Monday, March 30, 2009

Back to the Beach

Josafat's girlfriend came down for the weekend, and along with another friend Wilbur, we decided to go to the coast. I was sooo glad for a break from Tlapa de Comonfort. It would be a decent working-class town, but 7 months without rain, a few tons of dust, intense heat, and 50,000 honking cars makes this Pacific Northwest girl crave water. The closest beach is a mere 80 miles away- but it took 4 hours to get there on horrible roads. I never get motion sick, but the constant jostle in the truck almost made me nauseous.

It was all worth it though when I saw the sparkling expanse of the Pacific, almost a Carribean turquoise. It's a beautiful coast- Guerrero is the same state that boasts Alcapulco and Ixtapa/Zihuatenejo. Those places have been heavily developed for foreign tourism, but there are still a handful of spots here that are for national tourism. Nothing fancy, just lots of seafood palapas along the beach, and a few Mexican families. Next week for Semana Santa (holy week) these places will be packed when city folks make their mass vacation exodus. Here you can still sleep on the beach, or in the restaurant hammocks as long as you buy food there at some point. The next day, although they weren't officially open yet, our restaurant made us coffee, and then set to work grilling a big red fish- a hauchilango- in adobo chiles, cloves, garlic, a little bit of mayonnaise, and who knows what else. With fresh tortillas and beans it was heavenly.

From there we went farther down to an estuary where Josa said they rented kayaks. It was so stunning, a river running alongside the ocean with only a small strip of beach separating them until they merged together in big waves. Behind that was a jumble of jungle plants before giving way to the distant mountains.

It turned out they no longer rented kayaks. They had skiffs, but they were sort of big for 4 of us, and we didn't want to disturb the serenity with a motor. There was one decrepit fiberglass canoe designed for 1-3 people. We decided to try it, carefully balancing our weight and praying we wouldn't tip over. The boat was about as thick as tagboard and I thought for sure something would happen, but the afternoon passed without incident as we paddled around the maze of sandbars and up the river to small beach embankments. We saw a bunch of fish, and a kazillion birds. Wow, I have never wanted a bird field guide so badly. There were lots of colored crane-egret types, sandpipers, maybe grebes, bright zippy little birds, one that looked like a wood duck-cardinal cross, just so so many.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Driving- A Blog Within a Blog

Yesterday we were coming back from one of the villages, and Josafat asked me if I wanted to drive. The roads are pretty intense, windy, rutted, constant up and down, sheer drop off on one side most of the time. But I decided to give it a try. It takes a lot of focus, but actually wasn't so bad, and made me think of the first time I drove in Mexico 2 years ago. Here's an excerpt from my MySpace blog that I wrote in May of 2007 when I was living with Josa and his girlfriend in Puebla doing a teaching practicum:

"Tuesday was my only free day before starting my practicum, and we ended up taking a mini road trip to the small indigenous town of Cuetzalan. Josafat is a masters student in agricultural economics, specializing in rural development. He's currently working on his thesis analyzing and comparing the role of the Food and Agriculture Organization in 3 parts of the state of Puebla. Anyway, there was a meeting he needed to go to in Cuetzalan, a 4 hour drive for a half hour meeting. But it was important, and his girlfriend and I decided to join him. They both have cars, but Josa got a car from his school as his was too "fresa"- literally strawberry, but means rich, snobby, inaccessible- for the countryside.

We were off by 6am in our old blue VW bug- called vochos here- with no radio, ac, or seat belts. Josa and Kari were dead tired from haciendo fiesta the night before, and I wanted to help with the driving. I am terrified of driving in road-anarchic Mexico, and only last month was I comfortable driving stick (called "estandard" here) in Seattle. Pero bueno. I was doing well except for all the topes- speed bumps, a little taller than ours and maybe 3 times as wide. They are everywhere; you´ll be cruising at 40 mph and suddenly a tope. As I was getting those down, we stopped for a delicious breakfast of squash blossom quesadillas and fresh squeezed orange juice.

We only had a hand-drawn map and road signs can be few and inconsistent. As the highway gave way to windy mountain roads, gravel, steep drop offs, it started to feel as if the location of this town was a secret. We got closer only by continually asking in every town if we were going the right way. One time we pulled into a town with a sign for Cuetzalan pointing straight ahead, but then you could only turn left or right! The roads are extremely bumpy and you're always dodging potholes. On top of other driving challenges, we were getting into a cloud forest and visibility wasn´t great. Also, you have to watch for road blocks in the form of señoras and young girls hanging up a rope and stopping you for donations to their saint of the day.

We finally arrived, descending sharply into this stone town. It immediately struck me as what Venice might be like were its narrow, elusive waterways filled with smooth stones and then the whole city stuck steeply and resolutely to the side of a mountain. The roads were so steep you couldn't really see the declivity until you started going down it. "Straight ahead?" I asked Josa. "Si, derecho," he answered, and I started going straight down the hill until we saw that it wasn't really a hill but turned into stairs! We had to back up, but putting the bug in reverse going down hill with the threat of driving down stairs was beyond my driving skills for the day. Josa pulled the emergency brake so we could switch places… and the hand brake pulled right off. "Tenemos un problema grande," he said astutely. There were two good wheel stones right by us- leaving me to believe that we weren't the first ones to drive down that street- so we put them under the tires, pulled what was left of the e-brake, and quickly switched spots. But the grace of the saint of the day, Josa backed up, and we made a note to park on flat ground for the rest of the day."

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Leaving the Coast

After the coast I headed inland to meet up with my friend Josafat. We went north of Mexico City to Pachuca where his girlfriend was having her big birthday fiesta at her parents' house. There was alcoholic horchata, artisenal mezcal, a keg of beer, chicken chalupas, jicama chile salad, fresh strawberries and cream, hoards of old friends... and a karoake machine! Party guests sang for hours and hours, from Mexican pop music to American rock to traditional norteño. I personally rocked some Shakira, Juanes, Beatles, and Nirvana.

In the morning the party continued and 2 carloads of us drove up into the hills to the small, quaint village of Real del Monte. It is actually considered one of the 12 "magical villages" of Mexico, along with Real de Catorce, San Miguel de Allende, Tepoztlan, Cuetzalan, and I don't know where else. But it definitely has an colonial, frozen-in-time feel, the way that inland Mexico is often depicted in movies. Right by there is El Chico National Park, the first preservation land in all of Latin America. There are cedars and pines along with bromeliads hanging from the trees.

Once the weekend of fun was over, it was time to get to work. Josa and I took an overnight bus south to Tlapa de Comonfort, Guerrero, the small city where his office is based out of. The city was recently militarized due to drug-trafficking, and uniformed men with huge guns abound, which kind of freaked me out of at first. But now I go jogging in the mornings and run past them without thinking about it too much.

Josafat works for a government-funded food security program called PESA (Proyecto Estrategico de Seguridad Alimentaria). With 17 development engineers, they work in about 65 indigenous communities throughout the state. He is one of the coordinators of these engineers, and oversees their projects.

There are 3 different ethnic groups in this region (Nahua, Mixteco, and Tlapaneco) and their villages are anywhere from a half hour to a 6 hour drive from Tlapa de Comonfort. Within the scope of their program, they are only reaching about 10% of the indigenous population in the state, which is one of the poorest in the country.

The PESA employees do educational workshops in the villages, and then do a participatory demonstration project with a resident so others can learn how it's done. Then an engineer is there to help anyone else do their own project. This year they have focused on building wood-efficient cookstoves (as opposed to cooking over an open fire), chicken/turkey coops, composting-toilet bathrooms, ferrocement water storage tanks, and home gardens.

On an average day, we leave town at 7am and drive a couple hours with the 5 other members of Josafat's team in the cab of his pickup. It's cramped, but these are all jolly co-workers, a couple of whom speak Nahautl or Mixteco. These are hot, dusty, windy mountain roads. It is about a month until the rainy season begins, so right now is the driest part of the year. We finally get to one of the communities, and the town announces our arrival over a loudspeaker so that everyone knows it's time for a meeting.
Señoras slowly start making their way toward the meeting hall, most carrying a baby on back or with small kids trailing behind. In all 3 local languages, nana means señora or ma'am. This is a Mixteco village, so we shake all their hands and greet them with a hello, Kwa u nana! It is only women who are involved in the project; since they do all the cooking, they have the most relation with the question of food security. Plus, men and women's work does not frequently mix here, so it is all women and children, maybe 70 in all, who arrive for the meeting. As the program is winding down for the year, now is the time for closing workshops, to evaluate what worked and what could be improved.

As these communities, and individual people, are receiving government money, the program has to maintain good paperwork to prove that the money is being used for its right purpose. So every person who has received money has to sign their name on a form, and this takes the first hour. As a lot of them cannot write, they put their fingerprint. They break into groups to discuss the various projects that they have done, as well as to talk about the upcoming environmental conservation efforts that will start next.

I help Josafat do some very basic environmental education, talking about the effects of mass deforestation on the hillsides, erosion, use of chemical fertilizers in their fields, and the bio-accumulation of contaminants. It's hard to tell how much is being understood without a Mixteco interpretor, as a lot of the community members speak limited Spanish. Josafat says they understand more than they speak, because indeed they are shy of outsiders. More than once a child saw us and burst into tears, reacting to the unfamiliarity of Josafat being a fairly light-skinned Meztizo and to me being a guerra.
One great thing about the program is that they only do projects with people who want them, and they provide materials and technical help, but the community has to do most of the work themselves. That way, they learn new skills and are invested in the results. Much of the Mexican government's assistance to the poorest population have been in the form of handouts, just giving money or materials without any follow-through on how it is used. In almost every community I saw piles of unused building materials, such as wood shingles or rebar or bags of cement or wheelbarrows- provided on some other occasion without a community liason, education, training, or follow-up.

The majority of men who would know what to do with these materials are outside the community, either migrated to work in northern Mexico or the U.S. PESA is non-partisan and seeks to create more long-term solutions for healthy, self-sufficient, and sustainable food systems.

The community members always offer to feed these rural technicians who have traveled a long way. One day it was chicken in a red mole, with hot tortillas off the comal as the señora made them. No utensils, just tortillas as an eating medium. Oh, and a big soda. As Josafat says, there are many villages without a doctor, but you won't find anywhere without Coca-Cola.

In another community they roasted a sheep as a thankyou for the end of the season. It was a generous, though somewhat gristly meal, served along with green salsa, blue corn tortillas, and the sheep's liver, which I politely declined.
We are almost home around 8pm, and it's been a long 13 hour day. I want nothing more than to take a shower, drink some water, and go to sleep. But no, in one of the closer villages to Tlapa, another place the program works, we stop for beers. I try to refuse, and everyone is puzzled- why would you turn down drinking a cold beer with friends?

"Just don't say that the people of Guerrero didn't try to show you a good time," Josafat's coworkers tell me. Finally after a few rounds, and me translating some Alan Jackson song lyrics for them, we get back to the office in Tlapa... where someone suggests more beer! You have got to be kidding. We are meeting back at the office at 6:45 a.m., and I have a feeling that I'm going to get a little behind on my running schedule this week.

Vamos a Mexico!

I didn't realize just how familiar Mexico would feel when I stepped off the plane in Puerto Vallarta. I felt almost gleeful at the pushy taxi drivers, the call for coconuts by a man pushing a cart down the street, the smell of tacos al pastor, the unmarked bus stop, the boys walking by saying a few words in English to demonstrate their knowledge. I hopped a bus to the coastal town of Sayulita, north of PV, where a friend lives and a couple other friends were visiting. We went surfing, sunbathed, swam, napped, watched schools of fish play in the waves, ate chilaquiles, fish tacos, and tropical fruit with lime, salt, and chile. Wow, I forgot how much I love the food here. All the fresh bright flavors, spice, deep smokey salsas. My gastronomical experience in South America was so incredibly bland by comparison.

I also babysat my friend's 2 year old bilingual daughter. She is so cute. We watched Curious George in Spanish together, and read a lot of books. Another highlight was going out to open mike night, a mix of Mexican and foreign musicians, mostly all residents. At one point someone played "Under the Bridge" by Red Hot Chile Peppers. The audience sang along, they knew the words, and I could hear all around me people singing with French, British, or Mexican accents. Then I went swimming with new French friends, phosporescence glowing bright in the warm, dark water.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Daytona Bike Week

This week I had the chance to see into the American sub-culture of bikers! My dad took me to bike week in Daytona Beach. Unlike the people who trailer their bikes to the event, my dad and I were hardcore and rode across the state, making the journey part of the experience. It had been hot the week before, then got cold the day we left on the motorcycle, so it was an intense ride, giving me more respect for cyclists and bikers who are more exposed to the elements when traveling. The wind was blowing, the sun was in hiding, and even in leather chaps the air was cold. But we had a fun, and took a couple days to visit relatives and enjoy the Atlantic side of the state.