This is my final research proposal, written for my senior seminar course at UNC Charlotte. As students, we were encouraged to produce a proposal that matched our interests and particular field of study. I chose to research ayahuasca, a jungle medicine that is often referred to as ‘The Vine of the Soul’, a medicine said to cure all physical, psychological and spiritual ailments.
A witty, insightful tale of adventure, told through the eyes of a single mother living in southern Costa Rica with her two young children.
“Am currently reading this delightful little book….”
“If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to leave modern conveniences behind and live a simpler existence in another culture, you will enjoy this book…”
“I am not normally a big reader but this book had me spellbound. I loved every page and have never laughed out loud and chuckled so much. It made me feel like I was with the writer every step of the way. I tried to read the book slowly so it wouldn’t end so soon. I would love to hear that a sequel is coming out soon???”
I open my eyes again half believing this is a dream. But no, the familiar landscape below is still there, a vast expanse of brown and green, sparsely dotted with tiny tin roofs. The rolling mountain range looms in every direction creating a breathtaking panoramic view as we make the slow descent toward Juan Santamaria International. My insides feel as though they could explode at any moment, the excitement is so great.
I cannot recall a time when I have taken this same elliptical descent, when I did not feel as if this place were home. Some uncanny sixth sense nudges at me, as if to say I belong here, I came from here, perhaps thousands of years ago, in another lifetime. The sense of belonging becomes so strong the only thing to do is to let it wash over me in waves, as I take deep meditative breaths and revel in the all-knowing.
A dozen noises assail my senses as I enter the crowded lobby and stand in line to have my passport stamped. Still fluttering, my heart and spirit soar in anticipation. I glance over at Lane’s face, and intuitively feel his slight confusion as he struggles to adjust to the unfamiliar surroundings. This trip is new to him. A passport with no stamps is what he had, but that is about to change. My eyes smile at him reassuringly as his hand brushes mine. I can tell he is beginning to catch my excitement and I can barely wait to show him the wonders of this place.
The staff at Juan Santamaria is at first glance, stiff and unyielding. They never smile, always putting on the facade of sternness or possibly an ineffectual attempt at ultra-professionalism. Underneath the facade, though, lies the heart of a friendly kid, always eager to lend a helping hand. One simple question easily extends into a lengthy conversation, interspersed with historical information and interesting facts. Tico pride is strong, the embodiment of strength of character and old-fashioned family values.
Pablo is our driver and today we travel alone, just Pablo, Lane and I. We settle into the old red sedan, windows wide open, and mentally prepare for the tedious four hour drive ahead. There have been trips in the past when we have been accompanied by one of Pablo’s young sons as well, but perhaps that addition of another body to the back seat was an attempt to alleviate any discomfort I might have felt traveling as a single woman in this sometimes unpredictable and brash third-world environment.
The breathtaking beauty of the cloud forest engulfs us. We travel now in an encapsulated world with only the sounds of our own voices to keep us company. Thick fog envelopes the car and it is only through faith that we will be delivered safely to the Caribbean port town of Limón. Lane’s head rests on my shoulder. He sleeps deeply, and I find comfort in the rhythmic sound of each breath.
We both startle as the car comes to a grinding halt. Ahead of us is nothing but bright emptiness, and in the fog of exhaustion, it seems as if we hover on a cloud in anticipation of the gates of Heaven. “No se mueva!” Don’t move! Pablo frantically shifts the car into reverse as the rear wheels spin uselessly. We are perched on the edge of a cliff, run off the road by one of the speeding 18-wheelers. The drivers of these delivery trucks have no mercy, enormous road hogs that blow through the fog with no thought of safety or humankind. Fear is not an emotion I choose to harbor and neither does Lane. Our logical minds work in sync and we instinctively lean in the direction of the spinning rear wheels. That slight shift in weight turns out to be the leverage that was needed, and the sedan skids unexpectedly backward away from the cliff’s edge.
Shaken, we stand hand in hand, peering down into the gorge. The fog has shifted enough so that we can see into the depths of the abyss, which extends nearly out of the range of our eyesight. Even if there were guardrails to protect the innocent on this mountain pass, it would be a vain effort. We are keenly aware of those before us who have taken the plunge to an untimely death; and it is with thankful hearts that we say a silent prayer. A brilliant rainbow is suddenly revealed through the thinning clouds, displayed in magnificent splendor before us, its double-arc stretching all previous knowledge or concept of true beauty. It is indeed a piece of Heaven. We agree in silent understanding that this photograph that I am about to take will sit on the mantle of our fireplace, to serve as a reminder of the grace of God this day.
The cruise ships blare loudly, resounding across the port city. It is in Limón that we leave behind our steadfast driver, and plan instead to continue south via public bus. I feel the experience worth the effort and perhaps ensuing aggravation, but more so, I want Lane to benefit from the full experience of how life is lived in this eclectic little corner of the globe. I know that he, like I, will revel in the nuances of the trip, and the journey itself will assuredly provide a greater degree of satisfaction than arrival at any specific destination.
My intent is to walk through the crowded open-air market place in downtown Limón. Vendors, both indoors and out crowd the three square block radius and calypso music blares from every corner bar. The smoke and smell of barbeque fills the air and we stop at once to purchase some sweet Caribbean chicken kabobs wrapped in a flour tortilla. An ice cold glass of mango juice completes the meal. There they are! A tropical delicacy, my favorite fruit resembles a small spiky red golf ball. Inside, the flesh is cool; it looks and tastes like a skinned white grape. A bag of mamon chino is essential for the long hot trip south, to moisten our parched mouths and provide a needed boost to our waning energy as the afternoon turns to dusk.
As I step off the curb, something doesn’t seem quite right. It is much too quiet on this usually crowded street near the bus depot. The clouds are thick and dark and it begins to rain. Wind whips around us as we stand on the corner frozen in a sense of eminent doom. I look directly ahead, toward the water front, and can see the rolling wave from a distance. The silent moment ends and people begin to run, scattering in every direction, screaming in terror. We run with them, backpacks airborne, toward the north side of town, where the streets turn to hills and the wave will not reach us. It seems those few moments stretch for hours. We dare not look back but run with all of our strength. A small child stumbles in front of us, and Lane picks her up in his arms and carries her. Clinging to his neck, the little girl’s eyes see what we dare not. Finally we reach the highest point in town. It seems the crowd has come to a standstill here, not knowing what to do next. The collective gaze is on the wave still pressing down toward the coral reef at the water’s edge. The child’s mother hears her cries and quietly takes her from Lane’s grasp. Her grateful eyes rest momentarily upon his and then she is gone.
The initial crash is deafening, the sound of a thousand freight trains roaring through the night. Before our eyes, the wave consumes the town of Limón. In the eerily empty streets, we watch in horror as street lights topple and cars float away into the vast expanse of the ocean. Gobbling buses, peeling away storefronts, the wave keeps coming. The waters are high; we can see that they reach the second floor windows of the downtown buildings. “Keep moving!” something inside me says as Lane grabs my hand. “We have to find higher ground!” he shouts above the roar of the rushing water. Our feet are soaked now. Water is flowing over our shoes and we are bogging down in the slippery mud.
We make our way quickly through the trees and thick foliage into what appears to be a national park. We are now climbing an ancient set of stone steps higher and higher until we reach an overlook point where we stop to rest. I remember this place, from a trip years ago. The photographs in a yellowing album at the bottom of my closet were taken from this park, from a vantage point looking out over the high cliff toward Isla Uvita in the distance.
Safety has its price, of course. We are soaked, shivering from the cold rain and the shock of what we had just witnessed. I press my body against Lane’s and he holds me close as I shake with uncontrolled emotion. His gentle hands sooth me and his kisses ignite the familiar fire within the depths of my being. In the distance is a small fishing village, abandoned wooden shacks lined up against the contour of the inlet. Faded rowboats in various colors rock on their tethers as the wind and rain continue to pummel the ground.
Inside the shack we find an abandoned potbelly stove. We quickly work together to gather some dry wood and tinder from underneath the eaves; and Lane’s excellent outdoor skills ensure a roaring fire to warm us. I wring out our clothes and hang them around the dimly lit room so they can dry. At the bottom of a cedar chest found near the base of the rickety handmade bed is a thin cotton blanket, large enough to wrap around both of us. Another thicker blanket serves as a soft covering for the dusty floor. We sit together in silence, in front of the stove, listening to the sound of the rain on the old tin roof. A rusty tin of tea leaves sits high up on a shelf; I find the contents to be intact and a robust aroma greets my nostrils as I open the lid. Lane fills a kettle of water from the collection barrel outside and we are soon sipping dark green tea drizzled with the delights of sweet honey.
But sweeter yet is the love that we share. His hands, so strong and knowing, caress me with long, tender strokes. I can feel the sensation of his hair brushing against my face as he nuzzles into the softest crevice of my neck. With my hands, I find the strength of his warm chest, exploring with a studied sensuality the contours of his hard body. I cannot think, nor speak, but in the oneness of the moment there is no need for words. I kiss him deeply and with passion, drawing out his innermost desire. His moans mingle with mine as we intertwine and become one, in body and in spirit. The rain provides a rhythm to our love and in the endless night I cannot imagine ever leaving the comfort of his arms.
I awake at 5 a.m. to the primal sound of a male howler monkey calling to his mate. The chill of last night’s cold rain is gone, and in its stead is the promise of a warm tropical day. Lane has already risen; I find him rowing slowly through the channel fishing for our breakfast with a rickety cane pole in hand. Neither of us has eaten since yesterday afternoon and the pangs of hunger have begun to nag. As I stand on the serene patio facing the still waters birds of all shapes and sizes are flitting about, twittering, chattering, and chirping every song imaginable.
An excellent fisherman, Lane soon brings me a string of plump trout. I walk through the abandoned village and forage for more of the staples we need to prepare the morning meal. A tub of lard, coffee grounds and an ancient indigenous coffee maker, a sack of flour…. As I meander along the thin trail, a dilapidated hen house catches my attention and I am fortunate to retrieve some fresh eggs from underneath the squawking chickens. I scrub out a heavy cast iron skillet and add some fuel to last night’s dwindling fire.
The meal is delicious, and satisfies our immediate hunger. I wrap the remaining fried fish in some brown paper and tuck it inside our backpacks for later. Lane fills two aluminum canteens with fresh water; we sling these over our shoulders in anticipation of the day’s journey. We have decided to take the trail back toward town and steady each other as we begin the slow descent down the crumbling stone steps. At the top of the hill near the north side of town, we stop once again to view the devastation below. Amazingly, the waters have receded, pulled back into the sea as swiftly as they came. People dot the streets already beginning cleanup of the port city. Men drag long palm branches into a massive pile of debris. Women and children are sweeping water out of the storefronts and several scrawny dogs dart back and forth in search of a scrap of food. Huge generators have been set up to provide electricity and the screeching sound of electric saws fills the air.
The resiliency of a people who live with a constant threat of natural disaster has left a lasting impression on me. I witnessed the aftermath of the earthquake that shook Limón in 1991, the piles of rubble that lined the streets even a year afterward, the lopsided homes, pieced together with sheets of metal, wrapped up like tin cans teetering on the edge of the hillside. It was the people then who captured my heart and from whom I drew my greatest lessons of compassion and true admiration. It is those people who showed me what it is to hope. Years later, as I sat in the dismal gloom of the inner-city apartment back in the States, wondering where our next meal would come from and how I would transport my children to school that day given the meager fumes lingering in the base of the gas tank, my mind would wander to the people of Limón – and from there hope would grow. I drew strength from those memories and resolved this would never be a place forgotten.
We spot Pablo hobbling across the water-logged street. He is leaning heavily on a thick wooden shaft, his left leg wrapped tightly in a long piece of blood-stained white cloth. Deep scratches mark his cheek and arms; his clothing is now tattered and soiled. As I embrace him silently, the familiar toothless grin brings joy to my heart. He has decided to stay on in Limón for awhile, to help with the rebuilding. The ancient red sedan was the lifeblood of Pablo’s existence; without it, he will be forced to build another business. For now, the emergency food and supplies brought in by the Red Cross will sustain him.
Lane hands me a plate of food and I pass it on to the young mother standing in front of me. In the aftermath of disaster, we all become volunteers. I am amazed at how quickly the trucks arrived, carrying massive bags of rice and fresh vats of water. We are standing underneath the Red Cross tent, serving the endless line of people who show up twice daily for a plate of gallo pinto, the rice and bean staple indigenous to this region. The children play endlessly in the streets now, as the process of rebuilding continues, day after day, into the darkest hours of eve. Large metal barrels line the streets as day turns to dusk, their contents set ablaze to provide needed light and to warm our hands chilled by the ocean breeze.
We sleep now under the stars, our new loft over the corner bar illuminated through the paneless windows and huge gaping holes in the ceiling. On a clear night, we remove the plastic bags that protect us during a rain, and lie for hours, staring into the speckled velvety black sky. Tonight, the sunset over the waterfront was extraordinary, dripping burnt orange and shades of red, marbled in a magnificent palate of watercolor artistry. The beauty of this place at times transcends the hardness of life, something that many in this world would have difficulty understanding.
Lane is ready to move on, to continue the journey we began nearly a month ago. There is not much else for us to do here now, and we’ve found ourselves these past few days to be antsy, the irritations of our daily routine seemingly magnified, and the heat of the port city damn near intolerable. We’ll continue south, as was the original plan, making light in Puerto Viejo, and then crossing the border at Sixaola into the lush rainforest of northern Panama.
Our bus is a rickety one, a dilapidated yellow school bus, letters faded nearly white from exposure to the sun and salt air. Every touch of the brakes brings a crunching squeal and together we lurch forward and back as we bounce along the narrow gravel highway to the south. At the first transit stop, we are met by a half dozen grim-faced ‘transitos’, AK-47’s tucked smartly under their bent arms. The heat of mid-day must be unbearable inside those olive drab flak suits; we watch as beaded sweat gathers and drips from the brow of the commander as he boards the bus from the rear. The dead silence inside the bus rings in sharp contrast to the jovial conversation a few moments prior. As we approached the transit station, it was as if the knob to a loud chattering radio had suddenly been snapped to ‘off’.
A greasy looking man seated near the front of the bus shifts uneasily in his seat, eyes darting to and fro, most obviously unnerved by the approaching transit officer. He seems to be assessing the situation, glancing under his eyelids at the four armed men chatting outside near the building, then eyes glued to the assault rifle now hanging at the transito’s side as he proceeds slowly down the center aisle. My guess is the man will make a run for it, for whatever reason, and Lane nods in agreement as he motions quietly toward another, elderly man, who is seated near the center of the bus. The commotion begins simultaneously, as the old man falls predictably off his seat, feigning heat exhaustion, or heart attack – perhaps both. A wrinkled hand is clutched tightly to his chest and his strangled moans are heard above the elevated voices on the bus as passengers rise to rush to his aid. Our existence here is momentarily insignificant; we observe the scene as we would a movie on the big screen, or as spectators in a great arena. It takes only seconds for the group of transit officers to realize what is happening; by then, the nervous passenger has slipped off the bus and managed to flop, unseen, into the back of a passing pickup truck.
As we disembark, the darkness surrounds us, and we are met by the soothing sounds of the sea, each wave crashing methodically onto the expanse of the alluring black sand beach. Lane lifts my backpack from where it sits along the roadside and helps me to wriggle underneath the now-cutting straps. Exhaustion overwhelms us as we trudge forward down the dusty road toward our waiting cabina. Secluded yet convenient to the sleepy beach town a kilometer to the south, our brief stay here in Puerto Viejo will be a welcome respite from the non-stop bustle of Limón.
The silhouette leaning up against the tree ahead is familiar, his long dark hair and olive skin serving as camouflage to unseeing passerbys. My heart skips a beat at the sound of Mauricio’s voice and I drop my backpack, startled, yet somehow knowing he would be here, anticipating our arrival. My old friend will be our guide into the dense rainforest, leading us through the Panamanian border, then south from the Sixaola River until we reach the seldom visited interior of the Kèköldi reserve. Mauricio is BriBrí, and was raised in the traditional way. Although he enjoys the fruits of his labor – a thriving ocean-front cabina business, a quiet part of his day is spent reflecting underneath an indigenous thatched roof shelter built high up in the hills. His life is simple, as Sibö – the Great One, has provided well; Mauricio says all that he needs to live a satisfying life – food, shelter, medicine… tranquility and understanding – can be found within the mysterious depths of the forest.
The rainforest is teeming with life; although to some it may seem at first oppressive – dark and gloomy, dripping with moisture, the sun clouded by the expanse of the deep green canopy above. When one first enters through the thick branches, it is as if the trees suddenly close in around you. Your heart always beats a little faster as fear of the unknown consumes you; you become paralyzed with confusion and intense emotion creeps from within your very core. Your eyes slowly begin to adjust to the darkness, your ears in tune with the sounds – a thousand and one sounds emanating from the trees that surround you. It is then that you find true peace, your soul aligned with the magnificence of God’s creation.
In the bright sunlight of the open-air café, we leisurely sip our morning coffee and enjoy a scrumptious plate of gallo pinto, eggs and cheese. Thick bacon slices are brought out a few moments later, accompanied by a refill of the sweet guanabana nectar that can be found nowhere else in this world. We are chatting amiably, the fatigue of yesterday now a faded memory. Lane asks me again about Mauricio. He senses our past, and somehow feels the deep connection that we continue to share. I find myself unable to explain the mysterious bond that Mauricio and I have held now for so many years. It is like a homecoming, the feeling that envelopes me each time I arrive at the airport in San José, the growing excitement and anticipation as we draw nearer and nearer to the rainforest of southern Costa Rica. My relationship with Mauricio is tied somehow to the forest, a deeply spiritual connection that I instinctively know has surpassed all time; it has no beginning and will have no end.
Vendors are already busy along the waterfront. Rasta men and women, dreadlocks swinging to the rhythm of Marley reggae-tunes have begun to set out their wares. Strewn across the tables are rows of hand-made hemp jewelry, delicate seeds sewn into the intricate designs created by highly skilled hands. Of course in this hip funky beach town, the legend of Bob Marley still lives. Every beachfront stand and tourist gift shop is filled with memorabilia, posters of the reggae king plastered on empty walls; and colorful Marley flags depicting the signature five-pointed foliage are found hanging in place of the national flag, a reflection of the town’s unique Bohemian culture.
The brilliance of the sun reflecting on the crystal clear bay beckons to me. Tropical clown fish scurry to and fro; and the kaleidoscope of colors emanating from the coral reef just below the surface is enough to lure me away from Lane’s captivating gaze momentarily. I silently ponder the trip we will embark on in a few short days. Crossing the border into Panama is always a tricky situation, especially for Americans without a valid reason for entry. It seems the rules change daily, based upon the state of the government or more accurately on the pocketbook of the guard in charge. It used to be simple in the days when a 5,000 colon bill, the equivalent of ten U.S. dollars, would be enough to ensure smooth passage. Now it seems greed has crept into the equation, a dilemma that has more than once left us stranded on the banks of the Sixaola, racking our brains for an ingenious plan that would lead us across the deep and treacherous river.
The Sixaola River looms wide in the distance, visible from our stance in the back of the pickup. I aim the lens of my camera over the rough wooden railing that contains us, as we sit for the moment corralled like cattle waiting for market. Mauricio is driving and Lane and I are passengers, along with two indigenous guides hired to accompany us on the long journey ahead. The line of vehicles stacked up at the border shack moves quickly and we cross with little effort over the rusty drawbridge into northern Panama. The row of seedy shops at the border crossing has changed little since my last trip; and hordes of hungry dark-eyed children vie for a handful of pocket change as we jump down from the bed of the truck.
After purchasing supplies and sundries at the run-down hardware store we set off on foot down a narrow grass trail to the east with packs loaded. The heat here in Panama is more intense than even Limón, and the humidity exceeds 98 percent most days. We are dressed in khakis and hiking boots with lightweight long-sleeve shirts to protect us from the relentless sting of mammoth insects. Not yet nine in the morning a haze of salty sweat blurs my vision. My heart sings at the thought of the cool damp underside of the rainforest canopy where, God willing, we will sleep tonight.
Our arduous morning trek ends at noon as we stop to set up a makeshift camp. The guides banter back and forth in the guttural indigenous BriBrí tongue as they help us construct a shade shelter where we lay out a mid-day meal of dried fruit and meat. Blossoming along the crisp, cool stream, a sea of iridescent red heliconias is backed by the deep blue-green hues of a distant broadleaf forest. We gulp handfuls of the sparkling stream water then top off our canteens for later.
As the noon sun begins its slow descent toward the horizon we press on, refreshed and rejuvenated, traveling now on lighter feet. My load now seems more manageable and spirits are high as we plan to reach the edge of the tropical rainforest by nightfall. A slow rain dances all around and tiny droplets glisten on the darkening skin of Lane’s broad shoulders as I follow a pace behind. As he turns and smiles my heartbeat quickens, a telltale sign of my enduring love for this man. The adventure that we both craved so badly has unraveled bit by bit over the past month, a shared experience that will remain an indelible part of who we have become.
My cries are heard first by Lane then Mauricio who has been traveling at a faster clip than the rest of the group. Entangled in a web of gnarled bamboo roots I sit immobilized as the seven-foot boa slinks slowly toward my outstretched legs. I have no doubt it can crush me in moments, with its heavy cream-colored body easily distinguishable by the reddish brown patches leading to a signature red tail. Mauricio is swift with his machete and the head of the boa lands with a thud in the dense foliage along the roadside as I breathe a sigh of relief. Lane frees me from the tangled roots and scoops me up off the damp ground. I am shaken but unharmed and I grin sheepishly at the four men who surround me with looks of concern. Mauricio speaks quietly to the guides and assures them that I am alright. We proceed once again toward the towering dark green trees which mark the entrance to the rainforest.
The poignant fragrance of fresh orchids sets our senses ablaze as we navigate another bountiful field of perfectly aligned delicate flowers. Deep violet to palest lavender, the purples blend from dark to light and dark again as if meticulously dropped from the tip of some unknown artist’s brush. The excitement rises as signs of the rainforest continue to assuage us. The air has become increasingly thick and damp, our breathing labored as we begin the final ascent to the densest part of the jungle. The feeling now is somewhat surreal, akin to a scene from Jules Verne’s classic tale Journey to the Center of the Earth. Vines as thick as my arm wrap eerily around towering Ceiba trees and broad deep green leaves measuring four feet across mesh together to form an impenetrable canopy high above. Darkness surrounds us and we are at once cool as the dripping moisture lingers on our skin.
We walk through the darkness for another hour until we reach a place called Imubri which marks the epicenter of the indigenous KèköLdi reserve and home to one of the true remaining medicine men. The spiritual powers of the awapa or shaman are drawn not only from the menagerie of medicinal plants found within the rainforest confines but are somehow linked to the elusive energy that seeps from the jungle itself. A strong pulse is felt long before we spot the hidden thatched roof community, a resounding thump, thump pounding within our chests. A heightened sense of awareness settles around you once you become aligned with the nuances of the forest. Each step is as if a thousand steps; each breath is as if a thousand breaths as time seems to stand still.
The village is illuminated by the light of the whole moon as it filters through the forest canopy on this still night. Red glowing torches line the path that stretches in front of us and the faint sound of drums fades in and out as we approach a widely spaced cluster of stilted huts. A solemn group of partially clothed natives parts slowly and deliberately to reveal the majestic authority of the clan elder and oldest shaman known to this region. He stands a little over five feet tall, with thick bare feet and calves, a broad nose, and skin the color of the darkest tree bark. He is estimated to be over 100 years old but to me appears ageless. Mauricio speaks to the shaman in low tones ascertaining our welcome into the secluded rainforest community.
It is decided that a ceremony of sorts must be performed in order for us to gain acceptance by the spirit world before we can enter into the village. The drumbeat suddenly increases to a deafening crescendo, slapping faster and faster until it is impossible to define one vibrant tone from the next. The native men who initially surrounded us begin to dance a wild line all around, their faces painted with jagged bright red and black geometric shapes, bodies adorned with strings of bone jewelry. I am frightened yet fascinated; we stand perfectly still so as not to disturb the delicate balance of this intricate induction ceremony.
As I sleep, images of the indigenous dancers haunt me; their dark faces flash in and out of my consciousness and I toss and turn until near dawn. Even the weight of Lane’s arm across my body does nothing to calm the uneasiness that has settled in around me. I roll to one side with an arm tucked underneath my head, and quietly observe the awakening village from our vantage point on the hardwood platform where we rest. Several women laden with colorful woven baskets full of dry kindling sit around an open fire. I am comforted as the crackle slowly turns to a muted roar; and sleepily watch the flames flicker red and orange against the black of the kettle.
I sensed the unwavering gaze of the tiny dark-eyed pixie child even before opening my eyes. Now fully awake, my curiosity is aroused. “Como te llamas? Tu nombre?” I grasp for phrases in Spanish determined to put a name with the beautiful chocolate brown face. Mauricio shakes his head and reminds me that the village people speak only the indigenous tongue. Outside influences are still very much frowned upon. And the ancient BriBrí dialect varies greatly from tribe to tribe so what is understood here in the KèköLdi reserve remains unique to this isolated region.
A great peacefulness is to be found here in the jungle, like none I have ever experienced. The people are truly one with nature and live an entirely sustainable and for the most part, harmonious existence. Subsistence agriculture is practiced by the sparsely populated villages to cultivate over 120 varieties of plants used for everything from medicinal purposes, food, and firewood to pesticides and crafts. Hunting is still an integral part of obtaining daily sustenance; with animals such as capybara, tapir, and sloth the most frequent sources of protein.
A smile creeps slowly across my face as my consciousness shifts toward the realization that we are at long last here. This is no longer a dream from which I will soon awaken but an intense Reality conjured from years of recurring dreams. I used to sit around and ponder the validity of such a trip, weighing the constants and variables, the what-ifs and how cans of traveling halfway across the world to a remote village little know to outsiders. The ethnographies I during my college years sparked within me an interest and excitement in these fast-diminishing rainforest cultures; and, there came a point in time when I knew I would one day be that anthropologist who awakens each morning to feel the dampness of the rainforest on my face.
To study the BriBrí is a privilege, and one not to be taken lightly. The day I received news from my comrades in Puerto Viejo who had just witnessed a dear friend of theirs cured of Stage 4 cancer was the day I knew I was meant to be here in the heart of the jungle. The secrets of the rainforest must be preserved; and I somehow knew I would become a part of this process I believe to be my destiny.
… to be continued
Title: KeköLdi of Talamanca: The Emergence of a Society
Author: Michele Kohan/Undergraduate Student/University of North Carolina at Charlotte
The BriBrí are one of several tribes of people indigenous to the Talamanca region of southern Costa Rica. Situated south of Limon, Costa Rica, and north of the Panamanian border, Talamanca is a unique area rich with cultural diversity, which is inhabited by three distinct subcultures: the Hispanic locals commonly referred to as “Ticos”; Rastafarians of Jamaican descent; and indigenous Indians (the BriBrí). Unlike the Bwa Mawegans of Dominica who are typically of mixed ancestry, the people of Talamanca tend to marry within their respective race, thus retaining the integrity of each sub-culture within the region.
The Talamanca mountain range contains over 350 species of birds, and of the 9,000 wild plant species to be found within the Costa Rican borders, over 90% grow abundantly in Talamanca. The climate is warm, typically 85˚ Fahrenheit year round. It is one of the few places in the world where the tropical rainforest meets the sea.
The BriBrí people have a rich history and historically, have lived an entirely sustainable and harmonious existence. Much like the Bwa Mawegans of Dominica, subsistence agriculture is practiced by the sparsely populated villages to cultivate over 120 varieties of plants used for everything from medicinal purposes, food, and firewood to pesticides and crafts. Hunting is still an integral part of obtaining daily sustenance; with animals such as capybara, tapir, and sloth the most frequent sources of protein.
At last count, over 5,200 BriBrí remain. Of these 5,200, a small tribe of 200 known as the KeköLdi, have begun to emerge from the depths of the rainforest, mainly due to encroaching Western civilization. The KeköLdi can be found in the area just north of Puerto Viejo, near the black sand beach of Playa Negra.
My first knowledge of the BriBrí people came about in 1992. Serendipity led me back to the Caribe Sur area in June, 2005 when I made the decision to relocate from Florida to Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica. My experiences with the KeköLdi were limited to a three-month span during which I volunteered for El Puente, a grassroots non-profit organization set up to serve the needs of the indigenous and Caribbean people who inhabit the Talamanca region.
The KeköLdi who attended soup kitchen twice a week at El Puente were in a state of transition when I met them. Age-old traditions were fast being lost to the technology of the twentieth century, and the allure of money was enough for the young people to leave behind all they had known for a quick buck to be had in town. While many of the Bwa Mawegans of Dominica operate their own ‘factories’ such as bay oil stills or a factory that processes bitter manioc into flour, the BriBrí men are more limited in their options and typically work in the service industry either as chapears, hired by Europeans or expatriated Americans to cut back their lawns with a machete, or as guides in a fast-growing ecotourism economy. One of the reasons for this transitional period in the history of the KeköLdi stems from the encroachment of the government, not only upon their land which is being squeezed tighter and tighter onto tiny reserves, but also in the form of rules and regulations to which the indigenous people are told they now must comply.
The KeköLdi children I met in the summer of 2005 had never attended school. Up until this time, no one paid much attention to the indigenous. They were considered to be less important, perhaps even less human than the Tico inhabitants of Costa Rica and were most often ignored. Many of these children were age 14 and 15 when I met them, and for the first time, with the financial assistance of El Puente, were being given the opportunity to enroll in first grade at the public school in Puerto Viejo. Like public education in Bwa Mawego, the school system in Costa Rica is free; however, many associated costs such as the purchase of books and supplies were simply out of reach for the average KeköLdi family. The reason for school enrollment was two-fold, primarily to provide an opportunity for education and growth where there had been none. But secondly, the children must be enrolled in school to comply with new government regulations or they risk the possibility of being taken from their families and placed in the government social service system, PANI. The school program at El Puente evolved quickly and today includes enrollment of over 30 children in several local schools, including Hone Creek, BriBrí, Amubri, Paraiso, and Colegio Talamanca as well as the primary school in downtown Puerto Viejo.
The KeköLdi are a mild-mannered people, with deep spiritual beliefs based on the premise that Sibö, the Great One will provide all that is needed to live a satisfying life: food, shelter, medicine, tranquility and understanding. Sibö is said to have created the BriBrí people from kernels of corn, which were spread over the land to grow and prosper. An elite handful of shaman, medicine men who have studied and passed down the knowledge of medicinal and spiritual cures from generation to generation, inhabit the Talamanca region. These shaman are held in high regard and unlike the recognition in Bwa Mawego of four types of witches who are able to inflict illness and cause ‘fright’, the BriBrí shaman are viewed as strong spiritual leaders who are sought out for assistance with medicinal cures beyond the capabilities of the layman.
When Nanci Stevens, one of the founders of El Puente, met the first KeköLdi children, they would interact for an entire day, engaged in mimed conversation, taking walks on the beach, and playing educational games on the laptop computers stationed on the porch at El Puente. However, the following day, it would be as if they had never met and the process would necessarily begin all over again. Several months passed before the children would acknowledge that they knew Nanci and had indeed interacted with her the day before. A theory for this strange phenomenon stems from the BriBrí language structure itself, which is based in the present tense only. Lacking the language conceptualization of ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’, it may have been hard for the children to relate to anything other than what was actually happening to them ‘today’. Like the Bwa Mawegans of Dominica, who are typically bilingual in two Creole languages, many of the BriBrí now speak the Spanish language as well their indigenous tongue.
Poverty has a tight grip on the indigenous people of Talamanca, as is common in indigenous populations worldwide. Unlike the traditional enclosed plank houses to be found in the Bwa Mawegan communities of Dominica, a typical indigenous BriBrí dwelling is comprised simply of a wooden platform with a thatched roof. A separate kitchen area with a brick or stone oven is located a few feet away from the sleeping area. The BriBrí do not have the convenience of a latrine as do the Bwa Mawegans; they simply make use of a hand-dug hole which is then covered up by dirt.
Much like the Bwa Mawegans of Dominica, the BriBrí successfully treat many systemic ailments, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and even the presence of cancer in the body with medicinal plants that are found within the rainforest confines. Most women tend a small garden, growing a handful of wild plants gathered from deep within the rainforest, many of them with medicinal properties used to treat the various ailments that are prevalent in the tropical environment. In some instances Stage 4 cancer has been cured with a combination of plant pharmacology and spiritual intervention by a local shaman. Although most snakebites can be cured with the topical application of medicinal plants, there are some diseases, such as the onset of an acute asthma attack, or the presence of the dreaded disfiguring papalamoyo that still demand treatment with more conventional methods.
We found that diet played a huge factor in the health of the indigenous children. After engaging the adults within the KeköLdi population in discussions regarding the benefits of adding fruits and vegetables and some protein to a mainly grain-based diet, the percentage of trips to the nearby Hone Creek Clinic and the hospital in Limon diminished greatly. Alejandro, one of the first ‘Bridge Kids’ was ten years old when we met him. He had suffered most of his life with chronic, recurring pneumonia due to the surgical removal of one of his lungs as an infant. He was a frequent emergency nighttime visitor at El Puente, arriving on more than one occasion literally gasping for breath. With dietary changes over the past four years, Alejandro’s quality of life has been documented as greatly improved and the incidence of asthma attacks and pneumonia significantly reduced.
Many of the women who initially attended the soup kitchen at El Puente came and left each week without speaking with one another. There was a rift between two clans and bad blood that could be traced back many years. However, with the sociological changes brought about by the inception of a community soup kitchen and a forced necessity to discuss the educational needs and requirements for the children, those barriers have slowly broken down. Women who never before smiled now laugh, giggle and even joke with one another with a defined sense of camaraderie. In addition, El Puente has become a gathering place for grandparents to visit weekly with their extended families who may live miles away.
The emergence of a society that has lived hundreds of years within the confines of the rainforest, forced now to conform to the rules and regulations dictated by government agencies and the cultural norms of Western civilization, requires much consideration. One pressing question for me has always been whether help when help was initially unsolicited, even unwanted, constitutes what is truly for the good of the people. I believe that change is inevitable. In every culture in the world, in every society on the globe, change whether caused by environmental factors, a fast-moving global economy or by the small intrinsic motion of a people is something that cannot be stopped. Life is in motion, from the beginning to the end. In the incredulous words of a 96-year old KeköLdi woman, Faustina, “I didn’t know the world was round… how is it possible that I have lived this long without knowing such a thing?”
Whether the changes forced upon the KeköLdi people were solicited or not, change has and will continue to occur. And with this change come revelations similar to those uttered by Faustina. The KeköLdi are still in the midst of transitioning from a self-sustaining agricultural society, who only a few short years ago relied entirely upon the rainforest to supply their needs, to a people forced into the realm of Western civilization. The KeköLdi of Talamanca have emerged as a people with a strong history and a promising future.
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