Reality check

I saw this pair of photos on a Facebook post and had to give a rueful chuckle. So true! How often  we have high expectations of a travel experience that arise from photos that we’ve seen or descriptions we’ve read, without reflecting that the photo may well have been staged or the description may be omitting some important elements. And yet, it’s only natural to look forward to the exciting travel experiences we plan, sometimes for months or even years.

We travelled to Costa Rica a few years back with the express goal of seeing birds. Bryn was very into birding by then and he was making a documentary film about Costa Rica and its relationship with nature. A prime target was the resplendent quetzal, a magnificent bird with iridescent plumage and metre-long trailing tail feathers. The guide told us that our best chance would be to stake out a wild avocado tree that was in fruit, as the quetzals love to eat the tiny avocados. We would need to be in place around dawn, as the birds might arrive to feed any time thereafter.

The guide woke us at some ungodly hour and we drove in darkness into the valley through a thick layer of mist. The tree we were targeting was in a farmer’s field and he had given us permission to climb up the hillside through his cow pasture to where the tree perched on a high knoll. After navigating an extremely steep, slippery, muddy path, we settled in to wait for the birds. It felt like a classic birding expedition: the semi-darkness of sunrise, a remote location, peaceful silence, and that buzz of excitement as you anticipate the arrival of your quarry.

Then the tour bus pulled in. A horde of people tramped into “our” field. People carried small children or dragged them by the hand. They set up folding chairs and scopes. More groups arrived, each with their own guide. They blundered around in their neon-coloured rain slickers, talking loudly, some eating breakfast on the go.

We were gobsmacked. This was not at all what we had expected. But, of course, if we had thought about it, we would have realized that there were likely many other people who wanted to see the elusive bird, there were many other guides, and it would be their business to know this particular tree had ripening fruit and might attract the quetzals.

No birds showed up, whether because of the bustle of dozens of tourists milling around the tree I’ll never know. Luckily, we did see the quetzal later in the day, at a different location, thanks to our excellent guide. But that morning was definitely a letdown.

How can we avoid falling into the trap of disappointed expectations when we travel?

Well, we might try changing our expectations or changing our experience. For example, we might:

  • Try not to have expectations. Do research, choose destinations or experiences, and then try to let go of expectations. Instead, be in the moment. When we travelled to the Yucatan, I really wanted to see Chichen Itza, the famous Mayan site, because I had studied it in university. However, I dialed back my expectations after researching the site and realizing it would be extremely hot, unpleasantly commercialized, and very crowded. Accordingly, I tried to focus on enjoying what I could at the site rather than bemoaning the lack of tranquillity and opportunities for quiet contemplation.
  • Be realistic about expectations. Take a peek at the stats of how many people visit that place. About 30,000 visitors gawk at the Mona Lisa every day and if you’re hoping for a lengthy, private tete-a-tete with her, you’re bound to be disappointed.
  • Re-examine expectations. What is it about this place or activity that is really important to you? If being solitary or having majestic silence at a site that sees tens of thousands of visitors every year is the experience you seek, that is probably not realistic. But if you can adjust your expectations to “I will be there, I will be fully engaged, I will simply experience this to the best of my abilities, no matter what the circumstances,” you may still be able to find meaning in it. In Nova Scotia, I thought that taking a day cruise on the famous Bluenose II would be fun. But somehow, the reality just didn’t live up to the romantic notions in my head. Still, I reminded myself, I was on the sea on a beautiful ship, the wind in my face, and I had a stunning view of Lunenburg. I looked around and noted all the lovely details of the ship, the polished wood, the gleaming brass, the white canvas sails against the sky. I let go of my unrealistic expectations and relaxed into the cruise for what it actually was.
Across the river from Chenonceau.
  • Change the experience by finding a new approach. The Château de Chenonceau is the second-most-visited chateau in France, receiving around 800,000 visitors yearly. Not much chance of a unique or personal experience. However, in seeking places we could walk the dog we were caring for, we discovered a wooded path that runs along the other side of the river from Chenonceau. We rambled through the forest with just ourselves and the dog, coming upon perfect views of the chateau and its reflection in the still water.
  • Alternatively, choose a different experience that isn’t on such a well-beaten path. Mona is great and she’s certainly famous, but there are 35,000 works of art in the Louvre, many of them—IMHO—more interesting than Leo’s lady. Pick any one of them instead of Mona and you won’t have to line up for an hour to get a brief glimpse.

Finally, one of the best ways to beat the expectations trap is to remain open to and ready to embrace places/experiences that we haven’t planned or built expectations around. On a steaming hot day in Panama, we drove over the central mountain range to visit the Caribbean side of the country. After a few hours, we pulled off the highway onto a rocky, bumpy little track to check out a farmer’s field for birds. Not only did we photograph some interesting species, but we discovered that the track led down to a gorgeous swimming spot in the river, overhung with tall, leafy trees. The water was cool, green, and transparent and we were the only people there. Resistance is futile and I was soon paddling around, luxuriating in this totally unexpected delight. No expectations, yet it was an experience I will never forget.

Have you had a travel experience that did not live up to your expectations? Or have you found your own way around the expectations trap? Share in a comment!

Monteverde Hummingbird Gallery

One of the beauties at the Monteverde Hummingbird Gallery. Photo by Marian Buechert.

It’s hard to imagine anyone who isn’t enchanted by hummingbirds. With their tiny size, iridescent colours, and seemingly supersonic speed, they delight everyone from toddlers to hoary ancient birdwatchers.

Where I live, we get two—occasionally three—species. At the gallery and hummingbird garden located across from the entrance to the Monteverde National Park in Costa Rica, visitors can indulge in a dozen species that regularly feed there.

This is a place to revel in the sheer quantity and easy accessibility of hummers on view. They zip by, flashing shining hues of green, gold, blue, bronze, red, purple, and turquoise, so intent on their meal that they pay little mind to the hulking humans gawking at them. If you stand in their usual flight path, they will impatiently whiz by within an inch of your ear. If you position yourself beside a feeder and hold your hands over the perches, the birds will land on your fingers and proceed with their meal.

Violet sabrewing. Photo by Marian Buechert.

The largest hummingbird in Costa Rica (and the largest found outside South America), the violet sabrewing, is a common sight. At 15 cm (5.9 in) long, it dwarfs many of the other species such as the coppery-headed emerald, which is a diminutive 7.6 cm (3 in) in size. Yet size is no indicator of temperament, and the sabrewing is less combative than some of its relatives. The mountain violetear (formerly called the green violet-ear), for example, aggressively warns off others by flaring its purple ear feathers, something impossible to see without a camera to capture the action.

Mountain violetear showing his fancy ear-muffs. Photo by Marian Buechert.

I’ve mentioned before in this blog how I’m a wimpy birder, and it doesn’t get much easier than this: sitting in the shade on a comfy bench surrounded by multiple feeders that attract scores of bright and active birds, with the bonus of a café steps away where you can buy a cold drink or ice cream whenever the sweat beads on your upper lip. Oh yeah, this is the life. Pura vida, indeed.

When we visited four years ago, the garden was free, with donations gratefully accepted and an unspoken obligation to buy something from the café or gift shop. After poking around on the Web a bit, I see that they seem to be charging $5 admission fee now. Regardless, it is worth the money. We spent several hours watching the various feeders and trying to count the number of species present. And taking photos, of course. Lots and lots of photos.

Are you a hummingbird lover? Let me know in a comment?

Male purple-throated mountain gem. Photo by Marian Buechert.

Female purple-throated mountain gem. Photo by Marian Buechert.

The hummers at Monteverde are acclimatized to the close presence of humans.

Female green-crowned brilliant. Photo by Marian Buechert.

Mountain violetear. Photo by Marian Buechert.

Male green-crowned brilliant. Photo by Marian Buechert.

 

Calidris Compares: National Birds

Quetzal.

The recent debate in Canada about designating a national bird got me thinking about a couple of other “national birds” I’ve encountered.

Country: Guatemala

National bird: Resplendent quetzal

Without doubt, one of the most spectacular birds on Earth. With a metre-long tail cascading behind him, the male sports iridescent plumage on his head, back, and wings that shimmers from green to blue to gold, depending on the light, while his breast and belly are scarlet red.

The quetzal’s tail feathers were prized by the Aztecs and Maya, who viewed the bird as the god of the air and as an embodiment of goodness and light. Because it was long believed that the quetzal could not live in captivity, it was also seen as a symbol of liberty.

The quetzal is a celebrity who values its privacy; I once spent an entire day with a specialist guide in the mountains of Costa Rica, seeking the elusive bird. When we finally heard and then saw one magnificent male high in a tree, it was truly breathtaking. We enjoyed its company for a couple of minutes, then off it flew, trailing those fantastic tail feathers.

The quetzal must be the only bird on Earth to have a currency named after it: the Guatemalan quetzal (currently worth about 18 Canadian cents).

Reason for being named national bird: If being the flashiest feathered fellow in the forest wasn’t enough, there’s that historic association with freedom, always a popular theme in nationalism.

Clay-coloured robin.

Country: Costa Rica

National bird: Clay-coloured robin

The name gives you everything you need to know about the appearance of this bird: it looks very like our American robin, but with feathers the colour of dried mud. The Latin name is no better: Turdus grayi. Where the quetzal is resplendent, this robin is clay-coloured, with no markings. And where the Guatemalan symbol is scarce and hard to find, the Costa Rican bird—known as yigüirro to localsis ubiquitous, hopping around human habitation everywhere from city lawns and gardens to rural fields.

On a nature tour near the Arenal Volcano, I asked the guide why, with so many gorgeous birds to choose from, Costa Rica settled on the humble robin. I must admit, I half expected him to say, well, the quetzal was already taken. But his response, while slightly defensive in tone, as though he was weary of having to champion the drab and commonplace bird, was enlightening.

Firstly, the yigüirro has a lovely song (actually quite similar to the American robin’s, to my ear), which Ticos value more than brilliant plumage. That song is most typically heard at the start of the green season, which has led farmers to associate hearing it with the arrival of much-needed rains.

In addition, the clay-coloured robin is found everywhere in Costa Rica, is seen often by everyone, and is thus a better representative of the country as a whole than a bird with a limited range. Because it lives in close association with humans, the yigüirro has become a feature in Tico culture, appearing in folk songs, poems, and stories.

Two countries, two very different national birds. The quetzal is the Cher of the bird world, undeniably exotic, inimitable, and eye-catching, an obvious candidate for glorification. The clay-coloured robin is more like the guy at the hardware store who helps you find the right size of screw: affable, down to earth, getting the job done. Although I initially questioned the Costa Rican choice, I now feel that the clay-coloured robin is an apt symbol for the Ticos I observed: not flamboyant, but going about the business of day-to-day living with an unpretentious determination and a song in the heart.

What national birds do you know? Do you think they are good representatives of their countries? Let me know in a comment.

Resplendent Cher.

Clay-coloured hardware guy.

Calidris Reads: Costa Rica

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read books written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

Costa Rica:
A traveler’s literary companion

Edited by Barbara Ras

First sentence from one of the stories: “Pressed against the run-down schoolhouse, the chumico tree bears a miraculous fruit for the poor child who can’t afford marbles.”

I really wanted to like these stories, but I found I just couldn’t get into them. Perhaps because much of the work is translated. Maybe I’m just a shallow and unsophisticated reader and this represents serious modern literary fiction. I would finish one piece with relief and think “Maybe the next one will be more appealing” but it wasn’t. I didn’t find that the stories gave me the sense of place that I’m looking for when I choose a book to travel with.

2 knots (Not recommended)

 

The Jewel Hunter

Chris Gooddie

Opening: “Blood pounded in my ears. My heart rate was up in the stratosphere. I crouched on a disused hunting trail in a remote forest in southwest Sumatra.”

We all read it. We all loved it. But we’re birders. It’s a quirky, humorous true tale of how the author gave up a lucrative job to spend a year criss-crossing the globe in a quest to see every species of pitta. Pittas are reclusive, sometimes rare, birds that lurk deep in forests, so his success was by no means assured. Along the way, he comments on food, people, places, and adventures he encounters, as well as sharing the lists he creates. Birders tend to be list-makers, and Gooddie is no exception, for example, the following mantra:

  1. Animals are the best things in the world.
  2. Birds are the best animals.
  3. Pittas are the best birds.
  4. Gurney’s Pitta is the best pitta.

If this strikes you as even remotely funny, this book might be for you. (We found it hilarious.)

Note: Although we read this book during our Costa Rica trip, there are, in point of fact, no pittas in CR (nor in North/Central/South America as a whole; they are mainly Asian and Australasian birds, with a couple of species in Africa). However, we were very caught up in birding on that trip, so this fanatical birder’s story seemed appropo to our state of mind.

If you’re a birder, I’d rate it 5 knots (Must-read); if not, I’d say maybe 3 (Recommended).

Heaven for Horse Lovers

It was a sight I will never forget. Thousands of horses and riders packed virtually nose to tail, haunch mere inches from haunch, filling the main street of Costa Rica’s capital city as far as the eye could see.

Warmblood stallions with thick, arched necks, luxuriant braided manes falling over rolling eyes and silver-plated bridles, capered next to placid work ponies with no more than a rope hackamore to guide their measured steps. Riders in brilliant historical costumes sat stiffly erect in their saddles, knees expertly communicating with their mounts, while bosomy girls in cowboy hats and shirts tied tightly in front to show off their curves waved to the crowd from floats sponsored by beer companies.

On December 26 of each year, the Gran Tope Nacional takes over not only San Jose, but the entire country. It is a day for Ticos to embrace a once-a-year, completely over-the-top love affair with the horse.

Researching travel destinations is my passion and sometimes I discover something unexpected. We were planning a trip to Costa Rica and had little interest in San Jose; our goal was the parks and wildlife farther afield. As I idly browsed a hotel website, however, a phrase caught my eye: “Located close to the route of the Gran Tope.” Although I had already done a lot of reading on CR, I had never heard of the Tope. I began searching the web for more info. At that time, there was very little information available: a couple of Spanish-language sites and one or two news reports. The travel guides never mentioned it, yet it sounded big. At any rate, a day devoted to horses was enough to get me booking a hotel for the date.

On Boxing Day, the Tope commands day-long national television coverage. This is the Superbowl, the Oscars. There’s a pre-Tope show with multiple celebrity hosts and there’s moment-by-moment on-the-ground coverage of the four-hour parade, with interviews, comedic episodes, and lots of shots of pretty women with cleavage. Happy spectators push up against the barriers, some sucking on beer bottles, other on baby bottles. Loud music blares, people shout, a drone zooms overhead.

In the face of this chaos, the horses are amazingly calm. As the parade stops and starts, stops and starts again, they wait patiently as they are jostled by other steeds or fondled by strangers’ hands that stretch out over the barriers to stroke silken rumps and noses. When the tiniest space opens up, a rider is sure to have his mount dance across it with fancy steps, inviting admiration. If a child beckons from the sidelines or a lovely lady is spotted, the most mettlesome stallion is brought to the barrier to be petted and praised and accepts it with equine dignity.

I see small children pulled from the crowd by riders who swing the young ones up behind for a taste of what it feels like to be King Cowboy. I am embraced by half-drunken celebrants who are intent on nothing more than having a fun day and think being photographed with a gringa tourist is a lark. I point a camera at the parade, and riders stop before me and pose with obvious pride.

As far as I could tell, there is no competition, no prizes, no winners or losers. Just an outpouring of affection and appreciation for the horse. Imagine that: an event that’s all about participation.

For the rest of the trip, when locals inquired politely as to what I had done in Costa Rica, their faces would light up when I mentioned the Tope. It was as if I was now a member of a secret club because I had sought out and experienced this event dear to the Tico heart. “What did you think of it?” everyone asked eagerly, and they would beam when I said in all sincerity, “I’ve never seen anything like it!”