The Arrival

I arrived at the Felipe Carrillo Puerto bus station today and promptly met John Curtis, who I made contact with through Curtis Buchanan, the windsor chair maker from Tennesee. John's been living in Carillo (the town goes by its middle name) for 6 years now, sharing his woodworking skills with the people of the surrounding ejidos. He introduced me to "la Ingeniera Victoria,"* Technical Director of the Organizacion de Ejidos Productores de la Zona Maya. It was barely a block away!

The group is a sort of Ejido Union, representing 20 community owned forests (or Ejidos) and providing technical direction and support to those communities. Ing. Victoria was very excited to have me, and I guess John had told her that I was here to volunteer for the organization, because she jumped right into that.

As John was introducing me, he said Curtis hadn't told him much about me other than the fact that I was coming. I guess that reference went a long way! I told them I was traveling through Mexico looking for reforestation projects, but before I could add "and sustainable forestry projects," they looked at each other and went into how they don't really do reforestation. This happens to me a lot, so I think I need to work on my schpiel.

Victoria said what they do is more like forest enrichment, where they plant valuable species, but I didn't get any more detail on that because I steered the conversation back towards sustainable forestry (uso sostentable del bosque). Turns out, these guys are not only working on wood, but on honey, chicle, handicrafts, ecotoursism, payment for environmental services... So basically everything I'm into ever, with community ownership of the forest already in place.

I think I'll stay here a while...


*Note: As I've mentioned before, in Spanish speaking countries, the idea of calling someone doctor as a title had been expanded to include everthing one can study. An "Ingeniera" is someone who went to a technical school, in this case for forestry.

El Continente

I left The Island today and headed into what the people of Cozumel call "The Continent." I've been in contact with John Curtis, who's been living in Felipe Carillo Puerto and working on some sort of wood-based project. My instruccions were to go to "Terminal Numero 2" and take the bus from there. Its a 12 block hike to the terminal, and with a full backpack and full sun it was quite a trip. When I got there, they sold me tickets ($8 for a 2.5 hour trip) but told me the princess was in another castle. I had to go all the way back to Terminal Numero 1, which is right next to the ferry! Just another day in Mexico lol.

But I made it, and the bus s fine, although it smells faintly of urine... oh well I'll be there soon.

Here are some pictures from the trip:

Officials screening for influenza.

Leaving Cozumel on the ferry

Gringo on the ferry

Really blue water

Really turqoise water

Wooden handicrafts in Playa del Carmen
Sweet green alley in Playa

This is about as close as I got to X-caret.


Its hard not to feed them when they're so cute!

We went beyond the limits of "La Vuelta" today, and took the jeep through a bumpy sandstone road at the end of the main boardwalk. The road cut northward through the more jungle like part of the Island and we emerged at the dock to "La Isla de la Passion" (The Island of Passion). Julio tells me that it used to be connected to Cozumel via an ithsmus for part of the time, and was therefore a part of Cozumel. Since we're talking about the Northern Reserve part of Cozumel, that would make Passion Island off limits to development.

There are rumors and suspicions that someone modified the hydrology to choke off that sand bridge and separate the little island from its big sister. Thats the rumor anyway.

What is true is that when we got off the pier, there were a whole bunch of racoons hanging around begging for food. I know you're not supposed to feed the animals, because they become dependent and all that, but the fact is that people love to feed the animals! There has to be a way to make that fact work for the environment. Any ideas?

These were some of the most docile, friendly racoons I've ever seen, and they ate right out of people's hands! Check out the videos below:

Yes, the camera moves about and the video could be shorter, but look at those little raccoons!

The racoon was curious about my camera, but I was afraid it would get mad when it realized it wasn't food.

Anthropogenic Storms

Headed back to Punta Sur today, and I noticed this little structure from the crocodile deck. It looks like they planted a mangrove and built a little cage out of sticks to protect it. The cage blends right into the landscape, so I almost didn't notice them. Andrea says this whole area was full of mangroves before Hurricane Wilma wiped them out.

I often think of restoration as something that only happens after human disasters, but the fact is that many restoration projects are meant to restore ecosystems that were destroyed by natural disasters. Of course, a pretty decent case can be made that hurricanes, in their current strenth and frequency, are no longer completely natural in their cause.

According to Wikipedia, Wilma was the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic basin, and it hit its peak intensity over the Yucatan. Quintana Roo's governor, Félix González Canto, told an interviewer: "Never in the history of Quintana Roo have we seen a storm like this." Not only was it the strongest, it also was the fourth category 5 hurricane in 2005, the season which brought us Emily, Katrina, and Rita before bringing us Wilma, something which had not been seen since 1933. Atlantic storms are named alphabetically, but 2005 was the first year we got all the way down the alphabet to W.

Although you're not supposed to ascribe particular storms to climate change, we know that warming waters are the engine for hurricane formation and intensification. It seems fair to say that were it not for the extra carbon we've been pumping out into the atmosphere, a powerful hurricane named Wilma would not have formed in 2005. We'll never know, but its important to realize this and to include hurricane damage, to both cities and mangrove swamps, when we tallyup the damage and the impact of climate change.


Being snubbed is no problem, part 3

We hopped back on the bus and to our jeep, with the idea of doing the extended edition of "La Vuelta" which is a half trip around the Island. The road only circles half of Cozumel, the other half being a protected reserve. The road takes you around the perimeter of the southern half, turns northward, and cuts across the Island to get back to town.

On the way, we saw a couple of Gringo tourists playing in a water spout, and decided to join them. As the storm clouds loomed unnoticed behind us, we snapped the picture that now graces my facebook profile.

I headed over and looked into the spout, but was unprepared for the amount of strength it had gained as the storm approached. I got instantly soaked, and in that same instant the rain got started. The effect was that I wondered why I still felt the spout's water falling on me, even though I was now twenty feet away. Andrea had no such problem, and was already shouting at me and running towards the car when I finally noticed the rain.

We got back to the jeep and quickly put the top back up (we had taken it down just a few minutes earlier), watching as the gringo couple did the same. We outran the rain after a few minutes, and continued on our trip 'round the Island. I'm probably one of the only people in the workld who looks inland while driving around a Caribean Island, but I found the plant communities fascinating. For example, I've never seen a broad expanse of land where the tallest plant, the overstory, is dominated by palm trees.

Part of the reason for that might be that the Island is periodically wiped clean by hurricanes. The most recent one, Wilma, came through about four years ago and took down a lot of the Island's infrastructure. Since those palm communities are on the seaward, mostly undeveloped side of the Island, they serve buffer for the people on the landward shore. This function is only becoming more important as climate change makes hurricanes stronger and more frequent.

Depressing as that sounds, one high point is that people here are at least awere of the buffering their natural areas provide. When I arrived in Cozumel last night, Andrea and I spoke to her friend Liz about Donald Trump's plan to build a huge marina complex in the Northeast part of the Island, the reserve north of the bisecting road. When the people of Cozumel heard this plan, there were protests by the young who knew this was a terrible idea. "If they'd built it," Liz explained, "it would have been wiped out by the next hurricane anyway, and it would have removed a lot of our proteccion from hurricanes."

The project was never built, and the victory is an example of the lesson cities like Cancun and New Orleans learned the hard way: take out your natural buffers at your own peril.


Being snubbed is no problem, part 2

Icame down from the light house a little shell shocked, but had a good time in the museum, goofing off and learning about the ancient coastal Mayan's religion. Coming to Cozumel was a young man's rite of passage, sort of like the Hajj in Islam. I kept thinking, if people made a pilgrimage here, this place must have been rather sacred. I wonder what they would think if they came back and saw Cozumel today?

Back outside, I showed Andrea a little wildlife photography trick I learned back in Costa Rica: take a picture from far away, get closer, take another picture, and repeat until the animal freaks out and takes off. Of course, one caviat is to never, ever do this with something dangerous!! The part where they freak out might get ugly.

The touristyness really showed right next door to the museum, where a trio of stick built gift shops offered all manner of trinkets and handicrafts. Touristy as it was, I think the trio is a good model for what a gift shop in an "ecotourism" situation should look like. I mean, if you're going to have a gift shop, at least make an effort to have it fit into the lansdcape, right?

The reason we were hanging around the lighthouse in the first place is that we were waiting for the bus to the swimming beach. Because it is a sensitve area, they only built a small, one-lane road, which means only one car at a time can pass. They also try to minimize the number of of vehicles that cross, thus they have a bus to ferry tourists across rather than let them all go in their own cars. Up to here this is all good environmental policy, but this is where Andrea's point (from part 1) kicks in: the guided tours can cross as many cars at a time as they want, and they pay a fee for this priviledge. As we arrived by bus, we saw our good ol' tour's six jeeps parked among the trees.

Andrea says several of the Corona ads were filmed in Cozumel, and I believe her cuz the beach was beautiful! Afterwards, as I was raving about how great the beach was, Andrea shot me down, claiming there was too much seaweed that day. People that live in the Caribbean are ntoriously picky about their beaches... let them spend a few years in Virginia I say!

Nah I'm just playin Virginia you know I love ya.


Being snubbed is no problem, part 1

Andrea and I went on a little adventure round the Island of Cozumel today. The original plan was to hop onto one of Julio's company's tours.

The company, Sunshine tours, started out as an offshoot of the car rental company Julio was working at. After years of renting Jeeps to touring companies Julio and his boss realized they could run the tours themselves, guarantee themselvesa rental, and be more efficient than a traditional touring company since they had their own supply of Jeeps. Julio, who says he knew nothing about tours, was put in charge, and they soon expanded into mini-jeeps tours, horseback tours, even segway tours! Because of their origins, all of their tours continue to be vehicle based, but Julio says they're starting to get into snorkeling and scuba tours as well.

Anyway we tried to hop onto this jeep tour, and made it all the way to the Massive rental house before the agent who had arranged the tour said something to the effect of "Who are they??" Obviously, this was to be a private tour.

Thinking on his feet, our tour operator told her "Oh, they're just helping us move the jeeps." A few minutes later we were on our way out with Julio who had followed the jeep caravan to make sure everything was ok. As we followed the long, forested driveway out of the enclave, Julio promised us he'd get us a jeep to tool around in.

We picked up the Jeep, headed to Punta Sur (which is where the tour was going) and were soon right behind them at the crocodile pier. Punta Sur is supposed to be an ecological reserve, but Andrea thinks there's far too much tourism for it to legitimately claim that title. "They're making decisions based on tourist money," she says. If only she could see our National Parks!

After the crocodile observatory and some really cool ruins we headed to the light house. Andrea's very afraid of heights, so I went up the tightly spiraling staircase alone to an expansive view of the Island. The thing that surprised me the most was that I couldn't see the other end of the Island. I know Cozumel is one of the biggest Islands in the country, yet I still expected it to look like an Island rather than a long stip of vegetation stretching off into the horizon. In fact, the view was so big, it didn't seem to fit into my camera. After pushing a few buttons I pushed a few too many, and promptly deleted all new pictures! So you better enjoy this view (click on the image to see it full sized), cuz it cost me a lot:

You may have noticed the lack of original pictures and video in the last few posts... this is why :(


Paradise in Stasis

My friend in Cozumel is Andrea, who I know since about 1st grade when we went to Catholic School together in Huatabampo. She's studying ("supposedly" she jokes) tourism, specializing in food and drinks. Andrea meets me at the ferry port and we take a quick trip 'round the town. "Dando la vuelta," as its called, is really popular in small towns, and most of these have a specified route everyone takes. Cozumel's route, of course, takes you along the main boardwalk.

After "la vuelta," we headed to Andrea's aunt and uncle's house, where she's staying while she goes to school. Apparently, Andrea's aunt Lupita knows me since I was a baby, but I can't seem to draw up more than a vague recognition of her. Either way, she's a spunky, freespirited woman who refuses to get married out of principle, something I haven't seen in Mexico yet.

Andrea's uncle Julio runs a tour operation, catering, like most of the Island, primarily to people who get off the cruise ships. Also like most of the Island, his business is running dangerously slow.

You see, Cozumel is experiencing a tripple wammy of a blow to its tourist (pretty much its only) sector. First of all, Summer is generally the low season here, since most of Cozumel's buisness comes from Norther tourists escaping the winter, and of course "spring breakers" which is now officially a word in Spanish.

The second thing working against them is the global economic crisis, which isn't exactly encouraging people to go on cruise ships. And the third thing, of course, is the bird flu, swine flu, H1N1, Influenza, Influenza Humana, or whatever you want to call it this week.

Several countries have closed their border to Mexico, the US has issued a travel advisory, and the cruise ships have stopped coming. All this despite the fact that Quintana Roo has had only 3 cases of Bird Flu (less than Virginia!) or the fact that the Island of Cozumel has had none, and is unlikely to develop one since the only point of ingress or egress is a really expensive ferry.

Thats not to say I'm one of those conspiracy theorists who doesn't believe in the virus, or thinks the government released it, though I've met a lot of those people here. No, I think this whole thing has been a good example of what I call the Disaster Aversion Paradox: whenever you take extreme measures to avert a disaster and succeed, everyone thinks you cried wolf, calls you an alarmist, thinks you made it up, etc. Of course, if Mexico hadn't closed all the schools, temporarilly banned large public gatherings, and in the epicenter, closed restaurants, bars and night clubs, we might be in a different situation. The epidemic might well have spun out of control, and then we would all be wishing we had done more.

Of course, thats not the prevailing opinion here in Cozumel, where international panic over the swine flu has brought the Cruise Ship dependent economy to a screeeching halt.


Eye of the Storm

I set off from Hermosillo to Cozumel today, with a lay over in Toluca, in the center of the country and the center of the flu epidemic. My aunts dropped me off at the airport in the morining, which was pretty normal except I had to fill out a questionaire listing the major symptoms of bird flu (we worried about bird flu for years, and when it finally did what we predicted it would do, spread to pigs and then to humans, we suddenly called it swine flu... I don't get it). I checked no for all the symptms, as would anyone who wants to get on a plane, regardless of whether they had them or not, making this a relatively useless gesture.

I got on the plane to find it was mostly empty, carrying about a third of its capacity. It was rather lonely, but I wasn't really feeling sociable with my mask on. It also had the immediate effect of giving me three seats to myself, so I stretched my legs and couldn't complain.

Right before we took off, the pilot and co-pilot came out and gave us a speech about the plane's filtration system. He said that the plane changes air with the outside 35 times per hour (or something) and that we woudn't be breathing the air of someone a few rows back or a few rows forward. This honestly did make me feel better, since I wasn't worried about the people leaving Hermosillo so much as the people coming from Toluca on the plane's arrival.

So I took my mask off, and promised myself I would put it back on when we got to Toluca.

The airline, Volaris, was the cheapest option, yet the plane was brand new, the service was great, and the head phones were free. The musical selection was young and hip, ranging from techno/electronic to a mix of Spanish and English rock. The plane ride felt like what air travel must have felt like in the 1970's, when it was tailored to a young, wealthy audience, and before it became the only viable form of Mass transportation in the US.

We arrived at Toluca's airport to find it just as lonely as the plane had been, though I kept my mask on just in case. When we took off again, a couple of masked health officials took my temperature with a really cool touchless infrared thermometer. Definitely a step up from the questionaire.

The plane ride was empty, uneventful, and masked. I arrived in Cancun, took my mask off, and hopped on the bus to Playa del Carmen. Along the way, I spoke to two European tourists who had arrived in Mexico City before the plague, only to find all the ruins suddenly closed one day. They hadn't been keeping up with the news, so they didn't find out about the flu until a journalist tried to interview them about it. Like me, they had flown to Cancun to escape the pannicked center of the country.

I arrived at Playa del Carmen, hopped on a rather expensive ($16 bucks!) ferry, filled out more questionaires, and finnally arrived at the Island of Cozumel.


*Image Credit: I'm not sure if I can use this one, but it has a share link on the website so what the heck. It came from SDP noticias.


Still in Hermosillo, hearing increasingly alarming reports of the spread of "la influenza" in Mexico City and the surrounding area. The government has closed all of the schools in Mexico, including universities, which I haven't heard of any country doing ever. This leaves Milly in the infuriatingly hilarious situation of having no classes for two reasons: one, because her school is on strike, and two, because of the bird flu.

It seems like this could get ugly, and I'm going to have to change my plans up a bit. Rather than backpack south from Sonora, it looks like I'm going to try to "jump over the virus and outrun it"* by flying to Quintana Roo in the Yucatan Penninsula. This means I'll skip most of Mexico, but I don't really feel like traveling through an area that looks like the begining of the Zombie apocalypse (though I did pick five items for that on facebook).

My Abuelito wants me to come back to Huatabampo and stay with him "till this thing blows over," but it looks like it could last months!

It seems that Quintana Roo, at the other end of the country, hasn't been hit hard yet. Sonora has three cases, while QR has 20, 17 of which have been proven to be false alarms. I have an old friend on the Island of Cozumel, and a contact furhter inland who has promised to show me his woodworking group. As such it is a good place from which to set off through Central America. The only problem is the my plane stops in Toluca, about 2 hours from Mexico City by car. That'll be fun!

While looking around for info on the flu, I found this collection of decorated surgical masks from Mexico City, so I'll leave you with that.


*I used this phrase while talking to Milly's sister Mariana, and she said it made her picture the virus as a big monster.
*Picture credits: the zombie image was taken at the 2008 Richmond Zombie Walk by flickr user thomashp. If you look closely you can see me (top, left from center) and my brother patrick (top left) among the zombies.