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My Pandemic Odyssey to Costa Rica: The Elusive Quetzal

by Dan Cohen

They’re not that elusive, the quetzal. They’re just not. If they’re so damned elusive, how come one of them practically came right up and bit me on the ass when I went on my quetzal walk the other morning?

Just luck, Armando said. He was my guide in the Savegre. I was his only client that morning on our quetzal walk, a lonely child of COVID. Very lucky, he told me. He’s taken parties of ornithologists out for days on end before they’ve even sniffed a quetzal. Didn’t seem fair. Yet I was feeling pretty good about being very lucky about seeing a quetzal. After all, I didn’t get up at 4:30a to not see a quetzal.

A majestic bird, the quetzal. It seems like the quetzal should command a category beyond merely ‘bird,’ the way that champagne is a wine but not all wines are champagnes. The chest feathers are a color I’ve never quite seen before in the natural world, a red so rich and deep it’s heart-stopping, the hue of blood and fire combined, each at peak intensity. There’s a kind of bib of color below the beak that’s hard to name, a wily, playful pale green that looks like some kind of cleanser. Scrubbing bubbles. Intensely greenish-blue wing-feathers fold behind as he perches on a branch. His head is blue, fringed with a delicate plume of gray that shades into a luminous gold in the early morning light. I don’t know how a bird could get more beautiful. And seeing it in flight! Ah! I wanted to propose.

I hit the road around 9a, quetzal bagged, hoping to make it to my friend Nina’s around  1 or 2. Nina’s my only contact in the entire country. If things didn’t work out with her, that would suck. But she’s an old friend of my old friend Peter. His older brother Nick dated her when Pete was in junior high. She’s known Pete for years, I’ve known Pete for years. It’s all good, right? Yes. It’s all good. It’s almost like we know each other.

But we don’t. And I can get a little weird sometimes with new people, especially in situations like this, where it’s all supposed to work out. A little prickly or something, I don’t know, when I’m nervous, and I’m nervous. I don’t really know her. Or her husband, for that matter. Him I don’t know at all. I was driving, getting to the top of the ridge, the reverse of the steep, scary climb I described last week. I turned on to the highway. I was out of the woods. I should have been feeling great, and yet here I was spiraling on this bullshit. What if I don’t like her? Or him? What if she’s really nice and he’s a child molester? Should I tell her?

And then it started to rain.

Costa Rican rain is like no other rain I’ve ever seen. Or heard. Costa Rican rain is fucking loud, positively biblical. There are only 2 seasons in the tropics, dry and rainy, and September is the height of rainy season. Rain every day, 4 or 5 hours a day, day after day. A soppy, sloppy, wet punching bag kind of rain. Sometimes it comes down so hard it feels like a permanent feature of the landscape, just like the mountains and rainforests it’s meant to cover. It seems not to fall but race to the ground on a rope, a thousand ropes of rain pouring down from the sky. It’s not angry. It’s not a hurricane. Little thunder or lightning, no wind to speak of. No, this is just a storm. This is just Costa Rican rain.

So I slowed down. I was crawling along down the Rivas side of this 2-lane highway, apparently determined not to stop altogether. Like I was literally in some sort of pissing contest. Okay I was having some control issues, I guess. Some very gringo, very New York control issues. This never happens, I must have thought, though I’m not sure I’d give the name ‘thought’ to what was going on in some cretinous corner of my mind at this particular moment. Rain can’t just, like, make me stop, you know, rain can’t make me do that. I got this. I’ll just go slow, no problem. Rain’s not the boss of me.

But rain is. Oh yes it is, big time, nyah, nyah nyah nyah, nyah. In Costa Rica, rain is in fact the boss of everyone and everything. Finally I just had to pull over and stop like everybody else. I turned my wipers off and just sat and waited, through a literal, solid hour of rain. Gives a guy some time to think. Maybe a little too much.

Every day since the beginning of this journey I’ve woken up wondering where I was and what I was doing. Not in a good way. Why didn’t I stay in my nice apartment? I’d been there 3 years, ever since the separation. I’d gotten it just how I liked it. Maybe that was the problem. I could see myself all too clearly in 10, 15, maybe 20 years if I’m lucky, on my deathbed in that same one-bedroom apartment, people clucking and tucking pillows around me. Or not. Maybe alone. Either way, the thought was horrifying. I’m not ready. I’ve got things to do. I had no real clue what those things were but I knew they lay beyond the confines of my 1br, pre-war bldg, riv view. Leap and the net will appear, all the mugs say.

My lease came up last September. COVID was raging. New York was a ghost town. Let my lease be my leap, I thought. Give up your lease and the net will appear. So I did. It was now or never. And now I’m looking out at an implacable wall of rain, wondering if I may drown in my car not in some unfortunate valley I got stuck in but near the top of a fucking mountain 3 days into my trip, and I’m thinking, hmmm…’s never? Does never work for you, asshole adventurous self? Maybe it should have been never.

The rain lifted a bit. I could drive again. I look up through the rain-smeared windshield and suddenly realize something. No, I didn’t realize it. It struck me. I looked up and was struck by something profound and important as if by a 2×4. It was fucking beautiful. That’s all. Right there, in that moment in my leaky rented Suzuki 4-wheeler staring out at a nameless, rain smeared stretch of highway, it was so fucking beautiful. What am I doing? I asked. What am I rushing to? Why am I beating myself up? I took a deep, cleansing breath like they tell you to in yoga and I always forget about in moments of need. Not this time. I’m not in New York anymore, I remind myself, where beating yourself up is an Olympic sport. I don’t have to do that. What’s that quetzal doing right now? Chillin, yo. Is he freaked out cause he’s late for a hair appointment or some shit? Nah. He’s like “Dan, chill the fuck out.”

I got to Nina’s around 6, sun almost set, up a deeply rutted dirt road. And it turns out I know her. Not literally, of course. But deeper. She’s a certain classic type in my mind, the New York warrior queen. Smart but not overtly know-it-all-y. Un-fucking-beatable at Scrabble, and I’m good, I tried. They draw people to them. And they seem to not just know everyone, but to have worked with them extensively on that bridge committee or taught their daughter fencing or leathercrafts.

When we finally meet, it is, of course, all good. She’s got a great wide open face and a mane of exquisite blond hair she takes meticulous care of. She’s made an amazing chicken stew with quinoa and raisins and a host of ingredients I only hope one day to know the names of. A sassy Chilean rioja gets involved. One of those nights you don’t remember so much as feel, like a pleasant chord reverberating. She got out her guitar and played a few songs. Her husband David introduced me to the mamonchino, a Costa Rican fruit so delicious I nearly cried (I’m partial to fruit). It’s got a tough, scarlet-hued skin that’s covered with soft thorny spikes that protect the fruit. Prickly on the outside, sweet underneath, he explains. Like he read my horoscope. And then the quetzal thing. Like it just came right over and bit me on the ass. Or gave me a kiss. A gift. Un regalo. The gift of merely seeing its bad self. Hmmm. Maybe I was meant to be here after all.

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Nyack People & Places, a weekly series that features photos and profiles of citizens and scenes near Nyack, NY, is sponsored by Sun River Health.

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