion between the two may result in this syndrome which manifests itself in major anxiety attacks and very aggressive behaviour.   This syndrome can put the caregiver in a very deep depression, as well as physical danger.

Escalating health care needs:  There may come a time when the caregiver just cannot tend to their loved one.  Their own health issues, their lack of training, their physical or emotional state becomes so fragile that caring for another becomes just too much.

There is no one to help:  When everything falls to the one carer then burn-out is almost a given.  The disease is such that friends and family may slowly disappear leaving just the one to cope.  Depression is the result.

The caregiver’s own health issues have multiplied, or become worse:   The caregiver now needs a caregiver.  Plain exhaustion will only aggravate the situation to the point where neither carer nor patient  can function.  One or maybe both need care.

Complexity of needs of the person with dementia:  In the later stages of dementia so much may be needed by your loved one such as walking aids, complex medications, help with eating, dressing, toileting, speaking, and equipment to help with basic daily living.  It becomes overwhelming for the caregiver to have their loved one living at home.  The decision must be made to place them in a facility where specialized services and equipment will be available.

Much credit is due the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada for the above.  Nearly every piece of research will echo these reasons for considering  a long term care facility but the Alzheimer’s Society has brochures on every aspect of this gut-wrenching decision and there are many to contemplate.

Despite the clarity of these red lines I believe each caregiver may have  additional ones.  Those would be personal and particular to the relationship they have with their loved one.   I bow to the expert advice; however I have two to add that is specific to my Bert and me:

My Bert does not know me:  This may sound trivial but our life story is such that the day my Bert looks at me and does not know who I am will be the day I know he IS the disease.

Physical abuse:  That is the culmination of aggressive behaviour.   He curses?  So, what?  He is angry?  He has a right to be.  However, the day my Bert lifts his hand to strike me will be a definite red line.  Hitting a woman, any woman is not in my Bert’s DNA.   That would be Alzheimer’s Bert not my Bert.

These two situations would ready me to make this most difficult decision.  My rationale is this:  As a caregiver to my Bert I am the one fighting the disease.  I am the one pushing back with love, care, hope, creating an environment of calm, kindness and comfort.  My Bert cannot fight against something he does not understand and which robs him of himself so I fight for HIM.  This new entity would be an alien, a walking disease.  It would be unbearable.

The Meander:  If I ever have to make that decision, I will do it out of love.  My Bert deserves that.  I will do my utmost to ensure my Bert gets the best care for his daily needs while I continue to care for his beautiful soul.  That is one thing Alzheimer’s cannot take from my Bert.

Alone But Not Lonely

When Ross Weber came on board he was a hirsute, grizzled, denim clad man who seemed rather diffident and cautious in his approach to people.  Soon the whispers and rumours began.  Our floating village was abuzz.

“Did you hear that the lanky, grizzled man is a multi-millionaire?”

“I heard he owned an island that he sold for $32 million.”

“He has never worked in his life.”

“He was a hermit and is just coming out into society.”

It was like a game of Gossip.  In fact that $32 million had grown from $7 million in about three days.  I was fortunate to be among those who got the truth from Ross himself.

I had not paid much attention to Ross except for the usual pleasantries in passing.  Then one night he asked a friend about my origins and she invited him to join our group which met to talk out on deck or in a cozy lounge almost every night.  He came but still does not know much about me as we were too interested in his story.  He opened up to us, speaking in brief sentences and then he said:

“I have two tapes.  They are documentaries about my life.  They have been shown in New Zealand and Australia on T.V.  If you can arrange it you can see them.”  We surmised he was either tired of talking or did not want to go into any details.  He was very shy.

Our Cruise Director was most accommodating and set up a viewing for the next sea day.  We told a few people and it was also announced through the ship’s public address system.  We garnered quite a crowd.

So here is a synopsis of Ross’ story.  Ross had a dream to own a farm.  Farmland on the mainland was very expensive.  At 27 years old he was able to buy his farm and a boat because his farm was the very picturesque Puangiangi Island off the coast of New Zealand’s South Island in the beautiful Marlborough Sounds. Most small islands resemble a cup turned down in a saucer, Puangiangi however, seems to undulate in the incredibly blue waters of the Sounds.  Ross shared his island with his flock of 60 sheep and the local birds.  The sheep provided meat, which he dried as he had no refrigeration and he grew vegetables.  He also grew his own herbal teas and grapes from which he made wine.  After 47 years he sold his island and was cruising around the world for a year.   The interviewer tried to get him to divulge the selling price of his island but was not successful.

While viewing the tapes, my interest peaked when I noticed the number of books in Ross’ rustic home.  The walls were lined with books.  There were books in boxes and other reading material everywhere.  Ross said he spent more than $1000. annually on books and magazines.  Ross showed his watch which he had got with a magazine subscription.  It had no wristband so he carried it in his pocket.  He found no need to get another because: “It still works.”

As Ross fielded questions we learned more about him. He said he was never lonely; that loneliness was for those who had nothing to do.  He said he worked hard and sometimes through the night caring for the sheep, battening down during bad weather, tending his crops and doing the myriad chores necessary for one man, living alone on an island.

Ross was adamant that you should not call him a hermit.  That he was not.  He had yachtsmen and deep sea fishermen visiting him to walk the trails on his island.  A few became friends whose arrivals he anticipated each year.

“They brought me practical gifts and had tea with me.  I had friends.  I had books”.

His conversation was current with a broad view of the world.  He did have television in the last few years and one room with electricity powered by solar power, but the books were what kept him informed.  They were his constant companions.

He was asked about needing companionship. His response was that he met some very nice women but they had other interests, jobs, relatives and did not want to live on his island.  He ended with: “I just didn’t find the right one.  However, I could always find the right book.”

There were those on board who wondered how soon some unscrupulous person would try to separate Ross from his money.  Those were the ones who did not sit with him and see those wise blue eyes look steadily into yours and see beyond the surface.    When asked what would have happened to him in an emergency with a look of surprise he simply said: “You just take care or you die.”  That was literally true as for the first 10 years he had no telephone.

The Meander:  Among the many fascinating people we have met on our travels, Ross is one of the most interesting.   He is living proof that you can live your dream.  He attests to the fact that the best non-human inanimate companion is a book.  As he so often affirmed: “I had my farm.  I had my books.  I lived alone but was never lonely.”

Note:  A version of this post first appeared in the summer 2005 Access, a journal of the Ontario Library Association. 

Fishing Among Baby Alligators in Venezuela

 

“Hi.  Have you picked another tour as yet?  We are looking at this Life on the Ranch – Gaucho Day tour.  It looks interesting.”  Our Canadian pals greeted us at the tour desk

“That’s a coincidence.  We booked that one last night.  We are here to find out about rental cars as we want to drive around the countryside before going hone.” I answered.

“OK. We will book the Gaucho tour too.  That should be fun.”

Highlights of the tour were fishing with baby alligators, horseback riding, watching and learning about mechanical milking of cows, a ride across the vast ranch and a fabulous barbecue lunch at a Gaucho camp.  Bert was ecstatic with the fishing.  I was skeptical.  After all if there are baby alligators then where are the mamas and the papas?  I posed said question to the tour representative who laughed.  In my mind I am thinking, he who laughs last laughs best.

It is going to be another long day but we are up for it.  Our guide tells us that we will be taking a scenic route to our base camp and he will point out areas of interests while the driver will give us opportunities at designated areas for photos.  We settled into our seats.  Drinks were distributed.  On the outskirts of the city we started a sing-a-long.

The drive was scenic.  We had started out at 8 a.m. and were parking at the base camp just before 10.a.m.  The camp was a very large covered area which included the kitchen, a large dining area, lots of easy chairs and woven hammocks hanging from the uprights.   Gosh, they looked really comfortable.  My Goan pal and I immediately grabbed two side by side and deposited our paraphernalia in them.  We both had brought books as we were not into fishing, especially with baby alligators.

Two aluminium boats with outboard motors were on the shore of the lagoon. Nearby were four handsome Venezuelan Gauchos each leading two horses.  The plan: half go fishing, half go horseback riding and then a switch so everyone had a chance at the activities.  Eight opted for fishing, six for horseback riding and my pal and I settled into our hammocks with our books.  We were offered a tall mixed alcoholic drink by the cook who told us refills were always available or we could ask for something else.  She was mixing up a sauce which smelled so very good.  Ahhh, life is good!

Not one hour later there was a commotion on the shore.  I said: “Oh my God, I hope they did not disturb a mama or papa alligator.”  We left our hammocks and were met by swearing, wet, mud covered men and women.   Bert blurted out the story.  The boat in front had engine trouble and his boat went to their aid.   Fishing lines still trailing one look down saw an alligator which was definitely a parent not a child.  She screamed, another stood up in the boat which tipped it dangerously, another uttered some choice words which were not ‘Gadzooks’ or ‘Zounds’ or even ‘Jumping Jehosaphat’.

Afraid the boat would tip everyone else shouted at the  boatman and guide to leave the stranded boat, take them back to shore and come back for the dead boat.  No doubt uppermost in mind was self preservation.  Fortunately, in the melee, attaching a tow line to the sick boat was accomplished and both came back without fish, without a few lines, without two sunhats, one pair of sun glasses  but with fingers and toes intact, bruised egos, wet clothes, muddied feet and shoes  and a stray weed or two here and there.

As the fishless fishermen tried to come back to a semblance of normality (the tall dinks and beer helped) we heard horse hoofs coming.  “I hope they got a good ride and are coming back happier than our men.”

A woman was the first off her horse and she rushed to her fisherman husband and almost in tears said: “Please get the damn ticks off me”!  The kitchen help got busy with tall drinks and beer.  They also provided cotton and what smelled like kerosene with the advice to: “Just put a bit where they are and they will drop off.”  Even my pal and I and our fishermen husbands were employed to help though the ticks were sometimes in places best administered to by a spouse or very close companion.

My Pal and I could not look at each other.  We were being very solicitous until Bert said: “You two got the best of this deal, no alligators, no ticks, just getting drunk, reading and sleeping.”  We laughed, and could not stop.  We were not the most popular persons.

Lunch saved the day.  It was a fantastic barbecue and it seemed they expected us to eat like a Gaucho after a day herding cattle.  Good food can be a panacea. The grumbles were few, the drinks flowed, the chatter increased.  When it was suggested that it was time to switch activities there was a loud, collective and heartfelt; “NO!”  Instead, we had a fine siesta.  Most had to be shaken awake to go for the ride on the ranch that would end with the milking of cows.

Yes, the ranch was huge.  Yes, it was a bumpy ride but a scenic one and yes, we all looked on in awe as a huge herd of cows were milked all at the same time.  We were as placid as the cows as we got back into our minivans for the long ride home.  It was a shorter ride as the highway driving though dull, was so much faster than the scenic route of the morning.  As we dropped off the first group of four the tour guide apologised and said she would ask her company for some kind of restitution for the aborted activities.

“Nah, don’t worry.  I bet by the time we get home everyone would have caught a big fish, saw a ten-foot alligator and ridden across the fields like a real Gaucho.  Right guys?”  Everyone agreed.

 

The Meander: What I did not tell you?  Both my Goan pal and I had not been to the bathroom all day.  Why?  When we asked for the key to the main lodge which was designated for our use, the cook added: “Please walk in the centre of the path, as there are sometimes a few small snakes around and their bites though not bad can hurt a bit.”  I finally found something else in common with my Goan pal.  We both have snakes phobias.  “Snakes, did she say snakes?”  We handed back the key.  We no longer wanted the bathroom and the mind is so mighty we never did want it again the rest of the long day.  We just NEEDED to go. At our drop off we left the social niceties to our knowing husbands and high tailed it to the bathroom.  How do you spell relief?