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New Span Helps Tribe Bridge Divide

September 24, 2010

For as long as Luis Carlos Pérez can remember, the only way to access the outside world was to forge a waist-high river. If there were rains, it meant children couldn’t go to school, appointments were canceled and people who were sick couldn’t get medical attention.

His Cabécar people, whose village is in the folds of the Talamanca Mountains above the Atlantic slope city of Turrialba, had asked the regional government for a bridge years ago. But fleeting communication, lack of funds and layers of bureaucracy kept the project at a stalemate.  

Then they met Anna Brammer, a blonde Peace Corps volunteer from upstate New York, who lived in the village of San Joaquín, an hour away by foot. Brammer became the missing link in bringing the project to fruition.  

During the course of the last few months of her Peace Corps assignment (a two-year posting), she stitched together the resources, the funding and the technical expertise to string a 52-meter footbridge across the Río Peje, a tributary of the Río Pacuare.

On the morning of Sept. 15, Costa Rica’s Independence Day, Brammer stood in the company of Pérez and 50 others from the tribe and watched as a machete sliced across the veins of a banana leaf, cutting the ribbon on the new bridge.

“We are happy. We are pleased. We are content,” said Pérez, pulling at every Spanish word he knew to express how he felt as he looked down the spine of the bridge. (Like many tribal members, Pérez’s first language is Cabécar, and he struggles with Spanish.) He said, “Life will be very different now that we have access.”

His speech at the inaugural ceremony was directed at a team of blue-shirted employees of San José’s Hospital Clínica Bíblica, who, together with the men from the tribe, installed the bridge in a short five days.

“The project was tough, but we are grateful,” Pérez said, as children bounced along the bridge and dogs cautiously tested its safety. One pup, which wasn’t convinced, took the old route through the water.

The Clínica Bíblica team was brought to the project by Alekcey Murillo, the hospital’s assistant medical director, in support of the nonprofit Centro Emmanuel, which serves to connect resources with the needs of rural villages near Turrialba.

He said the bridge “will result in an enormous change for the community.”

“Now they have access to education, emergency services, work outside the reservation and markets to sell their products,” he said.

What’s more, he added, as “this bridge addresses the number one cause of death, which is drowning. That is medication in itself.”

Asked whether the bridge could have negative consequences, as greater exposure to the outside world threatens the Cabécar language and culture, Murillo shook his head and said, “The community was asking for this. They want access.”

Murillo said Brammer’s presence was key in moving the project forward. She was the outside world’s link to the indigenous community, which in many ways remains isolated, without phones or radios. She also coordinated fundraising efforts, applied for and received grant money, and patiently sat behind the community as it took the driver’s seat.

“It was hard,” she  acknowledged. “There were bleak moments when we didn’t have the technical expertise to make the project happen. It took a lot of faith.

“But, in the end, I just feel happiness; happiness to see the bridge done and happiness knowing it will last 40 years.”

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