In search of the Resplendent Quetzal

Monteverde Cloud Forest, Costa Rica.

Written May 2018

A hummingbird flew right onto our veranda today.  Hovered, as they do, around Ella’s glass wind chime equal in bright colours to that of its own feathers, then darted off.

Birds are surprising, they often appear out of nowhere, without warning. Our travels in Costa Rica have brought many birding surprises: a solitary small Toucan on our morning walk behind our house, with purple flowers stuffed in its long bill- no camera to hand I’m afraid.  An impulsive turn off the main road up to Monteverde national park and we were face to face with a large turquoise Mot-Mot, there perched in the trees-it’s beauty captivating and for some reason shocking.

Although our long walks through the cloud forest of monteverde were accompanied by bird song we just couldn’t see any! Hikers walking towards us asked if we’d spotted anything …nope we answered. Until our last walk back from a small water fall.  All I could really see was a turquoise streak high in the trees that a local guide was pointing at. As he moved quickly to get a better view, my eyes steadied and tried harder to focus high into the canopy above, but nothing appeared. Eventually a small crew turned up unioculars in hand, their focus intense.

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Since neither of us had binoculars, I boldly asked one of the bird-watchers if I could look through her view piece to take a photo. After a surprised look of uncertainty and a split second decision she said yes and there it was, clear as day.  We had seen our first Quetzal, the pride of monteverde and a birders dream come true.  I’m sure David Attenborough would have been pleased.

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Now you might be thinking what could a newly turned one-year old like about bird watching in the cloud forest? Good question.

Although the the journey to monteverde was long-almost five hours from Nosara- with the last 45 minutes on unpaved, stoney, dusty roads, it brought coolness in the air and rain and a much needed change in climate. This fresh, moving air meant long walks for Ella and she was thrilled.

At the humming bird cafe, just before the park entrance, we saw more humming birds than you can imagine, their buzzing sounds like a Star-Wars light sabres swishing around us.  Ella saw the humming birds too.

She saw the large blue butterflies accompanying us down the roads where we walked. She saw flowers and tall trees which she seemed to love. She made friends on the trails. She enjoyed a royal view from her back-pack carrier, perched like a little Indian princess!

She even bought a stuffed felt Ketzel- her choice-  a future reminder of her Costa Rican adventures.

So, yes bird watching is definitely possible with a baby. Of course there were some trails we couldn’t walk because the Pram (buggy) was too wide or the trail too muddy, but we felt well catered for by nature.

 

Monteverde was our first planned weekend away from the beaches of Guanacaste and well worth it. The town is small with good restaurants and cafes. Our favourite for lunch was the tree house with a huge tree growing through its centre. Just down the hill is the Orchid Cafe where we indulged in an afternoon tea type of ritual- delicious coffee with passion fruit cheesecake two days in a row!

There are many great places to stay. We chose the Trapp family lodge the last accommodation on your way up the road to the park. It was perfect and just a ten minute walk to the park entrance which is ideal if pushing a Pram.

Definitely pack a rain coat, long trousers and long tops.  And you’ll need sun screen as it gets hotter during the day and a hat if you’d like age well!  We didn’t find mosquitoes a problem but repellent is useful to have.

If you are not a birder I recommend hiring a guide, we didn’t but would the next time. They knew the sounds of birds and were astute to the slightest movement giving away a bird’s location.

If you are a resident of Costa Rica the entrance to the Reserve is seven dollars otherwise it’s 22 dollars.

Tap water is drinkable, so don’t forget your water-bottle.

Running shoes are fine-even white ones -although a lot of people were in hiking shoes or boots.

Would I go back? Yes, and next time with binoculars and a birding book and maybe a pair of proper hiking shorts and boots.

I forgot to mention the local father and son artists- Robert and David Wessen- whose prints will be a reminder to Ella, when she’s older, of where she has travelled. You can find them in the Orchid Cafe.

Happy Travels and I hope you make it to Monteverde!

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Learning to walk again

The emotions are high: grief, happiness, tears of loss, tears of true love and the feeling of relief.

It has been two months since I completed my yoga-teacher training here in Costa Rica, and two months since I wrote most of this blog.

In these two months I’ve been getting fit again.  Motivation levels: up.  I’ve been reading and writing.  Creativity: improving.  And I’ve been traveling with my family on the weekends, hiking, making friends and learning about the different landscapes of this beautiful country.  Social interactions: doubled.

Sometimes we need a little help seeing our ‘blind spots’.

For me, surprisingly, this came in the form of three weeks of yoga, meditation, journal-writing, listening compassionately to others and to myself as we shared our inner thoughts, and singing that warmed the heart and soul.

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Playa Guiones, tide pools. Yoga on the beach.

If you have read any of my blogs, you might have noticed that there was some boredom lurking in my life; a dissatisfaction of sorts.  But how did I get to this point?  Well, I think it has been situational:  a sense of lacking a community,  a loss of my identity and role as a doctor to that of a first-time mother, the sharp decline in time spent surfing, and sleep-less nights with no end in sight.

But I won’t dwell on those just now.  This is what ‘showed-up’ for me in the days after finishing yoga training as I wrote my journal.

‘The emotions are high: grief, happiness, tears of loss, tears of true love, and the feeling of relief.

And so it begins when yoga training ends.  Mary Oliver’s poem, ‘The journey’, gives me freedom and space to write again.  I tried writing a few times during the last three weeks while learning to be a teacher of the ancient practice of yoga, but my eyelids were heavy and my eyes dry from the dusty roads.

Despite my eyelids sticking to my eyeballs as I slept, at times dragging myself out of bed to rinse them with water, I started dreaming again.  And, as I dreamed each night, I gradually stopped waking up looking for Ella, hoping she had not fallen down the side of the bed; each time slowly remembering she was there in her crib…safe under her mosquito net.

With my dreams came fluid memories.  One year after my mother passed away, when I fled the family home back to Belfast, leaving Christopher, my younger brother, to live with my father, I started waking up each night frantically looking for him.  Jumping out of bed as if the house was on fire, I would run to the other bedroom, pull back the duvet to find an empty bed, then run to the window hoping he hadn’t fallen out.  This nightmarish activity continued for more than five years, when a change in anti-depressant medication brought life back to my brother’s eyes.

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My time as a mother has presented many parallels with caring for my brother, the common thread being worry and pushing my limits.

As my yoga practice evolved at the teacher-training, so too did the bump around my waist, a reminder that another baby – all-being well – would be arriving soon.  A reminder, too, that I have been hiding some fear around another stint as a stay-at-home mother, off-work and possibly alone!

But I was not alone on this yogic journey. Our weekly evening gathering by candle light an opportunity to share something with our group and to listen and feel in return. Coming from Northern Ireland, where stoicism is often the norm, to risk one’s reputation by showing our true emotion is to be avoided at all costs.

It was at our final gathering that I felt I could open my heart.  And without preparing what I would say, for that often doesn’t come from the heart, I spoke through my tears, incoherently, I’m sure but freely.

So, thank you Nexus Institute for providing the time and space for self-discovery.  For supporting me as I find my feet to walk again. For giving me courage to ask for help (thank you Jason for taking over night-time baby duties), and for fuelling me with inspiration to continue our Mother & Baby adventures across Costa Rica and beyond. And thank you also to the wonderful, talented students from whom I learnt so much.

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Playa Guiones at sunset after yoga-teacher-training ended. April 2018. Photo by Vince Edgar

Jean Vanier is a philosopher and founder of the L’Arche community.  His words ring true to me in respect to what my brother has taught me and how, without knowing, he has enriched my life. I miss you Christopher Graham!

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A very funny wedding celebration photo shoot 30th July 2017

” People with developmental learning difficulties need love above anything else.  It is the ‘strong’ human being who is healed by the ‘weak’, but often fear prevents this discovery.”

” Those we most often exclude from the normal life of society, people with intellectual disabilities, have profound lessons to teach us. ”

~Jean vanier founder of L’Arche

Finally, I leave you with Mary Oliver’s poem, The Journey, and I hope that journey finds you!

 

One day you finally knew
What you had to do, and began, Though the voices around you Kept shouting Their bad advice‚
Though the whole house
Began to tremble
And you felt the old tug
At your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
Each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do, Though the wind pried
With its stiff fingers
At the very foundations‚ Though their melancholy
Was terrible.
It was already late
Enough, and a wild night,
And the road full of fallen Branches and stones.
But little by little,
As you left their voices behind, The stars began to burn Through the sheets of clouds, 

And there was a new voice, Which you slowly
Recognized as your own,
That kept you company
As you strode deeper and deeper Into the world,
Determined to do
The only thing you could do‚ Determined to save
The only life you could save.

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Bird by Bird

Ella is intrigued by Christopher.  She pulls herself up by his legs hairs as he lies on the sofa having just about woken up, “Ouch, don’t do that”, says Christopher softly… Ella examines him with a smile.

It’s January 2018 and we have a special guest here in Costa Rica, who could possibly love Ella more than Jason and I!  It’s Christopher, younger brother to me, Uncle to Ella.

Christopher has been here before and still refers to Costa Rica as the ‘humming bird’.  There aren’t many humming birds around where we live, just the occasional toucan, lots of noisy green parakeets, flocks of equally vocal black birds with long tails, Mot-Mots, Chachalacas, wood peckers and other colourful tropical birds which I’ve never seen before.

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A rare Quetzal photographed in Monteverde via a tourist’s telescope. I was bold enough to ask if I could take a photo.  With the naked eye I could only make-out a turquoise streak high in the cloud forest canopy

It’s hot and humid and Christopher, who doesn’t like drinking water, is feeling the heat.  We’ve also run out of baked beans and the local ‘Frijoles’ (black beans) are just not cutting it.

Ella is intrigued by Christopher.  She pulls herself up by his legs hairs as he lies on the sofa having just about woken up, “Ouch, don’t do that”, says Christopher softly… Ella examines him with a smile   But it’s not long before he’s up and hugging her, telling her he loves her and trying to get in a million kisses before she crawls off to play with a plastic bottle.

My days are busy.  Christopher has been with us for over a month. The morning baby routine now involves helping my brother get himself from the sofa to the bathroom, then with more prompting and assistance its teeth- brushing before coaxing him out to the  kitchen counter.  (You can read more about christopher life here).

I feel the heat now too, it’s almost stifling when I wake which is unusual.  The birds that populate the palm trees in front of our small bungalow are singing and squawking loudly, clearly no sweat to them in these temperatures.  A few of the neighbours including the restauranteur are not the birds best friends. ” They drive me crazy”, Jiro the chef next door told me as he stood, shaking one of the trees with both his arms, while stumping his feet.  Then another neighbour who is back just for a month was pacing around the pool for over 20 minutes banging a plastic container like a drum, making me wish one of the birds would just poo on him!  The poor birds, mingling happily in the trees on their way out in the morning and on their way home at dusk, only to be suddenly shaken around or startled by the angry humans down below!  But these hardy  birds keep coming back bird by bird.

Christopher is a home-bird who loves going on holidays. But not just any holiday. Unless he’s staying in a lovely hotel with a buffet breakfast, jacuzzi and a lobby where we can enjoy an evening drink, then we’re not talking about a holiday!  And so, our little bungalow didn’t get five stars, which means this Irish bird is homeward bound as soon as is possible, which means Ella and I are home ward bound too right in the middle of winter.  The two flights ahead, five and half hours and then six hours are not what I’m looking forward to, but as my mother would have said ” It’s like eating an elephant: bite by bite”.

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This was my first MotMot siting off a side road in Monteverde, Costa Rica.  It looked a lot bigger and more grand than the smaller ones I’ve seen around the dry forests of Nosara. This one was so regal, just perched there waiting for us..

Addendum

It is now June. I add this last paragraph with some disbelief.  Sadly the beautiful bird chorus that has been the sound track to home-life in Costa Rica was halted dead yesterday morning. The night before at dusk I watched the rental-manager walking around with an air rifle shouting birds out of the trees above .  His partner in crime fishing one out of the swimming pool. I wanted to go out and ask them what they were doing, but Jason warned me that approaching someone with a gun is not a good idea.

This morning I noticed splashes of blood on the wood panelling along the side of the house and a few hours later came across the beheaded body of a black-bird leaning against Ella’s floatation device; a patch of blood staining the blue material purple. I spoke to the gardener about the massacre of birds and without hesitation he replied, ” It’s better they shoot all of them, they defecate everywhere and carry disease”.

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This little cutey, an injured Costa Rican Parakeet, spent the morning pottering around Jason’s office while waiting for Bird rescue to arrive.

There are some friendlier bird-control methods available such as putting netting over the tops of the trees or having artificial figures of predators.  I never knew birds could be considered such pests…

 

 

An unusual gift…

So, I had hoped to research this blog before posting, maybe even interview an expert but alas time has been short and Ella and I have been on the move again, crossing continents!  It’s either write a blog post or go and lie down while the nanny is there.

Our nanny- who we’ve left behind for now- is the wonderfully wise Doña Marritza. Sixty years old and the a smiling face that lights-up Ella’s eyes as she peers through the window in the morning, saying, “hola Ella”.  Marritza grew-up with no running water.  She and her sisters woke each morning at 04:00 am, weekends included, from the age of 14, to walk in the dark to fetch pitchers of water to fill the long wooden trough in their home.  Things have changed since then, but many traditions have not.

A few weeks before Christmas Marritza’s motorcycle- yes that’s right her motorcycle- broke down on the dusty bumpy road before our house, so Ella and I jumped in the car to go and help.  What happened next was a slight shock to me but clearly not Ella.  Doña Maarritza had brought us an unusual gift which she carefully removed from her rucksack while waiting in the back seat of our car until help arrived.  It was something the size of a Bunch of grapes, wrapped-up in a small damp brown towel to keep cool.   She slowly peeled back the towel, smiling with excitement for me, to reveal a clear plastic bag filled with what looked like ping-pong balls covered in brown dirt.  They were turtle eggs, fresh from the nearby black sand beach of Ostional, their shells soft and dented.

Now, my knowledge of sea turtles had always been that they were all endangered; however, I’ve been told by locals that the numbers of turtles returning each year has been increasing and this particular species is no longer considered endangered, but remains ‘threatened’.  This is a result of the system in place by the turtle refuge centre.  This group, also referred to as the ‘committee’ by DOña Marritza, issues permits to local families living in the area of Ostional, so that they may remove eggs from the beach in a controlled and organised manor.  The committee then patrol the beaches at night making sure that only authorised turtle-egg collectors are removing the eggs.

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Olive-Ridley turtles arriving at Playa Ostional, Costa Rica.

Doña Marritza went on to surprise me further by telling me how the eggs are consumed.  In her family they are whisked up to bake cakes, whereas the local Costa Rican bars serve them raw mixed with Fanta-orange and a dash of the sweet-spicy sauce called Lizana! Not my cup-of-tea as my brother Christopher would say.  Brings back memories of a drink I once saw served in a little bar in Peru where the main ingredient was a frog…

In case you were wondering we did not accept this kind gift, mostly because I had no desire to eat a turtle egg and Ella didn’t seem too interested either!

Always Remember To Look Up

Surviving The Rainy Season, Costa Rica.

Three months.  Yes, it has been three months since we left Belfast.  Mosquito nets packed, insect repellent in equal quantities to sun screen, beach pram with big wheels, mosquito net for the pram, travel cot packed, mosquito net for the cot; Mosquitoes love me so they might like Ella too. Continue reading “Always Remember To Look Up”