Extinct Birds and Blind Horses: Adventures at a Costa Rica Monastery, Part III

Dana and Sweet Baby Girl, one of great monastic lessons from Madhuvan Monastery

Two guests here at Madhuvan Monastery are avid birdwatchers. They tote binoculars and can identify most tropical species, but are not the type of experts who look down on the rest of us with our mere urban pigeon knowledge. Justin and Lila-mayi walk the dirt paths with patience and intrigue, listening for distinct shrills and glimpses of feathered creatures in the trees.

A few mornings ago on the way to breakfast, Fred and I stumbled upon them engaged in what must have been a rare spotting. They were huddled together, necks craned and binoculars poised, oohing over a rustle in the trees.

“What’d you find?” we asked.

“A cuckoo!”

Their excitement was contagious. My mind raced:

Shouldn’t we call someone? The mayor, the president, or, heck, the Pope? Perhaps they’ll send some world renowned bird scientist or a National Geographic photographer once we share the news?

I was writing the glorious headlines in my mind, the ones that would place Madhuvan Monastery on the front page of every global publication, when I suddenly realized I’d mistaken the cuckoo bird for the Dodo, the extinct creature from middle school science books.

Snapped from my species resuscitation fantasy, Justin and Lila-mayi gently placed me in the right line of vision to catch a glimpse of the rare-but-not-extinct Squirrel Cuckoo.

“Follow the palm closest to us, all the way to the top where the sun is hitting it. He’s right there!”

It took what seemed like a full five minutes to find that damn bird, and I felt sillier and sillier with each 30 second interval of staring at green leaves. As I searched, I remembered how I became an official bird poop-target one summer during an outdoor adventure. I also had flashbacks of the dead goldfish I’d buried beneath the trees in the back yard of my youth–the ones whom I removed from the fish bowl and petted before school, whose inevitable graves I marked with a plastic fork. I think they were all named Howie.

Finally, after feeling zoologically defeated, I saw it.

There on a sturdy branch, the Squirrel Cuckoo stretched its pink head and long black body that curved down to stiff tail feathers with white lines. He (or she?) was mid-breakfast, struggling to swallow a large insect caught horizontal in its mouth, which Justin described as the equivalent of us “trying to eat a large pancake with no hands.”

We stood in awe of the creature consuming its protein.

Even I, the killer of goldfish and curser of birds, was grateful for this sighting.

At Madhuvan, all “stuff” of ordinary life melts away. Here, as birdwatchers, we are absorbed by God and nature.

Here, I slow down. I stop.

I become an observer of sabbath, a student of sacred time.

Birds teach me to sing the glory of the day; monks teach me that the contemplative process is purifying.


Dana, precariously mounting "Jai Sri" or "Snorkels," and thus renamed "Sweet Baby Girl."
Dana, precariously mounting “Jai Sri” or “Snorkels,” and thus renamed “Sweet Baby Girl.”

Several days later, I found myself on a horse, as if nature needed to reemphasize her lessons.

Fred’s guru had arranged for us to take a horseback ride through the property to see heights and sights we couldn’t reached by foot.

Sanatana, the temple manager, introduced me to my horse, “Jai Sri,” or “Snorkels.”

She was chestnut brown with one milky eye, and I thought, “Sweet Jesus! They’ve given me the blind horse!”

My first attempt at mounting her failed, and I cried.

Sanatana stood near, patient and humorous in his usual way, just as he had been when he explained vegetarianism to me two summers ago.

Resorting to my usual mantra, I said to him and Fred: “I can’t do this; I’m scared of horses.”

But, Fred’s guru was waiting for us, and I knew it was special that he was taking time out of this sunny day to show us his vision for this Costa Rican oasis.

I prayed: “God, if you want me to do this, you’ve got to help.”

“OK. I’m ready to try again,” I told the boys.

On the second attempt, Fred gave me a good lift and then Sanatana secured me in the saddle.

Sanatana gave us a five-minute lesson on steering and breaking–just enough information to induce panic in a 33-year-old who’s never ridden a horse.

I whispered into my brown blind horse’s ear:

“Sweet Baby Girl, you’re gonna have to help me. Go very slow. Be gentle.”

Sweet Baby Girl, spontaneously renamed in this moment of vulnerability, slowly trotted with me on her back as Sanatana guided us toward Swami’s cabin to begin tour.

Swami, Fred, and me, ready to conquer the mountain!
Swami, Fred, and me, ready to conquer the mountain!

During the one-and-a-half-hour ride, Sweet Baby Girl stopped and frequently crooked her head back at me. I’d gotten in the habit of stroking her neck when we paused at vistas, thanking her for her cooperation and making apologies for assuming she was blind. She may have also been praying that the ride would be over soon and the lump she was stuck with would leave her alone so that she could run off to do something more productive, like eat and poop.

“She doesn’t take you seriously!” Fred said at one point, when he heard me cooing over Sweet Baby Girl then later asking her to trot in my most sweet tea Southern voice, “C’mon girl, giddy-up!”

But, Baby Girl and I moseyed along the steep paths at a steady pace like 80-year-olds walking home from shuffleboard practice. We slow trotted our way behind Fred and Swami and their glorious white stallions who galloped and commanded the mountainside slopes, bolding through briar patches and tall grasses.

At the top of the highest ridge, the three of us stood together with our horses like a Hollywood Wild West moment, my fears and anxieties and spiritual hang-ups conquered. For now.

Fred's guru, Swami B.V. Tripurari, in the "Wild West" of Costa Rica.
Fred’s guru, Swami B.V. Tripurari, in the “Wild West” of Costa Rica.

Nine full days at Hindu Costa Rican Monastery have taught me more lessons than I can count. They all found me, kneeling in a cold tile shower, grasping at dirt on mountain cliffs, in the evening worship of a barn-like temple room, gazing up at birds, and riding a milky-eyed horse named Sweet Baby Girl.

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