Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Wektë bas ra: Projects and Daily Life in Palmera

We arrived in Palmera on October 21st with a plethora of objectives. Some were commissioned by the Humanitarian Foundation, whereas others were personal. Our primary instruction from them was to complete a report which would enhance their understanding of the community, their progress and their needs. 
To do so, we carried out two workshops at  the local high school. One was dedicated to their academic and professional futures, in hope of encouraging them to continue their education after graduation and fulfil their potential. The other consisted of a cultural exchange, hoping to emphasize the importance of their identity; helping them comprehend the significance of retaining their native culture. For many of the students, it is a sacrifice to attend school everyday. Many of the females are mothers and housewives, while the young men could be earning a living for their families at the plantations. Furthermore, the average student walks for an hour to get to school, and some have to walk for up to three hours, as they live in houses wildly scattered across the mountain. Thus, we were incensed when we discovered a grave and pertinent problem affecting the educational institutions. Casually conversing with teachers, locals and in our visits to the school, we found out that a couple of key functionaries of the educational institutions were malignantly involved in negligence and embezzlement, leaving the students without lunch on a daily basis and the teachers without equipment. Having ignited our fire within, we urged them to take action. On behalf of the community, we helped them draft a letter to the regional authorities, asking for an internal investigation, a new directive and a series of requisites in order to achieve transparency and a more efficient administration in the years to come.

The foundation, who has been involved in numerous projects for the community, also collaborates closely with a group of artisan women. Envisioning increased visibility and documentation, we were asked to create a brief documentary on the intricate process of their craft; including pictures, videos and short biographies. However, we were disappointed by their lack of interest and cooperation when we summoned them to share their art. Sadly, the documentary will be undermined as a result. Similarly, the letter wasn´t signed by most of the people who initially endorsed it. What we initially thought to be fear of retribution may have turned out to be simply passivity or apathy. At the time of our departure, the powerful letter rested impotently in a dusty folder.

On a more positive note, we helped Leo, our host, write a proposal to build a lodge which will greatly improve the development and well being of the community. The Cabecar Cabin, as it will be named, will host tourists, students, researchers and will serve as a locale to impart technical courses. The foundation is now using this proposal to find the necessary funds to bring the project to life.

Needless to say, our time in Palmera was a rich and fruitful adventure, and the perfect beginning to our journey. Not a single day went by without a new experience or lesson.
For a month and a half, we were graciously hosted by a most exceptional indigenous family led by Genni and Leonel. Humbly but joyously, they live with Marilin (8), their cute and mischievous daughter, and their hardworking and curious son Junior (14), who loves Iron Maiden and playing the guitar. Their home is also graced by the presence of Genni´s lovely and bright stepsister Karen (10), who is a best friend and sister to Marilin; and Genni´s youngest brother Julio (16), who decided to leave the city of Limon and moved to Palmera this August, where he enjoys the peaceful and healthy life of the mountain and learns from Leo to become a working man.

In the mountain, away from electricity, the sun is the axis of time. There, daily life is ruled by the beaming star much more significantly than in the smog forests of concrete. Work, travel and any outdoor activity is determined by its light, and must first consult with its appearance. In a rare day at the reserve, we witnessed a momentous event in the advancement of the community. Curiously, it further increased their dependence on the sun. In the largest gathering we experienced, representatives of 35 households bought a small solar panel from a local development NGO. The panel gathers enough energy to power three light bulbs and charge a cellphone, but it is far from producing enough electricity to sustain all the needs of a modern home. Although lacking electricity has many repercussions, most of them are simple annoyances.
At dawn, the persistent rooster would succeed after three hours of irritating attempts of waking us from our   slumber. If rain was pouring, we stayed at home and wrote in our journals or drafted projects. We would read, relax in the hammock on the porch, play with the kids or philosophized as we contemplated the waterfalls cascading over the roof. Regularly, the rain would overflow the source of water used in the home - a small basin in the ravine a couple hundred meters into the forest. If so, we would accompany one of hosts, following the hose from the house through the scenic and wild creek.

When the weather permitted it, we would walk to the school or hike around the mountain, machete in hand. Also, we would help with domestic duties, such as cutting down trees, chopping them up for wood and carrying them back to the house; and collecting leaves and flowers to make paint, as well as picking oranges, lemons, cacao and other local fruits and vegetables. A week before the rain invaded us, we helped Leo dismantle the small warehouse adjoined to the house, and construct an additional room made of gorgeous red pilón (Hieronyma alchorneoides) taken from the "backyard".

Breakfast, lunch and diner consisted of rice, beans, and a boiled unripe banana. Often, they were accompanied by chicken, pork, or tuna, and never lacked a scrumptious glass of fresh juice. Vegetables would rarely be included in the meal. However, when they were, they had the flavour of fresh harvest that one can only savor in the mountain. Palmito (palm heart), shirabata (fern), malanga, yuca, carambola (starfruit) and sugar cane are some of the plants with which we delighted our palates. On occasion of our birthdays, we enjoyed a traditional feast, where we witnessed the slaughter of a 50 kg pig, which we marinated for a whole night and smoked it over a bonfire for a few hours. 

Before the rain dominated the local scenery, we would walk to the plaza at three in the afternoon, to participate barefoot in the mehenga - a pickup football game in a dirt field mined with cow excrement and sharp stones. Girls and boys of all ages above 15 played, showcasing their well trained abilities. Of course, they have a lot of practice, as football is the only sport leisure activity practiced by the community. Usually, we played until darkness would force us to return home covered in dirt, sweat and else. At the house, we would shower with the same water used for drinking and cooking, which is diverted to and from the "bath". Albeit cold, showering outdoors with buckets of water is revitalizing. In the late afternoon, as we waited for dinner, we would sing and play with the children or converse about culture and problems in the community or listen to stories. After dinner, we would retreat to our humble room by 7:30 pm, tired and fulfilled.

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