So, where did we leave off?
Ah, yes… about to head up the mountainside dirt road. Now slicked with rain.
After a few tries to ensure the 4×4 function was working properly, I shifted into low gear and began what I expected to be a 5-minute (so I was told) slow climb up. The jeep lurched along the dirt road, rutted and pitted by small and large stones alike. Dark and muggy, the jungle’s moist branches and vines hung low and glistened eerily in the glare of the headlights. With only about 10 feet in visibility, the jungle felt closer and more oppressive and each hidden, unknown stretch more harrowing. Battling with the shadows and the darkness, I had spent far more than 5 minutes trying to follow (figure out might be more apt) the directions, sneaking in u-turns on the path when I was clearly wrong, then just randomly turning this way and that praying I’d find a sign (in the dark) that would point me on the right road. Eventually, I knew it was time to give in and ask for help.
Ah, thank goodness for that local SIM card. I tried the number the owner had given me. Three, four rings… no answer, then, a message in Spanish. In desperation, I began dialling the number in different variations: with the country code, without the country code, with a leading 0, etc. – none of them were working! Then I remembered that the owner, N, had provided a different number for her partner, B. He answered! It turns out, I had chosen the back path – while shorter, it was a little harder to navigate for newbies, particularly, in the dark. Kindly (I learned later that he was actually away with visiting family), he stayed on the phone guiding me all the way up. Upon arrival, he told me just to honk twice and N would come out.
A little surprisingly, I was greeted not only by N, but by 8 dogs as well, all varying in colour, size and shape, her rescues and adoptees. Trying to make my way to the little studio in the dark (no outdoor electricity really) without running them over was an additional challenge I didn’t feel I needed at that moment, but it was the least of the difficulties for the day.
N kindly gave me some food from her own kitchen and some tea. She showed me to the little studio and then left me to settle in.
Relief does not fully express how I felt at that point to have arrived in one piece with no damage to the car nor to myself, especially after having had to put serious deliberation into the possibility that I might crash into a tree, a car, an animal or just drive off the side of a cliff. I wolfed down the rice crackers with jam that N gave me and enjoyed a sip of hot tea.
Suddenly, loud scratching noises started up. I looked around, trying to isolate the sound. More scratching, along with a few bumps. From the corner of my eye, I noticed movement. Two pale, grey-coloured lizards had come racing out from behind the tall dresser in the corner. Completely startled, I really didn’t know what to do. I watched as one chased the other, back down behind the dresser then back up onto the wall above it. This, was too much.
I couldn’t do this… could I? I called N and informed her that there were two lizards in my studio. Two lizards? What colour were they? How big were they? Small, pale grey I replied. Oh, she said, those are house geckos; they’re kind of everywhere here in Costa Rica, nothing to be afraid of, they don’t go near humans. Oh, okay… I sputtered, embarrassed by my fear of them, not to mention my ignorance. How had I come to Costa Rica and not known that I would likely be sharing my space with house geckos?
My heart was still pounding. The geckos continued scuttling and scratching. Without fully realizing it, my anxiety continued to expand, now verging on panic. I tried to tell myself that I could handle this – after all, the way N described them, they were clearly harmless and ubiquitous here. Rationality does not help in these situations.
I reached for my cell and called my friend, L, dearly hoping that she would pick up. When she answered, I proceeded to relay the entire story to her from start to ‘finish’, picking up the car, getting lost, avoiding stray dogs, driving through the wall of rain, losing all concrete awareness of where I was or what was around me, getting lost again, driving up the wet, muddy, dark dirt road, getting lost, finally arriving and then, being accosted by geckos. I relayed the reaction of the owner and then, unbelievably (to me), began to cry, all the while feeling absolutely ridiculous for crying in reaction to a bunch of tiny-ass practically domesticated lizards that no one here felt any fear of. And as we continued talking, her discussing random topics to try and take my mind off things, it gradually dawned on me that my tears weren’t really a reaction to the geckos, but rather to the shock of having the hard-won relief I’d finally attained upon arrival so abruptly torn away by another unknown, another experience I wasn’t prepared for. Eventually, I made it to bed.
Any qualms I had about continuing to stay in this studio for the full two weeks completely disappeared when I awoke to the view.
True to N’s word, the two geckos clearly did not want any part of me, preferring to stay behind the dresser/armoire. Foolishly, I chose not to consider what might be going on hidden away from my now-alert eyes. Just as I began to get comfortable with the presence of the two clandestine geckos, I discovered that there were now babies, three to be precise.
Now, two adult geckos who tended to stay out of sight and in one place, that was one thing. But now I had three baby geckos who clearly hadn’t developed a fear of humans yet, who hadn’t figured out that they should stay in areas out of reach. They were now surprising me on the kitchen wall by the toaster oven, by the light switch, by the faucet and on the counter; then, upon entering the bathroom, there one sat, on the low, tiled shower wall.
The anxiety returned and multiplied. Even as I reminded myself that the baby geckos were hardly likely to come near the giant being that I must have resembled, their behaviour was not increasing my confidence in this conclusion (they clearly hadn’t developed the appropriate fear and flight responses yet). Finally managing to convince myself that I was physically safe, there was still the problem of gecko poo. I was finding a fair amount of it in the studio now that there were five of them. Given the tendency of the baby geckos to wander haphazardly, immune to the dangers that led adult geckos to hide, wasn’t it possible, if not likely, that one might decide to hang out over me as I slept and release a dropping?
Geckos like humidity, so my solution – as futile as it may have actually been – was to keep the fans blowing cool air around me to keep the geckos away. Well, it seemed to work anyways.
Each morning, I would awake to that spectacular view and any residual presence of the anxiety and difficulty sleeping from the night before would dissolve and I would renew my pledge to stay.
One day, I thought I’d spend some time hanging out at the other studio, Casa Selva. I had originally booked this studio, but due to an accidental double booking, I ended up at Casa Vista for the first few days of my stay. Casa Selva now sat empty, but the previous guests had mentioned that they’d seen a mouse (not so unusual in a jungle, I suppose), while N also remarked that she believed there were bigger geckos living there. I decided that just visiting would be fine with me.
Wearing just a sarong and my flip flops, I eased into a deck chair with my coffee in one hand and my book and cell phone settled on the low table beside it. Enjoying the glimpse of water below that peeked out from between the trees, I rested my feet on the low railing and leaned back into the cushion. I felt my breathing slow, the light wind teasing my hair and skin.
(Sadly, I’m having some trouble retrieving my own image of the lizard from my old SIM card, so for now, here’s a close-up shot of the same type of lizard, a green anole, from ‘caspar s’ and flickr, via Wikipedia)
I looked down at my left arm and saw scratches from the lizard’s nails, a perfect impression of where at least one of its feet took hold during its very brief stay on my appendage. I wasted no time leaving that porch. Clearly, I was not meant to stay at Casa Selva. When I saw N next, I told her about the green lizard that docked briefly on my arm and showed her the nail marks and the cell phone snapshot. She was in absolute disbelief: in the eight years she’d been living in Costa Rica, she’d never heard of a lizard touching a human being and had told me as much on my first night when I called in a panic. She laughed that she’d never be able to make that statement again!
Despite my not-so-pleasant encounters with house geckos and green anole lizards, all the other birds and animals that resided in the jungle were captivating. Napping in one of the hammocks, I awoke one afternoon to the sounds of munching above me. Shuffling to the right edge, where I could see past the porch roof, I craned my head out searching for the source of the noise. Happily ensconced in a cecropia tree (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cecropia) was a howler monkey enjoying a commonly-sized leaf from said tree. It continued to munch away contentedly, oblivious to the human laying below staring at it wide-eyed.
Another day, I was cooling off in the pool when I heard this fwoop-fwoop-fwoop-fwoop sound above my head. Looking up, I caught just a glimpse of the bird now in a glide at the end of its short trip, the unmistakable multicolour bill and body of a toucan. Another soon arrived and they swooped back and forth from a tree at one end of the pool to another on the opposite end. I would lean back and just watch, admiring the powerful sound of their wings beating the air. (Unfortunately, this picture is also, currently, locked away in the old SIM card).
Each time I was lulled into thinking that my comfort level with Costa Rica and its indigenous creatures was turning the corner, a new encounter would send me plummeting back to the soothing image of a nice, enclosed modern hotel room: night would return and the baby geckos would make their way out to surprise me in odd locations; I would return home from dinner, flashlight out to illuminate my foot path, when my eyes would land instead on the burly cockroach about 2/3 the size of my foot (I’m a size 6.5) standing just outside my door; a spindly-legged black spider that looked like a 5-year old had drawn it, would scuttle off with astonishing speed, the flip flop in my hand barely moving before the arachnid had disappeared from view. The final straw, though, that thoroughly decimated my determination to stay the full two weeks was the collection of ants I found in my bed, whose source I located on the next night after which I promptly drowned what I thought was the opening, along with a trail of ants, with a heavy spray of Raid.
Willing to finally admit defeat by the second last night of my Costa Rica stay (my bizarre way of balancing my need to ‘prove myself’ with giving in), I made up my mind to spend the last night in a hotel by the airport, which turned out to be a wise choice that had nothing to do with the country’s lizards or insects: on my drive back to San Jose, a day earlier than originally planned, I encountered a 2 to 3 hour delay due to an accident on the main highway that led up and over a mountain, blocking the one northbound lane leading to the capital city. I never would have made my flight had that happened on the day of my flight!
In the end, I had to concede that I couldn’t cut it. Friends from tropical locations found it hilarious that I was afraid of the geckos but I’m from Canada! The uneasiness that started with the adult geckos and grew with the disturbing innocence of the baby geckos only multiplied thereafter with the hefty cockroach, the super fast stick figure-like spider, the line of ants and the other foreign flying, crawling and buzzing insects.
But the truth that I am loathe to admit is simple: none of the incidents listed are unusual or foreign in Costa Rica (or in many other countries for that matter); I am the odd one out. I am the one who could not get comfortable with or used to my surroundings. I’ve always thought that I could handle anything that travel threw at me and I suppose I hung in there long enough to not be totally embarrassed; nevertheless, it saddens me to think that this city girl was unable to divest herself of that layer and adjust to her surroundings. I’d like to think that one day I will overcome my fear of geckos (and the like) and return to Costa Rica or head to some other new tropical destination with nothing but an appetite for more adventure, but the nagging voice in my head is telling me that perhaps, I’m just not a jungle girl.