Deep in the jungle, where the imposing Cordillera Central begins its steep bow to the flatlands, the Cabecar community of Palmera live sheltered by the effervescent Zent river. From there, a sea of plantations distance the indians from the susceptible waters of the Caribbean, painting a never ending horizon melted between the clouds and the murky tree tops.
Two hours uphill from the river ‒ a bastion between two cultures struggling to coexist ‒ an exceptional family shared their home, lifestyle and affection with us for a month and a half. Their insatiable curiosity, motivation and courage made our stay a blissful and uniquely memorable experience.
There, only the patios are cleared for the commodity of the inhabitants. Every other inch of land is cloaked with an uncontrollable curtain of green, which impetuously overflows into the prints of humankind. The diverse and lively rain forest is appalling; palm trees of every kind, centenary giants, covered with vines which sprout from everywhere and climb the massive columns of red, white and green bark. Also, fleeting specs of colorful birds, frogs and flowery ornaments adorn the evergreen sight. Fortuitously, toucans, parrots, lovebirds and smaller melodies in motion would visit the line of trees around the house, thus announcing a halt to the incessant rain.
For the first three weeks, the sun burned our skin, sharply, as if through a magnifying glass. The rain, backstage, awaited its opportunity to shine - or rather, dim - briefly appearing to freshen the air and feed the soil. At night, the moon was a mirror image of the sun, projecting all of its might. It shone so bright that shadows grew from our feet as we marvelled at the infinite spectacle of the milky way.
The masonry of the Cabecar women is dictated by the lunar periods. Only during the three days before and after the full moon can they begin the formidable labour of collecting mastate; the source of the material from which all of their clothes were made in past times. For many years, the mastate tree went unused, as the ancient knowledge of the craft had been forgotten. However, recently, the women rediscovered the skill thanks to an elder (our host´s father), who had retained the knowledge. But now that their clothes are products of a foreign culture, the material is used to make art instead.
Although the women sell these art pieces, the local economy is not impacted by these products, as they haven´t yet reached their full market potential. As of now, they only receive symbolic amounts from the few tourists who approach the secluded area or from good willing acquaintances of the Humanitarian Foundation, who serve as intermediaries and sell the art themselves.
Most of the men work strenuously in the banana and palm oil plantations on the edge of the reserve, while the women take care of their small crops and farm animals. Moreover, the women spend countless hours cooking meals over wood and fire, waking up as early as three in the morning to have breakfast ready by six. Children and teenagers, as well as some inquisitive mothers, attend school ‒ a decade-long concept for them. Speaking of motherhood, grandmothers who haven´t reached thirty years of age may be shocking to most of us, but to them it´s an ordinary occurrence. Judging by their intricate and confusing genealogy, their family trees must look like a map of the Madrid subway system.
Upon our arrival, we had a romantic vision of archaic indians, alienated from the far reaching hand of globalization, but confused as they observe how modernity attacks their identities and impedes their way of life. We have found a timid community, but one that is aware of the events happening far beyond their land. Sadly, they absorb the new culture faster than they are able to preserve their own.
The fear and preoccupation for the loss of identity and culture is notable among the adults, and some of the youth. However, greed, comfort and a hint of innocent ignorance have submerged them into the convenience and amenity of the modern world. They are years past the traditional indigenous group that we erroneously imagined, but they still have a grip, however fragile, on the values and traditions that have persisted through history. The main channel through which this inheritance has travelled down the generations is the language. Cabecar is one of the four indigenous languages that are still active in Costa Rica, but marginalization leads many to reject their mother tongue and their roots altogether.
Life among the Cabecars is simple and quiet, but laborious. One does not need much, nor is there much to have, as humans do not own; nature does. The only possessions are their zinc roofed homes ‒ scattered around the mountain, it can take three hours to visit certain neighbors ‒ and the bare necessities; bought at a supermarket across the river. Everything else is taken from the mountain respectfully, previously asking for permission in order to avoid the lethal bite of the terciopelo (bothrops asper) snake.
Silence is constant, peaceful and harmonious. It is only interrupted by animals, rain and laughter ‒ the lighthearted reaction to problems. Silence, often mistaken by outsiders as stupidity, is a means of communication. However, it is much more than that, it is a protecting veil under which their affluent spirituality and philosophy has survived against the currents of imposing civilizations.
It is our hope that this sensational culture finds a way to avoid fading into the quickly rising tide of capitalism and evolves to maintain its own traditions while absorbing the benefits of technology and modern life.