Thursday, July 17, 2014

Petals In The Wind

The essence of life is subjective.  What it means to me might not be how you perceive or make sense of your own reality.  As I blow the dust that has collected on this blog over the last three years I am simultaneously breathing new life into it.  The absence of continual submissions never declared it deceased since it has been available to anyone who may have come across it via specific Internet search terms.  We have had the pleasure of interacting with strangers who have found our page seeking advice for their travels in addition to the occasional commentator on our own path. 

We look back at our time spent abroad together as one of the most transformative periods of our lives.  Since our adventures in Mexico and parts of Guatemala Faith and I have laughed, learned, danced, grown, created life, cried, and continue to endure the recent devastation of losing our daughter during labor.  We are marked by all of these experiences that have shaped and reshaped the foundation of our lives that is sometimes not constructed by our own actions. 

While living in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas Mexico, Faith and I let the wind be our guide.  I applied to graduate programs in anthropology all across the United States while we inhaled the air of creative freedom unique to San Cristobal.  We volunteered our energy and spent much of our time connecting with amazing individuals from the region as well as meeting incredible fellow travelers.  Some of our closest and strongest friendships were founded during this time and we love keeping up with their lives.

Through the act of living in the moment with hardly a concern for what tomorrow held we came to discover who we were meant to become.  As we mentioned in this blog, there are many incredible places in San Cristobal, but one place in particular touched our lives forever- Orquideas Moxviquil (OM), an orchid preserve on the outer edge of town (  Upon our initial discovery of OM we met the director Cisco and discussed a latrine building project on the site of the preserve.  We frequented OM often over a four month period and spent a lot of time surrounded by blooming orchids, beautiful scenery, and creatively crafted landscapes.  Although we were unable to see the latrine project be completed while we were there, we began to appreciate orchids on an entirely new level thanks to Cisco’s passion and delicate care for these magnificent plants.  We were touched so deeply by the time spent at OM we decided that if we were to have a daughter in the future- we would name her Orchid.

Upon our return to the states in 2011 I was offered a funded graduate student position from the University of South Carolina’s anthropology department.  Faith and I were ready for the next adventure in our lives.  We worked several jobs, lived with her parents, and saved up enough money to afford the cross-country move in a matter of a couple months.  All the while in the back of our minds we knew that entering into these new unknowns was being led by the torchlight we carried made up of hopes and dreams for that special day when we would add little Orchid to our family.

Life in South Carolina has been amazing.  There are more trees than roads, rivers with otters and turtles, cicadas rattle the mornings while fireflies spark the evenings.  Faith landed a comfortable position at the university working in accounting and I completed my master’s degree and am working towards my doctorate.  Nothing could have gone more perfectly.  In our free time we play in our backyard which we have dubbed Mike and Faith’s MicroFarm which consists of three chickens, two beehives, composting worms, and raised bed gardens all with eccentric art influenced by the permaculture we learned while in San Cristobal.  We succeeded in building a secure foundation ready for our family to welcome another member.

In the Summer of 2013 Faith and I celebrated the realization that we had conceived.  The preparation and anticipation began.  On November 19th we found out that the little life we had created was indeed baby Orchid.  Every day was approached with excitement as we painted dressers, put together her crib, made a mobile out of wool animals from San Cristobal- we were always thinking of new projects and ways that could make our love for her materialize in forms for her to enjoy, recognize, and appreciate. 

Orchid lovingly grew together with us and inside Faith for 41 weeks, but without warning or signs of complication her little heart stopped during pre-labor contractions.  There were no obvious reasons as to what caused this.  At the hospital our families got to hold her and together we cried.  

Although she didn't squeeze my finger with her whole hand like I was really looking forward to, we will never forget holding her little hand between our fingers and how much that meant to us.  Holding her hand in mine I sang her a song I had been practicing with a vocal coach that was to be a nightly lullaby for years to come.  You can hear the song with the lyrics here:

The most difficult part of all of this has been trying to make sense or find meaning behind why this might have happened.  There are no medical explanations as to why and we are not satisfied simply inserting Orchid into the grim statistics available (1 in every 160 pregnancies are stillborn and 40% of these are unexplainable).  In our desperate longing to understand why our hearts now bear orchid shaped scars we seek alternative possibilities as to why we were dealt such a devastating hand. 

There are things about this material realm that we will never be able to fully understand.  Cultural and religious beliefs provide some forms of explanations, but these fall short of providing solace.  We biological creatures are equipped with only a set number of tools available to interpret the world we inhabit.  There is much more at play than the apertures that are our senses allow us to experience or understand.  As individual cells in a much larger living organism the interconnectedness of ourselves with everything else is undeniable.  The night we lost Orchid was the first of a series of Blood Moons that fall into a sequence called a tetrad, where complete lunar eclipses that turn the moon red will occur every six months for the next two years.  Life is a variety and variation of compositions animated by vibrational patterns sparked and electrified forming individual living vessels.  Could it be that Faith and I sent out a frequency that was incongruent to this astronomical phenomenon?  Did we attract too much energy to fill the vessel that was to be Orchid, overwhelming her?  We will never know.  We do not blame ourselves or anyone else, but what we do know is that she is part of everything, she is everywhere, reminding us to enjoy and appreciate.  We have and will continue to see her in the form of butterflies and other gifts of life to love.  Faith and I have received tremendous amounts of love, care, sympathy and kindness from everyone we know.  We have heard from friends throughout the states and from other countries. Through all of them Orchid lives on and just like the actual flower- her presence can be found on multiple continents.

One week after losing Orchid we had to put our doggie companion Scooter to rest.  He was 16 years old and was ready.  We have wondered if we had kept him around longer than he was supposed to be.  Could he have missed his next train?  An incredible thing happened when he was finally released.  We put him to rest in our backyard- we lit incense, he was at peace, and he left us content with all the happy memories we shared over the years.  Within 30 minutes of his departing we began to hear a loud rustling in the trees a ways out in the woods.  We realized a swarm of bees had begun mobilizing (not our own) and as they flew over us the air became scented with flowers while drops of pollen rained down on us. We felt it deeply within ourselves that this was a sacred experience.

Finding ways to honor Orchid is a task we have and will forever continue to accomplish. One week after losing Orchid, Faith and I found an incredible artist who was able to etch beautiful orchids onto our skin allowing us to be able to carry a piece of her wherever we go while also providing opportunities for us to see her and tell her story to anyone who inquires about our tattoos.  Faith's tattoo on her ankle has delicate splashes of purple (radiant orchid- the official color of 2014 set by the color company Pantone) with a beautiful stem holding buds with Orchid Faith written beside it.  My tattoo is similar, black and white with Orchid's name next to it on my forearm which I get to see all day every day: when I drive, garden, and when I type.

A month later we were asked by Faith’s aunt and uncle in Kansas to paint a mural which incorporates an orchid.  We also have a friend living in Mexico who included an orchid into a mural on her wall  in honor of our daughter.

Also, we knew there was only one place Orchid's remains belonged- Orquideas Moxviquil, where she first entered into our consciousness. 

In June of 2014 Faith and I, my mother, Faith’s mother, and my brother all traveled to San Cristobal.  As we exited the airport a rainbow stretched across the sky and we felt warmth.  Orquideas Moxviquil welcomed Orchid wholeheartedly and she now is able to be seen and felt in the form of amazing blooming orchids within their incredible greenhouse.  We held a beautifully personal ceremony within the greenhouse full of orchids.  We lit incense, read poems, and I sang for her.  We feel that our little girl now lives on and grows through the unique expressions that only orchids are able.  Knowing others hear of her short but beautiful life also helps us feel as though she lives on.  Like sparking embers she lives on through beautiful moments of when her story is shared by entering into the minds of those who learn of her. 

Always looking for the beauty in this tragedy I believe that Orchid is alive, she sends us messages through incredible experiences, and she lives in the hearts and minds of those who know of her.  Naming our daughter Orchid has also had unexpected aftereffects.  We came to realize that many people don't have much prior knowledge concerning orchids.  Orchids tend to occupy a dimly lit space in our society’s consciousness as a type of houseplant that is hard to take care of, one that is only for expert green thumbs.  This lack of prior knowledge has even resulted in some learning of what orchids look like for the very first time because of our daughter.  For some, our daughter Orchid has now imbued new meaning to orchid flowers allowing for all orchids to be a representation of her.  We hope that when you come across orchids you think of her; it is within you and all of us that she is alive.

I was going to show you the world
Unlock mysteries and hold you,
I was going to sing you a song
Dry your tears when you are crying

Now there's just no way of making sense of this
You were whisked away and taken from us
Looking down, I wish I could see you
I am here without you

I dreamt I'd teach you to dance
Carefree without nervous glances
I dreamt I'd read to you
Read to you as you fell asleep
I dreamt dreams that never will be

In my mind and in my heart I feel you
You are beautiful I miss you
I know you're there
'Don't despair'
I hear you say as your petals flow in the wind

I was going to show you the world
But it is you who is showing it to me.

Mike turned the poem into a song with his band and made this video.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Reflections off moving waters

Life only stands still long enough to snap a photo. A quick image is taken of a moment that has already gone and passed. That moment can never be relived and never replicated. Our trip to Chiapas, Mexico and parts of Guatemala span the timeframe of October 2010 to February of 2011. What we encountered and experienced was what was going on during those exact dates. Some of the things we witnessed have been continued throughout time and some only happened once. What our blog portrays is a semi static image of what life is like in that region through our perspective. We can not say things like this is how it has always been or that this is the way it will always be. Life doesn't remain stagnant and the story we have been a part of is unique to Faith and I.

It has been a full month since returning to the United States. A quarter of the time we spent in the tropics has flown by in what seemed more like a matter of days. We are still adjusting to the mesmerizing and hypnotizing light patterns and sounds that bombard our senses on a daily basis via television, radio, cell phones and Internet. We had all these luxuries readily available to us while in Mexico, but we didn't have the sense of being tethered to the technology as we do here.

There are many things that come up in conversation between Faith and I that we look back on with fondness. The sound of the sonsonate bird as it happily chirps welcoming the morning sun with its very unique songs, the smell of a humid jungle teeming with life, butterflies the size of two hands fluttering around you, or the extreme drop in temperature felt when the sun hides behind a fluffy cloud in the sky. We sometimes lean in to neighboring conversations being spoken in Spanish to simply remind us of how beautiful the language is and how nice it was to be surrounded by it. We now have a much greater appreciation for plant life and can admit to honestly stopping to smell the roses.

This journal began as a way for us to give our friends and family a window into our daily lives while away, but has become something much bigger and meaningful to both of us. We have received feedback from people we never expected to have come across our journal and feel our friendships have been strengthened by having good friends keep up with our adventures. We hope the people mentioned in our story are pleased with their representation because without any of them our time away would have been far less interesting and we would like to extend our greatest appreciation to all who accompanied us and all those we met along the way. This has been a life changing experience for the two of us and we will always look back on the time spent in Mexico and Guatemala as one of the happiest times of our lives.

It is difficult to blend the realities present in Latin America in a single blog. We have tried our best to remain culturally relative. Different regions have differing factors affecting the people who reside within them. We traveled through several types of climates and came across varieties of lifestyles. We were given opportunities to experience lifestyles different from our own. I hope we were able to close some imaginary gaps placed between cultures and possibly even create awareness about one's own culture. Anthropology strives to make the exotic feel familiar and the familiar feel exotic and we hope we have done that concept some justice.

It has been no easy task formulating this final entry and there is a melancholic feeling as I write this. We understand that good things must come to an end, but we also understand that our work is not done. We stepped outside of our box and can't seem to fit ourselves back into our old selves. This is a strangely pleasant notion because we are finding it harder and harder to simply accept our situation as an inevitability and realize it is possible to get away and enable change. We left who we were behind for who we would become and couldn't believe how much could be learned through this type of liberation. We have developed a solid understanding of the phrase, "The more you learn, the more you realize how little you know."

Since our journey south the path we are on has become clearer. We can never know what the future holds for us, but we are excited we finally understand which direction the wind wants to carry us. There are still many things we want to do and we believe the course we have begun setting off on will allow for us to accomplish many of the goals we have set out for ourselves. We plan to continually be involved with many of our new friends and are eager to contribute more of our energy and time to the people of our world. If there is only one thing that a reader takes away from our writings we hope it is this: You enjoy what you have most when it is shared.

Close my eyes, looking inside,
I find I'm blind.
Staring at a man in a mirror
Less face, fingerprints, race.
Whispers swirl through the air
Grip my eardrums with a stronghold -
Ideas forming, flesh poured into a mold.
Strangers surround, yet I remain alone.

Collecting and conforming –
Reasons unknown.
Placement of birth a life altering factor -
Altars lead the way,
Income sets the pace,
Security branches from confidence,
Magnets in others pull and push connections.
I becomes We,
Faster than understanding Me.
Strength in numbers, close the shutters
Cracks in the walls leak visions, knowledge.
The kings and queens start to stumble,
This dark cell of foundation begins to crumble.
The windows become the walls.
It gets stuffy in this house of glass,
Claustrophobic and sedentary I throw a rock.

Broken pieces of yesterday lay all around -
No one around, yet not alone.

The sunlight lands unfiltered, a face forms -
Born again, regret and happiness for a second are one.
The quest has now become clear,
Setting sail I'll let the wind steer.
Searching for knowledge and understanding,
Anticipating the next snowglobe of an existence
I will shatter wall after wall
Be reborn again and again
As the phoenix I transcend.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


For our last weekend in Chiapas we wanted to get in some R&R, but of course we had to do it Mike and Faith style. We took a collective taxi boat ride through the mangroves that separate the sandbars from the mainland of Chiapas and landed on the sandy beach of Barra Zacapulco. On one side there is the ocean and on the other is a mangrove waterway with only about a quarter mile of land in between the two. This sandy island hosts small shrubs, coconut palms and other hearty vegetation that thrive under harsh coastal conditions. We were ready to spend the weekend on the beach soaking up some rays, splashing in the waves, and volunteering at the turtle sanctuary.

We met with Carlos “Tortuga” Ochoa, who I had met in June during a visit with my field study class, and discussed what work we may be doing around the site. There was only one bed available, but we came prepared. Amber got to have the bed with the mosquito net while Faith and I camped in our tent on the sand. There is a basic kitchen with a gas stove that works well enough and we had brought food for ourselves to last the entire weekend. We had to bring our own drinking water in a large Sparkletts type jug because the only fresh water available comes from a well and the water has become deep red in color from the mangrove roots. Obviously this water wasn’t suitable for drinking, so instead we used it to shower, wash dishes, and to flush our toilet with. A row of coconut palms were all that stood between us and the white foam covered waves. The turtle sanctuary is about a ten minute walk down the beach from a group of restaurants under palapa roofs. By a group of restaurants I mean competing relatives of Carlos’s family all who serve the same two dishes- fish that was just caught, or shrimp that was just caught. Our first day on the beach we got ourselves accustomed to the living conditions and checked out all that the tortuguero had to offer. At 5:00 p.m. there was another batch of newly hatched sea turtles that needed to be released, so all four of us piled onto a 4x4 ATV and took the babies down to the palapa restaurants to share the experience with anyone there. We gathered a group of people and each let go of a turtle and cheered it on as it made its way to the water. If this was going to be a daily experience any back breaking labor we had in store would surely be worth it.

Carlos sat with us and discussed the plight of the sea turtle and explained how Chiapas has four turtle sanctuaries and that his was the newest and smallest. There are only two people on staff and they spend twenty days at a time living there. Twenty days on and ten days off is the schedule that alternates between Carlos and Rodulfo, the other man who tends to the sanctuary. We learned how every night around midnight they patrol the 27 kilometers of beach on their sandbar looking for freshly laid eggs and poachers who might be stealing eggs off the beach. Sea turtles and their eggs are protected under Mexican federal law, but poachers still comb the beach for eggs to sell on the black market. Carlos and Rodulfo strive to show the importance of strengthening this beautiful aquatic species and hope the more people learn about them the less people would consider them as merely an exotic food. Rescued sea turtle eggs are removed from the beach and reburied in a corral that is fenced and monitored. It takes a sea turtle egg forty-five days to hatch and since the beach is patrolled nightly a highly accurate calendar can be formed about when the eggs were laid and when they will be hatching. We got to witness hatchlings crawl out of the dirt, take in their first breath of beach air and scramble in the direction of the ocean within their protected space in the corral.

Each day’s new sea turtle babies are collected, counted, and documented in detailed records. The reason for the 5:00 p.m. release is because at that time the tide is the calmest and there are fewer predators such as birds that would normally be hovering overhead. The baby sea turtles aren’t just placed in the ocean, they are given a three meter distance of sand to traverse before they can begin their swim.

When asked why the turtles are placed at this distance instead of simply being released into the water we were told it was to help the newborn remember where they came from because in twelve years they will return with their mate to the same exact beach to lay their own eggs. We were reminded of how nature has a rational explanation for things and if a piece of the process is removed the cycle is broken.

This reminded me of something I heard about that had happened at a well known zoo in California. We learned that when giraffes give birth the baby drops and hits the ground from the height of over five feet. The staff at the zoo felt they needed to soften the blow for the newborn and placed nets under the mother to catch the newborn calf. The mortality rate of the baby giraffes began rising, it turned out that the fall to the earth actually aided in the jump starting of the newborn’s heart. A sad fact that we also came to know was that the rate of survival into adulthood for a sea turtle hatchling is 1 in 1000. All the work being done at the tortuguero has definitely increased the chances for the future generations of this species, but it still is a long hard road ahead of these turtles to avoid extinction. Our first night we were invited by Carlos to accompany him on his nightly patrol, but my sleep schedule got the best of me and I regrettably missed my chance. I wasn’t about to let this happen the next night though. The next morning we got up as the sun turned our tent into an oven and us into dinner roasts, around 7:30 a.m. Carlos had already been up for a while and we slowly made our way to the kitchen to cook up some breakfast. After a quick bite we were told that we were going to be cleaning out the turtle pools. I got to actually jump into the area where the turtles swam, drained the water, scrubbed the walls, and made sure all the sand was removed. Amber picked up each turtle one by one and gave their shells a nice scrubbing making them presentable for all the coming tourists. I think the turtles pretended to resist, but looked very proud of their glossy backs when she was finished.

The girls painted markers which are used to distinguish each group of eggs. I also helped drain and clean the tank that held different types of turtles and an endangered fish. I didn’t know how cautious to be with the little turtles, but after watching Carlos displace them throughout the tank with his broom like living hockey pucks I wasn’t too concerned about disturbing them. I asked Carlos if we were going to drain all the water and he said, “of course,” I gave him a quizzical look because I didn’t understand what was going to become of the precious endangered fish. I watched as the fish huddled together near the drain, a cyclone formed and the fish protested by thrashing in the water that was shallower than half their body’s height. Carlos didn’t seem concerned in the slightest and continued to scrub away at the walls.

After the tank was satisfactorily cleaned Carlos looked at me and said, “now move those fish to the other end of the tank so we can clean by the drain.” This he told me had to be done by hand, I wasn’t sure if he was joking or not because earlier he had mentioned that the fish had sharp enough teeth to cut off a finger. I had no choice but to go with it and I picked up each fish one by one and carried them across the tank as they thrashed within my hands. After the cleaning we moved the fish back near the drain by sliding them across the tank floor, one even went between two box turtles and I was this close to shouting, “GGGOOOOOOOOOOLLLLLLLLLLLL!!!!!!”

The next few days were filled with a lot of hammock swinging, ocean swimming, sun tanning, and the occasional group of tourists coming to see what the tortuguero was all about. I listened intently as Carlos gave tours to the groups. On one of the later days there was even an instance where Carlos was nowhere to be found so I ended up giving a full tour of the grounds to a group all in Spanish. I felt as if I had done a good job when I saw one of the tourists drop some pesos into the donation jar. We also helped Carlos maintain the living quarters by keeping it swept and we got to go out with him at night when he patrolled the beach. It was pretty intense having four people with no protective gear ride through the night over sand dunes on a vehicle made for one. The stars twinkled brightly in the moonless sky as we swerved to miss the water as it washed up on shore.

Carlos stopped at a area that had been obviously disturbed by a sea turtle. The sand had been moved in a distinct pattern which is an indicator of where eggs may be. With a wooden stick Carlos prodded the sand randomly over a large area feeling for differences in the sand. He concluded the turtle might have gotten stage fright and not actually laid any eggs. We continued on course and bats flew up off the sand around us and we even spotted the rare Mapache, a “bear like creature” as described by Carlos, which turned out to be a common raccoon. The days blended together and our deadline to get back came rushing up on us faster than we would have liked. Looking back on our time at the beach I cherish the memory of watching Carlos net fish off the shore under the blanket of stars. His net silently cast an oblong shape that lit up the water because of the red tide (small phytoplankton that illuminate when disturbed). I could see his net drape down to the ocean sand before he began towing in the line. The net left a trail of bioluminescence as Carlos pulled in his catch. After a few brisk shakes of the net small fish fell onto the sand that I deposited into a bucket. If we were to catch any good sized fish I would get the opportunity to eat one myself. We chose several locations along the beach and collected over 15 fish, too small for us, but great size to be cut up and fed to the crocodile and turtles at the sanctuary. Carlos’s work pays little, but it is a labor of love. Catching fish for the animals on site is part of the job because there is no funding to feed them daily. We weren’t happy to leave this special place where time is calculated by the heat, sound of the crashing waves, and the smell of the wind. It seemed arbitrary to pay close attention to what the name of the day we were in was. While here there always seemed to be enough time for everything, something completely foreign to where we would be returning to. Yet the calendar called our name and our flight was just around the corner. So, we thanked Carlos for all his servitude and hospitality and told him to expect to see us again.

I am writing this last part 40,000 feet in the air as we leave Mexico for the states. I am reminded of the lyrics to “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” because there is a pulling sensation I cannot deny that feels as if I belong where I just left. We learned a great deal from all the people we have met and I will have a final post containing reflections on our experiences and what they meant to us. One valuable lesson we have come to understand by getting involved with the turtle sanctuary is: Nature doesn’t seem to make too many mistakes, intervention isn’t always the solution, and adaptation is something that must be done on one’s own terms.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Con brazos abiertos

Last June I participated in an ethno-ecology course that took me to the coastal region of Chiapas called the Soconusco. There we met cacao farmers who are growing the native strain organically and sustainably. The organization we worked alongside, CASFA, welcomed any of us who would like to return and continue to learn the ways of the farmers. Faith and I knew we were going to take them up on their offer and incorporated a visit to the region into our plans. Sonja also benefitted from our visit to the Soconusco region because her thesis focused on healthcare in rural communities there. So, after a night in a San Cristobal hostel we loaded ourselves into a highly comfortable OCC bus for the seven hour voyage. The bus had reclining seats and tv screens that played Spanish dubbed English movies. We were seated in the front of the bus and got to enjoy the wonderful views of Chiapas. There are vast expanses of pristine wilderness that are bisected by the one road we were travelling on. I mentioned to Faith how this reminded me of some of the National Parks we have visited in Canada. The only difference here is that this land is not yet protected and is vulnerable to encroaching civilization. Small rural communities dotted the landscape and we can only imagine how impressive it would be to wake up every morning and look out over the lush valley they lived above. All this wonder slowly turned into sheer terror as fog from the higher elevations slowly encompassed our giant bus. The mountain roads we were on were very narrow and often times had no guard rails just in case we were to make a slightly wide turn. The fog became so thick that we couldn’t see further than 15 feet in front of the bus. We closed our eyes and just thought, “I’m pretty sure this isn’t going to be how I die.” The bus driver was somewhat reassuring because he casually sang along to the Ranchera tunes he shuffled through on his in-dash disc changer while maneuvering us through the white nothingness. This lasted over an hour until the uncomfortable popping of our eardrums, which we actually enjoyed because that indicated we were descending into safer ground.

Our destination was Tapachula, the capital city of the Soconusco region and also the closest major city to Guatemala in the area. Faith had read about a hotel called Hotel Premier in her Let’s Go travel book. It mentioned spotless rooms with an entertaining fish tank in the lobby. We hailed some taxis and felt it was a good sign that the taxi drivers had heard of the hotel. We were having some minor culture shock as we passed by tall buildings, brightly lit signs, and sidewalks full of pedestrians. We weren’t confident about how safe it was to be out at this hour and wanted to find refuge in a hotel room as soon as possible. As we pulled up to the Hotel Premier we were glad to be able to escape the world and be at ease again.

We walked into the hotel and noticed a cartoonish water scene inside what appeared to be a picture frame that was filled with water and had one fish pathetically dodging the rushing bubbles that came from the bottom. As entertaining as that could possibly be, we still felt bad for the poor fish. We were told the prices for the room had changed from what was originally quoted, but after some coercion they honored the original price. Upstairs we found an area for sitting with about five couches that must have either came with the building or were stolen from an elderly person who died in the 70’s. Our room was not much nicer than the couch room. Fleas hopped out of sight from under the pillows as we uncovered them and there was no hot water. Needless to say, we needed to find another place to stay in Tapachula.

We asked around town and came across Hotel Plaza Guizar, a hotel in the heart of downtown where it is super noisy, but the room available was a presidential suite compared to the Hotel Premier. We wanted to switch over that night, but Hotel Premier wouldn’t refund our money. So we dealt through the night and quickly changed hotels the next morning.

Outside of Tapachula there are several remote communities and understanding how these individuals attain health care is the focus of Sonja’s research. Colectivos take you from one town to the next, but will also gladly drop you off in one of the many pueblos along the way. We chose a small town named Villa Comaltitlan to dedicate Sonja’s questionnaires. To find the nearest clinic we got into a bicycle taxi and told the driver to pedal us to one. At the clinic we were greeted warmly by the few staff on hand, including a dentist named Judith who is highly enthusiastic about the clinic. We were given tours of the rooms and interviewed the main person in charge about who receives care there. The waiting room, which consisted of around 20 seats, is where people sat and waited to be called in. We approached several of the individuals and explained to them about the research Sonja was conducting. The people of Villa Comaltitlan were very kind and they willingly agreed to help Sonja with her surveying. We completed the research needed with time to spare and being halfway between Tapachula and the turtle sanctuary we decided to swing by the beach and double check if we are still able to volunteer/stay there. It took some street smarts to get us to the beach- a colectivo to a smaller colectivo, to a truck with vinyl covered bed, to a private boat through the mangroves until we landed on the sandbar named Barra Zacapulco where the turtle sanctuary is. There is a museum with turtle bones, rescued turtles, a crocodile, dormitories, and hatchery all at the turtle sanctuary. We met the man who lives on site and he welcomed us to stay with him free of charge in exchange for volunteer work around the sanctuary. We thanked him for the offer and told him that we would be returning the following Friday to spend the weekend at the sanctuary.

During a tour of the site he brought over a bucket of newly hatched sea turtles that had emerged from the protected sand that day. He had over 60 and was expecting more. He told us that at 5:00 p.m. he was going to release them into the ocean and that we could assist him. We had some time to kill so we ate lunch at a local palapa restaurant and returned at 5:00 p.m. sharp.

We walked to the shore bucket-in-hand and there we got to witness one of the most magical moments of our entire trip- 150 baby sea turtles scuttling their way to their first encounter with their new home, the ocean. We followed the leaders of the pack, took video, snapped photos and couldn’t help but feel the electric energy of youthful nature. When they had all disappeared into the tide we all smiled and understood how special this experience was. It was a great final day for our group of four before Sonja parted ways to return to the states. Over the weekend we organized what little time we had left and got in contact with CASFA who met with us on Monday to discuss what would be the best course of action for us to take. On Monday, Ruviel, a CASFA worker and farmer, took us to his home, fed us delicious organic fruit, walked us through his plantation, and then to another woman’s orchard. He wanted us to view the system of intercropping he is implementing and how it has become highly beneficial for all his crops.

Intercropping is a system of agriculture where several types of crops are grown in the same plot. This is done because relationships form between the different crops and each aid one another in different ways. Tall trees provide shade, plantains enrich the soil with potassium, beans increase the nitrogen in the earth all while creating a viable ecosystem for other creatures such as microorganisms and birds. Also, there is reduction in crop failure with this system since the differing plants increase protection against sickness. If one crop should fail there are multiple crops that can be harvested and the devastation is minimized. These are just a few of the benefits to intercropping as opposed to monocropping, growing whole fields of just one crop. Organic and sustainable farming is the goal of CASFA for all their farmers to achieve. They continually educate the farmers on the benefits to these methods since no pesticides or fertilizers are added or needed.

The next morning we were met by Ruviel at our hotel in Tapachula and we loaded all our worldly belongings into the bed of his truck to be taken along with us to our new home for the week. We drove a short while and turned off the main road to Huixtla and entered into a small town named Tuzantan. In Tuzantan there is a parcel owned by a CASFA farmer that is tended to by Juan Sanchez and his family. We parked the truck in front of a barb wire fence that had coffee beans drying freely in the road. We were met by the Sanchez family who share a simple home made of concrete brick walls, solid concrete floor, and aluminum roof. We introduced ourselves to everyone we met as we walked through their kitchen where a wood burning stove cooked their dinner for the night. We were shown our room which had a wooden bed frame, small wood dresser, and swinging door.

The back of the house faces a flowing river that can be heard from anywhere in the house. Chickens, ducks, turkeys, dogs, and a pig freely roam the backyard looking for scraps in the dirt. A bamboo forest jets out of the ground with leaves looming overhead making the poles bend from the weight. Large rocks create small rapids in the river where the ducks fish for sardines and people can bathe or do their laundry. Electricity is scarce in the household and is mainly used to power a light that illuminates the patio and a television. There is no running water in the house. The water is stored in a concrete “pila,” a rectangular tall structure that stores large quantities of water to be used for cooking, washing dishes, force flushing the toilet, and showering. These conditions are foreign to us being so used to American luxuries, we were definitely going to be experiencing something new and we welcomed the challenges that lay ahead.

The temperature here reaches swelteringly hot degrees accompanied by humidity that can paralyze you even under the shadiest tree. During a tour of the parcel we were going to be working the only escape from the heat was to splash in a nearby stream that cuts through the cacao orchard. A nursery that is covered by shade cloth would be our work site. Within the nursery are cacao saplings sprouting out of black plastic cylinders lined up in neat rows. We estimated that there were around three thousand of these cacao juveniles. Since the environment is full of plant life there are always other plants invading fighting for their right to survive. The saplings had unwelcomed neighbors and we were to be the ones who would let them grow in peace. We were told to pull out any plant that was not cacao and to discard them in the walkways between the rows. Our first day of work we were only able to complete half of the task before we had to find refuge in a cooler spot because the sun was becoming our enemy. An average work day here in Tuzantan begins before the suns comes up, around 6:00 a.m., and ends before the sun becomes unbearable, around noon. The cacao nursery is about a twenty minute hike from our hosts. The path along the way passes rivers, cow pastures, and other houses. Back at the house we couldn’t do much more than swing in the hammocks we had strung up on their patio. Attempting to nap proved to be borderline impossible due to the increasing heat. One of the days we returned and actually bathed ourselves, shampoo and all, in the flowing river behind their house. We were adjusting as best as we could to the conditions and we gave much respect to the small children who told us that it wasn’t even hot. According to the neighborhood kids late February and March are a scorcher.

Lunch was always served at 2:00 p.m. and we were served different meals each day. The women of the household (mother, her daughters, and granddaughters) did all the cooking, cleaning, tending to the animals, and child care. The women also didn’t eat with us, they ate at a different table outside the kitchen and we sat with Juan at the table in the kitchen. Unlike in American culture eating time is not used for socializing. It was common to not speak a word during the meal, but immediately after a conversation would start up. The house had a very peaceful energy and everyone was extremely friendly, generous, and accommodating. We constantly asked where to put our dirty dishes or throw away our trash and they always refused to let us do even the most minimal tasks.

The minimum hourly wage in California for one hour’s worth of work is about double the average daily wage for many people in this region. Yet what the family lacked in financial assets they made up for in social capital. The respect given to the elders, the love and care shared by all to the youngest, the playing habits among the children had such a vibrant sense of sincerity that it made us feel like we were lacking something that they had. These people didn’t have much to give, but what they did have they offered. We expressed our gratitude for every meal, accommodation, comfort, and all the hospitality. We began to understand how it is to live as they do. The food eaten is simple but flavorful. The drinks are made from fresh fruit and the coffee unfiltered. We noticed that meals weren’t specific to times of the day and one morning we woke up early to find a bowl of fish soup with unshelled shrimp for breakfast. Sleeping arrangements were complicated since there were three of us and only one area for sleeping that fit two. I decided I wanted to be as outdoorsy as possible and let the girls share the bed and I slept in a hammock outside. They may have had slightly more comfortable bedding, but I got to sleep to the sound of the branches moving in the wind and the river flowing over rocks. Also, one day it had been raining for a good portion of the day Amber and Faith froze as they entered their room. A big hairy brown and black tarantula defied gravity and perched itself on their bedroom wall. Amber and Faith stared at the spider as the spider stared back with all of it’s eyes, who would make the first move, it was a standoff. When we called the women over about the spider they chuckled and mentioned that it was a small one and shooed it away with a broom. One day during our afternoon heat escape we chatted with one of Juan’s granddaughters, Elizabeth. She told us how old she was and proudly stated that she was going to be eight years old the next day, it was going to be her birthday! We enjoyed our casual chats with this outgoing youngster and wanted to get her a gift for her birthday. We asked everyone what would be appropriate and they said to ask Elizabeth herself.

We didn’t know if girls her age still play with dolls or if she would like some new clothes so upon asking she replied that she would love to have a backpack that rolls to bring to school with her. This was a surprise due to its utilitarian nature and we felt that getting her a backpack would be an honor. So, we took a taxi to Huixtla because nowhere in town sold backpacks with wheels. We found a vendor who specialized in backpacks and chose one that just felt right, it was black with white and red markings and had an animated girl depicted on the front. We also found a store that sold all their items for three pesos, so we loaded up her new backpack with school related things like pencils, markers, crayons, notebook, pencil sharpener, pencil case and a poster that showed the multiplication table.

There are many small children who play together where we were staying and we didn’t want to have them feel left out so we also bought ten bags of marbles to be distributed amongst all the boys and girls. When we showed up with the backpack and gifts little Elizabeth was all smiles and all her family watched as she discovered all the little additions we hid within the pockets. All the children excitedly grouped together and I showed them a few of the marble games I know.

The Sanchez family had opened their home and their hearts to us and we wanted to be able to reciprocate for all their kindness, we hoped this small token would in some way let them know how grateful we were for their hospitality. We were given an opportunity to not only see a lifestyle, but to experience it albeit shortly. We learned not only about them, but about ourselves. We were sad to say goodbye to our new friends, but by looking at my track record of visiting Chiapas it probably won’t be the last time we see them.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Palenque or bust!

There are several options available to reach the city of Palenque: the luxurious OCC bus (very expensive), join a tour that ends up there (also expensive), and lastly there is the option to leap frog colectivos from one small rural town to the next until you reach Palenque. We felt to be the best possible anthropologists we could be, and most practical, would be to travel like the locals do. So around noon we began the first leg of our journey to Palenque from San Cristobal. Fifty pesos and two hours later we were in a small village named Oxchuc, from there we rode in the bed of a truck that had a vinyl cover to protect us from the elements. We were joined by a rather inebriated man named Alejandro who delightfully kept us entertained with his unintelligible drunk ramblings. We were slightly concerned about whether Alejandro was going to have issues keeping his lunch due to the bumpy roads, but surprisingly he managed just fine. Sonja on the other hand, who has a history of motion sickness, didn’t fare so well. As we passed through the windy mountain roads Sonja missed out on the sights of waterfalls that emerge out of the cliff walls because she had her head out the back of the bed leaving a trail behind us. The next stop between us and Palenque was the town of Ocosingo, famous for being the bloodiest site of the Zapatista uprising. We ate some delicious yet questionable grilled chicken sold off of street side grills. We were glad to find out that the next vehicle to Palenque was a roomy van, we felt this would be the most comfortable for Sonja since she was already feeling lousy. We were wrong. About forty-five minutes into the ride Sonja gave the people seated behind her about a five second warning before sliding open her window of our colectivo. We apologized for the rough forms of transportation, but the payoff was about to be worth the sacrifice. The jungles of the lower elevations were becoming thicker the farther we traveled. Rivers flowed under bridges as we crossed over them. Vines hung from high up branches and the trunks of giant trees were wrapped in leafy lianas.

Once in Palenque we gathered ourselves and our belongings and headed to El Panchan, the cabanas we stayed at before that are nestled into the dense foliage. I had our party halt for a moment as we rolled our luggage down the dirt road because in the distance I picked up the sound of howler monkeys. We stood there in silence for a minute to take in the roars of these primates. We booked our room, walked over a stream and passed through Don Mucho’s, the main restaurant at El Panchan. We followed the red footpath deep into the woods where we arrived at our second story cabana. The room was basic, four double size beds arranged side by side facing a blank yellow wall which had no art to speak of. The windows were mere screens with cloth drapes that covered the lower half. The bathroom consisted of a toilet, shower, sink, and mirror. There are no frills at El Panchan and we would have it no other way. Around sundown the howler monkeys began their primal singing once again. We tried spotting them in the branches through our windows, but could only make out their outlines. The plan for our time in Palenque was to stay two nights to give ourselves a full day to enjoy the ruins, jungle, and museum. Amber’s body had other plans.

The next morning we ordered coffee for breakfast, but weren’t able to drink it because my sister was having terrible internal pains. So terrible in fact that we grabbed the first colectivo into town to take her to the nearest doctor. Our colectivo driver was kind enough to take us off his route to a doctor he recommended. He then waited to make sure Amber was taken care of. The doctor felt she was in need of more assistance than he could provide and told us to go to the general hospital at once. We packed into a taxi and found ourselves at the local hospital.

People could be found everywhere around the hospital- in the waiting room, sitting outside the ER entrance, outside the building. It was confusing to understand how the system functioned, but Amber’s urgent condition was evident so we were seen somewhat promptly. A man who we presumed to be a doctor and several med students came in to witness the diagnosis. It was unclear what was afflicting my sister, but he ruled out Appendicitis. This didn’t solve the problem of her pain though. Amber squirmed and even vomited from the pain. They then decided to lay her on a gurney in the hallway and hook her up to an IV drip. We were then left alone and not spoken to for quite some time. Later we were asked to pay for the consultation and visit, which came out to around $40. Amber felt a little better so we went back to El Panchan.

Her pain had subsided for the moment, but was about to make an even stronger comeback. We left Amber to rest in the room when we returned. During her nap we three stood under a troop of howlers as they vocally battled a neighboring troop, hiked to a jungle stream with a local boy, and walked back as fireflies lit up our path to our cabana. We returned to find Amber back in pain and in need to revisit the hospital. Back at the hospital a different crew was on staff and the guessing of her affliction began anew. This time Appendicitis was an option and surgery was being considered. Very frightening circumstances especially due to the frantic nature of all the nurses and staff. We were even told by a nurse that there was no anesthesia available. Amber was once again left in the hallway with a tube inserted into her arm to receive a liquid drip. There was nothing we could do for the moment, so we went out in search of internet to contact our family. When we returned the diagnosis was becoming clearer- kidney stones. There wasn’t much that could be done except to have her stay the night and tough through the pain. We reluctantly left our wounded soldier behind and hoped for the best.

The next morning Amber was feeling much better and was able to be released. We had not yet been to the Palenque ruins and Amber felt that in a day’s time she might feel well enough to walk around, so we booked another night. Our original two night stay in Palenque had turned into a five day venture.

Early the next morning we attempted the breakfast-before-we-go-to-the-ruins thing, this time a success! We all felt energized, hydrated, and full. Off to the ruins we went. We visited the museum, got a little history about the ruins, took the old entrance through a jungle path, and came upon the white plastered structures of Palenque. Faith and I showed off some of the interesting attributes to Mayan architecture we have learned about during our time here. For example, structures with long staircases have an acoustic quality to them where when a clap is made near the front, an echo reverberates off the structure that has a sharp high trill sound. This was supposedly done to mimic the natural call of the quetzal bird, the sacred bird of the Maya. We showed Amber the chamber of the Red Queen, the dark tunnels of the living quarters, the royal plaza of the captives, the observatory, and explained as best we could the meanings of the stone carvings.

Our day was full of excitement and we were just as excited to take a nap and recuperate from all the heat exhaustion. We were going to stay one final night in Palenque and then head back to San Cristobal. We are now coming to the final last days of our time in Chiapas, but we have big plans for what we will be involved with- volunteering/staying with cacao farmers, Tapachula, and volunteering/staying at a sea turtle sanctuary. You can expect a final entry or two about our last week very soon.