By Alexandra Kauffman
I am an undergraduate at the University of South Carolina, still in the process of discovering what I’m truly passionate about. I already know for certain that I want to promote good healthcare for people, no matter what form it ends up taking.
This past summer, I had the opportunity to take a Global Health-oriented trip to San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica. We visited the Quitirrisi Indigenous Reserve, which is nestled on a mountainside about an hour’s drive outside the city. It is one of 24 indigenous reserves in Costa Rica; this one is home to around 1,800 Huetar people. Our Huetar guide explained the history of his people to us in Spanish. Although much of their culture, including their native language, has been lost, I was lucky to have the chance to learn about some of their traditional values, their healing practices including the use of medicinal plants, and their connection to the spiritual world through nature.
I was so deeply moved by this experience that I spent the hour-long drive back to the city reflecting on what I had experienced and writing down these thoughts:
Nature is calling to us here in Costa Rica. So much of what has been stripped away in our home country still remains in this preserved wonder. Here, we are made aware of the life that exists when we allow nature to grow as it pleases: miles of deep emerald green, sturdy security in the smooth bark of a tree, blood-red clay beneath our feet.
This single mountainside is a small reminder of what used to be, connecting us to what is still buried deep in our hearts. It is part of us, a cord that unites us all, and yet it has been forgotten by so many of us. Witnessing this today, it is impossible to deny that some spirit, some form of a God, exists in us all, however we choose to see it.
These incredible humans are connected to a spirit and choose to tap into its message—instead of trampling over their resources with self-righteousness, they honor them. They have existed in harmony with the natural world for thousands of years, eating cleanly, living purely, listening to what the earth is whispering to them, and answering its call. The Huetar listen to the earth, and give back whatever they have taken. They never take more than they need, and they have a symbiotic relationship with nature that allows them to flourish. This has worked well for them, because they have been here 12,000 years, while colonizers have managed to destroy much of the natural landscape in the past 500 years.
Each plant calls to us with a shape, color, or pattern that can mirror our own anatomy. They seem to be alive—curling up at human touch, reaching out with their outstretched limbs, or filling the air with their fragrance. They are showing us that they can heal us. Costa Rica covers less than one percent of the Earth’s surface, yet it holds 6% of its biodiversity. This is why our guide was able to walk ten steps and pick up a plant seemingly at random, a plant with curative properties. The plants might take the shape or color of the body part they healed: for example, a heart-shaped leaf would help cardiovascular health. This is certainly a different concept from the ones found in American medicine where pills and potions are the well-established treatment for ailments. Perhaps this was a reason that the guide’s explanations raised muffled laughter from the group.
Still, it is important to consider two things: one, many of our medicines are originally derived from plants, and two, the focus in the Huetar community is on prevention, meaning that the plants are used in advance rather than after an ailment is fully present. As the old saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” The Huetar people’s way of life clearly has helped them achieve long lifespans (sometimes over 100 years) and a sense of communion with the natural world that has allowed them to live off the land for thousands of years.
I believe that it’s important to at least acknowledge that there’s more than one way to practice healthcare. Mind and body are not two separate entities—both need to be nurtured and, most importantly, listened to. This comes with an awareness of what can be called spirit. To the Huetar, medicine is a spiritual practice. Their healers are chosen by God. The community wants someone who can connect with all of the people, and connect them to a greater spirit. The Huetar emphasize not just curing, but healing. They believe poor health is more than a physical ailment—good health requires the alignment of body, mind, and spirit. This struck me, since much of medicine in the United States today is seen as dealing only with the body. You go in to a medical office, you get a prescription, you come out. Little attention is paid to the spiritual and emotional health of the patient. I found it beautiful that the Huetar healers are not only knowledgeable about their healing practices, but they also connect with their “patients” and take the proper time to connect them to their God.
Whatever we call that spirit inside of ourselves, it deserves to be nurtured and fed and, most importantly, listened to. It will tell us what we need, what we are called to do, and how we can heal ourselves in a way that allows us to be fully human. Being at the reserve, I learned that there is a great power in discovering this hidden part of our hearts. I saw how our very own ancestors once viewed the world we occupy now—this tiny glimpse of our ancient origins has been kept alive by those who have never stopped listening. It is a blessing to be reminded of that, despite how much we have changed across the centuries.
And it is a blessing to realize that the way we have grown up is not the only way life can be lived. Each human heart holds its own unique range of experience, and yet every one beats with the same steady rhythm. I think it is very important to be open to other perspectives and to consider that our way is not the only way. Our differences are what bring new ideas into the world. We don’t need to adopt all aspects of other cultures, but I think the beauty of human nature lies in our ability to both express our own beliefs and to learn from one another. Maybe I’m not equipped to live on an indigenous reserve my whole life, but I can take some lessons from them. I can appreciate nature a little more, focus on my mental and spiritual health, and take steps for prevention before true illness develops.
With so many ways to become involved in healthcare, I’m left wondering about the choices I will be making. I’m grateful for what I have learned from the Huetar about really listening for answers, and realizing that true health comes from within.
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Alexandra Kauffman is an Honors student at the University of South Carolina, pursuing a Bachelor’s of Science in Public Health with a minor in Biological Sciences. She seeks to combine science and spirituality to advance human rights and understanding. She calls Cincinnati, Ohio home.
The image that accompanies this post is from pxhere.com.