Saturday, June 22, 2013

Soloy: Part 2. Fire and Cocoa

When we got off the bus, well into the night, without a flashlight or cell phone coverage, we expected a long walk through the forest until we reached the home of our host family. We were supposed to meet Juan Carlos, our local contact, at the entrance of the town hall, and from there, he would take us to our new home. Having read the prospect on the website of one of the local NGOs, we expected an extremely inaccessible rural and impoverished town, where water had to be carried from the river and traditional values limited many aspects of life, from the dress-code to social interaction.
Much to our bedazzlement, when the bus dropped us off, we walked a mere 200 meters down the paved road and arrived at the house we would live in for the next few weeks. It was easy to find the house, for they were burning leaves right at the entrance, creating a massive wall of fire and smoke, through which one could spot a small entrance between the bushes aligned along the road, delimiting the property.
We walked through the smoky curtain and saw a concrete structure with light green walls, a large, single window on the facade and a slightly sloped tin roof which ended in a small overhanging "roof" made of dried banana leafs above a concrete floor. The porch was completed by a measly hammock, swinging on the two thick branches which supported the structure a few meters directly in front of a wooden door. A few trees and bushes surrounded the house, but it was hard to tell whether they had been planted there on purpose.
Timidly, allowing Juan Carlos to make the first steps, we walked through the yard towards the front door. As he shouted a greeting to "declare" our presence, I inadvertently got my neck caught on a metal wire inconveniently hanging across the yard. Its purpose was clearly to hang clothes, but during the month we spent in Soloy, my head was the only thing that came close to hanging from it. Of course, I was the only one ever bothered by it, as everyone else could carelessly walk underneath without needing to crouch.
Ignoring everything happening around me, I massaged my neck with one hand and felt the air in front of me with the other, in case of any other elevated traps. When I reached the concrete floor, a few women dressed in long, colorful traditional dresses emerged from the door followed tightly by a parade of children. Unsure as to the proper etiquette of salutation, we tamely extended our hands with broad smiles spread across our faces. With the unequivocal courtesy we had come to expect, their tame and subdued voices welcomed us to their home. It was hard to distinguish how many children there were, or the names of the five women we had just met. We were shown into our room; a humble but ample room with no furniture other than two large mattresses resting on home-made wooden structures. We sat our backpacks down and accommodated our eyes to the dark as they put two small chairs out in the porch. We sat down on the chairs as they did the same on the floor, conversing mildly as the dancing flames dimly illuminated their faces. We could sense the astonishment of the children, who would murmur and giggle amongst themselves, and the intrigued amusement of the women as we rampantly summarized who we were and what we were doing there, yet we also got the feeling that although they understood the words we were saying, they somehow didn't fully comprehend the message we sought to communicate. It was not the first time this had happened to us, and it definitely wouldn't be the last. In fact, minutes later, it happened again.
After the conversation died off, they led us through the main room of the house - one of three, counting ours - and out the back door. A large, dirt yard spread in front of us with formidable mango trees emerging from the ground and growing upwards and away to drape the sky with their leaves. Such was their immensity that the full moon, bashful in the presence of the seething fluorescence of cities, but ardent and intense in remoteness, couldn't breach the arboreal overcast.
Immersed in the darkness, against the black backdrop of the mountain, a faint fire nervously illuminated figures of all sizes and motions in its near surroundings. Some of the women, as well as a large man, laid on the hammocks and the children used logs and stumps as benches and seats. The scene, complete with a feeble fire under a large metal pot, seemed like the closest I would ever come to see one of those provisional cowboy campsites from spaghetti westerns that I have always felt drawn towards. The sight of a few people sitting around the comfort of a fire, waiting for a long overdue meal, surrounded by the fantastic darkness of nature, always seemed to me like one of the most righteous definitions of freedom.
When we stepped into the circle illuminated by the fire and were introduced to the rest of the family, the giggles, the amazement, the awkward courtesy of two vastly distant worlds coming into contact, all repeated themselves. We ate a large bowl of rice as we became acquainted with our new family and surroundings, amazed at the voracious velocity with which the children and babies devoured their plates, which were by no means smaller than ours. After washing our dishes in a gush of water emanating from a tube - part of the aqueduct system which supplies nearly every house in the area - we retired to our room to digest and reflect.

The next morning we awoke at dawn with the unmistakable pandemonium of children on vacation. As we came out of the house, the children didn't attempt to hide their skepticism, as the youngest ones hid under and behind their mothers' skirts. The older ones managed to muster timid grins, which would grow into full fledged smiles in barely a couple of days. Before we realized, the children would be agog every time they saw us, running excitedly towards us.

After a filling but forgettable breakfast consisting of an insipid boiled corn paste and over sweetened coffee, Juan Carlos appeared from behind the small bean field adjacent to the house, and took us on a walk through the town. As we meandered towards the center of town, Juancho enlightened us about the history of Soloy, the advancements of their modern history and ultimately, the challenges they face as a community. As if to highlight their challenges, when we stopped by the Mayor's office to request an appointment and present ourselves as volunteers, ready to help the town in any way we could, the secretary told us he wasn't there, and that if we wanted an appointment, we would have to come back another day. Although we persevered with our intent to meet him for the next few days, the Mayor was never present.
Nonetheless, our walk was far from futile. We visited a hostel, a Bahá'i center with facilities to house more than fifty guests, meeting rooms and a radio broadcasting station. We didn't see many signs of fervent Bahá'i - or Christian - believers, especially in church service attendance, but the town highly valued the Bahá'i center because of the radio station, which served as the news outlet for the whole area until it was struck by lightning in late November. Since then, it had become a nuisance to communicate important matters to the whole town. Luckily, word of mouth wasn't far removed from their mass communication methods, and lacking the aid of 'modern' technology wasn't a catastrophe.
Our last two stops were by far the most stirring. We visited the largest locally owned enterprise and the home of an indigenous activist  for women's rights and a leader in the community. The business was owned by Arsenio, a quiet and humble man among many, but one who had the distinct gift of carefully choosing his words and the timing of his delivery. Despite being the most successful business owner amongst the locals - who were at a competitive disadvantage against foreign entrepreneurs who arrived with resources and capabilities that one could simply not acquire in the Comarca - his tailor shop consisted of four employees equipped with classic Singer sewing machines working tirelessly from dawn to dusk under a tin roof.
Arsenio was clearly proud and aware of his accomplishment, but there was no sign of complacency in his lexicon or in the attitude of his employees. He clearly had more ambitious visions for his business.
Relativity plays an ironic role in the comparison of societies. More often than not, in the eyes of those who truly seek an equal society, a business owner who desires more success, more money or more growth, is seen as an icon of greed. Nonetheless, in a humble, if not poor, community, a person who makes a name for himself and his business is seen as an example, a role model for the rest. Of course, one could say that the big fish in the small pond is still smaller than the big fish in the large ocean, and that a man like Arsenio still lacks many of the comforts that many people would consider basic, and is therefore not greedy for aspiring for more. However, isn't greed measured by what one has and wants compared to his fellow man? Is it really fair to judge Arsenio compared to people and luxuries that he may not even know exist? Shouldn't his level of greediness, if you will, be measured in comparison to the 74 year old senile woman who walks past his shop everyday with a heavy bag hanging from her head as she tries to make a living selling oranges? Or the families who buy state-enforced school uniforms from him so their children can go to school and receive five free meals a day, offering them a nutritious alternative to bland rice and the occasional bean?

By no means is this an attempt to paint over the image I may have depicted in your mind with the first phrase I wrote about Arsenio, for that is the man I remember, and the rest are cumbersome cul-de-sac reflections. In fact, in a simple, yet characteristic demonstration of thoughtfulness and hospitality, Arsenio invited us to enjoy a traditional cocoa drinking experience that same evening. For centuries, the Ngäbes, like so many other native americans, have had a special place for cocoa in their culture. In days past it was used primarily as a nearly sacred ingredient in ceremonies, and considered the most valued resource available. Consuming it provided strength and courage for their warriors, and lucidity  for the shamans, which allowed them to connect with the forces of nature. During funerals and rites of passage, everyone present would drink cocoa for four nights, dancing and talking until the sun rose.  
Although these rituals are barely - if ever - carried out, many people still follow the rules of old when drinking cocoa. Traditionally, cocoa is never mixed with sugar, it is mashed during the day, boiled in water, and served hot in totumas (organic vessels made from an inedible fruit, used as cups or plates). Peculiarly, it is customary in Ngäbe ceremonies to drink a multiple of four full totumas before leaving the ceremony.
Drinking Ngäbe cocoa on a full moon night was one of the most unique and fascinating moments on this trip. The smell emanating from the cocoa was mellow but dense and delectable. It seemed as if in the next few seconds, a luscious, intense, liquid form of the best Swiss chocolate would flow silkily through our mouths. However, the taste was bitter, thin and watered down. Although it was by no means undrinkable, I much prefered the captivating smell, which now I could only compare to the disappointing flavor. Fortunately for us, we had to follow the custom and continue drinking three more cups. Amazingly, the more we drank, the more savory became the beverage. Our lips moistened and our minds cleared, as our senses merged and assimilated the experience together.
Before returning home for dinner, we had time to visit one of the houses at the end of the road. There lived Emerita and her family, in a spruce property with a gorgeous traditional rancho, a large house, a separate building for the kitchen and pantry and probably the only front yard with trimmed grass in a twenty mile radius. The backyard was a more ordinary sight, with log benches, a poultry pen, a few random banana trees and a bunch of extraordinarily plentiful orange trees.

As Juancho introduced us to Emerita and her family, we were immediately captured by her commanding poise. Emerita is a sturdy, vigorous, middle aged lady, and it was evident by the behavior of the teenagers in the house, and the heed given to her by those present that she was a woman of strong character.
Through our multiple conversations with her we came to find out that aside from a certain degree of preeminence, she drew her strength from undeniable competence, dynamism and con
viction. Before us stood a woman who had suffered as much as she'd lived, but whose will to live, and help others live - adequately - was more tenacious than whatever fortune had ever stood in her way.
By means of our initial conversations with Juan Carlos, Arsenio and Emerita, we discovered what was needed from us in Soloy, but it was the incredibly stimulating properties of the cocoa that got the ideas flowing through our heads on how to adapt a seemingly simple solution to an intricate problem.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

News from Palmera

After six months of unanswered emails, worrying lack of news and uncertainty, we had admittedly began losing hope regarding any positive results from our work in Palmera, our first project of this trip. We had sent countless emails to the Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation asking for news from the Cabecar Indigenous Reserve, and for the report we had written for them, so we could perhaps attract investment, tourism and volunteers to continue the process that the Foundation had started and we had enhanced during our nearly two months living with a local family. We had found a magnificent community, rich in resources and culture, but lacking in infrastructure. A very promising land where a terribly apathetic mindset obscured the vision of the future for the youth, despite their eagerness and commitment to education.
It was exactly with education, the bridge between preserving their ancestral history and bringing positive development to the community, where the key to the gate of the future lay for Palmera and the majority of its inhabitants. Although we focused our activities on strengthening the link between these two factors and improving local understanding of their importance, we hit a massive road block very early in the form of corruption.
The newly appointed principal of the high school had taken advantage of the seeds planted by his predecessor, now working a few hundred meters away as principal of the elementary school, and didn't take long to harvest the rewards. There was factual evidence that he was repeatedly using school funds for personal use, buying personal hygiene products, food and alcohol, as well as rather heavy accusations of drug use on school grounds and in the presence of students. In addition, the president of the board of education, otherwise known as the town drunk, had taken a liking to the methods of the new principal and soon became involved in these insidious activities. The most worrying result of these acts was the constant cancellation of classes, three or four times a week for lack of food in the school cafeteria, and the inability of the faculty to buy teaching materials. Teachers had to use their own money for such purchases.
The students displayed a flagrant mistrust in the educational system as was demonstrated by the lacklustre attendance, which was well under fifty percent. Many of the young boys would rather work with their fathers in the nearby plantations. The girls, many of whom were already mothers, could not afford to waste their precious time at a school that didn't provide a meal nor an education, and preferred to tend their domestic duties, as Cabecar tradition dictates.
Infuriated upon realizing this, and urged on by members of the community, teachers and students, we wrote a letter to the regional authorities and the local board of education, asking for an internal investigation, a new directive and a series of conditions in order to achieve transparency and a more efficient administration in the years to come.
The effects of the letter were immediate, although not as impactful as we had hoped. As news of a board meeting to assess the situation spread through the town, fierce tension invaded the faculty, the student body and the general population, as everyone began dividing between those who supported the principal and those who quietly disapproved. Fortunately, there was a third group: those who had taken a stand against the principal and the president of the board. Unfortunately, the group only consisted of our host family, the school cook, as the teachers who had initially inspired and incited us to take action, ultimately denied everything in fear of losing their jobs. The board meeting, which was dramatically similar to a court trial was hindered by the principal, who made sure it was scheduled during school hours so that the few students who were willing to take a stand against him would not attend. Much to our dismay, Leo, the father of our family forbid us from attending, fearing an angry reaction from the two characters involved, who had proven to be rather unpredictable.
As we had expected, without lack of support for our cause, the principal asserted his position at the board meeting, gaining support from the board members, whom he and the president had appointed. The appointees were illiterate, an unlawful situation, as we came to find out.
Our projects at the school became severely hampered on account of our actions, as we were no longer welcomed at the school. Some of the teachers were certainly reluctant to be seen speaking to us, so we spent most of our time with our family.
What had begun as an emotive and devoted campaign, ended quietly as we left Palmera without any visible results to our actions. Eventually, once we had the time and resources, we extended our letter to the Ministry of Education, but only received an acknowledgement of receipt from them. The past few months we had often wondered, albeit hopelessly, what had been of the situation in Palmera, and whether Leo, his family or anyone in town had fed the fire that we had ignited.

Surprisingly, yesterday we received a great piece of news from the Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation.
The principal of the school has been sanctioned, and is being very carefully watched by the Ministry of Education. They are assessing the situation and may fire him in the coming weeks. From now on, the principal is not allowed to cancel classes, nor does he have access to funds, as it goes directly from the Ministry to the suppliers. The members of the board of education are now named democratically by the people and the student government has been given additional support and power. The people of Palmera are satisfied with these changes, which they directly attribute to the document we drafted in early November.

We left Palmera more than half a year ago, with an amazing experience to remember for the rest of our lives, but disappointed at being unable to make a lasting impact. Over the past few months, a mountain of disappointment had began to build on the foundations created during our time in Palmera as we poured our hearts and souls into several projects along the way but failed to see the end results. Thus, as you can imagine, it is extraordinarily rewarding and fulfilling to receive these news.
We can now see more clearly the importance of embroidering experiences, even the most marvelous ones, with actions which will last beyond memory.

"They are small things. They don't bring an end to poverty or lift us out of underdevelopment, they don't enforce social responsibility in means of production and exchange, and they don't expropriate Ali Baba's caves. But perhaps they set in motion the joy of doing, and translate it into specific acts. And, when all is said and done, acting on reality and changing it, although just a little bit, is the only way to prove that reality is transformable." - Eduardo Galeano (Uruguayan journalist and writer)

You can find the report we wrote to the Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation and the letter to the Ministry of Education in our new 'Documents' section.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Soloy: Part 1

I beg you forgive me for the late deliveries of this blog. Although it would be ideal, and fairest to you readers, to update our experiences in a timelier manner; time is the most ephemeral of things, and it is extremely difficult to keep up with it. As time vanishes, thus escape my memories of events, from the most transcendental to the most banal. We promise to keep up with our stories, if you promise to transport yourself to the time at which they happened. The line at which our experiences develop is much faster than my pen.

In a young, yet promising 2013, we found ourselves motivated as ever, but gasping for a breath of fresh air in the form of tangible results to our work. Everything we had done so far had been well intentioned, but lacked the outcome we desired. However, we hoped to steer in the right direction despite waves and currents diverting us from our course. We try to remember that obstacles, like waves, always seem most intense, imposing, and unconquerable from the trough; before confronting them. But once you reach the crest, descrying from above, you can see the sea with clarity, and the wave soon becomes part of your wake. Sailing through calm waters is for those who lack wind to power their sails. Thus, we let the challenges that arise tempt our motivation and skill, ready to witness our path from atop the wave.

Returning o dry land; in February, we traveled to Soloy for our next project.  There, the summer threatens to dry up the mightiest river or the most resilient crop, and the wind never dwindles. The gusts of wild wind, or 'breeze', as the locals call it, steal anything that isn't tied down. Sadly, despite an abundance of real wind, many members of the community do lack the aforementioned metaphorical wind. Although to a lesser extent than in Palmera. There are a number of individuals in the community who are properly organized and informed, who work hard to achieve what they want. However, apathy and abandon reign as the leading philosophy for the majority of the population, who aspire to little more than brief moments of material satisfaction without regard for long term consequences. Ironically, it doesn't land too far from the description of more 'advanced' communities in 'developed' countries.

It is really sad to witness natural beauty being ruined by pollution, unity by violence and the future by greed, ignorance or addiction. But the thing that saddens us the most is witnessing a great potential walking head down, unarmed, hidden in the shadow of these problems.
As our voyage progresses, and thus our experience and education – unlimited and insufficient and unlimitedly insufficient – I realize that there are no insurmountable problems; only unwilling people. Having said that, the most positive aspect of our trip has been the people we have encountered. It's a pity, therefore, that the answer is the same to the opposite question.
So we found ourselves in Soloy, wedged between the two landmarks that intersect Panama. Symbols of the prowess of man and nature alike, the Interamerican Highway and the Continental Divide proudly form the spine of the country. In the Western section of the Divide, growing softly from the flat lands resting at its sides, the Serranía de Tabasará is dominantly poised; an acutely eroded arch in which peaks were formed by volcanic intrusions, of which, Volcan Barú, the nation's tallest summit, oversees the slow industry developing around its fertile soil. Its skirts, abounding with meandering creeks, commanding rivers, and a nuanced spectacle of shades of evergreen jungle full of intricate vines and exotic animals, have long shared their secrets and protective mantle with the Ngäbe Indians.

Today, like so many other indigenous populations throughout the world, the Ngäbes fight an everyday battle against the overflowing currents of modernity and the industrial exploitation of natural resources. As fortune has it, the Ngäbes are settled on the nation's richest soil, a magnet for foreign mining and energy companies as well as government leaders of questionable principles.
Soloy is one of the main towns in the Comarca; not much more than a strip of pavement with houses lined up at its edges, like buttons on a shirt. Located at the end of the main road plunging from the Interamerican Highway into the Comarca, Soloy provides a meeting point for merchants, artisans and farmers. The center of town, which has two multipurpose stores and a restaurant is also a transfer point for the transportation system, as the public bus stops there and taxis, cars and horses transit the area taking people – and food – to and from communities inaccessible by bus.

We lived in a particular section of Soloy called Boca Miel, about 2 km away from the center of town, where the pavement ends and dirt paths ramify in every direction. The Ngäbe Buglé Comarca is divided into seven districts. Soloy is one of eight corregimientos (a country subdivision for administrative purposes; in other, simpler words, a town) in the District of Besikö, located in the south-west of the Comarca. The Comarca is populated by the Guaymi Indians, and receives its name after its two linguistic subgroups, the Ngäbe, and the Buglé, whose languages are mutually unintelligible. Most of the adults speak their native language regularly, as well as Spanish, albeit rather limited in some cases. However, the youth pose a cause for concern, for many do not know more than a few basic Ngäbere words. Worryingly, their Spanish is often a carnage of the already mutilated Spanish spoken by their elders.

The comarca hosts approximately 160,000 people in an area of roughly 7,000 km2. Soloy is home to some 1,500 people, most of which live in terrains with a few structures ranging from huts to concrete houses and about half a hectare of arable land. The houses vary in form and material, with concrete, zinc, bamboo and other timber used interchangeably. Zinc roofs, often deemed in Western society as a sign of underdeveloped neighborhoods, were proliferated in the Comarca as a substitute for traditional palm roofs.

More durable, stable and expensive, zinc became a luxury item when it was first introduced a couple of decades ago. An irrevocable trait of human nature, envy, soon converted this developing world architectural icon into a must-have throughout Soloy and other neighboring towns.

Although most households have stable concrete structures where the family sleeps and stores their valuables, many still have traditional "ranchos" in their properties, under which they have hammocks and usually sleep there on warm summer nights. Since there are only two seasons in Soloy - dry and rainy – the hammocks out in the open air are still the preferential sleeping arrangement for the majority, especially nostalgic adults who see their childhood lifestyle quickly fading away.
There are two sections of the town which are distinct from all the others. The center of town, and Barriada 2000. The latter is an infamous aglomeration of huts, people and trash which constantly emanates a profane smell of burnt plastic. An accelerated image of the development of the area, the Barriada was created in response to the establishment of the new school in Soloy at the turn of the century. As the news of the educational center reached the more remote, isolated villages of the Comarca, an influx of families arrived in Soloy.

Ready to sacrifice whatever commodities they had at their permanent residences, they built temporary huts in a space provided by the municipality so they could live during the school year. However, temporary plans gave way to permanent relocation, and soon, an entire hillside, once washed by a crystaline creek, fertile and brimful with handsomely robust mango and orange trees, became a ghetto where somber shacks are separated by still streams of black, garbage infested mud, and dirt paths occupied by curious, energetic children weary of an insipid, mundane life confined to poverty.

Mocked and degraded by their neighbors and forgotten by local politicians, the Barriada 2000 is obviously a source of shame, and to some extent, disgust to the rest of the community. Unresourceful and abandoned, the people who dwell there have little to do in the face of the structural disaster in which they live. Initiatives have been proposed and outside organizations have declared their intention to improve their conditions, – beginning with latrines – but sadly, the rythm of affairs, already slow in this section of the world, is nearly stagnant.
In many aspects, Soloy is very different from other Indigenous Communities we have visited. The road and the proximity of the houses attract businesses and tourism, opening a large gate to the outside world. This has a noticeable effect on the people, who are distinctly less timid than in more secluded places. The first contact we made with the Ngäbes was in the bus station in David, minutes before departing to Soloy on a yellow school bus, one of many specimens sent to Panama after their retirement in the US.
There, I found a scene worthy of a commercial. Three middle-aged Ngäbe women sitting on a bench, jauntily drinking soft drinks while waiting for the bus. They were naturally dark, with long, radiant black hair flowing casually in the wind and dipping behind their shoulders, playfully appearing over the colorful tones of their traditional dresses, which covered their bodies down to their ankles. 
I couldn't resist the urge to take a photo, thinking what a glorious photograph this would have been a few decades ago, yet ready to hear a nearly inaudible "no" for an answer, or a shy affirmation which would result in them turning their faces the moment I snapped the photo, as it so often happened elsewhere. My bold request caused them to giggle like young teenagers, which prompted me to respectfully back away. However, as I turned my back, they all said "sí, por favor!" At that moment, once again deceived by the wrong idea of what we would encounter in the mountains, - this time caused by the official website of a local NGO which hadn't been altered in more than ten years - I believed I had captured a photographic jewel.

After spending one day in Soloy, I came to realize just how mundane that image was...

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

10 Simple Hitchhiking Tips

To go along with our last post, we have decided to write down a few tips for hitchhikers, which for us have become rules.

We hope this can be useful to those of you who decide to hit the road.

1. Be informed.

    What is your final destination?
    How long does it take to get there?
    Know the roads.

2. Plan your journey.

    If you don't reach your destination in one day, have a backup plan to sleep in a safe place.

3. Safety backups.

    Make sure someone knows where you are.

4. Quantity matters.

    Two is the perfect number for hitchhiking. Being alone can be a little risky, and not every car will have space for three people plus luggage.

5. Don't hitchhike at night.

6. Placement matters.

    Some believe that hitchhiking is best done in well populated areas, because more cars go by, and the amount of bystanders will somehow fend off any evil doers.
    We believe the opposite. Hitchhiking is most effective in less traveled roads. We suspect people are more willing to pick up someone if they believe that person will have a tough time finding a ride. However, if a lot of cars drive by, most will discard the thought of picking a hitchhiker up by thinking "someone else will do it."

7. Don't get in cars with tinted windows.

8. Check the car for signs.

    As soon as you get in, check for things like religious symbols, the driver's clothing, baby seats or anything that might let you know what kind of person has picked you up. Also, the initial conversation is rather revealing.

9. Keep your belongings close and accounted for.

10. Look friendly, be friendly.

   Be kind, thankful and well mannered, the people who pick you up will be more willing to pick up the next hitchhiker they see if their experience with you is enjoyable.

 Drivers are also scared of picking up strangers, so look polished and SMILE A LOT!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

San Isidro to David - A hitchhiking mission

On January 17th, the eve of our intended entrance into Panama - a country of transit, of separation and union, of thin contour but thick authority -  we decided to avoid the easy yet expensive and uncomfortable bus ride through the mountainous section of the serpentine Interamerican Highway and the congested southern border crossing of Paso Canoas. Instead, we dove into the murky, unpredictable waters of hitchhiking. We were fully aware of the usual dangers associated with this alternative way of traveling, and wary of the particular risk of our undertaking, for we inescapably had to exit Costa Rica by the 19th, or else we would be forced to pay absurdly hefty fines.
We began the day as early as possible, in the fashion of what we now have began calling 'travel day', and after sharing a heartfelt 'see-you-later' with Esther, our neighbor, we set out to conquer the road. We erroneously thought that the best place to hitchhike would be the Interamerican Highway, for traffic is fluid and constant as it intersects San Isidro. After one hour of bypassing cars and trucks, whose drivers regarded us with distrust, disbelief, or mockery, we began to consider changing our spot and our route. Toute de suite, as we picked our bags up and headed to the other side of the city, a folksy local stopped a few meters down the road and offered us a ride 20 km out of the city. After a few minutes, our impromptu driver received a call urging him to return to San Isidro.
Perhaps more than any other incident that day, this opportune phone call would decisively alter the course of our hitchhiking adventure. This was an opportunity to frequent the coastal road. Our newest friend dropped us of in the western side of the city, where the road towards Playa Dominical begins. We learned that this path is preferred by those who descend towards Panama or the Costa Rican duty free paradise town of Golfito, as it is faster, straighter and more pleasant. In retrospect, it proved to be a good decision. Within a quarter of an hour we were in the back of a jeep with a couple of Jehova's Witnesses.

Much like on a snowy peak, one's emotions while hitchhiking can abruptly change from a restful blanket of powder snow into a rummaging avalanche swiftly occupying every inch in its path. Every time a friendly face breaks our expectant and patient wait to bring us closer to our final destination, an exhilaration of intrigue, nervousness and relief rushes through us.
Elated, we collect our cluster of bags and dart towards the car, as if afraid that the driver will regret his decision and take off before we can reach it.
One must be careful though, for all the excitement can play tricks on anyone, even the most responsible travelers. When a car does stop before you, remember that you most probably wont coincide with that person again, so it is always a good idea to double check your belongings before stepping out. Common sense would dictate so. It is common knowledge that common sense is not that common, although perhaps neither is knowledge. In any case, 'common sense' is often forgotten in times of urgency. That is why we recommend to turn this practice into routine.
Needless to say, we acquired this piece of advice by learning from experience, after forgetting our cell phone in the back seat of the Witnesses' car. Thankfully, a nearby information center allowed us to call our phone,  which we had remembered to charge the previous night (also an useful practice before 'travel day') and after a few attempts, they answered.
Fortunately, they hadn't gotten very far and, although a bit reluctant - understandably so - they committed to bringing it back to us. Between one thing and another, we had lost an hour of valuable time and potential rides, but we had all of our belongings and were once again ready to hit the road.

Little by little we advanced along the coastal road, including a ride which caught us right in the midst of preparing a pitiful but delicious road-side picnic. We were in no position to refuse a ride, but our half-made tuna and tomato sandwiches were not negotiable. So, we jumped into the car with the tuna half spread and the tomato half cut; juggling to stop them from dripping all over the backseat and eager to devour them.

After four kind drivers and ten hours on the road - on wheels as well as on the road's shoulder with our thumbs up - we suddenly found ourselves shelter-less, minutes from dusk, in one of those crooked, lawless towns born out of a junction, where good never stops and bad always returns. As darkness neared, we began to fear that our romance with the risk and intrigue of hitchhiking would result in rose petals on the ground. However, a desperately polite plea hurled to the swift passing of a car - one of many petitions lost in the dust and odor of the asphalt - met obliging ears. Not without prior conjugal resolution, Marcia and Andres, a couple with a turbulent past but kind and charitable disposition, turned the car around and offered us a ride to the border; and to their home.

We spent the night comfortably on an inflatable mattress installed on the kitchen floor of their humble home, ten minutes from the border. Without asking for anything in exchange, they shared their food, time, faith and life stories with us.
Having spent the best part of their youth as victims of poverty, crime and pitiless romance, both had now found in religion and each other the strength and wisdom to overcome the cruel adversities of life; which in Marcia's case included several years in prison. Not for a second did we feel frightened or uncomfortable after this revealing confession. In fact, we felt lady luck's smile shining above us once again after having found a couple so inclined to help us in such a precarious circumstance. The following morning, they prepared our last Tico breakfast (which consists of re-cooked rice and beans) and accompanied us to the frontier, where we complied with the necessary paperwork, and within an hour had entered into our second country: Panama!
This time, we only had to wait fifteen minutes for Edgar, a young Panamanian who also resorted to hitchhiking in his travels, and thus, did not hesitate to pick us up. As if it were customary when picking up hitchhikers, Edgar also treated us to a meal. Nonetheless, a meal and a ride wasn't enough for Edgar. He also took us to buy a Sim card for our phone and dropped us off at the doorstep of our hostel! Lastly, before we parted ways thinking we would never see this kind-hearted man again, he offered to take us to visit the mountains and beaches surrounding David, where one can find the touristic attractions of western Panama, aside from the over exploited archipelago of Bocas del Toro.

Incapable of wasting a chance to discover new places, just a few hours passed before we were in Edgar's car once again, heading to the famous mountain town of Boquete, a tourist favorite where an international coffee and flower festival was taking place. We spent a wonderful day in the mountains, but bypassed the festival, for it was an over hyped and overpriced magnet for easily impressed tourists and a reason for impoverished locals to spend their measly savings on alcohol. The mountains proved to be much more enticing, as we drove and walked through stunning cliffs, waterfalls and rivers. As we marveled at such a scenic contrast to the flat, dry, asphyxiating heat of David (just 40 minutes away) we discussed Panamanian politics and the ongoing power struggles between the implacable indigenous communities that reside in the mountains and the national government. The current government of Ricardo Martinelli has completely disregarded the autonomy of the Indigenous Comarcas (an Indian Reservation with the characteristic of a quasi-autonomous province) and unrelentingly sought to cash in on their untapped resources by granting construction permits to multinationals so they can build hydroelectric plants, mines and power lines to feed the increasing demand for resources and electricity in Panama City and Costa Rica.

Ironically, despite Edgar's antindustrialist comments and his advocation for traditional agriculture, sustainable development methods and the preservation of indigenous communities and the environment, he works at a hydroelectric plant; the main symbol of foreign industrial imposition, of economic disparity and rural underdevelopment in Panama. At first we were reluctant to hint at the hypocrisy of his words, but after a few more rendezvous we gained enough trust to engage in a conversation about the friction between ideals and reality, thought and action. He explained that in Panama the options for electromechanical engineers are few and limited, and that he had spent a great deal of time and money in university to end up working in low-income, low-satisfaction jobs. While we understood the desire to challenge himself and reach his full potential, we couldn't help but to think that the high pay was more motivation than the excitement of hydroelectricity or the lack of other options. Nonetheless, there is always another way.

It is precisely this type of conformism, exercised by those who know the repercussions of their actions, and who, above all, can chose other forms of employment, which contributes to the multiple obstacles in the path towards equality, justice, and sustainability. Just to clarify, we are not arguing in favor or against hydroelectric power, nor are we saying that Edgar is a bad guy - in fact he is generous, respectful and considerate far beyond the norm - but that is exactly what is frustrating, that even such an altruistic and knowledgeable person is not capable of sacrificing his standard of living or his career for the sake of his ideals or values. We believe that all of us are victims of comfort, and it is only when our own comfort is at risk, not when our beliefs are challenged, that we decide to act.

In David we stayed in a hostel called Purple House. As the name indicates, it is purple. The problem is that everything in the hostel is purple. The walls, chairs, plates, cups, blankets, furniture, decorations, doors, soap. Everything. Is. Purple. It's surprising that the owner - a serious, almost rude lady with a good heart and the need to please every client that steps in her hostel - isn't purple, or at least crazy. After a couple of days I began to feel a bit claustrophobic, or rather, porphyrophobic and was itching to move on to our next project and less monochromatic surroundings.
Thankfully, after three nights of interesting yet speculative conversations - a dogma of the backpacker - we finally managed to escape our halt and found our next destination: Soloy.
Although we didn't learn anything new about the secrets of human goodness and generosity, this experience allowed us to meet people of various backgrounds and unconditional generosity. In any case, we did ascertain that hitchhiking is not an outdated or extremely risky way to travel. Of course, this isn't true in every country, but if you employ routine caution, there is no reason to fear the worst and all the reasons to enjoy an alternative way to travel and meet people.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

San Isidro del General

There's a current stereotype circulating through the Central American isthmus which declares de Ticos to be arrogant, condescending and materialistic. In our three months in Costa Rica we met a wide variety of people of all ethnicities, professions and economic classes. Granted, we didn't visit the entire country, nor did we meet the entire population, but the people we did have the fortune of meeting proved otherwise.

The fact is that, like most stereotypes, it is the stigma -and often the people whom adhere to it - that results as superficial and condescending. It seems ridiculous to expect a specific behavior from the grand majority of a population as soon as you cross the threshold of a country.
It would be interesting to investigate how such general judgments of character come to be, for, through traveling - or meeting travelers - one discovers that every person is unique, and that there are personality types of all sizes and colors in every country, region, city or neighborhood.
Of course, there are distinctive features in different cultures which set us apart from one another, which are often confused and called stereotypes. These are not stereotypes, they are traditions.
We learned this the easy way, by tuning our daily routines in accordance to local conventions, in one of Costa Rica's most traditional towns. The most important city in the south Pacific region of the country, San Isidro dwells in the Valley of the General, cradled by the mountain ranges which forge the backbone of the country - a topographic spectacle. Comfortably sized and located, it offers an ideal alternative to the hectic, thick agglomeration of San Jose. On all sides, nature's elegant grandeur is expressed in variant forms.

The mountains host several types of ecosystems; lowland, cloud and highland forests, which alternate with each passing mile, as one circulates the torturous roads intersecting them.
To the east, the beaches offer a convenient escape, only half an hour from the city. To the west, the highest peak in Costa Rica - Cerro Chirripo - oversees the development of the whole nation. At its feet, the steady traffic of the interamerican highway and the organic plantations; in the distance, volcanoes, jungles and the two oceans compete to attract international tourism.
During our stay in San Isidro del General we became acquainted with many people whom we will remember for a long, long time.
 Everyone we crossed paths with during that month provided us with an opportunity to discover just how the stereotype strays far from the truth.

The main contributors to making our sojourn such a special experience were Rafa, our coworker and flat-mate, who casually and gleefully shared his appartment and his humor with us; Beate and Federico, the founders and directors of Planet Conservation - the reason we were in San Isidro; and of course, our sweet and affectionate neighbor, Ester, who was accomodating beyond belief, and endued us with a sense of familiar belonging which is often longed when one is away from home during the holiday season.

At last but not least, are Diego and Karina, a young and spirited couple with a perennial duet of smiles and laughter. Not even Diego's blossoming music - an original fusion of the smooth warmth of bossa nova, the irreverent passion of a Latino and the soul filled energy of writing about one's own intimacies and skepticism - could surpass their immaculate attitude towards us.
Whether we were out having fun, working, or at home, all of these people and many others made sure that we had a home, friends and family.

Despite working in an office - a rare setting for backpackers - we felt the mellowed detachment of a vacation much more than in Palmera. The main factor responsible for such an irreverent attitude towards standard office etiquette was the flexible ambiance of Planet Conservation. Federico and Beate have created a special atmosphere to work, perfectly adapted to the typical informality of the town. Music, jokes and laughter would blatantly eclipse the rustling sound of keyboards and printers. It was a rather enticing mood to work in, without being a time-consuming distraction. After all, at the end of the day, the work that needed to be done, was done.
Planet Conservation is a young organization specialized in serving as a link between tourists and students seeking to volunteer or intern at community based environmental and sustainable projects. In addition, they offer consulting to local businesses and hospitality establishments seeking to obtain green certification.

In celebration of their five year anniversary, they want to institute their own programs in order to directly participate in the preservation of the planet. Aside from routine office work such as translations or accounting, our main collaboration was in that department. We researched, drafted project proposals and searched for funding opportunities for two programs: turtle conservation and environmental education for children. In addition, we built a playground made of recycled materials in a kindergarten for children from low-income families; for which we gathered donations throughout the town.

Overall, our time in San Isidro was educational, interactive and inspirational. We were able to visit the mountains and the beach, made lifetime friendships, and met people of all characters and backgrounds, all willing to share their lives and homes with us.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Boruca - New Year with the Devils

On the last day of 2012 we boarded yet another bus in our long list of ill-fitting buses and headed to Boruca, the main settlement within the Boruca Indigenous Reserve. Do not be mislead by the use of ill-fitting, for, despite their leisurely pace, the quality of the buses is more than sufficient. The problem at hand is that the seats are designed bearing in mind the average height of Costa Ricans, which, for men, is nearly 20 cm less than the stature of yours truly. As you can imagine, negotiating bumpy roads with barely a few inches of meager legroom and a vacuum behind your head which lets your neck wobble like a boxing ball is not a pleasant experience.

After a two hour journey during which we constantly had to ask our neighbors where we had to get off, the driver informed us that we had reached the entrance to Boruca. Unbeknownst to us, we were twelve kilometers of devastatingly steep, arid dirt away from the actual town.

In hindsight, we regarded the sheer path ahead of us and the gleaming noon sun with too much disdain. We nearly paid for our foolishness and disrespect when, after half an hour, unable to find a shade to rest, we began questioning if we had made the right decision. Luckily, a kind family coerced us into riding in the back of their pick-up truck and turned what would have been a painstaking five hour hike into a 30 minute rollercoaster ride through the jarring unpaved hills.

Once in the town, we installed our camping tent and proceeded to discover what the town had to offer, including a majestic waterfall and an ancient blend of dancing and bull-fighting.

Submerged in the Talamanca Mountains and encircled by the scenic valley of the Rio Grande de Terraba, this secluded site was once part of a vast territory. Before the arrival of the Spanish Empire in the 16th century, the Coto, Turruca, Borucac, Quepos and the Abubaes feuded over the region of the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, from present day Quepos to the frontier with Panama. Today, the Boruca are a composite group of nearly 2500 people, formed by the descendants of the dispersed tribes, who are said to have survived the invasion thanks to the aid of natural spirits.

Despite crowning a captivating mountain range and proudly boasting a phenomenally picturesque cultural tradition, Boruca is dreadfully indistinct from any ordinary Costa Rican town. Granted, this characteristic has positive and negative aspects.  

The first indigenous reserve to receive government aide, Boruca has been endowed with electricity, well equipped schools and a centralized structure for a quarter century. The view, otherwise rural and organic; adorned with banana-leaf-roofed ranchos, is abhorrently obstructed with cables, a massive cross, satellite dishes and a devastating amount of garbage.

Tourists, often deceived into visiting insipid cultural sites, may consider the town fairly unexceptional if they visit during any other time of the year. But, peculiarly coinciding with the end of the Christian year, from the evening of December 30th until the twilight of January 2nd, the Borucas celebrate the Fiesta de los Diablitos (Festival of the Little Devils) in commemoration of their survival against the forces of Spanish conquistadors. This ritual with a side of party and a pinch of brawl is anything but dull. The festivity is a flaming showcase of their culture and spirit.

Minutes before midnight on December 30th, the town’s elder summons all the diablitos – basically any male over 15 years old – to his house. 

Once there, the diablitos commence parading the town stopping at every house to drink chicha (fermented corn liquor) and eat tamales. The diablitos wear intricate hand-carved and painted balsa wood masks and burlap sacks covered with jute and banana leaves. The procession is marked by the relentless collisions against a bull – a few of the men take turns carrying a heavy costume and bashing the diablitos– which represents the Spaniards.
The name ‘diablitos’, the horned masks, and the fighting symbolize the shrewdness, guile, courage and ardor that served them so well in resisting invading forces, while the sharing of drinks and food is indicative of their undeniable hospitality, not only among themselves, but with the few tourists who venture into the town to witness this astonishing display.

The masks are the main attraction and source of income throughout the year, when the diablitos drop their costumes and work in the fields, in San Jose or manufacturing masks and totems. However, during the festivity, it’s the evolving interaction with the bull that draws the most attention, as the diablitos, increasingly inebriated and aggressive, rampantly quarrel with the 40kg structure of the bull.
Adding to the uniquely vibrant imagery of Boruca during these dates, each diablito proudly and carefully carves and paints his own mask with colorful feathers, dramatic images of trees, flowers, animals and of course, hostile, menacing horns. Each mask is exclusively ornate, especially during the pinnacle of the feast, on January 2nd, when approximately 100 locals dress up and taunt the bull until it eventually gains ground and takes down all the diablitos. 

Then, the bull runs away, but the diablitos, inspired by the animal spirits that aided them centuries ago, rise from the dead, hunt down the bull and toss it into a blistering fire as they soar around the flames celebrating the victory. The revelry that ensues is even more exhilarating than in the previous nights, as the citizens of Boruca put on their best outfits and party well into the night.

So far we’ve had the chance to meet members of three different indigenous groups, while visiting two reserves. Despite being branded with the name ‘indigenous’, each of these groups is very different from the others, not only regarding cultural characteristics such as language, art and organization of society, but also with respect to progress and development – where they find themselves at this moment in history. 

Their openness to the world outside their barriers, their knowledge of world events, acceptance of tourism and external influences, as well as other aspects beyond their endemic culture are shaping their societies in ways undeterminably good or bad. Time will be the judge.

These groups continue to be called indigenous but the meaning and usage of this word has loosely dissipated in modern times. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines indigenous as “having originated in and being produced, growing, or living naturally in a particular region or environment”.  
As for ‘indigenous peoples’, there is no universally accepted definition, but according to Wikipedia, there are three elements used to describe the term: the voluntary perpetuation of cultural distinctiveness, an experience of subjugation, marginalization and dispossession, and self-identification. However, according to these two definitions, most of the world’s population is indigenous. Surely, there must be something more to the essence of the word.

Colloquially, ‘indigenous’ is used to describe a close relationship with nature, respect for all things living, separation from the modern urban society, and the upholding of ancient traditions as core community values. Through the experiences of the last few months we have come to the realization that perhaps ‘indigenous’ is no longer a term to define a place of origin, but rather a way of living, a philosophy and a sentiment.

The indigenous people of Boruca, as well as many others throughout the world are in danger of extinction. ‘Being indigenous’ is not passed on genetically. It requires education, reason, sacrifice and determination.

Thus, the inhabitants of Boruca will continue to be called indigenous because they live in the land that their ancestors fought and cared for, and have the physical traits of their parents; but must of them won’t be indigenous in regards to the colloquial understanding of the word – unless they consciously choose so.

‘Being indigenous’ is not about being different, about suffering from marginalization and racism, but about preserving the unique and valuable elements of their ancestry. We’ve met many ‘indigenous people’ who do not enjoy a traditional way of living, or who do not respect nature, just as there are many ‘non-indigenous people’ throughout the world who share the indigenous philosophy.

Progress will come not through imposing or opening the doors to the modern world, but by building a bridge through which education, information and respect can travel both ways.