Written by: Miriam Pape
After arriving in Playa Potrero only one week ago, my experience has mirrored my own first days of school 16 years ago. The nostalgic memories of learning the alphabet, making new friends and packing lunch have crawled back into my everyday routine. For me, school revolved around two things, recess and lunch-time when the school yard bustled with lunch swaps, down-ball tournaments and arguments over who was the cutest Backstreet Boy. Although we looked forward to all of these daily rituals, there was one activity that charged us with an unrivalled anticipation and excitement. Of course, the annual School Field Trip!
Last Saturday, 15 children and 10 volunteers traveled to Arenal and had the privilege of learning about the Maleku Indian tribe from a Maleku Indian himself. It was a special day of learning for all of us and gave us great appreciation for a different kind of Costa Rican culture.
Check out this slideshow of our trip to Arenal!
Luckily, this field trip was how I spent my first Saturday in Potrero. Unluckily, it meant a 7.00am departure. This definitely shocked my mind and body back into the present. Where I was zombie half-asleep in the front of the school bus, the kids were full of energy and literally bouncing off the walls. Thanks to the bus driver Mario who fancied himself as a formula one prodigy, we got to our destination, Nuevo Arenal Eco-Lodge in record time.
Nuevo Arenal is a tiny town in the North West corner of Costa Rica well known for the Arenal Volcano, lake Arenal, the lush forest and exotic wildlife. Creating a unique and rich ecosystem that draws nature lovers and tourists from around the world.
The bus dropped us off at the Eco-Lodge where we met our guide for the day Miguel. Miguel is part of an indigenous tribe, native to Costa Rica called the Malekus. Upon first hearing that we were setting off to visit the Maleku Indians I did not picture a young, modern clothed, Spanish and English speaking man to be our first point of contact. However Miguel, his people and their stories were some of the most enchanting and magnetic I have heard.
The Maleku Indians, although not recognized by the Costa Rican government, are the indigenous to this region. After living as hunters and farmers for many years, Miguels ancestors were unable to sustain the hunt and instead turned solely to farming. They began to connect, spiritually, with Mother Nature and the medicinal properties exerted through numerous plant species found in the forest. Common sicknesses such as a cold or headache were cured by composing natural medicines.
During the last century contact was made with different people, food, language and dress and the plants took on more serious diseases such as Rheumatism, Diabetes and Cancer. Miguel enticed us all with his knowledge of the different medicinal purposes and toxicity of certain species. At this stage he used volunteer Anna to demonstrate the rapid effects of a plant called “The mother-in-law killer’. After rubbing a single leaf on her unsuspecting arm her skin started to bubble and red welts appeared. We were all mesmerized and thanked our lucky stars that we weren’t in Anna’s shoes.
Once arriving in a traditional Maleku house, the last destination of our tour through the forest, Miguel explained the current situation of the Maleku’s and his own undertaking in the community.
In 1975 there was a struggle between the Nicaraguan people and the indigenous Maleku’s, which involved Miguel’s people defending their forest and sacred ground against the deforestation the Nicaraguan people imposed in order to gather rubber trees. The maleku people consider themselves to be the protectors of the forest. Sadly, this passion diminished their population from 7,000 to 250. Armed with only bow and arrow and up against guns, the Maleku’s were defeated easily.
Retreating once the death toll became so devastating, the Maleku’s were facing the prospect of extinction. In 2012 their numbers have risen to 650, however they are all related and as a result in recent years have began allowing outsiders to marry in, with certain qualifications, such as continuation of dialect, traditional practices and spirituality.
The history of destruction and revival unsettled me, inciting my fascination of Miguel and his community farther.
Finally Miguel spoke of his own desire to become a Sherman. This requires 25 years of study within the forest and he has 10 more to go before he is fully qualified for the role. At this stage he dazzled us all with a change into his traditional dress. Solely a skirt made from 2 types of plants, accompanied by letting his long, dark hair free from the tight bun he had maintained all day. The transformation was amazing and he stunned us all further when he spoke in his native dialect. This was the image I mistakenly assumed we would be met with.
Our trek through the forest ended with a beautiful, albeit cloudy, view of both Lake Arenal and Arenal Volcano. These two natural spectacles wielded a surreal and mystical aura, which reflected the ambience of the entire field trip. Leaving my moment of peace and tranquility at the Eco-lodge, I was brought back to Earth instantly when we boarded Mario’s bus for the 3 hour ride home.
I won’t forget Miguel and the Maleku community willingness to welcome and encourage us to enquire and learn about their way of life and the spiritual outlook they take. For all the Field trips I have been on during my primary and secondary schooling, I found this one particularly intriguing and thought provoking.