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Food Feature: A time in the jungle

The grass and the spiders are greener in Costa Rica

The last time I saw a crab crossing the road was in the Caribbean, and I accidentally killed it with my car. I remember being shocked by the thought of careening into a sea creature with my automobile. So when I reached a little beach town on the Pacific side of Costa Rica called Montezuma, where the roofs are thatched and the roads are dirt, I thought I was prepared. I was walking with my friend Jen back to some bungalows we rented for next to nothing in a mango grove with an ocean view.

"Oh, look, a crab," I said, pointing to an apple-green creature quickly skittering across the road. It was sizable, bigger than the hand of a chubby adolescent.

"I don't think that's a crab," said Jen, who was already in the distance. I peered down at it, and upon closer examination I noticed it behaved oddly for a crab. For example, don't crabs walk sideways? And where was its shell? Do crabs shed shells? And it had the hugest ass of any crab I've ever seen.

"JESUS GOD! THAT'S A SPIDER!" I screamed. "THAT'S THE BIGGEST, GODDAMMINEST, FUCKINEST SPIDER IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD! OH, MY GOD! DID YOU SEE THAT SPIDER?!?!"

It took me exactly one-half nanosecond to reach Jen. "DID YOU SEE THE ASS ON THAT THING? I asked (I talked in capitals about the spider for the rest of the trip), "IT HAD A BUTT AS BIG AS BUDDHA!"

"I told you it wasn't a crab," said Jen. She acted amazingly calm for someone who just encountered a neon-green arachnid big enough to hump her leg. She walked serenely on, in complete contrast to me, her travel companion, who every third step would break into a fit of flailing arms like Michael Stipe in that "Losing My Religion" video. I feared we encountered the spider on its way back from having built a web across the road, with which it hoped to catch a car or something, and here we were, two tender morsels without even any metal around us, about to walk right into it.

"I can't believe how unfreaked you are," I told her. "That thing was practically a planet with legs!"

"We're in Costa Rica," she answered. "What did you expect?"

Her question gave me pause (not actual physical pause), because the truth is I came here not expecting anything. I needed a Latin American locale to study Spanish before taking the test that would qualify me as an interpreter, and I picked Costa Rica because it had two things going for it: newly established non-stop jet service via Delta Airlines and the fact that my friend Tanner had e-mailed me some information about a school located in the capitol city of San Jose called I.P.E.E., which specializes in total-immersion courses and which, more importantly, I could afford.

Jen and I were on a weekend excursion to the beach with Tanner and his girlfriend, Laurie, who had both been to Montezuma before and who also were unimpressed with a spider big enough to win a fight with an alley cat.

"It's a jungle," said Tanner. "Things grow in jungles. They grow big."

Tanner and Laurie planned to put bananas on the balcony of their bungalow to attract howler monkeys. We had heard a few in the trees earlier that day, and Jen had warned us not to stand under their branches because they like to urinate on tourists. I wondered how the monkeys could distinguish the tourists from the locals. "It can't be too hard," said Jen.

Before I left Atlanta to come here, my neighbor Martin had given me a Lonely Planet guide to Costa Rica with a rainbow-colored tree frog on the cover. It described Montezuma thusly: "If you want a remote little coastal village to get away from other travelers, this is not the place for you."

The description surprised me because Montezuma is no bigger than three neighborhood blocks, and it took four hours of travel over unpaved (or poorly paved) roads plus a two-hour ferry ride to get there from San Jose.

It seemed rustic, serene and very remote to me. But then again, I'm a city chick who is only now becoming accustomed to day-glo tarantulas. Maybe after more time in the jungle, Montezuma will seem like L.A. to me, and I will be breeding those spiders to make purses out of their pretty, lime-green, huge-ass hides.

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