The Other Birds of Paradise

by Kimberly Riskas (Australia)

The last thing I expected Costa Rica


“Kim, do you like birds?” asked María as she cleared the remains of our lunch of rice, black beans and fried plantains. Costa Rica’s colorful avians had captivated me over the past three months, and María’s question set my curiosity alight. Her tone suggested an impending treat, yet we were in a fishing village and far from the rainforest—did people keep toucans as pets here in Cuajiniquil? Would I finally see a resplendent quetzal, the red-blue-green jewel of the tropical Americas? María finished the dishes and smiled. Bright sunlight glowed through the lace curtains behind her. “Get your shoes,” she said. “Antonio is waiting.” We walked down the village’s earthen road toward the river. The rows of brightly-painted houses and blaring stereos soon gave way to pod-laden guanacaste trees and the throbbing hum of cicadas. This northwest shoulder of Costa Rica is a biodiversity gold mine. The World Heritage-listed Area de Conservación Guanacaste (ACG) covers 2% of the country’s surface but holds an astonishing two thirds of its known species. With a strong focus on conservation uncommon to developing nations, Costa Rica has built its economy on a base of tourism and all things “eco”. But progress is gradual, and the landscape recounts a history marked by contrast. Even in the ACG, grasslands—scars from generations of cattle ranching—mark where dry forests once stood. We continued along the river, and after ten minutes of inhaling sulphurous mangrove reek arrived at a clearing. Men were standing around a makeshift pen. A stocky man in a white shirt waved to us (Antonio, María’s husband, I surmised). His other hand kept a firm grasp on the rooster under his arm. Then I noticed the cages, and saw a man in snakeskin boots collecting wads of colones from the waiting crowd. My fantasies of toucans and quetzals evaporated. I watched the cockfight in a daze: men shouting, stamping as Antonio’s bird succumbed to the sharpened spurs of its rival. On the walk home, Antonio chatted affably to me, his white shirt now splattered with rooster blood. Costa Ricans are as diverse and wonderful as the land they inhabit. Many advocate for sustainable tourism. Others push to expand the reach of protected areas. Still others open their homes to foreign students and treat them like family. That night I was pondering the duality of our relationship with nature when María emerged from the kitchen with a heavy tray of food and asked sweetly, “Kim, do you like chicken?”