Trips: The Phone on the Rain Forest Wall

By Kendric W. Taylor

Costa Rica is a country so tranquil it has no army, so rich in natural abundance Beanstalk Jack would have had giants falling from the skies everywhere, a country so peaceful and laid back I once saw a full grown sloth clicking its way across the street without drawing so much as a glance from its fellow pedestrians.

Up on the Caribbean side is a fishing lodge on the bank of the canal that runs north and south between the mainland and the Sea, providing a navigable waterway before spilling out into the open water. To get there, a group of outdoor writers and I flew into the local airport, and from there pushed off in canoes for the long paddle up to the lodge through verdant jungle closing in on us from both sides of the canal.    

Owned by a friend of mine who ran a whitewater rafting company in-country, he had invited me to shepherd the group to the lodge for a week of fishing in the Caribbean, followed by rafting on one of Costa Rica’s world-class rivers.   I never thought to ask how we were going to do this.

While looking a ramshackle affair, the lodge was surprisingly sturdy and comfortable in a primitive way, made of local woods with small motel-style rooms thatched over with grass rooftops and fronted by a shaded veranda.  Meals were taken outside at a long wooden table. The food was hot and substantial, with the dedication to garlic that so distinguishes Costa Rican cuisine. Presiding was Axel, the lodge manager, a slim German with wispy blonde beard and mustache.  It was easy to visualize him in a faded white Untersee Kapitan’s hat, oil-soaked rag around his neck.  Indeed, my friend claimed Axel was, in fact, the son of a U-boat captain, who had found his way into the canal in the dying days of WWII and gotten stuck.  

Dinner at the lodge each evening was an exchange of the day’s fishing tales and tips among the group.  They had much to say, all of it interesting. One had lately, in his 50’s, taken up skydiving. Another had been one of Henry Kissinger’s interpreters at the Paris Peace Talks with the North Vietnamese.  A third was the son of a former Green Bay Packer. It was scintillating writer conversation, occasionally obscene, not always believable, but always literate and splendidly funny.  

Fastened to a wooden stanchion alongside the dining area was its sole decoration, an old-fashioned telephone – one of those where you spoke into the mouthpiece while holding the receiver in your hand.  Who knows how long it had been there? Perhaps Axel’s father had come ashore and used it to call Berlin Triple A for a tow. 

At dinner Saturday night, one rum-enhanced guest, perhaps overcome by the romantic remoteness of the location, the canopy of stars gleaming overhead the way they should when there is no civilization to dim their luster, stood up amidst the squawk and screech of the canal denizens off in the darkness, and announced:  “I’m gonna call my wife.” Stepping up to the bamboo wall, he lifted the receiver, brushed away a hairy spider the size of a golf ball, and quickly dialed. Incredibly, in an instant, the number was ringing in New York City, nearly 2,000 nautical miles and several civilizations away. He listened briefly, and then with a look of disbelief, turned to us and said, “Gee, she’s not home!  They want to know if she can call back and where I can be reached.”

After dessert, we boarded small boats and crossed the canal to a spit of beachfront where a research station is maintained by the University of Florida.  My friend piled in, lugging two World War II ammo boxes, and perhaps mindful of the journalist still bemused over his missing wife, warned us to remain alert – “the snakes here are among the most poisonous in the world!”

“Yes, that’s right,” chimed in Dr. Jim, our naturalist guide: “The fer-de-lance, coral-colored, very small, and really hard to see.”

“Jim here was bit by one,” one of the guides added:  “Right Jim?”

 “Oh yes,” replied Jim, rather too smugly. “Right around here.  I was hunting specimens in the swampy area and felt a sting. I looked down and there it was, hanging on my leg.”

“What happened then,” someone gasped.

“Oh,” Jim replied, “it was a dry bite.”

“For God’s sake,” I cried, “what’s a dry bite?”  

“His venom had dried up,” Jim explained, “so it didn’t kill me.”

“That’s why he’s called Lucky Jim,” the guide boasted. 

“Jeezus,” I gulped, looking at my friend, “I’m wearing flip-flops!  Why didn’t you say something earlier?”

“Ahh, you’ll be OK,” he replied with notable unconcern, “I have plenty of anti-venom venom.”

“What the hell is anti-venom venom?” I sputtered apprehensively.

“It’s snake venom that counter-acts the snake venom.”

“Oh my God!”

At the time, the marine station was the sole place in the world devoted to the study of the giant green sea turtles, 700-pound mammoths that drag themselves up the shore once a year to bury their eggs in the dunes.  They are ponderous out of the water, and it’s an easy matter to follow them along as they slowly breaststroke across the black Caribbean sand and begin to dig their egg depositories well above the waterline. Dozens of them were scattered like green boulders across the beach as we began our watch.   Dr. Jim explained that their main predators are hungry locals and their dogs, both of whom are avid hunters after the eggs. Those that survive hatch in the hundreds after the incubation period, at which point instinct kicks in and drives the tiny turtles back down to the sea. To get there, they run a gauntlet of swooping, diving sea birds that snatch up the small creatures like hors d’oeuvres before they can reach the haven of the surf.  Those who make it swim far away until they reach full turtle tonnage, then return after several years to repeat the age-old process.

We stayed with the turtles until well after midnight, by which time most of them had completed their digging and egg-laying ritual, then watched as they chugged back down into the surf.   We recrossed the canal by torchlight, then, after a cold beer nightcap, retired to our tiny cabins, where another spectacle awaited — my friend choosing a cot for the night. As noted, the lodge at that time was no-frills, there primarily to provide basic housing and meals for fishermen.   Each bedroom had two double beds — bamboo frames with a latticework of leather straps providing both spring and mattress. On top of this went personal bedrolls. I was sharing a room with one of the guides when my friend appeared, stark naked from the shower, impressive in all his 250-plus pounds, chortling: “OK, who gets to sleep with me?”  With a wild cry he leaped into the air and crashed onto the guide’s bed with a horrible cracking noise of unbearably stressed leather.

I was spared. 

Breakfast the following morning on the outdoor terrace was a subdued affair, the only stir caused by a jocular order of “turtle eggs, and make sure they’re fresh.”  As platters of jungle fruit and fresh, hot Costa Rican coffee made the rounds, a solitary frog hopped across the sunlit lawn up from the canal. “Look at the size of that fat bastard,” someone remarked.   As the frog slapped onto the concrete floor – wham! A slim, six-foot green snake dropped out of the thatched roof above us and impaled the frog in a pair of steel trap jaws. With its tail firmly anchored in the rafters overhead, the snake began to haul itself back up through the roof, his prey clamped firmly in its mouth. 

At the same time, the breakfast table erupted in a crash of silverware and crockery as the journalistic group made a wild scramble for cameras.  Within seconds, each was clicking away, hoping for the photo-of-a-lifetime from the life-or-death match now unfolding in front of them.  

The snake hadn’t figured on one thing: the frog was too fat to pull through the slats of the ceiling.  Even though a pair of hideous fangs had punctured the amphibian’s speckled brown body, the blood oozing down his side, he lived on.  No poison! A dry bite! 

Realizing his miscalculation, the snake was trying to overcome the roof obstacle by eating the frog — right at the counter, so to speak – articulating his awesome jaws to envelop the frog’s body as they both pendulum-ed back and forth through the dining area.  But the frog was making the fight of his life, jamming his powerful rear legs up against the snake’s mouth in a desperate effort to pry loose his head. Raucous cheering burst from the group, with several bets quickly placed — smart money on the snake. The sentimental favorite clearly was Frog, however.  Dr. Jim, our naturalist, had arrived amidst the uproar and was feverishly explaining the intricacies of Darwinism to us: basically, Frog was a snake staple. Tough luck Frog!

The deadly standoff continued, Frog struggling to extricate himself, the snake alternately trying to draw him through the roof, or devour him in mid-air.  The journalists crowded closer, climbing over the breakfast table, squishing through the mangos and plates of French toast, clicking away like paparazzi after pop stars, the snake glaring at them with malevolent red eyes.  Then, with a mighty tug, the frog broke free, dropped to the concrete, bounced up and flopped down the veranda, chased by the snake, a pack of wild-eyed photo-journalists and Dr. Jim in the rear crying: “Don’t disturb the food chain!  Don’t disturb the food chain!”

Within seconds the frog had stuffed itself under a wall, and the snake was cornered near the woodpile.  Rearing itself up on its tail to an impressive height, he eyed the group while he swayed slowly back and forth, his sinister black tongue flicking in and out.  The photographers crept still closer, gripped in a picture-taking frenzy, unbelievably shouting instructions to the snake to hold still for just one more shot.

Admonitions continued to issue from Dr. Jim as I crept forward, trying to figure a way out of this that wouldn’t involve any proximity to the snake, when a small man in a white cap bolted around the corner waving skyward shouting: “The plane, boys, the plane!”

Taking advantage of the distraction, the snake bounded away like a demented rubber band and the group scattered for their belongings.  I stood in the midst of the rain forest and watched as the aircraft buzzed overhead. “He looks like he’s trying to land,” I wondered out loud.

“He is,” my friend replied.

“Oh my God, where?”

“Ahh, no problem, he’s coming down on the beach.”

“The beach?  You mean we’re going to take off from the beach too?  With all those turtle holes?  

“That is if he lands ok.  I mean it’s a very narrow beach; it’s got grass growing out of it.  Don’t we need a seaplane?”

“He’s a very good pilot,” he replied, waving as the thing shot past over our heads.  It started to rain.

And there I was, sitting in the right-hand front seat of the small biplane, the morning sky misting down lightly across the windscreen.  The two in the backseat and I were to make the first flight of the morning. “This isn’t so bad,” I thought. “I love flying.”

The single engine roared mightily, the pilot standing on the brakes to hold it to full power.  His feet jumped off the pedal and we bumped slowly past the rest of the group, the ghostly white of their faces blurred in the rain.  We struggled over the dark sand, thumping noisily like a horse cart on a planked road, the vibration running up my legs. I thought of the old newsreels of Lindbergh taking off for Paris, his tiny silver plane struggling to clear the trees. At least he wasn’t on sand. Gaining speed, we roared down the beach in the rain, gray surf crashing almost beneath our wheels.  Then we were up, wings fluttering, into the overcast, moisture spatting off the windscreen, then out, into a blast of sunshine and blue tropical sky.

The departing words of my friend teased at me: “Wait until you try river rafting, then it gets really exciting!”

 Deschutes River in downtown Bend, Oregon.

Photo by Buddy Mays

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