15th of February, 2011
It was through the wooden boards of the ceiling above that James’s music, albeit a bit muffled, reached my ears. It succeeded in rousing me from the midst of a dream that turned out to be markedly close to reality. I was consciously listening now, making out other subtle stirrings, like the muted chirping of birds and James bustling to and fro.
I sat up, slightly dizzy for a moment…
I knew that my dream involved me traveling to Ecuador, but I’d actually forgotten that I wasn’t in my bedroom back home in the states. I was experiencing a confounding sort of déjà vu.
Oh, yeah – I’m in Mindo now!
It wasn’t long after sitting up that I heard James announce a friendly and instructive “Good morning!” from somewhere outside the room. His voice kind of startled me and I began to wonder if I’d grievously overslept. I didn’t have an alarm of any kind so I was sort of depending on James to regulate me. I had no idea what he was up to, or how long he’d already been awake.
I think I remember giving a sleepy ‘good morning’ in return, at any rate. The formalities only confirmed the actuality of daylight, but by the look of things I could have been floating in the midst of a black hole! The darkness in the room was practically absolute. It was bewildering! Experimenting, I put my hands out in front of my face and was thoroughly amused to find that I couldn’t see them, the bed or anything in the room.
Relaxed and sitting cross-legged on the bed, I imagined the space to be forever large – no walls, no floor, no ceiling…just epic vastness!
Squinting for some kind of a view, (I didn’t have my contacts in and I’m blind as a bat without them) I only just noticed the tiny pin-pricks of bright light sneaking their way through the snugly built wooden walls. It was a trace of the world outside.
Another clue to the time of day involved the room feeling a bit warmer then it did when I’d first arrived. The hidden brightness beckoned me forth!
I was still worrying about the time so I decided that I had to get myself grounded in reality again and really get moving.
I slid out of the bed and blindly made my way for the window, or where I best remembered it to have been. It was a pleasant feeling, putting my bare feet on the wooden floor again and hearing it give slightly beneath my weight, confirming that last nights journey had actually happened. I noted just how different this was from my room at home and entertained the idea of having a place like it, someday. I liked how natural it felt.
I sort of zombie-shuffled into the chair and laughed when I bumped into it. This chair was situated in front of the small table beneath the window. Once I had a better idea of where I was, I put my arms up to the wall and cautiously felt for the little hook latch that kept the shutters closed. My fingers found the metal hook and lifted it out from the loop.
The doors settled apart and I stared out ahead, a huge grin growing on my face.
Sunlight flooded the room and a new sort of disorientation took over. Everything about this was somehow so unexpected! There was an abundance of trees just ahead!
The silvery movement of a body of water beyond flickered between the canopy – this was the very river that I could now hear rather distinctly. A bit beyond, the trees ascended towards the distant background and into the clouds, a true forest that grew about the mountains like a verdant, swaying carpet. Like something out of an animated film, the birds and insects of the area flitted and droned before me, filling this morning with a rather welcoming loveliness.
Admittedly, I basked in this moment! My skin warmed under the gentle and persuasive rays of the sun. I breathed in the fragrance of the loamy earth, flourishing plants and flowers in bloom. One of my favorite things was the cherished breeze that tousled the treeline and floated along the river.
This was amazing!
Washington on the other hand, was stuck in Winter where life was on pause – dormant, dying and grey. What a contrast! This was a summery world beyond, this was a world that was fully alive! I was in Paradise!!!
I took a moment or two to lean out of the window and check out the building this little room was situated inside of, then gathered the things I’d need to get prepared for the day. It was nice having my own bathroom and shower for once!
Anyhow, I got ready and eventually met up with James. I can’t remember exactly where that took place, but there was a a nice little patio type thing with little couches you could sit on at the front of the River House, so he may have been waiting for me there. I have no doubt that he probably sketched out a brief plan for what we would be doing and gave me the lowdown on what that would be.
Yep. It was sunny, warm and only slightly humid. I had a chance to kind of look at my surroundings and see just where we were in relation to our early morning arrival. It totally threw me off, as I’d imagined it much differently than it actually had been.
We headed up to the main part of the property to have breakfast. It’s funny how even this short walk up to the main house was quick to get my heart pumping. I wondered if the elevation change had anything to do with the weird feeling that came with making it up there. Actually, I think James may have laughed at me when I suggested it…so, it’s likely that this is absolute nonsense.
I remember following James and I kept thinking how strange it was to see him in shorts. I guess it was kind of a silly little thing to notice, but I’d only seen him in pants. James just kept towering above me, the shorts made him look even taller. I should also mention that his military style haircut and long stride gave everything a sense of urgency. He was quick to move on those long legs and I had to put in some effort just to keep up! Basically, for every step he took I had to make two.
Another challenge was fighting the urge to run off and inspect every interesting thing that I happened to see. There was no time for detours! I kept reminding myself that I wasn’t on vacation. I was lucky to be there, so I’d do whatever James asked of me, steadfast marching included.
In only a few minutes, we’d made it to the house where we would eat.
Behind the gate to the Main house were two beautiful German Shepherds – I think by the time we’d approached they had already started barking. The larger of the two was a male by the name of Dante. Jaira, his mother, was slightly smaller. Dante had a youthful personality and was essentially a large puppy. He was curious, sniffing and mouthing my offered hand. This was a dog that was more than happy to physically size me up! Jaira was a little bit more on the suspicious side, taking in information from a slight distance, glancing at the familiar James and then me.
After introducing ourselves to the canine guardians, we removed our shoes, entering the building.
I really loved the way this building was built! All of the wood was waterproofed, shiny and smooth. The hallway was a pleasant and open space. The dining area was full of light on account of the large windows that provided a great view of the property and town below. I met the family and nervously blurted out my good mornings in Spanish. Everyone there was super friendly and I felt welcome right away!
I was a bit anxious about practicing the little Spanish I knew while I was out there, but found it fun thanks to the patience of the family.
James sat at the end of the table, so I took up a seat next to him on the long side. Some food items were already set out – typically a loaf of bread and plates with Guayaba and butter dished out for spreading. The Guayaba jelly, I soon learned, was made right on the property from the fruit of the trees in their orchards. It’s a reddish colored stuff that has a unique and addictive flavor. That soon became the favorite part of breakfast in Mindo.
It was fantastic, wholesome! I loved eating fresh fruits and vegetables, drinking more water then I’d ever drink on my own (thanks to James insisting that I do so) and having my first real taste of coffee. I’d never had it before, but I decided that while I was in the country it’d be fun to eat and drink as everyone else did.
I wish I could remember what James and I spoke of during that first breakfast. At this point he seemed somewhat serious and the topics at hand revolved around what we would be doing, I think. He had a warm and enthusiastic presence. A part of me enjoyed finding whatever quirks he surely had. I kept wondering what our teamwork was going to be like, though. I was quite nervous that I wouldn’t be up to snuff in assisting him.
I have no doubt that he was already teaching me a lot about the wildlife right from the dining table, likely pointing out birds that could be seen perching on the trees just outside the window, or flying past the house to some distant location. I do remember him telling me that this first day was sort of designated for me to get used to being surrounded by all of this new and exciting stuff. I know I needed it!
After eating, James showed me another part of the main house, taking me to the porch. This was another place that I instantly fell in love with! There was a big hammock and a hammock-chair which I’d never really seen before, but had to sit in. James was quick to bring to my attention anything that stirred in the canopy spotting them with binoculars that he dutifully carried everywhere. He was an experienced birder.
The whole concept of ‘Birding’ was foreign to me.
Sure, I liked looking at birds…but it honestly never crossed my mind to think that people determinedly sought birds out. It was kooky concept. His excitement was infectious, though, and I was amazed by the database of facts he had to offer me when a particular bird made an appearance. Just how did he know all this stuff? I thought I was a nerd! James easily put my geeky tendencies to shame.
We watched the numerous hummingbirds flitting for the feeders, too. You couldn’t ignore them even if you had tried. It was mind-blowing to see so many of them and so close! I couldn’t know that I was going to experience a range of their character as never before.
To be honest, I’d always envisioned hummingbirds as these very delicate, passive birds – something like feathered butterflies. I was quick to learn that they are in fact tremendously competitive, freakishly agile and at times surprisingly violent! With blistering speed they’d swoop in at one another at vicious angles, threatening or succeeding in colliding with one another in attempts to gain dominance over the desired feeder.
There is an audible, slightly sharp flap-clapping (wings striking the body?) in the midst of these maneuvers as well as a robotic blips, squeaks and chirps (reminding me of R2D2 of Star Wars) which are emitted at various pitches. To me they seem like aggressive vocalizations that hint at frustration, excitement and desire. These diminutive winged warriors are fittingly colored for battle as well, flashing like jewels, many bestowed with beautiful and descriptive names. I could imagine a treasure chest being full of these birds, glittering as metallic sapphires, emeralds and rubies.
I then had an opportunity to report back home via the internet that I’d arrived safely and what we’d been up to until then. After that we headed back down to The River House.
I followed close behind James, kind of awkwardly making my way down the little hill when he spotted movement of some kind making its way for the vegetation on the right hand side of the trail. Without a word and in the blink of an eye, James had stealthily lunged into the plants in a burst of movement, like some kind of predatory animal. I had no idea what the hell he was doing and it took me a second or two to realize he’d actually succeeded in extracting a snake! He turned to me, snake in hand. He appeared rather pleased with himself, and for good reasons! I had never seen anyone move quite so quickly. I certainly hadn’t expected it from James, given his stoic nature at breakfast. It was merely a peek into the dynamic man I had yet to know fully.
I must have stared at him with a mixture of awe and complete bewilderment. Damn, that was cool! I was deeply impressed. That was my first experience of James as a snake guy!
This jungle-man had captured Dendrophidion nuchale – The Black-naped Forest Racer. It is a beautiful snake with rather large, alert and intelligent looking darkish eyes. It has a striking yellow ventral side, while the dorsal side as I remember it, was olive-green to brown. It also had multi-toned blackish stripes running across its body, but these markings were subtle and almost indistinguishable until one looked at the animal for an extended period of time. I’d also noticed that when the snake respired, the yellow between the textured scales become prominent to obscure, resulting in an animal that undulated with delicate color.
It was still really strange to be walking with a man who knew precisely what he had in his hands – to be able to ask him questions and get facts about something so incredibly specific. That was inspiring! It wasn’t taking long for James to reach heroic status in my eyes. My version of Dersu Uzala. Talking to such a knowledgeable person was still a weird and amazing thing.
At some point James went about showing me the kitchen that was in the same building as our rooms and told me about an unusually lanky species of arachnid he’d seen and photographed there. He’d also mentioned he had a captured snake in a container that I ought to look at.
On the topic of arachnids, it was a lot of fun for me to hear someone else talking about a spider with excitement and serious interest, it was an interaction that I rarely had with anyone! We’d related a bit like that back at home, but it was different to do that in Ecuador where everything was so unknown to the both of us, for the most part. We were a team of curiosity.
But back to snakes!
I have to say, at that point in time, I had limited experience with reptiles, having kept a Garter Snake and a Northwestern Alligator Lizard when I was younger. Most of my animal experience revolved around small mammals; gerbils, guinea pigs, rats, rabbits, etc. I was always interested in all animals, but I’d never really gotten around to learning much about reptiles the way I had with mammals.
James’s world was a different world.
At some point, he led me to the table in the kitchen and showed me a large plastic jug that sat in the center of it. At first, second and third glance, this jug seemed full of leaf litter and nothing else.
I kind of just stared at the container, but James instructed me to look more closely and insisted that I pick it up to do so. After some time (and quite likely James pointing the animal out) I could make out parts of a strikingly patterned snake. This snake was mostly glossy black with a sort of bluish iridescence and white rings. It was Pliocercus euryzonus, known as Cope’s False Coral Snake.
James wanted to photograph the snakes, so he set about getting his things together from upstairs, where his room was.
I’d also noticed at this point that James took quite a bit of time to do things. He was getting changed, gathering items, etc. It felt like I was waiting an hour or so before he seemed ready. I am infamous for being slow to prepare, but James again dethroned me in this respect.
When he came downstairs, he was wearing a camouflage shirt and a military sort of hat. It was fun seeing someone dressed for the outdoors and it was different, seeing him like that. That soldierly sort of movement that appeared ingrained in him was reiterated.
We then set off to photograph the snakes we had in daylight, the Dendrophidion being first.
I have an aversion to being photographed, but James wanted to get some photos of me holding the snakes he’d caught. I hadn’t handled a snake since I was about 8 years old, and the last time I’d actually seen a snake was during late spring, out in SE Washington. I’d tried catching one which I’d startled out of some garbage laying in a field without success. They can move absurdly fast!
James went ahead and spent some time showing me how to handle them properly, which enjoyed. He was respectful of the snake, and it was free to move about his hands. James was merely supporting it, not necessarily restraining it. Observing him, I found that I was a bit nervous. I get pretty self-conscious whenever someone observes me doing anything. I knew I wasn’t terrifically familiar with holding them. I like to do things correctly.
I do love the feeling of handling snakes. My experiences with holding arachnids has taught me that the animals are usually most comfortable and relaxed when the surface conforms to their sense of safety. I try to become an object to them…like the ground or a leaf. I think of it that way because that is likely the extent of most arachnids understanding of me. I guess it’s kind of like humans trying to make sense of the hugeness of Earth. You have such a limited perspective and imagining it as a round thing is nearly impossible. Arachnids in all likelihood, don’t consciously preoccupy themselves with questions about the difference between a tree and a human.
Anyhow, in this instance, with this kind of animal, there was the added dimension of greater intelligence – an animal to animal sort of relationship, rather than predator and prey.
It was kind of humbling, feeling the whole of the snake’s body in my hands and getting a good sense of its personality. James was quick to guide me, reminding me to hold it lightly and observing from a slight distance, kind of letting me figure it out on my own at the same time.
It was a pleasure feeling the snake beginning to relax, to flow from place to place with confidence and not a panicked sense of urgency. I wanted it to feel secure enough to remain in place if it wanted to do so. The strange thing that I realize now, was that I was never worried about being bitten. The thought didn’t cross my mind! I was totally preoccupied with the fundamentals of making it comfortable.
I think handling spiders taught me the logic that although more than capable of inflicting a bite, the animals almost always only ever do so when they feel genuinely threatened. There are some hot-tempered arachnids who are quick to defend themselves and I am sure that this is true for snakes as well, but I had no intention of making the snake feel that it needed to protect itself. I wondered if they could sense that.
There was the mystery of how they move, too, a rhythm that you kind of figure out as you handle them. They don’t have arms or legs and sometimes they can kind of ‘get stuck’ without actually being snagged on anything if the contact points are too resistant to the contractions of their body. It’s pretty weird! In that sense, you have to assist them in motion.
The feeling of the ventral scales is different. I like it. It’s a bit like holding porcelain, except that it melds against the touch. It’s so smooth and cool! In a sense, their whole length becomes the arms and legs, curling about the forearm, wrists or anything that is available to cling onto.
The snake and you sort of become one motion and one intent, but mostly it’s you being respectful to the desires of the animal. It was a privilege to guide them, to know that they can sort of trust the places you are maneuvering them towards.
James and I then set off to get photos of the snakes individually, finding a place that was lit well enough for photographing the snakes, while also providing them with a sense of security.
I was now being introduced to the precise world of wildlife photography.
Hunched about the edge of some vegetation, we’d found the proper place to set up and James carefully went about making the snakes feel at home. That wasn’t easy! Naturally, both snakes were more interested in making a break for it.
Inspecting an escape route through relatively large eyes, they’d poke about the leaves and branches and attempt to move out, but they never got far out of hand. James sort of tenderly convinced them that they could remain in this one location and relax.
It was a miracle that they actually did end up staying still, thinking about it. I was amazed that some level of control could be rendered in these open-air conditions.
Now, it was up to me to keep an eye on the snake while James slowly positioned himself behind the camera. In a stern sort of voice, he had stressed to me how very important it was to keep still. Understanding, I was to put all of my attention on the snake and noticed that merely breathing the wrong way was enough to make the snake anxious and shift its position.
I hadn’t anticipated just how long we’d be spending with the snake and soon realized that the position I’d taken up was far from satisfactory. In only a few minutes, I felt off-balance and a bit wobbly. There was an annoying sort of fatigue growing through the muscles, which I tried ignoring. I didn’t have knee-pads, like James did…and hovering in a crouched position was proving itself to be unwise.
It was small things like that which ended up being crucial to the success of the photo taking process, and I wasn’t entirely prepared for it. I’d have to learn quickly.
I don’t remember moving in a drastic manner while James was snapping away, but it was certainly enough to disturb the snake from whatever trance it had been put in. Holding my breath, I froze as much as possible, ignoring the cramped feeling in my legs, hoping that the snake would again settle down.
I turned my eyes to James. It was clear from his expression that he was a little bit irked with me.
The snake didn’t go bolting off, actually…it took it’s time to look around before it decided that it did in fact wish to go back into the vegetation. James then said something about having enough photos of it and that he wasn’t going to try and go after it. His words were burdened by a bit of disappointment. It bothered me that I was the source of this frustration. I was some assistant!
In silence, we watched the snake gradually disappear. I felt terrible.
My memories get even fuzzier after the snake photos.
I think we may have walked down into the town for a stop at CaskaffeSu? I can’t remember clearly! Evetually we would go there for the first time and James would treat me to a large mug of hot chocolate (which I am positively dying for right now!) and introduced me to his friends Luis and Susan who own the hostel and restaurant. It would become the birthplace of many cherished memories!
I know that after dinner James said we’d go on a night walk and check out what creatures were running around. This was an exciting prospect! I’d been out at night looking for spiders back home, typically with some luck…so I was sure something crazy would turn up in the jungly habitat not too far from The River House. James seemed confident about this too.
Once the sun dipped behind the mountains, it became Night of the Ctenidae.
These beautiful, large, strikingly patterned wandering spiders clambered out from their hidden daytime retreats and took up brazen hunting positions on the top of massive leafed plants, near light fixtures or on the sides of buildings and moss-covered tree trunks. They sat with the first two pairs of legs stretched out ahead of them, the stance of a hungry predator in wait.
The most common species of the wandering spiders we’d stumble across were most obvious on man-made structures. This was Cupiennius bimaculatus. The females were sort of fluffy looking animals, covered in abundant orange to pink setae.
Some were on the fairly drab side – looking more grey or brown, while others wore saturated hues – being distinctly carrot or rosy colored. Many of them also displayed two bright spots on the dorsal side of the abdomen. These were two blotches of white surrounded by a light ring of black, like cartoon eyes. The males, which we also saw in abundance and often near one another, were always pretty spectacular looking.
Their legs were grayish-blue while the femurs and carapace were vibrant red. They were a little bit lankier than the females and didn’t appear quite so hairy. Cupiennius bimaculatus males were on patrol for females often, courting them by drumming their pedipalps on whatever surface they happened to be on and approaching cautiously, hoping to be well received. James told me he’d heard a male drumming on an empty jug, startling him.
Thinking about it now, I don’t think I ever saw any of these ambitious males succeed! The lady spiders would either feel them drawing near and gradually turn away, or give a sharp movement with their legs that threatened at violence if pressed. It’s they who determine the lovin’ in the jungle!
We saw other wandering spiders, but I’ll detail the other species at length later on.
One of the most interesting animals that roamed the forest at night was not an invertebrate, but a terrestrial flatworm called a Planarian. The name suits them, as they are totally alien looking creatures!
Their movement through the forest floor, between the grass and about the moss is best described as a gradual, slithering dribble. With a velvety dark, elongate body saturated in moisture, I was convinced this animal could have been a living strip of molten tar or squid ink! I’d never seen anything quite like it. Had James not ushered me onward, I’m positive I would have watched that individual for hours. You can’t help but wonder what they do all night…
I still don’t know much about these creatures, aside from the fact that they are difficult to photograph.
We also saw the equally alien-like arachnids known as Harvestman that went ambling on long legs, like living tripods. They reminded me of clowns, or instruments as they were strikingly patterned in flashy colors and covered in monstrously spiky protrusions. They were fairly common and there were various species of Harvestman to encounter; ranging from the ornate to the exceptionally simple!
I have it written that we also saw a frog. Unfortunately, I didn’t describe the species of frog and I can’t recall exactly where that was, or how we’d seen it.
I’m sure that we’d spent some hours in the dark with only our headlamps and flashlights to illuminate everything, but eventually we made our way back to The River House and settled down to sleep.
My first full day in Mindo had already been full of unexpected excitement, totally unfamiliar animals and diverse plant life. I could feel it even then, that this new sort of life was surely changing me.
In James’s company, I was free to be myself, to do what was instinctive – to take risks, seek the unknown and try things I’d only ever dreamed of doing. I turned off the light. The curtain of the day finally fell and I closed my eyes to sleep, wondering what tomorrow would bring!
Be brave enough to live creatively. The creative is the place where no one else has ever been. You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. You cannot get there by bus, only by hard work, risking and by not quite knowing what you are doing. What you will discover will be wonderful: Yourself.
― Alan Alda
(Note: This article was written in 2012. I didn’t have a dSLR at the time, just a cheap point-and-shoot. All the good shots were taken by James. 🙂 )