Hello from Cuernavaca – My most intense day so far: more language studies, 3 interviews, a guided eco-hike and dinner at the Marco Polo

I have a habit of cramming a few too many things into my schedule, and I think yesterday was such a day.

I started my day with a nice breakfast and then took a taxi to the Cetlalic language school. Cetlalic is known for its dedication to political activism and strongly supports the causes of indigenous people, women, gays and lesbians and other marginalized minorities.

My two co-students from Germany, my teacher Mario and I had a very interesting conversation about Mexico and its political system. He explained the 3 major political parties (PAN, PRI, PRD), two of which are rightist parties, and the last of which is leftist. In 1988 apparently there was an election scandal, where the PRD party was leading, but for 20 minutes all the computers experienced a failure counting the votes, and when the TV cameras returned to the vote counting process, the PAN party was suddenly in the lead and ended up winning the election. This echoes many of the comments about political corruption that I have been hearing widely from people in all walks of life here.

My teacher Mario (second from left) on the balcony where we had our lessons

Mexico is an interesting country, since I am here I have heard a multitude of people refer to the entrenched corruption that is part of the way of doing things here. The term “mordida” means “bribe”, and a mordida might be required when you get stopped by a policeman on the highway or when a large international company might want to build a shopping centre in a historically significant part of town that might affect archeological sites.

A variety of people have commented that many politicians start out poor, but end up being millionaires by the time they leave office, and confidence in the political system is generally low. This is particularly interesting since national elections are coming up on July 2 of this year. By the way, the Mexican presidency is only elected every 6 years.

Our teacher went on to tell us some examples of active local citizen resistence where village residents prevented a gas station from being built., using a variety of tactics. To this day the fully functional gas station has never been put into operation.

A local protest regarding development and access to water

After this interesting 2 hour discussion, we returned again to more mundane Spanish grammar topics such as the difference between ser and estar, and we practiced how to form conditional sentences, using the beloved Spanish subjunctive.

At noon it was time again for my other explorations while my colleagues with their Spanish practice. I had a meeting with a young gentleman by the name of Ruben Cortes who runs a local adventure travel and sightseeing company as well as a local budget hotel. When we met he told me that he has a degree in international commerce, and that he just loves outdoor activities. His company provides sightseeing tours, guided tours to local museums, a variety of outdoor adventure activities (hiking, mountain climbing, rafting, rappelling, SCUBA diving – they are certified PADI scuba diving instructors) and many more.

Ruben Cortes during our nature hike

The Mexican State of Morelos is a wonderful area for nature lovers and outdoor adventurers. There are a variety of mountains, most of which are former volcanoes, and the region offers boundless nature adventure opportunities. His family’s hotel, the Hotel Royal, is located right in Downtown Cuernavaca and offers budget accommodation between 240 and 350 pesos a night in simple hotel rooms with TV and private bathrooms. After the interview was finished, Ruben suggested that we meet later on today and that he would give me a sample of his services in the form of a brief hike through a nature area on the outskirts of town.

At 2:30 I had my next interview. I met Pablo Buitron from a local non-profit organization called “Fundacion Communidad”. Pablo has a doctorate in management from the University of Texas as well as an MBA from the University of Buffalo, NY, so he speaks excellent English. His non-profit organization focuses on fundraising for local community projects and for supporting micro-business activities. The interesting thing in his business is that he focuses on his community’s assets (rather than on the “problems”), and that to him the term “community” is far more important than the term “market”.

Picture from one of Fundacion Comunidad’s community initiatives

Pablo and I had a great connection, we both have business backgrounds, but we both believe in the importance of social enterprise and real entrepreneurial responsibility to our communities. Pablo mentioned that since the inception of his organization, they have raised funds in the neighbourhood of 15,000,000 pesos (about US$1.5 million) and more than 40,000 people have benefited from their programs. Apparently, 90% of the people they work with are women and he says in his opinion by far the greatest change in Mexico’s culture has taken place in the last 50 years in terms of the status of women. At the same time he admits that the status of women in Mexico, particularly in the rural areas, can be 100 years behind other countries.

Pablo was kind enough to drop me off downtown at an Internet café and after that I made my way to the next appointment: Casa Vamos. Casa Vamos is a non-profit organization funded by a couple from Vermont who had fallen in love with Mexico and its people and who wanted to do something about the poverty that still exists in its country.

Agustin, from Casa Vamos

So I went to the beautiful mansion that Casa Vamos runs on Francisco Leyva Street and sat down with its caretaker Agustín to chat. I was also supposed to meet a gentleman by the name of Alejandro who is the executive director of the organization, but unfortunately he had had a car accident and wasn’t able to make it. Agustín was kind enough to give me a brief overview of his organization, that they have more than 20 projects that help children, adults and older people who need it the most. For now, Casa Vamos, the mansion, is used to generate funds for the non-profit foundation. It’s a very unique concept: Casa Vamos is run like a bed and breakfast, it has 4 guest rooms, all very large with private bathrooms, in a wonderful stylishly decorated mansion. The price is reasonable, between $50 and $100 per night, and all revenue goes to the charitable foundation.

Agustín also told me that even though he is an agronomy engineer, he spent five years in local mountain villages as a social worker, helping the poor people and in the 5 years he was there, the mortality rate in this particular location went from 80% to less than 30%. His work made a huge difference in the community and whenever he goes back to visit them, and he does so frequently since he gets invited to weddings and other functions, all the local inhabitants welcome him enthusiastically and show their appreciation for the help he gave them. Whenever Agustín talks about this time in his life, his eyes light up and it is obvious how much this time meant to him. He is very happy to have an opportunity now with Casa Vamos, so he can continue to make a difference in the community.

A view of the Barranca de Santa Maria as the sun starts to go down

Roughly around 6 pm my adventure travel specialist Ruben came to pick me up and we drove from the central area of town to the outskirts on the north to go on our eco-hiking adventure. We went to an area called Santa Maria, and on the way Ruben pointed out all major points of interest. I asked him how come he knows so much about the city and he indicated that since his company provides tour-guiding services as well, he spent a lot of time educating himself about the city, its history and its natural environment. He even consulted some local archives and historians.

The Santa Maria area is a rather poor area and was an independent village prior to being gobbled up by Cuernavaca. We parked the car and hiked down into a barranca (ravine) with a river at the bottom. Cuernavaca is located in the shadow of several ancient inactive volcanos and the soil is made up of conglomerate material. Many small rivers come down from the mountain tops, and the water’s erosion has created more than 70 ravines in Cuernavaca – certainly the most predominant topographical features of this town. There is apparently only one street in town that is level (built under the dictator Porfirio Diaz), all other streets are at an incline due to the topography.

Beautiful flowers in this ravine

Ruben explained that houses have been built without permits in many of Cuernavaca’s ravines, and the people that live there have no sewer systems, no access to the city’s water system. As far as electricity is concerned they tap into the power system illegally. The city can’t do much since it is unable to rehouse these people after a possible eviction.

Similarly, Cuernavaca used to have a railroad which has since been abandoned in the last 10 years. The steel of the railway tracks was removed and sold off, and local people came and settled in the former railway corridor, of course without building permits. Again, the government can’t really do much about these settlements.

Once we arrived at the bottom of the barranca, we saw a local family doing their laundry. They live in very poor conditions and don’t have washing machines, so whenever necessary, they take all their dirty laundry, come to the river, wash everything by hand and dry it on a string hung between two trees. Definitely a full day endeavour.

Ruben, my eco-hiking guide

Ruben and I hiked on and he explained the different climactic zones and the variety of trees. There is a temperate zone and above that is a coniferous zone with a great variety of plants, animals and birds. We made our way forward around roots and rocks beside the river bed. In this part of the river the water is totally clear and local people capture it in long rubber pipes (hundreds of meters long) that run beside the river bed and then lead up to their houses. Again, they tap into the water on their own since they don’t have access to any government-provided water system. As we continued we walked past 2 trout farms that cultivate fresh-water fish for commercial purposes. After about 45 minutes we arrived at a cascada – a fully enclosed mountain wall that normally has a waterfall, but since it is dry season right now there was no water cascading down the rock wall.

Rubber pipes supply water to local people

Here was the end of our walk, so we turned around to make our way back. We stopped at the first trout farm to talk to the owner Javier. He cultivates trout in this very remote location without road access. In addition he runs a restaurant from here, so that means he always has to pick up his supplies (beer, drinks, food, etc.) and carry them on his back to his restaurant. Equally he has to carry his merchandise – freshly caught trout – out of this area for 1.5 kilometers to transport it to local markets. He mentioned that he regularly carries loads of 50 kg and although he has a rather slight build, many other people have said that they would never be able or want to do all the physical work that he does, but Javier loves it.

Interestingly, Javier comes from an urban family that has always owned businesses, and he used to run his family’s company in the city before he moved out to this remote area. Javier is very happy when he talks about his business, and he has found his niche hidden away amongst the foliage of the Barranca de Santa Maria.

On our way we saw some beautiful flowers, trees and royal palms. The family that we had seen earlier had finished doing their laundry and Ruben was kind enough to ask them if they were willing to have their picture taken and they agreed. We chatted a bit and they said that doing their laundry is pretty much a full-day activity and they have to carry everything in and out.

The family returns from washing their laundry in the river

We saw a beautiful evening sky when we made our way back to Ruben’s car and the whole area had such a pristine feel to it. Ruben explained that interest in nature in Mexico is still in its infancy. In all of Mexico City (25 million people) there are only 4 stores that sell tents and outdoor equipment. People are more enchanted with football and baseball and environmental awareness barely exists yet, as evidenced by traces of garbage that can be found in many nature areas.

Ruben’s interest in nature was awakened when he went on a trip to Canada’s West Coast and fell in love with hiking and nature exploration. He also said that Mexico is a haven for bird-watchers, although local residents have no interest in that activity.

After our 1.5 hour hike he dropped me off downtown so I could have a nice little dinner. On the way to the city centre he pointed out to me the oldest church in Latin America which was built in 1525.

One of Cuernavaca’s chapels at night, across from the Marco Polo Restaurant

He dropped me off right across from the cathedral at the famous Marco Polo Restaurant where I was looking foward to an Italian dinner. I hadn’t really eaten much all day, so this was going to be a nice way to end an extremely compact day. Unfortunately all the seats on the outside balcony facing the beautiful lit-up church were taken, but they gave me a nice table facing the interior courtyard. I had a delicious Stracchiatella Soup and a simple Ensalata Mista. After that I walked past the Palacio de Cortés where there was all sorts of street life and I hopped into a bus to get back to where I was staying. I had a very nice chat with my host Cinthia’s family and told them about my compact day.

Sometimes I can’t believe how much I manage to cram into my day, but this one was definitely up there….

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