An old dug-out wooden canoe waited for me on the banks of Yorkin River. Two cowboy-like young boys, dressed in vests and gum boots, greeted me with wide smiles and is-be-shkena. Dusk was fast approaching, so I had little time to voice my apprehensions. For an hour, we manoeuvred rapids upriver with an old motor and a wooden stick, slowing down to a crawl at narrow bends, tilting almost 60 degrees when sharp rocks rose from the river bed, nothing but dense forests on either side. My pumping adrenalin washed off the nervousness of being somewhere so remote, alone, in a country I had set foot in only two days ago (Read: Costa Rica Wasn’t The Country I Imagined).
As night descended and finally on land, I lugged my backpack and followed my new friends into the home of the Bribris – one of the last remaining indigenous communities in Costa Rica. Deep in the rainforest, without electricity or connectivity, far from civilization as we know it.
The boys made way for Don Guillermo, the head of the clan, to receive me. I expected him to show me my room or comment on my long journey from San Jose, but Don Guillermo only asked if I would like some chocolate. They were cacao farmers after all!
I spent the evening ‘drinking’ chocolate – natural, dark, bitter, without milk or sugar, yet delicious – with Don Guillermo and his big family, discovering that Panama was a just swim away on the other side of the river, completely unaware of my bearings under the pitch dark night sky, and sleeping on the open roof of the traditional conical hut of the Bribris (Read: 10 Awe-Inspiring Airbnbs in Central America).
On a different kind of high, I learnt how to make my own chocolate from the cacao fruits grown in the village: Extract the seeds, dry in the sun for days, slow-roast over an open fire, crush with a stone, manually separate from the husk, ground in a small manual machine, and you have it – unprocessed, real chocolate!
I chatted in broken Spanish with Don Guillermo’s family, hearing about their contented lives in the forest. They had everything they needed. Ancient cell phones that caught signal up on the hill and a landline that sometimes worked, so travel companies could get in touch to arrange for the visit of day trippers or lost souls like me. A small solar panel to occasionally charge a phone and create light for night cooking. Home-grown beans, vegetables, medicinal plants and of course, the best cacao. Why would they possibly want the stress of the big, busy mainland? (Read: Living With a Mayan Family in Guatemala)
When I asked Don Guillermo about the last time he had left home, he told me in his most serious tone: I go to Panama all the time, but to Costa Rica, not that often. I canoed and swam across the river with his nephew Junior, and discovered why. On the Panamanian side, a gorgeous waterfall cascaded down the hill and made a freshwater pool to swim in, perfect to combat the rainforest humidity. While drying off in the sun, I asked Junior if it was possible to get a beer in the village, and he promised to do me one better.
That night, we sneaked out with a German guy training to be a guide, to drink Chicha, a strong but soothing local brew made from sugarcane. Chatting all night long, Junior confessed how happening his life was, despite how isolated it could seem to an outsider like me. He partied with his brothers, listened to reggae music and stalked girls he met in other indigenous villages on Facebook – right here in the forest. Pura vida!
Seeing my curiosity about the Bribri way of life, my bilingual German friend offered to translate the many questions my broken Spanish didn’t allow me to ask. And so we unearthed some fascinating Bribri stories:
Legend has it that when a Bribri elder died, he was buried with all his possessions and the gold his family had accumulated – which was a lot of gold in those days. An outsider from Costa Rica decided to test this legend a decade or so ago. He dug out several Bribri graves in the forest, and sure enough, found an unbelievable amount of gold. When the government heard about it, they passed a law against digging out graves, but were too late to take back the Bribri gold. The real irony is that the government recently built a museum on Bribri traditions, and had to buy back some of the gold this man had dug up!
Showing us medicinal plants in the forest, Don Guillermo told us about Shamans, who still practice in some further flung Bribri villages. They set a particular kind of leaf on fire, rub it around a sick person’s body and chant in a mysterious language to diagnose the illness. And though he doesn’t believe in their methods, he knows people who have been diagnosed and cured by Shamans. His worry is not about their practices, but that they chant in a language no one can understand, in the night – the time of the devil. What fascinates me is that the pre-colonial beliefs among the Bribris didn’t have this notion of the Catholic-introduced ‘devil’.
The dug out canoe waited on the river when it was time for me to say goodbye to the Bribris. I had one last question; I needed to know where the cacao grown in Yorkin was processed, so I could think of them when I ate processed chocolate again. Tucking his machete into his waist belt, Don Guillermo beamed as he said Switzerland, and rather shyly asked me what a Swiss chocolate tasted like.
I saw him waving until he blended into the horizon.
Bittersweet, I couldn’t help thinking.
Practical Information: Yorkin, the indigenous reserve of the Bribri people, is located an hour upriver from Bambu. From San Jose, take the MEPE bus to the town of Bribri, then a local bus to the village of Bambu. Read more about the experience at www.aventuras-yorkin.co.cr or send an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have you met interesting people living away from civilization and technology on your travels?
First time on this blog? Read about my journey from the cubicle to the road here.