The middle days of January have been an emotional time for me in recent years. It's when I celebrate my birthday, but it's also the anniversary of my father's passing the day prior and his birthday the day before that. This year, I decided to escape to a warmer climate, along with my friend Leanne. Like hummingbirds, we migrated hundreds of kilometres south to the jungles of Costa Rica.
It was only a few hours after arriving in Arenal that I had my first encounter with one of those very birds. It flashed into view just as I sat down on the patio. It zipped among some nearby flowers, extracting its fill of nectar, entrancing me. Before darting away, it backed up and hovered in place, a magical ability unique to its kind. Was it looking at me?
Walkways wild and high
There are many different ways to experience the rainforest in Costa Rica. I couldn't convince Leanne to brave it, but I decided to test my fortitude for heights of the swingy kind on a Hanging Bridges Canopy Tour. I was the only one registered, so I had the naturalist guide, Reynaldo, all to myself.
We trekked through lush greenery on mossy paths from one swaying bridge to another. The elevated walkways were a breathtaking way to experience the rainforest from a unique perspective -- top down. At times the canopy was so close I could reach out and touch the tops of swaying palms. I felt their quiet supremacy.
The shorter bridges were a breeze, but the longest ones were unsettling as they swayed enough to make keeping my balance challenging. The sides and 'floors'of the bridges were made of metallic mesh, so I could see what was below and all around me -- awesome and unnerving at the same time. One of the longest and highest spans was suspended over a rushing river far below. It was mostly eyes ahead as I cautiously inched my way to the far side.
Reynaldo's passion for the rainforest and all of its creatures was contagious. He pointed out snakes, tarantulas, toads, finches, 'walking trees' and symbiotic insect/plant living arrangements. He could hardly contain his excitement when we came across a rare species of caterpillar on a tree trunk, and later a group of tiny frogs mating near a waterfall. Both were rare sights, he said. He snapped photos and consulted his field guide to confirm and record the sightings. I felt like a naturalist in training.
Shortly after the third bridge, I felt a slight rush of air and a silky swipe against my cheek. There was a whirring sound, but whatever it was disappeared in a flash, before I could see it.
'That was a hummingbird!' said Reynaldo.
My heart skipped a beat.
Throughout our walk, I spotted another one of the diminutive aerialists dashing across our path. I couldn't be sure, but I thought it might be the same feisty flier following us along the trail the entire way.
It was then I remembered the special affection my Dad had for birds, and for hummingbirds in particular. They were a rare sight in our town, appearing only occasionally during the warmest months of summer. Each spring Dad would set out two or three feeders filled with red-dyed sugar water, in hopes we'd get a visit or two. And we did receive the occasional swift-winged yard guest, much to our family's collective delight.
On our final morning in Costa Rica, we were having breakfast at the lodge's treehouse-like restaurant when yet another hummingbird came to visit. It drank its fill at the feeder near the open window, and I caught only a fleeting glimpse of it before it flew away.
I began to think these encounters might be more than a coincidence. Perhaps they were meant to comfort and uplift me; to create an association of lightness and joy with my memories of Dad. I later learned that some American and Latin American indigenous cultures believe the tiny birds carry messages from the afterlife, offering connections to those we have lost.
I remembered the dream my Aunt had recently shared, in which a hummingbird flew in through her window and allowed her to catch him. She fed it some sugar water, which it lapped up eagerly. Before flying off, it tilted its head and looked at her, seemingly in thanks. She believed it was a visit from Dad, down from heaven to say hello in response to her thoughts of him, the brother she missed so dearly.
And then I realized: it was my birthday, and my heart was light.