I was fortunate enough to spend last week in the Costa Rican jungle, taking what I thought would be a much needed vacation from the human condition. For the last few years, I’ve felt drawn to go there and I usually try to heed the call for travel when it arrives given the many blessings and amazements I experience when I do.
I joined a Women’s Retreat group there, not knowing a soul. And although I got the rest I needed, I can’t say that I actually escaped the human condition while there. I’ve been on many retreats before, so I should know that when you intentionally join a group like that, not only will you be urged to learn about yourself, but you will be also exposed to the trials and tribulations of others. This is a time when you simply surrender to what life has presented to you and know that it must be a necessary part of your journey.
I awoke the first morning to the sounds of the lush jungle— the calls of unfamiliar birds, bugs, and other unknown creatures, the rustling of the palm trees in the morning breeze, and the myriad of other sounds whose source I had yet to discover. Since I arrived just as the sun went down the night before I hadn’t had a chance to explore the grounds of the retreat center. So, having awakened early, I decided to take a stroll and discover what I could before the group met for orientation.
Not far down the path I heard movement in the trees above me. Aha! I found what I had been hoping for—a troop of howler monkeys! Anyone who knows me is well aware that my greatest joy is watching nature unveil itself—live creatures, in particular. I stood there in amazement as these fun little creatures either sat there quietly munching on the leaves they were harvesting in the canopy or swinging from branch to branch looking for the best meal, or simply playing as they moved along. I caught the eye of one of them who was sitting there staring at me like I had been at them. Although it is powerful to lock eyes with a human being, somehow it is magnified when you do so with a creature of another species.
We stood there looking at each other for a good while, me just breathing in the wonder, and him/her—who knows what?! With no other human in sight, I felt completely connected with a primate I had never met, and somehow knew that we mutually respected each other’s presence.
The women in the group came to call me Dr. Doolittle throughout the rest of the trip, as I seemed to draw various creatures in my direction—some uninvited, and others openly welcomed. From the accommodations available, I’d selected a “Nature Suite,” which is a one-room stand-alone building with an enclosed sun porch and outdoor shower (which was fantastic—especially when washing the jungle humidity off at night under the stars, yet still hearing the sounds of the jungle). I figured if I was going to get the feel of the jungle, I might as well be right in it.
And, in fact, I was literally in nature—complete with vines, foliage, iguanas, geckos, birds, bugs, monkeys, and so on. Unfortunately at times, Nature decided it wanted to visit me inside the cottage as well, with some uninvited ants, spiders, and jungle mice. I took it all in stride and learned how to both scoot them out and co-exist as peacefully as I could. In fact, I figured I was intruding on their space much more than they were on mine. I quickly became accustomed to the iguana that guarded my front door, the various birds who called out very early in the morning, and to the bright red, black and white tree critters that looked like a cross between a skunk and an American squirrel.
After our evening session on the third night of the trip, I was walking back to my jungle suite when I heard rustling near the tree by my door. This Guanacaste, Costa Rica’s native tree, was about 4 feet from my door with thick foliage surrounding its base. I knew the sounds were made by something larger than an iguana, so I switched on the flashlight the retreat center had so conveniently attached to our key chains. It took me a few seconds to register in my mind what I was seeing since it was completely unexpected and clearly nothing I had ever seen before in person. Attached to the base of the tree was a 3-foot anteater, heading up for its evening meal. Sensitive to the light, the critter slowly turned his head to look at me, then gently backed down the tree and made his/her way back into the dark of the jungle. I stood there both in amazement and in a bit of bewilderment as I questioned whether I had really seen what I thought I had. Once inside, I couldn’t stop saying out loud to myself “How cool was that?!!!”
I enjoyed many other nature encounters throughout the week—the bats that swooped between our heads as a new friend and I enjoyed a starlit swim in the infinity pool one evening, the huge hummingbirds that were zipping from tree to tree looking for a sweet snack, the crab that came running out from beneath a fire we lit on the beach the last night (which I quickly saved from being roasted), the dragonflies that hovered on the walking paths, and more. The attendant of the smoothie bar and I even named the solo bat (“Spike”) that roosted daily up in the corner of the thatched roof and wondered if he would bring offspring to join him one day.
As I wrote in my journal toward the end of the week, what struck me most was how my awareness had shifted in so many ways during those eight days. For the first time in as long as I could remember, it felt like time had slowed down. It felt like that week was actually the length of a month. So much happened during that week—both internally as I learned more about myself (some welcomed and some not so much…), and externally as I learned about the jungle, the creatures, and the Costa Rican way of living—, that time seemed to stretch and even stop at times.
And what was even more interesting was what seemed to make the biggest impact. Although the retreat center and the country are both interesting and beautiful, and although we experienced some wonderful growth through the women’s retreat, and although we did some team-building and fear busting excursions (galloping on horses on the beach and zip-lining through the jungle), what became most apparent to me was that much of the magnitude faded in my consciousness not long after it first amazed me. Another retreat participant and I even joked when we saw tourists see monkeys for the first time that that was old news to us since we had them living on the property of the retreat center.
Perhaps it was that the novelty simply wore off…. Or perhaps it was that one amazing sight or experience simply blurred the next…Or maybe it was that the human condition would creep back in and overshadow each unique experience….. or maybe…..
Consciousness clearly takes work. But what I learned the most on this trip is that what we remember and learn from the most is what is the least expected. I knew I had a good chance of seeing the howler monkeys. And I knew we would be surrounded by the palm trees, birds and other signs of the jungle. And I knew by the description of the women’s retreat that I’d probably be pushed to learn something new about myself. And I knew we would likely go horse-back riding and zip-lining. So although these were experiences I hadn’t done in Costa Rica since I’d never been there, I had some level of expectation for these experiences.
But the image of that anteater won’t leave my brain. That experience was completely and utterly unexpected. Seeing that creature clinging to the tree instantaneously challenged my senses and raised my consciousness about how important it is to welcome and embrace the unexpected. I still shake my head when I think of seeing him—maybe trying to shake sense in to my head that I actually saw it, or maybe I just continue in utter amazement that I was blessed with that experience.
Nevertheless, it is clear that the unexpected makes a key impact. The unexpected awareness, the unexpected growth, and the unexpected random (or not so random..) events are there to help us grow. They are there to raise our consciousness in a way that challenges us to evolve—no matter what. These novelties are signals that there is so much more to learn—and that our evolution is embedded most with the unexpected experiences we may have.
When anyone asks me about my experience in Costa Rica, I will always tell them about my visit from the anteater. It may be an unexpected response to their question, but it will likely be the one that they will remember most.