Have you ever heard about the European Voluntary Service?
This is a project focused on young people coming from Europe who are interested in living abroad for between 6 months and 1 year in one of the 28 European countries with the aim of learning a new language and working in a non-profit organization.
Sometimes those projects, financed by the European Commission, embrace non EU countries such as South America, Africa and Asia.
In 2009 the Sardinian association Assonur advertised an announcement about a four-month eco-friendly programme in Costa Rica, and more precisely, in the rain forest. The project was aimed at sending four young people into the forest to investigate how it could be possible to match the increasing demand of rural tourism, the consequent coming of travelers to the forest and the need to preserve the environment and traditions. As commonly known, rain forests have always been the object of exploitation perpetrated by drug traffickers, industries, heads of state unconcerned about human rights and land rights of indigenous people.
Indeed, until 1989, no binding convention had ever been specifically addressed to indigenous people’s rights. Logically, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) guarantees the fundamental rights of all human beings but remains vague in terms of protection of indigenous people’s rights. The same applies to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. So, in 1989 ILO, the International Labor Organization adopted Convention 169 which outlines Government responsibilities in promoting and protecting indigenous rights.
In the last thirty years we have observed an increase in our awareness of indigenous issues and sustainable development in addition to an increasing demand of new adventure tourism forms such as in the forest. In this context the EVS project found its reason for being in evaluating and utilising natural resources as a means of support without losing sight of environmental protection.
Getting a place for this project became very soon a reason for living. I was very motivated, so, after a long stalking period during which I wore out the Human Resource Manager in charge (I am still very sorry about that but I had no choice) I was accepted by the Commission. Departure 8th February 2009.
“ You’re going to live in the rain forest?! Are you joking? Please, don’t tell me this is true. What did I do wrong with you?”
As always my typical Italian mother took it very well. She did not panic at all especially when she told my father, ”I think it’s your fault. You should have told her fables about princesses and not about your backpacking life”.
By the way, I had one month to prepare my family for the D-Day departure.
At the end, the only unprepared person was me.
When I said “Yes, I do” I did not know exactly what was going to happen. I was only 23, I couldn’t be completely aware of the consequences of my choice. even though now that I am 30 nothing has really changed.
I don’t want to be defeatist, but, instead realistic.
Everybody dreams of leaving it all and going away but when it is time to move, everything becomes…so real!
Being catapulted into the rain forest was an incredible social experience. But, one step at a time.
“What’s that? It looks like a piece of plastic”.
“Oh no, this is a snakeskin, he said in a placid voice in the same way you might ask for a pistachio ice cream.
Ok. No panic. No one looks terrified, so why should I behave differently?
“And what about those insects?” “Those are cucharacas”.
“Ok. They are are my Achilles’ heel. I can’t live with them. Really”.
The local children loved those sketches. They used to take the mick out of me by singing the famous song La Cucharas spiced up into a new version adapted to my desperate case of phobia.
Joking aside, Costa Rica can be proud of its rich fauna and flora which is the outcome of the encounter between species from northern and southern America hosting 5% of the world’s biodiversity.
35.000 types of insects – I don’t even know how I was able to stand it – and 220 species of reptiles.
With an area of 51,100 km², the country has become renowned for not having a standing army and for its high rate of literacy which is 96.3% according to the United Nations.
Being ticos, which means being native of Costa Rica, is not always easy.
In San Jose, the capital, the perception of insecurity is still high among people and robberies and violence are the order of the day.
Nevertheless, Costa Ricans have adopted an optimistic state of mind.
Pura vida, the famous salutation, is more than just a greeting. It expresses the need for carpe diem, typical of who wants to enjoy life by serenely accepting difficulties and social welfare shortcomings.
This approach is also carried by the eight indigenous Costa Rican groups who, according to the national statistics, make up 1.7 % of the total population.
Although they usually live separately to the rest of the population, the natives have a long consolidated experience in fatalism and struggle for existence. Despite that I had the chance to leave my habits and spend 120 days living with Brunca, Guaymì and Teribe peoples immersed in the middle of nowhere .
Frogs, Chickens & Co.
San José is a distant memory. I stayed there just to get a short training and to attend a presentation about the project. Four days after my arrival I was riding a horse in Panama to get to the first community, Guaymì, located in the Osa peninsula.
The journey took 4 hours passing through an immense tangle of trees, crossing streams and stepping on precarious wooden bridges. Upon arrival, I it felt like Christmas holidays, when I arrive at my parent’s place which is covered by a blanket of snow but is perfectly recognizable thanks to its warm light. And this amazing show was going to be my new Home Sweet Home. A lively multitude of people came to welcome the newcomers. Firstly, we had a coffee whose flavour I will never forget, we had some crunchy rice and we continued our public relations into the night.
The first days weren’t easy at all. Sharing a hut with four people somehow was difficult. Walking in the dark for many metres to get to the WC and eating rice and beans every day was a challenge for my fragile stomach. Sometimes I dreamed of a steak or of a normal bed, but, at the same time, I did not miss my mobile or my computer and wasn’t affected by the lack of external communications.
After that, sharing my life with other beings became routine. Of course, having a shower with frogs, chickens and a wide range of insects has never been the dream of my life.
Somehow it was a nightmare especially when I needed to be alone or when I tried to rinse my too long hair with cold water without saying any bad words.
But, to be honest, actually I missithose moments and sometimes I wish I could turn back the clock to enjoy the wild spirit of adventure but as it’s not possible I comfort myself with my memories.
Living in an indigenous community requires an open mind, the ability to adapt and hunger for change, capabilities which are not to be taken for granted.
Sun is the only life clock available:light is the orchestra leader in the forest. Sunset does not exist, and, at 18.00 everything becomes dark. And at this moment you realize how important light is to your survival, especially if you left your torch in your cabin and must walk for a while to get it.
Getting used to different customs is never easy, but the rain forest could be a great point of departure.
For this reason a 3-day mission in an isolated village was an unmissable occasion to forget who I was and dive into a timeless world. During the journey, the chef of the community found a sloth who was lost. With mastery and a cool head he helped it to find its way. The relationship between rain forest inhabitants is a perfect balance between respective needs and is supported by a deep knowledge of animal and natural species that would make even an expert biologist envious.
It is not infrequent for a 3-year old child to be able to distinguish different trees and plants.
Once I got there I discovered what it means to live in the antipodes. Typical colored clothes, smiling children walking to get to their straw roof school and women intent on weaving natural fibre to tailor bags and baskets. Words in this part of the world are not the most common way to communicate. A gaze could mean more than well-structured speech and a hug can evoke hidden emotions. People are not accostumed to noisy conversation, so, the best way to talk is to stay silent . Unfortunately this romantic scene was frequently interrupted by masses of garbage, such as empty coca-cola cans and crisp packets. After all, globalization has no frontiers.
What comes to mind when you think about indigenous people?
Not everybody has a clear image of what it means to be indigenous in 2015. The majority could think that indigenous people still don’t have any idea about what modernity is. Many others might think that being indigenous keeps out any forms of development and progress, which is not always the right opinion.
Terribe people, for example, have a washing machine at home and guaymì have a mobile phone and television.
But, there are some exceptions. In Costa Rica there are still many communities who have never seen a white man, like a small group of people located close to the sea who we visited during a 2- day mission.
A 93 year-old man and his wife received us by offering Chica, a beverage usually derived from maize. We had a long conversation during which the man explained that the 3- year old child was his son.
I decided to have more Chica, his long life elixir.
He had a dream: to build a bigger cabin to welcome tourists and get some money.
I hope he has changed his mind. This place is one of the last paradises in the world.
He showed us his lodge in front of the sea.
Everything looked perfect. The sunset, the children climbing to get some fruits and coconuts, the fish roasting on the fire and us. That’s all. No 5 star hotel could compare to that. I slept in a hammock next to the sea, a starry sky beyond and I felt alive and happy.
I filled up pages and pages of diaries. As a European woman it was not easy to have so much available time. I always had the concept that I had to make my days productive . Once I got there I learnt the art of doing sweet nothing. I accepted idle time and the fact that nothing was going to happen, even if, being honest, the simple fact of being there meant everything at the same time.
Living in the antipodes was a pleasant discovery. We might think that the world is such a big place that we don’t have anything in common with people who don’t share our same life experiences.
We can also think that a business man has different thoughts compared to an indigenous guy who lives in the forest or to a farmer
but, as always the first impression is the wrong one. We are all thinking the same:
struggling for happiness, looking for emotions, suffering for love and asking ourselves if we are doing well.
And that was the point of the project.
Sharing life, not teaching. Improving mutual knowledge and not imposing the same interpretation of facts.
The rain forest was only the side dish. Different coloured skin was only factual data.
That’s why I feel like I don’t remember anything about the places I visited. Because for the first time I really focused my attention on people.
And, as the famous photographer Sebastião Salgado said quoting Jesus: “People are the salt of the Earth”.
For better or for worse.