San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Reaching China Kichá: The Story Behind the Photographs

WHEN I heard about the inaugurationof a new school building at China Kichá – aremote jungle village in south-central CostaRica’s Chirripó Indigenous Reserve, whereyoung school director Yorleni Leiva, likemany other teachers in Costa Rica’s ruralschools, has been struggling to findresources for her students – I felt it was amonumental event that I, as a Tico Timesphotographer, could not miss. Ever sincearriving in Costa Rica three months ago, Ihave been intrigued by its indigenous peopleand have found myself going to greatlengths to better understand their waysthrough my images.To reach the site, I was told to drive tothe town of Paso Marcos, where guideswould be waiting to take me on a sevenhourhike through the jungle to arrive atChina Kichá the same day. I’d be in the villagefor two nights to witness the officialopening of the new building, donated by theJapanese Embassy to replace the leaky grassstructure in which Leiva, her colleagues andher Cabécar students had previously heldclasses at the community’s first-ever school,opened last year (TT, Sept. 16).However, my instructions could in noway prepare me for what I was about toencounter. What was supposed to be sevenhours turned into two days – two days ofbeing tired and unsure, uncertain of mylocation or the distance to my final destination.And while my trek was at times daunting,I came to realize that what would be mygreat adventure is everyday life for the peopleof China Kichá.I left San José at 4:45 a.m. on Nov. 9 toleave time to finish the hike before the sunwent down; however, upon reaching PasoMarcos, the guides were nowhere in sight.When they had not arrived by 10:30, mytravel companions – an outdoor educationteacher, a lawyer and her friend, all intent onseeing the school – and I decided to beginthe hike ourselves. Upon crossing the firststream, we saw a horse and two young boysin the distance, only to learn that they wouldbe our guides to China Kichá.After an hour, we had already crossedthe Pacuare River twice, it had begun to rainand I was already wondering how muchlonger it would take to get there. By the secondhour, I had given up any hope of stayingdry; my clothes were drenched and Iwas wading through knee-high mud.I started to shake from the cold eachtime I stopped to wait for group memberswho were walking more slowly, so oneinsisted that we all walk at our own paceand eventually we would all meet up.That’s when things went wrong.To my surprise, when the sun began to set, I was nowhere near my destination.Each time I passed an indigenous personon the trail I would ask, “How muchlonger to China Kichá?” and they wouldrespond, “Very far.” After a while, Istopped asking and assumed that surely itwas just around the next bend, over thenext mud-covered mountain or rightacross the next river crossing.NIGHT fell and I found myself withoutwater or food, but more importantly,without light. Luckily, the outdoor educationteacher had slowed his somewhatrapid pace and had allowed me to catchup to him. Our other two companions,and the guides, were far behind us, out ofsight.I began to panic; the hike seemed moreand more difficult, and we had only moonlightto guide us. About two hours aftersunset, I saw a light in the distance andwas certain the small glow was comingfrom our final destination. We hurriedtoward the light, only to find out it wasanother school in another jungle community.I, however, could walk no further: myclothing was soaking wet, my shoes werefilled with mud and Ihad none of my belongings,having putthem on the horse atour guides’ insistence.We approachedthe source of the light,a house, and found aman standing outside.After speaking withhim, we realized thatour 13-year-old guide, Austin, was his son.He began to worry that the group had beensplit and sent a search party to findAustin and the others, and he introducedus to a woman who lived nearby.Upon entering her one-room house, itbecame clear that despite her hospitality,we were imposing. The house was madeout of sticks and had a dirt floor. She hadtwo sleeping mats hoisted up in the air, acluster of desks and school chairs and asmall stove. She immediately offered medry clothes and food. About an hour andhalf after arriving, we saw flashlightsmaking their way toward the house.Despite the rain and darkness, the othershad made it.AFTER being fed and discussing thechallenges we had just met, we all went tobed, exhausted. Because sleeping spacewas limited, I shared a bed with thewoman at whose house we were staying –so at that moment, I had used her dryclothes, eaten her food and was about totake over part of her bed. The generosityshe displayed that night will foreverremain with me.The next morning, we were back onthe trail at 5 a.m. and arrived at ChinaKichá shortly after 7 a.m., to be greeted bymany members of the community. For thefirst time since the hike began, I was ableto take photos. I worked most of the morningbut by early afternoon, I could nolonger stand without my eyes shutting,and trying to compose an interesting photoseemed impossible. After fighting off thetiredness for hours, I had to rest. I wokemultiple times through my nap to findschoolchildren and intrigued adults watchingme sleep, wondering who I was andwhy I was there.We left our location in the jungle assoon as the sun rose the next morning inorder to make it out before sunset. Duringmy hike out of the jungle, there was lessrain, but the mud was still there. I spentmuch of that day thinking about what Ihad been through.MY time in the jungle was the mostphysically and mentally challenging experienceof my 23 years, but it also taughtme about myself and my desire to producetelling images of stories that must beshared. And more than anything, I realizedthat what had come tobe a challenge for mewas everyday life forthem. Leiva, 31, has towalk out every two tothree weeks to take careof administrative mattersin the town ofTurrialba. Some of theschoolchildren’s parentsalso hike out of thereserve regularly to Paso Marcos or furtherto acquire supplies for the school andother items necessary for survival deep inthe jungle (all of which they must carry ontheir back, including school desks).While it may have taken me hoursupon hours to reach China Kichá in searchof photos, it takes others multiple trips inand out of the reserve in an effort to providean education to those who call thejungle home.For more information on the ChinaKichá school or other indigenous schoolsthroughout the country, contact YorleniLeiva at, or theIndigenous Education Program of thePublic Education Ministry at 256-2564.

Comments are closed.