After four days of exploring San Jose and taking classes at the luxurious Tryp hotel, our next destination was Bribri. We were told we’d be staying with indigenous cacao farmers living without electricity and, more frighteningly, wifi! Truth be told, I wasn’t the slightest bit concerned. If this was the first thing we did on the trip, I probably would have been scared to death. Having already lived in a homestay and camped up in the mountains of Jarabacoa, I felt ready for anything.
Turns out, Bribri was absolutely amazing. Our journey started with a 45-minute boat ride up the river. Each boat had a person in the back manning the motor and another person up front with a long stick who would steer and signal the stern man with instructions. It seemed like it would be really hard to be able to read the river well and be capable enough to use just a stick to avoid the rapids, but our Bribri guides moved the boats seamlessly through the water. I jokingly asked Andres if learning how to steer the boat was a rite of passage in Yorkín like getting one’s driver’s license at 16 is in the States.
The river was beautiful. The flowing water was surrounded by dense forests and waterfalls along the sides. You could tell that the riparian zones were teeming with wildlife: we saw fish, iguanas, toucans, macaws, storks, kingfishers, monkeys, and sloths. We even spotted some otters happily splashing around near the banks. I learned from our program leader, Brian that the presence of otters, a keystone species and apex predator, signaled that the river was in great health.
After our scenic ride, we lugged our gear up the trail into our new home for the week: a four-story wooden hut with a bunch of individual mosquito net tents and a small mattress in each one. It was rustic all right, and so beautiful. The air smelled clean and at night we could see every star in the sky. That’s something I already miss a lot. Being able to look up at the sky at night and seeing the stars. That’s impossible here in Los Angeles because the smog is so thick.
We had dinners at 6 pm shortly after sunset. Afterward, it was completely dark and without bright lights to keep us awake, our bodies began to naturally feel sleepy. We were all in our tents and sleeping by 8:30 pm. That was a great part about being disconnected from lights and technology – we slept and woke up naturally with the sun. It made for deep, restful sleep that I hadn’t had in a long time.
Our first morning, we visited the family of Milton and Maura, one of the many Bribri families who lived in the area. A recurring theme among the Bribri was that everyone we met knew a great deal about the land they lived on, and Milton was no exception. He understood how to create natural fertilizers to maximize crop growth, not to take more than they needed, how to set up sustainable watering systems, which pests had to be eliminated to keep their crops healthy, and the best times to plant and harvest. There’s no manual or book that people can read to learn the secrets. The expert knowledge has been passed down through the generations and the farmers learn by doing. After our tour of his sprawling farm, Milton invited us to sit down to have lunch with his family. The lunch was a memorable one. It was served in a wooden bowl and it stood out to me because typically a meat is considered the star of a dish but in this one, the chicken was an accompaniment to the fantastic veggies. We had a little bit of almost every type of vegetable they grew on the farm and it made for a delicious, light, and satisfying lunch.
In the afternoons we would have class on the floor of our hut. I gotta say, having class in a natural environment with views of the beautiful rainforest made our lectures and discussions much more engaging.
Later in the week, we visited Saoline’s farm. A special thing about her story is that she lived in San Jose for 20 years studying at the university and working a job but decided to return to a life of subsistence farming in Yorkín because she felt happier there. This testament to the quality of Bribri life was the first of many instances that challenged my definition of development.
When we arrived at her farm, she first showed us her wooden contraption she and her sons used to press the juice out of sugar cane. We all got a go at pressing the cane and at the end, we got to drink it. She mixed the sugar cane juice with passion fruit and lime and I kid you not, it was the best drink I have ever had. If you ever get access to sugar cane juice, passion fruit, and lime, mix them together. It won’t disappoint.
Next, Saoline invited us all into her house to show the process of turning raw cacao into delicious chocolate. All ten of us crowded into her kitchen and she instructed us on proper technique to remove the cacao fruit from the shell, how to separate the seed from the pulp using a whisk, and the careful cooking process. It was a fascinating process to see every part of the cacao being used for something, whether it was jam, butter, or chocolate.
The following day was my personal favorite. What was supposed to be a 45-minute hike to one of the Cacao farms ended up being a 2-hour trek through mud, forest, and river. We learned a lot about ourselves that day. We learned some grit pulling ourselves out of the mud and picking ourselves up after a slip in the river.
When we got to the farm, we helped local farmers Beto and Junior harvest Cacao. We used blades on long poles to precisely slice down the fruits and stored them in large sacks to take to the village. Cutting and collecting cacao is already exhausting work by itself, but that combined with a long hike beforehand really left us tired. We were moving slow and couldn’t wait for lunch. Meanwhile, the locals were working tirelessly and seemed unfazed. At that moment, all of us were in awe at the realization that they did this every day. We all grew to appreciate how easy it was for us to buy chocolate back home thanks to the efforts of people like Junior and Beto around the world. When we cleared up our target section of the farm, we plopped onto the ground and ate our lunch of rice, beans, eggs, and tomatoes that our hosts had packed neatly for us in banana leaves. We were really living it up in the outdoors.
On our way back, the moments as got stuck in mud and the nerves we faced crossing the rivers became laughs as we began to embrace and enjoy the challenges. We helped each other up when we fell and held each other for support when going down slopes or crossing rivers. It was an epic day.
The last few days were chock-full of activities. We visited Tsirushka, a cacao company run by women who were tired of being oppressed by men and built their own organization to empower themselves and other women. We learned about the processes of actually selling the cacao and better growing methods. They were an inspiring group of women who had a successful business built with all the right intentions. We got a tour of the in-house chocolate distilling factory and tried some phenomenal chocolate-dipped bananas. In our free time, we got to swim in and explore the river. Junior and I liked to swim across the river to sit on the big rocks in the sun and chat.
Living with the Bribri in Yorkín was a refreshing experience that challenged my views on what it meant for a society to be “developed”. Before the trip, my image of development included skyscrapers, cars, and the newest technology. But here were people living without any of those things. They didn’t have wifi or electricity and they were healthier and happier than most Americans. Who’s to say they are less “developed” than us? They were focused on the two things that were most important to them: family and the environment. That was all they needed to be happy. It was such a blessing to have a chance to enjoy the beauty of nature and learn from people who knew the secrets of their land. I really loved living life at its purest and building connections with people whose lives are so drastically different from my own. It strengthened my belief that no matter how different we as individuals think we are, we have all have far more similarities than differences.