Category Archives: Bribri

Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance, Probably

When I began my career as a wilderness guide, for the first time in my life I encountered people who were constantly seeking the newest piece of gear, anything from a titanium drinking cup to a sleeping bag which had arms and legs. Being an unschooled vagabond living in my truck and prostituting my wilderness skills out to the highest bidders throughout Idaho, Montana, and Colorado, I made do with the simplest and minimalist accoutrements. I’ve always looked at my gear as sacred; I easily signed over the title of my 1994 Ford Explorer to my friend John, but you could only wrench my MSR backpacker stove out of my cold dead hands. While I was working as a logistics coordinator for the Trailhead Wilderness School, I was often called the “Road Worrier” due to the mental effort I put into packing for a trip. I have protected and cherished my gear throughout the years. For the next year I will be living in a small village without most modern day amenities. Tomorrow everything is going in storage, today I need to pack my gear for Costa Rica.WP_20150715_003

The journey to Yorkín, the Bribrí village in the Talamancan Mountains along the border with Panama where I would be working with a locally conceived ecotourism project called Estibrawpa and conducting my research, begins in Puerto Viejo, a surfer/alternative lifestyle/international small town on the coast which was first settled by black Caribbeans. You catch a bus early in the morning to the town of Bribrí, the main town in the Talamancan Indigenous Reserve. From there you take an old yellow school bus to Bambu, which is nothing but a small general store and a few houses. There you meet one of the Yorkín boat captains who pilots a dugout canoe with an outboard motor up the Yorkín River to the village. From there it is a half hour slog along muddy trails to the Estibrawpa headquarters. Obviously, you cannot simply arrive at your living quarters in a car or bus and unload your belongings. I knew from my experience of the previous summer that I would have to be able to carry all of my personal belongings on my person.

In order to be able to carry all of my belongings, I decided on a large backpack (a Kelty 75th anniversary hybrid 7000 in.³, which I had purchased eleven years prior as a 40th birthday present to myself) instead of a full size dry bag with shoulder straps. In addition, I would bring two daypacks which I could carry one in each hand, and a soft briefcase which I could sling over my shoulder. I had considered bringing the full size dry bag because of its ability to keep moisture away from some of my other gear. However, the dry bag does not have as much internal space and is not as comfortable to carry over long distances as the Kelty pack. After some deliberation, I concluded that I would rather have the Kelty pack and purchase 5 gallon buckets or something similar on my first excursion out of the village either to Bambu, Bribrí, or Puerto Viejo, depending on where I could procure something useful in keeping pests and moisture out of my food and belongings.

When I first began guiding, there was an older more experienced guide (he made his own clothing, something I was always impressed with) who told me, “Take care of your feet first, they are your most important tool.” I took this advice to heart, and own leather boots with vibram soles for travel over terrain, military style bunny boots for the winter, a solid pair of Chaco sandals with the hiking sole for on rafts or kayaks and crossing rivers, and a pair of mukluks for lounging around camp at night. For this trip I knew I would need a pair of what are known in western Colorado as irrigation boots. These are just-below-knee-high rubber boots with good tread, good for mucking livestock stalls and irrigating fields in Colorado or keeping your feet dry and offering (hopefully) protection from a variety of venomous plants, insects, amphibians and reptiles (Costa Rica is home to the fer-de-lance, a snake feared for its aggressiveness and deadly venom) while in the rain forest. On my previous visit to Yorkín, I purchased a pair of boots, and knee-high socks, from a hardware store outside of Puerto Viejo. As I was leaving the village after my stay, I gave those boots to Julio Morales, in whose wife’s house I resided during my visit and with whom I spent my days while he served as guide for the visitors to the village. While still in Tuscaloosa, I perused websites and finally decided on buying a pair of Servus boots from the Campmor catalogue. I knew these would be slightly different boots from those worn by the villagers (green not black for example) and I accepted the fact that these boots would set me apart, reinforcing the fact that I was an outsider, from somewhere else, and somewhat different. These boots would mark me; people would see my boots on the stair steps leading up to a house, and think, “Gregorio esta aqui.”WP_20150715_004

In addition to the boots I decided to also pack a pair of Chaco sandals and a pair of Skechers tennis shoes. The tennis shoes I would wear while traveling through airports and on buses, the Chaco’s can be worn around the house, and the boots would be my main footwear worn while walking around the village and assisting the guides of Estibrawpa while they led visitors throughout the village. While I was studying tracking with Tom Brown in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, he told me how his grandfather, an Apache shaman, had taught him that there were four sacred priorities: Shelter, water, fire, and food. He told me that the first and most important form of shelter is your clothing. Along with my footwear, I chose to bring two pairs of cotton socks, one pair of wool socks, and one pair of knee high socks. The knee-high socks are important to wear with the knee-high rubber boots to avoid chafing. I only owned one pair of knee high socks, so I decided I would simply buy two or three more pairs once I got to Puerto Viejo. For pants I chose to bring three pairs of nylon travel pants with the zip-off legs, a pair of shorts, and a lightweight pair of Carhart’s. I decided to bring the Carhart’s because it was quite likely that I would be lending a hand for various construction projects, and nothing is better than a pair of Carhart’s for construction work. I also brought three button up nylon shirts, one with long sleeves, as well as a T-shirt and two tank tops. I packed a pair of fleece bottoms, a fleece hoodie, and a flannel button-up; because I was going to be spending two months in the mountains of New Mexico before flying from Albuquerque to Costa Rica, I knew I would need some warm clothing. I also figured I would need some warm clothing if I ever chose to leave Costa Rica during my fieldwork to visit the United States, which most likely would be in one of the mountain states where it would be cold. I also packed a rain jacket and my U.S. Army rubber poncho, which can be used as a shelter, a bivouac bag, or simply as a poncho. To round out my clothing I brought a sun hat, a beanie, two bandanas, and my sarong.

In addition to my clothing, I had to decide which gear to bring and what could remain in storage. In keeping with the sacred priorities I brought only two cotton sheets to go along with my army poncho as shelter material. I knew that I would either be staying in my own little bungalow or with a family while in Yorkín. A roof over my head, a bed, and mosquito netting would be provided. So the next order of business would have to do with the procurement and storage of water. I packed one, 32 ounce Nalgene which were serve as my main water bottle. In addition to iodine tablets which I placed in my first aid kit, I also packed my Pur backpacker’s water filter. Even though while I was in Yorkín the previous summer I drank the water straight out of the taps with no ill effects, I could not be certain that everywhere I would be would have safe drinking water. In addition to my tools for water purification, I also brought my “water chicken.” a 2 gallon nylon bag with a pour spout, for water storage.

After feeling confident that I had safe drinking water storage and procurement taking care of, I next focused on fire. I decided to box up my MSR International Backpacker Stove (which can run off of pretty much any type of liquid fuel) along with six lighters and mail them to Puerto Viejo. On a trip to Baja California in January 2012, just a few months after 9/11, I had a backpacking stove removed for my luggage by TSA, and didn’t want to run that risk again. I decided to throw in several Bic lighters because you can’t take them on the plane and I’ve found the lighters throughout Latin America are not as dependable as a Bic.

Now that I had shelter, water, and fire taking care of, I could think about food. I would be purchasing food in Puerto Viejo and carrying it in my packs to Yorkín. I brought a small saucepan with a lid and handle for cooking, a Tupperware bowl with a lid, a thermal coffee cup, and a spoon. On my previous trip to Yorkín I noticed several good-sized trout swimming in the stream that forms the northern border of the village. At that moment I decided I would definitely bring my fishing gear along with me next time I came down. I packed my spin rod, an Ugly Stick pole that breaks down into four pieces and fits into my pack nicely, several lures, some swivels, and a little extra line.

Now that I had the four sacred priorities taking care of I could focus on personal items and first aid. I bought a single blade safety razor along with 50 extra blades for the trip. Along with three bars of Kirk’s Castile biodegradable soap and a toothbrush, this would make up my toiletries. For my first aid kit I packed a roll of athletic tape, Band-Aids, a large bottle of aspirin, a large quantity of bismuth, a nail clipper, baking soda (which has many uses- tooth cleanser, antacid, etc.) and a box of Emergen-C packets to use for oral rehydration. I also packed a bunch of AA and AAA batteries, my compass, GPS, sunglasses, and my Swiss Army knife. These items completed my gear inventory (I planned to buy a hammock and a machete in Puerto Viejo) and all I had left to think about were school supplies.

I decided to bring both my laptop and tablet, so I could have a backup in case one of them went down. These will mostly be used for typing up fieldnotes and data analysis. My plan was to leave the village once a month and get a room in Puerto Viejo where I could access Internet. I decided to bring my phone, even though I would be shutting my service off. I was unsure at the time whether or not the camera function, along with some other functions, would still work even though I turned my service off. I planned on mostly using the phone camera because in my opinion it takes pretty good pictures, but I also brought a very small basic digital camera as a backup. I packed two digital voice recorders along with four Rite-in-the-Rain field notebooks and several pencils. I packed a Costa Rica travel guide, a Costa Rica map, a rain forest plant identification book, and a small book written about the Bribrí who live in the Kokoldi indigenous reserve. Finally, I packed a good supply of various sizes of Ziploc baggies and a bunch of trashbags, which will be used to keep things dry. The very last thing I packed was a gift for Julio, who served as my guide and mentor on my last trip. Julio served as the main guide for Estibrawpa and only had one of those small book bags with the shoulder straps made of cord which are so popular on college campuses. I decided to bring him a good day pack that was larger and had padded shoulder straps.

Now that I had my gear ready, I was excited to get down to Yorkín. I only had a few loose ends to wrap up (IRB among others) before heading out. I cracked open a Tecate Light and squeezed in some lime. Like we say the first night in camp on a backpack trip “If we ain’t got it, we don’t need it.”


In previous posts I have discussed the use of self-report questionnaires to measure aspects of health, for example stress and depression. In this post, I will describe two methods for measuring “biomarkers” which are characteristics that are objectively measured and evaluated as an indicator of biological processes. As part of my research in the Bribri village of Yorkin, Costa Rica, I would like to measure health in the village in order to show that because of their initiation of an ecotourism project, which has allowed them to work in the village rather than in plantain and banana plantations, their overall health has improved. In order to accomplish this, I have chosen two biomarkers to examine health which are relatively easy to conduct in the field in minimally invasive. The first biomarker is blood pressure, which is one of the principal vital signs used in many healthcare settings. Blood pressure is the pressure exerted by circulating blood upon the walls of blood vessels. High blood pressure can be a warning sign for hypertension which can lead to strokes and various heart conditions. The second biomarker I intend to use is the level of the stress hormone cortisol (CORT), which provides a measure of hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) system activity or more simply, physiological stress. Prolonged periods of physiological stress have been found to have negative health effects including impaired cognitive performance, suppress thyroid function, blood sugar imbalances, higher blood pressure, immunity impairment, and increased abdominal fat.

To measure blood pressure in the field I will use an automatic blood pressure monitor, the OMRON HEM-711, one of which we have in the Human Behavioral Ecology Research Group HBERG lab run by Dr. Chris Lynn at the University of Alabama. Similar OMRON models have proved adequate for measuring blood pressure (Wan et al. 2010). To use this instrument, the cuff is placed on the left arm above the elbow at approximately heart level. It is suggested that the participant has remained seated for 10 minutes before taking the measurement and the person should not have consumed tobacco or caffeine for at least 30 minutes before the measurement is taken. Researchers suggest taking multiple measurements, for example three, and then calculating the mean of these measurements (Wan et al. 2010). Below is a video describing the use of the automatic blood pressure monitor.

To measure the stress hormone cortisol I intend to use the hair extraction method. Cortisol is slowly incorporated into the hair of humans and other mammals and allows for the measurement of physiological stress over several months. The process involves first obtaining a sample of hair from a participant. A portion of hair up to the width of a pencil is first secured with a clip or rubber band and then cut as close to the scalp as possible with sterilized scissors. The sample is taken from the posterior vertex portion of the skull. To examine the distribution of cortisol over time, the hair sample can be cut into 1 cm segments, the segments furthest from the scalp being the oldest. The samples can then be placed into a paper envelope and then secured in a container. Upon returning from the field, the samples can then be taken into the lab, I plan to use Dr. Jason DeCaro’s lab here at the University of Alabama, to be analyzed. The samples are washed in an alcohol solution, dried, ground, and then the cortisol is extracted and analyzed. The above procedures were described in an article by Meyer et al. (2014). Below is a video provided by the same authors describing the methodology.

I have chosen these two measurements of health because they will be logistically easy to perform in the field, require no more special instruments, and do not require refrigeration. By combining these two biomarkers with self-report measurement scales, I believe I will be provided with a robust survey of health in the village.

Meyer, J., Novak, M., K. Rosenberg, and A. Hamel 2014 Extraction and Analysis of Cortisol from Human and Monkey Hair. Journal of Visualized Experiments (83).

Wan, Y., C. Heneghan, R. Stevens, R. J. McManus, A. Ward, R. Perera, M. Thompson, L. Tarassenko, and D. Mant 2010 Determining which Automatic Digital Blood Pressure Device Performs Adequately: A Systematic Review. Journal of Human Hypertension 24(7):431-438.

Measuring Depression: The CES-D

In an earlier post I discussed methodology designed to create a measurement instrument which combines ethnographic and quantitative methods aimed at recognizing idioms of distress among individuals within a specific population. In today’s post I will discuss a measurement designed to work in various contexts to measure depression. This measure is called The Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale (CES-D). This scale was created in 1977 by Lenore Radloff. Radloff created the scale using items derived from previous depression scales. The items reflect components which were gleaned from studies of depression and include; depressed mood, feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, loss of appetite, sleep disturbance, and reduced psychomotor functioning. The CES-D uses a Likert scale ranging from 0 to 3, reflecting the frequency of occurrence of the items in the scale. There are 20 items in the scale, therefore the scores range from 0 to 60. A score of 16 or above is usually considered a marker for people who are at risk for clinical depression. Scores of 16 to 26 are usually considered indicative of mild depression and scores of 27 or more indicate major depression.

The scale has been used throughout the world and there have also been short form 10 item and 4 item scales developed. Of particular interest to me are short form versions of the scale which I intend to use in the Bribri village of Yorkin. Grzywacz et al. (2014) tested several versions of the 10 item CES-D among seven Mexican immigrant communities within the United States. They found consistent reliability of the scales among the various populations. Also of interest, Kim et al. (2011) found that Hispanics tend to endorse positive items in the scale more frequently than whites or blacks in the United States. Grzywacz et al. (2010) used the 4 item form among Latino farm workers in the U.S. and found a mean score of 6.17

To my knowledge there have been no studies published reporting the use of the scale among indigenous communities in Costa Rica and Panama, where the Bribri currently reside. It is my intention to use the scale in Yorkin and compare its results to a scale which I will develop using the methods previously described and published by Weaver and Kaiser (2014). By comparing the two scales I will be able to determine if what the Bribri are describing as “depresión” is the same as the concept of depression that the CES-D scale is measuring.

You can check out an online version of the scale here:

Below I have included the full 20 item scale.

Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale (CES-D), NIMH

Below is a list of the ways you might have felt or behaved. Please tell me how often you have felt this way during the past week.

Rarely or none of the time (less than1 day ) Some or a little of the time (1-2 days)Occasionally or a moderate amount of time (3-4 days) Most or all of the time (5-7 days)

  1. I was bothered by things that usually don’t bother me.
  2. I did not feel like eating; my appetite was poor.
  3. I felt that I could not shake off the blues even with help from my family or friends.
  4. I felt I was just as good as other people.
  5. I had trouble keeping my mind on what I was doing.
  6. I felt depressed.
  7. I felt that everything I did was an effort.
  8. I felt hopeful about the future.
  9. I thought my life had been a failure.
  10. I felt fearful.
  11. My sleep was restless.
  12. I was happy.
  13. I talked less than usual.
  14. I felt lonely.
  15. People were unfriendly.
  16. I enjoyed life.
  17. I had crying spells.
  18. I felt sad.
  19. I felt that people dislike me.
  20. I could not get “going.”

SCORING: zero for answers in the first column, 1 for answers in the second column, 2 for answers in the third column, 3 for answers in the fourth column. The scoring of positive items is reversed. Possible range of scores is zero to 60, with the higher scores indicating the presence of more symptomatology.


“Depresión”: What does it mean?

During my stay in Yorkin this past summer, it was mentioned by one of the women that there used to be a lot of “depresión” in the village before they started their ecotourism project. My initial reaction was, “I wonder what exactly they mean by “depresión”?” And then I started thinking about administering the CES-D, which is a depression scale that has been used in many contexts internationally, in the community. I also knew that some way, somehow, I would have to get at exactly what they mean by “depresión” but I was a little unsure of how to do this.

After my presentation of my pre-dissertation research in Yorkin, our new faculty member in the department of anthropology here at the University of Alabama, Lesley Jo Weaver, turned me on to an article she had just had published (Weaver and Kaiser 2014) describing the methodology that I was looking for. In this article she describes how a researcher can accomplish two major agendas of psychological anthropology, the first being the comparison of mental health between sites using standard measurement tools and the second focusing on identifying locally specific ways of discussing mental illness. In this paper she lays out the methodology used in two research sites which identified local idioms of distress, developed a locally derived mental health scale, evaluated the scale, and contextualized the findings with ethnographic data.

The first phase of this methodology involves ethnography. In this phase field notes and interviews are coded for themes and terms used to describe mental health and the frequency of usage is recorded. Also as part of the ethnographic work, participants were asked to create free lists of symptoms and characteristics which accompany particular idioms of distress, for example in the case of the Bribri, depresión. From this ethnographic data a survey questionnaire can then be developed asking participants to rate on a Likert scale the accuracy and frequency of various terms used to describe an idiom of distress. From this data, a scale can be created which reflects local terminology and understanding of culturally salient mental health domains, again in the case of the people in Yorkin, depresión.

In the next phase, the locally derived scale can be administered along with a standard scale, for example the CES-D for measuring depression. Quantitative analysis can then be administered; examining correlations between the results of the two scales, checking for internal consistency using Cronbach’s alpha, and using principal components analysis to examine those factors in the scale which are most relevant.

The authors suggest “This research agenda respects culturally defined illnesses and acknowledges the contextuality of all illness experiences while still maintaining the comparative enterprise of cross-cultural psychiatry” (Weaver and Kaiser 2014:12). I foresee using this methodology in my research in phase 2, after using participant observation to learn about and describe their ecotourism project while also collecting hair samples which will be used to examine levels of cortisol (as a biomarker for stress) among community members.

Weaver & Kaiser 2014
Weaver & Kaiser 2014


The Bribri and the way of Siwa

Sometimes while searching frantically through the University libraries’ databases for peer-reviewed journal articles you find that pot of gold under the rainbow. I had a moment like that this morning; I had been searching for peer-reviewed articles which contain information concerning the recent history of the Bribri. This information has been extremely difficult to find. I have been patching together information I have found in websites and books, but I’ve been unhappy with either the sources of my material or the information contained therein. This morning my hard work paid off and I found an article written by Polly J. Posas entitled “Shocks and Bribri agriculture past and present.” In this article, which mostly focuses on Bribri agriculture, Posas includes data gleaned from editorials written at the University of Costa Rica and a couple of books written in Spanish which I have not been able to gain access to. This was exactly the information I was looking for and I delved into her article with renewed fervor.Talamanca

Posas begins by explaining that the amerindians located in the area of the Isthmus of Panama contain some of the oldest DNA groups in the Americas (Perego et al. 2012), suggesting that the modern-day populations are related to some of the first people to populate the Americas. The Bribri belong to this group. The Bribri and a related tribe, the Cabecar, both belong to the Chibchan language group and used to share common leaders and a cohesive political entity until geographic features contributed to their isolation, effectively splitting the groups around 300 years ago. This reminds me of a story I was told by Mole during my time in Yorkin. Mole described how their God Sibu created both the Bribri and the Cabecar, but they were split into two tribes by a great river. The Bribri and the Cabecar for the most part live on their two respective indigenous reserves which together comprise the Talamanca Indigenous Reserve, which was set aside in 1977 by the Costa Rican government. According to the 2011 Costa Rican census, there are close to 13,000 indigenous people living on reserves in the country with close to 8000 living on the Bribri Talamanca reserve. The Talamanca Indigenous Reserve is located within La Amistad Biosphere Reserve in the south east corner of the Limón province of Costa Rica.

The first written accounts of the Bribri come to us by way of the Spanish explorers. Fernandez, writing in 1908, mentions an account by Juan Vasquez de Coronado in which the explorer states that the women work alongside the men, even bearing arms and going to war. Coronado describes the land as being heavily populated and fertile, with an abundance of crops such as cotton, cacao, corn, and native fruits and plants. In fact, according to pollen analysis, corn has been produced in the area since at least 500 BC (Barrantes et al. 1990). This fact is reflected in the Bribri creation myth which states that the God Sibu created the Bribri and the Cabecar out of two kernels of corn.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Bribri experienced severe disruption and upheaval when the United Fruit Company moved into the area. The company forcibly removed the Bribri from the Talamanca Valley and created large banana plantations in their place. The Bribri were forced to move up into the hills and mountains. Here the Bribri continued their subsistence agriculture but were hampered by the poor soil of the region combined with having to deal with steep slopes and torrential rainfall. Some Bribri moved back into the valley from the 1940s to the 1960s and worked as laborers for the United Fruit Company. Others who had stayed in the mountains often traveled to the valleys to work in the plantations, being away from their homes for months at a time. In 1978, the Bribri’s cacao orchards were decimated by monilia pod rot, which they now control through natural processes such as providing adequate space between trees. Soon after, petroleum prospecting came to their area and the Bribri were again disrupted by heavy machinery, dynamite blasts, and an introduction of a cash economy. The Bribri people were in conflict with the methods of extracting resources as part of the capitalistic economy. Their way of life, given to them by Sibu, revolved around taking care of their natural environment which was seen as being connected to their physical bodies and to Sibu. As Lisandro Diaz Diaz was quoted in Borge and Castillo 1997 “In order to protect the earth and all the marvelous things it contains, Sibu left the knowledge, our science called Siwa, which is expressed through stories, legends, and traditional practices. The Siwa contain spiritual teachings that have governed our relationship with nature… Sibu left us, the Bribri and the Cabecar, as guardians and protectors of the natural diversity. For thousands of years we have cared for our Mother Earth and for the next thousands of years we will continue caring with the same zeal as our elders… A profound interrelation between the society and nature has existed, thanks to this principle, we can still encounter the great natural diversity of Talamanca.”

It is in this context that I currently find the inhabitants of Yorkin. It is their strong connection to the natural environment which has urged them forward in creating through ecotourism a strategy to make their way in the modern world without relying on wage labor or non-sustaining, extractive economies based on plantain or banana monoculture. It is my sincere hope that I may in some way play a small role in aiding them in this process. I also hope to document their practice and share what they have learned and accomplished with other indigenous groups who are finding themselves in the same situation.