Standing next to her family’s water pipe, 4-year-old Sandra winces at her first encounter with the fresh, strong taste of toothpaste.
Living in her remote home in the jungle-covered Chirripó Indgenous reserve, she is a seven-hour hike away from the nearest shop that sells such things as a toothbrush and a tube of Colgate.
Her unevenly spaced and slightly browned teeth are experiencing this today thanks to a Christmas donation of toothbrushes and small toothpaste tubes from a Western well-wisher.
The art of toothbrushing has just been demonstrated to her and 15 other squatting children by Daniel Montoya, who puts as much energy into the lesson as if it were a revolutionary new invention.
“Brush forward, back, forward, back. How do you say teeth in Cabécar?” Montoya asks through a mouth of foam.
Montoya and his colleague Hector Soto started coming to the reserve after they received an unexpected knock on the door of their Christian mission, Voz Que Clama in Tuis, Turrialba. A Cabécar chief was standing outside, asking them to help his community.
There are few people who will spend the energy to visit the remote community, and the villagers often feel forgotten by the rest of the country.
Indeed, in a recent United Nations survey, 77 percent of Costa Rica’s inhabitants admitted that they did not know that 22 indigenous territories exist within the borders of their country. 73 percent of the very few indigenous people left in Costa Rica live within or close to these territories, keeping them largely separated from the Tico majority.
For Soto, Monotya and their 12 volunteers, the journey here started the day before with a three-hour drive in the back of a truck, up a dirt road to the village of Quetzal.
From there it is a two-hour downhill hike to the valley bottom on trails just wide enough for a horse to pass between the banana palms.
The boulder-covered valley is easier to navigate in the current dry season, but the group still wades through eight streams, some up to their knees.
Three hours of negotiating rivers brings them to the “zip-line.” A high wire attached to tree roots on either side of the riverbank is the only way to make the final crossing of the fast-running Chirripó.
It is a rudimentary little brother to the canopy tours that dot Costa Rica’s eco-lodges, and safety regulations certainly do not apply. A metal runner made of two wheels and two hooks is balanced on top of the wire, while the passenger slings a loop of rope around himself to make a seat.
The rope is looped onto the hooks, and the passenger holds on for dear life as their body swings out over the river.
Carrying the gear across this is the hardest part, and frequently rucksacks, sleeping bags, and work tools fall to their doom in the swift current.
Everything that makes it successfully across the river is carried another 40 minutes to the chief’s house, the end of the journey.
Despite the fact that it is something of an eco-adventure in itself, tramping through some of Costa Rica’s finest mountain scenery with not a house or a car in sight, this is certainly not a tourist destination.
The four or five other people encountered on the long hike are all Indigenous, leaving the reserve to sell bananas or beans, to find farm work or make an emergency trip to the doctor.
Coming straight from the smog, office blocks and supermarkets of San José, visiting this community is like stepping over the border between two completely estranged worlds.
This is pretty much as remote as it gets. There are no incongruous satellite dishes threatening to topple the precarious huts, no televisions, no cars, no newspapers, no radio.
“Welcome to the Hotel Presidential,” Soto jokes as he shows his volunteers into a hut made of thin wooden poles of caña brava — the “best hut in the village.” Light streams through the gaps between the canes, but a raised platform of caña brava across most of the room provides for a sizable group of people to sleep.
“Have you ever seen anything like this?” asks Tico volunteer Samya, as she is led towards the bathing area, in a chilly stream just uphill from the huts.
Within her own country, not so far away from her hometown of Tuis, people are living with lavatory facilities that consist of an open-air toilet placed over a deep hole dug into the field. To shelter the bathroom-users modesty, a single piece of corrugated iron leans over the toilet at an angle.
The smell of wood smoke suffuses the small clearing around the collection of three huts. In the three-room house where a family of some 25 people lives, women cook on an open fire in the chimneyless kitchen. The smoke drifts through the house and into the children’s’ lungs, provoking a high incidence of asthma.
Asthma attacks in a place where there are no inhalers are serious enough to call the government’s hospital helicopter, which will also fly out for difficult births. It will airlift emergency cases out of the reserve, but calling it involves a radio, something this community doesn’t have. They must walk an hour to Colonia, the biggest town on the reserve, before they can call for help.
Unlike in other Latin American countries, Indian people here are an almost invisible minority. Around half of Guatemala’s population is indigenous, while Costa Rica’s share represent only 1.7 percent of the population, and for too long the government ignored their needs.
Indigenous people only became official citizens of Costa Rica in 1991, when they were given permission to have a cédula (identification number) with the free social security that implies.
Three years later, the Departmento de Educación Indigena was created by the Ministerio de Educación Publica, in an attempt to provide the same access to education to the Indian populations as those in the rest of the country receive.
Most of the 100 or so children in Chief Arnoldo Segura Cespedes’ dispersed community of 180 do go to school, but the difference in the quality of education is obvious in the Spanish levels of some of the children. 11-year-old Daniel could not answer when asked if he had eaten breakfast yet, and Sandra’s vocabulary extends only to words such as arroz and naranja.
Cabécar is very much the mother tongue. Other Indigenous languages such as Boruca are dying out in Costa Rica, but 50 percent of this reserve’s residents do not understand any other language than their own.
Illiteracy rates in the indigenous territories are still at a third-world 30.2 percent of the population, while the country-wide average outside the territories is a very respectable 4.5 percent, according to U.N. Statistics.
Cespedes cites the intense remoteness from the outside world as the biggest obstacle to the community’s development. He only leaves the reserve every two to three months himself, and some may never leave.
It is simply too difficult to make journeys out of the reserve carrying crops to sell or to return with building materials. This makes Soto and Montoya’s input crucial. Their approach, talking with the chief to decide the best way to move forward, makes a more personal, hands-on difference than central government programs.
Small steps, such as bringing toothbrushes, gradually help to make life easier. The model house, being built with wooden boards next to the caña brava hut, will soon show how houses can be made with chimneys, providing a smokeless room for cooking.
Volunteers from EARTH University will also be reviewing the land, to suggest crops that the fertile land would easily produce, varying the diet of bananas, maize, beans and rice.
While the United Nations Children’s Fund survey demonstrated how little ordinary Costa Ricans know about the Indian communities, it also showed that they are open to finding out more. Nine out of 10 agreed that modern Costa Rica could learn something from Indian culture, with traditions such as respect for elders and natural medicinal techniques.
Small ventures such as the mission provide a cultural exchange from which both populations can benefit.