Thursday, December 03, 2009

I'm back from the Jungle and the Chirripo Reservation!

In the last week two my childhood dreams have came true! All of my life I have been fascinated by Indigenous people, I admire them and always wanted to be like them. Another dream that every child may have, is to have one true adventure. I had given up this dream a long time ago because in the world I knew so far, living in France and Germany, these kinds of adventures no longer exist. But what I did, hiking to Tsimari on the Chirripo Reservation, that was a real adventure!!! I've lived in a real remote Indian village with the Cabecar tribe! Wow! I will never forget this most memorable week in my lifetime! It was the toughest, most difficult, arduous, dangerous, most exciting and most fascinating thing I've ever done in my 19 years of life.

The Chirripo Indian Reservation, where the Cabecar tribe lives is located high in the mountains (6,000 ft.) beyond Esperanza de Turrialba and is only accessible on foot or by helicopter. It is not a trip that everyone is capable of making, it is very, very extreme. Two volunteers and myself had the good fortune to accompany Jorge, the teacher of the Tsimari indigenous children, he hikes this path to the reservation every week to his very different and awsome job. I have great respect for Jorge, most of the teachers who have had this opportunity give up the job and quit after one week. It took us 10 agonizing hours, through rivers, over fallen logs, around and over vertical rock slopes and cliffs that go down as much as 40 meters, you do not want to slip and fall into the ravine below. We climbed up and down waterfalls, through creeks and streams, where often there was no path. For two hours, we hiked through a swamp flowing in the middle of the rainforest, and for three hours we endured solid, hard, heavy, torrential rain. 7 hours of our trip was uphill (steep and vertical). Our 60 liter backpacks were stuffed full with clothes, toothbrushes and school supplies for the indigenous children. These donations came from an American family who lives in Virginia, the Sanford’s. With the help of her parents and classmates, their daughter Megan collected the supplies after reading a blog about the Cabecar and their needs. While on their vacation, they personally delivered the much needed supplies to us.

Voila, it is now my first night on the reservation! I have survived so far.

We finally arrived at the teacher’s small cabin, about 15 x 15 ft., it is situated on the reservation, the sun had set and it was dark before we got there. We immediately removed our sopping wet, mud covered clothes from our cold bodies. We were soaked to our skin, our rain jackets had failed in the hard driving, rainforest deluge. We searched our backpacks for a few remaining dry items of clothing, then we fell into our beds as if we were dead.

I was so exhausted, but I couldn't really sleep. My feet were burning with pain, I had giant yellow blisters on both big toes. We froze in the hut of the teacher where we were staying. The cold air passed up through his thin rugs, and my muscles ached throughout my body. The bed was not a real bed, but only a low wooden table with a thin 5cm
foam mattress, which was really superfluous. It was a very small room with only two beds on which 4 people would sleep. I shared one of the rock hard boards with the teacher, the others two volunteers slept on the other board. To make matters worse, I began to itch all over my body because as we came thorough the swamp, I had been bitten by every possible vermin, insect, and bug. Everywhere I looked on my body I was red and swelling. Now that we have been back home for a week, they no longer itch, but the bites are still there.

It was about 3am and the rooster was wide awake, announcing his presence. By 5am the sun was up and shining brightly. I peeled my aching body from under the scratchy covers and opened the door. For the first time I saw what surrounded the casita, as it had been dark when we arrived. I looked at a broad green valley, a few marshes, and at the bottom of the river stood a banana plantation. We were surrounded by rainforest mountains that cut us off completely from the outer world, the world of the “others”, as the Cabecar refer to us. Next to the house of the teacher there is a new school under construction, it has no roof yet, nor walls. There is only one other tiny “house” (a very humble dwelling) on this hill where an indigenous man called Abuelo (Grandfather) lives, he is one of the village elders.

The house of the Maestro (teacher) is not more than 15m2, it is incredibly tiny. The school for the children had been destroyed a few months ago by a landslide, so his cabin is also a storage area. All of the chairs and tables that were salvaged are stacked in the small space next to the two board beds with not another inch of space. His hut stands on very muddy ground, Tsimari is in the middle of a rainforest, and the teacher’s hut is built on stilts to keep it dry, although the roof did leak over the bed. Free-range pigs in the village kept us awake with their loud grunts while banging into the floor under the hut to scratch their bodies, Jorge took his machete and shooed and frightened the pigs away. The cracks between the boards of the walls and floor did not discourage the insects, nor keep out the cold.

In the village of Tsimari, each house is spaced about 2 kilometers from each other.
It consists of about 30-50 habitants, most of them children, and the simple housing of the indigenous is scattered over many miles. When I look out at the houses in the distance, they are all spaced about ½ hours walk from each other.

School starts at 7am every morning, but the children do not always show up, it appears to be optional, and without rules. We awoke with the sun at about 5am each day and waited to see which children would arrive.

I needed to find the bathroom and when I did, it consisted of a hole in the ground that is covered with a plastic form that you sit on. Corrugated tin sheets holding themselves up surround the toilet for privacy, there is no roof, and unsecured except for tree branches, the old tin threatens to fall down at any moment.

Jorge collected firewood and assembled our cooking fire. This is their only means of cooking, they have no gas, electric, or other options. We delayed cooking because we did not want to eat in front of the very hungry children and we had very limited minimal supplies. The Cabécar have little food to eat and they are always hungry. My stomach was growling pathetically, because the previous day I had eaten only peanut butter on toast for breakfast and two homemade granola bars. We had taken no time on the road to rest or eat, and we had nothing but granola bars for our hike. I was so focused trying to accomplish and survive the hike in one piece. that I had forgotten food completely. We drank our water from the rivers we crossed, and I felt as if this water was cleaner than any water I had ever had.

Upon our initial arrival at night, we had not eaten because we had no dry wood collected for a fire, and we had no food that did not require cooking. During our entire stay we ate only rice and beans, which we seasoned with some instant dry tomato soup to give it some taste.

Finally the kids start arriving at school, I watched them running up the hill. We got the chairs and tables from our house and Jorge hung a blackboard on the exterior wall of the house next to the front door. The chairs and table legs sunk deep into the earth on the uneven ground. On the first day, almost 10 of the 15 school children from the village came, they were between 7 and 14 years old.

Jorge simultaneously teaches the children of all ages. He teaches them Spanish, math and history, but the biggest challenge is teaching them to write their first name properly. Half of them are not yet capable. Communication is sometimes quite difficult because many speak less Spanish than I do (I am a native German speaker who learned Spanish and Latin in France.) The children were always talking among themselves in their very difficult native Cabecar language. The lessons were accompanied by the noise of construction at the new school. Women, men and other children from the village came and they all helped with construction of the new building. The Costa Rican Government paid for the materials and a supervisor, but the people must build their school by themselves. Some of the materials for walls, roofing, metal and styrofoam panels were delivered in a helicopter paid for with donated money. Basic construction consists of wood from trees that are directly cut down on site. Other materials, such as tanks and pipe for better sanitary facilities are transported on the backs of the Cabecar men, woman and children who carry these supplies up the same forest path that we traveled as there is no other way.

These journeys include the children who already by age 10 have more strength and endurance than we do. The school children participated with the construction during school breaks. They pulled the plastic coating off of the building materials and burned the trash because no one wants to the haul the garbage back through the jungle to the nearest town of Esperanza where I live, and there is no garbage or trash service there either.

On this day, the kids did not learn much, they were too busy being amused by my blond hair and they were marveling at my books and personal items that I had laid out in the sun to dry out.

The children requested that I write our names in each of their note books, and I wrote a little phrase in Spanish for each of them, they found this to be totally exciting. We gave each of them a toothbrush, which we had brought as part of the donations and showed them how to brush their teeth by demonstrating as we brushed ours. This was all new to them.

At 11am, the lesson's were over because another teacher, who teaches the Cabecar indigenous culture and language for 3 hours a day, did not show up on this week.
Had he arrived he would have had to sleep on the floor, which would not have been any less hard than our beds, but it would have been colder. I laid down after school to take a siesta and managed to sleep a little bit, I was still tired from the previous day and now I had a sunburn, which made me feel quite exhausted. That night I had a fever. The next day I still felt very weak, and the rice and beans diet was not energizing me.

By the third day, I was my old self again. I am not one to get sick, but I was thinking that there would be no help if I were to fall ill and I had to be fit by Friday in order to start the journey home.

Where I live in Esperanza, is not in luxury compared to my life in Germany. And yet our lives here are so easy compare to the lives of the indigenous. We have a real toilet at my house (I was really glad about this), running water, we can wash with soap, we have a stove and even an Internet connection, unless it rains too much. I have a soft bed and a small room for me alone! That's all I need.

Every morning on the reservation I stood in front of the teacher’s house waiting for the kids to arrive and waved to them cheerfully when I saw them coming. We spent a beautiful and exciting time with them. Each morning we cleaned our teeth together and had a lot of fun doing it. We gave them the donated clothes and they were happy about each sock and each pencil that we painfully dragged to the reservation, cursing our backpacks that we packed way too full. They were quite beside themselves over what we brought, and every day there were other people asking to see if we still had something left to give. We gave school supplies, sweaters, sweatshirts, pants and socks from the depths of our backpacks. It is not in their culture to say Thank You when they receive a gift. For us this was not important, we were happy just to give, and the next day we would see the children coming to school in their new clothes. Every day more children came to school, news had spread that there were visitors.

We prepared to play games and do some creative art paper projects with the children. They are beautiful, wonderful children, very gentle and straightforward, and they never were unkind to each other or to their teacher. I took many photographs, because I was so fascinated with them. The Cabécar are very nice people, small in stature but twice as strong as we are, with clear faces and beautiful brown skin.

Twice we went after school with Jorge and the children to the ice cold river to bathe. It was the only opportunity for us to wash ourselves a bit and it was also great fun with the kids splashing around in the water. They are very good strong swimmers. Everyday when it was time for them to go home, we were sad, especially on our last day when we realized we would not see them again. I followed them with my eyes, saw them go over the hill and disappear, and I waved one last time.

The rest of the day was not as exciting, and as usual, it was raining torrential sheets of water in the afternoon. Our routine was to put the tables and chairs back into the hut and then we played cards, napped or watched television. Jorge had a small pocket TV and a small solar panel on the roof that provided a little light in the evening with the help of a battery, it would operate the one channel he receives on the TV for 2 hours, although the reception was very bad.

Unfortunately, I was not able to talk much with the adults of the village, I saw only those who came every day to work on the school, and I did not want to disturb them while they worked. It seemed that the majority of them were not very good Spanish speakers, and in general are not very talkative people.

Maybe other opportunities will present themselves, I don’t know if I would or could take the agony of this difficult journey again.

The only road from Tsimari and into town is through Esperanza and the Cabecar pass through our village to go to the city, find work, receive medical care or to pick up food supplies.

On the reservation, you can not survive alone, and the Cabecar are only marginally surviving. No one has shown the indigenous how to grow upland rice, the only food they appear to have to eat are bananas, guavas, yucca, chayote and little sour oranges. The cows and pigs are sold to earn money, sometimes they drink cow's milk and eat the eggs of the free ranging chickens.

On our last day we gave our remaining rice to neighbors who need more food. We were not ready to carry even a kilogram extra back with us, it was too much to bear.

I must report that the way out, is the same as the way in, just in reverse. It was however much easier because after two hours of hiking uphill from our valley, it was all downhill, our backpacks were empty now, and no rain was falling, what an enormous relief. It took only 7 hours to come back and it was a lot more fun going downhill. I could almost really enjoy the journey, but we still must be so careful so as not to fall. Only the last hour was torture to me, because my blisters had not completely healed, and the bandages did not hold as our feet were wet the whole time. We did not wear hiking boots on this trip, we wore tall rubber boots, no other shoe could have made the journey. Everyone on the reservation has only rubber boots, because you just could not walk through the swamp and mud in any other shoes. The boots were not high enough to cross the rivers and keep our feet dry, sometimes the water was up to our hips. We emptied the boots each time, wrung out our socks when we took a short break and continued to hike with wet feet. Only days later after returning home, I can again wear shoes, I still feel pain simply by looking at my boots.

At 2pm on Friday, we completed our trip and arrived back in Esperanza where Ginnee our host had a dinner prepared and waiting for us (we had not eaten all day). Immediately after dinner, we scrubbed ourselves thoroughly in the shower with hot water, dressed our wounds and then fell into our soft comfortable beds until the birds woke us up when the sun again arose in the rainforest of Esperanza de Turrialba. My dream had come true; I will never forget this incredible adventure for as long as I live.

Link to photos:

Author: Anna Lucia Brigid Guenther
Regensburg, Bavaria, Germany

Lucia is a volunteer at Finca Quijote de Esperanza, Turrialba, Costa Rica. She likes farm life, dogs, animals, languages, writing, drawing illustrations, photography and life in Costa Rica.

If you would like to help the rural children and the Cabecar indigenous people by making a donation of clothing, blankets, school supplies or money, please contact Thank you for your support.