One of the first things we do when we land in a developing country is to secure our drinking water. Most countries like Guatemala do not filter their tap water so it can be full of parasites and bacteria. We need to use filtered water even to brush our teeth and remember to close our mouth when taking a shower.
During the dry season in Guatemala, it doesn’t really rain for six months. Farmers pump water from the lake to water their crops and there are water basins holding water to clean dishes and clothes with.
I think about how it is a luxury and a privilege to be able to twist the tap and have fresh clean water gushing out into the sink.
It saddens me that even though we are connected by the web and have brilliant people working with high technology we still lack access to clean water for millions of people around the world.
Our entry into Mexico started with a week in the quaint, small city of San Cristobal De Las Casas. This artisan center offers a colorful smorgasbord of art, crafts and food within a gorgeous valley setting that is punctuated each morning and evening by luscious sunrises and sunsets. The walled grid of cobblestone streets provides a rich playground for exploration, and we thoroughly enjoyed getting to know this city.
Our home base for the week was an Airbnb in a modest home on a steep hillside overlooking farmland in a lively neighborhood on the East side of town. Our hosts Sophie and Lalo were very accommodating and generous. Sophie works with a local indigenous community, finding ways to enrich their lives and Lalo recently purchased a plot of land outside of town where he is building the permaculture homestead of his dreams. One day, Lalo took us to his land to see the progress on his homestead. It was a joy to walk the land with him, dreaming and scheming about the possibilities and offering some pro-bono consultation, which he soaked up like a sponge.
Early March finds us in the picturesque city of San Cristobal De Las Casas, Mexico. Many of you may recall that we had planned to go to El Salvador and Nicaragua after Guatemala for about a month and then back up to Guatemala so that I could take a Permaculture Design Course on Lake Atitlan, and then on to Mexico for a month or so before heading to Europe this summer. Well, that was the plan, but our reality is shaping up differently, and that is what I truly love about this style of travel…nothing is set in stone until you actually do it (kinda).
For certain, we’d like to make it to El Salvador, Nicaragua and other parts of Latin America someday, but that will have to wait for another time as Mexico is calling us at the moment. We did visit the farm where the PDC takes place on Lake Atitlan, and it was a cool set-up with groovy people, but I felt it in my heart that it wasn’t the right step for me at this point in time.
A big part of our decision to head north rather than south was rooted in the many acquaintances we made with folks who had just been through Mexico and were raving about the many sweet spots in this country. Indeed word-of-mouth is a crucial reference source when traveling with an open ended schedule, as it gives us up-to-date insight that guidebooks can’t touch. Incidentally, we’re not using any guidebooks at this point in our travels, as the internet provides us with all of the info we need that direct contact with other travelers doesn’t cover.
Milpa refers to the ancient, Mayan agricultural practice of companion planting corn with beans and squash. Maize and beans are the two main staples throughout Mesoamerica, and within this planting scheme that westerners often refer to as ‘the 3 sisters’, these two crops enjoy a very symbiotic relationship. Corn grows a tall stalk quite quickly, but it’s also tough on the soil, depleting its nutrients rapidly and thoroughly. Beans are legumes that fix nitrogen and restore nutrients in the soil, while providing a nice protein source in the Mayan diet. They are climbers that benefit from a trellis, which is where the corn comes in to provide a natural trellis even after the cobs have been harvested and the stalks are dry. Squash completes the trifecta by providing another abundant, nutritious food source while serving as a ground cover around the corn and bean plants to keep weeds out and keep moisture in the soil. They also benefit from the nitrogen fixing tendencies of the beans and the natural trellises provided by the corn.
Permaculture is a term and a philosophy that has picked up a lot of steam in the world of sustainable agriculture since it’s inception nearly 40 years ago. And indeed Milpa is a popular component in modern permaculture, even though it’s been in practice for centuries in Mesoamerica. I find it interesting that most Mayans I’ve encountered have never even heard the term ‘permaculture’, but most of them are practicing it every day, just like many generations before them. The garden of the Spanish school we’re staying at is literally a food forest with over 50 tree species in a one acre space, most of which provide edible fruits, medicinal value and/or pollination, but Antonio has no idea that his garden is a model of permaculture…it’s just the only way he knows how to do things.
Last week Haruka and I took a little vacation from our vacation, and ventured to Fuentes Georginas hot springs about five hours away by chicken bus. The local buses around here have taken on the moniker ‘chicken bus’ due to the fact that they tend to get packed with locals and all of their wares including chickens and anything else that may need transport from here to there. Interestingly, the Guatemalan postal system evaporated several months ago when it’s contract with a private delivery company ended. It seems that most Guatemalans were hardly affected by this as they rarely used the postal system, but instead use chicken buses to move goods from place to place. As a result, nobody other than foreign residents really seems to care about the dissolution of the postal system, and it appears likely that it won’t resurface anytime soon.
While Jason is taking Spanish classes, I signed up for a five day cooking course where we get to cook a different Mayan dish everyday. Today we learned how to make Pepian, a traditional Mayan chicken stew. I had met Angela, the owner and Ines, my teacher, earlier last week when I signed up for the class. When I got there, they were preparing a fire in the outdoor kitchen set in a beautiful garden space. It is typical for Mayans to cook over an open fire.
Put yourself in someone else’s shoes…The flipside of the same coin…The shoe is on the other foot. Pick your idiom. This is where we’re at these days. Where we were once the producers, we’re now the consumers. Where we were previously the teachers, we’re now the students, and I for one am loving being on this side of the coin.
Supermarkets don’t exist here on Lake Atitlan. This is the land of tiendas, small general stores that serve the basic needs of the immediate neighborhoods around them, and there are many dozens of them within walking distance of our bungalow. Each one has its own focus of goods and its own personality, and over the course of a week, we tend to visit ten or more different tiendas to get a little bit of this and a little bit of that.