Following the Love of My Life

If you know her, you would easily say Shalynn Pack is one of the most passionate people you have ever met. Following in her footsteps, meeting all the people she has touched here in Costa Rica, and shadowing her experience to better share her story has been another wonderful chapter of my blessed spiritual journeys following the lovely Ms. Pack (whom I am so honored to soon to make Mrs… well, Pack.).

I first met up with Shalynn in La Fortuna, a tourist town with waterfalls, volcanoes, ziplining, and horseback-riding. After we caught up detailing our adventures of the last two months, she immediately transformed into a wonderful TV host. We started shooting the show “The Volunteer Traveler: Costa Rica” with her vacation segment, in which Shalynn shares the travel advantages of volunteering in an exotic country. We hiked to a volcanic lake, waterfalls, and hot springs with a tour agency with which I had secured a discount by showcasing the flying camera abilities of the Drone. Although I had originally planned to film an exhilarating zip-lining/bungee sequence, the beautiful landscapes and waterfalls should be a compelling argument toward encouraging anyone who might watch this project to consider one of the benefits of volunteering.

Along with Shalynn’s enthusiasm for travel, on-camera she is an excellent teacher. As I first began working with her in the field, mostly just trying to keep the camera steady, in-focus, and protected from whipping branches as we ducked through the undergrowth, Shalynn consistently described the project’s demands with confidence and poise. It is really hard, actually, to talk to a camera or an imagined audience and still look natural. Maybe with me behind the lens, she is able to just talk to me, but whatever she does it works for her to be a knowledgeable, enthusiastic guide through a technical science project.

The project itself is complex but straightforward. What cannot be learned from her blog, however, are the demanding conditions in which she and her crew works through. Starting with the 4AM wakeup, the heat, humidity, and mosquitoes have been draining for me. Not to mention that the nature of the job is to wade through the dense undergrowth looking for impossibly-hidden nests that are indistinguishable from “SLCs” (Suspicious Leaf Clumps) while also keeping an eye out for venomous snakes below and on any palm you might brush by, bullet ants, spiders, and a number of other biting and itchy things. Shalynn carries her enthusiasm and remains patient with me dragging behind and asking her to repeat herself several times – this time with a different facial expression.

Our closeness allows – I hope – for an intimate portrayal of her work. She ignores me hovering six inches away to get a close and continues her delicate work extracting blood from a nestling. She cannot get too frustrated with her “producer” as we have a long road and many further episodes to share. And if she does she can say or do whatever she wants and not ruin a professional relationship. But beyond that she is so excited for me to see everything she has experienced and to share what she has learned that it is easy for me to capture and forward that inspiring zeal for what she does.

But the true highlight is to meet everybody who will always represent this wonderful country to us. The first week of filming the project sequences we were staying with Rigoberto at his farm in La Virgen. Shalynn has developed a strong relationship with this loving and generous man, and their bond included me. When I met him, Rigo was sitting in the back of the church he founded, listening to the sermon. He gave me a long hug and told me he loved me and introduced me to the whole church, who all applauded me and then sang happy birthday to Shalynn. I was hugged, kissed, and welcomed so warmly, and then the whole church prayed for us with each person speaking their blessings out loud at the same time for an incredible symphony.

It would be difficult to share this part of the story on film, but it is the most important part. Shalynn has become a part of this community. There are dozens of people here who love her. She is a delight to all she encounters with courteous curiosity and warmth to new people she meets. Her crew – her boss Deb and several other assistants, the other scientists she has met here, the park rangers with whom she’s shared field offices, and of course the loving community of La Virgen are all starting to say their tearful, best wished goodbyes to her, and their stern warnings to me to take care of her and to appreciate how lucky I am to be marrying her in less than two months.

Maybe the idea of promoting the idea of volunteer travel is really just my desire to share her love with others. To share all that she has taught me and to show that I do know how lucky I am. Not everybody can do what she can; she has found the farthest flung stars in the company of her proximity, jumped into the river of her passions, and shared her love and enthusiasm with new friends. I hope to be better able to share these ideas on an entertaining, video format, but mainly to share that I am so lucky to be able to keep following wherever she goes…

El Matabuey

I suddenly realized it had been a very long day, and fear stole my breath. We were passing around a few beers on a break from a night of snake searching in the jungle, and as I got to know this crew of “snake guys” – a group of biology majors from San Jose University – Jonny’s campfire-like tales spooked me through as the cerveza settled my wits:

“We’ve found 14 species here, but we know there’s a lot more. Last night we saw a tercio THIS BIG, 1.7 meters, and his head was like THAT,” he tells me, making a pear-sized spade with his hands. “It was the fourth one we’ve found. I’m sure we’ll find one tonight.

“Ah Maiy, the Most Venomous? That would be the Mexican Jumping Viper.”

Alan, with long hair, glasses, and a stereotypical Mexican accent, interjects, “¡El JYomping Viper de México!”

Jonny continues, “Los Caballeros find them in cracks in the desert, and are usually so far out that if they’re bitten they are dead. With the Jumping Viper you’re dead in less than an hour. I don’t even think there’s an antidote.

“Now, the tercios are definitely the most aggressive. If you step near them like that they will coil up and get ready to bite. I’ve had one chase me down the trail before. Usually you won’t die – here you won’t. You have like four hours to get to the hospital and we could get there in time from here. But you won’t be the same. Their venom eats the tissue. Maiy if you’re bitten in the toe or foot, you’ll be fine, they might cut off your foot. My uncle, he walks with a dead foot because he was bitten by a tercio and it destroyed his tissue. In the finger you might lose use of your hand, in the leg or torso, chuta, Maiy, forget about it.

“But the most dangerous, the most powerful, se llama el Matabuey. “The Ox Killer.” They aren’t as venomous as a tercio, but they get big, and when they’re bigger they have more venom. When a Matabuey bites, they inject all of it. That’s why they can kill a cow – ”

“¿De veras, Maiy, El Matabuey mata las vacas? (Oh really? The Ox Killer kills cows?),” Alan interjects again.

“So in the 80s when all the cows came here to Costa Rica many were killed by el Matabuey. So they started killing them all. Maiy, ¡they killed thousands! For fear. When they’d start a new ranch they would go around killing all the snakes just to kill the Matabuey. Maiy, on Facebook I just saw a friend posted a picture. It was a Matabuey and he wrote: ‘My mom killed this today in fear.’ And I was like, ‘No, Maiy, ahhhhhh…”

The group sighs in consolation.  I am a bit dizzy in all the imagery, fatigue, and spirits.

“The worst part? He said it measured 3.1 meters. That’s like the biggest on record here.”

Chuta, Maiy.”

“Qué lástima.” 

“Ah, Maiy.” 

“I would go crazy to see a Matabuey. But I doubt I ever will. There’s so few left. Shame.”

I had to sit down. These guys invited us to tag along on their weekend-ly snake outings to measure the biodiversity at the Qubrada Gonzalez sector of Braulio Carrillo National Park. We had just arrived that evening so I did not know the lay of the land nor the extent of the trails. I didn’t know that we would be out until far past midnight, hiking through the streambeds in the canyon below. I didn’t sleep at all last night. I hadn’t really drank in months due to my kidney-destroying anti-parasite treatment and my evening of a couple beers really hit me. I went and sat down next to Shay, in a haze. I am used to these adventures, have been hiking alone in the night through the jungle and usually dismiss the risks as statistics and play the odds (see: “who actually gets leishmaniasis”). But for some reason, now, I was really afraid. And I didn’t like that.

Part of the reason I was scared is because Shay has told me on several occasions she’d run into a terciopelo (fur-de-lance) on the trail while working on the Antbird project. She said they had gotten close because they hide under dead palms and are well-camouflaged. That was during the day. Now at night, wearing my sweaty glasses and walking like Captain Jack Sparrow on boozed-up, tired bones, I summoned all my will power to analyze my situation and really focus on the situation I had gotten myself into.

“I’m scared. I’m kinda freaking out,” I whispered to Shalynn, as the guys were getting ready to keep on.

“Oh you’ll be fine.”

She was right. Once we were off again I left my fear behind and assumed the role of the cameraman. Through my blurry, 3 inch LCD screen I was sure I wouldn’t spot any snakes, but I would get them on video. My camera followed the guys and saw frogs, toads, and a few snakes, and it was entirely exhilarating to get to know them and this piece of land, looking for El Matabuey.

San Jose: First Impressions

I walked off the plane beaming to be at it again. I find so much excitement and joy in exploring new countries, and I especially connect to Latin America where I can strike up a conversation with anyone I meet. Usually I am scrutinizingly cheap and gringo-esque in trying to barter for the cheapest taxi, I usually ask several and try to start a bidding war, and I never go with the first option anyways. Tonight, however, when Steven asked me if I wanted a taxi I let him and another guy determine my fate of where I was going and how much it would cost and I willingly climbed into the front seat. Steven lives near the airport and although he grew accustomed to the rumbling planes flying overhead since in his momma’s stomach, it’s hard to hear the TV sometimes when the whole house shakes. He’s glad to live so close, though, because being a taxi driver at the airport is easier when you live right next door. He is in the very first course of an English class and I helped him pronounce “How are you awled?” and we agreed that we are both pretty young. He in turn taught me the Ticueño word for “COOL!” It is tuanis, as in “he’s tuanis,” or “¡Qué tuanis!” Steven took me right to a hostel above the bus station, and we parted with him wishing me well and “pura vida.” This morning I was supposed to meet Shalynn in Quebrada Gonzalez where she is working in the jungle, but right before I boarded my flight from Houston yesterday her boss Deb called me and said there was a landslide on the road and that I’m now supposed to meet Shalynn in a town called La Fortuna. This morning I checked out what time the buses leave and wandered around. It’s not a very clean neighborhood, but I love the morning bustle. I walked through the market and reveled in the sights and smells. You can buy anything in these markets, from all sorts of fruits that you’ve never seen before, to meats, cheeses, pet food, to mobile phones and ipods. I settled for a morning blackberry-blueberry-pineapple shake, and filmed some of the fruit workers throwing pineapples around to get some shots to correspond with the pineapple plantations I will be demonizing in my film. Soon I hopped a bus for La Fortuna and didn’t get to see much of the capital. The little I saw brought me into the Latin mindset: Conversing in Spanish, friendly people, the marketplace, and crashing exhaustedly into a hostel are all signs to me that I’m on an adventure!

Now a word from our Inspire Sponsors!

Traveling with Kenny:
This is Kenny, the young Ecuadorian I am sponsoring through Children International. On my last trip to South America I actually got to meet him for a magically moving day I will never forget. While we were traveling he wrote me a letter which my mom answered, and they have since started their own correspondences. When I met him in Guayaquil I brought him photos and I was touched to see that he kept previous photos I’d sent him in a little album. Now that we have a personal bond and are maintaining a relationship, this time I thought I’d “bring him along” and that way the next photos I send him will be of us together. I hope he can find some joy in “sharing” my journey this way. I hope that having him alongside will remind me to serve others. And I hope that many of you will choose to sponsor a child through Children International, which is a wonderful organization.

Cause an\ UPROAR:
There are only 3,000 tigers, 20,000 lions, and 50,000 leopards left in the wild. A combination of human-wildlife conflict, pesticides, habitat destruction, and the fashion industry continue to threaten big cats the world over. THIS IS NOT RIGHT!! I was recently given this hat and feel responsible to use it to CAUSE AN UPROAR to raise awareness about the most iconic members of the animal kingdom.

Packing Lightly

This is my third documentary trip to Latin America in as many years, and this time I’m hoping I’ll really nail it! Not only do I feel infinitely more prepared in producing a documentary (I’ve written a script and know what I’m doing!), but I’ve finally upgraded my kit to… well… more professional quality than before. No more are the days where I Duct-tape a flashlight to a broken tripod for lighting! I have an audio recorder that will capture concert-level sound of the jungle symphony! And of course – the flying camera! Although it is composed of electrical tape its capabilities will hopefully boost my documentary-filmmaking potential to new heights!

I am writing from the plane and am amazed I’ve been able to drag everything on-board without them telling me to check it. My three bags (not just a carry-on and a personal item) are overflowing, and I have been stopped more than once for my overage of overcoats (“Isn’t Costa Rica pretty warm?”). Worsening the juggling act of two heavy, valuable bags and a heavy laptop Murse, one of my backpack’s wheels broke while wheeling to the metro and even though I’ve sewn its straps twice to support the bulging innards, I spent my first hour in San Jose sewing on a whole new one. The carry-on was searched in security, probably owing to the 5 computer chips that comprise the Parrot AR Drone 2.0. Lucky for me the young man who searched my luggage had heard of the device, was excited to talk to me about it, and didn’t even mind unwrapping my underwear, which I am using to protect the device.

Camera: Panasonic GH2 ($1200 + $300 (pancake lens) + $500 (Zoom lens))
Again I’m happy with my Panasonic Lumix GH series – a GH2 this time. Its half-sized chip gives me twice the zoom with my glass and therefore a much cheaper long-range capability for the close-up shots of difficult-to-approach animals. I have the GH standard 14-140mm lens with a silent autofocus and polarizer filter, a low-light, 1.7 aperture pancake 20mm lens, and will be re-claiming my 100-300mm lens from Shalynn when I meet up with her. Doubling these zoom powers, my range extends from 28mm for interviews and set shots to 600mm for the birdies. An equivalent Canon 600mm lens would price upwards of $l000s, and I got mine for a manageable $500.

Camera: Parrot AR Drone 2.0 ($300 + $200 parts)
This incredibly neat toy – no I must respect it as a powerful tool! – will give me the scenic capability to flyover the jungle forest, cascading rivers, and awe-struck locals. I will also be able to survey the pineapple plantations that are culpable for the habitat destruction/fragmentation at the project’s core. I have re-christened my flying buddy “Gordo,” in honor of our favorite Scarlet Macaw from Manu Wildlife Center. Being a Parrot Drone, I find it fitting and even more whimsical than having just a remote control quad-copter controlled by my Samsung Galaxy Nexus ($200 with new contract). Gordo emits his own wi-fi signal which links directly to my phone. Using the phone’s internal gyro capabilities, Gordo mimics my phone’s tilting actions to maneuver quite responsively. I can also move him directly vertical or rotate to cover the shots on the X-Y axis, and Gordo is kind enough to send me a live feed of his 720p forward-facing camera or his 480p ground view camera. Although his camera quality is little more above the exciting spy potential (one friend called him the “peeper” and vowed to get one to take to a nudist beach), I am supplementing his aeronautics with a camera upgrade.

Camera: GoPro HD Hero2 ($300 + $60 warranty)
This very handy and very portable and very, very versatile little guy is primarily the 1080p attachment for the Drone. The GoPro is a little heavy for Gordo, but effective to record in whichever direction I want to view by simply strapping him on Gordo’s back with electrical tape and a custom-fit foam body. I’m hoping my preflight practice will prevent any crashes, but you never know. I have bought a lot of spare parts just in case…
The GoPro will also be invaluable as a device for timelapses, underwater shooting, and catching extreme sequences (we’ll see if I can get Shalynn to bungee jump!). It is so small and automatic that I can put it anywhere, and I am hoping to use it like a set camera trap.

Although I am bringing my trusty underwater flashlight, I shelled out the measly $35 for an LED camera light. It fits into my camera’s shoe, has an adjustable dimmer, and color filters. It will be much more reliable than taping a flashlight to a broken tripod with a 36 hour battery life.

Action: Plenty to come!

Audio: Tascam DR-07 with Cardiod Mic ($154+$19)
I have had some good luck on my previous trip with an Olympus audio recorder, but this time I went for the professional quality of a Tascam. With adjustable sensors for surround or directed sound and a plug-in for a directional lapel mic, I’m sure I’ll be able to deliver high-quality sound to transport my few viewers into the thick of the bush.

Tripod: Benro Adjustable with Manfrotto Fluid head
No more crappy, frustratingly-shaky, cheap Walmart plastic tri-pod! This time I went… well almost all out with a Benro adjustable aluminum tripod. I wanted to go carbon fiber, but for $160 instead of $360 I have a tripod that ways 4 lbs instead of 2. Good trade. On top of its sturdy legs will rest a Manfrotto fluid head tripod which will guarantee I no longer have jitterbugs on-screen.

Now I really feel like a pro with a light-weight field shirt, and a million-pocketed fisherman’s vest. To save room in the luggage I am wearing my 10 inch wild land firefighting boots, khakis, travel wallet hidden in a protective location, 1TB traveler hard-drive strapped to the inside of my calf, the field shirt, the fisherman’s vest, a T-shirt underneath, a Northface fleece and a waterproof wind-breaker, all a-topped with a floppy safari hat. It’s been a hot day dragging all my gear in all my skins! But I realized in the bathroom that this is really how I want to dress all the time! I would love to be always heading toward the jungle or the field to film. Me llaman señor bolsillos! Or so I thought until I saw all the goofy old guys wearing similar vests and hats and looking similarly as ridiculous!

Added to my kit are all the little connectors, fasteners, stickies, and mendors you can name: rubber bands, Velcro strips, Velcro pads, zip-ties, Gorilla tape, rescue tape, bungee cords, fishing line, sewing thread and needles. I also have extra batteries, paperwork for film releases, and framed pictures of the people who attended the wedding Shalynn photographed. Strapped to my bag is a roll-up sleeping pad to finish of all the exhausting haul with the guarantee of uncomfortable sleep. And one would think given my history that I would have brought a lot of bugspray… well… WHOOPS.

An adventure!