Two Cultures of Maleku

Guatuso Travel Blog

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Upon arrival to the Maleku indigenous community, the first thing I notice is the contrast of western culture and traditional Maleku culture.  Vividly apparent examples of this contrast are the two buildings that greet our bus at the front of the community.  A traditional hut, made of bamboos, wood, and palm fronds treated with smoke from a small indoor fire, sits right beside a painted house with a tarred roof and pained windows.  The two structures rest together, a sense of harmony radiating from each.  But still, the atmosphere seems confused; the clashing of cultures was obvious.
    One indigenous families house appears to be close to traditional upon entry.  It is one small room with space for sleeping, cooking, sitting, and bathing in their respective corners.
  Of course, in most 21st century houses, one would expect to see a refrigerator, a toilet, and a mattress for sleeping; all of these things are visible in the house. But certain things stand out among the cultural crafts and artwork that decorate the room.  A T.V. sits in the corner, a 'tweety bird' decal is stuck the a window, and a Victorian style sofa resides snug against one wall.  The opposing lifestyles of the Maleku indigenous tribe and the western world live in this house together, but they do not mix together in to one entity.  They remain separated, like oil and water in a bottle.
    One day, while out wandering through the rainforest, it begins to rain.  Excited by the thunder storm, children begin to play futbol in a muddy field.
  We join them and kick around a ball, slipping and sliding through the mud in our bare feet.  The air is full of carefree joy and freedom from convention.  All is glorious and random.  Our guide leads us to a river to wash our muddy bodies.  The river looks like a whirlpool of chocolate milk, frothy on the top; we jump in.  With brown clothes and scratched up feet, the group trails home for dinner.  I dry off in the barely enclosed bathroom and dress myself in dry clothes.  Before eating, my host mother notices my bare feet; she announces that the tile floor is dirty and suggests that I put shoes on.  It is shocking that, after a barefoot day of fun in the mud, she would express such an idea.  Again, the two cultures, one that appreciates human connection with nature, and one that emphasizes the importance of sterility mingle together without mixing.
  How is it viable to live two cultures, that contrast each other in such ways, consecutively?
    Some aspects of western culture have been introduced to the Maleku community, and have served the goal of preserving culture quite well.  The Maleku radio station for example, is used to play traditional music and announce community events.  In this case, western culture has melted right into Maleku tradition, and has adapted to the needs of the Maleku's.  Still, the amount of western utilities that have been used in this way, one that maintains the ideal of preserving indigenous culture, are few.
    The vast majority of western comforts I observed in the community are used in a way that directly diminishes Maleku tradition.  There are certainly ways in which an indigenous community may integrate modern conveniences into its traditional practice, but it takes more work than many are willing to spend time on.

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photo by: lilymichelle