Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The secret of the guacamayas

I have been leading trips in Mexico and Central America for 40 years. I never get tired of it. It’s like theater.

I’m like an actor presenting to a group, giving them enough information to come to their own informed conclusions. Except in my case my audience talks back. They ask questions that lead deeper into topics and off on tangents. I incorporate changes based on the response I get from the group I’m leading.

And each trip I add something new to keep it fresh for us all. But it can be challenging to take people places I’ve never been myself and have the theater proceed smoothly. Like the time I took an Interhostel group from New Hampshire to Costa Rica.

Oldemar Alvarez was our bus driver. He seemed young to be driving a big tour bus and in charge of its maintenance. However, I quickly realized he knew his country well and had a keen eye for wildlife. He was able to spot monkeys, sloths, and identify birds and plants from the driver’s seat.

The trip’s itinerary took us further along the Pacific coast than I had gone before. As we left San José I told Oldemar we were going to a place that was new for me. I knew he understood the theater involved in group travel. Getting to a place is as much a part of a tour as the destination.

Seated in the jump seat in the front of the bus, I quietly told Oldemar, “If you tell me something I consider of interest to the group I’ll pass it on to the group. But if I do so it will be without giving you credit for the information. I can’t be saying, ‘Oldemar told me this or that.’ They’ll wonder, why isn’t Oldermar talking on the mic and Charlie at the wheel?”

I asked him if he was agreeable to that. He said he would be on one condition. When he told me something I would have to pass it on to the group.

My policy is to never relay information to a group I am leading without first verifying its accuracy. I’m even careful to tell a group when I translate for a Spanish speaker I will faithfully translate whatever the speaker says, but even though it is in my voice that they hear it, it is not ‘me’ who is speaking.

But there was something about Oldemar that made me trust him. I agreed to his terms.

We were well into the drive when Oldemar turned to me and said, “Tell the group that around the next curve we are going to see crocodiles.” I took the microphone and confidently told the group that around the curve were crocodiles. And sure enough, as we crossed a bridge after the curve we looked down into the river and saw dozens of very large crocodiles.

It was an amazing sight, though sad to see because the crocodiles congregate in the Tárcoles river because it carries San José’s sewage to the Pacific.

For having trusted Oldemar and passing on that information to the group, he rewarded me kilometers ahead as we approached the Carara National Park.

He said, “Charlie, people come from all over the world to see the scarlet macaws in this national park. They hike into the park for two or three hours in each direction. Some see the bright red long-tailed parrots. Most don’t. Since you trusted me about the crocodiles, I’m going to trust you with a secret I discovered while waiting for groups of birdwatchers to return to the bus. I’m only sharing this because you’re not Costa Rican and I know you won’t be giving this information away and spoiling the serenity of the place for the guacamayas.”

“Tell the group we’re going to be seeing guacamayas.”

I confidently told the group we are going to see scarlet macaws. Oldemar parked the bus and we looked down the length of a valley. There in the distance we saw a pair of guacamayas coming and going to their nest. It was a marvelous sight.

From then on every trip to Costa Rica included Oldemar driving the bus. He’s changed bus companies for better pay from time to time, but I always track him down and rent from the company he works with on the condition that he be our driver.

Last week I called Oldemar in San José, Costa Rica, and asked him if I could share our story. He agreed. He said the location of the guacamayas is no longer a secret. The park service constructed a platform for that pair of scarlet macaws.

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