Sunday, October 31, 2010

Fish Farm in the Desert & Other Lessons-Learned from Peace Corps PST

I am back from the field, with hitch-hikers stuck to my pants and land in the crevices of my shoes. I’ve finished my much-needed run through the cobblestone streets of Queretaro. I’m showered, my clothes are washed and hanging on line the in the cool, dry alpine air. (The weather has turned since we left for the Sierra Gorda on Monday and, finally, fall seems to be upon us.) I’ve got one Pacifico down and another left in the fridge…it’s Friday, after all, following a long, exhausting yet stimulating week touring the Sierra Gorda…hiking to waterfalls and visiting artisan workshops and trying to glean more ideas to bring to my sitio in Rioverde in just two weeks’ time.

And at the moment I’m feeling happy to be ‘home’ here at Casa Luz Maria, in my guacamole green bedroom, the perrito symphony (which I’ve finally gotten used to) echoing through Colonia San Javier, and the scent of a pineapple upside cake (pastel pina volteada) floating up from my madre anfitriona’s kitchen. (My real mom worked at NIH and rarely had time to bake cakes.) But with just 10 days remaining Peace Corps Pre-Service Training, this house won’t be ‘home’ for much longer, as I and my 38 fellow aspirantes prepare to wrap-up our three months of preparations and scatter to our respective sitios across eight states of Mexico.

Three months? It feels more like three years, time elongating like shadows in late afternoon when life is filled with so many new experiences – new language, history, and food, body slowly adjusting to a diet packed with Vitamina T – tacos, tamales, tortas, tostadas Y tequila! There are the new friends, colleagues, teachers and facilitadoras. There’s life without cars, and a new world to take-in on foot. And lest I forget, there’s the PC regimen of vaccines, safety and security guidelines, and Passaporta Cultural activities. Guau!

So what are some of the aprendamientos I will take with me to the field?

Certainly PST has been provided some of the essential lessons of adjustment: nights spent on the bathroom floor kissing the cold tile after indulging in dosages of Vitamina T that my body was just not used to; Monday mornings in Salon Rojo previewing the week’s structured schedule and non-stop activities when I, the entrepreneur and free-spirit, am used to doing things my own way; and 5-hour days in Spanish class, struggling through lessons on the reflexive, and on the subjunctive these last few lessons, speaking in hopes, dreams, and wishes, and wondering if I will ever really master this lengua nueva!

But perhaps it is our first field trip to the campo, in the state of San Luis Potosi (my future home), which sticks with me most…

The NAFTA highway runs like an arrow pointing to ‘true north’, its rocky shoulders are scattered with vendors selling snake skins, copper pots, roasted criollo corn, tires, endangered things. We pass a Walmart and truck stops like oases along the route that serve gorditos filled with frijoles, cheese, diced nopal cactus – the only life that seems to thrive in this harsh Altiplano (high plains desert) other than sagebrush.

We watch out the window as the bus driver navigates off the smooth road down dirt arteries as hard as rock. We drive and drive, over railroad tracks, around mud holes, toward these ejido communities on the edge of nowhere. What do they do out here? How do they survive? I think these visits are meant to give us a feel for the work we will have ahead of us in Mexico. We’re surrounded by nothing that starts to seem like something the more you stare out the bus window, across the flat brown prairie scattered with yucca and nopali like Disneyland plants, toward the blue-green horizon and above, patterns of clouds like an Escher drawing.

Dusk is falling and the driver says we are running out of gas; we have to turn off the AC and open the windows and dust billows in, sparkles in the slanting sunlight. Finally we pull over and are let off into the cool desert evening, all 40 of us volunteers and staff, following Lizette, our guide from CONAFOR down a dusty road, past grazing burros and groups of little girls playing, past the fire red chilies drying on strings, to meet a thin man with a thin mustache with a machete shoved into his pants.

It’s a shy welcome at first, for all of us, unsure of our purpose here. We are all invited into the tiny adobe home. We can barely fit, but we crowd in, where it’s cool; an alter to their dead is lit up magenta and blue, with old photos, food, offerings. There are five TVs of various vintages arranged around the room like an art collection. The children play outside beneath the laundry line – the women are in the kitchen behind the sheer pink curtain – there is a long table set, covered in cloth, and we are bid to sit.

We are awkward, reluctant to invade the space, afraid of the food, of the warnings of the Medical Officer. But steaming Styrofoam plates emerge from the kitchen, one after another, enough to feed an army. And offerings of tortillas wrapped in colorful embroidered napkins. We can’t say no. These people have nothing, and yet they’ve killed a baby goat for us.

There are no forks so we awkwardly, as politely as we can, use the tortillas to scoop up the hot sweet cabrito. The mole is spicy brick red, more chile than chocolate, but with a sweetness underneath the heat. We clean our plates.

Then come the platters of steaming criollo corn, big fat ears – and we strip the wet papery husks away careful not to burn our fingers. And as a final course, the senoras deliver heaping bowls of tunas, prickly pear cactus fruits as wet and sweet as balls of watermelon, they cool the heat in our mouths.

And then we retire to the front yard, a patch of dirt where they’ve setup some folding chairs and the neighbors have gathered around. The stars are beginning to come out – and we wonder what is next. An older man, a big man in a big white sombrero, steps out and begins to tell a story – I catch bits and pieces – enough to get the gist. And Beatriz helps us all by interpreting during his scant pauses. They have a fish pond – it is their livelihood, their hope – they have invested all their time and energy into it. And yet there’s a problem with the oxygen – the fish struggle – they have no market – so the community eats what little they manage to cultivate.

Life is hard, the camposino tells us, but they march on. They have been marching on for years.

If these visits are meant to slap a dose of reality into us – no water, no work, families disintegrating, the young men going north and leaving the woman and children behind – they’re done that and more. They have opened my heart to these kind and unassuming people – and at the same time opened my mind to the realities of the tasks ahead of us as Peace Corps volunteers. What on earth can we possibly do for them?

As El senor continues on, and on, digging into more details, pleading for ideas, the little ones play in the dirt, gathered around the old blind woman who they lead down the slope of gravel into a folding chair. A dog sleeps beneath her – and three little boys cuddle up next to her – one at her feet and two on either side – they nuzzle her cheek and she hushes them when they start to chatter.

This issue of the fish will make or break this family. They wait for our ideas, but we have more questions than anything. How did you get into this mess?

It turns out the women of the pueblito were entrusted with the decision – and the government provided the seed money to build the pond and provide training on the cultivation techniques. But the money ran out and the government’s left them to their own devices – no business plan, no means for maintenance, no market!

A fish farm in the desert, so far afield from civilization, even if they had fish, they’d need refrigerated transport to get them to market. One of our volunteers, a fisheries expert, asks a few questions, the sound of frustration and disbelief conveyed in his voice across the language barrier. His words are translated – the answers are not hopeful.

It’s pitch black now. Stars blanket the sky and the Milky Way stretches like a gauzy mosquito net above us. Venus shines bright. A few volunteers spot a shooting star and whoop and applaud. The blind woman nods, chuckles, and whispers to her daughter knowingly. She’s seen the shooting star too, through us.

It’s time depart. Our bus awaits, down the dirt road at the edge of the village. We light our paths with our cell phones – anticipating hot water showers and air conditioning at the Hotel Parque. And I wonder again as we are whisked back to civilization: What on earth can I do for them? With my BS and my MSOD and my 20 years of consulting experience in the marble halls of Banco Mundial and Conservation International and USAID?

As we shift into the next phase of our Peace Corps journey, I take this pre-service training experience and these questions with me to the field. I’ve come to Mexico to discover something bigger than me – and that is certainly what I’ve begun to discover in PST. I’m also bringing my Madre Anfitriona’s recipes for nopali salad and chile rellenos, and a litany of good advice, not the least of which comes from Professor Edgardo Lopez Manon, who covered 40,000 years of Mexican history in six hours of lectures: ‘Get drunk on so much information of Mexico’ he told us, ‘and never let the learning end.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Sierra Gorda Baptism

We’ve discovered the place where the two rivers meet – the warm one flows over a bed of sand and the cold one over stones – and where they merge the waters are warm and turbulent and the color of mouthwash.

After days spent venturing around the Sierra Gorda, hiking, talking, listening, learning, pondering bark beetle infestation, soil degradation, water contamination, the struggle for sustainable livelihoods in the face of climate change…we are drawn by the power of the water, transformed instantly from geologists and biologists and future saviors of the planet into jugadores – kids again - some of us diving, some jumping, some entering slowing, stepping gingerly across slippery rocks, then dipping down into the river and letting it envelop us, cleanse the dust and sweat and worry from our skin.

I feel the pull of the water on my limbs, but resist, tense my body against the tide and begin a furious crawl upstream, a game to outwit the current. Stroke, stroke, out of breath, I look up – I’m going nowhere. So I give in, relax my muscle, and allow the current to take me down, down, into the limestone crevice of the mountain, jagged peaks of green rising up, paper cutout moon against a flat blue sky. My lungs like a buoy, I float down, down, faster, deeper, rapids creating V's of velocity into which I steer. Then a tiny twinge of fear arises. Where is it taking me?

I look up, look back, look ahead, notice the others on the left bank, a flotilla gathering, and I steer myself toward them, paddling across the current, landing awkwardly, grasping for a rock, a hand, to pull me in. We climb the sandy bank, clinging to roots, hoisting each other up, and scamper upstream through the thicket of itchy grass, to start all over again.

Lured by the warm water, taken by nature’s force, we feel small again.

Then we head to Cascada El Chuveje to feel even smaller.