We went on a very unique kind of hike with a group of students from Beacon High School, New York City. We decided to take our long time employee, Victor with us to learn a little about cultural history of the area. Victor grew up on a farm in the Talamanca mountains. He eventually sold the farm to Ian and Genevieve and it became Cloudbridge North, a part of the Cloudbridge Reserve.
We weren’t sure if Victor would be interested in taking part in facilitating a history lesson on what his life was like growing up here and then later farming the property. He willingly volunteered to do it for the students.
He told us about the difficulties of living so far from the closest community (Caanan) and the challenges of a lifestyle in isolation. There were no roads, only a very narrow trail leading out of the mountain area. The bridge across the river was a very long log that was washed away every year in the rainy season and had to be replaced. They couldn’t even use horses on this trail and so the trip into town was always on foot. One person from the family would go in once every 8 days to sell palmito (heart of palm) harvested from the palm trees to make money for the purchase of a few supplies. They didn’t sell any of the produce that they grew as they needed all the food they could get for the large family. He said he remembers often being hungry. With deep emotion he repeated throughout the conversation that it was a very difficult life. One of the students asked him what games they played as children. He said that he couldn’t recall playing, only working every day. Health care was non-existent as they were too far from any hospital. “If you cut your finger off you just hold something over it”. There were many diseases that took the lives of people because they couldn’t get treated. He lost five of his siblings.
After Victor gave us some background information we all hiked up through Cloudbridge to what remains of the little house in the mountains. It is a one room building with a roof but not much for walls. They slept just on the floor which was the bare ground. “We slept on the soil” he said. There remains some remnents of a very simple life – Rocks arranged in the corner for cooking on, and a few pots and pans.
I looked up at the giant Tirra (Mexican elm) tree near the house and asked him how big was the tree when you were young. “It was just as big when I was young” he said. That must have been one of the trees that didn’t get cut down. Maybe they saved it for shade and shelter. He told us how they cut down most of the forest on their land because they needed to grow food. We asked him if they felt any remorse for cutting down the forest. He said no they were very poor and needed to eat. They chopped each of the huge cloud forest trees with only an axe. Some trees took two days to fell. The wood was burned. Once the land was cleared they planted beans, squash, potatoes and other vegetables. They also had a couple of cows for milk.
The students wanted to know what they ate besides the vegetables. He said “Anything that lived in the forest….monkeys, tapirs, peccaries, pizotes, birds etc.” They ate it all! He said that they were hungry and so it was all delicious.
Victor expressed his need to give his children a better life. He is very proud of the work he does at Cloudbridge and the opportunity to provide his family with a better home and education. He has no formal education as they lived too far from any school. He understands the importance of education for his children so that they can have a less harsh life with more opportunities to choose from.
Victor has a vast knowledge of the forest and the environment and Cloudbridge is fortunate to have him. Cutting down the forest was for survival. Ironically he now plants trees back where they were taken out and he knows the reasons why. He talked about what he called ‘Gringo technology’ meaning that foreigners have helped the reforestation process with their knowledge of environmental issues and global perspective. He explains to the students that it is important that he tells them his story so that they will know how hard life was for people years ago and how important it is to protect the forests. He explained that the rivers were contaminated when the trees were removed. The soil and the ashes from the trees washed into the water. Now the rivers are once again clear.
As we walked back down from the mountain I caught a glimpse of Victor momentarily stopping and looking back. He seemed to be deep in thought. I think he enjoyed sharing his story and it probably brought back memories that he hadn’t thought about for quite some time. He has given the students a lot to think about as well. This is an experience we won’t forget.