I believe it was an hour or two into our hike that we saw the monkeys.
It was humid and hot, like it always is when the sun approaches noon in Costa Rica. I’d been cradling my camera for so long it was like having a quiet robotic baby in my arms, and we finally reached a stretch of the trail that went downhill, not nearly vertical. The floor of the rainforest was a road hazard of slippery roots but the damp and cool soil felt solid under my feet.
Our assignment was to pick a subject, to actively seek out something, be it a place or organism or concept; some focused-on mushroom and fungi, others the texture of leaves and trees. Nobody was expecting anything big; after our first hike, where expectations were high: “I hope we see a sloth, or maybe a puma’s tracks”– we had come to realize that it was much more likely to see blue morphos and leaf-cutter ants.
If we were lucky, maybe we’d see a coati or an agouti. Maybe.
I think I’d taken a break from photographs to simply watch where I was going, only glancing up when I heard what I immediately assumed was the crashing of a stick through several branches of huge Costa Rican leaves.
I believe that I was the first one to cry out, “Look, a monkey!”
It disappeared behind the dense canopies atop of the trees, its voice lost in the chittering and screeching of motmots and other birds. Everyone within my group stopped in their tracks and ran up near my position, and started maneuvering their cameras towards the gaps of sunlight between thick brushes of leaves.
For a second, there were no other flashes of black motion between the tree branches to indicate that there had been anything there at all. I worried that I’d be teased for hallucinating. But then, all at once, the capuchins appeared. My peers, one by one, announced, “I see it!” and others, lost, demanded, “Where?!”
Using the trees as road maps to the monkeys’ location, I’d point out to my friends where I saw them until the movements became so clear and unavoidably obvious that no one needed to seek them out: they surrounded us. They chittered and talked to one another, screaming from one branch to another. We watched them climb and swing until our necks ached, and then we kept watching.
Then something unusual happened.
I did not pick up my camera. Not even once. It wasn’t just that I did not want to take a subpar picture—I felt as though looking at something living—and seeing it through the lens of my camera would cheapen the experience: Life felt distant, distorted through the camera lens.
I felt more closer to nature than I had during the entire trip. We as Americans, with our zoos and sanctuaries, are used to controlling and containing nature. For those minutes, I felt out of its control, as though I was simply a part of it. I was not a voyeur, but another creature in the forest.
What I learned by the end of the hike, when our necks hurt too much to keep looking up and the monkeys’ screeches had become distant, was that we experience the most in nature once we break out of our expectations of it. The moment I understand my place as a part rather than exempt from nature was the moment I found the monkeys.