June 3, 2014 - Ditsowu, Talamanca, Costa Rica
Lessons from the Bribri
Photo by Jessie Salter
This morning we awoke under our multicolored mosquito nets to the sound of chopping wood and the smell of the cooking fire in the kitchen. Breakfast time at Ditsowu. After our morning dose of rice and beans and eggs, we load onto the bus for a day of cultural immersion amongst the Bribri people. Oh how we take ease of transportation for granted in Los Angeles. After half an hour in our nicely air-conditioned bus we reach a river; named for the manatees that once lived here, it has a fast current and many long boats heaped with green bananas passing by. Life jackets on, we pile onto a narrow boat and are ferried across to the other side, where another bus picks us up and takes us on the rockiest, bumpiest ride of our trip so far. We stop on an incline, and our Bribri naturalist guide Rafael points through the trees to the right of the bus – there it is, la casa conical, a conical structure about 20 feet tall, densely thatched with dried palm leaves (which we recognize as Asterogyne maritiana, one of the species we learned to identify at La Selva). This structure is integral to the Bribri people, one of the largest indigenous groups in Costa Rica. The conical house represents the universe: one cone above ground, representing the physical world, mirrored by another below, representing the spiritual world.
We are here to meet the Awapa, the shamans of the Bribri, and learn about their history and beliefs. Adding to the lingual complexity of this trip, the two Awapa only speak Bribri; another Bribri man translates into Spanish, and our TA Juan translates into English for us. Somehow the main points still come across. The Awapa welcome us, glad we are here to learn from them, and thankful for our visit. Together we enter the conical house, which is almost completely dark except for a small fire burning in the center and a few shafts of light drifting down through gaps in the thatching. Through our translating team, the Awapa tell us about the design and construct of the conical house. Sibu, the creator of the universe, called upon the king vulture and the jaguar to build the conical house, who in turned called upon the peccaries, the monkeys, the snakes, and the spiders to help. There are eight poles that make up the main frame, and three supporting rings that divide the space into four planes from top to bottom. Each plane is occupied by a different group of beings: on the bottom, touching the earth, are the people; above us are the animals that built the universe; above them are the evil demons; and the top level belongs to the king vulture, who Sibu designated as the host. The Awapa also tell us about the relationship between the Bribri and the forest. An expert on all the local plants of the forest and their medicinal uses, one Awapa tells us that Sibu made a pact between the Bribri and the plants: that if the people take care of the plants, the plants will take care of them. He tells us that today, the people have forgotten their end of the deal; the plants are still taking care of us – feeding us, healing us – but we are not taking care of the forests. This message is particularly resonant to us as a biologists and conservationists.
From there we head into the forest, where the Awapa show us important trees and plants and tell us how they are used – a bitter tea to treat nausea in small children, a hot soak for mother and baby after birth... They caution us to take great care when walking, not to disturb any of the plants. Before we leave the forest, we enter a small thatched hut with a fire burning, and the Awapa bless us with broad leaves warmed in the fire. We thank the forest, and in return are blessed with a safe journey.
After a delicious lunch served in banana leaf lunchboxes, we reconvene in the main meeting space for drumming, singing, and dancing. Snakeskin head drums accompany a rhythmic chant. The men form a circle, arms across shoulders, and move, hora-style. At the call, the women all rush forward and elbow their way in between two men, all the while moving faster and faster in a circle. The goal, they joke, is to push your neighbors harder than they’re pushing you, and we all spin around together singing and laughing, until a final beat signifies the end. I’m convinced that the grapevine dance move is a cultural universal.
Our final lesson is in archery. A large purple banana flower, the rough size and shape of a football, hangs from a tree; one of our Bribri hosts sets it swinging, and using a long slender bow made from a palm sinks an arrow in. Now it’s our turn. Several come close, but only one makes it (and on only her second try!): let the record show that the Bio 370 Archery Champion is Diana Ortiz (I was betting on her the whole time)!
Repeat sequence of bumpy bus ride, boat trip, and air-conditioned bus ride back to Ditsowu. After a few hours of relaxation and a delicious dinner, Rafael talked to us about some of the many challenges and threats facing the Bribri and other indigenous groups in Costa Rica. Chief among them is the fight over land. The Bribri land, the lowland valleys around the Talamanca Mountains, constitutes the buffer zone around La Amistad International Park. The largest national park in Costa Rica, La Amistad spans from the southeast into northeastern Panama, and is designated a World Heritage Site. These valleys constitute the prospective site of what will be the largest hydroelectric project in Costa Rica; with the construction of the dam, the Bribri’s land will be flooded with 80 meters of water. That fight is still going on. Rafael tells us he hopes to amend the Costa Rican constitution to declare it a multi-ethnic nation, but that too will be a long fight.
We finish our evening sitting on the ground around a bonfire. Our other Bribri naturalist guide, Chipita, tells us the stories of how the universe and the oceans were created. She invites us to share our own thoughts and stories. The atmosphere is one of mutual respect and reverence for all we have shared with each other. Rafael and Chipita present all of us with graduation certificates, signifying the end of our indigenous education, and again tell us how proud they are to share their culture with us, and how happy they are for us to be here. We, too, feel so grateful to have had this experience, to have the opportunity to meet and learn from these wonderful people. As biologists, I think we often forget that people are an integral part of the ecosystems we study, and in particular, the political struggles of indigenous communities are so often tied to larger environmental issues. I hope we carry the lessons we’ve learned here at Ditsowu with us for the rest of our trip.