Monthly Archives: October 2015

Dispatches From the Field #4

Sibö (the Bribrí god) made the first indigenous people from seeds of corn. He brought the seeds from a place called suLa’kaska, which means the Place of Destiny. At the time the earth was only rock, and Sibö knew he had to create soil in order to plant his corn seeds. On another planet there lived a tapir family. Sibö asked a bat to fly to that place and suck the blood of a little girl tapir. The bat did as he was told and when he returned to the earth he defecated on the rocks. A few days later the first trees began to sprout from that place. Sibö realized that his experiment to make soil was working, so he sent the bat again to suck the blood of the little girl tapir. The bat returned and again defecated upon the rocks and more trees grew. Sibö then made more soil from the flesh and blood of the little girl tapir. Sibö then planted corn seeds of all different colors to create the indigenous people of the earth; this is why indigenous people have different skin colors and tones. Sibö brought the seeds to the earth during the nighttime; that is why the awapa chant and do their curing ceremonies at night. He named the people dtsö, which means corn seeds. One of Sibö’s relatives, Plekeköl (the king of the leaf-cutter ants) created the white people of the earth which he named síkwa. The Bribrí belong to Sibö; he is their owner, they are his things, not his relatives. – Bribrí creation storysibu_sembrando_a_su_pueblo_by_gorgoncult

On October 15, I walked the one hour along the Yorkín River to get to Shuabb, crossing the Brís and Shuabb rivers which were both low and easily forded in Chaco sandals. I was passed by two guys from Yorkín who were going by horseback. Everybody else went by lancha (the motorized, dugout canoes used by the some of the residents of Yorkín, others use long poles to power their canoes up and down the river). The small community was hosting a Dia de la Cultura. I got there and took a seat in front of a makeshift stage on a low bench set upon cinder blocks. In a few moments a trio of young girls performed a corn ceremony (see video on Facebook) celebrating the creation of the Bribrí from corn seeds sown by their creator, Sibö. After the presentation, I was offered a calabash bowl of pejibaye juice. I noticed I was the first person served, perhaps this was because I was one of only two síkwapa ( white people, pa makes the word plural) in attendance.

Next, a group of elementary school students from Yorkín performed a traditional Costa Rican dance from the province of Guanacaste. The bright colors of their outfits were in stark contrast to the subdued earth tones usually worn by the inhabitants of Talamanca. It also struck me that this traditional Costa Rican dance came right after the traditional Bribrí ceremony, illustrating the syncretism of cultures that has been occurring for some time among the Bribrí. Please see videos on my Facebook page.

Soon after I finished my bowl of pejibaye juice, I was offered another calabash bowl full of hot rice and milk. Again, the Peace Corps volunteer and I were the first ones served. As I drank my hot rice and milk, I watched two other dances featuring high school girls performing modern dances much like you would see at an American high school. Most of the community members of Shuabb and Yorkín do not own televisions (there are only three in Yorkín) but they have phones, and they are up to date on the latest music and dance from Costa Rica and Panama.

Following these performances by the elementary and high school students, a large rope was then brought out into the Plaza and women began lining up on either side of the rope grabbing hold. “By God” I thought to myself “they’re gonna do a tug-of-war!” They did “the best two out of three” with the side that the Peace Corps volunteer was on losing both times. I teased her that she wasn’t putting up a good show for us síkwapa. It was next the men’s turn and I ran to get a position as the anchor at the end of the rope. In elementary school, I was always one of the biggest guys and was therefore always the anchor in good old tug-of-war, and here in Talamanca I am usually one of the two or three biggest guys around. There were about 12 per side, everybody digging in their heels and gripping the rope furiously. The officiator counted to three and we began pulling with all our might. I began sweating and slipping in the wet grass and mud. After what seemed like several minutes our side won, pulling the other team completely over with an exuberant final pull. We lined up again and once more defeated our opponents. I was sweaty and muddy and instinctively held up my hand to receive high-fives. Obviously the high-five has not made a comeback in Talamanca, as I was left hanging by everybody. Instead, I proceeded to slap the backs of my teammates. We were all smiling and breathing heavily. I sat back down and received a calabash bowl of banana horchata, again being served first.

The young people were playing volleyball and soccer while the teenagers danced to Panamanian hip-hop. I was beginning to feel like I really needed something to eat and was in the mood for some chicha (the alcoholic fermented corn beverage they drink in Talamanca). It was just then that I was given a banana leaf bowl filled with rice, palmito, chicken, and a boiled banana. There was still no chicha to be seen. I then saw the organizers start to pull out the Bribrí traditional bow and arrows. Two of the young ecotourism guides from Yorkín walked to where they were setting up. They attached 4” x 4” paper targets to strings and tied them to a branch of a tree about 50 paces away. While I was watching, I didn’t see anybody pierce the paper target, but several people hit it and even more were right next to it. I got two great photographs of the two young guides from Yorkín with their bows. WP_20151015_010I didn’t even think about participating in this event, as I didn’t want to make a fool of myself – the bowstring is so hard to pull that I have a difficult time holding the arrow in place with my arthritic fingers. I can manage it, but I can’t get anywhere near my target.

I noticed a few people beginning to leave the festival, and there being no promise of chicha on the horizon, I decided to say my goodbyes and head down the trail back to Yorkín. I took my time, and relished the views of the distant mountains and the Yorkín River Valley; a rare opportunity as most of the trails lead deep into the rain forest where sweeping views are at a premium until you get up rather high. I had the opportunity to reflect on this day and the blending of cultural influences that I witnessed. Tim Plowman, one of Richard Schultes’ students who worked in the Amazon basin as an ethnobotanist once said, “When you’ve lived in complete isolation, how can you understand what it means to lose a culture? It’s not until it is almost gone and when people become educated that they realize what’s being lost. By then the attractions of the new way are overpowering, and the only people who want the old ways are the ones who never lived it.” I would say that people don’t “lose a culture,” but rather lose aspects of culture. Indeed, cultural anthropologists often include the statement that cultures change in their description of it. It is a delicate balance that many of the Bribrí inhabitants of the Talamancan area are navigating; honoring and preserving their traditional culture while embracing and incorporating aspects of the modern world at-large, all while making it uniquely their own. Time will only tell how this balancing act will play out. (And I never did get any chicha that day L).



Dispatches From the Field #3

It was a Friday afternoon and we were putting the finishing touches on the new office building we were constructing for the community. We were listening to the local Talamancan radio station, which was broadcasting on site in Amubri where there was a festival going on. I discovered that the next day there would be an activity called “Jala de Piedra” which involves a bunch of men carrying a big rock somewhere, some kind of Bribrí ritual. I also discovered there is a cantina in Amubri which serves cold beer. Technically, there is no alcohol sold on the reserve but there are two cantinas which existed before the law and they were grandfathered in. I decided, hell yeah, I gotta see this.

The journey to Amubri first involves the 2 to 2 ½ hour walk from Yorkín to Bambu, crossing the Telire River in a canoe to get to Bambu. From there you catch a bus further up the Telire River and again cross in a canoe to get to the other side were another bus picks you up and takes you to Amubri. The festival appeared much like any other, booths set up where people sold crafts and others sold food and chicha (a fermented corn drink, kinda like a batch of homebrew that has been contaminated). After getting some food and milling around for a bit, I noticed people beginning to walk down the road outside of town. I followed. I found out they were going to be starting the Jala de Piedra. The ritual begins with the men tying a big round boulder onto hand cut beams with vines. The contraption is set up in a somewhat rectangular fashion with the beams extending outward so people can grab onto them. The men then tied a long vine leading out from the front of the boulder and its frame. A group of women grabbed onto the vine and the men hoisted the contraption up on their shoulders, accompanied by a bunch of hooting and hollering. The women led the men out of the forest and onto the road leading into town. There were about 15 men supporting the boulder and perhaps as many women leading the way with the vine. When the women decided that the men were tired they would stop, the men would set the boulder down, and the men would take a drink of chicha. After everyone had their drink there would again be a bunch of hooting and hollering and the men would again lift the boulder with the women leading the way down the road. There was a group of people surrounding the men and women as they made their way down the road, taking pictures and videos and trying not to get trampled. After about four stops, in which the men drank chicha, they made it to the Plaza and set the boulder down on the grass. Then an elderly man and two young adults sang a Bribrí ritual song while drumming on tambores. Bribrí ritual songs are interesting in that they contain words that are not part of the Bribrí language. I talked to a few people and none of them knew exactly what the translation was. I was however able to ascertain basically what the ritual meant. The round boulder symbolizes the earth that Sibö made so that he could plant corn kernels in the soil and grow the indigenous people of the world. Sibö instructed the Bribrí to take care of the world. This is why the men carry the boulder symbolizing the world on their shoulders with the women leading the way. This ritual exemplifies the Bribrí kinship pattern in which traditionally the family name is passed down through the women and new husbands go to the homes of their new wives to live. A Bribrí woman can marry an outsider man and he and their children will be considered Bribrí and retain all the clan rights. However, if a Bribrí man marries an outsider woman the same is not true. It also illustrates how the Bribrí have traditionally conceptualized their relationship with the planet; being chosen by Sibö to carry the burden of protecting and caring for all of the natural resources that Sibö created here on earth. Later, I was able to contemplate and discuss this Bribrí ritual with some locals over cold Pilsens in the cantina.

See related videos on my Facebook page


Dispatches From the Field #2

“Que tipo de carne es este?” “tepezcuintle.” I was sitting in the typical house on stilts made with hand hewn lumber somewhere in the Skuy River basin. We had walked for five hours, following the river, ascending and descending steep, muddy slopes. I’d come with one of the families from Yorkín and a Peace Corps volunteer to visit the husband’s parents. I had been told that this was a two hour walk, and I thought “easy, I’ll just bring one water bottle and two packets of Emergenc-C, one for the trip up and one for the trip back the next day.” I did not bring any food because I knew I would be offered food when I arrived at the family’s house in two hours. The trip turned out to be more than I expected in terms of length and elevation gain. I had sweat out so much fluid that, even though I was able to refill my Nalgene in the river and in the many feeder streams entering it (straight, no filter), I was not able to replace all the salts and minerals I was losing and by the end of the journey I was beginning to cramp up in my calves and thighs. I had already consumed my one Emergen-C and had run across no bananas on the way.WP_20150905_007 When we made it to the house, I went down to the stream to wash up and put on some clean clothes. Upon entering the house, I was offered a cup of coffee and a bowl with two pieces of fried dough and a portion of dark, smoky/salty dried meat. The meat was strong; and what would usually be too salty for my liking, but it was exactly what my body was craving and I tore into it ravenously. It was only after I was almost finished that I thought to ask what exactly it was that we were eating. From the descriptions of numerous people I was able to discern that they were talking about a large rodent-type creature, and indeed, according to Wikipedia,

Cuniculus paca is a large rodent found in tropical and sub-tropical America, from East-Central Mexico to Northern Argentina.imagesI3R1OPM0 Introduced to Cuba, Bahamas, Jamaica and Hispaniola. It is called paca in most of its range, but tepezcuintle in most of Mexico and Central America. “Tepezcuintle” is of Nahuatl origin, meaning mountain dog: tepetl = mountain; itzquintli = dog. The lowland paca is mostly nocturnal and solitary and does not vocalize very much. It lives in forested habitats near water, preferably smaller rivers, and digs simple burrows about six and a half feet below the surface, usually with more than one exit. The lowland paca is a good swimmer and usually heads for the water to escape danger. It also is an incredible climber and it searches for fruit in the trees. Its diet includes leaves, stems, roots, seeds, and fruit, especially avocados, mangos and zapotes.

After our meal, the matriarch took me into the kitchen and showed me the head of the creature which had been soaking in water to get it to begin to soften and break down so that it could be fed to the dogs. She grabbed the head with one hand pulling from the top set of teeth and the other pulling down on the bottom row, the jaws tore apart with a crack, revealing the skull and brains. The Peace Corps volunteer murmured in English, “I didn’t need to see that.” I commented in Spanish that the brains I had eaten in the past were delicious, and the matriarch commented that these were good too, but the dogs also needed to eat.

The matriarch and patriarch of this house were not from one of the indigenous groups in the area, but were rather from Chiriquí, in Panama. They had built the house by hand, hauling everything they needed on foot from where the canoes land in Yorkín. The lumber was hand hewn on-site. They lived there by themselves, with one indigenous ranch hand who lived in his own hut on the property. 25 years ago they started with six head of cattle and now had around 70. The land looked well cared for, not overgrazed, and the cattle all looked strong and healthy. There seemed to be some argument about whether or not the house was outside of La Amistad Park and whether or not it was in Panama. I took GPS coordinates so I will be able to confirm this later. After finishing my meal, I walked around the property a little bit and saw two pigs, a few goats, a couple horses, the cattle, fruit trees, and some unrecognizable vegetable plants spaced sporadically about the grounds. WP_20150906_001From the edge of a clearing at a high point on the property I could look down into the Skuy River basin; a small stream on my left cutting through the side of the hill and the Skuy River on the right side of the valley crashing down through the verdant emerald foliage. It was beautiful.

I slept that night on a foam pad in the living room with a sheet of fabric pulled over me and still in my clothing. It got pretty cold that night. I didn’t sleep much, the floor was cold and hard, and there was a baby murmuring off-and-on in the next room throughout the night. Having lived alone for most of my adult life, even small noises in the night bring me to alertness. In the morning I had more coffee, fried dough, and more smoked rodent, and later a drink made with fresh cow’s milk and plantain (I could’ve done without the plantain, the thought of fresh milk got me very excited, I had not had any since arriving in Yorkín, as there is no refrigeration, and no goats or cows in Yorkín). It began raining really hard so we delayed our return, everybody slightly worried about the rising stream crossings, but remaining stoic, as if talking about the rain would make it rain more. Indeed, soon it stopped raining and we headed down the mountain. For the return trip, I had thrown a few bananas in my day pack for trail food along the way. Even though my old football knees hurt like hell whenever I have to descend, the return trip was easier, only took us four hours, and I avoided cramping by munching on my bananas throughout the day. Along the way I saw a few toucans, an armadillo, and a big ass rodent. Later that evening, after a shower and a change of clothes, I went to the house of the family with whom I had made the journey, to have dinner. On their wall was a poster of anthropomorphic bears building snowmen. untitledI told the woman that when I was a child and there was a new batch of fresh snow that had just the right amount of moisture, we would also build snowmen. She looked at me like she had no idea why somebody would do such a thing and asked me the same. I told her because it was fun and got us out of our mother’s hair and outside of the house on a cold winter day. She again stated that this just didn’t make any sense; and why would people do such a thing

“The people for whom the term cultural relativism was invented have rejected it” Levi-Strauss.