In Pursuit of the Beyond
It’s a Sunday noon. I’m at the San José airport, looking out of the massive glass façade awaiting my flight. Light and water meet and a rainbow graces the sky — as though in an implicit promise of the bounty to come, like a bridge between ground reality and lofty dreams. Could this trip be as productive as ever? I’m about to find out. My previous tours to Costa Rica have been spectacular. After all, the cloud forests of this country, whose name is a somewhat-understated geographical description (Costa Rica literally translates to ‘rich coast’), host a dizzying 500,000 species. There’s more species per unit area here than in any other country on the planet.
Now, as I do every year, I’ve brought with me an eager group of photography enthusiasts, excited by the promise of a bounteous land, stoked by the prospect of portraying its abundance. We check in to our first destination, and the raw beauty takes me aback as though I were here for the first time. Indeed, if we really look with the heart, photographing wildlife carries with it an inherent promise of uniqueness. No two days are the same in the wild; let alone any two years. It’s an ever-shifting, ever-transiting universe — where wonder is the only constant.
The next day we see a magnificent toucan in action. With its outlandishly beautiful bill and vividly contrasting colours, it’s a gorgeous avian subject to photograph, and I’m thrilled the group’s been this fortunate. Amid all the fervent shouting out of settings for the tour participants to nail the pictures, I take a quiet moment to admire it and notice how in the silence of the changing greens of the forest, it’s perched with its bright colours in a defiant devotion to its habitat.
Later, we set out in the Atlantic Lowland Rainforest Range to make images of monkeys, aracaris and Montezuma oropendolas. Watching birds in the wild has always made me understand better why they symbolise freedom in the world of humans: their simple act of flying means boundlessness to us. Perhaps disregarding gravity and owning its share of the sky makes a bird relatable to those of us who wish to outdo limitations and seek what lies beyond them.
In the Central Volcanic Range Cloud Forest, I have always loved photographing macaws in flight against the lush-green forest backgrounds as well as on attractive perches. They are a riot of colours! I’ve also made images of them when it was raining and it was as though different elements were in conversation with the vivacious hues of this bird — in the soft wetness and a gentle touch of the drizzle.
Halfway down the tour and we have arrived at the highly enjoyable task of photographing hummingbirds, with our multi-flash set-ups right on the lodge premises. The set-up includes some attractive native flowers that entice the birds with their nectar, which allows us to make some stunning images that depict their glorious details. Hummingbirds flit about swiftly, teasing and taunting our vision and our reflexes. They are like little uprisings on their own as, in their infinite innocence; they challenge us to record the marvel of their surreality. In certain parts of this wonderland, the forest rumble becomes a roar – in the magnificent waterfalls that descend with dignity and gravitas. I amuse myself thinking that in the verdant fabric of the forest, these white threads exist to complete the wreaths of green.
But we’re now approaching the most critical part of the tour — up in the Talamanca Range Cloud Forest in pursuit of one of Earth’s rarest and most spectacular birds: the resplendent quetzal. I’ve been blessed in the past to have enjoyed multiple and leisurely views of it, and have come to believe that living without seeing and photographing it is one of life’s great losses. For the quetzal is a bird that makes you fall in love with it at the very first sight, and I’m anxious to see if my group will get to be in love. We arrive at the site, and hit pay dirt with such startling ease; I’m taken aback with a paroxysm of pleasure. A male, attired in his long green tail, red belly and green ‘jacket’ on a picturesque perch sits supreme.
I’m stunned! His beauty is all-pervasive, and despite having seen and photographed the bird on several occasions in the past, I find it hard to believe that something as lovely as this can possibly exist. And it occurs to me that the tour that has reached its zenith with this sight of nature at the apogee of design. Now, the white-naped jakobin is another bird I’ve been expecting to photograph, and next day, it turns out we haven’t exhausted all our luck, and are fortunate enough to encounter this avian beauty as well. As we see it hover in the air, it feels like time itself has learned some stillness.
We take a breather from all the frenzy, and in the lap of the induced calm, I cannot help but rave about the beauty of the Costa Rican wilderness. I can almost feel the textures of the numerous different trees, growing riotously densely, etching themselves on my memory. This exquisite allure then hauntingly hurtles through my memory space and contends for my attention. It’s as if my vision helps me transcend my own unclear understanding of what nature means, and a singular tranquillity settles upon my mind like the mist enveloping the waterfall before us.
The sight slowly sinks in and seeps through all the crevices of my heart, and as I look back at the tour, I see all the snakes and the frogs we’ve seen and photographed; all the variety of wildlife that lives and thrives on this blessed land. And when the snakes have been slothful and not always slithered away, and the little adorable frogs have stayed and not leaped off, they’ve been a boundless joy to watch and photograph. And yet again I return with great memories, memories birthed by the womb of this great country with its myriad life forms. I return with their soul-stirring innocence, their formidable beauty, and the trust that exists between my reverence and their power to enchant having grown my love for it a bit more. I know it is a steadfast love that will keep me returning time and again in search of good light, and in its wake, a glimpse of the world beyond.
This article appeared in Sunday Chronicle and The Asian Age on 1 April 2018.