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Posts Tagged ‘the twigster’

When I am in the big city of Querétaro, and stop in the Peace Corps office, the first thing I do is head to the metal mailbox and frantically check for letters and care packages. I often leave empty-handed cursing my family and friends and crossing some names off of the guest list for my self-thrown welcome home party. So this week, I walked into the Volunteer Lounge reminding myself not to confuse the usual stack of bank notices for handwritten greetings from the homeland. But, my stubborn hope glanced over to the mailbox, and spotted a box jutting out. Exhilaration peaked.  Dropping everything, I ran over to find that a high school in Missouri sent me a care package. I ripped open the box to find Dove dark chocolates, Burt’s Bees face wash, Kashi cereal, granola bites. Heaven. It didn’t take long for the other Peace Corps volunteers to surround me, ready to pounce on the coveted American goods. It’s an unwritten rule to share, so I did. Begrudgingly.

While contently snacking on my salvaged personal stock of creamy, rich, decadent dark chocolate, I began to read the letter from the teacher, a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer who served in Honduras.  One paragraph in, and I found her words touching my soul – almost as much as the chocolate. It is true that there is no bond like that between Peace Corps volunteers; it is a bond of frustration, hope, mishaps, and adventure. I think it might even beat that fraternity bond those bros brag about. This girl got me, and we had only met one time before in the lovely St. Louis, Missouri when I was in the middle of my Peace Corps application process and asking her just what the hell the Peace Corps was about. Life is beautiful sometimes.

Here are some points we both agreed upon…

The SHOW: I live in small community of about 2,000 people so more often than not, the people I work with are the people I see at the taco stand, at the flower shop, at the market, in the plaza, etc. For that reason it is tricky to go to roll out of bed to buy some fresh mangoes and not have at least 5 people take note that you have not yet brushed either your teeth or your hair. So, us Peace Corps volunteers often need some alone time, free of worry about the show us gringos are putting on for the Mexicans or the host country. This, inevitably, brings on the guilt.

The GUILT: Combine a long day of speaking in language that is not your own, being culturally sensitive, and trying to follow plans that change upon the hour, and you too would find it is necessary to sneak into the house and read a book in English alone. While you may finally have your coveted alone time, the words on the page of your book cannot and will not diffuse the nagging in your mind to go out to the plaza, meet up with some friends in town, or go to that carne asada. You should be integrating into your community!  You are a bad Peace Corps volunteer, just awful, I mean really.

The ISOLATION: Since you have been indulging yourself in some alone time, you feel a bit disconnected from your town. Now you are having a bad day, and all you want to do is call someone from home. There have been times when I have done this, to get it out, to vent a bit. After about five minutes, I realize that the person on the other side of the phone line has no idea what I am talking about. The trials and errors of Peace Corps are hard enough for me to explain to myself, how am I going to explain rural Mexico to my friend working on the 23rd floor of a building in Midtown Manhattan.

The 2 LIVES: This gap in personal understanding between myself and friends and family leads to the panic that I am living in a completely different world, and life at home is moving on without me. Which life is the real one? – my Mexican life? my American life? Can they be combined? Who am I and what the hell am I doing with my life?

The MOOD SWINGS: That same day that you may be having a nervous breakdown about your personal direction and the person you have become/are, may be the same day that you have the best moments of your Peace Corps service. It has happened before that I am on the brink of tears at 9:00 AM, and by 5 PM I could not imagine my life if I did not have this experience in Mexico. The women in the Mexican campo can change your attitude with some homemade tortillas, and an hour chatting about their gardens and what they harvested to cook today’s comida.

Now you can see why us Peace Corps volunteers really, really love the care packages and the words of inspiration from home. I send a big thank you to the students of Maplewood Richmond Heights High School in Missouri and all my friends and family for taking the time to think of me, write me beautiful cards, send me Orion magazines, Thai noodles, and all the other reminders of home.

the twigster,

Josephine

PS: If you have friends or family in the Peace Corps, send them a letter or a care package. I promise you, it will make their month. I know this one did.

PPS: I connected with this high school through the Peace Corps World Wise Schools.

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Good Day in the Peace Corps: Working with students at a local high school on a compost pile

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Good Day in the Peace Corps: Seeing the growth in a nopal garden

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I finally found the happy medium for my worm compost with just a few minor adjustments:

Juice. I put the container on a slope, which was easily achieved with some concrete bricks that were around the house. Now the slope is directing all of the valuable worm juice right into the bowl. I can easily add this juice to the watering can, and give my veggies an extra boost of nutrients.

Shade. Next, I covered the box in order to water the compost less frequently. Also, I put some leaves on top of the compost to help maintain humidity, just like in nature.

Flies. In order to keep away the flies, I  add a bit of soil on top of recently added food scraps.

the twigster,

Josephine

PS: Check out the failures of worm compost that brought me here: Worm Compost: Part I, Part II, Part III.

PS: The second photo is from a Rancho Acuario. The new home of Benny, the kitty, and also a home to many great eco-technologies and organic veggies.

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The idea is to add food in sections so the worms follow the food through the maze. Once they make it to the end, you have your rich humus.

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No two houses are the same. There are those built mainly out of cinderblock and concrete, fortresses in the midst of the campo. There are those made with the beautiful natural stones that are also used to establish the winding fences to contain their roaming cows. There are those that sprawl, growing as the years come and go, growing with the family, growing with money availability. There are those built in the picturesque US style, spurting up in Mexico upon migrants’ return to their hometown. One thing is a constant, however, in these homes, you will always find a kitchen with a fresh stack of warm tortillas and  some chickens roaming on the property, picking at some corn kernels.

the twigster,

Josephine

PS: Check out how to build a cob house, a natural and environmentally friendly alternative to home construction.

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I am working with a nonprofit in Mexico that is joined with the Mexican government, and then joined with the DIF of Huimilpan. Complicated for me to understand, I can imagine how you feel. Anyway we are working on a 10-month project to implement 160 family gardens in the communities of Huimilpan. In order to kick start this whole project, the organization, na ya’ax, held a training/application weekend, during which, a group of 50 of us learned about biointensive gardening, composting, and the social impacts of this type of work. Everyday, we completed a test in order for the organization to weed out potential applicants in search of the elected trainers for each municipality.

With all that out of the way, now we are in the process of getting out to the communities, explaining the benefits of the family garden, and signing up interested campesinos. Presenting the idea and the project to community members is admittedly a challenge. However my passion and faith in people regaining ownership and the right to produce their own food is my driving force. You see, in these smaller towns, they only have access to the small “corner store.” And what is in these corner stores? Of course all types of soft drinks, potato chips, cookies – everything that has expiration dates at least 5 years into the future. Much like the food deserts of the US.

No, there are not any fresh veggies. In order to get vegetables, the women have to walk into Huimilpan, the municipality’s center, take a taxi, or their own car if they have one. Unfortunately, you can’t stock up on veggies, they spoil. So these communities, most of which have moderate or high levels of marginalization, don’t view many benefits in buying vegetables. They view it as a waste of time, a waste of money. From their perspectives, I’d agree, but there is hope in this initiative. The motive of this project is to make the vegetables accessible to the community members. So accessible, that they would only need to step out to their patio for some fresh cilantro and tomatoes right off the vine to make their salsa.

Each house would have their own vegetable beds, with compost to provide the nutrient-rich soil for these beds. The community members will receive free training, and free seeds to get them started. The community members will be encouraged to look around for available resources in order to start the garden. There will be not be any input costs other than open-mindedness, creativity, and getting their hands dirty. At the end of the day, they will have an array of fresh, organic vegetables, grown without the use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and black water.

If only it was that easy. There are many factors that can affect the success of this project. Such factors as serious as a lack of water to water the gardens, a lack of the green materials needed to start compost (hopefully the approaching rainy season can help with this), and most importantly, a lack of morale and buy-in. The Mexican government itself will admit that it has played a role in making the people accustomed to putting their hands out, waiting for help, waiting for money. For example, the DIF is also starting a program, Bécate,  in which the people will receive training for free on such topics as carpentry and baking. Great deal, huh, free classes? It gets better, they people get paid to attend the classes.

So when I come along and say, “we are going to start family gardens!” The first question I am asked is, “Well, what do we get out of it?” My response of training, seeds, knowledge, empowerment and fresh vegetables usually doesn’t elicit an enthused reaction. Some people will flat out just leave the meeting upon hearing that news. But those who remain, yes those who remain until the very end, signing their names on the attendance sheet, asking me questions, yes those are the hope. Those are the ones who will begin to change their fellow community members’ opinions about the benefits of the family garden, those are the ones who will feed their children a snack of celery rather than papas fritas. Those are the ones that I will be holding onto.

the twigster,

Josephine

PS: Check out my rant about nutrition in Mexico.

The Start of Compost in Capula. We asked a local flower shop for the scraps they didn't want in order to provide the needed "green material."

The Start of Compost in Capula. We asked a local flower shop for the scraps they didn’t want in order to provide the needed “green material.”

A Sunset Caught on the Way Back from a Meeting in a Community

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Spring is finally here in Mexico and the flowers are out and beautiful. 

the twigster,

Josephine

PS: I’m still waiting for the rain to come…

PPS: More photos of a desert in bloom here

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a skinny little guy with only one eye open and a mess of matted fur. I’m not a cat person, but how could I leave a little guy the size of my hand out in the blazing sun without his mother or other siblings anywhere to found? So he came home with me, he went to the vet, got his eye drops, got his parasite medicine, and worked his way into my heart. His name is Beignet, or Benny – a reminder that my heart will always remain in New Orleans. And yes, he is named after a food like all of my little animals. (I have a Yorkie back in the States named Milano after the cookies.)

The day I took the little critter back home with me, I promised myself it would be temporary, only until I found him a home. I am staying true to my word and after a little over a month together, Benny is headed to Almealco, Querétaro tomorrow to live on an organic ranch. Not a bad ending for this little street kitty, huh?

the twigster,

Josephine

PS: He has taken to climbing up people’s pants for a good snuggle.

PPS: Check out the street dogs of México.

The size of my hand!

Can you spot Benny helping me on laundry day?

Can you spot Benny helping me on laundry day?

Fattened him up, gordito

A few months later… Benny’s owner sent me a picture to show me how much he has grown. This looks like one happy former street kitty.

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There is only so much reading and learning about the sustainable food movement you can do before you start growing your own vegetables and begin to break reliance on others for personal nutrition. I’ve wwoofed working on organic farms in upstate New York and New Orleans, I’ve attended courses about the permaculture and biointensive farming methods, and have a mind satiated with information. But what purpose does information serve if you don’t put it to use? Now it is time for me to get my hands dirty, get some seeds germinating, and have a patch of land that I can call my own and care for.

Due to a lack of literal land, my roof in my Mexican home has always been the place I go to find some silence, and roast in the hot sun. And now, my roof will also be the place I can find some fresh arugula and comforting greenery in this desert landscape. The roof allows my veggies to receive the recommended dosage of 5 to 8 hours of sun daily, and I won’t have to travel too far to give the garden the daily care it needs. The idea to start my own rooftop garden has been taking root for the past few months, so I was constantly thinking of ways I can make it work with the available resources. After I got my worm compost started, my next goal became to germinate seeds.

Rather than buying anything, I looked for things around the house to reuse as small planting boxes. I began to set aside plastic cookie trays and take-out containers, milk cartons, and even toilet paper rolls. I also began to collect organic seeds, harvested from the local environment from women in the communities and local Mexican organizations dedicated to the sustainable food movement, such as CIASPE and na ya’ax. Because these seeds are local, they have evolved to be better adapted to the environment here in Querétaro. One of the many benefits to seed diversity.

In addition to the start of becoming autonomous in my alimentation, I am also beginning my march in the Organic Food Revolution. A Revolution dedicated to helping rejuvenate the land we have stripped, and empowering people once again to grow their own food and having the right to a healthy, chemical-free diet. A Revolution that I can support and truly believe in.

the twigster,

Josephine

PS: The rooftop garden will enable me to serve as an example and share the information you only find by doing. I’m working with community members of Huimilpan to start their own gardens, grow their own food, eat healthier, and save money in the process.

PPS: Happy Earth Day!

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Rooftop Garden

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My first three months in Mexico were spent in the city of Querétaro with my fellow environmental Peace Corps volunteers. This environmental group of 22 people is split between two programs, natural resources management and environmental education. I, myself, am a part of the latter program of environmental education and so my training was dedicated to the three main topics of eco-technologies, the formation of eco-clubs, and climate change education.

We spent these three months in the Peace Corps classroom prepping ourselves as best as we could for the next two years; we went on field-trips to check out working eco-technologies, we heard eco-club success stories and failures, we even hosted our very own eco-fair. Even with this experience and knowledge under our belt, one of our beloved trainers would cautiously remind us “the plan usually doesn’t survive the battlefield.” Naively, once we made it out of training, a period of many wrongly conjugated Spanish verbs, we were eager to hit the ground running. Eager to get projects going with community members, eager to start our service as Peace Corps volunteers.

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Projects just do not magically start right away, however. No, in truth, the first three months in site are dedicated to the Peace Corps volunteers conducting community diagnostics to learn about the needs and priorities of the communities in which they work. For example, when I first arrived in my site of Huimilpan I noticed that although many women in the communities had great eco-technologies, they were not all functioning at the optimal level of performance. With this knowledge, the priority became focused on first fixing these eco-technologies before moving on to additional projects.

To remediate this, I developed a survey with the help of one of my counterparts and began to interview the women of three different communities in order to gauge the functionality of the eco-technologies. The survey included such questions as,

What are some of the principal problems in your garden?

What do you put in your worm compost?

Of the following choices (bio-filter, water cistern, and greenhouse), what eco-technology is most important for you to have in the future?

This survey is one of the many methods I used in learning more about Huimilpan, the communities, and their needs. After three months of much research and talking with just about anyone willing to talk, I came to the conclusion that I am super busy, super excited, and see a lot of potential for change here in Huimilpan.  After 7 months in Mexico my projects are beginning to come together, and I couldn’t be more excited. Check back these next few days to learn just what they are.

the twigster,

Josephine

PS: I found a baby, baby kitten all alone on the street yesterday and brought him home. I’m not even a cat person…

Interviewing Community Members

 

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So I never had seemed to get around to finding an efficient way to top off the worm compost buckets. The plastic lid didn’t let it breathe, hard mesh is not easy to work with, and I ran out of creative alternatives. Since the lid was on and off every other evening (an experiment of sorts), it didn’t take long for those pesky little fruit flies to arrive, much to my annoyance.

Now each time I added more veggie scraps to the compost, I had to slowly lift the lid and prep myself to be swarmed by the fruit flies. I read about putting some wine in a jar to lure the fruit flies into a drunken death. I tried that. Fail. I read about offering the frit flies some apple cider vinegar as well. I tried that. Fail. So, on one windy day, I decided to bring the fruit flies onto the roof and wait for the swift desert wind to carry them away.

They decided to just go ahead and hunker down in the buckets instead. They were cozy. They had found a new home, and they liked it. One week led to another, and the fruit fries remained banished to the roof. I bought some soft mesh to top off the buckets, but if I added that now, wouldn’t I just be encapsulating the already large population of fruit flies into the bucket? What to do, what to do? I began to pack for my week of training in Querétaro, and hoped that some of the other Environmental Education volunteers would have some ideas.

the twigster,

Josephine

PS: Check out the other posts that brought me to this point. Worm Compost: Part IWorm Compost Part II.

PPS: I’m not giving up! I’m just experimenting, finding what works, what doesn’t.

Worm Compost

A potential new plan in the works: The women in the community of Capula have these fully-functional worm compost systems in large plastic boxes, and I just purchased one to see where it leads me. More surface area = better aeration?

Worm Juice Collection

They put the worm compost box on a slant to collect the worm juice that pools on the lid.

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When I first arrived at the Cultural Center at Rincón, the first thing that caught my eye was this ghost of a greenhouse in the Center’s garden area. It seemed as though it was just waiting for someone to come and revitalize it, love it, and fill it with all sorts of greens. Naturally, I thought this person was yours truly. I couldn’t get this greenhouse out of my mind for the following weeks. How perfect, I thought, I can work with the older people of the cultural center to plant and care for the greenhouse while providing them with a fun outdoor activity, while also providing the Center’s kitchen with fresh and organic veggies. Peace Corps project heaven!

Greenhouse

So I started asking around. Why was the greenhouse abandoned? Why was the plastic cover all ripped up? What was the story of this greenhouse? In order to learn more about the greenhouse and the community of Rincón, I started to volunteer at the Center every Tuesday, cooking with the women and talking with the abuelitos. While cutting up some nopales, I started to learn more and more. The greenhouse had been an initiative of the DIF a few months back. They built the greenhouse with the same intention that I would have, to supply fresh veggies to the Center while cutting some costs since they provide comida for about 50+ people twice a week.

The reason it was abandoned. Well, the young kids of the community destroyed the greenhouse, not once, but twice. Disheartened, the DIF decided to give up on the project. It wasn’t going to get anywhere, they decided. I thought differently, I decided that I would build my way up to the greenhouse. First, I would gain the trust of the abuelitos, next I would start a small herb garden with them, and finally, if all went well, we would get started on the greenhouse. Tired of looking at the waste strewn across the greenhouse’s soil, and thinking of all the chemicals leaking into the sustainer of future organic veggies, my first order of business was to clean up the greenhouse, to send a message that this greenhouse was ready, bueno, or about to be.

The Clean-up

The greenhouse was littered with plastic bottles because once the project was abandoned; the Center began to store the plastic bottles it collected for resale in the greenhouse. Literally hundreds of plastic bottles littered the floor. And so, I got to work. Bottle after bottle was disentwined from the captive roots of the grass, and placed in a bag, ready to be reused and recycled. With the clean-up out of the way, I asked the Director of the Center to follow-up with the collection of the bottles, so they wouldn’t continue to decorate the fence line of the greenhouse.

After

As it sometimes goes with Peace Corps service I was pulled in a million different directions for a few weeks after the big greenhouse clean-up and was unable to work at the Center for two Tuesdays in a row. This past Tuesday, finally, I had arranged my schedule to get back to the Center with the hopes of talking to the abuelitos about the following week’s workshop to plants some seeds so the herb garden would be ready for the approaching spring. Cilantro, basil, rosemary, chamomile maybe even some swiss chard and other lettuces. All the seeds were collected and ready to go. I had even attended a urban gardening course this past Saturday to brush up on some planting details.

Like every Tuesday, I rolled up to the Center on my bicycle, excited and ready to get the day started. However instead of finding the “after” picture of the greenhouse, I found the same greenhouse that I had first met a few months back – a sad greenhouse with plastic bottles strewn all over the floor. Since one cannot often control first reactions, a hot anger rushed up through my entire body. I felt my muscles tense up, and in order to expel the negative energy from my body, my mind kept pressuring me to let it all out and just scream. Scream because I had already invested time and energy into planning this project. Scream because sometimes with every step forward in Peace Corps service, I later find myself two steps back. Scream because sometimes the bad intentions can and do defeat those that are good. A few minutes of pacing later, I had calmed down, and went into the kitchen to forget about the greenhouse for a little and begin to prepare the day’s meal…

Once more, an abandoned greenhouse.

the twigster,

Josephine

PS: Sometimes the bad moments make the good moments in Mexico that much richer.

 

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