September 25, 2020

Two Jewish Sisters in Search of Sloths

By Rachel Bernstein

The bus sped away down the dusty two-lane road leaving my twin sister and me standing next to our giant duffel bags staring at a large painted sign of a sloth pointing us inside the gates of the sanctuary in the middle of nowhere. We had travelled over 2,000 miles to see some sloths in celebration of our impending 30th birthday, and come hell or high water, we would see them.

Our trip to Costa Rica was our first time traveling abroad together since we went to Israel on the same Birthright Israel trip 10 years earlier. We’re close as twins, but have very different personalities and interests. I was a Jewish Studies major in college while Erica was a Fashion Design major. Now I’m still in Jewish Studies as a doctoral candidate in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and Sociology at Brandeis, and Erica works in Emergency Management after obtaining her master’s degree in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. Despite our differences, we have a tradition of doing the big things together – we had a joint b’not mitzvah, we went to an all-girls Jewish summer camp together and now we were going to celebrate our special birthday with sloths.

Baby sloth with stuffed animal.

Baby sloth with stuffed animal.

This time, unlike Birthright Israel, we were not on a bus filled with our peers, and we didn’t have a tour guide helping us with the local language and planning all our activities. We did grow a little bit on this trip—when we didn’t like the accommodations, we didn’t call Dad, we found another place to stay ourselves. We researched and booked all the activities and transportation we would need and want for our trip. We relied on each other to navigate the cultural differences and the limitations of our lodgings (thank goodness I brought plenty of snacks!).

The Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica, made famous by some adorable Animal Planet and YouTube videos (see “Bath Time for Baby Sloths”), is located on the Caribbean coast just south of Limon. My sister and I had been planning for months how to celebrate our “Big Birthday” and we kept coming back to the enticing joys of spending time on the beach, exploring the rainforest and interacting with sloths.

The Sloth Sanctuary did not disappoint. As part of the Insiders’ Tour, we wandered through all the enclosures of adult sloths rescued by the Sanctuary, as well as see all the tiny baby sloths staying in the “Slothspital” NICU unit. All of the sloths at the Sanctuary are either orphaned and must be nurtured by humans or injured from unfortunate run-ins with powerlines or cars. The sanctuary provides a safe cage for sleeping most of the day and lots of beans and other goodies for them to eat.

baby sloth in nicu

Baby sloth in the NICU. Photo by Erica Bernstein.

We learned a lot about (and from) the sloths at the Sloth Sanctuary. There are two types of sloths—two-fingered and three-fingered. They’re commonly referred to as “two-toed” and “three-toed,” but since the only difference in the number of claws are on their arms, it’s technically their fingers that are different not their toes. Sloths are anti-social creatures who don’t need the companionship of other sloths, and they only take care of their offspring for one year. They move so slowly because of their very slow metabolism, which means they only have to expel waste once a week!

We saw several sloths in the wild during our adventures on the Caribbean coast. As we travelled by boat from a resort in Tortuguero through the canals back to the mainland, our boat driver stopped so we could all watch a wild three-fingered sloth attempt to climb from the river onto the far riverbank. I don’t know how the driver spotted the sloth—like most wild sloths, its back was coated in thick, green algae (a type of algae only found in sloth fur!) which blended into the riverbank. Half the sloth was in the water, and the other half was clinging to the soft mud along the riverbank. It slowly reached a long arm up to grasp the grass at the top of the bank to heave itself out of the water. All 30 of us on the boat held our breath at the sloth’s attempt. Alas, it slipped further down the bank. But it reached right back up again to find a finger-hold in the mud. Our boat sped off before we could see the sloth make it safely to shore, but it was clearly an example of patience and “try, try again,” or The Little Sloth that Could.

sloth eating snack

A two-fingered sloth having a snack at the Sloth Sanctuary. Photo by Erica Bernstein.

On the last day of our trip, on a group tour to a coffee farm, Poas volcano, and La Paz Waterfall, the familiar chime of Hebrew rang out in the seats next to my sister and me on the tour bus. I turned to the two retired couples from Israel and introduced myself in Hebrew. They had just arrived for a long vacation in Central America and we were leaving the next day, so we launched into a conversation about where we’d been and what we’d seen. I showed them pictures of the sloths on my iPhone—we had a hard time with the word “sloth” between Hebrew and English, but eventually settled on “type of monkey-like creature.” It was a nice parallel to our last twin trip together to Israel a decade earlier—meeting a group of Israelis on a bus as we toured a foreign land, just my sister and me.

Rachel Bernstein  is a doctoral candidate in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and Sociology. She is the research director of the HBI-Gilda Slifka Summer Internship program.

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