Thursday, August 01, 2013


A Report to My Congregation on My Church Mission Trip to a Russian Orphanage in the Summer of 2013

A Reflection on My Experiences While on My Church Mission Trip to a Russian Orphanage in the Summer of 2013 --  by Art Peekel

My experiences at the orphanage for special needs children near St. Petersburg were extraordinarily memorable and meaningful in many respects: the place, the program and, most important, the people.

There were the administrators, the care givers and, most important, the children.
The highlight for me, as you can well imagine, was the children.
One in particular touched me deeply. His name is Artem.

Artem is 18 years old.
When he was born his brain was damaged.
He cannot hear or speak.  Mentally he is about 4-5 years old.  He cannot read or write.
Artem’s mother abandoned him at birth.

We met soon after I arrived on my 11-day visit.
As he approaches people he grins broadly and thrusts his open hand toward you.
He wants to shake your hand. And he does so vigorously and methodically

Before you realize what’s happening, he has pulled your wrist up to his face and he’s looking at your watch.  Artem is fascinated with watches.

I had been told to bring with me any old watches.  Didn’t make any difference if they worked or not.  So I gave him one.  It didn’t work.

Well, it did make a difference to Artem.
He pointed out to me that the one I was wearing did work.  And the one I had given him didn’t.
Yes, he was happy with the watch.  But he continually reminded me that it didn’t work.

So, later in my stay I managed to take the watch to have the old battery replaced with a new one.
Artem was ecstatic when I gave it back to him. 
He eagerly showed everyone his watch with the hand that wonderfully ticked off the seconds..

In return he proudly gave me this plastic blue wrist band that I am wearing.
It had been given to him by a volunteer from another program.
And for the remainder of my stay he repeatedly reminded me of our exchange of gifts.

There are many other episodes to share about the times Artem and I spent together.
I taught him how to make a paper airplane.  And we flew it.  We also thumb wrestled.
Played tick-tac-toe. Rock, paper, scissors. The game of “War” with a deck of cards.

Near the end of our stay the group of us on the mission trip each took a child on a walk to an ice cream parlor in the nearby town.  Like the others, Artem and I walked hand in hand.  I soon realized that he was leading me there.  His joy was obvious and contagious.

On the way he picked me a bouquet of wild flowers.
On the way back to the orphanage he put a large weed in the button hole of my shirt.
Then, with a boyish grin, he grabbed a hand full of cockleburs and stuck them on my pants.

In closing I want to share with you a lasting memory of my final day at the orphanage.
In preparation for our departure, the men had folded our sheets, pillow cases and blankets and stacked them on our mattresses.  Our suitcases were packed and stood by our beds ready to go.

Artem appeared at our dormitory door and, per usual, announced himself with the only sound he could make—a guttural noise which we all readily recognized.
I looked his way. But he was looking at our beds and suitcases.

He stood still.  Then he became silent.  Artem was trying to calculate what this all meant.
He looked back at me. Placed his palms together and put them to the side of his face.
He tilted his head.  His questioning eyes met mine.

He pointed at me and then at my bed.  Again he put his palms together aside his tilted head.
The gesture was repeated.  I felt his need to communicate, to understand and to be understood.

Quickly I walked to him.  We stepped out of the room, down the hall and into the garden where we had spent time together every day of my visit.  Along the way he put his arm around me.

There in the sunlight Artem extended his hand.  His handshakes were always firm.  But this one seemed especially so, as if to reassure himself and me.  He dropped my hand and pointed to me. To the watch I had given him.  Then to himself.   His charade carried a deeper meaning.

Artem paused momentarily then continued by taking a hold of my right wrist with his left hand.  With his right hand he pointed to the wrist band he had given me.  Then to himself.  And lastly to me.  He went through the whole routine several times.  His body language was speaking to me.

I would not have understood him if he could have spoken to me in Russian.  He would not have heard me if I could have spoken to him in Russian.  He could not talk or hear, yet we had learned to communicate.  During our short time together we had gotten to know each other. 
There was an understanding between us.  We had bonded.  And now we were parting.

I gestured that I was leaving soon—that I had to go.  He realized that I would not be back to sleep at the orphanage.  Without hesitation Artem hugged me tightly. As we parted a sad smile spread across his face.  I fought back the tears as we turned and walked our separate ways.

My experiences there at the orphanage were bitter sweet.
They were heart warming and heart breaking.
But I am comforted by the belief that our mission was blessed by the Love of God.
We touched the lives of those children.  And they touched ours.
God’s Love was on the children’s faces.  God’s Love was in our hearts.


Sunday, February 12, 2012


The South Island

Yesterday I took the ferry from Wellington, the Capitol of New Zealand, to Picton, which is located on the north coast of the south island. The trip lasted less than four hours, and the scenery was nothing less than spectacular. Someday I'll post my photographs and then you'll see what I mean. Impressive how the giant ship squeezed between the land masses rising so dramatically out of the sea along the narrow waterway which leads to the harbor. The "Magic Bus" was waiting for us. Filled to capacity with adventurous travelers eager to experience all that the south island has to offer, the bus rolled out of the station toward Nelson, our destination. We passed through wine country and stopped briefly for a tasting. The region is known for its whites. At the hostel the desk clerk assigned me to a room with three others. This I expected because my agent Carol back in Wanganui had discussed with me the various options and the costs. In an effort to save some money, I had agreed to share accommodations, something I did regularly during my earliest travels. The surprise came when one of my roommates turned out to be a female. Didn't seem to matter to her. The other two guys appeared to take it as no big deal. Made me think of the difference between college housing from when I attended Knox to today's coed dorms. "Get with it, Art," I said to myself. She was from England, as was one of the guys. The other fellow was from Denmark. All quite pleasant. I went out to dinner with the two fellows and different woman, who was from Brazil. We had a delightful meal, followed by a stroll around the city looking for a place to buy some food for the next day. The streets and sidewalks were empty. I commented that it looked like a movie set after all the actors had left for the day. Today I took it easy. First went to the cathedral to see the stained glass windows. Quite impressive. Also walked through the oldest section of town where there are very quaint cottages dating back to the earliest days of the city. The most delightful part of the day was spent at historic Melrose House, where I had Devonshire tea and the most delicious scone ever! Reminded me of experiences many years ago with friends David, Gail, Laura and Linda in Stratford, Ontario, when we would attend the Shakespeare Festival there. Well, I must close and prepare for tomorrow. Very exciting to be on the south island. My experiences here will be so different from those I had on the north island. Not better or worse, to be sure, but certainly different. My intention is to write and post some blogs looking back on my experiences in Wanganui. I have such fond memories. And I'd like to share then with you. So, please check in from time to time. As my colleagues back at Rolling Meadows High School used to hear me say, "Life is so interesting, don't you know!" Considering what I have done the past month and what lies ahead for me, truer words were never spoken. And I consider myself truly blessed.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012


Best Intention

I had the best intention! Really! Thought I'd post a blog every other day or so while here in New Zealand. Well, at least a couple times a week. Now it's nearly a month since my arrival, and I'm just getting around to posting my first blog. UGH! My problem, if you ask me, is thinking too big. While in Buenos Aires and especially Costa Rica I wrote very long blogs. As anyone, my guess is, who has ever written a serious, thoughtful blog can tell you, it takes considerable time. I'd often write a draft, then rewrite it several times before the final edit. In a recent conversation over Skype, a friend suggested I write shorter blogs. That seemed so simple, but really struck me as a brilliant idea. She went on to say that once I got into the swing of things I just might find myself writing more often. Hey, sounds like a plan to me. So, I'm giving it a go! Slight hitch in the plan. Helen and Henry, the couple who own the place where I am house sitting, arrived home from their two-month holiday in Europe yesterday afternoon--as I was typing the previous paragraphs. And so I had to stop. Now it's Thursday morning. Couldn't get back to this blog before now because the three of us talked constantly until we went to bed last night. More about that some other time. But soon I will be invited to join them for breakfast. That means I'll have to stop again. Probably won't write much more. If I wait to post this, who knows how long it will be. Before closing, let me just say how grateful I am to Helen and Henry for permitting me to stay in their home and to Diana, my new friend back in Palatine, who introduced me to them and several other friends of hers here in New Zealand. As I have written in emails I have sent out over the past four weeks, I keep pinching myself. This country and it's people are wonderful. My experiences have been more memorableo than I ever dreamed. Please stay tuned. G'day, mates!

Wednesday, December 08, 2010


Another Glorious Day in Buenos Aires.!

Yesterday was another glorious day in B.A.! Sabrina, a woman I met in my sculpture class, picked me up at the condo around 10:00 A.M. We went to the military hospital here in town where William, her husband, was talking with the head administrator about playing Santa Claus for the children on Christmas Eve.

The three of us then drove to the company where Sabrina teaches English language classes to the employees. She had arranged for me to talk to a dozen engineers for about an hour. Her plan was for me to introduce myself and then permit the "students" to ask me questions about myself or "whatever...."

What a nice group! Obviously quite bright! One woman and eleven men, most of them in their mid-to-late twenties. They were very attentive while I was speaking and so engaging when they asked questions. Here are a few of them: What were your impressions of Argentina before coming? What do you think of U.S. foreign policy? How did you explain the assassination of John F. Kennedy to your students? Have you seen any Argentine movies? Do you like the movies of Michael Moore? What impresses you most about Buenos Aires?

The session lasted nearly two hours. I couldn't have enjoyed myself more. Sabrina was so delighted that she has asked me to return. She wants me to teach economics. (She told the engineers I was "an expert." And I quickly told them I was certainly NOT an expert.) Can you believe it? I'm pinching myself!

In the afternoon William took me to see the largest military base in Argentina, which is were he served for much of his 20-year career as a helicopter pilot in the army. What an impressive place. A United Nations force is stationed there. And there is a significant cavalry presence. Plenty of horses! William actually had seven there at one time.

We had lunch out on the patio of an upscale public golf club, where we talked for over three hours. I learned he was shot down and captured by the British in 1982 during the Falklands War. His experiences and attitudes regarding the military and war in general are quite fascinating.

Then he used his credentials as a retired military officer to get the two of us into the main polo complex in Buenos Aires. There are two large stadiums there. We sat in the front row to watch a polo match for over an hour. Coincidentally, sitting next to us was a gorgeous blond woman who, shall we say, attracted my attention. I struck up a conversation with her, most naturally, only to discover that she was a polo player herself. She explained that she had fallen off her horse and broken her wrist earlier this season and only a few days ago was able to compete again. I learned a lot about polo and the status of women in sports here from her.

William dropped me back at the condo close to 8:00 P.M. Better believe I was exhausted after nearly 10 hours "out and about!" How fortunate can one guy be?

Saturday, February 11, 2006



Costa Rican law requires visitors to leave the country for at least three days every three months. I arrived on November 9th. On February 3rd Sam and I headed forPanama. Our destination was Isla Bastimentos.

We left Punta Uva by bus at 8:30 am. An hour and a half later we arrived at the border town of Sixaola. There the authorities gave us the all important stamp out of the country.

The crossing was by way of an antiquated train trestle which had been converted for use by pedestrians, cars and trucks. We had to watch where we stepped for fear of falling through the spaces between the railroad ties and the wooden planks that were scattered about to provide some semblance of a walkway. The Sixaola River was wide and far below.

The Panamanian authorities in Guabito stamped our passports and issued us visas for $5 a piece. (Did you know that Panama currency is U.S. dollars?) Then Sam negotiated with a taxi driver to take us to Changuinola, where we caught a bus to Almirante on the Caribbean Coast. From there we went by boat to Bocas del Toro on Isla Colon, the largest tourist destination in the archipelago. The whole trip took us less than four hours.

Bocas reminded me of a typical tourist town with plenty of hotels and restaurants along the water and both sides of the main street. The town square with its big old trees gave it a charming quaintness.

While wandering around in the late afternoon we came upon a group of guys playing percussion instruments--three conga drums, bongo drums, a snare drum, cymbals, wooden sticks and a gourd filled with beans. This appeared to be a social club of some sort and they couldn’t have been enjoying themselves more. I could have listened to the catchy Caribbean rhythms all night.

Not far away was an unusual watering hole with a bar area built out over the sea. There were tables on a pier that encircled water lighted from beneath. We observed fish swimming by. The lack of hand railings made me wonder how many tipsy patrons had joined the fish.

After a refreshing bottle of Balboa beer apiece we carefully made our way to a pool table which was sitting on a sandy floor. Only the size was standard. One pocket had a piece of cardboard wedged in it and a plastic crate underneath to catch the balls. Sam learned the not too subtle slopes towards the cushions before I did and easily won three out of four games.

During dinner on a second story balcony that overlooked main street we joined others in watching a local fellow pulling a giant model of a jet plane on the end of a rope tied to a 4 foot long stick. After many minutes of encouragement from scores of onlookers he ran until it took off. We were told the man was “mentally retarded” and loved airplanes. His mother wouldn’t let him go to the airport there on the island so he built his model and used main street as his runway.

On our way back to the hotel we saw a dog walking along the street with a small monkey riding on its back. There was no apparent owner in sight. The two of them seemed quite content. And so were the two of us as we retired for the evening.

The next morning as we headed to the dock Sam struck up a conversation with a man who was looking for people going to Bastimentos. In no time we were on his boat speeding across the bay. Our “captain” was like a man on a mission and clearly had a place inmind for us to stay.

He docked at El Jaguar Hospedaje which was owned by his mother and operated by his brother and a nephew. It was a series of eight rooms off a single passageway with a large covered deck boasting five hammocks along with a table and chairs. The whole structure rested on pylons coming out of the sea. Our room was complete with two beds and a private bathroom. The cost was $18 per night.

As we were settling in a young man entered and introduced himself as Davis, grandson of the woman who owned the place. He was our unofficial concierge and one of the most fascinating individuals I’ve ever met. Before long we learned that he was sixteen but mature beyond his years.

I found Davis to be an extremely intelligent young man. And there was no doubt that he was well aware of it. When I told him how much he impressed me he explained that his teachers, particularly his biology teacher, also recognized that he thought and talked differently from his classmates. Consequently he was selected to participate in programs for what I would call “talented and gifted” students from around the country. Those students constituted his circle of friends.

His confidence was complemented by a pleasing personality and accented by an engaging grin. He talked at length about the history of Bastimentos and shared stories that sounded to me more like legends. As you might guess some were about pirates and buried gold guarded by ghosts. One tale was titled “TheJuicy Man” and recounted the consequences of taking too long to bury a man. I urge you not to ask for details!

Davis told us that his father was black and his mother white. His 15 year old sister C.C. was the lightest of his siblings. He was the darkest. Andrew was 13 and “in-between.” I wondered but decided not to ask if that was an issue with him.

He shared with us his opinions on the Bible and his attitudes toward the people on his island. Parents who let their young children, especially girls, wander the town late at night and the girls who have children at an early age troubled him. He expressed concern about the multi million dollar resort under construction on the other side of the island. He was clearly proud of his heritage and said he wanted to take it with him when he leaves the island, which he realized he must do to take advantage of his intelligence.

The next morning we hiked a muddy trail over to the other side of the island. Much of the land had been cleared for grazing horses. Along the way we heard the marvelous song of an Oro Pendula and then Sam spotted it with its distinctive yellow tail. There was the occasional “finca” (farm) and a primary forest as we descended to the shore.

Wizard Beach was beautiful! The water was crystal clear and the patented Caribbean aqua blue with streaks of foamy white where the surf broke on the coral reefs, sand bars and beach. At the west end of the beach jutting out into the sea was a rocky cliff draped with a curtain of lush green vegetation.

There were a couple campers, a bunch of backpackers and several surfers. Sam and I took to the sea like the proverbial duck to water. (We’ve managed to spend time at the beach every day but one since his arrival.) The waves were perfect for body surfing. So we did!

Davis was standing on the foot bridge near the hospedaje when we returned. Several similar bridges have been constructed along the single sidewalk that runs through the town. There are no roads hence no cars. When asked what he was doing he replied, “I’m counting the number of people who cross the bridge at various times of the day and night.”

Davis introduced us to his father, Jaguar, an educator and what amounts to a superintendent of schools in the region. They invited us to their house to watch the Super Bowl that evening with another tourist named Kevin, a surfer from Seattle, whose father was going to be in Detroit at the game.

Jaguar is a rabid NY Yankees fan. He watches virtually every game received by his satellite dish. “I like the Chicago White Sox and Cubs too” he assured me, “but I’m always for the Yankees.”

Baseball is one of the most popular sports in Panama. The other is soccer. Basketball comes in a distant third. Jaguar was eager to tell us about the famous Panamanian major league baseball players, especially Mariano Rivera.

I asked about basketball. He was quick to say he didn’t like the Chicago Bulls at all. I responded with a “not even Michael Jordan?” He ignored me and announced that his favorite team was the Boston Celtics dating back to the era of Larry Bird and company.

So there we were, Sam, Kevin, a couple of tourists from Nebraska who were staying next door, Jaguar and I watching the Super Bowl in the home of an Afro-Caribbean family on Bastimentos, Panama. During the half time show Jaguar got us another beer. I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.

A light rain began to fall during the second half. Sam and I hadn’t eaten since early afternoon but we decided to stay until the outcome of the game was obvious. The end came none too soon. We walked though the drizzle to one restaurant after another to find all of them closed. So we went to bed on empty stomachs but with our heads full of images and memories.

Our return trip was by a slightly different route. After boating to Bocas we took a water taxi directly to Changuinola (Farm #60) by way of an inland manmade canal. The scenery was remarkably pastoral and picturesque.

From there we hired a taxi to take us back to the border crossing at Guabito. Among the passengers were three Peace Corps volunteers. Our driver was a politician who had run unsuccessfully for the national legislature.

I thoroughly enjoyed talking with him about Panamanian politics and economics. He was more than willing to answer my many questions, including the one about the people’s attitudes toward the U.S. invasion that ousted Manuel Noriega. His comments about the Chiquita Company and the banana industry in Panama were particularly disturbing. I look forward to sharing them with those of you who are interested.

Instead of waiting for over an hour for the next bus to Puerto Viejo Sam and I decided to take a taxi for$6 US a piece. On that leg of the trip we traveled with a young couple from Norway who had their eight month old son in tow. And from there we took another taxi to Punta Uva so we could spend some time at thebeach before the sun went down.

The day after our return I received an e-mail from Davis. He expressed interest in keeping in touch. That pleased me very much and made me think of something his father said while we watched the Super Bowl. Tourist who stayed at El Jaguar Hospedaje not long ago invited Jaguar to visit them in Minneapolis. On the way there he’d like to go to New York to see his team play at Yankee Stadium.

I told him he should stop at “Peekel’s Place inPalatine” so he can see the Cubs and the World Champion White Sox. Some day he may just do that. I’ll bet you Davis will make it to the U.S. before long. There’s nothing like travel to make me realize that “Life is so interesting, don’t you know!”

Contributing Editor Sam Knowlton

Monday, January 30, 2006



If you have read any of my previous postings on this blog you may well have noticed some apparent errors. I'm referring to those of a "typographical" nature. You may have wondered why they're there--why they weren't removed. I think you deserve to know so I'm going to tell you.

Among my former students and colleagues there are those who most certainly recall my telling them about the Navajo Indian blanket. Usually my explanation came shortly after I handed out something that I had typed out. Here's a typical example of how it went. First there was an announcement by one of my students that went something like this.

"Mr. Peekel, I found a mistake! I found a mistake on the test you just gave out. It's on page three...." the student blurted out with a mixture of satisfaction and stupefaction.

Fighting back my temptation to comment on the inappropriateness of speaking before raising a hand and being called on I smiled and simply said "That's no mistake!"

"But, Mr. Peekel, it's right here. It says ...." she continued with the hint of indignation that exists in some honors students on occasion.

"I said it's no mistake. I know it's there. I put it there intentionally. On purpose!" I calmly contended.

"What? You did what? On purpose?"

Another student chimed in with "An intentional mistake? That's far out! Hey, I don't get it."

"Well, maybe you'll understand if I tell you about the Navajo Indian Balnket" I announced with a particular pleasure.

Then I told them about the time I was in Arizona visiting a friend. We went to a presentation about Native American arts and crafts. The presenter explained that the Navajo Indian blankets with their intricate goemetric designs are woven intentionally with a mistake--a flaw that is so small that it's seldom detected. The weavers believe that it would be a "mistake" to attempt to create a "perfect" design because only the Great Spirit can do such a thing. Also, the flaw in the blanket lets the Evil Spiits escape.

"So, class, that's why I don't create perfect handouts. You wouldn't want any evil spirits trapped in there, would you?"

My account is usually greeted with a few congenial nods and winks mixed with many more moans and groans. And there's always the student who is quick to come to the inevitable conclusion.

"Mr. Peekel, does that mean when we make a mistake on something we hand in ...?"

I cut the student off at the pass and said with a broad grin "Stranger, not as long as this sheriff is in town!"

Now back to my postings on this blog. You deserve a further explanation. I'll be short and to the point. My dial-up connection in my "tree house" does not enable me to access Blogspot to create my postings.

So I have to type them out an my laptop and carry my laptop into town. Because I can't transfer them onto the computer there I have to read off my laptop and type them into the computer at the Internet Cafe. Furthermore I haven't figured out how to use spell check on Blogspot.

I try to edit as I go and proof read afterwards, but I'm usually in a rush to catch the bus or beat the rain home on my bike or get off the computer because someone has been waiting forever or because I don't have enough money with me to pay for any more time on the computer or for some other reason/excuse you may consider suspect. But, hey, that's my story and I'm sticking with it.

If you've read this far you deserve to know that I'll be incommunicado for the next 2 weeks. Sam, the son of long-time friend David from my years in Appleton, WI back in the mid 60's, is coming to visit me. The two of us will be heading off to Panama later this week. Costa Rican law requires me to leave the country for a least 3 days before the 3-month anniversary of my arrival here.

We'll take a bus from Puerto Viejo to the border town of Sixaola and walk across a bridge into Panama. From there it'll be a taxi, bus and boat ride to an island just off the northeast coast of Panama. You'll find details of our adventure in a future posting.

Sam and I will also travel together to the Bribri community in Yorkin. It will be my third visit there. I have arranged for Sam to stay for several weeks as a volunteer teaching English as a second language and helping to construct additional accommodations for tourists.

I am very envious. Only my obligation to "house sit" is keeping me from joining Sam for an extended stay there. There's something very special about the people I've met there and the place where they live. The friendships we've fostered mean a lot to me.

If it weren't for my plane ticket back to the States on March 21st I'd go to Yorkin when my landlady returns from her vacation. Perhaps my travels will take me back there next year. The idea of returning as a volunteer English teacher has crossed my mind, you can be sure of that. We'll see....

Friday, January 27, 2006



The Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge is located along the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica. It extends from the town of Manzanillo to the Panamanian border and covers 5013 hectares of land plus 4436 hectares of sea. (A hectare equals 2.471 acres.)

While my former RMHS colleagues Lesa M. and Scott S. were visiting me in mid December, the three of us booked a tour to the refuge. We got up early one morning and drove in their rented car less than 10 minutes down to Manzanillo. It's the last town accessible by road along the coast.

We arrived at 8:00 am as scheduled and were outfitted as recommended: high rubber boots, long pants, hats, binoculars, cameras, water bottles, granola bars and plenty of bug repellent! We were well prepared. But little did we know....

A man approached us as we emerged from our car. There was no greeting or introduction. It was all business.

"If you park there you can give me $500" were the first words out of his mouth.

I wasn't sure I had heard him correctly. Neither were Lesa and Scott. We looked at one another for some assurance.

"You can give me $500" he repeated in what appeared to be all sincerity.

"What?" Lesa cautiously questioned.

He responded "You part there under that tree and a coconut is likely to fall on your car. It will cost you at least $500!" Then he smiled.

We all smiled. That was Tino our guide. Clearly he had a sense of humor. And we were to enjoy it and him throughout our tour.

Another couple joined us. They were also from the States and teachers coincidentally enough. The three of us looked at one another after noticing that the two of them were wearing shorts and tennis shoes. Were they clueless?

Turned out they were delightful, inquistive and adventurous. I really admired his daring. But more about that later.

Tino quickly began by identifying the trees and bushes along the trail that lead us out of town. Soon we were hiking away from the sea and up into the secondary forest. Before long we came to the primary forest.

The way was not clearly marked. Frequently there were forks in the trail. At times it was difficult to see if we were actually following any kind of path. I discarded all notions of acting as a guide for other friends of mine who might want to hike there.

Plus the professional had so much knowledge to impart. We were shown how the inner portion of the banana tree could be used as a splint. Scott, RMHS trainer par excellence, found that especially interesting. Lesa and I were fascinated to see how the inner fibers of the banana stem between the fruit and the flower could be used for tea bags.

We were introduced to several kinds of birds. More were heard than seen, however. Some were difficult for me to locate even when Tino and my companions tried to point them out to me. The binoculars were of no help. Very frustrating!

We saw monkeys and sloths too. I was especially excited at the sight of my first two-toed (technically two-fingered) sloth even though it was only a big ball of reddish brown hair high in a tree. This species sleeps nearly all day long. So I shouldn't have been disappointed, right?

At the deepest point of our excursion into the refuge was a small pond. It was there we were told to expect to see Caimans. Sure enough one was sunning itself on a log. Again I was the last to see it and only after numerous failed attempts by all the other members of our party to help me. More frustration!

Caimans look to me much like crocodiles, only smaller on average I'm told. This one was maybe four feet long. Didn't appear all that threatening to me. Not from our vantage point anyway.

Tino stopped occasionally to look down into the large leaves of plants that stood 4-6 feet high along the sides of the trail. These were newly formed leaves shaped like a giant cone about 3 feet long and 6 inches or so wide at the top. Rays of sunlight hit some of them in such a way as to make them bright green and translucent.

It wasn't clear what Tino was expecting to find. After several unsuccessful attempts he asked if one of the guys would help. Scott and I hesitated long enough to give the other fellow an opportunity to step forward. He did.

He grabbed a particularly large leave and bent it toward him. The others of us gasped when we saw the dark image of a creature moving near the base of the cone. I assumed it was a huge spider.

To the amazement of the gringos in the group, especially our new amigo, out flew a bat. And almost immediately a second one followed. We could see there were more shadows still in the cone. And sure enough out flapped a third and fourth in quick succession. Before he let go of the leaf the fifth and final one escaped.

The whole episode lasted only a few seconds. The images will stay with me for a long time. Only my experiences with bats in the Maldives were more memorable. (That's a story for another time.)

There were plenty of insects on this tour. The Leafcutter Ant is among the most fascinating. They appeared crawling single file on the ground and on tree trunks carring small pieces of green leaves. (Did you know that they are actually "farmers" and grow their own food, a type of fungus, underground?)

The trail we were on passed right through a very large colony of these ants. It was nearly the size of a tennis court. There were countless little volcano like entrances. I was reminded of the 1998 animated film A Bug's Life.

Tino placed himself in the middle and asked us to gather round him. He then stomped his feet on the ground several times. Within a few seconds ants with very large heads came storming out of the nearby holes. These "soldiers" were ready to ward off the threatened attack.

Spiders were eveywhere. Many were big with interesting markings and intricate webs. Tino would point them out and tell us to stay clear. So it was shocking, to say the least, to see him grab one right off its web!

He proudly announced "This is a Golden Orb Spider! It's harmless!"

"Really? Really? Really? was my repeated response while I watched in amazement as it crept up his arm, across his shoulder, onto his neck and then his head.

He explained to us that the silk strands were used as cross hairs in gun sights. We each were given a piece of the web. (Did you know that a human hair is 30 times greater in diameter than the strand of a spider web?) I couldn't take my eyes off that spider.

Then Tino looked directly at me and said "Would anyone like to hold the spider?"

"Art!" Lesa or Scott or both of them were quick to suggest. What an perfect example of that old saying about the best defense is a good offense.

At first the suggestion simply didn't compute. Then I looked at them in disbelief. "Who needs enemies with friends like this?" I thought. There was no way...!

"I will" said the other fellow and he stuck out his hand. No sign of fear whatsoever. He seemed to relish the opportunity.

After experiencing the "thrill" he approached me with his pet spider. His motives were clear. So his offer came as no surprise.

"Here, Art, it's your turn!"

I mumbled something. Clearly it was incoherent. Even I wasn't sure what words came out. In any case nobody seemed to care what I said. All eyes were on me.

There was a chorus of "Go ahead, Art!"

Even the tour guide chimed in. Perhaps he considered it encouragement. I considered it betrayal.

I was about to say "How could you turn on me, Tino?" when all of a sudden it was as if I was transfixed. My muscles were no longer receiving messages from my cerebral cortex. I was witness to the unthinkable.

"Okay!" I stammered. There were smiles on all the faces. (Could the spider have been smiling too?)

"There's nothing to fear"Tino said to me and perhpas the spider as well.

"Nothing but fear itself" I was tempted to say.

The spider easily made the transfer and eagerly began to move up my arm. What on earth was I doing? What was it doing? My senses were on overload.

Does arachnophobia mean anything to you? The photograph taken by Lesa of me and the Golden Orb Spider could well be the classic illustration. You'll agree when you see it.

That's my most vivid and lasting memory of the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge tour. The bats come in second. And the Eyelash Palm Pitvipers are in a category all by themselves. (See previous posting.)

The rain fell gently as we neared the end of our hike. What would a tour of the rain forest be without it? Tino joked that he was prepared to refund our money if it hadn't rained.

The last few kilometers were along the coast, much of it on cliffs overlooking the Caribbean. There were impressive coral outcroppings just off shore. The panoramic views were particularly picturesque.

Words cannot explain how grateful I am to Lesa and Scott for coming all the way down to Costa Rica to spend a week with me exploring the wonders of wildlife on the Talamanca Coast. In another posting I'll write about the tour the three of us took through the Moin-Tortuguero inland waterway. It too was an awesome adventure!

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