MARIMBA–“WOOD THAT SINGS”

In perfect harmony with the relaxed tropical location, its smooth, subtle rhythm accompanies the palm trees swaying above it. Across town its toe-tapping beat keeps time with the pace of the village square. In San Jose’s concert hall, it performs a classical composition alongside its peers in a symphony orchestra. Which instrument boasts such versatility? It is the marimba–“wood that sings”!

Marimba being played in Costa Rica

The first time I saw one was in the back of a pickup truck with five guys holding on to it. I was thinking what the heck is that thing. I was driving to Sardinal, a traditional Costa Rica town just 7 miles from the beaches of Playa Hermosa, to play a round of golf at Vista Ridge Golf and Country Club.

So, I followed the truck for a bit as I was really curious as to what was that strange looking thing. When it arrived at the town square, I watched six guys remove it from the truck and move it towards the center of the park. Within minutes the most beautiful sound started coming from it as one gentleman was tapping away on it with long sticks that looked like it had cotton balls on it. With out really knowing what it was I had to do some research.

The marimba is a type of xylophone and a member of the family of percussion instruments. What determines the marimba’s characteristic sound? The materials used in construction, the size and shape of the keys or bars, the resonators, the choice of mallets, and the style of the musician.

Three men playing a Marimba in Costa Rica

The keyboard consists of graduated wooden slats called “bars” connected by a tight, thin cord and suspended above a wooden or metal frame. Rosewood, renowned for its resonant quality, is the wood of choice for the bars. While the number of bars varies from 32 to 78, the most popular marimbas have a 4 1/2- to 5-octave range including both diatonic and chromatic scales (corresponding to the white and black keys of a piano, respectively). To assign a specific note to a bar, a hollow is carved out of its underside. By gradually enlarging this concave cavity and adjusting the length of the bar, the desired note is attained. The deeper the hollow, the lower the note; the shorter the bar, the higher the note. This tuning process can be custom-tailored to the preferences of the musician/owner.

Suspended vertically below each bar is a tube called a resonator, which acts as an amplifier. In traditional marimbas they are made of cedar or cypress, chosen for its flexibility and natural resistance to insects. These wooden resonators have a little hole at the lower end called a “navel”, the perimeter of which is coated with wax and then covered by a tissue-thin membrane of dried pig intestine. This membrane vibrates when the note is struck and improves resonance.

The wood bars “sing” when struck by the mallets. To make a traditional rubber-tipped mallet, sap from a rubber tree is smeared on a flat surface as if it were thick paint and left to dry in the sun. The rubber is then cut into thin strips and wound around a core attached to the end of a wooden shaft. Mallet heads can also be made of yarn or cord. By adjusting the core and winding process, a large variety of timbres are possible. Generally, the softer mallet heads are used for the lower tones and the harder heads hit the high notes.

Marimba players–called “marimbistas” in Spanish–perform alone or in groups of two or three. Using multiple mallets, each musician strikes the notes that form the chords of the melody, harmony or bass. It is fascinating to watch the speeding mallets of the marimbistas–their movements are a blur, like the beating wings of a hummingbird.

A wide range of musical styles can be played on the marimba, from classical to popular. Many countries have their own favorite rhythms, such as Costa Rica’s “tambito”. On some occasions the marimba performs as a solo instrument; other times it is joined by other marimbas of varying sizes. More often than not, the marimba is accompanied by guitars, drums and other instruments. Commonly these marimba bands are family-based groups who keep the tradition alive from one generation to the next.

It is difficult to pinpoint the birthplace of the marimba. While many countries have native xylophone-type instruments, some believe the primitive marimba was born in South Africa where Zulu mythology tells of a goddess named “Marimba” who made an instrument by hanging gourds below wooden bars. It is believed African slaves recreated the design upon arrival in Latin America during the 16th and 17th centuries.

In Costa Rica, traditional marimba makers are sometimes called “marimberos.” Theirs is an empirical knowledge, since there are no schools here that teach the skill. In small shops next to their homes, artisans often work alone and at an unhurried pace, at times taking three months or more to build a single marimba.

Would you like to buy one? Due to the high price of rosewood and the labor-intensive craftsmanship, the cost of a marimba can be prohibitive, ranging from $1,800 to $15,000–as much as the cost of a piano. But don’t despair! A well-made and maintained marimba will not wear out, so a used one may be as good as a new one–and more affordable, too!

From the village square to the concert hall, the almost music box-like sound of the marimba always draws a crowd. Mellow and at the same time energetic, it is impossible to resist the music of the versatile marimba–“wood that sings.”

Group of Marimba musicians in Costa Rica

COSTA RICA’S BLUE-PLATE SPECIAL, “Casado”

“I’m starving!” you say after a long morning playing at the beach in front of your condo in Playa del Coco. Maybe it is the sea air, or the hot sun, or all the fun activities available to you every day, but in Costa Rica you get HUNGRY. The gnawing kind. You crave a variety of freshly prepared food in great quantities, and you want it FAST. So head to a Soda for a Casado.

Example of a Costa Rica Casado
Good Food at a Cheap Price

You know you want to try a Casado.  You have heard of it, right? The Casado is Costa Rica’s “blue-plate special.” It can be ordered in almost any restaurant or “soda” (café)—even if it isn’t on the menu. It is always the biggest plate of food you can get for the least amount of money.

When you order a Casado, you will receive a generous portion of several different dishes. Your Casado meal will always include a generous serving of rice and beans—usually black beans—and a portion of either beef, pork, chicken or fish. Or you can substitute an egg. You choose your protein. And there will always be fried, ripe plantains (Maduros). Also, you will be served a green or pasta salad. The other side dishes vary from restaurant to restaurant; they may include avocado, french fries, fried cheese (those two words should always go together!), corn tortillas, or a picadillo. The word “picadillo” comes from the Spanish word picar, which means “to mince” or “chop”. So it is a dish of finely chopped vegetables cooked with a small amount of meat, of which there are many varieties–all of them delicious. Be sure and ask what the particular casado you are ordering contains; substitutions are usually available.

Perfect meal in Costa Rica

Why do they call it a Casado? The word casado means “married”, and since it is in the masculine form, it refers to a married man. If you ask a Tico where it gets its name, the answers will be as varied as the plate itself! Some say the dish “marries” several other dishes together. Others say it is what married men eat at home. This latter definition is probably closest to the truth. According to Costa Rican culinary expert Marjorie Ross Gonzales, the Casado was born in the early 1960’s when family heads migrated to the capital city, San Jose, to take advantage of emerging economic opportunities (read: jobs!). These men missed their wives’ cooking and began to urge the local restaurant owners to serve them dishes like the ones they had at home. The generous portions all served together on one plate were just like eating at home! So the dish became the one requested by the Casado—the married man, lonely for home and his wife’s cooking.

Costa Rica cuisine is a blend of Native American, Spanish, African and other ethnic groups. The casado is representative of all these: the rice from Spain, the beans from the indigenous population, and the plantains from Africa. Additionally, Italy is represented in the pasta portion.Costa Rica Traditional Meal

Is the Casado a healthy choice? Generally speaking, yes! Composed of protein, carbohydrates, and vegetables, it can be very nutritionally balanced. It is also rich in vitamins A, B, C, and E, as well as potassium (the plantains) and fiber (the beans). It can be low or high in fat depending on the cook that prepares it, so the casado may not be good for your diet if it is shiny with oil. And, as always, go easy on the salt!

When in Playas del Coco a good place to order a Casado is Soda Los Pelones, just two doors down from the Banco National the public bank. “Excellent food, friendly people” and a choice of many different entrees. And, as expected, it is a “Cheap Eats” category restaurant. Win, win, win. What to know where to eat in the Playa del Coco or Playa Hermosa area, just ask me. I live in Playa Hermosa and get around. It also helps I am a retired chef, so I think I know what I am talking about.

Great Tico Restaurant
My Favorite Soda in Playa Del Coco

So, next time your stomach screams, “I’m hungry”, find the nearest soda and ask for the Casado. You will be filled and satisfied by this mini-buffet of Costa Rican cuisine!

LIFE IN THE CLOUDS, MONTEVERDE COSTA RICA

What would it be like to live in the clouds? You can experience life in the clouds firsthand by traveling the steep, winding dirt road to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.

What is a cloud forest? It is a tropical rainforest situated at a high elevation. In Monteverde, the cloud forest blankets a series of mountain peaks, some more than 5,550 ft high. As the northeasterly trade winds from the Caribbean ascend these mountains, the moisture they carry condenses in the coolness. Clouds form and bathe the forest with rain or shroud it in mist, sustaining great bio-diversity in a relatively small area. Dramatic differences in humidity and temperature create Monteverde’s 6 distinct ecological zones in which life flourishes in astounding variety.

Misty clouds in the hills surrounding Monteverde

The region was settled in the 1950’s by a group of 44 Quakers, a pacifist religious group also known as the “Friends”. They left their homes in Fairhope, Alabama, U.S.A., and moved to Costa Rica because of their conscientious objection to war. “We chose Costa Rica because of its political and economic stability and because it had abolished its army,” relates Marvin Rockwell, a member of the group. Their search for land that was fertile and relatively inexpensive led them to a mountainous area near the town of Santa Elena. Life in the clouds wasn’t easy for them at first. Rockwell remembers, “The only road up the mountain was an oxcart trail, and we repaired it with picks and shovels so that our jeeps could enter.” An appropriate name was chosen for their new home. “We decided to call the community Monteverde, which means “Green Mountain”, relates Wilford Guindon, a leader of the group.

The settlers made two decisions that would have far-reaching effects. First, they had to decide how to make a living in their isolated farming community. The challenge was to produce a commodity that could withstand the long trip down the mountain and to the market. The solution was cheese. Today, the small cheesemaking operation the Quakers started produces more than 3,400lbs of cheese daily.

The other important decision was to set aside 810 acres of forested mountainside above their homes to protect the water source for their small hydroelectric plant. Soon the rich variety of flora and fauna in the watershed area attracted scientists. In 1972, a group of scientists and local residents founded the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve, a wildlife sanctuary that soon thereafter included the watershed. Since then, the Preserve has been extended to encompass approximately 35,000 acres.

Birders and naturalists throng to see the thousands of bird species that make their home in the Monteverde Reserve and surrounding area. 

More than 500 species of trees serve as a framework for the ecosystems in the Reserve. Some cling tenaciously to exposed ridges, struggling against the winds that have stunted and gnarled them. Those that grow in protected areas wear a dense robe of epiphytes–herbs, shrubs, vines, or even trees that use other plants as a base. Epiphytes, meaning literally “on top of the plants”, cover about 75 percent of their trunk surface. How can these plants live without being rooted in soil? The Preserve’s Nature Trail Guide explains, “In this very wet environment epiphytes receive plenty of water even without extensive root systems. The mass of vegetation traps enough of the leaf litter being washed down from the canopy to supply nutrients.”

Orchids in abundance add splashes of color to the palette of green. Any remaining space in the landscape is filled with 200 kinds of ferns, some as tall as 40 ft.

Monteverde Cloud Forest is a sanctuary for over 500 bird species and a birdwatcher’s paradise. Native birds range from the resplendent quetzal to the diminutive hummingbird. Many visitors seek the quetzal, considered by some the most spectacular bird in the tropics. Although there are approximately 100 pairs nesting in Monteverde, they can be difficult to spot because their green plumage blends with the verdure of the forest. On the other hand, it would be hard to miss the hummingbirds that frequent the feeders placed outside local shops and restaurants.

Waterfall in Monteverde Cloud Forest

One hundred species of mammals call Monteverde home. Its residents include five species of the cat family: jaguar, puma, ocelot, margay, and jaguarundi. The reclusive big cats keep their distance from humans. “A puma is sighted about every six months, and a jaguar is seen only about every three years,” reports Rafael Bolaños, manager of the Preserve. An encounter with one of the 120 species of amphibians and reptiles is much more likely.

What does the future hold for Monteverde? Efforts are being made to expand the protected area. It is hoped that these measures will ensure that there will always be abundant life in the clouds.

HOWLER MONKEYS, THOSE CUTE COSTA RICAN DEVILISH CREATURES

It is the first night in your in your home in the hills above Playa Hermosa, Guanacaste, Costa Rica, and you are suddenly awakened at dawn by a roaring, howling sound outside your window. You bolt upright in terror as the crescendo builds. “WHAT IN THE WORLD IS THAT SOUND??”

Meet the mantled howler monkey, or congo as it is called in Spanish. During your stay in Guanacaste there is a good chance they will be your alarm clock in the morning and they will serenade you during sunset cocktails.

You will see howler monkeys in groups of 10-20 traveling through the tree tops or the green monkey bridges that around the town and of course lounging on limbs. Though primarily a black monkey, the howler has a fringe of yellow or golden brown hairs on its flanks—that is his “mantle.”

Howler Monkeys sitting in a tree in Costa Rica

As you watch him, you may think, “That is the life! I want to be a monkey!” And arguably, there are some real attractions to what I will call The Howler Monkey Lifestyle. Let’s consider four major aspects: lethargy, communication via howling, pulling rank, and peeing and pooping on others. Yes, I wrote peeing and pooping on others. The Howler Monkey Lifestyle may become a way of life for you, or just something you adopt until your vacation is over, or until social norms ( or the police) no longer allow it—whichever comes first.

First of all, how do you manage that level of lethargy? The answer: a vegetarian diet! The howler monkey eats mostly the young, tender leaves of trees and the occasional fruit and flower. The low-energy food source makes for a low-energy monkey. Howler monkeys sleep almost 20 hours a day. “Most of the howler’s active period is spent feeding, with only about 4% of the day spent on social interaction,” says the book Primates of the World. I don’t know about you, but that sounds REALLY GOOD to me especially if you are retired. That means, “Honey, bring me another beer” (which is vegetarian!) would be IT for your interactions during any given 24-hour period. A perfect lifestyle, if you could also eat bacon and nice fat burger added in for extra flavor.

In The Howler Monkey Lifestyle, “Honey, bring me another beer” would be howled. REALLY LOUD. Howler monkeys have a special hollow bone near their vocal chords which acts as an amplifier. Some species of howler monkeys are the world’s loudest mammals (if you discount college football fans), capable of emitting roars up to 140 decibels. The amplified roar allows the monkeys to locate each other without moving around or risking physical confrontation. More on monkeys and confrontation later…

Now, you may think that howling for a beer won’t really work in your…uh…situation, even if you do it REALLY LOUD, but in The Howler Monkey Lifestyle males outrank females, and the youths outrank the older members. Outranking means you get first choice of food and resting sites (“I call dibs on that limb/hammock!”). This ranking system is widely and loudly contested in human society where the rules of survival of the fittest are different. Your mother-in-law, although older and female, will always outrank you, thereby guaranteeing your survival, or at least postponing your demise.

And finally we arrive at the part of The Howler Monkey Lifestyle that many of us consider the most interesting—and probably quite disgusting: peeing and pooping on others. “The howler monkey is usually indifferent to the presence of humans,” says the book The Natural History of Costa Rican Mammals. “However, when it is disturbed by people, it often expresses its irritation by urinating or defecating on them. It can accurately hit its observers despite being high in the trees.” So never stand right under them when taking pictures. How great would it be if you were “disturbed by people” you could ‘express your irritation’ that way! AND be a good shot! NOT, you would end up in jail or even worse. I get that that is not really socially acceptable—nor hygienic—but it would just be a great way to relieve yourself on so many levels, if you get my drift. 

As you can see, many—some might say all—aspects of The Howler Monkey Lifestyle are very appealing. Before surprising your family by adopting the lifestyle, there are a couple more facts that you may choose to discuss with them. One is that when young monkeys reach maturity, they “leave home” and “marry” outside the family—worthy of imitation. The other is that when males reach maturity, the scrotum turns white. Just a heads’ up there.

So, the next time you are gazing up at the howler monkeys lounging in the trees above you–“actively” promoting the lifestyle–and you feel a few drops of rain fall out of a cloudless sky, remember: that’s not rain.