Stop Bugging Me

Well…not really haha. I just needed a catchy title and I felt that was rather fitting seeing as I am sitting here typing this right now from Peru!!!

Yep…you read right! I cannot believe that my bug internship is over! My 10 weeks has really flown. Well, in fact, my whole time in Costa Rica has whizzed by…all 3 months of it! And what a ride it’s been so far. I’m kinda sad but also excited to embark on the next adventure too. And to think I almost wanted to quit half way through my internship when in actual fact, I would have been gutted if I did when really, it’s mainly all boiled down to getting along with very different people and realising cultural differences perhaps but altogether, it’s been an experience I needed to have and oh boy, have I learnt a lot!

So what’s been happening here since my last blog? Well, let me fill you in…

I really got into the swing of my tours and my knowledge on bugs and nature has grown tenfold. I even got another 4 5* reviews on TripAdvisor too! How amazing! I have absolutely loved teaching people (and hopefully changed a few perceptions) all about the bugs and butterflies of Costa Rica and ended up confidently presenting to a room full of people about scorpion’s, tarantulas, tarantula hawk wasps, Golden orb weaving spiders, millipedes, centipedes, katydids, stick insects, cockroaches, the 3 and 4 stages of metamorphosis, the machacha bug (or peanut headed bug), assassin bugs, Bess Beetles, Iron Clad Beetles, Dung beetles, the Hercules beetles and various species of butterflies and their lifecycles! I learnt all about the order of insects as well as what families they belong to. I know one thing for sure…I intend to carry on with my studies and keep learning more about Entomology once I am settled back in the UK again.

I’ve really loved meeting all sorts of tourists from all over the world and hearing them ask if I am indeed a Biologist and calling me the ‘bug lady from England’ :)

I shall miss coming home to discover a green spiny lizard trapped in the sink, being hit on the head by flying dung beetles while trying to prepare dinner, finding scorpion’s hiding in our clothes and behind our cosmetic bottles, being woken up at the crack of dawn by howler monkies (hmm sort off haha), seeing the cappuchin monkies in the trees playing a game of ‘let’s see who we can knock off the branches first’ to hearing the peculiar sounds that the Keel Billed Toucans make (which sounds like a bunch of ribbitting frogs believe it or not!), to finding cocoons and weird, fat parasitized caterpillars and getting perversely excited when one of the other interns grins and says ‘Let’s cut it open and see what’s inside!’ “Errrrr…..YESSSSS. I’ll get the dissection kit!” I’d screech. I guess this just proves I have the mind-set of a scientist…to have the want to see what happens, ‘why does it do this, what happens if’…It really has been SO refreshing to be around like-minded people, all bug nerd scientists together haha.

Oh and we’ve even had a new intern start during the past 2 weeks – a chap called Nick. Nick is a 25 yr old Zoologist from the UK and coincidently, he lives in the same town I used to in Surrey of all places! What a teenie world hey!

I’ll miss working in the laboratory, collecting caterpillars and their eggs, catching huge gross crickets for our arachnid feeding nights, gardening and weeding, making beautiful bouquets each day for the butterflies and generally doing my bit to help the team with whatever’s been needed.

The bug hunter

Just call me Helen the bug hunter haha! Omg, my eyes have certainly sharpened to spotting things I tell thee! I guess that’s normal in the life of a naturalist 😉

In our training manual, there was a line that read ‘If you find a praying mantis, you win life!’ Of course, it left all us interns scratching our heads but we figured to see a praying mantis here must be a rare thing?

So get this, I was just taking a lovely couple round on a tour. We’d passed through garden 1 and I was just taking them over to garden 2.

Flash HeartAs soon as we walked in, something right next to one of my bouquets caught my eye…Christ knows how but I’d spotted a Praying Mantis of all things!!

“Woah!! Look, there’s a praying mantis! I’ve just won life. I’ve not seen one in Costa Rica yet and there he is!” I screamed the garden down haha, poor people! They didn’t look half as excited as me either haha. “Would you mind if I go and grab a bucket and catch him?” “Um..no, sure. Go for it!” The couple raised an eyebrow and let me carry on hah.

I ran all the way back to Reception and shouted to Anna,”Anna, grab a bucket. I’ve just found a praying mantis and I’m mid tour. Can you come and help me get it?” “Oooh wow! Yeh sure”. Anna came and met me in garden 2 and helped me to grab it so I could carry on touring. What a find!

After my tour, one of the bosses (David) had taken a photo of it and shown Bryna (the other boss). “Bryna’s so pleased, she’s making you a mango and strawberry pie”. “Oh wow, yummy! Thank you” I was so happy! Anna and I named our praying mantis ‘Flash Heart’, a randy character from The Black Adder series!black beauty

strawberry and mango pieA few days later, I took myself off out for a chicken dinner one night and again, something caught my eye. I’d seen a female black bark scorpion! I so wasn’t leaving without it haha.

“Excuse me, do you have a bucket or something I can put this in?” I had asked a nearby shopkeeper for something I could catch and keep my scorpion in. Eventually, through the language barrier, I was handed a small coke bottle. We’d cut the top off so I could scoop my scorpion up and then I turned the top upside down so that it sat in the bottle acting as a lid almost. So yep, I’d added a praying mantis and a female bark scorpion to our displays at work hehe :)

Feed me!

So once a week, all of us interns are tasked with feeding the arachnids, something Anna and I loved doing together. The arachnid feeding nights are so much fun! Once it’s dark, Anna, Nick and I would through each of the gardens and catch gross, plump crickets in our little buckets and nets. But it is fun walking through the gardens at night with our headlamps on. The gardens become a completely different place at night, especially the 4th garden which looks like something straight off the set of one of the Jurassic Park movies.

gross fat cricket“There’s one” Anna would scream “ARGHHH! Helen, it’s HUGE!” Anna and I would team up and help each other to ‘Doink’ the gross beasties into the open net or bucket and you had to be quick or else they’d start climbing up out your bucket with a vengeance eekk!

I remember Devin (the last intern) probably hated hearing Anna and I both screaming like little girls down his lug hole when a humongous cricket missed our net and dived straight for our faces haha “ARRGGHHH!” I don’t know why, but none of us liked the crickets here! They are so creepy looking and get seriously MASSIVE. Although, not as gross as the Jerusalem Cricket…go and google that guy and pray you never encounter one ewwww!

We did also have a moth wall which we could resort to if we were too chicken shit to catch crickets some nights. It’s basically a wall with a bright, powerful orange light that could be left on and in the morning, the wall will be covered in less scary flying critters that we could just pick off and throw into buckets.

The scorpion’s could be rather fussy eaters but they were fun to watch while dining! They would grab the insect with one pincer…almost checking it out before committing to chowing down, they’d then grab another part of the creepy crawly with the other pincer and then up came the tail and ‘POW’, they’d pierce the bug with it’s stinger (and sometimes twice depending on how much the critter is wriggling haha!). Anna and I will imagine the scorpion is whispering to the cricket ‘Sleep….Sleep. Don’t fight it’ hahah.

And the Tarantulas would either eat or not eat a cricket. When they were hungry though, you’d so know about it! They’d pretty much pounce on the prey and immediately bite down with their fangs and pump their victims full of venom ready to drink it all up like a cricket smoothie…nom nom.

Special feeding night

So my last feeding night was pretty darn special and one that I certainly won’t forget! I decided to take my GoPro with me for the usual ‘cricket hunt’ through the gardens and we were all pretending to be in a David Attenborough documentary recording the whole thing hahah.

“And here we have, the giant, plumpous cricketous!” I’d say, trying to imitate David Attenborough at work whilst recording and zooming in on a fat cricket with the GoPro. “Anna, our of our expert team is about to demonstrate how we catch this mini beast”. “Thank you David. ARRRGHHHHH!” Anna would scream as she went in with her bucket under the leaf the cricket was sitting on and the lid above it ready to catch him in a claw like fashion haha.

It started to get harder when you had more than one cricket in your bucket cos they’d all try and climb out at the same time, gross!

Once we’d all gone round the gardens collecting as many beasties as we could, we’d then walk back over to the nature centre to feed our hungry exhibits.

We’d use tweezers (but think…extra long ones!), to pick up the crickets and dangle them in front of the scorpions/tarantulas. “Wait, wait. Let me put the theme tune to Jaws on!” I loved putting this music on! It was as though it played out to our suspense (and probably to the poor crickets fear hehe) while we ‘seduced’ the diner to tuck in on our fresh catch.

“Hey guys. I think the scorpions are fighting?!” Nick called us over to check it out. “Do we need to break them up?” Anna and I rushed over to see what was going on. “No way…I think they’re mating, woah!” I excitedly gasped. “Like, no one gets to see this, this is rare as!”. I then grabbed my GoPro and filmed it and of course, this also had to have some kind of background music too so I put on some salsa music for them as we watched hahah. Because if you didn’t know, when the males mate with the females, they have to almost ‘dance’ for them! Males will come face to face with the ladies and clamp down on her pincers and ‘salsa’ with them! It’s truly fascinating to watch. Our male scorpion looked like a pro as he pulled his lady from side to side and back and fourth over the rocks on the floor of their enclosure (or should I say on their dance floor hehe). We eventually got bored as we’d realised this could go on for hours so we left them to it.

Now I’d remembered, a week ago, spotting an orange-kneed tarantula living in a hole in the ground under our reception area! I’d told everyone about it and even tried catching her on my own but she was too quick and immediately retreated back down into her safe haven. I’d said to Anna “We have to catch her tonight, I am so determined!” So…I’d suggested to Anna, ‘let’s go for it and become be the heros’ haha.

Anna and I walked over to reception. “Omg, there she is! Do you see her?” I almost shouted to Anna in which she immediately shhh’d me haha. “Quiet Helen, you’ll scare her back down!” Laughing, I suggested we made a plan. I could see Anna was just as determined as me :)

First attempt, we sucked haha! Crouching down near to the entrance of her man-made burrow, we waited and we waited. Anna dangled some string near the entrance while I had a small bucket poised, ready and waiting above the hole. I guess we were just going to try and entice her out and quickly slam the bucket down on top of her but it didn’t work, our Orange-kneed lady was too fast and too clever for that. We needed bait!

“Let’s entice her out with a katydid or cricket” Anna remarked. “Yes, we can tie string around one and catch her that way” I’d excitedly respond. So off we went. The first katydid managed to wriggle out of the rope and we’d tied it so many times that she was eventually oozing black gunk and was pretty much a gonna. But the concept was working! Each time we dangled the mangled katydid, the tarantula would poke a few legs out letting us know she was clearly hungry.

But it was getting late and we were getting really tired. We both agreed that maybe we should just come back and try again the next night. Sighing and admitting defeat, we headed back to the nature centre. We were gutted.

“Hey Nick, we need to feed the Golden Orbs too remember”. I ushered Nick to look up to where our large orbs were hanging suspended in their nets. “Yeh, of course”. Nick did the honours of lobbing a few fat crickets up to our spider ladies and then, out the corner of my eye, I spotted a MASSIVE cricket just chilling out on top of the cockroach enclosure. “OMG, look at the size of that! We could use that to entice the orange-kneed out. I don’t wanna give up, she’s just hanging out in reception, she’s right there!”. Suddenly, I had a boost of energy and immediately dashed off to get Anna. “Yes, let’s do it!” Annas response just made me more determined.

We both helped each other to tie string around the cricket and almost skipped over to the Reception area with our 6 legged friend dangling, unaware his hours were numbered! We’d decided Anna could do the enticing while I had the responsibility of the catch! ‘Don’t mess this up Helen’ I’d be repeating over and over in my head.

“Ok, here goes”. Take 2…Anna dangled the cricket over the entrance of the burrow and immediately, 3 hairy legs poked out. Our lady was clearly very hungry. It took a few goes of trying to draw the tarantula out far enough for me to have the room to place a bucket over her and far enough that she couldn’t ‘run’ back down the hole. Eventually, we had a clear shot, Anna drew the tarantula out and away from the hole. “Perfect” I’d whispered but then, unexpected, the tarantula’s spidey senses must have kicked in because she turned to run back to her burrow WITH the cricket in her fangs. “Nooooo” We both were realising this could go very wrong and she was too fast for me to trap. “Ughhh dammit!” We were both cussing at this point. The tarantula had run back down the hole with her tasty meal. Anna was pretty much playing a tug of war with her until the cricket detached from the string…we’d lost…again!

For a few moments, we could see a cricket leg poking out from the burrow while the rest of it was being slowly devoured from below. Ugh we were gutted once again until…”Wait, where are the tweezers? I’m gonna try grab the cricket with them and pull her out again!” Anna was sharp! “GREAT idea!” I ran and got the tweezers from the nature centre and passed them to Anna.

Anna didn’t give up and was fighting the orange-kneed for the cricket haha. It was working, the tarantula didn’t want to give it’s free meal back to us and clung on with all its might. Anna was a star and drew her out once again. I saw my shot and I took it…I quickly placed the bucket over the tarantula…we’d trapped her, we DID IT!!! A quick high five was needed, phewie! We slid some card underneath her and scooped her up in the bucket. And guess what? The tarantula was STILL holding on to that cricket hahaha. What a team.

Bosses were so pleased with us the next day. We named our tarantula Dillon, inspired from the film Predator that we’d watched together a few nights before hah! And she was massive. What an absolute beauty.

Serpent strikes back!

So we have a water feature in our gift shop which the bosses recently filled with a bunch of tadpoles. The tadpoles of course rapidly grew into teenie tiny lil frogs. One of them was so small that it only just fit on my little finger!

We’d eagerly gather all the tiny frogs (when we could find them) and let them loose in our gardens. Trouble is, there was more than just us and our tourists trying to find them….yep, other predators lurked!

One morning (annoyingly on my day off), one of the staff spotted a green side striped pit viper in garden 1. It was hunting our little frogs! Those things are highly venomous. There is an anti-dote however, I’ve been told you need to go back to the hospital for more than one jab…inconvenient and painful at the same time hey!

One of the bosses came to the rescue though and managed to get rid of it and placed the snake somewhere else. Thinking the drama was over, a mere week or so later, I was on garden duty. While I was cutting dead leaves, I looked up and saw something that almost looked ‘too’ green if that’s possible? It was like a beautifully, perfect green among the other leaves and vines surrounding it. Another thing…not a single butterfly was sitting on the fruit in that area! ‘Hmm…that’s odd!’ I thought. ‘I’ll take a 2nd look’. As I approached the perfectly green ‘thing’, my senses quickly sharpened to alert me…’STOP right there! Don’t get any closer you idiot, that’s a bloody snake!’ It’s amazing how quickly your instincts kick in…almost like they realise before you do!

Luckily, Anna happened to walk in at that moment. “Hey, um, there appears to be a snake in here!” I pointed in the direction of the snake to show Anna so that she too didn’t get any closer to it. “Omg, ok. I’ll go get Bryna wait here”. Anna hastily headed to reception to get help. Roberto then walked in which felt strangely reassuring that I wasn’t still alone with the deadly beautiful serpent. “Roberto, there’s a snake right there. Is this a pit viper?” I already knew it was but I think my brain just wanted to make doubly sure it knew it was definitely dealing with a potentially dangerous situation. “Oh boy! Yes it is and you are standing far too close to it” Roberto ushered me to move back further. “Those things can detect heat and will strike the distance of their body length and that one looks pretty long!” Jeeez! “It looks like the one we captured from before”. Roberto appeared to be examining it closely (from the distance we were at!) but he seemed to ‘recognise’ it so I just took his word for it! “Isn’t it beautiful?” Still gazing at the snake, I had to agree. It was so still too, just poised there right in front of us on a branch and waiting to strike at the right moment.

green viperAnna came back after trying to find Bryna so Roberto ended up calling Bryna’s mobile to find out where she was. In all the drama, it seemed everyone who worked at the butterfly gardens was now right there with us all trying to take a peek (or showing us their support) Even Hilda, our resident cook was in on the action haha!

Bryna finally appeared in the garden with an extra long stick and a huge round, deep bin to drop the snake into. We all waited and watched with baited breath as Bryna (who is also heavily pregnant I may add!) made a few attempts to ‘pick’ up the snake with the stick and lower it straight into the bucket but she managed it with no problem. As soon as the snake was in the bucket, I could hear a swoop of deep sighs from every mouth present! “Phewie!” I victoriously clapped for Bryna’s bravery. What a relief!

Since then, I have developed an extra cautionary eye whilst making my way through our green-housed jungle habitats!

Red rump

It was my last night at the bugs and Anna and I had just spent a lovely night in reminiscing and chatting and eating chocolate hehe. I needed a pee but I thought I’d cheekily walk over to the ‘normal’ toilets at the reception area so I could also sneak in some wifi time (remember we are meant to use the compost toilet hehe).

So anyways, I walked over and saw something ‘thick’ and black scoot off in front of me right near the entrance of the toilets. ‘What was that?’ I wondered. I shone my headlight down in the direction of where this thing had run. ‘Omg, there it is! Wow, is that a tarantula?’ Right on the marble floor, I could see a spider with 8 long hairy black legs, a flat but wide thorax (centre of the body) and a reddish, brown abdomen. ‘Well, it can’t be a spider…it has the same features as a tarantula. Hmm, maybe it’s a baby one?’ I kept chatting to myself trying to distinguish what it was but I was pretty sure it was a baby tarantula and a male too because I could see 2 small ‘hooks’ at the front which the males use to fertilise the females with.

‘Right, I’m getting a bucket’. After I’d taken my photos, I just knew I had to catch this guy to show the bosses in the morning. He was easy to catch too, I just gently placed the bucket over him and slid the lid right under. So much easier than our orange-kneed earlier in the week. Score!Red rump

Anna was asleep by the time I’d finished faffing about bug hunting haha. I couldn’t wait to show her my catch in the morning.

Morning came and I’d caught up with Bryna. “Ahh wow. A male tarantula. That’s a red rump and they are pretty rare, I’ve only seen 4/5 of them in my time here! Who knew you’d turn into an expert bug hunter. Don’t go touching all the bugs down in Peru, some are highly venomous ok”. “Ok then, spoils sport!” I grinned hehe. Bryna sounded well impressed and I was super happy that she called me an ‘expert bug hunter’ heheh. The male was then released and yummy pastries were bought for everyone for brekkie :)

It was then time for me to say my goodbyes and catch my 5 hour long bus ride back down the mountain to San Jose…

New adventures

So from turtle conservation to working through an Entomology internship…the ups and the downs, the constant smell of mildew on my clothes, the actual mould that started growing its own city on my quick dry towel, from the crapping in the woods, the almost quitting halfway through…it’s all been totally worth it!

I’ve learnt so much and can’t wait to start my new adventures in Peru. I will miss all the special people that I have met along the way so far, especially my friend Anna who fast became my best friend who I have such a wonderful connection with. We are going to stay in touch and visit each other at some point in the future which I’m so happy about. Yay, a trip to Canada B.C 😀

So keep on reading, I feel this next trip is going to be just as special. Much love xx

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Entomolo-gist of it

Wow, the past 4 wks since my last blog has really flown by. I can officially say I have definitely got the ‘Entomolo-gist of it’ all! Haha, I couldn’t resist that pun hehe. I have now been an intern for 6 wks so I’m well over the half way mark before I leave for my next adventure in Peru.

My confidence has increased and I’ve adapted my own style for my bug tours. Life here has formed a nice lil routine and everyone knows what they’re doing. But the best bit for me, is the fact that I feel like an actual entomologist/scientist of some kind! People comment at how much I know or even ask me things like “So what course are you studying at University?” or “How long have you been a Biologist?” How cool! I love that. I even get people showing me pics of bugs on their phones asking me “Hey, do you know what this is?” 😀

I am really enjoying teaching people what I have learnt about these bugs and I’ve been getting such a buzz feeling people have left (hopefully) with some new found knowledge and hopefully less of a fear for critters in general. One bunch of girls even asked for a selfie with the ‘bug girl’ which I thought was totally amazing aww haha!

But all of that aside, it’s not been easy. Just like everything in life, there is always something or someone that can be hard to deal with just to test us! Let’s just say, the people who own the place aren’t the easiest to deal with so I and a few of the others here have and are finding it hard to keep going at times. One volunteer started and only lasted the 4 wks (instead of the full 10) and actually quit this morning in a bit of a shock exit. That means, we’ll all have more work and more tours between us until we have a new intern start.

New friends

But there is always a positive from a negative right…And that is, that I’ve made a wonderful best friend here at the bugs camp – Anna. Anna is the Canadian/Russian girl who I mentioned in my last blog. We’ve been getting along great. We love playing cards and sinking a Pilsen beer or 2 at the end of a long day.Anna and I

Anna and I share a similar humour and have been having such a laugh during our day to day intern life e.g. pretending we are recording and narrating our own David Attenborough documentaries or even that we’re presenting our own version of Gardener’s World (for when we are helping with the weeding which by the way, we call the ‘Garden of Weedon’) hahah. Anna’s super funny and smart and I get a good feeling her future will all work out just the way she wants it.

Anna and I swopped one of our days off with another intern so we could take a day trip out together. We got up super early one Tuesday morning and caught the local bus out to the Monteverde Cloud Forest. Hell, we were so early that we were arriving with the workers of the reserve haha! It was absolutely bucking it down too but that didn’t matter to us cos it was just fun to be out and about exploring.

HummingbirdWe booked ourselves onto the first tour of the morning which was fab. It was a 2.5 hr tour with an experienced guide so he was able to point out various birds and hummingbirds, trees, plants and fungus. Oh and there was a fungus that Anna had always wanted to see and I was so chuffed for her when the guide pointed it out. But this was no ordinary fungus, it’s like a mind controlling fungus called Cordyceps. Basically…it will find itself a host such as an ant or wasp – (any live insect that it can get a hold of really) and it basically attacks the brain of the insect and pretty much turns it into a zombie…so freakishly cool hey! The fungus alters the behaviour of the bug by forcing it to climb up to the highest point (something like a long stem). The bug will die but the fungus will be able to flourish. This fungus will eventually grow upwards and out of the insects head so you can literally see it Cordyceps funguslike a small mushroom cloud! It’s so freaky but so cool at the same time. Ants will even be able to sense if there is another fellow ant that has been infected with this fungus so they will push their infected mate(s) out of the colony and then commit suicide so they don’t run the risk of being infected themselves! Oh how clever nature is, it blows my mind all the time!

Oh and we also saw a side striped pit viper at the reserve too! It was just coiled up in a tree! The snake looked pretty small but one bite from that and you’re basically up shit creek so we admired it from quite a distance hah! I was so happy to have seen it though as I really wanted to see a snake..

 La Fortuna

So my boss presents to a bunch of children in a posh hotel once a week and she gave me the opportunity to join her and help hand out bugs at the end for people to get up close and personal.Side striped pit viper

It was a long 3 hr drive to reach La Fortuna but oh my was it beautiful! We were just surrounded by lush green hills and fields and a real pretty lake (Lake Arenal). There were also lots of signs for hot springs and ‘come see the volcano’ which I would love to have done of course hah!

Pulling up at the hotel, we could see the volcano standing in all it’s glory…that is until the cloud came along and rudely covered it up hah! But it really reminded me of Bali’s volcano, Mount Batur and took me back to the day when I’d hiked up it :) Hmmm….my feet began to itch. I really wanted to stay behind and spend more time there and explore.

La FortunaThe presentation went really well and everyone enjoyed it and they freaked watching the boss do her usual trick of putting a Giant Peppered Cockroach in her mouth! We just like proving that cockroaches are actually the cleanest critters haha. So anyways, you can imagine the shrills from people around the room, it’s so funny!

The cloud seemed to follow us back on the way home and when the light faded, the cloud resembled a thick eerie fog like something out of a Stephen King’s horror movie…then suddenly…

“STOP!” The bosses shriek snapped me out of my cosy day dream making me sit bolt upright. “What is it?” I asked. “There’s a snake in the road”. WOW, I couldn’t wait to get out the car to see it. “It’s a highly venomous snake so we must keep our distance”. So we jumped out the jeep and watched it slither slowly across the road to the other side. It wasn’t a very big one and it certainly wasn’t afraid of us. “So what would happen if that bit me right now?” I inappropriately joked…”We’d be rushing you to the nearest hospital!” Ahh ok…I slowly took a few extra steps back ensuring I was well out of it’s striking distance. And for those of you asking….I believe the snake was a young Fer-de-Lance, gulp! Their venom contains hemotoxin which affects your nervous and circulatory system, strewth. Basically, if you don’t seek medical attention fast, you die!

Scent trailI am so happy to have seen all that I have seen so far but I must admit, the itchy feet and sense of adventure is still beckoning me just like the scent trail from a juicy pie in cartoons…seducing me to follow and wander off again. I have 4 wks left of my internship so we will see what happens and what temptation has in mind for me. I will of course keep you all posted of my adventures 😉

But for now, I will carry on being the student Entomologist that I am and savour all the best bits for my old age memory pot to look back on and smile 😀

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It’s a bug’s life!

I stayed in a musicians house in San Jose the night before heading out to Monteverde which was kinda cool. Well, it was great to hear them all playing their guitars and pianos in the lounge for the first few hours but not when they were jamming right up until the wee hours! My bus was leaving San Jose at 6:30am the next morning so I knew I wouldn’t get much sleep…perhaps I could kip on my 5hr long bus trip?

Urgh, 5:30am and my alarm was already doing its usual unwelcomed flash dance on the dresser next to my bed. I chucked on some clothes and headed for the nearest (and safest) place to grab a cab. Armed with my spanish dictionary, I managed to summon a taxi and ask the driver to take me to the 7/10 bus terminal.

I was greeted at the entrance of the bus station by a few of the local Costa Ricans. It was clear they were just trying to be helpful and assist fellow backpackers as to which ticket counters they needed. Baffled by the Spanish lingo being fired into my untuned ears, I thought I’d cleverly sussed where they were telling me to go but I hadn’t! The bus station was laid out like a ‘mall’ complex and spread over 3 floors. After a few attempts of going from the top floor, to the middle and back down again, (not fun whilst hobbling along with mr invisible!) I’d finally navigated my way and located the right bus terminal, bought my ticket and made my way outside to the waiting area.

It was a 5 hr trip to Monteverde. Stupidly, I didn’t buy any breakfast on the way over and all my faffing trying to find the right terminal left me with no time to buy anything so I was pretty hungry for half the journey. Luckily we stopped for refreshments and snacks so I took the opportunity to load up.

During our ‘pit stop’ a pale looking, blonde girl got off. We gave each other the ‘you’re a backpacker’ look and chatted in the snack cue. Esher (which sounded like Easter but without the ‘a’) was also headed for Monteverde. It was nice to have some company on the way and also know another backpacker was staying in town that night.

The scenery again was just incredible! My eyes were witnessing endless scenes like something straight out of the Jurassic Park movies! Humming the theme tune in my head, I marvelled at the huge expanse of Tropical jungle which thrived in every bit of space it could cram into. I pondered things like ‘How many sloths could be hanging around in the mass of trees there right this second?’ or ‘How many species of tarantula are wondering the forest floors down there’ hah.

Woah, I could tell we were headed into the highlands of Costa Rica now…we were travelling up and up and up, so far up my ears starting popping! Eek…the road was becoming more rocky and snake like too as it looped around the incline of the mountains. I tensed up in my window seat as the bus got closer to the edge giving me glimpses of the sheer ‘death’ drop below! ‘Blimey! What if some of the rocks roll away from under the tyres causing the bus to wobble and fall down the mountain?’ or ‘What if the bus driver has a sudden heart attack and drives us all straight over the edge?’ Oh jesus Helen, STOP with the imaginations haha! No one else seem bothered by the ‘view’ at this point so I slipped my ear phones on and played some Coldplay to see me through.

When we reached the end of the line, Esher and I managed to figure out where our hostels were and walked together. Omg, Monteverde is so hilly and the weight of our heavy backpacks were killing us slowly! Finally reaching our hostels (which thankfully were close by) we departed and went our seperate ways. I knew I’d probably see Esher around as Monteverde seemed a really small place…the town almost seemed a ‘triangular’ shape and easy to navigate. Actually, the first thing Esher and I noticed were the amount of hostels there were; ‘Monteverde Backpackers’, ‘Sloth backpackers’, ‘Nina’s place’…It seems a very ‘touristic’ area. I could hear American and Canadian accents in passing and saw the odd local Costa Rican darting into smaller side streets of fruit markets and cafe’s.

I spent the night in a mixed dorm at Monteverde backpackers and luckily they were all girlies aged 19-20. Saturday morning and afternoon was spent skyping and blogging. And I did see Esher again! I grabbed myself some lunch in town and saw her in passing. She pointed out a great place to get a cheap taco and again, we parted ways.

“What are you going to do here in Monteverde?” The hostel owner made small talk in the reception as I checked out. “Oh, I’m doing an internship with the butterfly gardens in Cerro Plano. I’ll be learning all about the bugs and butterflies and helping to give english tours round the gardens and nature centre”. I enthusiastically responded. “Oh fantastic. Well welcome to Monteverde Helen. Come back here again anytime.” And with that, I ordered my cab to whisk me off to get started with my next venture.

Back to nature

“Hola. I’m Helen, here to volunteer” I greeted a Costa Rican looking guy on the reception with a big smile hoping he’d already be expecting me. “Ahh Helen, yes, our new volunteer. I’m Roberto, nice to meet you.” Roberto spoke with an American accent yet I later found out, he was a Costa Rican national (just brought up in America). After Roberto introduced himself, he turned to beckon a colleague. “Um, Sam, do you know where Helen is staying? Is she in the Cassita with you?” Looking towards a seated area was a slim, pretty girl with long, light brown wavy hair. She actually reminded me of Taylor Swift haha. “Oh yes! Hey Helen, I’m Sam. Nice to meet you. You’re staying in the Cassita with me. Here, let’s take your things over there now so you can start unpacking.” Sam must be around 19-20yr but we instantly clicked. I think I will call her Swifty from now on hehe.

The CassitaSwifty showed me to the Cassita – a shack deep in the bushes tucked neatly away from the bugs and butterfly centre. ‘So we’re living in the woods’ I thought to myself! “We are very eco-friendly here. Everything is run by solar panel too so we must be very energy conscious.” The ‘steps’ down into our Cassita are actually made out of old car tyres so I was already getting an idea as to how nothing is wasted – pretty ingenious hey!

It was rather pokey inside the Cassita but there was just enough space. I could see a cosy set up of 2 rooms both with a bunk bed inside. I was pleasantly surprised as to how light and airy the Cassita is. It seems to have everything you could need – a stove, a sink, plates, pots and pans…Oh but…’where’s the toilet’ I thought? Swifty then gave me a mini tour and showed me where the shower is (just to the side of the Cassita), and then of course, the toilets which is a short walk further into the woods. So I guess you could say…yes, I do s**t in the woods haha. Tyre steps

The toilets are very basic but they have been created specifically to work as composters. There is a small ‘out-house’ with 2 raised wooden seats (or ‘holes’ both complete with lids) – one for pees and well, the other for your number 2’s haha. The first thing that sprung to mind was how much it reminded me of the ‘dark ages’ except these were a more modern version I guess haha. The ‘waste’ from the buckets sat under the holes is eventually moved to one big bucket to finally become an all purpose fertilizer – again, all very well thought out and

organised.

They are so self sufficiant here. Swifty even showed me their chicken coup and the pig pen! The chickens are purely used for their eggs but the pigs are bred for their meat. Swifty told me they did have 2 pigs named Prince William and Harry but Harry was recently killed and eatern one afternoon which actually, I’m really glad I wasn’t here to see. So they now have 2 adult males, 1 large female and a load of piglets.

“Oh and here is our herb garden. Anything you see in this patch is ours to use in the Cassita”. Sam showed me round a small rectangular patch near the shower which had various kinds of green growing. I am utterly rubbish with plants and can’t tell you the difference between a weed and a flower but she pointed out we have mint, fennel and sage amoung a few others.

So back in the Cassita, I gradually unpacked all of my clothes and toiletries and began setting up the mozzie ‘tent’ on my bed. “Oh that looks great!” Sam stood and watched for a few minutes as I did another blue peter job of looping and hooking the thing up and around the available bed posts. “You’re gonna need that because spiders crawl over me during the night…oh and it’s common to find scorpians in our rooms here too!”. “OMG! I’m so glad I have this then. It has a bottom on it too so nothing’s getting in with me haha!” I was super happy I had invested in this piece of kit and knew sleeping here wasn’t going to be a problem :)Room mate

Once I’d gotten everything organised in my room, I took a walk back over to the centre where I met both Bryna and David, the bosses. A welcoming Canadian couple who gave me an introduction on all I needed to know and what I was required to start on first of all. “So, we have a nature centre full of bugs which you will come to learn about later on but the best thing for now, is to learn the names of all the butterflies we have here.” Bryna passed me a selection of colourful flash cards with photographs of the butterflies and their common names. “We have 4 gardens here that are each split into different eco-systems. The best way to learn the names, is to spend time in the gardens on your own taking these cards with you.”

So I knew my first task for the next few days would be to study, read and re-read the flash cards. ‘Strewth’ I thought to myself, ‘how am I going to remember all of these names?!’ There were 22 butterflies I needed to be able to recognise, each with its own interesting little fact (there were a few more than 22 to memorize as they’d been busy introducing a few more species to the gardens).

To summarise;

Garden 1 – Beach/Lowlands: The Owl butterly, Common Blue Morpho, Red Cracker, Blue Frosted Banner & Giant Swallowtail
Garden 2 – Neo Tropics: The common postman, Cydno longwing, Julia longwing, Zebra longwing, Sara Longwing
Garden 3 – Forest understory: The glass wing and the Orange stained glass wing
Garden 4 – Butterflies native to Monteverde: Common Blue Morpho, Prepona, Monarch, False Mountain postman, Hewittson, Tigerwing, 5 spotted longwing, Terricina longwing and the Sulphers.

So, later that evening after the bosses had left for the day, Swifty and I headed back to the Reception area where Adrian was sitting – another volunteer of the gardens. “Hey Helen! Nice to meet you. Would you like some rum with us?” Adrian, a french guy in his late 20s greeted me with a friendly handshake which was quickly exchanged for a blue mug filled with about a quarter of rum – I watched it swish up the sides as he passed it over to me. “Oh lovely, um thank you.” I wasn’t a huge fan of rum but I wanted to ‘join’ in and become part of the gang!

We all ended up chatting until the sun went down. It was great getting to know them both. And Adrian knew so much about bugs! A very interesting character who was sadly coming to the end of his internship so I’d only know him for a few days.

Natural naturist

Over the next few days, I’d spent a fair amount of time in each garden and also ended up practising with Swifty and other members of staff and was quite surprised as to how quickly I’d picked up all the names of the butterflies so was super happy. I even followed permanent staff round on their tours so I could learn the lingo and the ‘script’ of what you were to talk about when taking people round. It was all quite daunting actually. ‘How am I going to do this? I’m no Biologist’ I’d say to myself. My confidence was the only threat to my new knowledge but I was getting it and I had to remember to stop being so harsh on myself.

Roberto, David and Bryna are the guru’s here! All come from Biology and/or Entamology backgrounds so they know pretty much everything there is to know about these bugs and butterflies! I could listen to them talk about bugs all day long and in fact, I pretty much did whenever they had large tour groups to lead.

Emmett Brown“We’ll be giving you suggested readings to aid your learning here”. David actually reminds of Emmett Brown from Back to the Future haha. He’s a bit of an eccentric inventor! And if you’re following him around the grounds, he’s actually quite hard to keep up with…he’s always darting about and mumbling something or other under his breath and if I can’t hear him, I’d like to pretend he’s saying…’Great Scott’ haha! So anyways…there is a rather large cabinet FULL to the brim with books covering topics such as; Natural history and diversity of insects, butterfly anatomy, Entomology and evolution of bugs, Snakes of costa rica etc etc..anything a naturalist could ever want and need to know, I love it!

So finally, after days of cramming, David took me on a ‘dummy’ tour to test my knowledge. I was sooo nervous! ‘You can do this Hels. You HAVE to do this!’ I kept repeating positive affirmations in my head over and over to see if this would help but my nerves kept prodding me like some kind of annoying child. “Ok. You ready?” David looked over the tip of his glasses waiting for me to ‘start’. “Yep, let’s do this”. I then took him straight over to garden 1 to begin my first test run tour…

Ugh, it was so patchy and I felt so flushed by the time we’d got back to the Reception are. I’d stumbled and stuttered and totally over used the word ‘um’…a LOT hah! “Hey, you did good. You have the knowledge there Helen, you just need to relax a bit more but that will come with practise”. David was very kind about it and I felt he understood that I was naturally going to be nervous…I mean, he was one of the guru’s right! “Next up is the nature centre. We’d like to get you tour ready by the end of the week”. WHAT! Omg, they don’t hang about here. “Ok, sure!” I replied confidently as though ready for my next challenge – Hell, I’d even convinced myself of it (almost!).

The nature centre is actually my favourite part of this centre. They have scorpions, tarantulas, Stick insects, bugs that mimic leaves, cockroaches and a variety of beetles and I had to learn about the lot. Roberto took me around and taught me all he could – well, all that I could take in. The days felt long and tiring and I almost felt as though I was trying to become a mini David Attenborough (my hero!) in the space of a week.

After many ‘lessons’, reading and writing and following real tours of the nature centre, I was ready to practise mine. I walked around with Roberto which for some strange reason was more nerve-racking than walking around with Emmett Brown! Again, I stuttered and left patches of information out but information that I knew! I was so annoyed with myself. David later called me over for a ‘quiet’ word as it was clear my nerves were holding me back. “Just pretend you’re walking round with your college buddies. Just tell them what you know about the bugs”. And that was it…that worked a treat. I was so happy that David was really understanding about it. Then came my first full and very real tour…!

“Hi there! I’m Helen, welcome to the gardens here in Monteverde.” I welcomed my first family and immediately took them over to the nature centre. They were a lovely french family who were actually coming to the end of their holiday here in Costa Rica. I LOVED telling them all about our Scorpians and how they are carnivorous and all about our tarantulas who are actually some of the cleanest housekeepers…oh and educated them that the Tarantula Hawk Wasp is one nasty arse predator that paralizes and lays eggs INSIDE the tarantula whilst keeping it alive right until the very end. And the best part was handling Timmy our resident Giant Peppered Cockroach. “Ewwww! He’s gross, don’t put that thing near me!” They’d all chant. “But without Timmy, we’d be living in piles of crap you know. They eat 40% of the worlds detritus…AND they can live without their heads for almost 3 weeks!” hahaha…I was finding my groove and I was loving it.

Tours would come and go and I was starting to settle into it more each time. You’d sometimes have a ‘bad’ tour…well, bad’s not the right word – It really depends on the people. Some people aren’t always into the bugs and some are. In reality, people come here to see Butterflies but our mission is to show them the bugs too and hopefully change peoples perceptions of insects and have them leaving feeling a little less scared of them too 😉

Oh hey and I have already earned myself a 12 dollar tip too which is FAB. Tips aren’t expected here but it’s certainly bonus ‘beer’ money when you do get one 😉

my TripAdvisor reviewAND….I’ve now had my first Trip Advisor review….only a 5 STAR ONE!! I am SO chuffed with this. Emmett was thrilled and even bought us all beers to celebrate one night so I guess I can’t be as bad as I think hehe!

We’ve since had 2 newbies join the team too so it’s really fab having more volunteers to learn from and hang around with. Anna, an 18 yr old Russian native who lives in Canada and Devin, a 24 yr old American dude who is super into birds (and I do mean the kind with feathers btw haha!). Both again, are studying some kind of wildlife/biology course. Their enthusiasm is really inspirational and it’s amazing to be around similar people who also gasp “WOWWW” at the crazy bug we’ve just found crawling up the wall in our room haha :)

Anyone smell gas?

Ok, so even though a huge part of our diet consists of black beans here, there was one terrifying morning that had our Cassita filled with a different tye of gas hahah!

Most mornings, we’re cooking on our stove either making banana pancakes or frying eggs that we’ve collected from our coup. One morning, Swifty turned on the hob to boil the kettle for tea. It was just a regular morning and nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

“Can anyone smell gas?” Anna had just taken a shower and stepped back in with her nose held up and cautiously sniffing. “Um, no. Hang on, let me walk out and then back in again.” I walked out the Cassita and straight back in and yes, she was right, there was a smell of gas in the air. Swifty did the same – she walked out and in and agreed there was clearly a gas leak going on.

Swifty got to work and fiddled with the pipe at the back of the stove and then…’WHOOOOSH’. It sounded as thought someone had just sparked a giant lighter – the rush of the gas was ignited in an instant…you could almost hear the BOOM as it burst into flames.

Fire seemed to project and spit itself out from behind the stove immediately intent on destroying the wooden table it was resting upon. ‘OMG! We’ve gotta put this out IMMEDIATELY’ I thought but panic took over and we all froze for a few moments shocked and almost in denial at what we were seeing.

Anna found a small fire extinguiser on the kitchen shelf, perfect! “Oh brill, use it Anna, use it” I shouted in Anna’s direction instructing her to point and spray. But ashamedly none of us knew how to use the dam thing and the instructions were all in Spanish! SHIT…the edge of the table was now on fire and the fear of ‘The gas could explode any second’ was becoming a very real reality in my mind.

“TURN OFF THE GAS HELEN, TURN OFF THE GAS” Swifty yelled. “Good idea.” I ran out the Cassita realising ‘where the hell is the canister and how the f**k do I turn it off anyways when I find it?!’ I had to run back in and admit that I had no idea where the thing was kept. Swifty (who was usually the level-headed one) was now way beyond calm and yelled at everyone to get out the Cassita. “Yeh we can’t mess about…EVERYONE OUT!” I shouted back.

Swifty, Anna and I headed to the parking lot but Swifty ran back to turn the canister off. Phew! As soon as the gas was disconnected, the fire in the corner of the Cassita seemed to almost put itself out. We immediately filled every bucket, pot and pan we could with water and lobbed it over the stove and into the corner of the kitchen area.

Oh my god! What the hell just happened! What a dramatic morning. Devin then walked in “Hey, what’s up guys?” We were almost dumb struck for a few moments but welcomed his presence. ‘Help has arrived’ I thought (although too late now!) We all heard Emmett Brown arriving for work and Swifty ran over to tell him what had just happened. Emmett, the crazy inventor then came over and fixed it for us.

But oh boy! We all HATE using the stove now. Main thing is, no one was hurt and we’ve made sure we all know how to work the dam fire extinguisher too hah!

8 wks to go!

So far, all us volunteers are getting along great! We’re spending a lot of time hanging out together after work, either going out for dinner or going for a few drinks here and there. I love the fact that everyone is always up for going out and exploring and wanting to spend time getting to know each other….I mean, Trekwe’re working together after all.

There is quite a bit to do around here from hiking to zip-lining, to going to see other nature spots like the Bat Jungle or the snakes and frogs exhibits. Oh and did I mention karaoke bar down town haha…well, we’re yet to visit but this has gotta be ticked off soon haha.

I took myself off for a hike on one of my days off. It was fab to pull on my hiking boots and get lost in the jungle for a bit.

CoatiDuring a hike around the Childrens Eternal Rain Forest nearby, I heard a rustling up above me in the trees so I stopped and looked up…I spotted a family of Coati! They are the cutest lil things! At first, I thought I saw some kind of baby bear staring down at me from the trees above haha but of course it wasn’t. They have long noses (almost ant eater like) and long tails. I stood still for a while and one actually came down the tree and let me photograph it, wow!

This place is just full of nature and I LOVE it. Oh did I mention, we spotted rows and rows of army ants coming through town the other night too! Those things are scary as! If you see them, don’t stand still through one of their marches. They look as though they are hunting for flesh. I read that the smaller ones will basically pin down whatever’s in its path e.g. a cockroach or tarantula while the bigger ones come along and pull the thing apart nom nom! They will bite humans too so it’s best not to mess hah!Coati Poser

So my first 2wks have flown so we’ll se how the other 8wks pan out. Hopefully I’ll know a whole ton more than I do now and although it’s only been 2wks, I do feel as though I’ve crammed a lot in the short space of time that I’ve been here now.

Again, feeling truly blessed and grateful for all these wonderful experiences and I am loving being able to share my experiences with you too! 😉

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