Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Bri Bri

Imagine riding in a canoe upstream on the Yorkin River between Costa Rica and Panama, powered only by one small motor on the back and the strength of a guide at the front of the canoe with a staff to ward off the rocks. The view is breathtaking. All around you is clear river water, steep rocks, and dense forest. Occasionally you spot the natural waterfall hidden in the mountains or the beautiful red flowers set against the dense green background. A colorful bird taking flight. The landscape is absolutely unbelievable..

This is the only way to get to the indigenous Bri Bri tribe of Costa Rica. The trip is not a short one and few people actually choose to make it. We were in the canoes for at least an hour, if not more, being guided by the strength of the natives who know these rivers and navigate them on a daily basis. The closest "grocery store" (which is more like a small convenient store) is where we got on the river. But for a long ride, it certainly is worth the view. As we got closer to our destination we could see the tribe's "huts" in the forest, built by the hand with wood and dried up leaves.

Now let me tell you, I really didn't know what to expect on this field trip. Our professor had done a pretty good job of preparing us for the worst by telling us we would be rowing our boats for 4 hours (or more depending on the weather), then hiking another 2 hours in the rain to our final destination. He told us there were going to be huge bugs and snakes and that our sleeping conditions would be closer to the like of sleeping in tents in the rain forest. We were also told that if we "survived" this weekend, we would be golden for the rest of the year. Oh Dr. Vargas.. you and your jokes.

So what actually happened was... the boat ride took only a little over an hour (we didn't even get to row ourselves!), and the 2 hour hike took about 5 minutes as the community naturally lives very close to the river (for obvious reasons).


The reality was that we were visiting the ecotourism operation of an indigenous tribe. So there was no electricity and the few lights that they have are completely solar powered. The showers weren't heated, there was no A/C, and the "dorms" were simply huts in the forest. Honestly, the sleeping quarters were much better than I had expected. Granted, we did have to enter them that night in complete darkness (you know, the kind where it is just as dark with your eyes closed as it is when they are open) and search each of our beds for spiders, scorpions, and other insects by the light of my trusty flashlight. But it was all a part of the experience and each of us is stronger having "survived" it.

About 20 years ago, a Bri Bri woman named Bernarda had a vision for the future of her tribe. As a community they were at a point where they needed to increase income and find a way to do so sustainably. At the time, their culture was very much "machismo" where the men were seen as the workers and decision-makers and the women took care of the home. So Bernarda did not have an easy time trying to get her idea heard.

She wanted to be able to preserve their forests while offering a unique tourism experience for visitors. She worked with two other women from the community on their project. Each of their husbands was working for the banana industry and they were slowly starting to feel the effects of the chemicals in their work environment. Long story short, these women fought for their idea and eventually gained enough support from the community to make it all happen. Bernarda was only 19 when she started this project. Talk about an inspiration..

Her creation has helped to preserve their forests and educate visitors on the importance of culture and the environment. Seeing how they are able to live happy lives on so little is truly inspiring. After just spending one night there, I had a better grasp on how unimportant material things are to our happiness. It made me feel grateful with the blessings that have been bestowed on me and really stop to think about "need vs. want." If one night made such an impact on my, I can only imagine the impact it has on other visitors. A lot of times we complain about all of the things that we don’t have. When we really need to sit back and appreciate all that we do. Our lives are rich in culture, family, and friends. We have access to food and water and are lucky enough to be able to live comfortably. Women are respected and considered equal in the US. These families live with much less than we do, yet they are still able to see the beauty in life and work hard to protect what is theirs. 

Over that short trip, we were able to interact with their community, hike through the forest, make pure 100% cacao, and experience the life of an indigenous tribe. It may have been full of bugs and miles of hiking in the rain, but the peace and serenity of sleeping in pure darkness with no chance of hearing cars or trains or even airplanes was worth it. 

After visiting the Bri Bri, we went to the Cahuita National Park to see one of Costa Rica's greatest public parks. It is 
a nature preserve with forest, mangroves, and beautiful beach all wrapped into one. If you're lucky (and we were) you can even see monkeys in the trees. It was a nice and relaxing day on the beach after which we headed home. 

I know it has taken me forever to write this, but I wanted to make sure that it did justice to the experiences we had that weekend. Thanks for sticking with me! 

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