15 April 2011


We are in Costa Rica, but a lot happened before we got here (and a lot has happened since we got here, hence the lag in blogging). I will warn you now that there are, unfortunately, no pictures from the second part of our trip. After we had arrived in Costa Rica our external hard drive, where those pictures were saved, fell on the floor and we can’t access anything on it. It has been to several computer doctors and no one can save our pictures and music. After hearing the symptoms (making an unhappy noise when turned on) a friend of a friend, who knows about this sort of thing, suggested putting it in the freezer in a Ziploc bag, then trying to retrieve the data from the disk. Haven’t tried that yet, but we will, and hopefully then we’ll have some pictures of Belize to share. Until then I’ll try to paint you a mental picture…

I got sick at the end of our time in Playa, I had the symptoms of dengue fever so I got tested but it wasn´t. That was good news, but it was still a wicked flu that was not fun. That delayed our arrival in Belize a little, but we finally crossed the border on October 14th. We caught a bus in Playa, the earliest one we could catch, thought we were going to miss it when we couldn´t get a taxi. We took the bus to Chetumal, where we would catch another bus all the way to Belize City. We had some pesos left but needed more to pay the exit tax at Mexican immigration, unfortunately BOTH of the ATMs in the bus station were broken and there wasn´t another one anywhere nearby. The people at the bus station said there was an ATM that we could use at the border, that the bus would wait for us, no problem. So we boarded the bus and asked both the driver and the conductor again about the ATM situation and they assured us there would be time at the border for everyone to do what they needed to do before the bus headed on to the city. There were only seven people on the bus, all tourists. We got to the border and Koki and I followed the conductor across many lanes of traffic, past immigration officials, armed soldiers, etc. to the ATM, where we took out the money we needed to pay Mexican immigration. Much easier than we were expecting. Back across multiple lanes of traffic, armed officials, cars being searched underneath with mirrors, people waiting, etc. to the Mexican immigration post, where we were told that we had to go to the bank and pay our exit tax, we couldn´t pay it there because we had been in the country more than seven days. Sure would have been nice if someone had told us that when they asked how long we were going to be in Mexico and stamped our passports. The bank was right next to the ATM, so back across all the lanes of people waiting, getting searched, protecting the border, etc. to the bank, where it took around 15 minutes to type our names into a computer and print a receipt. A long time considering the task, but really not that long in the grand scheme of things. Back across again, each time we hurried as much as we felt like we could without looking like we were trying to run across the border. When we got back to the Mexican immigration post where the bus was parked we saw the bus driver and conductor unloading our big backpacks from the luggage compartment and setting them on the sidewalk, they were about to leave us. We were upset (understandably, if you ask me) and told them that, but they seemed to think they had every right to leave us since we had taken too long and everyone else was done already. Gee, too bad we hadn´t checked ahead of time about a time limit at the border! So, we convinced them to wait while we got our passports stamped. When we handed the Mexican immigration official our passports he pointed out that Koki´s little receipt from the bank wasn´t there and that he had to have it (that was what all the running around was about after all). So, Koki had to go back to the bank, yet again, to try to find his receipt. It wasn´t on the ground anywhere and when he asked the slow bank teller the guy chuckled heehee oh its right here haha. Not funny, but at least that was it. After that it was easy, got out of Mexico and then had to go through Belizean customs, thank goodness they didn´t hold us up because I think the bus really would have left us then, during the loading and unloading of our bags to get through customs there were definitely some strong, loud words exchanged between us and the guys from the bus, in Spanish, English, and then them saying who knows what about us in Creole. It was very obvious we had crossed a border and were in a different country when we arrived in Belize, unlike our crossing into Mexico where Laredo, TX and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico are extremely similar. Many colorful clapboard houses (not just concrete), houses few and far between; the population of Belize is less than 350,000.

We ended up arriving in Belize City well before the scheduled time. Too bad we had told the farm manager, who was in Belize City that day, the scheduled time, and she wasn´t going to be there that late. Turns out she was still in the city and could have picked us up if we had known that the bus was in fact in a hurry. Oh well, all part of the adventure. The city is interesting, definitely a city, but not one with skyscrapers, around 70,000 people, lots of wooden houses on stilts interspersed with larger concrete buildings, right on the water. We were too late for the last bus to Rancho Dolores, the village closest to the farm where we were headed, so the farm manager told us to catch a bus to Bermudian Landing, another village near Rancho, and that she would pick us up there. The last bus was supposed to leave at 8pm, but when we started asking around at about 6pm, we learned that not only was the last bus not at 8pm, the only bus headed to Landing that night was leaving at 8:50pm. Finding the place where the bus for Landing left was interesting, there is a bus station in the city but many domestic buses don´t leave from there, you just have to know or ask to find the block from which they depart. English and Creole and the primary languages in Belize, which you´d think might make it easier for a native English speaker to get around. Hmmm, not so. We asked for the bus to Bermudian Landing, and after turning down five taxi drivers who wanted to take us there in exchange for our first born, people would say, wha? So I would very clearly enunciate, Ber-mew-dee-an Landing, and they would say wha? The more I enunciated the less people understood me, until they would finally say, aaahhh! Bermadan Landin´! And I would say sure, that. We only had to go a couple blocks from the bus station but it took several rounds of this asking and answering and turning away sketchy taxi drivers for us to actually get there. We found the old Bluebird ex-schoolbus and the bus driver and conductor were very kind, helped us put our stuff in the back of the bus and asked if we wanted to wait there while they went to the gas station to full up the bus (that´s not a typo, that´s Belize) or if we wanted to go along, we could buy a beer at the gas station for the four-hour wait until we were scheduled to leave the city if we wanted. So, either watch our bags drive away on a bus, with no beer, or be with our bags and get to drink our first Belikin. We went along. When we got back to the ´bus stop´ we just hung out, talked a little with the driver and conductor, and enjoyed a Belikin. Its easier to enjoy the last sip of a Belikin than of other types of beer because the bottle is so heavy that it took me at least half the time we were in Belize to know when my beer was gone without taking a sip of nothing, thinking I still had beer left. Koki went to find a public phone to call the farm manager and let her know that we would not actually be leaving the city until 8:50pm and to find out if she would still be waiting for us. She said we wouldn`t get in until around 11pm and that was too late, but that there was a hotel we could stay in. That was not in our budget and she asked one of the guys who works on the farm and lives in Landing if we could camp in his yard. That would be fine, so we were to get off the bus at the Chinese store in Landin' and meet Frankie and Doyle. More and more people started showing up to wait for the bus, we talked to some nice folks. People say hi in Belize. Everyone who passed, from little kids to old timers, said hello. Actually they said good night, which was confusing at first, but then I realized that is like saying good evening at home. We sat at the back of the bus, near our bags, in the middle of a group of high school students (many students from small villages travel to the city for school at this age). One girl spoke to us in very proper English, but amongst themselves the students either spoke Creole or Spanish. Very interesting to hear so many languages at once.

We arrived at the Chinese store and got off the bus, not knowing how we would recognize Frankie and Doyle and a little nervous about being dropped off in what sure seemed like the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night in a new country. Doyle was there with a couple friends, very welcoming. We headed across the road to where we would camp and met Frankie. We chatted with them while we set up the tent outside the house. It was a challenge to understand Frankie, especially after such a long day of traveling and trying to concentrate on what he was saying while trying to stay sane in spite of the cloud of mosquitoes attacking me. They seemed very excited that there was new blood in town since they only seemed to be biting Koki and me, at least it was just the two of us jumping around and slapping ourselves and each other like fools. In the morning we got to hang out with more of Frankie´s family and we actually go to see where we were: a landscape with few trees, mostly pasture, few buildings, all scattered along the road that basically ends at the farm where we were headed.

Brooks, the farm manager at Spanish Creek Rainforest Reserve came to pick us up in the farm´s awesome 1981 diesel Toyota Landcruiser (4-door, chopped or something in the back so it has a little bed) from New Zealand (i.e. steering wheel on the right). Dream car, sigh!!! I drove it on the farm and it was not as weird as I thought it would be to be on the other side. Brooks and her boyfriend Justin have been living at Spanish Creek for over a year. They´re both ASU graduates - small world! We headed to Rancho Dolores, a village even smaller than Landin'. We arrived at the farm and drove through a jackfruit orchard and many acres of the 20 types of bamboo they grow to get to the where we would be staying. There is a large main house, screened windows all the way around, two stories, with the living space downstairs. We moved into the palapa right next to the house. There is another small palapa and a larger bunkhouse palapa where volunteers usually stay (as a couple they thought we´d like to have our own palapa, very nice). They use rainwater caught from the roof of the main house and also have a well. There is a butane stove with oven and a refrigerator, but the latter didn´t get hooked up until much later. All of the electricity is solar. Most of the time we were there we relied on an evaporative cooler: two clay bowls, smaller one nested inside a larger one with sand in between, water is poured into the sand and the whole things covered with a damp towel, as the water evaporates it cools the contents of the smaller bowl, so that´s where you keep stuff semi-cool. In addition to bamboo and jackfruit they grow avocadoes, bananas, platains, corn, mangoes, coconuts, cassava, okra, passionfruit, and citrus. Chaya (Mayan spinach) and calilou (amaranth greens) were growing like mad, yum! There is a garden that had just been reconstructed so there wasn´t too much food growing there yet, but we planted more. There are chickens, sheep, horses, a Rhodesian ridgeback named Cashew, Brooks and Justin´s dog Caden, and a little itty bitty teeny tiny kitten named Sapodilla. We arrived at a good time - Marc, the owner of the farm who lives in Miami where he is a tropical fruit farmer, was at the farm with his son Levi. We got to meet them before they headed off to the coast for the weekend, then we chatted with Brooks for quite a while. Spanish Creek is lucky to have such a great farm manager! We had a lot to talk about, not just Boone stories, we have very similar interests in sustainable agriculture. After Brooks headed home (at the front of the property, across the bamboo fields, about a ten minute walk) Koki and I had the place to ourselves. It is very peaceful, electricity is solar with gas generators for pumping water and for backup, so unless those are on you hear very little human-made noise. That is not to say its quiet, howler monkeys hang out nearby, lots of geckos, frogs, toucans, guans, anis, cattle egrets, and other birds.

The next day Brooks and Justin came back to the main house to see if we wanted to go to Caye Caulker, a small island off the coast north of Belize City. Obviously we said yes, got a few things together, and headed back to Belize City to catch a water taxi to the caye. Along the way we got to see what we missed on the bus and learned more about Belize from Brooks and Justin.

Pretty much everywhere has been logged in the not-too-distant past (wood gave Belize its value as a colony, first logwood, taken out by the Spanish, then mahogany, taken out by the British) and not many houses (the population of the country is around 330,000). Almost all the schools are private and have some religious affiliation (I think we passed on technical high school on the way to the city that was an exception). All the poultry and eggs come from farming communities of German-descended self-governing Mennonites. All the stores are Chinese-owned (there might be exceptions somewhere in the country, but this applied to every store we entered the whole time we were there); Chinese engineers were brought in during British rule to build bridges and other infrastructure. East Indians were brought to work on sugarcane plantations, African slaves were brought for logging, Garifuna people descended from Africans and indigenous South Americans live on the southern coast, people have migrated from El Salvador recently and from the Yucatan peninsula and Guatemala long ago. While many of these cultures retain a distinct identity, much mixing has also occurred. The cultural diversity of Belize is amazing, check this out for a concise overview of the cultural diversity in Belize. For my biology nerd friends: I´ll bet an analysis of Belize's cultural diversity would have a very high H value on the Shannon diversity index.

The first weekend we were there we went to the beach with Brooks and Justin. Caye Caulker was beautiful. We stayed at Yuma´s House Belize (formerly Tina´s), an affordable option on an expensive island. We saw a beautiful sunset from The Lazy Lizard bar (hole, but good location) at the northern end of the inhabited portion of the island (known as ´the split´). While we were enjoying some rum drinks we saw a sting ray in the clear water - way cool! We conducted some field research and we have concluded that Belizean rum will get you drunk. The island was pretty quiet, still low/rainy season, very hot. We had a wonderful breakfast at Amor y Cafe, yum! It was nice to get a real cup of coffee after encountering so much instant wannabe coffee in Mexico (don´t get me wrong, that´s what most of Belize drinks, too, but good coffee is one byproduct of tourism about which I don't complain). We hung out on the dock the next afternoon and swam in the delicious clear ocean water.

The caye is protected by the second-largest coral reef in the world, so there are not big waves on the island. Its more like swimming in a lake. I like playing in the waves, that´s the kind of beach I went to as a kid, but it sure was nice to just be able to relax and not have to fight waves and risk getting your face ground into the sand to get into deep water, just jump off the dock instead. After buying some snapper and lobster that had just been caught to take back to the farm, we headed back to Rancho. We hiked one of the trails on the property with Marc and his son Levi before they left for the States. It was beautiful, we learned more about the farm, and we got to check out the new wooden signs for different tree species along the trail. The forest contains many palms and many other species of trees, including poisonwood, whose sap can cause a horrible poison ivy-like rash. Nasty stuff.

The first week on the farm we worked on a few different projects in addition to morning and afternoon chores (which consisted of watering the garden, feeding and watering animals, collecting eggs, locking up at night). We planted the newly reconstructed garden beds with greens, tomatoes, eggplant, squash, beets, and carrots. We built a new compost area within the garden so compost can be dumped right over the garden fence and so finished compost can be easily moved to the garden beds. We built two compartments with chickenwire, open on the top and front. The bins later got removable front doors to contain the compost better. I rode a horse for the first time in many years, down the same trail we hiked with Marc before he left. We also built the stone foundation for a cob oven, which was going to be our main project on the farm.

We met some wonderful people associated with the farm. Monday through Thursday a crew of workers come to the farm. Neri, Tony (Neri´s stepson), and Arturo (Neri´s brother), are all from El Salvador. Nelson (Neri´s son, who replaced Arturo when Arturo moved away) and the rest of Neri´s kids, who we later met, were born in Belize. Frankie and David are both Creoles from Belize. Tony, his wife Chelly, and their son Jorge (three and adorable) live on the farm, but everyone else on the crew travels to Rancho to work; Clinton comes every Wednesday to work with the horses and having people ride them is part of keeping them in shape and ready for tours of the farm and surrounding forest on horseback (the farm is open to tourists, as well). Idolly and her daughter Rackel live in Rancho and work on the farm a few days a week. Idolly and Neri are two of the most resourceful and ingenious people I have ever met, and everyone who works on the farm has many skills. Neri's and his wife, Reina, have 5 girls: Yuri, Iris, Emily, Maleny, and Nelly, spanning from kindergarten to high school. They are a wonderful family and we miss them. Their reality when they were our age (three years ago) was a little different than ours: Reina was a grandma at my age.

Before arriving at Spanish Creek we had decided to be more flexible and if we were enjoying a place and not going broke too quickly, we should stay in that place. Hindsight is 20/20, and we realized we should have spent more time on the first two farms and less in cities. We were supposed to go to stay at Spanish Creek for two weeks and then go to another farm in Belize for two weeks, but after the first week we decided to stay our full month in Belize at Spanish Creek, its a great place and we had already made good friends there. Its nice to have this kind of flexibility, our only deadline was to arrive in Costa Rica by December 15. Until then we could do anything we wanted to (and could afford to!).

Our second weekend at Spanish Creek was especially interesting. We had talked about going back to Caye Caulker, we didn´t have time to see the reef which we really wanted to do while in Belize. Going to the Caye didn´t work out, which in the end was just fine… We learned of tropical storm Richard on Friday (we had been keeping an eye on tropical storms and hurricanes since we got close to the Caribbean, via internet when possible and with our crank radio/flashlight we got specifically for that purpose) and on Saturday we asked what we should do to get the farm ready for the storm. Brooks and Justin had already survived two tropical storms at Spanish Creek, and they said nothing, the tropical storms had never been a big deal there, one tropical didn't bring anything except clear skies and sunshine. Saturday the sky was crazy, clouds moving really fast, rain, a double rainbow, but nothing any worse than a thunderstorm. We learned that the storm was predicted to make landfall on Sunday, first they were saying Sunday afternoon, but on Sunday morning that got changed to Sunday evening. We packed up all our stuff in the palapa where we had been staying so that it would be easy to move if that became necessary. We hoped the animals would be alright, the kitten was hanging out with us in the house, Cashew was hanging out in the yard, and the little Mennonite chickens (bred to be in a closed chicken house and not in the bush) were running around the yard peeping as if they were invincible, as usual. We moved some things off the porch that might blow away and then just waited. Relative to other living situations there wasn’t much that needed to be changed in order for us to be prepared for a storm: we already had everything we needed to survive packed into our backpacks; although we enjoyed the benefits of electricity for a while each night, we didn’t depend on it – we cooked with gas, had batteries for the flashlights and kerosene for the lamps, and were used to living without refrigeration; we had diesel for the tractors and the (awesome) Land Cruisers, gasoline for the generators (one for pumping well water), and stored rainwater. The only thing that could have increased our preparedness (and sustainability of the farm in general) would have been composting toilets (the farm currently uses rain and well water and has to have waste removed from large plastic tanks and sometimes float out of the holes in which they're buried when it rains heavily).

After breakfast we started putting together a jigsaw puzzle of some hot air balloons with a background of blue sky and white clouds. We kept working on it all day, listening to Love FM to follow the storm, which was now classified as a category I hurricane. Shelters were being announced in different villages; there was a shelter in Rancho Dolores but we stayed at the farm, the animals were all there and it would have been quite a hike, anyways. It rained and the wind blew but still nothing too crazy until after it started to get dark. First rain started blowing in through the screen walls (the walls of the main house are wood up to waist-height, with screen above that). We had moved the table and other furniture away from the walls and moved our stuff to the couch nearest the center of the house since we knew (thanks to a smaller storm earlier in the week) that at least a little water would blow in. We covered the inverter and batteries for the solar panels with a tarp (that is all in a room with a screen wall, too, but luckily on the leeward side of the house). All the horses were huddled, all wet and pitiful, under the huge trees in the pasture near the house. We tried to work on the puzzle a little more by lamplight while listening to Love FM on the crank radio. We had the kitten in the house, she was just running around playing as usual, but Cashew was on the porch under a big chair and was being very respectful o the no-Cashew-in-the-house rule and refused to come inside. We finally convinced Cashew to come inside when the porch had turned into a streambed; she crawled under the couch nearest the door, which was slightly drier than the porch. After passing over the Cayes (the residents of which had been asked to voluntarily evacuate since Friday), Richard made landfall and actually gained strength! Things really started to get intense after 7pm. Waterfalls from the downstairs roof/upstairs floor formed so we did our best to catch the water in big plastic tubs. Trees started to fall outside. And the wind howled the whole time. Luckily the only tree that could really fall on the house, a huge palm, was on the leeward side of the house. At some point we realized the kitten was nowhere to be found, we didn’t know if she had found a good hiding place in the house (she already had several, like between the wall that forms the cupboards and the counter above) or what, until we heard her meowing on the front porch. She had somehow gotten out and was completely soaking wet and trembling. We dried her off with a towel from the kitchen that somehow was still not completely soaking wet from the rain blowing sideways through the house. She didn't try to go outside anymore after that experience. Furniture and doors and everything else that wasn’t bolted down started blowing around and banging against the walls upstairs. Needless to say, downstairs the puzzle didn’t stand a chance of staying together, or even on the table for that matter.

Our backpacks were getting wet on the couch where they were supposed to stay dry, and there was standing/flowing water covering the whole floor except in the center part of the house and luckily in the inverter/battery room. We decided to set up the tent, which has a waterproof bathtub floor and a good rain fly, in the center of the house which seemed to be slightly higher ground. I went in the tent and took our backpacks, the farm’s computer, and the kitten, we convinced Cashew to move from the river where she was under the couch near the door to under the couch against the wall, where there was only a slow-moving stream. The kitten was playing, or something like it, swatting at stuff but without any real conviction, probably as a distraction from the fear of the roof flying off the house, kind of like us putting together a jigsaw puzzle while we waited for the storm to hit. I kept an eye on the advancing tide while Koki swept water from the lowest corner of the house out the door. Koki and I could barely hear each other over the noise of the wind, posts and beams of the house creaking, trees snapping and falling and debris flying around outside, stuff blowing into the walls upstairs, and other noises we couldn’t even identify. The front door kept blowing open, despite being locked, until Koki put a full five-gallon water jug in front of it. We heard a few peeps from the chicks outside but there was now a wall of water coming down where we had last heard them, plus what Koki was sweeping out the door. I can only imagine they were saying “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” as they got hit with jigsaw puzzle pieces of the sky, along with the water coming out of the real sky. Koki’s headlamp stopped working and he had to use mine while I used the light on the radio. When the water finally reached the floor around the tent, in spite of Koki’s sweeping, we moved everything onto a table in the center of the house, covered it with the tent’s rain fly to prevent it from getting wett from water coming through the roof and running down the wall. I did not like being in the tent anyways, it offered no real protection and was one more barrier to moving out of the way if something fell. We made a bed for the kitten and covered her up with a towel. Luckily she wasn’t freaking out anymore or trying to play, both the cat and the dog were eerily calm at that point, probably shocked by what was going on around us. I helped Koki sweep water out the door and empty the huge plastic tubs that were filling up very quickly to prevent a complete flood in the house. Trees were falling every few minutes outside; we could hear them but when we tried to see outside it was pitch black, you couldn’t see anything beyond the doorway, despite being the day after the full moon and moonrise being a few hours earlier. (A few nights before you could have read a book outside it was so bright, and that was before the moon was even full!) That all went on for what felt like all night, but really was only a few hours. There was one pause, when we couldn't hear much, that must have been the eye of the storm.

When the storm started to let up a little (i.e., only the most ridiculous thunderstorm I’d ever seen now, instead of pre-Armageddon conditions) we could finally start to see something outside besides pitch black. When the sky lit up with lightning we could see a lot of it from the kitchen, very different than before when you could barely see any of the sky from the kitchen due to the tall forest canopy across the yard beyond the sugarcane patch. There wasn’t really any canopy anymore, just palm trees here and there, all tattered and torn. It took a while for us to feel comfortable going outside to check out the other structures and find a place to sleep. The floors of both round palapas were soaking wet and covered in pieces of thatch roof, but the larger volunteer palapa was in decent shape, so we slept there. Before we went to bed we were able to see four pairs of eyes in the sheep pasture (all sheep accounted for), but all we could see in the horse pasture was one of the huge trees where we had last seen the horses was on the ground, no horses around. We hoped for the best and went to bed, completely exhausted, glad to be alive. In the morning Brooks and Justin came back and we shared stories of the previous night, much different than the two beautiful, sunny “tropical storms” that had already weathered on the farm. Brooks and Justin live in a two-story 12 ft. diameter round palapa with screen walls like the main house. The center of the lower level is a cabinet and counter on top; they spent the evening inside the cabinet, the floor of which is a few inches off the ground, with water running across the floor beneath them. The solar panels at their house almost flew away, but they managed to strap them down just as they were lifting off. We still had electricity at the main house but not as much as before, which made sense when we realized that one of the panels had completely flipped over. Luckily the inverter and the batteries stayed quite dry in their room on the leeward side of the house.

That morning after the hurricane we thought for sure the folks who work on the farm would be busy cleaning up at their own houses, but everyone showed up right on time, they are a dedicated crew! We all got right to work assessing the damage and cleaning up the ridiculous mess left by Richard. We walked to the back of the horse pasture and found all the horses; one was lying on the ground and didn’t want to get up, but she finally did and seemed fine after that, probably just exhausted. The sheep were fine, as was their shelter that Frankie and David had been working on for several weeks. The garden beds we had planted were in pretty good shape, soil had been washed out in some places but structurally the raised beds that had been built before we arrived were in good shape. The passionfruit trellis had fallen over, not surprising considering the weight of the thriving vines growing on it. The chickens seemed fine and not at all upset by the fact that their palapa coop was leaning to the side at ~60 degree angle. Somehow 7 of the 12 Mennonite chickens survived! Interesting how something that is not a product of natural selection survived such a natural disaster. The screen on the upstairs of the main house was completely blown out and trinkets that had been on the counter upstairs were recovered from across the backyard during the week following the hurricane. All of the structures with thatched roofs looked like they were having a bad hair day with palm fronds sticking out at all possible angles. The house on stilts that was going to be Tony and Chely’s home was in fine shape, except that it was on the ground now instead of on stilts. Luckily they weren’t living there yet! Many fruit and forest trees were down, most of the bananas and papayas were down, most of the coconuts were leaning almost to the ground, and the forest canopy consisted of tattered palms. To see how well the palm trees survived was impressive, and then seeing the huge palms that had come down made us realize just how strong the wind was at times. The forest had changed so much that the howler monkeys had to take a new route on their daily journey in the forest. This new route included the remaining trees over the creek behind the main house, so everyday after the hurricane we got to see monkeys right behind the house! The same was true for the monkeys in Rancho Dolores and Bermudian Landing, despite suffering less severe damage than the farm. The driveway into the farm and all the pastures and orchards were littered with trees and branches, some of which had blown great distances from the forest. We helped the crew clear one of the jackfruit orchards, the driveway, and part of the road leading to the farm. This went very quickly with such an efficient crew, they are hard workers and very efficient with the tools available (machetes, chainsaw, tractor). We had to be especially careful of Poisonwood trees as we cleaned. Poor Justin is very sensitive and had a horrible reaction after dragging some poisonwood with a machete; he didn´t even touch it directly! As we cleaned up we collected orchids and bromeliads from fallen trees and placed them in the rainwater shower at the main house, something we plan to do in our future rainwater shower. There was lots of clean up in the house, too; sweeping, washing floors, cleaning all the pots and pans and dishes that were completely covered in debris that had blown in and come through the roof, drying mattresses in the sun, and approximately two tons of laundry. A fun part of post-hurricane work was trying to use up tons of bananas and green papayas that had fallen in the storm. Green papaya can be eaten raw in salad, or can be stewed and used like winter squash. We ended up eating a lot of yummy green papaya bread with candied kumquats after the storm.

After the storm and related clean up another volunteer arrived. Tom is a retired Army ranger, a WWOOFer for the past three years, and an awesome friend and housemate! We really enjoyed working with Tom and we hope to see him here in Costa Rica in the not-too-distant future. Before the storm Brooks, Koki, and I had built the rock base for the cob oven and with Tom’s help we built the cob foundation. With our feet we mixed mud from next to the palapa where we were building, sand the government nicely spreads all over the road for the taking (or at least that's how people who live on the road feel about it), shredded dried corn husks, and water to make our cob. Unfortunately we were a little overzealous with our awesome cob mixture and built a foundation so thick that it hadn’t dried several weeks later when we left Spanish Creek. Tom built a beautiful wooden door for the oven, hopefully one day it will get used. In addition to having a blast working with Tom, we took another trip to Caye Caulker with him.

On the way to Caye Caulker we had an interesting ride to Belize City with Brooks and Justin and approximately a quarter of the greater Rancho Dolores area population. Brooks, Justin, Tom, Koki, and I set off in Brooks’ and Justin’s pickup, the bed of which was about half full of trash (I guess I’m an optimist of some sort), something that is not picked up at the non-existent curb in Rancho Dolores. We stopped in Scotland Half Moon to pick up Neri and Tony, who had to go to the city for immigration reasons. We made a stop at Ellis', the Mennonite-owned gas station where you can get anything from diesel to livestock feed to fresh-baked bread. Between there and the Chinee (Chinese-owned general store) you can get everything you need to survive, except fresh vegetables. We picked up two more guys along the way and when we caught up with Nelson, who had left Neri’s on a bike while we were there, we picked him up, too. So, at that point there were five people in the cabin and five people and a bike and a bunch of trash in the bed of the pickup. That didn’t change Justin’s generous spirit and he stopped for a (very large) woman and her two young children. Somehow they managed to fit into the truck bed, but in the process the little boy ended up in Neri’s lap, on the opposite side of the truck from his mom and sister. No one seemed to mind, Neri held onto him as if he were a son, and mom and sis got as comfortable as possible on the other side of the truck. At one point the little boy had some serious snot running out of his nose, stringing along in the wind, but mom was all the way on the other side of the truck. Neri pulled out a handkerchief and cleaned it up without skipping a beat. Just a little anecdote I thought would help you understand the kindness we encountered in Belize.

The Caye had suffered less hurricane damage than the farm! It was incredible how much the environment had changed for other reasons in the two weeks since we were there the first time. It was obvious the high season had begun, not only by the higher prices by also by the extended hours of the businesses on the island. It was sooo much colder and windier than the first time we went. We took a snorkeling tour with Raggamuffin Tours and we definitely recommend them! Raggamuffin does half- and full-day snorkeling tours off of Caye Caulker and three-day tours to southern Belize, all on sailboats! We did a full-day tour which included, in addition to awesome snorkeling, fruit, lunch, and delicious ceviche and rum drinks on the quiet, peaceful ride back to the Caye. We saw so much, I wish I knew what half the organisms were called, but some highlights were green sea turtles, nurse sharks, southern sting rays, parrotfish, halibut, eels, and an octopus. The coral was beautiful and I particularly liked staying in one place for a while and trying to find the camouflaged critters right under my nose that were so easily missed; the octopus was especially cryptic.

Several other WWOOFers arrived while we were at Spanish Creek. Emma, Elena, and John were all great companions and hard workers, and we hope to see them in Costa Rica one day, too! While we were there, WWOOFers worked on a variety of projects: compost piles in the garden and chicken run, bamboo construction (shoe rack, garden gate, and lots of other stuff after we left), transplanting lemon grass, fertilizing fruit trees with finished compost, working on the sheep shelter, rescreening the upstairs of the main house, etc. etc. etc. And of course lots of hurricane clean up. I think all the WWOOFers who were at Spanish Creek while we were there ended up staying longer than planned; it really is a great place!

Our last weekend at Spanish Creek Tom, Emma, Koki, and I decided to paddle up Spanish Creek to its source. According to Brooks and Justin the trip would take a couple of hours and we would end up at a beautiful spring. We left from Chorro (the swimming hole), which looked very different than when we arrived since the huge tree whose root formed one of the sides of the pool had come down in the hurricane. We took out the two canoes, one of which was built to have a motor in back, but it did not have a motor, so it was just a sawed-off canoe – flat in the back and extremely hard to paddle in anything that resembled a straight line. We headed “upstream” (i.e., in the direction contrary to that in which all the debris on the surface of the water were moving, our only indication of flow on the flat water). We paddled and paddled and paddled and Koki and I made zig-zags across the creek (really more like a river) due to our inexperience in steering a sawed-off canoe. The water wasn’t really moving at all in either direction; it seemed kind of like a big, long lake. We kept paddling until it started getting close to sunset. The creek did not seem to be getting any narrower. We encountered an elderly lady fishing and asked her how much longer until the end of Spanish Creek. She informed us it was far, all the way to Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary. Oops, Crooked Tree is not where Spanish Creek originates, but where it drains! So, we headed back to the farm. We were frustrated but it was still a nice day on the water. We got to know Tom and Emma a little better and got to see more of rural Belize. We passed a house where a woman in the yard was playing guitar and singing, and a man was working on something down by the river and responding in song. We got back to Chorro after dark, somehow recognizing the tree through whose branches we had to maneuver to actually get to the bank.

After this (mis)adventure and subsequent disappointment we decided we wanted to go explore more of Belize. I didn't want to make you wait any longer so I'm posting this now, but there are more stories of wonderful adventures to come.

A little update from the here and now: Koki and I are both working as instructors with Ecology Project International here in Costa Rica. We love it!

I love to get feedback! Underneath this post you should find "# Comments", which you can click on and leave comments. Tell me what kind of stories you like hearing, I have lots more that I would someday like to compile. Thanks for reading, sorry I made you wait so long. I'll write more when I can, unfortunately my laptop died a few days ago and I have very little internet access, only between the courses I teach (in the middle of nowhere), so it will continue to be a challenge to communicate with you all electronically.

16 December 2010

Patience is a virtue

Hi everyone,

I know I owe you lots of stories, and you will get them, but it won't be immediately, I'm sorry. Internet was hard to come by for many reasons for the second half of the trip (enough internet to sit down and write a blog post). Koki and I made it safely to Costa Rica and our good friend Tracy is now here visiting. We will be busy hanging out with her and our family and friends here until the new year, but I promise I will write about the rest of the trip as soon as I have a day to sit down at the computer. The rest of the trip was amazing and I look forward to sharing it with you all. Spoiler alert: Koki and I both got jobs! I'll tell you more later...
Thanks for the feedback I've gotten from some of you. Hope everyone is well!


10 October 2010

Oaxaca, Chiapas, Quintana Roo (Yucatàn peninsula)

Hola from the sunny Yucatàn peninsula! Time to get caught up on our last two weeks in Mexico before we head to Belize tomorrow.

Oaxaca, Oaxaca

Oaxaca is an awesome city, words I do not speak very often. We arrived in Oaxaca last Monday afternoon. The trip from Puebla was beautiful, very different from anything I had seen in Mexico or anywhere else. Although I`m getting tired of bus rides, it is awesome to be able to watch the flora change outside the window as you travel. The cacti were especially interesting (Pachycereus sp.?). We had to take an alternate route through the city to the bus station because of a landslide on the normal route, which goes above the city. Early the morning after we arrived in the city of Oaxaca there was a much larger landslide in Santa María Tlahuitoltepec, a small village in another part of the state of Oaxaca. The heavy rains that fell in southern Mexico as a result of Karl and Matthew, combined with deforestation and overgrazing, caused many landlides, from small slides that might result in a rock or two on the highway to huge landlsides that wash away hundreds of homes and leave already impoverished people on the street, or where it used to be. In the city of Oaxaca there were collection stations everywhere accepting aid for the affected fellow Oaxaqueños. Luckily the death toll was not as great as was initially thought and it seemed impressive to me the outpouring of support from the community. I think the short-term aid of beans, rice, soap, bottled water, and money needs to be accompanied by long-term solutions, such as reforestation, more durable housing, and improved evaluation of road construction before landslides occur.

Oaxaca is a small, walkable city. We stayed at Paulina Hostel in the historic downtown. It was pretty nice; at least initially it was the polar opposite of some of the critter-infested hostels we`ve stayed at, as they had fumigated right before we arrived and we couldn`t check in until that evening. Not ideal, I try not to sleep on freshly fumigated mattresses as a general rule, and not all that effective at keeping the place pest-free, either, as they had standing water in several places and a very healthy (although very hungry) mosquito population. Although the place seemed clean enough, I realized that was just a facade. They closed the bathroom for cleaning on one occasion, but didn`t clean it. There was no toilet paper in the womens room for a day (apparently the supply truck didn`t bring it and going to the store half a block away to buy more wasn`t an option for some reason), not a problem for me, I`m used to carrying my own in this part of the world, but it meant that some other ladies used paper towels and threw it in the toilet. Surprise surprise, this clogged the toilet, which then overflowed all over the bathroom floor into the shower stalls. One of the employees managed to tear himself away from the soap opera on TV long enough to look at it and go back to the TV. So the toilet water just sat there until it dried up. I´m glad I always wear flip-flops in public showers! I recommend you all do the same, just because something looks clean doesn`t mean it is. On a brighter note the hostel had a very cool coy pond, a huge terrace on the roof (it would be way cooler if they made it a living roof!), and a very hearty breakfast (good thing, since there was no communal kitchen).

In Oaxaca we visited many shops that are like museums; the handcrafts and textiles of the region are absolutely amazing! So many colors everywhere. We saw many more indigenous faces than we had previously; although sadly many of the indigenous people, whose culture is responsible for many of the beautiful colors of the city, sell gum, cigarettes, etc. or beg on the street. I don`t even know how to start analyzing or solving the marginalization of the oldest existing population of the area. We visited one store specializing in wool rugs. I bought some yarn, handspun and dyed with natural dyes (cochineal, a type of scale on prickly pear cactus, is crushed and used for varying shades of red, for example). Someday when I win the lottery and retire I want to return to Oaxaca and learn to spin, dye, and weave. We also visited several museums, the highlight being the Museo de Pintores Oaxqueños (Oaxacan Painters Museum). The beautiful paintings are housed in one of the many colonial buildings with big, white columns, large rooms with large windows and balconies, and a central courtyard. We went to the textiles museum (aside from the history presented in the museum I think the textiles in the shops nearby are more impressive than the museum), several contemporary art galleries, and a photo exhibit (about half of which focused on documenting the violence related to drug trafficking in Mexico, very graphic and very depressing). We took a tour of the Jardìn Etnobotànico (Ethnobotanical Gardens) which houses many native plants from Oaxaca, a state that is home to seven of the eight life zones found in Mexico. The gardens were beautiful and very impressive, especially considering the short amount of time the space has been dedicated to this purpose (since 1998) and the very small budget available. Last but not least, we found a nice little bar down the street from the botanical gardens called Etnobotanas, cheap beer and a great Guatemalan bartender (better service there than some of the fancier places I`ve eaten).

From Oaxaca to San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, our next stop, is normally an 11-hour bus ride. We decided we were going to splurge a little and take the more expensive luxury bus to be more comfortable for our overnight journey. Unfortunately we learned (after paying for another night at the hostel in Oaxaca because we thought the luxury bus was sold out) that the luxury buses were not making the trip to Chiapas due to the poor road conditions (remember all those landslides?), so we ended up going on a bus like the others we`ve used in Mexico (which was just fine). Although it was dark out while we traveled, I managed to see some of the road, as well as some places where the road used to be before it got washed down the mountain. A little disconcerting.

Beautiful handcrafts in a Oaxacan market

Rug store where I bought yarn and learned a lot.

Endangered barrel cactus at the Jardìn Etnobotànico (800 years old!).

More cacti at the Jardìn Etnobotànico.

San Cristòbal de las Casas &; Palenque, Chiapas

We arrived in San Cristòbal de las Casas (Sàncris) early in the morning Friday before last. We checked in at Posada 5, where we were received by Yolanda, a very kind Guatemalan woman who is the soul of the hostel. We met some wonderful people at the hostel, both the owners (young Mexican men) are really cool, as were the other guests. This hostel had a kitchen, which was the heart of the place, as is the case in so many houses. We ended up sharing several meals and good conversation with the folks at the hostel in the kitchen, and just hanging out, playing music (snapping my fingers counts, right?), and drinking coffee, tequila, whatever. We did our shopping at the market, very close to the hostel, affordable, and with a huge diversity of foods. After not having a kitchen in Oaxaca (not to mention the one place that we did not feel completely safe in Oaxaca was at the market near the hostel), it was great to be back in our routine of shopping and cooking for ourselves. We walked around the town of San Cristòbal and visited El Cerrito, a small hill that actually has trees growing on it (although I don`t know if it does much in terms of providing any kind of habitat). There is a church on top of the hill, which shouldn`t come as a surprise, because there are churches everywhere, on top of almost every hill, Mayan pyramid, in front of every park. We went out dancing with some of our new friends from the hostel, live salsa, it was great! There are many other cool things to do around Sàncris but we couldn`t afford to do any of them, we`ll just have to go back one day. One thing we intentionally did not do was visit one of the many surrounding indigenous villages; I don`t like the idea of going to look at people living their lives as if they are some sort of exhibit, especially after I`ve seen so many indigenous folks who have not benefited from the introduction of western culture. If we want to preserve cultural diversity I don`t think introducing tourism to every isolated indigenous village is the way to do it.
After two nights in Sàncris we traveled to Palenque, also in the state of Chiapas but very different. Sàncris is in the Chiapan Highlands at 2100 m above sea level, chilly at night, thin air, while Palenque is in the humid lowlands, 600 m above sea level. The trip to Palenque was also disconcerting; it was light out so we could actually see the hundreds of landslides along the way and some rocks even fell on the roof of the bus at one point. It started raining just before we arrived which made us nervous, the land didn`t seem like it could take more water, but we arrived safely. The fact that bus drivers here seem to think they`re competing in the Indy 500 and not driving on pothole-filled, landslide-ridden, narrow, winding, unmarked Mexican roads doesn`t help much in these situations, either. It seems so obvious to me that the landslides are, in most cases, a direct result of deforestation, even the president acknowledged this in a speech after the Oaxaca landslide. We passed some areas where more trees were being cut and you could already see the miniature landslides and erosion taking place. Although it feels like it to me, maybe recognizing that cutting down trees and removing all the vegetation whose roots hold the soil together isn`t common sense. Education is crucial! I also saw a trashslide; what had been a dump on a hill slid down to the road below, like a landslide, but all plastic trash instead of soil. Who is to blame for that? The people who put the trash there? Yes. The companies that produce, advertise, and sell cheap plastic crap? Definitely. The government for building a road and no retaining wall? Of course.

In Palenque we stayed in La Cañada, the ecotourism zone of the town. It is mostly made up fancy, expensive hotels, but we stayed at Hostel Yaxkin, a cute place with friendly staff that we could afford. Thank goodness we stayed in La Cañada, where there are still trees at least, because the rest of town is all concrete, hot, and generally icky. La Cañada was pretty dead as it is the low season, which was fine with us. We didn`t do much in Palenque, we only spent one night and we are running out of money, so we hung out at the hostel and I started teaching Koki how to knit with some of the beautiful yarn we bought in Oaxaca. He is a fast learner! The next time we`re in Chiapas I definitely want to go to the Palenque ruins, I regret that we didn`t go but we felt we couldn`t swing it financially at the time and we would have been somewhat rushed.

Posada 5, San Cristòbal de las Casas, Chiapas.

Colorful embroidery in Sàncris.

Playa del Carmen &; Tulum, Quintana Roo

We took another all night bus ride from Palenque to Playa del Carmen (Playa) in the state of Quintana Roo on the Yucatàn peninsula. Wow, what a change. Even though we are still technically in Mexico, this is not a Mexican town. Ten years ago this was a sweet little beach town and the beach is still beautiful, but now it’s a huge city. Everything is super expensive (good thing we were frugal in Palenque, I guess), there isn`t even a market; instead there`s Mega, owned by Wal-Mart. This is the overflow of rich, arrogant, obnoxious tourists that don`t fit in Cancùn anymore. It is kind of like Miami Beach (from what I hear), but with fewer Latinos. I don`t even want to imagine what it would be like in the high season. I don`t understand why people feel the need to leave their home country if they just want to go somewhere that has all the same crappy restaurants and plastic crap made in China; use the money you`d spend on this trip to build an artificial beach and stay home! It is a challenge for me to be in places like this; I`m definitely not a native (there can`t be very many since this was only a tiny village until very recently), I`m not Latina, I`m white, I speak Spanish, I`m not rich, I`m actually interested in what this place was like before it became a tourist destination, in the local flora and fauna. I don`t really fit in with any demographic and I get frustrated when everyone tries to sell me crap, in English. The Gringos get blamed often for making this place what it is, but the blaming is often done by people who are benefiting from the tourism industry and perpetuating it. There is construction absolutely everywhere and the city just keeps spreading in every direction possible (it can`t spread into the ocean, but Cozumel and all of its tourist development can be seen from the beach). Recently in Tenacatita, on the Pacific coast of Mexico, the army came in with bulldozers and plowed down the palapas on the beach, palapas set up by people who make a living by selling food, etc. to people who came to visit the beach. The rumor is that some Donald Trump-type developer who owns a lot of property around this beautiful beach decided it is time to develop and wanted all those people out of the way. Most of the people who made their living on the beach at Tenacatita were not property owners, but apparently some of the property owners in the area and suing. I wonder if the development boom in Playa started.

One day we went to Tulum, towards Belize from Playa on the peninsula. It is not as developed as Playa but it seems to be heading the same direction. We visited the ruins, along with what seemed like the entire population of Florida, half of Germany, and about two thirds of Spain. The ruins are unique in that they are right on the beach; the inhabitants could see who was coming by sea. The structures were impressive, but getting to them required navigating through something that reminded me of Disney World. We got to see voladores which was cool, although the car alarms, noisy little train that takes people to the ruins, and people trying to sell you crap kind of distracted from what should be a ritual. We later went to the Tulum beach. Everything was super expensive and it felt like 90210 or something, we actually saw people leave the beach to go to their fancy hotels then come back out with different bathing suits on. The ocean was absolutely delicious, though, and the sand was almost as white as my belly. On the way to the beach Koki`s friend and our host here took us to a piece of property he owns in the mangrove, where we saw our first cenote. Most cenotes are pools in the forest or in the mangroves, holes of varying depths filled with freshwater and all connected by a system of underground rivers and caves. Yesterday we went to a couple cenotes where we swam and snorkeled (we really regretted not getting in the cenote on Koki`s friend`s property, but it was our first time and apparently a crocodile lives there and we chickened out). The first we snorkeled in was in the forest and had great areas for snorkeling, awesome fish and lots of dragonflies and birds. The water was cool and so refreshing; the closest thing I have experienced are the coldwater springs in northern Florida (which are also technically cenotes). The second cenote was partially in a cave, you could either walk through next to the water or snorkel, we did both. The fish did not seem bothered by the fact that we were standing, swimming, snorkeling, whatever right there next to them, they actually come up and nibble on your legs if you just stand in the water. I`m surprised no one has opened a cenote spa and marketed this as bioexfoliation or something. Words and photos cannot do the cenotes justice, they are truly amazing. It is really sad to hear that there used to be cenotes where Playa is now, they have been filled in and now having buildings on top of them, probably with swimming pools that aren`t nearly as cool as cenotes… they paved paradise, and put up a parking lot (and a Wal-Mart, and a five-star hotel, and a McDonald`s)…

Tulum ruins.

Tulum ruins from Tulum beach.

Cenote azul.

Cenote azul.

This hole in the roof of the cave opens up to the forest floor.

Fishies that like to nibble on your toes and legs.

We want to head to the beach one last time this afternoon and maybe to the international arts festival going on in Playa (something free!). Tomorrow we head to Belize. Mexico is a very interesting place, such a huge country in every sense. The Yucatàn feels like a different country than General Cepeda, and both are so different from Sàncris. I have had a wonderful experience in this country and I definitely plan to return!

Check out Koki`s blog, too!

28 September 2010

Farm near Erongarìcuaro, Puebla, D.F. (Mexico City)

I hope this blog post finds everyone well... I`ll catch you all up on what we`ve been doing over the past couple of weeks. The celebration of Mexico´s bicentennial continues, there are still decorations up everywhere, and of course advertisers are still pushing the whole thing as a reason to eat tacos, grow out your moustache, drink Coke, etc.


Wednesday before last we traveled from Pàtzcuaro to Erongarìcuaro. It was definitely an interesting ride; we caught a colectivo, which is like some sort of hybrid between a taxi and a bus. When we got in the colectivo van (about the size and shape of an old toyota van) there was only one other couple, but that soon changed. Of course we had all of our stuff, see pictures in earlier posts if you can`t picture this. The colectivo stops at deisgnated stops and pretty much anywhere else someone flags it down along the way, which seemed like every 50 feet. The driver stopped for everyone, despite the fact that after a while it would have been difficult to fit even a fly into the van, let alone an elderly lady with all her shopping, a couple of high school students, etc. After feeling like I was on the other side of the clown car stunt, it got to the point that even the people waiting along the road thought the driver was crazy for stopping and decided to wait for the next one. The driver seemed quite pleased, in his big seat all by himself, since it is a fixed fare, so the more people he picks up, the more money he makes. I counted 22 people in the van plus the driver at one point, and that was just the people I could see, there might have been another layer of people under them. I would have taken a picture had I been able to move any of my limbs enough to get the camera out. The moral of the story is that colectivos are an affordable way to travel, but if you aren`t comfortable with strangers sitting in your lap, or with sitting in a stranger`s lap, colectivos might not be for you, at least not at the hour that school gets out.

We arrived in Erongarìcuaro where we were picked up by the host of the second farm where we volunteered. The farm is not in Erongarìcuaro but the ride to the farm was a little more comfortable than the colectivo considering there were only three of us in the vehicle. We arrived and ate a giant salad and brown rice, which was a dream-come-true after all the meat and cheese and tortillas we`d been eating in the cities on our quest to remain parasite-free. Our friend Luis, who we met just before leaving the US and who returned to Mexico shortly thereafter, met us on the farm.

The environment was very different from El Chuzo; much more rain (although it only falls for six months of the year), mountainous, and different flora as a result of all this and the fact that it is much farther south. The farm was very cool. When our host purchased it there were some trees and a structure there already, all of which have been incorporated into the farm quite nicely. There are hundreds of avocado trees (another dream-come-true for me), many pear trees, peach trees, apple trees, quince trees, orange, lemon, grapefruit trees, herbs, bees, worm compost, some veggies (we planted a lot more!), and some more tropical plants like passionfruit and chile peròn (spicy!!!) in the greenhouse. The larger greenhouse is attached to the main house where the host lives and there is also a smaller greenhouse (a fenced-in area covered in shade cloth) in the orchard. There is a beatiful view of Lake Pàtzcuaro from the farm and, like on our land, you can really see the weather coming.

View of the orchard from the main house
Rainbow and (misty) view from the farm
Sunrise on Lake Pátzcuaro from the strawbale house loft window
Honey (sold locally)
There are many living spaces on the farm which also serve as examples of sustainable construction methods. The house where the host lives has several rooms to accomodate guests or housemates, a huge room for sleeping, yoga, massage, classes, etc., an awesome kitchen (for example: one rack for dishes to dry and be stored, we are definitely going to implement a similar system in our kitchen one day!), a cozy living room with a fireplace (that we used most nights), windows all along the south-facing wall, a solar hot water heater (to heat the rainwater used for showers and sinks), solar electricity, a bathroom with an Aerolet composting toilet, another adjoining composting toilet (of the more traditional style), and a large covered porch. This house is combination of log cabin and adobe, and an excellent example of how a traditional, existing structure can be retrofitted to have a smaller ecological footprint and be more comfortable and efficient. Luis stayed in the old stable, which has been converted to another living space (it has a kitchen, living space, sleeping space, composting toilet, and shower). Koki and I stayed in the newest structure on the farm - a hexagonal strawbale building with a loft. It has a woodstove and will soon have a kitchen, and it has its own composting toilet and outdoor shower. There is also a wood-burning sauna on the farm with an adjacent outdoor shower attached to an avocado tree (sweating in the sauna and then taking a cold, moonlit shower surrounded by avocados is pretty sweet).

Left to right: solar panels, greenhouse (attached to main house), sauna
Greenhouse attached to the main house, with solar oven and the top of a cistern in the foreground.
The strawbale house where Koki and I stayed.
Because it rains fairly heavily for six months of the year and little to none for the other six, water catchment is a priority on the farm. There are many cement ponds of various sizes and a canal system connecting them; these will likely be used to rase tilapia at some point in the future. There is also 100,000 L of storage volume in various ferrocement cisterns that collect water from the rooves of all the buildings. The most recently constructed cistern stores water from the strawbale house that we stayed in. This is a unique cistern in that it is open and in its shape - around 6´ wide x 5´ deep x 25´ long. In accordance with permaculture principles, also practiced elsewhere on the farm, the cistern has multiple functions: not only is it storage for water than can be gravity fed to the orchard below, but it also serves as a lap pool when full! (Kind of like the dish draining and storage rack.) The rainwater is cold and sooooo refreshing on a hot afternoon. This is another idea we plan to implement on our land.
Rainwater cistern/lap pool... stacking functions is the way to go...
On the farm we worked on reclaiming zone 1, the greenhouse attached to the house and the beds just in front of the house which were in need of some attention. For those of you not familiar with permaculture, zone 1 is the zone closest to the house where things you need the most are planted/located. Common sense, right? That´s what permaculture is all about. So, we weeded and weeded and repaired rockwork and planted lots of fall crops (greens, carrots, onions, beets) in the beds in front and some summer crops (tomatillos, basil) in the greenhouse. We contributed to something that will benefit the farm in the coming winter, when there can be frost and the plants will be watered by rainwater that will be stored before November when things start to dry up.

Orchard and herbs (yes, those are rosemary TREES!)
The host of this farm would like to continue to develop it as an educational facility, so if anyone is interested in its use for biology, sustainable development, appropriate technology, sustainable agriculture, permaculture, yoga, Spanish, etc. etc. classes there, let me know.


Last Wednesday we went to Puebla, where we stayed with Koki´s friend Ingrid, who he met at a permaculture course. She and her family were very generous hosts and excellent guides of the city and surrounding areas. We visited Tonantzintla and saw the church with impressive gold leafed carvings, many faces with an indigenous look to them. We went to Cholula and saw what can be seen of the pyramid there that the Spanish covered up with soil and then built a Catholic church. This was after killing most of the indigenous people, some by tying them up and letting dogs rip them apart (I´m not making this up, there are paintings of it in the museum). The pyramid is an impressive structure, as is the church, in a different way. Interesting to see how one culture´s faith completely squashed another´s, literally and figuratively. We also visited Puebla centro, which is very pretty. Ingrid took us to Yaguar Cafè where we finally bought some organic Mexican coffee (grown in Puebla and Chiapas), surprisingly hard to find here (I have been shocked by how many people drink Nescafe instant coffee here!).
Church in Tonantzintla
Pyramid with catholic church on top in Cholula
Along with the bicentennial decorations in Puebla, these days you also see advertisements for chiles en nogada at almost every restaurant. This is a traditional, seasonal dish in Puebla. Ingrid`s mom very kindly prepared chiles en nogada for us, which is quite a process. The dish consisted of poblano chiles (spicy seeds and veins removed), stuffed with a mixture of pears, peaches, raisins, almonds, and other ingredients that I can`t remember right now, dipped in egg and fried, served in a sauce made of heavy cream and ground nuts of a certain variety (taste similar to walnuts) that are only available this time of year, with pomegranite seeds sprinkled on top. Traditionally something green (e.g. parsley leaves) is also sprinkled on top so that the plate has the colors of the Mexican flag. It was delicious and quite an honor, chiles en nogada are only eaten off of fine china with silver in the dining room in many families; this dinner was a little more laid back but very special.
Chile en nogada

Mèxico (the state)

Last Saturday we visited Teotihuacàn in the state of Mexico, the remains of an entire city. Wow! It is hard to describe it. The pyramids are huge and there are many other structures (remains of offices, houses, etc.). The teotihuacanos definitely had a good understanding of astronomy and many of the structures correspond to planets and the sun and moon. The ruins are in very good shape (oxymoron?) and have been rebuilt in some places so you can climb pyramids and enter some of the other buildings. It is hard to imagine not only how all of those rocks were brought there and put together, but the radius from which they must have been gathered. It was impressive, but not enough to make me dance around and chant like some of the other hippies I saw there. I wanted, for just a minute, to buy one of the little clay flutes that were being sold when we came in, they sound like birds, but after I heard them non-stop and had them shoved in my face by agressive salesmen for hours on end, I decided I never wanted to see one of them again. Really? Do you think I want to buy something from you when I`ve seen the same crap, probably made in China, for the last two hours from five thousand other vendors? I don´t mean to be rude, I know people are trying to make a living, but really, someone should try to come up with a new marketing scheme (like try to sell something that you actually made and don´t step right in front of me and make me walk around you), I might have considered buying something from them.
Teotihuacàn (pyramid of the sun on the right, pyramid of the moon on the left).
On the way back to Puebla we had our first encounter with the infamous Mexican police (these were state police). The car we were in had out-of-state plates, which was the (un)reason they stopped us. We were driving from one federal highway to another, both of which are for use by anyone with plates from any state, in the state of Mexico, where the only license plate restrictions are in and around Mexico city. (In an attempt to reduce traffic and associated air pollution, only certain plate numbers are allowed in the city during certain hours). Ingrid`s father (who is German) was driving and got out of the car to talk to the cops. When he didn´t come back after they´d seen his license, we realized they were trying to extort money from him, and Ingrid`s mom (Mexican) got out of the car and joined the conversation. Ingrid`s mom could be a lawyer! She woulnd´t give them any money unless they gave us a ticket for something (which means there is a record of it and it has to be legitimate). We couln´t hear all of it from the car but we learned that, once they realized they weren´t going to get anything using the first BS infraction, they accused Ingrid`s dad of being a taxi driver (what else would a German be doing with tourists in the car?), and that he was going to have to pay for that. Ingrid`s parents both returned to the car, then they called her dad out again, but her mom went right behind him. Then they came right back to the car and we left. Ingrid thinks that crooked cops aren`t as confident with extorting money from women and that it doesn`t happen nearly as often as it does with men, and that sure seemed to be the case in this incident. We also stopped at the Tembleque acueduct, which was much cooler than the encounter with the police.
Tembleque aqueduct

Mèxico (the city)

On Saturday we met Luis in el D.F, the Distrito Federal, a.k.a. Mexico City. Wow. It was just as insane as I had imagined. The first ridiculous experience was the metro. Wow. Getting to the metro itself is an adventure, when things get really busy they have separate entrances (and cars) for men and women, so on the way back in the afternoon a cop tried to tell me to go on through the entrance and Koki and Luis to keep going, and we asked why, and first he said because women have priority (while he coralled Koki and Luis away with his metal detector wand), but when Koki asked then where the heck were they supposed to get on the metro, the cop realized we weren´t from around there and told us to all go through, that sometimes foreigners get priority too. Interesting system. The next time we ran into that I just went with the guys. So, after getting through the entrance we approached the boarding area, along with approximately one million other people. When the metro arrived, there was a mad push outward as people got off, pushing pushing pushing, little old ladies and all. At some crucial point the tables turn and the people waiting on the platform start start pushing and overtake the people leaving the metro. Then its push push push to get your butt on that metro before the doors close rather violently, which happens quite soon after they open if you ask me. After seeing all the other groups of people get separated by the doors of the first metro to arrive, we made a plan for how to find eachother should the same happen to us, and we got ready to push. We pushed pushed pushed our way onto the metro and all managed to get inside, quite an accomplishment. There is a whole world inside the metro, people selling CDs (part of the strategy being to play really loud music through speakers in their backpacks), toys, gum, toothbrushes, whatever else you can think of, people handing out messages of salvation (which mostly seemed to end up as litter on the ground and thus did not really strike me as a message of salvation), a 2.5´ man, a sad clown talking on a cell phone, etc. etc. There are also musicians who perform in the metro but unfortunately they weren´t on the same train as we were. It wasn´t quite as crowded as the colectivo to Eronga, but it wasn´t a weekday, afterall. We made it out of the tunnel of madness to the zòcalo, where there were only approximately half a million people. Tourists, school groups, indigenous people playing drums and dancing and cleansing people by blowing smoke over them (not quite sure about the details of that one), police, people, people, people. We were going to go into the cathedral but there was mass going on so we couldn`t enter (good thing I`ve already seen around 50 other churches on this trip so far). I became somewhat of a local celebrity with the middle and high school English student demographic. A group of students approached me and one of them asked me if I spoke English (nice for a change, that it isn´t just assumed) and then if he could interview me for his English class. I said sure, karmically and academically I felt obliged, I had to interview a native Spanish speaker for my conversational Spanish class many years ago. He interviewed me while his compañeras videotaped... was this my first time in Mexico, did I like Mexico, where had I been, did I like music, what is the US like - that was a hard one to answer concisely, etc. etc. He spoke English very well and was very polite. After that we made it about three steps farther and another kid asked me if he could interview me for his English class. He had lost his compas so Koki ended up being the camera (phone) man. Did I like Mexican food, how old am I, what are my hobbies... After that we made it almost around the corner of the cathedral when another group asked me the same. Two boys interviewed me while their teacher or mom or something filmed. What was my favorite band, my favorite food, what has been my favorite place in Mexico, where else am going (that was a long answer)... A group of young women gathered around to listen to and watch this interview, one of them interpreting for the rest. I thought they were students, too, but apparently they were just some random people. Finally we made it to the bus stop we were trying to reach and while we were waiting for the TuriBus (which ended up being a total waste of 40 minutes and would have been way more expensive than a taxi), a crackhead gringa asked if I spoke English, and I thought really, this can`t be another student. She had some story about not being able to buy a bus ticket without an ID and waiting on a phone call from her mom and she only needed two hundred pesos to get outta here, all the while in her winter jacket, fidgeting with her burnt hands. Sketchy. I told her no, although I was tempted to tell her if she hung out around the corner maybe she could get some pesos out of some high school students in exchange for an interview. She probably had more interesting answers than I did, too. We went to el Bosque de Chapultepec, a park in the city, becuase that´s how we roll. It was not exactly the island of nature I was hoping for, at least there´s something that resembles a natural environment there, but how sad is it that for a lot of people, that´s the only forest they´ve ever known? We walked around for a bit, saw two squirrels, a few Montezuma cypress (Taxodium mucronatum in case Howie is reading this), a bunch of exotic Casuarina trees, and around five million bipedal mammals. That was pretty much it, we ate some tacos and braved the metro again to get back to the bus station to get back to Puebla. And that was our experience in the Distrito Federal, aside from riding the bus for around an hour before actually getting out of the concrete jungle. It sounds weird, but I was disappointed in the relatively clean air the day we were there after having learned about the infamous Mexico City smog during my years in air pollution research.
El Zòcalo in Mexico City
My 15 minutes of fame.
Cool collection idea for plastic bottles.
We`re now in Oaxaca (in the city of Oaxaca, the major landslide was elsewhere in the state of Oaxaca), but I`ll tell you more about all of that in the next post...