Web link

www. WaterForHumans.Org

Thursday, October 8, 2009

We are suffering technical difficulties

Do to a feature we do not understand we have lost most of our blog images. We are working on fixing the problem.

It looks like we will have to edit each post and re upload the images, thus this is a slow process.

Thank You

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

ProMexico Volunteer

We are pleased to announce that Eric Marhofer and his wife will be in Oaxaca for the next month or so improving their Spanish and volunteering for ProMexico. Eric will be supporting our efforts to keep our wetland project moving forward. He will be working closely with our partner NGO INSO, the University UABJO and both communities. We welcome his Environmental Engineering experience and the opportunity to work directly with ProMexico.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Back in the USA

After five weeks our team is back in the USA trying to adjust to life without the "Mango lady," and our outside patio office. With the new direction for our project we are focusing our efforts on growing the organization and starting a focused development program.

Now the hard work starts :)

Friday, August 7, 2009

Our last formal meeting

We spent the past few days not in meetings; however we have been working hard rewriting all of our web copy, executive summaries and funding letters. We tried to take a siesta prior to our last meeting with the other Oaxaca Rotary club at 9 pm. We had corresponded with this club in the prior week, but had not been able to contact them about attending this specific meeting, so we just showed up and invited ourselves. From what I have seen of the Rotary clubs in the Seattle area this would be impossible to just show up. We sort of learned from our last Rotary meeting, and this time we showed up at 9 pm for the scheduled 9 pm meeting. Even then we were still “Gringos,” as we were early. Shortly after 9 several of the Rotary officials started to trickle in. Claire introduced us to several officials. They instantly knew who we are and welcomed us warmly.

Little did we know that this would turn out to be a very important meeting for both the local Rotary club and us. First, there were close to 30 members there. This meeting was special because, it included many old and returning members. Because we were had not heard back from them, and they were excited to hear what we are up to, they squeezed us into the agenda to present our wetland project. The meeting opened with the formal “ringing of the bell” followed with introductions from everyone. The Rotary officers read their reports; we all stood for the saluting Mexico’s flag while the national anthem played. A fellow member presented a thorough presentation on geriatric injuries. Then Claire presented for us. Personally I was intimidated by the large group. I was concerned how they would receive our idea and request to support our efforts. As usual, my fear was ill-founded. The club was excited to hear that we are working on a new approach to the defunct and nonexistent sewage treatment plants. Several members asked clarifying questions and how they could help us with our project. After several more short presentations and introductions the formal meeting was closed. After the formalities, several members came to talk to us and stress that they would be proud to help us however they could. They realize the sewage problem is a systemic issue; one member stated it would be great to have a solution to show the “engineers” that there is a better way.

We left the meeting both tired and charged up. On one side we were tired and glad to have our last scheduled business meeting finished (and on a good note). On the flip side we were wired with excitement that we have another key partner to add to our team.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Jumping in the pool

Our entrepreneurship professors (Paul Hudnut, JimPoss, Gifford Pinchot) have a term for describing launching an enterprise. They use the term “jumping in the pool.” As we look back at our original idea of providing low cost water filters to underserved populations and then having a long term mission of more community based water solutions, we are now focused on our long term mission. After meeting with our initial target communities we have now flipped our priorities from water filters to implementing a natural sewage treatment wetland modeled after the system in place in Arcata CA (marsh 1, marsh 2).

Before coming to Oaxaca, we knew we needed to listen to our partners, to our customers (communities), and to be flexible and open, so that we could provide solutions to their most pressing needs. We were told that with most folks in Oaxaca we would have to talk around our ideas and not be direct. After our initial meeting with Maria of Santo Domingo Barrio Bajo Etla (SD) we knew we were headed toward a solution to their sewage issue. Much to our amazement, as we introduced our ideas to Maria (SD) and Justino Guadalupe Etla (GE), they jumped on the idea almost instantly and wanted to know more about it. Thus, we went from idea stage to solution stage very quickly.

As we look back, we all agree that our original idea was sort of like taking the first step in the shallow end of the pool. With the project we have now taken on, it feels more like we have jumped in the ocean. And, it feels GREAT. We say this because in just a few short weeks we have developed partnerships, relationships and commitments from the local communities, state & federal agencies, the university and our partner NGO: INSO. In building these commitments and partnerships, we have committed ourselves to follow though and put the money where our mouths have been.

Putting the money where our mouth is will be challenging, but we know we have a powerful public health story to tell, as well as, a fully sustainable solution.

We are now in our ocean adventure. The water is warm and GREAT. We know we have many challenging times ahead, but are ready for the adventure.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Sanitation Forum at INSO

We gulped two cups of coffee this morning in anticipation of the Grupo de Saneamiento meeting (Sanitation Group of the Water Forum). Juan Jose of INSO hastily organized the Group meeting (while we are still in town) to facilitate discussion between many key players involved in the potential wetland wastewater treatment project, including federal and state government representatives. Having visited the university’s wetland on Thursday, Justino (Guadalupe Etla), Maria & Camerio (Santo Domingo Barrio Bajo Etla), and Carlos (INSO), were well informed of the ins and outs of this type of wastewater treatment system. Also in attendance were Juan Jose and Francisco of INSO, Federal and State Commissioners of Water, and us, of course.

Carlos and Juan Jose facilitated the conversation by asking for observations, concerns and goals from each of the parties involved. We couldn’t have asked for a better combination to put our thinking caps on and problem-solve; at local, regional and national levels, we’ve gained necessary support to move a wetland sewage treatment project forward in Santo Domingo. The over-riding consensus brought to the table was that the time is now to lead the way in alternative technology, to be an example other communities can emulate, with sewage treatment, household rainwater catchment, composting latrines, and other clean water solutions. The group discussed at length how a wetland sewage treatment system in Santo Domingo could lead as an example to many other communities. Also, support from the national level could coincide with the 2010 celebrations (Mexican Independence bicentennial -- 1810 and Mexican Revolution centennial -- 1910). To honor these special events, all levels of Mexico’s government are supporting many civil projects. As a result, this type of sustainability project may fit nicely into their objectives. Many combined actions, both individual and cooperative, will allow humans and the natural environment alike to benefit. These actions are interrelated, and must be recognized by the government if they are to gain financial and political support.

Maria of Santo Domingo addressed again the issue of getting Etla on board, who up until now hasn’t been a part of the discussion; the State Water Commissioner said he would facilitate a conversation in order to come up with “real” solutions. Furthermore, these officials were very concerned about the damaged sewage pipe which impacts Santo Domingo, and pledged to work to remedy the situation. This fact alone is huge, as it will at least eliminate the sewage overflow into Santo Domingo. It is also important the federal and state government representatives visit the university’s wetland project. They pledged to coordinate with Erik (UMBJO) to see firsthand how wetland technology can work here in Mexico. This will be followed by conducting a follow-up review and looking at the initial project proposal. Depending on the outcome, the government could provide up to 70 percent of the project costs! It is also important to mention that private and state engineers are pressuring pueblos such as these to put in more expensive sewage plants, 70-90 percent of which fail due to lack of resources for maintenance, or poor design and construction. Both Maria and Justino were concerned about the potential wetland project costs, as much as we were about everyone’s commitment from all levels. Juan Jose did a magnificent job of tying this up, in stating that we do not need to discuss project costs at this point, we only need to agree to work together to bring this important opportunity and project to reality. With that said, we all agreed that this is a unique opportunity to demonstrate appropriate sustainable solutions, and pledged to work to ensure its success.

This meeting cascaded us even closer to reaching our water goals. Our business plan is significantly different now (all for the better), as it looks like we are implementing a major project related to our long-term mission. The group still needs to decide on a fix for the currently leaking black water pipe in Etla (which routinely overflows through Santo Domingo and lower communities). We are hopeful the state and federal representatives, who now are aware and very concerned about the issue, can assist in finding a speedy solution. In addition, we need to think about our overall business plan and other possible revenue streams such as the original filter idea.

On Monday afternoon, we will head back to Santo Domingo with Erik and other university staff to survey the site. This will include preliminary water testing, slope analysis and other basic design parameters. These data will allow Tressie and the UABJO team to scope out a preliminary design and project plan, as well as provide us with the necessary information for the proposals we will use for fundraising.

Friday, July 31, 2009

UABJO Wetland Visit

Today was another big meeting day as we had arranged for Maria (Santo Domingo Barrio Bajo Etla), Justino (Guadalupe Etla) and INSO to meet at the University (UABJO) to have Erik, Director of the Chemistry Department, give a tour of their wetland and explain in great detail how it works, how much it costs, and why the site in Santo Domingo would make a great location for this technology.
The meeting started at 11am and we finally ended about 2:30pm. We started off by taking a tour of the wetland. Maria and Justino kept saying “Wow I don’t believe what I am seeing and not smelling!!!” This walk-through was worth a million words and pictures. Before seeing the site they were both somewhat skeptical about the idea, and Carlos and Nelly (INSO) both commented that this is truly amazing! Erik then went through excerpts of several PowerPoint presentations to further explain the system, maintenance and costs. Then the discussion turned into a “design meeting,” with both Justino and Maria asking how a project like this could be implemented in their community. Erik was outstanding in explaining the collaborative process that would be used with UABJO (including many departments, and students). This would include technical expertise and direct student project education. Maria and Justino agreed that they could come up with (hopefully) ½ of the budget and much of the physical labor needs, depending on how much the federal and state governments are able to supply. To reinforce their commitment, Justino has already met with his community advisory council to discuss the project and they are fully supportive.

We left the meeting exhausted, and energized at the same time, and grabbed a cab to the Zocalo for a late lunch to celebrate another successful collaborative meeting. The rainclouds finally and our stroll home turned into a jog.

Many-Meeting Martes

Tuesday, July 28th was another busy day for us, with three major events scheduled. “Mango Lady’s” several trays of fruit (mango, pineapple, watermelon…) got us going as we made our way to the patio office below INSO.

Event #1
We packed up our bags and joined Nelly for a trip up to INSO’s permaculture demonstration site, El Pedregal. The site rests in the foothills SE of Oaxaca, only accessible via a steep, bumpy road meant for 4-wheel drive vehicles only. Arriving at the entrance, we enjoyed a panoramic view of the greater Oaxaca valley; the ominous clouds had yet to roll in and obstruct our view. The site is about 3 hectares (7.5 acres) in size, and was donated by a local land owner. INSO has been improving the site for the past 5 years, turning an arid, rocky mountainside into an arable, green and healthy land.

A major part of INSO’s work is centered on reforestation. The old growth forest, once extending to the valley floor, now starts another 300 ft up the hillside. In performing reforestation one must “slow the water down” while it flows down a treeless hillside. This is where the techniques of permaculture come in to play. One of these techniques is “terracing” of the hillside, in which trenches are dug along the hill’s contours. In these new trenches (area #7 on the map) they have planted grasses to slow soil erosion. (Please see the site map showing the major features below for the major features of INSO demonstration site.)

We spent several hours hiking around the site as Nelly explained each of the major features and how they contribute to the overall system, as well as pointed out many local plants and birds that have begun to inhabit the area again. Main features include water catchment systems, hillside stabilization-re planting and green houses. The two main water catchment basins hold over 3.3 million L. combined.

The black “green house” is really a big bird net to protect the 1,000+ tree seedlings, while the big white “green house” grows tomatoes and other produce (recently yielding over 5 metric tons from just this site!).

Specially designed composting latrines also play an integral role in the project. These latrines are designed to directly produce compost that can be used to grow food crops without any contamination, INSO has another ongoing latrine project in Santo Domingo Barrio Bajo Etla, and have used the compost on corn fields for outstanding yield.

Event # 2 "The Oaxaca Hub"
We arrived back in town just in time for a short siesta before the next two meetings of the day. At 5pm we met with the “Oaxaca Hub.” Started by Mark Beams and Sten Maldonado who are modeling this project after the “Hubs” in Europe, the “Hub’s” premise is to be a shared office space for small local NGO’s that work in the country and need a central place to call home. More importantly, it is a place where everyone can collaborate for the common good. The “Hub” is in its infancy. We met at a local restaurant and talked about our common goals and challenges, and devised ways to collaborate to help each other realize our dreams. After an hour and a half, we walked back to our casa for a second siesta before meeting with a local Rotary club at 9pm.

Event # 3 Rotary Club
We were typical gringos as we arrived at the meeting place about 8:45, and the first Rotary folks showed up about 9:15. It seems like either folks here in Oaxaca are really prompt or they are on more of a Mexico time schedule. By 9:30, the bulk of the group had arrived and we began with introductions. This meeting was called especially for us, and the rotary president rang the honorary bell they received on Rotary International’s 100 Anniversary (in 2005). In typical Rotary fashion the meeting was formally called to order, and we all saluted the flag of Mexico. Then Claire described what we were doing in Oaxaca and what we hope to accomplish. The club members asked many great questions about how we have built the relationships with INSO, the University and the communities. As the questions and answers flew back and forth, they became increasingly supportive and interested in what we are trying to do. Then the formal part of the meeting ended and we all shared a meal while small-talking and stories about ourselves. We staggered back home and arrived well after midnight. Luckily, Wednesday was a “no meeting day,” and boy did we need a rest day! I (Rick) was suffering from a “gluten hangover” from some wheat I ate on Tuesday. I am Gluten intolerant and when I eat gluten (wheat) I get a big allergy reaction that manifests itself by zapping all my energy for a day or two. Good thing there’s gelato!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Saturday 25 July— A Dangerously Delicious Day

On weekends, work little, play tourist lots! But can’t get the day started without a stop for coffee and hot Oaxacan chocolate. Sugar-high and caffeinated, we energetically bounced south of the Zocolo to the “Mecca” of mole

and chocolate to continue our delicious pursuits. We stopped at several chocolate factories and watched them grind and blend the cocoa, nuts and spices.

Filling our mouths with samples and shopping bags with goodies at each fragrant stop, we were now ready to take on the expanse of the artisan market, which covers a square block.

Among rows of colorful dresses, knitted handbags and painted treasures, we bargained and slowly emptied our pockets, purchasing several clothing items. After a quick lunch, we plunged into the public market, a quintessential Mexican market experience.

Everything from meat and fish to produce, belts, sunglasses and colorful pictures of Catholic Saints all crammed into micro spaces. We wandered around gazing and checking out the wares; Rick found a new sun hat and nice shirt.

As we strolled back home we passed the gelato place and of course had to stop for a cup (the heat and humidity is a great excuse). After several hours of siesta, we made our way to the International Mezcal festival taking place in the park several blocks from home. Mezcal is made from agave plant, just like tequila, only with a different distillation process. Where tequila manufactures use yeast to reduce distillation time (also making tequila weaker), Mezcal producers allow 15-20 for the agave to distil naturally, giving it quite a flare. Cream flavored, fruits and strong straight stuff are all tasty, AND locally produced in Oaxaca and the neighboring state of Guerrero! For $15 pesos (a little over $1 USD) we entered a maze of Mezcal booths and sampled way too many brands to count (we got just a micro taste of each). After testing a variety of flavors and brands, we bought a few of our favorites to bring home. We were amazed of the difference in each brand, like scotch in that each distillery makes a little different flavor.

We made our way back home for a quick siesta and our again for a light dinner. One thing to note about Oaxaca. on any given day (weeknd or work day) in the morning the streets are empty, however by 8-9 pm the walking streets are so packed with folks it can be difficult to naviguate you way through the crowds. This is just the opposite of any given US city! it is always a treat to walk down to the Zocolo in the eventing and have it completely packed with people hanging out listening to live music, talking with friend and just enjoying life.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Visit to a family SE of Oaxaca

Friday started as a typical work day except that Claire was still suffering the after effects of a migraine headache. Our regular routine in the morning commenced: we walked to INSO, stopped to visit the “Mango Lady” and buy some freshly cut mango, pineapple, watermelon.

Then we set up shop in the lower patio with a fresh cup of coffee brewed by the building maintenance woman. We found a homeopathic doctor for Claire to see on Monday in case she is still not on the up and up.

At noon, we closed up shop in order to early catch a cab out to see a family South East of town, in a small community. Prior to leaving, I (Rick) met Noel and Luis who are doing construction and maintenance in Seattle on a friend’s house. They are from the district of Santa Maria Atzompa (near Mt Alban Wikipedia). At my offer to take a package to Oaxaca and deliver it to their family, Luis and Noel eagerly handed me a box of toys and photos. This particular Friday afternoon we were invited to deliver these presents and join the family for lunch. We caught a cab from our home stay towards the community taxi station. The taxi driver said he would drive us out to Santa Maria for $200 pesos, and we refused, and told him to take us to the community taxi station. He then lowered the price to $100 pesos and we agreed. The typical fair to get across town is about $45-50 pesos and then 10-15 per person in the community taxis. We arrived in Santa Maria to find that there were four streets with the same name. We decided asking for people, over street names, worked better in this tiny pueblo, and soon, and we found Maria’s house.

Maria ran up the steep dirt path with four houses on it (all her family) and waved enthusiastically; at 67 years old, her tired face still boasts a beautiful, big smile. The small stream just below their house is used to collect fresh water, via 1.5” plastic sprinkler pipe.

We knew this would be a special day for us and Maria, as she had not seen her sons in over 10 months, and Luis had not yet seen his 8-month-old daughter.

When we arrived, Maria broke into tears as we introduced ourselves. She was overjoyed to find that both Claire and Susan spoke Spanish. Maria talked to Claire and Susan during most of the visit, explaining that she makes and sells tortillas for the locals in her village. She prepared a great lunch of chicken (probably one of theirs), rice and homemade mole, and of course great tortillas. There was a gaggle of kids that were way too cute and very dressed up for the visit. As you might expect, they were super shy at first, but soon they were vying to get in front of the constantly running video cameras. After lunch we went up the road to her daughter’s small eatery. Like most Latin American social visits, this one went on for many hours and at some level they expected us to stay for dinner and spend the night. However, after 4 hours or so we decided it was time to go back to the city. Maria told us about which taxis to catch so we wouldn’t be overcharged. Then she walked us back up to the road and flagged down two taxis. To our amazement, she piled in with us to be certain we would arrive safely. The taxi let us off in front of the HUGE vegetable market on the SE side of town near the city bus station. Maria then walked us through the market to the bus station and made certain we got on the correct bus. We tried to give her a return taxi fair but she refused. We arrived back home exhausted from the intensely emotional day.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Meeting with Guadalupe Etla & Santo Domingo Barrio Bajo Etla

Meeting with: Presidente Municipal, Guadalupe Etla

Antonio from UABJO picked us up in the huge University van (Erik was tied up in a meeting and could not attend) to drive us to our first meeting with C.P. Justino Matadmas Jimenez, the Presidente Municipal of Guadalupe Etla. Antonio guided the van as skillfully as a VW bug through the Oaxaca traffic to Guadalupe Etla, about 15 Km North West of Oaxaca City.
Arriving early for our 6pm meeting, we hung out in the plaza where the rides from the weekend’s fiesta were being dismantled. The officials of these smaller municipalities typically work some kind of day job and then do civic duties after hours.

When Justino arrived he instantly got down to business. Claire introduced us and Antonio to Justino and then it was like we were off to the races. We were excited to hear that Justino had received our letters, read them, and was ready to jump right in, discussing both problems and potential solutions. Claire started the discussion by filling Justino in on the conservation we had with Maria from Santo Domingo Barrio Bajo Etla, and her primary concern of the black water (raw sewage) contamination. Then Antonio went into great detail about how a wetland treatment system could work in Santo Domingo Barrio Bajo Etla, and how it would help resolve one of the major issues Guadalupe Etla currently suffers from. Antonio and Justino proceeded to talk for an hour and a half with Claire filling in the gaps; but for the most part, we let the discussion go where it needed to.

Justino was excited to hear about INSO and the work Juan Jose is doing to improve the social and environmental health of the greater Oaxaca Valley. Then, he joked to Antonio about “wow you folks at the University actually do something worthwhile.” Justino’s main concern centered around the potential maintenance costs of the wetland; Antonio tried his best to state that there is very little ongoing maintenance involved. It was also interesting to hear Justino bring up the idea of water filters as a way to generate funds to support the wetland maintenance. It seems like a major part of our job here right now is to introduce folks and get them talking.
Guadalupe Etla has many ongoing civic programs including a semi-annual trash cleanup, a recycling program, and a school environmental education program. This Municipality is quite different from Santo Domingo Barrio Bajo Etla in that the entire town is supplied by a community water system. Almost everyone has flush toilets with individual septic systems. At one time there was a community drinking-water well, which has since become contaminated with iron and manganese. Like Santo Domingo Barrio Bajo Etla, Guadalupe Etla uses 5-gallon water jugs for potable water, delivered a few times a week.

We left the meeting after several hours with Justino fully onboard and ready to join our efforts to move forward with potential wetland project. Juan Jose of INSO told us early on that we must be very slow, and talk around ideas and plans with the community members. However, we have found everyone has wanted to jump right in and seems ready to go on to the next stage.
Antonio guided the huge van back to the Centro (the city center) and drove around while pointing out many unique sites and telling us a history of Oaxaca. We were all amazed at his ability to guide the van through the small streets that are jammed with cars, busses, and trucks. He recommended a great restaurant for us to have a late dinner at. We took him up on his recommendation and he was right. It was great.

Meeting with: Agente Municipal, Santo Domingo Barrio Bajo Etla

Our second meeting with Maria Soledad Diaz Gonzalez with Santo Domingo Barrio Bajo Etla (21 July) started by having a misunderstanding on the meeting time, and when we arrived with Erik and Antonio, Maria thought the meeting was set for 3 pm and we showed up at 5 pm. Without Maria we showed Erik and Antonio the black water issue, the old dump and the potential wetland site. They were excited to see the topography as it is nearly flat with a slight slope (read good drainage and water flow). We arranged with Maria to meet her the day after we met with Justino.

The meeting with Erik and Maria was much like the meeting with Justino in that Erik and Maria talked for almost 2 hours straight and we only got a few words in edgewise. After the meeting Maria took us to a corn field that is using the output from the composting lue’s that INSO is helping build. The corn was over our heads while the section next to it was only a few feet tall! We then went to look at another challenging site where the main river comes in from across the main highway to Mexico City. There is a small catch basin with a spillway. The catch basin was totally polluted with black water and trash. This is definitely a potential future project.

Looking forward:
This coming week we have three important meetings on our plate. First, is with a local Rotary club on Tuesday night (9pm). Wednesday Maria and Justino will be coming to the university to see their wetland project and learn firsthand about it. Then, on Friday we have a very important meeting with INSO’s sanitation working group. This meeting will include state, and local government officials, INSO’s technical sanitation team, the University, Maria and Justino. Our hope for this meeting is again get these folks talking and on the same page, and if we are lucky come away with a potential scope for a project.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Que Viva la Guelaguetza!

We roll out of bed as morning breaks, gallos still crowing from the casa next door. Sun beams through thick clouds in usual fashion of an overcast Oaxacan morning. “Don’t think I’ve ever gotten up this early for a fiesta,” I mumble, as we stumble out the door at 7am sharp. Lunes de Cerro – Monday on the Hill – is not your typical way to begin the work week. Oaxaca’s annual celebration takes place each July, bringing together indigenous groups from each of its seven regions to share their unique culture with nationals and internationals alike. They each perform traditional song and dance while wearing their regional dress under the blazing summer sun.The Guelaguetza festival recognizes a commitment to sharing – cultures, food, dance, even labor, all done between individuals for the betterment of the community. It also marks the beginning of the rainy season, when ancient cultures performed sacrifices and ceremonies for the Gods to ask for good fortune and yield. Centeotl, Goddess of corn, is also praised and celebrated.

As we trudge up the sloping staircase that leads to the amphitheater, our eyes meet the thousands of eager faces already filling the free section; many yawn drowsily, having rushed to secure their spots at 3am. Fortunately, we’d forked over the dinero for a reserved section, but we’d still have to stake a claim on a central cement bleacher for good photo ops. A young couple gabs excitedly in German to my left, and another colorfully clad mango vendor speaks Zapateco, one of Mexico’s 62 indigenous languages, to her grandson. This morning we would have the honor to attend North America’s largest indigenous celebration, witnessing vibrant colors, endless music and wild dancing.
We perch comfortably on our free Coca-Cola butt cushions, hardly squinting under free sombreros, and drinking delicious free coffee (let the sharing begin)! At the end of each group’s performance, the crowd jumps and wails in hopes of catching an authentic goodie tossed to them; we are fortunate to nab a local delicacy as it flew like a saucer into our laps – a tortilla with fried grasshoppers for sprinkling! Yum!

Sing-a-longs and sore butts, tubas and fireworks (yes, even in the daytime), we spend six hours enjoying the best of what Oaxaca has to offer on Lunes de Cerro. The colorful movements, collaborative music and meandering crowds won’t soon be forgotten.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Flower Celebration in Guadalupe Etla

The “Festival of Virgin Carmen” is one of Guadalupe Etla’s most anticipated celebrations of the year. On Friday, July 17th, our adventure began with a taxi ride to the 2nd class bus station, with an enthusiastic bus driver eager to fill us in on the city’s festivities. Passing a church plaza with a temporary stage set up, we learned of a MUST-SEE event that would take place Saturday. After our usual wandering, we found the “Street of Taxi’s.” where we grabbed a cooperative to the community, about 17 kilometers from Oaxaca City. The ride out to Guad Etla was quick and painless, as most taxi rides are in Mexico. Arriving an hour early for the 5pm festival, we found the town mostly deserted to our amazement. A mini carnival ride sat alone in still anticipation in the Zocolo (town square), awaiting the dozens of children who’d giggle and enjoy them later. In only a few minutes of wandering, our ears had led us to a band warming up nearby. Concerned we’d missed it or arrived on the wrong day, we asked Susan to inquire with the church’s Bell Ringer, who assured us that the festival would indeed begin at 5pm.
Setting the Stage:
In front of the church sits a nice courtyard with a lovely garden. The church boasts the typical twin bell towers, and a row of chairs has been set up for the band. Large bamboo and paper-mache figurines -- an oversized blond woman and gangly armed brunette man -- stand guard on either side of the main door, appearing like some kind of strange sentries.

The Start:
As the clock chimed 5pm, the band marched up a side street towards the church, led women dressed in colorful, traditional costumes (skirts & hand-embroidered blouses) who carried large wicker flower basket arrangements on their heads. A man equipped with far too many skyrockets, which would serve as his sound-off that the festivities were underway, headed the march. The band assembled in the church courtyard and proceeded to play very loud, off-key mariachi for about an hour. The flower women danced skillfully while balancing the 20 pound arrangements atop their heads, which adds about 10 feet of height to each.

The tall figurine sentries came to life as two men slipped inside and began whirling viciously around the plaza; giant globes floated through the crowd. Soon the crowd , complete with figurines, globes and flowers, formed a line and began strutting down a side street. We followed along, the tres gringos in a sea of smiling locals. Little did we know this was the start of a 2-hour long parade that would wind throughout the entire town. Not a moment passed without the startling rocket explosions making us jump from up ahead. The whirling figurines had found 3 more tall, gangly friends; the band played loud and proud; flower ladies juggled their arrangements cautiously among the 200+ parade participants.

Boy, did we stand out! The parade stopped several times along the route and the flower ladies performed a series of line dances, the men twirled and juggled the large ornamental globes, and the figurines continued spinning. Kids scrambled to catch their share of candy strewn along the parade route.

After several stops, an animated local offered us some “mescal”, a local drink made with agave, and insisted we partake. Several of the flower ladies wanted us to mount the dancing figurines on our heads or twirl globes, but we kindly declined. Finally, the parade wound back to its starting point, and we felt as though we’d crossed finish line. Children mounted the mechanical carnival ride and the rolling street party turned into the Zocolo party. Our time was up, and we hopped a cab back to Oaxaca.

The generosity and friendliness of locals didn’t end their; upon arrival to Oaxaca we needed to cross a wide, busy street. Susan asked a policeman for directions and he instantly turned around and stopped traffic (3+ lanes in each direction), and walked us across the street. We are constantly blown away by how nice and helpful everyone is each time we ask for help, directions or even suggestions for restaurants. On our way home we stopped to have dinner again at the Escapularia, where Susan did her magic and we had various “tapas” and sampled all 5 different local “mole’s”.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Morning Work Routine in Oaxaca

Bird calls awaken us bright an early as strong Oaxacan sun shines through our homestay windows. After tasty tortillas and pinto beans for breakfast, we open our front door and are bombarded by rainbow-colored homes lining our quiet street. The typical Oaxacan architecture -- squared, modest two-stories with inner courtyards – is inspiring. Mexicans are certainly not afraid of color. We pass rose vendors and freshly sliced mango stands as we tread the cobblestone streets leading to our patio “office” below.

Juan Jose Consejo, the executive director-- Ashoka Fellow, of The Institute for Nature and Society of Oaxaca INSO, lets us use his WiFi service during the week, making our lives much easier. This very fact alone saves us lots of time and money as we use our own Netbooks to do email, Skype calls and write letters. We all agree this is the must say this is the nicest office we’ve ever had, encircled by plants and tall columns under a blue sky. A few hours pass quickly as we type away, translate and prepare for community visits that happen most afternoons.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

News from Oaxaca

We arrived in Oaxaca on Sunday, 7/12. Our accommodations are excellent. We had asked Juan Jose Consejo, the executive director of The Institute for Nature and Society of Oaxaca (INSO, an NGO), to suggest some residents to us for some extended home stays. He connected us with a small hotel-like facility that specializes in extended stays. We are very happy.

Monday morning we met with Juan Jose, an Ashoka fellow. He has been in Oaxaca for twenty years working on water issues. Our long term plans are totally in line with the work he has been doing for some time now in our initial watershed. He spent several hours with us going over the details of the programs in which they are currently involved. The three principles that underlie all of their work are:

1. Don’t push communities.
2. Work on social enhancement and natural processes together.
3. Do this work in a collaborative way with governments (federal, state and local), local communities, social organizations and research institutions.

INSO basically assists those who want to help themselves.

Tuesday we accompanied Paul and Nellie, two INSO employees, to Santo Domingo Barrio Bajo Etla. There, we met with Maria Soledad Diaz Gonzalez, the mayor. After introductions and a brief overview of what we do and the overall water situation there, she took us on a tour of the village. There are approximately 3000 residents in Santo Domingo, one school and one well. We started the tour at the sewage treatment plant, which is currently not functioning. (Juan Jose later told us that 90% of the waste water treatment plants built in the watershed do not work.) She said that the plant was built in 1996 and stopped working in 2000 because of maintenance issues. Since then, raw sewage has flowed out of this area downhill to the next village Guadelupe Etla. Right next to the broken sewage treatment center is a dump which includes medical waste. The dump has been building up for fifteen years, but none of the trash is from Santo Domingo Barrio Bajo. It was all illegally dumped there from other areas. The community now has a twenty-four hour guard (citizens of the town) on duty to insure that no more dumping takes place.

On our way back to the mayor’s office, we passed a broken sewage pipe. She said that during times of heavy rain, sewage flows out of that pipe and comes into Santo Domingo, contaminating the village and residences. From there it continues downhill to Guadelupe Etla. The broken pipe belongs to the main municipality in that area, Etla, but they have not been able to get Etla to fix it. Maria believes that there are many illnesses in her community that are caused by ‘dirty’ water, not drinking dirty water (everyone uses clean bottled water for drinking), but being around raw sewage. She spoke of one particular home that was flooded with rainwater mixed with wastewater. Since then, the family has been plagued with eye irritations, skin rashes and many other unexplained illnesses. The town has been working with INSO for one year now to replace flushing toilets with dry latrines (composting toilets). This will help the situation in Santo Domingo and Guadelupe Etla, but Etla also needs to participate in any solution that is brought forward.

We have been in email contact with the mayor of Guadelupe Etla and plan to meet with him next Wednesday. These two communities work well together and should be able to work together in any joint effort to solve their water issues, but Etla also needs to participate. Santo Domingo’s relationship with Etla is not good. We will return to Santo Domingo on Tuesday to see some of the good things they are doing about water and, while we are here in Oaxaca, will introduce ourselves to Etla in an effort to begin a dialogue with them about water issues.

As we left Santo Domingo, we felt that the site of the failed treatment plant and adjacent dump may be a good potential location for a natural wastewater treatment area. It is, however, right next to a cemetery which, by all means, must be protected.

On Wednesday, 7/15, we met with Erik Martinez Torres, the Director of the Chemistry Department of the Universidad Autonoma Benito Juarez de Oaxaca (UABJO). He offered his department’s expertise to test the water in Santa Domingo Barrio Bajo Etla and in Guadalupe Etla. His department will do the testing, that they have the capability of doing, at no charge and will help facilitate testing for metals (which they cannot do) in Oaxaca. He assured us that there would be little or no charge for heavy metal testing.

He has also offered to accompany us on our trips next week on Tuesday and Wednesday to the communities of interest to initiate the testing. They will provide transportation with a van that seats ten. He also stated that if it seems appropriate for other departments at the university to get involved with this project, then that would not be a problem. The medical and microbiology schools are prime candidates.