Wheel Adventures: Homestay delights but insects a fright in Costa Rica

David Sovka

In anticipation of cycling across Central America, I shelled out $125 for a couple of tubs of elite performance-enhancing powder from the dirty hippies at my local health food store. No, not heroin. Not methamphetamines! No, look, geez, OK, this expensive electrolyte stuff is totally legit and according to the label — I swear I’m not making any of this up — has been:

• Micronized for greater uptake!

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• Fermented for greater purity!

• Instantized for greater solubility!

I suppose I handed over the money in a low moment, intrigued by the possibility of finally defeating my tropical cycling nemesis (heat exhaustion), and possibly bewitched by how cavalier we have become in creating new verbs (“micronized” and “instantized” turn out to be real words, now that we are stuck living in a Trump world and nothing means anything, anymore).

The tubs take up a lot of room in my backpack, but I don’t begrudge the space, hoping as I do for a healthy ride. As with all of our adventures around the world, this trip begins with hope.

Hope that I won’t collapse on the side of the road in a vaguely David-shaped puddle of stench and exhaustion. Hope that nobody has a camera on them when it happens, again. And hope that next time I will read the label a little more carefully in case this stuff is supposed to be taken as a suppository.

For the next two nights we are sharing the home of a local family, although when I say “local” I do not mean to convey a specific locale, like with a map reference. I have no idea where we are, and nobody else seems to care. We’re somewhere in north-central Costa Rica, 50 km (100? a million?) east of La Fortuna and the Arenal volcano. The dirt roads that brought us here are neither signed nor numbered, and no one is able to show me specifically where we are on the map. My question seems to amuse the Spanish-only speaking family we stay with; we’re right here, silly: en casa — at home.

The family is lovely. La Señora Patricia makes us feel very welcome as she entertains a steady stream of neighbours, mostly extended family with their own small farms of cattle and sugar cane nearby. Her pre-teen daughter, who knows a little English from school, chats in an animated stream-of-conscious Spanglish narrative accompanied by much Hispanic arm-waving and laughing. She obviously kills herself, and she makes us laugh, too. El Señor Giovanny is a quiet, serious man, a farmer and the principal of the nearby elementary school. I like him because he smiles a lot at his daughters — especially the younger one, peering at me from behind her mother’s skirts with a mischievous grin. She reminds me of my own daughter, now grown, who I love and miss every single day.

Being a guest in someone’s home has many advantages over staying in a hostel or hotel. You see real life up close, sharing in the food and furniture, the rules and routines, the plans and pandemonium, of the family. There are challenges, too, such as the improperly hooked-up bathroom plumbing; the 3:30 a.m. wakeup because roosters are insufferable, selfish bastards; and the three-inch-long cockroaches zipping across the kitchen floor in broad daylight.

That last one was discovered by my wife while watching La Señora Patricia grind corn to make tortillas.

A petite woman not overly fond of giant, germ-carrying insects, my wife has always lived by a simple rule: NO BUGS IN THE HOUSE. But this is not our house, and the wide-open windows and doorways, and the large holes in the walls where the teak half-rounds do not align, make such a rule difficult to enforce. The fact that the house is on the edge of bug-infested jungle makes it impossible.

Thoughts of icky bugs in the house are temporarily driven out of my head in favour of song and back slaps and shouts of “Feliz cumpleaños!” Huzzah! The cycle group surprises me with a cake in the middle of wherever we are, complete with “Happy Birthday Davicito!” in blue frosting. Everybody, including some of the neighbours and relatives, shares the cake. Everybody except for our twitchy and unreliable driver, Antonio, who has disappeared again. We thought he was out parking his van on a downhill slope because its batteries are dead and a rolling start is needed to get going each morning. The only reliable thing about Antonio are his disappearances.

Thoughts of icky bugs return that night, when my wife has to shoo a particularly large and hairy one away from her toothbrush in the improperly hooked-up bathroom. I hear the shriek, and know that this is going to be a long night. As it happens, the night is made even longer because when there are bugs in the house, there are also geckos in the house. Normally I like geckos very much. I find them super cute and very helpful in their role vis-à-vis eating icky bugs.

But … The little reptiles chirping above our bed in anticipation of tonight’s delicious cockroach cho- down are not native geckos. Rather we are listening to the mating calls of the common Asian house gecko, Hemidactylus frenatus, an invader from southeast Asia and a dangerous pest. Not only do they out-compete native geckos, they also carry a virus that is particularly toxic to humans. Not to put too fine a point on it, but did I mention they are scurrying around the walls above our bed?

Eventually, after the Terrible Night of the Gecko, dawn arrives, although long after the Terrible Early Morning of the Rooster.

A fearful symmetry

Puerto Viejo de la Talamanca is a big name for a small town on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. Just north of the border with Panama, it’s an eclectic mix of surfer- and eco-tourism built on the back of fishing and jungle-clearing agriculture.

The town was originally called Old Harbour until the government launched an active program to dismantle the Afro-Caribbean English-speaking culture. You can still hear the odd word spoken in English, mostly along the lines of “Dope?” yelled by large, black men wanting to sell us marijuana. It’s kind of cute. They obviously don’t know we’re from British Columbia, or they would be asking us to sell them dope.

Puerto Viejo de la Talamanca is a nice place to find a small soda (family-run restaurant) on the beach, and wash down a plate of fresh fish and gallo pinto with Imperial beer. Alas, I’m not doing any of these fine things. Instead, I’m staring upward at the power lines above main street, unable to move. There, 20 feet up in the air, is a very large and frightening spider, in a web that is bigger than my wife.

This is a golden silk orb-weaver, part of an impressive family of spiders found in warm places around the world, such as Australia, Central America and your underpants.

If you’re still reading, the monster is sitting quietly in the dead centre of the eponymous golden web, biding its time, most likely contemplating my death. Its golden, spindly legs point inward around a greenish body with spots and racing stripes. The shiny horror sparkles like a demon’s jewel in the tropical sunlight. It is bigger than my entire hand.

At moments like this the poet in me usually leans toward William Blake:

What immortal hand or eye,

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

But what actually comes to mind is this: “You are never more than a metre away from a spider, your entire life.”

This disquieting bon mot is from my friend Simon Pollard, curator of invertebrate zoology at Canterbury Museum, and New Zealand’s pre-eminent spider biologist. As a scientist, and as a spider wrangler — I swear I’m not making this up — for big Hollywood movies such as Jurassic Park, he travels the world to photograph, study and (gulp) collect scary spiders, so he ought to know.

Simon delivers the line with a malicious grin, knowing full well the immediate and distressing reaction it generates on both sides of the Pacific: full-body itchiness, and wild, paranoid flailing.

Nevertheless, it’s a verifiable — if you really want to — fact: Spiders of all shapes and sizes are everywhere on planet Earth, and not just in an academic, “it’s cold, hard science so I don’t need to worry about it” sort of way. The truth is, more than 37,000 species of spiders share our homes, businesses and lives; they are always close by — alarmingly so — day and night.

Some are probably watching you read this, right now. And, yes, they want to kill you.

I am six foot two and weigh 240 pounds. This makes me roughly ten thousand times more massive than this denizen of the nightmare realm. Nevertheless, we Canucks are not used to icky bugs being so big. The mere sight of it, hanging up there where it is clearly a danger to passing birds and small aircraft, is enough to give me a case of the screaming fantods.

Of course, the golden silk orb-weaver is only one of many creepy crawlies endemic to Central America, and not nearly as deadly as say, the fer-de-lance. Or the eye-lash viper, coral snake, American crocodile or poison-dart frog. Wee (and not-so-wee) beasties are something you just have to deal with when travelling to warm, sometimes scary, places.

As I contemplate all this, a man who looks more like Bob Marley than Bob Marley ever did, stops to pat me on the shoulder. “¡No hay problema! The spider she no eat you, man.” He laughs, asks if I want dope, and then shuffles off.

For my part, I find a quiet soda, order myself an Imperial beer and whatever is on the lunch menu, and try to think about soft, playful kittens.

I check under the table before sitting down.

Next week: Sovka makes chocolate from scratch, and avoids the slings and arrows of outrageous frogs

> Previous instalments can be found here

About Costa Rica

• Costa Rica is home to 220 species of reptiles, 20,000 species of spiders and 34,000 species of insects

• The country boasts a 96 per cent literacy rate — in very poor, rural areas without schools, classes are taught over a national radio station

• Costa Rica is the longest-standing democracy in Central America (and has no standing army — it was constitutionally abolished in 1949 after the last civil war)

• Pedestrians have very few rights; the joke is that Ticos love to use their horns, but hate to use their brakes; speedbumps are called “son muertos” (“dead people”)

• Pura vida (“pure life”) is Costa Rica’s version of aloha, and used as a greeting, a goodbye, or if someone asks how it’s going

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