During the first week of 6th block, I wrote a short essay describing my interest in the Terraba Tribe of southern Costa Rica. The interest was an outgrowth of work I had been doing in the Philosophy department; I was curious as to how the philosophical worldview of this tribe differed from, and could contribute to, my understanding of the various western worldviews I had studied at CC.
I submitted the essay to the Venture Grant committee on the second Monday of 6th block, proposing that the school support this interest and fund my journey to the Terraban jungle to learn about the tribe first-hand. A week and a half later, I was informed that my proposal was granted, and I was on a plane headed to Costa Rica six days after that.
After flying into the capital, San Jose, I began heading south by bus. I ditched the bus in Buenos Aires, the nearest town to the border of a sizeable expanse of protected jungle region home to a number of indigenous cultures, one of which is the Terraba. I convinced a taxi driver in Buenos Aires to take me to the border of the Terraba land reservation.
But the area where community activity takes place is quite some distance from the Terraban border. So, after paying the taxi driver who was happy to get off the broken dirt roads, I had asked him to take me down, I began a hike towards the village.
After weeks of talking with friends at CC about how nice it was going to be to head somewhere warm for spring break, it was remarkable how quickly the heat and humidity of the jungle made me long for the cool crisp air of the Rockies. The hike to find the village took about three hours, but was amusing as I passed more than a few houses where playing children and working adults would stare and or laugh at the “gringo” that had entered their space.
Upon arriving in the village, I explained that I was a student from the States that was interested in learning about their culture, history, and knowledge. However, my Spanish is certainly no better than decent, so I can only report on what I intended to have said. Regardless, they were immediately hospitable and receptive to my interest.
Although I had a phone conversation with a man who I thought was with the tribe the week before my departure, there was no knowledge or recognition of any prior communication. The potential places in which my Spanish could have failed in this assumption of “prior arrangement” are too many to count, but either way, I arrived and was considered unexpected. I enjoyed the spontaneity of it.
Within half an hour of arriving in the village and stating my purpose, I was told to “follow” a Terraban man (25-30 years old, I’d say). He took me on a multi-hour barefoot hike/climb through the jungle. We skirted over creeks and repelled down ledges on vines. As the sun began to set, he slowed pace, and as I caught up to him we entered into a clearing: into view came a massive – magnificent – waterfall. He explained to me that this waterfall and the area surrounding it are deeply sacred for the Terraban people, and extended the offer for me to jump in. A bath in this water cleanses both the body and spirit, he said. I was much obliged, and dove right in.
We left the waterfall and hiked to a small open-sided but roofed lodge structure. After the sunset, a crew of Terraba men arrived. They brought a feast of traditional food, though I forget the name they gave to the dish. My best description is mini-burritos wrapped and cooked in large leaves. It was delicious. That night was the best welcome into the jungle I could have asked for. We partied and conversed about the history of the Terraba culture – exchanging handstand methods as they told me about their ancestors, the brobros, the Terraban warriors who protected the priestly class of a neighboring tribe.
I was particularly interested by the identification of some of these Terraban men with aspects of Rastafari culture. This cultural diffusion is not surprising, though, as an interest in resistance to various forms of Western oppression lies deep in the hearts of both Rastas and Terrabans. I enjoyed this connection immensely, explaining that my culture, like theirs, had some who identified with aspects of Rasta culture. They seemed to appreciate this connection with the humor that I intended it, not dwelling on the ironies in middle-class American embrace of Rastafari.
In my subsequent days in Terraba, I stayed in one of the larger residences in the village. The father of the house was deeply involved in the project of recovering lost elements of Terraban language and culture. He explained that over the course of centuries of outside occupation and influence, the powers of their ancestors, rooted in spiritual and ecological practices, had been weakened. Over the past 20 years, however, the tribe had been intensely dedicated to retrieving lost knowledge.
One of the most interesting and revealing interactions I had took place on my third day in the village, when a group of education students from the Universidad de San Jose came to Terraba to teach lessons in the Terraban school. One of the students, a 23-year-old girl, spoke particularly good English. I asked her to serve as a translator for my host father’s presentation of the book of Terraban cultural history, an impressive work of printmaking that describes, in both words and elaborate illustrations, the Terraban understanding of how the world came into existence and unfolds. The account of early interactions with Franciscan Friars was particularly interesting, as the Costa Rican student that was translating seemed to be a practicing Catholic – she wore large cross necklaces, and was at times uneasy about the content she was translating.
The Terraban creation narrative culminated with the current attempts to retrieve elements of cultural strength that had been lost. At the heart of this project of cultural recovery is the retrieval of what was repeatedly translated as ancestral ways of thinking. Ancestral ways of thinking, explained my host father, are rooted in a dedication to and identification with the environment: You are an extension of your environment and it is an extension of you. At the end of the day, you and your environment are in an inseparable relationship of mutual-dependence.
Thus, to hurt your environment is to hurt yourself: “We are the river, we are the mountains, we are the waterfall.” He stressed that the Terraban definition of what it means to be “indigenous” is rooted in such a way of thinking, not in one’s blood.
All in all it was a deeply rewarding trip. After leaving the jungle, I got in a couple days of quality surfing. Writing Venture Grants is a no-brainer. I highly recommend it. Thanks to CC for providing the opportunity.