The beady-eyed immigration official squinted at the screen in front of him. He flicked through my passport a third time, disappeared for a minute and came back with a colleague. The dance started all over again, two pairs of eyes rapidly glancing back and forth between my papers and the immigration rules on the computer screen. Passengers in line behind me shuffled their feet and muttered sullenly. It was five in the morning and I couldn’t blame them. I had travelled for twenty-four hours straight and gained eight hours. This was beyond jet-lag; my circadian clock had given up and was trying to get me to sleep and wake up at the same time.
I had spent the last two months swinging between delighted anticipation and flustered annoyance. Delight at being sent to work in the field for a month – La Selva Biological Field Station in Costa Rica, owned by the Organization for Tropical Studies. Annoyance at the seemingly-endless paperwork I had to sort out in order to get there. I was in a somewhat peculiar position as far as Immigration was concerned: a non-EU passport with an EU residence permit. I’d been to the Costa Rican Embassy twice and I knew I was allowed to travel to Costa Rica. Unfortunately for me, Immigration didn’t – not in Berlin Tegel Airport, not in Frankfurt International, not in Santo Domingo, not here in San Jose. I watched through half-closed eyes as my passport was taken away yet again, and when they waved me through with a final suspicious glance I wasn’t sure I hadn’t started dreaming on my feet.
I’d made it. I was in Costa Rica, legitimately and legally. Adrenaline started to rouse me. This wasn’t just a short stint for field experience, it was the realization of a starry-eyed childhood dream. Ever since I read Gerald Durrell at the age of ten and watched The Life of Birds when I was eleven I had wanted to go find myself a nice tropical forest and do lots of science at it. And now here I was, thirteen years later. Worth the wait? I was here to find out.
Outside the airport the air was warm and damp, and the sun was just about up. I didn’t get far before I spotted Hilda waving at me, her face flushed a lively pink from the warmth. Hilda Heinrich was my friend and colleague, a PhD student from our lab about to graduate who had done nearly all of her work here in La Selva. I was to be her field assistant for a month, and now that she’d married a local professor she’d promised to drive the three hours to the airport to pick me up in their car. I was pleased to find her husband Alejandro had come along, and, pleasantries exchanged, we were on our way. We had been on the road for ten minutes when Hilda broke in on my thoughts.
”This is kind of an ugly part of San Jose. The city is not so nice, but it’s pretty beautiful when we get near the forest.”
“It’s not ugly at all. It looks like India, to be honest.”
And it did; it was all there: tall billboards, the occasional heap of trash, cars and trucks not in the best repair, and, despite the backdrop of incredibly lush vegetation, a general air of grittiness only found in the third world. The air was as warm and damp as any early-summer day in Chennai. As we passed under a bridge and climbed an overpass, we might easily have been on a highway leading to Bangalore. Two stray dogs darted past us on the pavement and a lump rose in my throat. My supervisor had told me just before I left that “…it will be very different from anything you imagine, so don’t expect anything at all.” What would he say now if he knew that on my first visit to Latin America I’d think the whole place seemed so familiar? After all that fuss and bother in getting here, I wasn’t sure now that I’d headed west instead of east. Maybe I’d somehow ended up back in India and Hilda had miraculously made the same mistake.
We stopped for breakfast at a roadside diner and when we piled back into the car my stomach was full and satisfied for the first time in fifteen hours. It would have been too easy to fall asleep at once, but for one thing: the scenery was now almost indescribably beautiful. The green of the trees was ludicrously intense and rich – there was a suggestion of the Western Ghats about it all except that here, the trees were much, much taller. It was like being in a luminous green cathedral. I hung my head out the window in silence, greedily taking it all in, and immediately had to slap away several insects I had no name for. After ten months in the tame, over-civilized surroundings of Europe, it was overwhelming to be suddenly surrounded by so much life.
By the time we finally got to the field station and I registered at the reception, it was a little after ten in the morning. This bit of the station was beautifully organized: the reception where I signed my forms, the attached gift shop – fully air-conditioned – a paved path that lead from the huge mess hall towards the offices across the Rio Puerto Viejo which wound through the Field Station. There was a large suspension bridge slung over the river, connecting civilization on this side and the offices and forest on the other side. It was literally swinging in the wind – a narrow path of wooden planks swaying above what looked like a thousand-foot drop to the gleaming river below. This was the “Stone Bridge” named after the founder of the La Selva Biological Station, Donald E. Stone, whose picture and biography stood proudly on a plaque at the end of the bridge.
”Sam, come here a second.” Hilda beckoned and led me to what looked like a holey wooden post behind the reception. She indicated two large cracks just below eye-level.
“There’s these tiny bats that live in there.”
“What, no, really?”
“Yeah they are these little insect-eating bats, I think it’s a species of Myotis. You can’t see them in there without a flashlight or something but they are really cute and small.”
Cute and small was about right. Myotis was the genus-name of the adorably-named Mouse-Eared Bats, which I knew were primarily insect-eating animals. Had I had my wits about me I would have whipped out my phone and used its flashlight, but I made a mental note to come back at sunset sometime to see them leave the roost and go hunting.
”And do you see that monkey there?” A black, vaguely anthropomorphic shape swung from one of the suspension wires above Donald Stone’s head. “Howler monkey. There’s three species of monkey here at the station, the Howler monkeys, the Spider monkeys and the Capuchins.”
“Ooh, Capuchin monkeys, I love those.” The Howler monkey looked at us disapprovingly, leaped into a nearby tree and disappeared.
Halfway across the Stone Bridge Alejandro called out from behind me, “Remember to keep your balance!” He gave a playful little jump, the bridge swung alarmingly and I felt my breakfast rise in my throat. Oh God, there were crocodiles in that water down there. I shut my eyes quickly.
“Alejandro stop, do I look like Wile E. Coyote? I’m going to crash through this thing down there, stop that right now!”
“Oh Sam, look. There’s an iguana over there.”
I opened my eyes at once and gasped – indeed it was a Green Iguana, leisurely sun-bathing. He turned towards us and actually gave me a lazy wink. “That guy is always there when it’s sunny, it’s his territory.” Alejandro sounded rather dismissive, but I was impressed. I had never seen an iguana before outside of zoos; to me, they had always called to mind the rocky shores of some Galapagos Island, strange, exotic beautiful creatures. Alejandro couldn’t have been less impressed.
“’Chickens of the trees’, they call them,” he said dismissively. “They’re actually invasive pests here, and they really do taste like chicken.”
“Oh! Do you see those black things?” Hilda pointed to a vast tree on the bank, with what looked like a hollow scooped cleanly out on the trunk. I squinted and could just make out six tiny, vaguely-spherical things stuck to the underside of the hollow. “Those are bats too. Saccopteryx I think, they sleep there during the day.”
“OK, that’s so cute I can’t even.”
My new digs were a good fifteen minutes’ walk, past the offices and labs. Hilda insisted on showing me the office we were to be sharing that summer, and when we came back out, I was thrilled to find a pack of several Collared Peccaries on the lawn just outside. I’d only ever read descriptions of them in Gerald Durrell travelogues but now here they were, in all their snuffly, trottered glory and apparently with the complete run of the place. Once again, I went into raptures while everybody else remained squarely unimpressed.
“Sam, you have to calm down, they’re just peccaries. They’re goddamned everywhere.”
“Hilda. Hilda, there’s a baby peccary there!!”
Hilda and Alejandro delivered me safely to my room and told me to meet them at the office in an hour for lunch. The River Station, where I was being housed, was clean and nicely laid out, but it was easy to see that this side of the river belonged to the forest. Frogs on the floor. Jewel beetles between the sheets. Lizards clucking from the roof and eaves. Mosquito nets fixed to the windows.
I found the bathroom, clean and unoccupied, much to my relief. I locked the door and glanced at myself in the mirror. Surprising, really, that the mirror didn’t crack at once in protest – I looked a sight. My face and neck were covered in bug-bites, my hair was a tangled knot, I had bags under my eyes that stretched nearly to my chin and I was covered in a thick layer of dust from the road as I’d refused to put my head inside the car for nearly two hours. It took two showers for me to begin to feel human again, though I knew perfectly well that this was the most fleeting feeling here. It wouldn’t be five minutes before I broke out in a sweat, my hair frizzed and I acquired more bug-bites. This was a tiny island of civilization surrounded by a vast, rapacious jungle, waiting to devour it. Fungus grew in every crack. The termites built their mounds within the walls. Lizards and mosquitoes were everywhere, the former chasing the latter, the latter chasing you. Army ants and bullet ants and leaf-cutter ants swarmed over everything, indifferent to whether they got their mandibles into dead beetles, leaves or human feet. Howler monkeys groaned and shrieked and dropped things whenever they could. The river lurked at the doorstep, waiting to flood us out. The air, the earth, the very sky throbbed with life.
Civilization was so overrated.
Shambhavi’s stories from the Costa Rican rainforest are published as a four-part series here on Amicable Scientists. This is part one; do check out the other parts as well!
Guest post written by Shambhavi Chidambaram.
Shambhavi (AKA Sam) is a biologist studying animal behaviour and neuroscience at the Humboldt University, Berlin. When she’s not chasing bats or running trails, she’s usually busy hunting for a perfectly-tailored humorous metaphor. Science writing for her is an art; she believes her work is done when anybody who reads her pieces has not only learned something fascinating but feels smarter in the process. While Sam mostly writes about biology and Open Science, she’s always keen for new ideas. You can follow her on Twitter at the handle @Quidestvita.