Monthly Archives: August 2015

Dispatches From the Field #1

The journey to the village of Yorkín begins at 6:30 in the morning when you catch the bus in Puerto Viejo, the rambunctious little beach town with an international flair where the smell of ganja flows freely through the air. This area of Costa Rica, the Talamancan coast, was originally settled by Caribbeans from the island nations and also from workers traveling north by boat after working on the Panama Canal. It wasn’t until much later that people from the rest of Costa Rica arrived to the area. However, both these groups were preceded by the indigenous populations who have some of the oldest mitochondrial DNA in the Americas. It is about an hour bus ride from Puerto Viejo to the municipal capital of the Talamancan Indigenous Reserve, appropriately named Bribrí. WP_20140731_001At the bus stop there is a small restaurant (closed on Sundays) a small tienda, and panaderia where you can get a cup of coffee, pastries, or a baguette. From Bribrí you take a rickety yellow school bus over a bumpy road to the little hamlet of Bambu, which has a smattering of small houses and an even smaller tienda. From Bambu, you walk down to the river where you are met by a member of the community of Yorkín who captains a motorized dugout canoe (the canoes have only had motors for about 10 years when Estibrawpa, the ecotourism project, had saved enough money to buy them, making the trip up the river much faster. Now it is only about 40 minutes).WP_20140731_003

From the riverbank it is about a 10 minute (often) muddy slog to the area of the village in which most of the ecotourism activities occur. I was thrilled when they showed me the casita in which I would be living; one bedroom with a bathroom and a veranda where I hung a hammock which was given to me by a man I had befriended on my previous visit, which was made by a friend of his out of nylon cord which seems indestructible in the jungle environment.WP_20150808_008

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I was told that for the first week I would be helping with a construction project, building a new office near the river. The leader of the job is a 70-year-old patriarch who climbs around the construction site like someone half his age. He told me he spent two years studying construction in school somewhere in the Talamancan area. It is amazing the work that they can do with only simple tools; hammers, nails, squares, hand saws, and a plumb bob. They use no scaffolding and climb around on three by fours like Romanian gymnasts. I spend my day much in the same way as I’ve spent on other construction sites; fetching tools, cutting boards to size, and basically guessing what needs to be done next. Like any worksite, conversations and banter occur constantly. It is during these times that I’m able to learn much about the community. For example, the job boss is 70 years old, has 10 children, and 30 grandchildren. He had his last child when he was about 48 years old. I find this fascinating in that if you consider most of the residents of Yorkín have around eight children, and the entire population of the village is between 200 and 250 persons, this man alone is responsible for a very large proportion of the entire community. I can’t wait to do a kinship diagram of his family.

Saturday I was given a day off and decided spend my day fishing in the Telire River which forms one of the boundaries of the village. I was able to catch two small fish, somewhat similar to trout, but I was looking for something bigger and returned them both to the river. After showing pictures on my phone to several members of the community I discovered the fish are named “Lissa” and are considered very good to eat. WP_20150808_003I have been befriended by a group of young kids who follow me everywhere and we are all going fishing together next week. I remember reading something by Malinowski (or was it Pritchard?) In which he said his first solid contacts in the community were the children, from whom he learned the language and some of the basics of the culture. I find myself having the same experience, the children are constantly teaching me words, laughing heartily at my pronunciation, and telling me about their families and their lives.WP_20150808_006

When there are tourists in the community I often help out in the kitchen and eat with the other workers. When there are no tourists in the community I’m usually invited over to somebody’s house for meals. The usual fare is black beans and rice, with local vegetables and fruits, accompanied at times by chicken raised in the village. I drink the water (from upstream in the Telire) straight from the tap (a 1” pvc pipe with an on/off valve), and my stomach and digestion is healthier than it’s been in perhaps years. For a couple of days, there was a tourist here from Germany who did not speak any Spanish but spoke English pretty well. Having no other English speakers in the community at the time, I helped translate for him. I see my work at the construction site and in the kitchen, as well as my time spent with the children and in peoples’ houses as the purest form of participant observation. I am a firm believer in this first step in the research process. By spending time with the community, learning their customs and language, I have been earning their trust and acceptance. After building trust, people will feel more comfortable discussing more formal topics with me in more formal interview–type settings. Only later will I even attempt to have somebody fill out a survey instrument.

With all of the international visitors, the young people here are exposed to people from many different cultures. I know one 23-year-old guide who speaks fluent Spanish, fluent Bribrí, is pretty darn good with English, and knows phrases in both French and German. Although it is very rare for Bribrí to leave their home areas and live elsewhere, a few of the young people in the village are showing interest in life in other places and are constantly asking me about life in the United States, they seem to be particularly interested in how much money a guide can make and how much things cost. It will be interesting to see how many of these young men and women end up leaving the village and visiting other places or beginning lives elsewhere.

So far in my limited experience, I find the members of Yorkín not shy, but some of the older people a little timid around Europeans. They are constantly making jokes (of which I am often the brunt of, one day on the construction site they called me “plumb bob” all day) but I was told by one member of the community that in the past they often had wars with their neighbors and fought off the Spanish invaders with their long-bows and arrows. I find myself quickly adapting to the rhythm of this lifestyle. There is no TV, I only hear music (either from a local radio station or one in Panama or downloaded onto people’s phones, which just like in the U.S. the children seem to master immediately and are better at using than the older people) while working in the kitchen. The sun goes down between around 6:30 and I go to bed soon afterwards and wake up soon after the sun comes up around 5 o’clock in the morning. WP_20140731_010My body still has not adjusted to the heat and humidity or the bugs. I work hard, play hard, and rest hard, all with members of the community – even when I’m resting in my hammock people stop by constantly to have conversations with me. I’m so busy that I do not have time to think much about the amenities I am missing or folks back home (sorry). I believe that if I continue to work hard and engage with the community I will continue to be accepted and people will feel more and more comfortable talking to me about even sensitive subjects.

Thursday, 8/20/15, 9:00 pm, Yorkín, Costa Rica

I am lying in my hammaka listening to a live recording of the Grateful Dead in Egypt, 1978, which I downloaded onto my computer before the trip. It is one of Bear’s recordings, sounding like it was recorded in a multimillion dollar studio yesterday when actually it was recorded on analog tape 40 years ago. The music is accompanied by the sound of crickets, cicadas, and a multitude of other insects adding their voices. I enjoy falling asleep in my hammaka where I can rock back and forth and catch any breezes that might be coming through. I move from the veranda into my room; leaving the door open and grabbing my machete and water bottle. I crawl underneath the mosquito netting and into my too short bed. Around 5:00 I wake up to the sound of a multitude of birds and roosters crowing. I lay in bed for a while listening to the symphony. I then rouse myself and walk to my shower which is a 1 inch PVC pipe with an on-off valve set above a broken tile and cement floor. The cold water is refreshing (it comes from the Telire River upstream, it is the same water I drink) and it feels good to have the evening sweat rinsed from my body. I use no soap, as good soap is a precious commodity around here.

I throw on a pair of long nylon pants, a pair of socks, a cutoff tank top, and my bug suit top made out of mosquito netting. I slip into my Chaco’s because it is not too muddy outside and walk to the kitchen area just down the trail for my Casita. I greet the kitchen ladies and two of the guides that are eating an early breakfast, getting ready to work with clients all day. I walk back to the kitchen area where the cooking is done over an open fire placed upon a contraption of wood and cement in which logs are fed into one end and metal pots boil away over an iron grate. I grab a plastic cup which sits next to the pot which contains the morning’s coffee and a ceramic mug and pour coffee for myself. One of the kitchen ladies hands me a bowl containing Gallo Pinto (which is fried leftover rice and beans), a hard-boiled egg, and some fried plantains. I reach into the cupboard/storage area for a small bottle of Lazano Tabasco sauce. I sit down next to the guides and shake on what seems to me an appropriate amount of Tabasco sauce, but everybody teases me for eating like a Mexican.

After breakfast, I return to my Casita and throw on my Carhartts and a long sleeved nylon shirt. I throw my bag which contains my passport, money, phone (which has no service, but which I use for other things), and field journal into my day pack along with my hammer, tape measure, zip square, and tennis shoes. I tie together the two rice bags filled with nails and sling them over my shoulder. I slip into my rubber boots, tucking my pants legs inside, and head down the trail to the construction site which lays next to the river. We are building an office for the local representative to the Costa Rican police which service the Talamancan reserve. I passed by the house of an older couple who are trying to start a little two table restaurant just up the hill from the river. The woman is very nice and often invites me in for coffee. She has the best coffee that I’ve had so far, no sugar and strong. Her husband and has a small farm (finca) not far from the village where he raises cacao and banana.WP_20150807_001

I arrive before anyone else and sit down on the edge of the river, watching the birds as they busily conduct their morning chores. From here I can see the river and the other bank which is Panama. I open my journal and begin to write. Soon the other workers will arrive and I will be busy for the next eight or nine hours. But for now I enjoy the tranquility and the privacy of this moment. I am not often alone here, and it feels good to sit and think, and take notes in my journal. “Listen to the river sing sweet songs to rock my soul.”

Saturday, 8/22/15, midday, somewhere above Shuab, Costa Rica.

I am sitting on an old stump, into which a simple bench has been carved, across from one of the older guides who works for Estibrawpa. The stump is worn smooth, with a lustrous polish, from being used for what seems like hundreds of years. We had just finished harvesting pejibaye (a small fruit which kind of looks like an apricot and tastes like a squash) and palmito (which is the heart of a palm tree). We had walked for over three hours to get to his small farm (finca) which lies on the steep mountainside in the hills above Shuab, a small community about two hours downriver from Yorkín. Upon arriving at the finca we searched in the high treetops for a good bunch of pejibaye. When we found a good bunch the guide chopped down the tree with just a few solid strokes of his machete. We had to scramble down a ravine to get to the fruits which we placed into a large rice bag. Next we stopped at a palm tree which had been knocked down by the falling pejibaye. The guide cut away the outer layers of the trunk and removed a 3 foot section of the heart. He gave the heart to me to carry back up the hill while he slung the bag of pejibaye over his shoulder. Reaching the crest of the hill we saw a banana tree with some yellow bananas on it. You don’t see yellow bananas around here very often, as the indigenous people prefer to eat them while they are still green. I pointed them out and my guide asked me if I would like one. “Si, mucho!” He grabbed five of them and I put them in my day pack. After a few minutes, we arrived at the stump/benches and each ate a banana while talking. He told me this finca was passed down to him from his grandfather and to him from his grandfather. So far, it seems that most of the fincas are passed down through the men and the houses are passed down through the women. I am not sure if this holds true in all families throughout the area.WP_20150822_004

Earlier, we had headed upstream from Shuab, crossing the Shuab River five times. We followed a barely discernible trail to his mother’s house. We kicked off our boots, climbed up the stairs, and his mother greeted me warmly and invited me to sit in this giant hand carved wooden rocking chair. I was immediately given coffee and some fried bread. We talked briefly and then descended the stairs, slipped into our boots and headed up an extremely steep muddy trail to the finca. As we were sitting on the benches enjoying our bananas, I reflected on how exhausted I was, how much fluids I’d lost due to sweat, and how far I still had to go to return to Yorkín. I drank about a half a quart of water and we headed down the trail. Upon returning to his mother’s house we dropped off a portion of the pejibayes. We then returned to Shuab, washing out our boots and socks at the final river crossing. We arrived at his house outside of Shuab and I was invited inside for a bowl of rice, beans, and (I think) beef neck. We talked for a while about his family and he showed me the animal guide he had received when he went to guiding school in Limon. He enjoyed hearing about animals that were common to both this tropical rain forest and Colorado and I was amazed at how many different types of animals are in the rainforest that I’d never heard of or seen. He then poured out a large portion of the pejibayes into a large aluminum bowl, and told me the rest were for Estibrawpa. He told me he would be returning to Yorkín later and asked if I wanted to walk with him or walk alone. I told him I would have no problem walking alone and offered to take the bag of pejibayes to Estibrawpa. It was a long hot walk back, but upon arriving I was greeted warmly by the ladies in the kitchen when I deposited the pejibayes and the palmito. I returned to my Casita and stood under the shower for about 10 minutes, bringing my body temperature down and refreshing my spirit. I then lay in my hammaka for a well-deserved rest. WP_20150822_008

I’d like to give a few words of thanks to everybody who has helped me get down here, the Maxwell Grant from the University of Alabama, and my friends and family who have offered support in this endeavor. Come visit! That is all for now, I will post again in a month or two.