Monday, November 03, 2008

Boats, Arrows, and Monkey Tails (Our Adventure with the BriBri)

To continue the story of our trip to the Caribbean … we left off having lunch with our Spanish friends the Muelas family. Álvaro explained he had a work-related meeting with someone from the government. The man told him about a trip we should take—and he would arrange it for us—to an indigenous BriBri village, located on a reserve in the heart of the remote and lush tropical forest in the Talamanca mountains. The more we learned about the adventure, the more we wanted to go and realized what a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity it was. So we booked another night at the hotel and joked with our friends about coming back in one piece from the trip.

That night we bought hats for Erin and me and called Álvaro’s contact with our shoe sizes so they could get the tall boots we’d need to wear on our journey.

This was the real deal—authentic in every way. Not a lick of English was spoken by the BriBri, no brochures or T-shirts were available at their village. It was just us in their environment and an incredible adventure! Whenever you’re ready, you can watch a slideshow of our day.

The BriBri
The BriBri Indians (pronounced "bree bree") are indigenous people in the Caribbean coastal areas and mountainous rainforest of northern Panama and southern Costa Rica. Through traditional, non-invasive methods of agriculture, hunting, fishing, and use of products from the rainforest, the Bribri maintain a respectful relationship with the natural environment that sustains them. They wear western clothing and speak Spanish in addition to their native BriBri—and we learned how important it is for them to preserve their rich cultural heritage for future generations.

Start of the journey
We got up early (I spotted a poison dart frog hopping around—cool!) and drove to the town of BriBri to pick up long socks for the girls and water to carry in our packs. BriBri is on the Sixaola River—the border between Costa Rica and Panama—and we were able to look across the river at Panama for much of the trip.

After driving for about an hour on non-paved roads (rough terrain!) and through three small rivers over the roads (thank goodness we had the Rav4!), we arrived in Bambú, the closest commercial town to the reserve. We parked at the pulpería (a small general store) next to the police post where we donned knee socks and boots. The girls started chasing chickens around the buildings as we met Heliodoro, the boatman from the Yorkín community who would take us to the BriBri village.

We piled onto handmade wooden benches in a motorized dugout. I noticed duct tape on the boat bottom where a little water was gurgling up and tried to keep my boot over it to minimize the occasional water bailing our boatman had to do.

We traveled through the remote, tropical jungle surrounded by the sounds of the Yorkín River, birds and animals. We saw beautiful blue morphos floating through the air and many birds including several kingfishers and stunning tanagers whose brilliant red feathers stood out against the verdant landscape.

We were going upstream and the river was shallow and rushing in places. While the experienced boat driver knew exactly where to take us, at times he and the boatman in the front had to use long poles to push against the river bottom to keep us from running aground. At one point they had to get out and push our dugout through the shallows.

One of the most exciting parts of the boat trip is that we went into Panama. Lush Costa Rican jungle towered up steep cliffs to our right, while tree branches hung over the water to Panama on our left, so close we could reach out and touch them. Our passports aren’t stamped, but we’ve all been in Panama now.

About an hour later we reached the village set on the hillside, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Once our boat stopped moving we felt the sun on us; the day was quickly heating up, and I was so glad we all had hats.

We trekked up the hill to see the very modest, one-room schools and begin the 20-minute hike through rainforest and mud to the village’s central building—the Stibrawpa Lodge. During our walk we learned about the area’s trees, plants, and crops. At one point the guide broke off a stalk of palmito for us to taste. Hygiene aside, we passed it around and everyone tried a bite. We also saw cacao fruit and a tall plant with a curly top called “monkey’s tail.”

Snack time
We removed our muddy boots at the lodge and left them at the bottom of the stairs, wearing our socks in the building which was like a large, wood platform. Everyone sat at one of the two long tables for a much-needed drink of watery juice (just squeezed from the fruit in the village), lychee fruit, and homemade bread made of homegrown bananas with a small amount of flour just to keep it together.

I was excited when our guide split a cacao open for us to see. The inside was filled with seeds covered in white flesh. Everyone took a seed and sucked on it. It had an interesting flavor that was nothing like chocolate.

We walked around the corner from the sitting/eating area and saw the village kitchen where a chicken (likely one of the many that roam the area) was cooking over a wood fire—the way all foods are cooked at the lodge, since there is no electric or gas stove.

Over the river
We walked to a nearby river to find a rickety hanging bridge about 20 feet above the rock-filled water. I was reluctant to climb the stairs and cross, but this was my Survivor Costa Rica moment and I was determined not to miss a thing—so I did it. I let everyone go before me (Álvaro teased me by swinging the bridge and barely lived to tell about it) but my faithful husband stayed behind me and offered encouragement. I gripped the guide wires the entire time and later learned that Dan was taking pictures and never touched the sides. What a guy.

On the other side of the bridge our guide showed us some towering, poisonous trees. He told us a few other things (all in Spanish, of course) but I was distracted watching the girls run around and telling them not to touch the trees. Then finally I asked if we were going swimming here (we had all worn swimsuits under our clothes and it was hot!) and was told no, we’d cross back to the other side. The bridge again? Already? I really just wanted to get in the water—but not by falling into it!

Cooling off
This river was clear, full of huge stones, and cold—but wow did it feel good! A refreshing swim was exactly what we needed. After about 20 minutes we climbed out of the river (quite literally) and brushed the dirt from our feet as best we could before putting our socks and boots back on.

Slings and arrows
On the river bank we met some BriBri boys who wanted to teach us how they shoot their handmade bows and arrows. These handsome kids had such beautiful smiles and manners, it was a pleasure to watch them shoot the target (hanging fruit) and then let us take turns.

Dan’s dad was a national champ archer and taught Dan to shoot when he was little, so I wasn’t surprised when Dan’s rudimentary arrows grazed the target several times. The girls took aim too, and I was proud of them for trying—Erin said it was very hard.

Tasting monkey tails
By this point our stomachs were growling, so we returned to the lodge for a typical, delicious Bribri meal. We had the chicken we saw cooking earlier, fresh palmito, rice and beans, plantain and banana, and fried monkey tail (remember the plant we’d seen earlier on the trail?). Large banana leaves lined the serving bowls and covered our plates which were actually smooth, thick slabs of wood. Nobody was shy about taking seconds and even thirds, we were so hungry and the meal tasted great.

A lesson about the Bribri
Daisy, a BriBri Indian, taught us more about her village. Years ago, the Yorkín women united to form the indigenous association Stibrawpa, intended to diversify their means of production, particularly agriculture, and develop new sources of income while preserving their culture. It’s interesting that while the men are involved in decision-making for the Bribri, the women lead the village council and have directive control.

Now several Bribri families in the association grow a variety of crops as sustainable agriculture and also sell organic bananas and cacao, and the women create indigenous handicrafts for additional income.

Daisy explained to us that they have no medical care, but a doctor comes by every couple of weeks. Additionally, while the government has offered to bring electricity to them, they don’t want it; the concern is that it will drastically change their way of life for the worse and lure their children away from the culture they’re working so hard to preserve (an effort that includes Bribri language courses for the kids). They do have a couple of cold-water showers and two toilets near the lodge, but make no mistake that these people live very simply and rustically.

The Bribri live in small houses with roofs made of traditional palm thatch from primary rainforest. They sleep in hammocks or on the floor, with everyone in the same room. Some houses are isolated and the children have to walk a long way—even an hour or two—to school.

What most struck me was that these are happy, peaceful people. They work very hard for their survival but seem cheerful and content with their lives. They care for their environment, their families, and showed a genuine kindness to us. Despite the seemingly insurmountable differences in language, upbringing, and culture, I felt a connection to these women and great admiration for them. It was yet another lesson I’ve learned in Costa Rica about perspective in life.

Making chocolate
On to the most anticipated part of the day … making chocolate from the cacao, which is sacred to the BriBri. We learned how cacao seeds are dried and then toasted. The warm seeds tasted like bitter chocolate. A young man brought out a smooth, heavy stone and showed us how to crush the seeds with it. It’s a lot harder than it looks! And wow, the seeds smelled really good when we crushed them.

Once everything was in tiny pieces, he rapidly shook the bowl to separate the meat from the shells. Then he put the cacao into a hand grinder and everyone took a turn with the handle. What came out and into the bowl looked like thick, melting chocolate. A few of us couldn’t wait and dipped our fingers in for a taste. It was bitter but absolutely chocolate.

We took the chocolate inside the lodge where some of it was mixed with hot water and sugar to drink—a traditional BriBri-style hot chocolate—while the rest was combined with a can of sweetened condensed milk. Oh my gosh, please, this was absolutely some of the most amazing chocolate ever. Thankfully we are all good friends because most of us (especially Isa, Erin, and I) were dipping our fingers into the sweet chocolate, licking them off (all while animatedly discussing the deliciousness of it all) and then diving back in. True dark chocolate is considered to be about 50 percent cacao; we were eating 100 percent cacao (less when mixed with the milk). This was the freshest chocolate ever and wow, sooooooo good!!

The return trip
Late afternoon, we headed back to our boat and to Bambú. The river’s current was with us as we traveled downstream in the dugout, so the trip was considerably quicker than our first journey yet equally as beautiful.

It felt great to take off our rubber boots and long socks when we got to our cars. We said our goodbyes and headed back to Punta Uva with plans … everyone needed a shower (wow, were we dirty—especially Lauren!) and a rest, and then we’d meet up for our 7pm reservations at La Pecora Nera. Yep, again—because after our day—we made it!—we decided to enjoy the luxury of a fantastic, candlelit Italian dinner at a beautiful restaurant with our wonderful friends. We are truly blessed to have met the Muelases and spent this unique experience with them. It was a day none of us will ever forget and one that left a lasting impact on our lives.


Lisa said...

I am in complete and total awe of the area you were in. It makes me totally stir-crazy and want to go out and explore the world, which I hope to do someday.

It was so wonderful you got to experience this with your family. They will remember it forever.

Laurie Starr said...

What a fabulous opportunity! These trips are things you and the girls will remember and cherish forever--what a great time you're all having! Your family is so fortunate that you are a great writer and are documenting the whole thing.


Stonefox (otherwise known as Heidi) said...

Haven't been by in awhile and thought I'd see what you guys have been up to! Wow, this trip looks so fun...but the thought of taking my babies with me on something like this is scary! Maybe when they get a bit bigger!

Tracy Love said...

I am so glad you guys are getting to do and see so much!! The trip sounded wonderful!! Do as much as you can! Loved the details, felt like I was there!
Love You!

Shelli said...

Baah! I just noticed that my last couple of comments didn't post. Sorry-I think I messed up on the super secret password. Anyway, I think that this is, by far, the COOLEST experience you've had yet. I mean, it's CHOCOLATE baby!

Justine said...

Wow, what an incredible adventure you all had, Beanie!!!!!!!! I loved reading every minute of it. Freshly made chocolate? Bet you never thought you'd get to eat something like that in the middle of a jungle, eh? Now these poisonous trees... what part of them is poisonous and what would it do to you?

Justine :o )