Saturday, September 13, 2014

Hombre grande

It's still early, and we're all just finishing breakfast in our first morning in Kekoldi. Field pants, water bottle, camera: there's a checklist running in my head of everything I'll need for our plant
walk this morning. One final checkmark on my list: dousing with insect repellent. Our guide, a member of the Bribri indigenous group, waits as we finish getting ready. He has one cryptic comment for us: by the end of this walk, we'll know why the Bribri don't use bug spray. What does he mean by that, I wonder as I put on my boots.

Mosquito-borne illnesses are a huge problem in Costa Rica and worldwide. In the past few weeks we'd been learning about dengue, a disease spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which causes flu-like symptoms and, in extreme cases, hemorrhagic fever. We've learned about malaria as well, a parasitic disease that's also transmitted to humans by mosquitoes. It's a huge problem in Africa and South and Central America. Both of these diseases are especially dangerous in young children, and unfortunately there's no reliable vaccine widely available for either one.

Soon we're all ready to go, and our guide leads us into the forest. Every so often we stop and he points out something new: a vine that's full of water, and the tree species that green iguanas live in, among many others. We take notes as we go, interesting details to remember for later. The trail is well-marked but I'm glad we have a guide who knows where he's going. He asks us to be quiet so we won't scare away the wildlife. It's been over three hours (but doesn't feel like that long) and our guide stops for the last time. He picks some branches of leaves and passes them around to us. We taste it: extremely bitter. At this point I've forgotten his earlier comment about mosquitoes, but then he reminds us: this plant is the reason that the Bribri don't get bitten by mosquitoes. It's called Hombre Grande and they dissolve it in water and drink it. Once it circulates in the blood: No mosquito
bites, no need for insect repellent. Just this bitter plant.

It's amazing to learn from someone who knows the rainforest this well. For the Bribri, the resources they need to prevent diseases like malaria and dengue are all around them. It makes me wonder what else the Costa Rican rainforest holds, secrets known by only a few or no one at all. There's a balance here, and indigenous groups like the Bribri demonstrate living within this system instead of drastically altering it. Human intervention has thrown off the balance in the world, but for now both are here in Kekoldi: the mosquito and the plant that repels it, coexisting.
Stephanie P.




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