All posts by Greg Batchelder

Ayahuasca Visions: The First Experience

Long ago there was a Quechua man hunting in the forest. He can across a jaguar and was preparing to shoot it with his bow and arrow when he saw the beast beginning to chew on a vine wrapping itself around a tree. He thought this was strange and instead of shooting stood silently and watched the jaguar. Next, the animal began to chew on a leafy, green plant that was nearby. The jaguar then lay on the ground without moving. The hunter came close and saw that the beast’s eyes were open even though it appeared to be sleeping. The hunter came forward and nudged the jaguar with his foot. The animal did not respond. “How strange, that the beast will not attack me even though I can tell it is not dead and its eyes are open!” thought the hunter. The hunter realized this must have something to do with the plants the animal had eaten, and he collected some of the two plants and brought them to his village. He told the people what he had saw and they were curious, so they ate some of the two plants- nothing happened. The shaman of the village decided to cook the two plants together, which shamans often do. He then gave the tea to the villagers and they entered a state of wonder and saw many visions and experienced profound revelations about life. The shaman and the people realized this was a strong, spiritual medicine and it was cherished and valued among the people.

Quechua myth concerning the discovery of ayahuasca

More than once I was fascinated by the discovery of mixing these two plants together. I had heard that shamans state that the plants sing to them. On one level I can accept this, on another level I cannot. One morning I was talking with Antonio, who was my shaman for my three ayahuasca ceremonies, and he related this story the Quechua tell of the hunter in the forest and the jaguar. This remains one of the great mysteries of anthropology.

WP_20160424_007
My Casita

My previous post gave some background information on ayahuasca; in this post I would like to relate my experience with the brew on April 23, 25, and 27 of 2016. I had met two backpackers while conducting research in the Bribrí community of Yorkín, and they told me of the amazing experience they had taking ayahuasca in Peru. I had been interested in the healing powers of ayahuasca (and indeed other psychoactive plants) for quite some time and decided to make a reservation, take a much needed break from fieldwork and grant writing, and head to Peru where ayahuasca is legal. I arrived at the lodge I would be staying at above the small community of San Roque, in the mountains above Tarapoto and was informed I could participate in a ceremony with the shaman Antonio Bracero and his teacher, a Shipibo indian named Virginia Vasquez Alavuelo. I was to be the only other person at the ceremony. I had a meeting with Antonio, who speaks English as well as Spanish, about what I could expect to experience and what my intentions were. He suggested that I remain open to whatever happens, as the medicine works in different ways with different people and different ways at different times.

Below is my word for word account of my first ceremony taken from my journal which was written the next day:

Rio Cumbaza

I am sitting by the river (Cumbaza); I just soaked for a while- it was colder than I expected- I am feeling pretty shaky- only slept a couple of hours- took a shower, ate some food, laid around listening to the Dead. Last night was fucking intense, I was lucky, as Antonio’s teacher, a Shipibo indian named Virginia was here and it was only me and them at the ceremony. I walked down the hill to the ceremony lodge, a thatch-roofed open-walled structure where Antonio lives upstairs. He gave me some pointers- focus on my breath if I start to freak out, try to remain quiet, ask for more if I want it (there will be a “last call”), keep my purge bucket handy, keep my body “open”, and if things get hard- know that it will pass.

When I arrived, Virginia was massaging Antonio with some oil and blowing mapacho (local pure tobacco) smoke over him. Antonio then purified the space with mapacho and called me to him to give me a shot glass of ayahuasca. I actually did not mind the taste- kinda sweet and bitter at the same time. I went and sat on my mat- before long I could start to feel it starting to take effect and I laid down flat on my back. I soon began to see black and white geometric patterns. Antonio then began to sing an icaro (song). Then Virginia sang- her icaro sounded almost Japanese; I had the impression it was very ancient, like from the dawn of human consciousness.

Ayahuasca visions
Ayahuasca visions

Soon my sense of self began to dissolve and all I could do was breathe and listen to the icaros- which they alternately sang, accompanied by various shakers and rattles- at one point Antonio played the guitar. I had the sense that other people were there with us, as the sounds seemed to be coming from all around me. Sometimes I felt people standing over me- all with positive and healing intent. I could barely move my hands to wipe sweat from my brow and eyes.

At some point Antonio asked me if I wanted more, I could barely answer “no”. I had no sense of time- sometimes it felt as if minutes went by between each breath. I sometimes perceived myself as being like one inch big- then in the next instant massive- then completely flat- then round- then no longer there. Then Antonio asked me if I wanted to sing, it took me a while to register what he said- but then I started to sing- I do not know how- I do not know the words or if they were words- it wasn’t English- I just kept going until Antonio exhaled loudly and my singing automatically stopped.

He then came to me and asked me to sit up and move forward on my mat. – It was a real struggle. He said he was going to purge the medicine from me and sang an icaro while he was tapping me with his feather bundle (shacapa).

Shacapa
Shacapa

They both then sang another icaro and I told him I was going to go to the bathroom. I started to crawl and he helped me stand up and I staggered to the outhouse and released diarrhea for a short time. I came back to the lodge and sat on my mat, then threw up just a little bit- they both began to sing another icaro. Then Virginia came over and rubbed me with oil- it felt very loving and nurturing.

Shamanka Virginia Vasquez Alavuelo
Shamanka Virginia Vasquez Alavuelo

After a bit I stood up and felt like I wanted to head back to my casita. Antonio suggested I sit with them a bit longer- I am glad because I started to feel more grounded. Virginia commented that I was now more “abajo” (low) and had been very “arriba” (high). I then gathered my stuff and slowly, shakily, walked up the hill to my casita, stopping once at the bathroom by the communal kitchen to have some more diarrhea.

The ceremony lasted from 7:00 pm to 1:00 in the morning. Some of the few thoughts I remember are “wonder” and “wonderment” and later “gratitude”. When I came down from the high I felt a little melancholy (if that is the right word- it was more like the Japanese term “mono no aware”) and I still feel a little like that today- but at peace. I am now going to head back up the hill and get something to eat.

p.s. – Last night I told Antonio how intense, but how ecstatic, joyful, and caring the medicine was and he said, “The medicine is just a reflection of yourself, it was a real good first ceremony.” I replied that makes me feel good about myself.

It just occurred to me that today I have been in a “liminal stage”- halfway between the physical and spiritual worlds. End quote from journal.

So, that was my first experience with the medicine. Looking back I see that the first experience was all about the wonder of being alive and the power of the medicine. I also felt gratitude at being a human and being able to experience such wonder. My next two ceremonies would prove to be similar, but also different in what I was thinking, feeling and the revelations which occurred to me. Read about them in my next post.

Ayahuasca: “La Medicina”

Ayahuasca was first described outside of Indigenous communities in the early 1950s by Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes, who had originally worked with the Kiowa in the U.S., participating in peyote ceremonies. Schultes was famous for ingesting all types of plants and their derivatives while traveling throughout the amazon. He was Wade Davis’ advisor, and sent Davis to the amazon to study coca. Ayahuasca is the Hispanicized style spelling of a word in the Quechua languages, which are spoken in the Andean states of Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia. Speakers of Quechua languages or of the Aymara language may prefer the spelling “ayawaska.” This word refers both to the liana Banisteriopsis caapi, and to the brew prepared from it. In the Quechua languages, aya means “spirit, soul”, “corpse, dead body”, and waska means “rope” and “woody vine”, “liana”. It is often referred to as “La Medicina”- the medicine.ayahuasca

People who have consumed ayahuasca report having spiritual revelations regarding their purpose on earth, the true nature of the universe, as well as attaining insights into their lives. Individuals also sometimes report connection to “spiritual” dimensions and make contact with various spiritual or extra-dimensional beings who act as guides or healers. In my experience, I did not sense other beings, but instead experienced aspects of my own mind which were very different from normal waking consciousness. I experienced profound emotional joy and bliss and insights into my life goals and behaviors. I will describe my three experiences (all somewhat different) in upcoming posts.

Ayahuasca is made by mixing Banisteriopsis caapi, a liana of the family Malpighiaceae, with Psychotria viridis, a leafy plant, and cooking it down to create a dark, bitter tasting liquid. Banisteriopsis caapi contains harmine, harmaline, and tetrahydroharmine, all of which are both beta-carboline harmala alkaloids and MAOIs. The MAOIs in B. caapi allow the primary psychoactive compound, DMT (which is introduced from the other primary ingredient in ayahuasca, the Psychotria viridis plant), to be orally active. Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) are chemicals which inhibit the activity of the monoamine oxidase enzyme family. MAOIs have been found to be effective in the treatment of panic disorder with agoraphobia, social phobia, atypical depression or mixed anxiety and depression, bulimia, and post-traumatic stress disorder. MAOIs appear to be particularly effective in the management of bipolar depression.Banisteriopsis caapicaapi

Psychotria viridis is a perennial shrub of the Rubiaceae family. In the Quechua languages it is called chacruna. It contains about 0.10–0.66% alkaloids, approximately 99% of that is dimethyltryptamine (DMT). N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT or N,N-DMT) is a psychedelic compound of the tryptamine family. It is a structural analog of serotonin and melatonin and a functional analog of other psychedelic tryptamines such as 4-AcO-DMT, 5-MeO-DMT, 5-HO-DMT, psilocybin (4-PO-DMT), and psilocin (4-HO-DMT). DMT-containing plants (such as Psychotria viridis) remain inactive when drunk as a brew without a source of monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) such as B. caapi. DMT can produce powerful psychedelic experiences including intense visuals, euphoria and hallucinations.psychotria viridis

DMT is naturally occurring in small amounts in rat brain, human cerebrospinal fluid, and other tissues of humans and other mammals. A biochemical mechanism for this was proposed by the medical researcher J. C. Callaway, who suggested in 1988 that DMT might be connected with visual dream phenomena. A role of endogenous hallucinogens including DMT in higher level sensory processing and awareness was proposed by J. V. Wallach based on a hypothetical role of DMT as a neurotransmitter. Neurobiologist Andrew R. Gallimore suggests that while DMT might not have a modern neural function, it may have been an ancestral neuromodulator once secreted in psychedelic concentrations during REM sleep – a function now lost. The dependence potential of oral DMT and the risk of sustained psychological disturbance are minimal (Gable 2007).psychotria viridis 2

People often report profound positive life changes subsequent to consuming ayahuasca. Vomiting can follow ayahuasca ingestion; this purging is considered by many shamans and experienced users of ayahuasca to be an essential part of the experience, as it represents the release of negative energy and emotions built up over the course of one’s life. Others report purging in the form of nausea, diarrhea, and hot/cold flashes. The first time I used the medicine I had diarrhea after the ceremony and vomited a little bit, the second time I had diarrhea only, and the third time had neither.

The ingestion of ayahuasca can also cause significant, but temporary, emotional and psychological distress. Long-term negative effects are not known. A few deaths due to participation in the consumption of ayahuasca have been reported. The deaths may be due to preexisting heart conditions, as ayahuasca may increase pulse rates and blood pressure, or interaction with other medicines taken, such as antidepressants, and in some cases possibly a result of the addition of toé in the brew. I made sure that this plant was not included in the mixture I was going to consume beforehand, as I had read is it dangerous to ingest it orally. The mixture I ingested only contained the caapi and Psychotria. MAO-A inhibition reduces the breakdown of primarily serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. Agents that act on serotonin if taken with another serotonin-enhancing agent may result in a potentially fatal interaction called serotonin syndrome. Therefore, persons using prescription drugs for bipolar disorder or depression should discontinue use before using ayahuasca. However, persons using dopamine blockers, often used for some forms of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia may not be under the same risk, but in my opinion should also discontinue use to avoid potential interactions.

Da Silveria et al. (2005) conducted a comparative study of adolescents subscribing to an indigenous Amazonian belief system that sacramentally used ayahuasca and their urban Brazilian counterparts. Da Silveria et al. measured psychological functioning on participants who used ayahuasca in a culturally specific manner twice per month and started doing so just at the onset of adolescence. These included substance abuse disorders, anxiety, depression, body image disorders, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. As compared to the control group, ayahuasca-using adolescents scored on average seven times less likely to experience these problems.

MAOIs can also be used in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease by targeting MAO-B in particular (therefore affecting dopaminergic neurons), as well as providing an alternative for migraine prophylaxis. MAOIs appear to be particularly indicated for outpatients with dysthymia complicated by panic disorder or hysteroid dysphoria, which involves repeated episodes of depressed mood in response to feeling rejected.

The legal status in the United States of DMT-containing plants is somewhat questionable. Ayahuasca plants and preparations are legal, as they contain no scheduled chemicals. However, brews made using DMT containing plants are illegal since DMT is a Schedule I drug. Some groups are challenging this, using arguments similar to those used by peyotist religious sects, such as the Native American Church. A Supreme Court decision allowed the União do Vegetal Church to import and use the tea for religious purposes in the United States pursuant to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In a similar case the Santo Daime church sued for their right to import and consume ayahuasca tea. In March 2009, U.S. District Court Judge Panner ruled in favor of the Santo Daime, acknowledging its protection from prosecution under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. I went to Peru to use the tea legally; On June 24, 2008 the Peruvian National Institute of Culture declared that ritual ayahuasca ceremonies are part of the national cultural heritage of Peru and are to be protected.WP_20160427_001

All this sounds great, however there are problems concerning the booming ayahuasca tourism business. With the influx of money, there are now people providing the tea who have poor training or bad intent. There have been reports of molestation, rape, and negligence at the hands of predatory and inept shamans, if they really are shamans. In the past few years alone, a young German woman was allegedly raped and beaten by two men who had administered ayahuasca to her, two French citizens died while staying at ayahuasca lodges, and stories persist about unwanted sexual advances and people experiencing difficulties after being given overly potent doses. I would like to warn people who want to experience the medicine to only use it under the supervision of someone they know they can trust. I got the name of my shaman from friends who had worked with him and had positive experiences. I would be more than happy to connect people with this shaman at their request.

Stay tuned for a post about my personal experiences with ayahuasca.

Below are some references for further reading. I would also suggest Wade Davis’ “The River.”

Ayahuasca visions
Ayahuasca visions

Barbosa, PC; Cazorla, IM; Giglio, JS; Strassman, R (September 2009). “A six-month prospective evaluation of personality traits, psychiatric symptoms and quality of life in ayahuasca-naïve subjects.” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 41 (3): 205–12.

Strassman R.J. (1996). “Human psychopharmacology of N,N-dimethyltryptamine” (PDF). Behavioural Brain Research 73 (1–2): 121–4.

Rick Strassman (2001). Dmt: the Spirit Molecule: A Doctor’s Revolutionary Research into the Biology of near-Death and Mystical Experiences.

Schultes R.E., Raffauf R.F. (1960). “Prestonia: An Amazon narcotic or not?”. Botanical Museum Leaflets, Harvard University 19 (5): 109–122.

Robert S. Gable (2007). “Risk assessment of ritual use of oral dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and harmala alkaloids”. Addiction 102 (1): 24–34

Update

2-23-2016

It’s been a while since I posted a blog so I thought I’d give you all an update on what’s been going on the last couple of months. I spent my first Christmas and New Year’s here in Yorkín all the while longing for the snow and Christmas trees of Colorado. Christmas was pretty uneventful, although there was a group meal of beans and rice in the Stibrawpa lower kitchen and quite a bit of chicha drinking going on at various houses throughout the community. In the morning I walked up to some friends’ houses to give some small toys to the children. I played guitar for a while and drank some chicha with the adults. At the lower kitchen I gave out some more toys and holiday cards and shared some cheese and crackers, nuts, and Danish cookies. Later on I went out to another friend’s house and learned how to make fresh tamales and drank some more beer and chicha. The tamales were delicious and I saved a couple to have for later.

New Year’s was rung in with more chicha and beer at various houses. There was some music and dancing at the Stibrawpa upper kitchen, but I spent the last couple hours of the evening at another friend’s house eating, drinking, and waiting for 12 o’clock. At midnight some fireworks were set off on the elementary school grounds and my hostess passed out cake for everybody. I slept in late the next day and don’t really remember what occurred on New Year’s Day.

The 4th of January was the first day of Jumpstart English camp for the fifth and sixth graders in the community. The local Peace Corps volunteer organized the camp and asked me to be a co-instructor. It was loads of fun and it was great to get to know more of the children in the community. Three weeks later we had a graduation ceremony. Many of the parents I did not know really well or had not met at all came up to me afterwards and expressed their gratitude. Now I greet the kids that I met in camp in English and also say “Roll Tide” because they all learned the Alabama slogan due to the fact that Alabama won the national championship while the camp was going on and I couldn’t control myself.Jump Start

I watched the National Championship game at a friend’s house here in Yorkín. I bought a case of beer, a couple bags of chips, and extra gasoline for the generator. Nobody here knows the first thing about American football. I didn’t waste my time trying to explain the game to them, other than when something was going really good or really bad for Alabama. At around half time, one of my other friends showed up with some chicha and after the game kept urging me on to sing more and more renditions of Rammer Jammer. It seems I could be heard throughout the village as people commented on it the next day. Now whenever we’re drinking, I am usually urged to sing another round of the Alabama victory song.

Around this time a stray dog, who I later named Chi-Chi (which means dog in Bribrí), started sleeping on my porch. Now he’s pretty much a house dog, except he is really overly territorial and protective and I need to watch him when other people approach my house. He is now about 6 to 7 months old, and I’m not sure what went on in his younger days and only time will tell if I’ll be able to change this behavior. But I really love the little guy.

Red Frog BeachOn January 14th I went into Puerto Viejo to submit a National Science Foundation grant and then went to Bocas del Toro in Panama for my three-month visa renewal trip. I found a cool little eco-camp on one of the islands of Bocas that was situated right on the beach. They had canvas tents and a dorm set up back in the jungle and a bar and restaurant right where the trees met the sand overlooking the waves. I spent three very relaxing days there and didn’t get any work done as there is no Internet or Costa Rican phone service there. Just what I needed.

On February the 5th I traveled back to Puerto Viejo to do a lunch time talk for the anthropology department via Skype. I really enjoyed talking about my research so far with other academics. That is one of the things I miss the most about being here. It was great to be challenged intellectually by my colleagues at the University of Alabama and see people’s faces and hear their voices. Roll Tide.FABBL

While I was in Puerto Viejo I was contacted by a backpacker who got my name from some other backpackers who came through Yorkín a month or so ago. I offered to walk her into the village and spent the next three days being her guide. She even came to my friend’s house to watch the Super Bowl with me. I brought a couple six-packs of beer, some chicha, cheese and crackers, and chips to share. Again, none of the locals really knew what was going on but I got to go crazy as I watched the Broncos win their third Super Bowl in eight appearances. It was the first time in my life that my college team and my pro team both won the championships. I had so much fun showing my new friend around and sharing my knowledge of the community with her that I decided to create a brochure aimed at getting more backpackers into the community. I put myself down as the English-speaking contact and listed a price for meeting people in Bambu and walking them into the community. It will be interesting to see if we start getting more backpackers. I always enjoy spending time with the few that we do get.

WP_20160215_002On the 16th of February I celebrated my birthday by sharing a pig that I had roasted in a pit and a few cases of beer. I had help digging the pit which was great but the day I was supposed to get the pig everybody was busy as we had two giant groups visiting the community and I ended up walking 2 miles to where the pig was and carrying it back to my house on my shoulders. It was 35 kilos and by the time I got home I was exhausted. I was late getting the fire started and we ended up putting the pig in the pit after dark when it was very difficult to see what we were doing. The next day at about four in the afternoon I dug the pig up to find that it turned out pretty good. There was one portion that ended up getting a little burnt and there was one portion on the other end that wasn’t done enough; but other than that it was great. We ate pork and boiled bananas and drank beer on the porch and I felt pretty darn satisfied.WP_20160216_001

It is now the last week of February, and I just realized that I’ve been here for seven months. It definitely doesn’t feel like it’s been that long. My hope is that I can be here at least another year and maybe two, spending the second year writing my dissertation. I need to go into town again in a couple of days to submit the paperwork for two more small grants. I look forward to having a hamburger and a couple of mojitos as well as reading Woody Paige’s post-Super Bowl columns and re-watching the Super Bowl and the resulting coverage on ESPN via YouTube.WP_20160216_008

Senuk Buae and Roll Tide.

A quick final note: I just finished reading Doris Stone’s book on archaeology in Costa Rica. I did not see any mention of a corn God or any patriarchal type of God similar to Sibö in the pre-Columbian past. Could it be that the cosmology surrounding Sibö arose after contact with Spain in 1502? Could the idea of Sibö and the mythology surrounding him be a reorganization of more ancient beliefs which arose out of a response to imposed Spanish oppression backed by the Catholic Church? A type of revitalization movement? It is a sensitive subject that requires more research.

The Origin of Sibö

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 síkua. The Bribrí belong to Sibö; he is their owner, they are his things, not his relatives. Bribrí creation story

Perego and colleagues obtained DNA samples from people living in Panama including Bribrí from Bocas del Toro and Chiriquí. They found 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.

“Considering the most recently accepted age estimate for haplogroup A2 in the American continent as a whole at 15–19 ka ago and as a proxy for the time of expansion of Paleo-Indians into the Americas, it can be suggested that the initial settlement of Panama occurred fairly rapidly after the initial colonization of the American continent. These data fully support the hypothesis that the Pacific coast was the major entry point and diffusion route for the earliest human settlers. Moreover, the antiquity and high frequency of subclade A2af provides evidence of the existing mitochondrial DNA legacy between modern Panamanians and America’s first inhabitants” (Perego et al. 2012:7).

This suggests that the arrival of the ancestors of the Bribrí occurred fairly rapidly after the initial arrival of humans to the Americas. We also know that maize (corn) cultivation did not begin in the area until roughly 5,000 years ago. For example, Arford and Horn obtained a radiocarbon date of 4760 years before present of charcoal within an interval of maize pollen from Laguna Martinez, Costa Rica (2004). We also have evidence of a stratified, complex society in existence soon after this in the Talamancan area of Costa Rica where most Bribrí currently reside. The Rivas Site, located in Western Talamanca north of the town of San Isidro, is described as a ceremonial and trade center, due the existence of elite burials nearby which contain gold artifacts and fancy polychrome pottery, some originating from areas south in Panama and east on the other side of the Talamancan Range, in addition to monumental architecture and petroglyphs (Quilter and Vargas 1995). The oldest radiocarbon date obtained from the site is 3,380 years before present. This puts the possible initial construction of Rivas soon after the earliest known dates of maize cultivation in the area. The presence of large open mouthed bowls as much as a meter in diameter was also found at Rivas; perhaps these were made for the consumption of the fermented corn beverage, chicha, in ceremonial contexts.

So, thinking about the Bribrí creation story and taking into account the archaeological data presented in Arford and Horn and Quilter and Vargas, I was wondering, “How can you explain that Sibö created the Bribrí from maize seeds when the ancestors of the Bribrí were in the area fully 5,000 years before maize?” I have two opposing hypotheses: first, the creation story developed over time soon after a group of migrants traveling from Beringia by way of the Pacific coast settled in Talamanca. To account for the conundrum of the time lag in the arrival of maize I suggest that initially the story stated that Sibö used a different seed, perhaps cacao, to create his people. The story was then transformed as maize became a more important part of the culture 5,000 years later. This change over time of “myths” is common. For example in the Creek Narrative, The Orphan and the Origin of Corn, the use of the word “corn” initially increases over time and then dramatically decreases (Swanton 1929). My second hypothesis is that the current Bribrí creation story only became popular after the beginning of maize cultivation, perhaps signaling the coalescing of hunter gatherer groups into a small scale agricultural society based on the mundane and ritual production and consumption of maize. Could Sibö have been an actual person, perhaps a shaman, who brought corn to the area or was instrumental in its introduction as a crop?

I am a firm believer in the idea that “myths” originate from actual happenings or describe actual people (or the cultural beliefs concerning them). My undergrad professor, Dr. Buys, and I would often discuss the possibility that many of the different “gods” found in cultures throughout the world (my Odin included) were actual shamans who over time were described not as exceptional leaders who brought something essential to the people, but rather as supernatural beings-gods. This is one of the reasons I pursued graduate degrees in anthropology instead of psychology; the unique combination of biology (DNA analysis), archaeology (material remains), and cultural anthropology (studying living peoples) offers the researcher a multitude of tools to address some of these (to me) fascinating puzzles concerning human history and cultural evolution.

Arford, Martin R. and Sally P. Horn (2004) Pollen Evidence of the Earliest Maize Agriculture in Costa Rica. Journal of Latin American Geography 3(1)108-115.

Perego, Ugo A., Hovirag Lancioni, Maribel Tribaldos, Norman Angerhofer, Jayne E. Ekins, Anna Olivieri, Scott R. Woodward, Juan Miguel Pascale, Richard Cooke, Jorge Motta, and Alessandro Achilli  (2012) Decrypting the Mitochondrial Gene Pool of Modern Panamanians. Plos One 7(6):1-10.

Quilter, Jeffrey and Aida Blanco Vargas (1995) Monumental Architecture and Social Organization at the Rivas Site, Costa Rica. Journal of Field Archaeology 22:203-221.

Swanton, John (1929) Three Versions of the Creek Narrative, “The Orphan and the Origin of Corn.” In Myths and Tales of the Southeastern Indians. Washington D.C.: Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 88:10-17.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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

WP_20150808_009

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.

 

 

 

 

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.”

Ethnopsychology: Creation of Culturally Specific Treatments

Ethnopsychology—The cultural framing of the self, emotions, and suffering.

In an earlier post I discussed methodology which can elicit local idioms of distress in regard to psychological issues. In this post I will examine how treatment models can also be created which are culturally specific. One such example comes from the work done by Kohrt et al. 2012 with Bhutanese refugees. These researchers state that there is an extremely high rate of suicide among Nepali Bhutanese in the United States and that a culturally specific treatment modality is necessary to alleviate the psychological distress among this population. They propose a framework designed to increase awareness among mental health professionals about Nepali Bhutanese experiences and interpretations of psychological distress; therefore reducing suicide risk.

The Nepali Bhutanese conceive of the self differently than the Cartesian mind-body split common in Western culture. The self is organized as the physical body (Nepali: jiu or saarir), the heart–mind (man), the brain–mind (dimaag), the spirit (saato), the soul (atma), and one’s social status (ijjat). Other aspects of the self are the family (pariwaar), which includes the extended family, and the spiritual world, especially relationships with ancestral deities (kul devta). The authors suggest that for mental health treatment, the heart–mind and brain–mind divisions are key. They suggest that the heart–mind aspect is the locus of memory and emotions. In contrast, the brain–mind is the organ of cognition, attention, and social regulation. Where heart–mind problems are considered commonplace, brain–mind problems carry more social stigma. A person with a prolonged heart–mind problem may eventually develop a brain–mind problem. In Nepal there is a traditional healing practice conducted by shamans (dhamijhankri) in which the heart–mind is “ritualistically bound (man baadne) to calm its desires and intense emotions, ranging from jealousy to sadness to love, so that the brain–mind is not overpowered and socially acceptable behavior can be maintained” (2012:94).

Shamans play an important role as treatment options for Nepali Bhutanese. As is common among populations in Latin America and elsewhere, a person’s spirit may be lost (saato jaane, spirit goes) when they become frightened or possibly cursed. Also, as is the case in other populations who recognize soul loss, healing by shamans is used in these instances to call the saato back to the body in order to restore health and vitality. “The physical body (jiu, saarir) is the site of physical suffering and pain. For physical problems, individuals may seek home remedies, the care of a dhami-jhankri shaman, or go to a health clinic” (2012:95). Health care professionals should recognize the important role shamans play in the treatment of these issues and include them in the treatment plan.

The authors also discuss how they adapted two therapy modalities to work specifically with Nepali Bhutanese. The first was Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which is commonly used in Western psychiatric medicine to treat depression and other forms of psychological distress. In their specific case the treatment goal was framed as minimizing worries in the heart–mind by changing thoughts and behaviors related to the individual’s perceived powerlessness, which then reduced brain–mind distress. Their second treatment modality was Interpersonal Therapy (IPT). The authors suggest that the syndrome that was being treated by IPT can best be described as manosamajik samasya or a “heart-mind—society problem.” Their culturally specific treatment plan highlights goals for modifying the individual’s social relations and suggests changes in the person’s emotional appraisal of those relations.

It is my opinion that not only is it important to extract local conceptualizations of psychological distress, but it is even more important to create treatment modalities and ways of managing psychological distress which are culturally and context specific. Thinking back to the group of people I worked with who were diagnosed with bipolar disorder, it became clear that they had their own model for what they could do to manage their psychological distress. I thought it was unfortunate that this model was not shared by their doctors and other health practitioners. This illustrates the importance of the work of psychological anthropologists which can inform the dominant health care system in which most people seek treatment.

blog

Kohrt, Brandon A., Sujen M. Maharjan, Damber Timsina, and James L. Griffith
2012 Applying Nepali Ethnopsychology to Psychotherapy for the Treatment of Mental Illness and Prevention of Suicide among Bhutanese Refugees. Annals of Anthropological Practice 36(1):88.