Exploring food with the Bri Bri tribe

Harmony Head of Food Innovation Maureen McNellis shares her personal experience of a memorable trip earlier this year with Chef Pablo Bonilla from San Jose. Together they spent 6 days in the Caribbean jungle on the indigenous reserve of Amubri, home to the BriBri tribe in Talamanca.

Pablo Bonilla, a Costa Rican chef, has dedicated his career to exploring Costa Rica’s rich gastronomic culture. Not well known to most of the world, or even to most Costa Ricans, his work to preserve local gastronomy has led him to those few who have managed to preserve their ancestral traditions. Amubri is home to the BriBri, indigenous tribes of Talamanca located on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. Here he has spent time developing relationships, exploring and studying their deep ancestral wisdom and connection to food. I had the privilege to join him on one of his trips.

Upon arrival we had to take a “panga” boat to get to Amubri, where members of the tribe go to exchange two of their main exports, bananas and cacao. But 2 days of heavy rains had swollen the river, and the water was flowing with such extreme force that we had to change plans and make a detour. It was en route to an alternative crossing that I experienced something I will never forget.

Packed into the back of a rickety pick up truck covered with a plastic tarp, I held on tightly as we passed through the lush and vibrant jungle. As I took in my surroundings, I noticed that the people we were passing by were exuding something I can only describe as a deep sense of joy. It shook me. Why was this message so vivid? How could I know this in the back of a truck just passing through? These people were deeply happy in a way that is not often so palpable, and now I was curious and determined to find out, why?

During the rest of our trip, we foraged, cooked, ate and took in our peaceful surroundings. There was nothing to worry about, except for perhaps making sure we had wood to start a fire for the next meal or not be devoured by mosquitos or other wild unfamiliar insects. We ate so much and each experience was magic.

Roots, tubers, plantains, beans and sometimes rice accompanied small portions of either pig, chicken and even duck. The proteins were not the main focus of the plate, and what we often think of as “side dishes” were the stars of the show. We had hot drinks of Cacao in the morning, when it was available, prepared by the women who sang in ritual. Herbal teas sourced for medicinal purposes and fruit “frescos”, all made with such love and respect for its source. Everything was cooked by the open fire, and everything had hints of smoke and caramelized charred bits.

We were taken on a tour with one of the elder medicine men. He knew the function of every plant on this excursion into the jungle. If it wasn't medicinal, it was edible or useful to them in some way. The respect and understanding he demonstrated around his jungle apothecary was astounding. I was starting to understand...

I learned about the “Awa’s”, the shaman elders who often took long trips into the jungle, in solitude, for days, in order to receive messages from this natural world. This elder clan is looked to for poignant insight, useful to our humanity and the healing of our planet. Sacred meditation and ceremony take place in a “casa conica” or cone house, symbolic to their ‘cosmo vision’, or understanding of the spiritual world.

Roger and Heider, our two guides for the trip and most hospitable hosts, dedicate their efforts to preserving their almost lost traditions through eco tourism. Their care for humanity and the wisdom they hold and want to share is their main motivation to host others into the reserve. Their mission to maintain their traditions and to continue their regenerative and organic understanding of working with the natural abundance of their land is what inspires them.

Throughout the trip they gave us seeds of their precious resources, in hopes that we will pass on this act of generosity and reciprocity, each one of their fundamental and core beliefs.

The unique differences and purpose of each of the different clans in the tribe, the abundance of resources, respect and connection through reciprocity, the beauty of giving and receiving so freely...all of this is what I realized was at the root of the deep seated joy I was able to feel, just passing through.