Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Dom Joly's Beirut...

Why Beirut?

I was born in Lebanon and went to school there until I was six, so I'm very fond of both Beirut and the rest of the country. In most people's eyes, the city is still synonymous with the Lebanese Civil War [1975-90], but it's come back in a big way and is now fantastically vibrant. Mind you, it still has that strange, sexy sort of war chic. It has a stunning location on a peninsula in the Mediterranean, yet right behind it are mountains. In the old days, it was known as the "Paris of the Middle East" and it's still an incredibly cosmopolitan place...


Read more in today's Telegraph...

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Mini-monks, giant chapatis and terrible tea in North-East India by Vanessa Betts

It's hard to pinpoint the best thing about western Arunachal Pradesh, but it's easy-peasy to put your finger on the worst. Undoubtedly, it's the yak-butter tea. The oily slicks on the tea's surface are disturbing enough, but then a rancid salty taste tinged with decaying leaves causes my throat to constrict on impact. Just two days into my Arunachal journey and I've already imbibed three doses of this in friendly villagers' homes.

Read more in the Independent here.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Day 5: Latuvi to Amatlan

After a quick breakfast we said goodbye to Claudia who gave us our picnic (even eating time was at a premium today!) of ham and cheese sandwiches, yoghurt and an apple. Carlos, our guide for the first half of the trip, met us at the tourist office and we were on our way. Actually we weren’t - as Carlos had to drop into one of the houses we passed. It was his own it seemed and he untied a donkey and brought it across to the other side of the path to tie him up there. I was reminded of my housemate getting up to move his car on the weekend to avoid a parking ticket! So donkey parking ticket averted we were on our way for real.


Carlos set a brisk pace which I was happy with as I was concerned about missing our only bus of the day but Karla was not so happy. We followed along by the river for almost all of the way. Karla got used to the pace after a while and before long we were at the halfway point where we met with Oscar, a guide from Amatlan who was waiting for us.

Oscar was only twenty but had already been a guide for seven years, Amatlan being one of the communities that had paid, professional guides. Oscar was very pleasant and had even started learning English it seemed, though we found out later he was in a very early stage of his lessons. As we had already descended a fair but already today the nature had changed. Dense moss hung from the trees, looking like hair in a shampoo commercial. He pointed out a cactus that they call “Cabeza de Bruja” (Witch’s Head).

Then he started to tell us about the festival of San Miguel in Amatlan (whose real name is San Miguel Amatlan). This 5 day festival starting on November 26th sounded like quite the spectacle with people returning from all over Mexico and the US to attend. At present about 600 people live in Amatlan but the Diaspora numbers about 2,500. Those who have left have done so in search of work, and those that remain appreciate that they have the opportunity to live here. The festival involves plenty of singing, dancing and drinking as you would expect but even a philharmonic orchestra and of course a couple of basketball tournaments! Prizes are given for the best traditional dress, the best headdress, the best dancer and for the basketball tournaments.


The scenery we were now passing through were absolutely incredible. My camera barely stop clicking but I couldn’t do it any justice. I have travelled a lot but this scenery was beyond anything I had seen. Sheer cliff faces covered with trees, themselves laden with lovely moss. In the midst of it a waterfall tumbles down. We were passing through the descent of the jaguar Oscar told us, though jaguars only came to the river to drink, then left this area. We ascended on the other side through the less exciting sounding “Ascent of the Donkey”. The area now was dense with cactuses, and such a range and variety as we had not seen anywhere else. Tiny blue butterflies and small and large butterflies filled the air. I was sure I was dreaming (though not jogging!).


As we reached Amatlan Oscar explained the origins of the village whereby the original spot chosen was tormented by an enormous eagle that stole chicken and from which babies and small children were not safe. Their ancestors had no weapons and so moved to a more protected spot (which came to be known as Amatlan) while they worked on a solution. They made a form of crossbow and one brave villager went to take on the eagle and returned victorious. As we walked into the village an eagle appeared on queue and glided lazily over the village. We walked into the village, found the centre where the bus would pass, and said goodbye to Amatlan. Our bus came after a short while and we were back on wheels through the Oaxacan countryside.

- Dave

PS here is the flowers photo collage which I forgot to put in before now :-)

Day 4: La Neveria to Latuvi

Today after a quick breakfast started with the famous “tirolesa” that I had missed out on in Benito Juarez (see Day 2). Also known as flying fox and zip-line amongst other things, we walked up above the village to thee point where they had set up the line. This one wasn’t quite as dramatic as the one I saw at Benito Juarez but it looked pretty high nonetheless. The distance across it was 150m. We got strapped in – the gear was professional and pretty new so no worries on that account. I had the honour of going first and after a push from the Australian’s guide - who manned the front while Fulencio manned the end – I flew through the air and across the valley. It wasn’t as fast as I had expected but it was a lot of fun and the views were great. Fulencio explained that when the line is wet it goes a lot faster.


When all four of us were across we said goodbye to the Aussies and headed off with Fulencio, firstly into La Neveria - where he showed us the famous pit where the towns founders found ice which they then sold in Oaxaca. This is no longer feasible as the pit contains no more ice but they now produce large amounts of a form of watercress which serves as the main industry of the village. He alsoshowed us around the small village with its clinic, shop, school (with an enormous 3 pupils) and, of course, a basketball court!


As we walked we noticed that several trees, soon the majority had a form of bromeliad growing all over them. Fulencio said that around November and December when they come into bloom the whole forest turns a beautiful red colour. The Madrenya trees shed and regenerate their bark making for some weird looking trees that brought the Lord of the Rings to mind. The walk today was a good deal longer (technically it was 14km but I‘m sure it was more) so there was no afternoon walk scheduled. As we approached the village we met a sweet older couple who were keen to teach us a few words of Zapotec. Around here there are so few people around that any chance meeting is followed by a handshake and a courteous chat. And when there were foreigners around (i.e. us) they ensured that we were involved too.


We reached Latuvi which was a bigger village of about 600 inhabitants which seemed like a mini-metropolis after the last few villages and the presence of a larger young population was immediately obvious. “Why didn’t you answer your walkie-talkie?” Fulcencio asked one of the youngsters in the tourist office after we arrived. “Because you called me”, he shot back immediately. The impudence of youth, it seems, is also ubiquitous! We said goodbye to Fulcencio, who was probably my favourite guide of them all, though they each had their charms. We tucked into a lunch of chicken and squash stew which Claudia (by far the youngest cook we’d met) lovingly put together for us. After lunch we relaxed and as Karla took a nap I read on the hammocks that looked over the valley. It was nice to have a break from hiking but the imminence of the return to the city hung over us a little too.

For dinner Claudia made us a Memella (I think) – a softish tortilla with tomato, avocado, cheese and beans. She may have been young but she’d been taught well. We had a couple of mescals (a Tequila-like drink made from agave that is very popular throughout Oaxaca) to digest our food and headed to bed to prepare for the early start the following day, the longest walk so far (at least 16km, though inevitably more) and the race against the clock to catch the last bus of the day at two o’clock in Matlan. I was sure I would start jogging in my dreams.

- Dave

Day 3: Benito Juarez to La Neveria and on to La Cascada

We joined Emilia for breakfast and she made us some fried eggs and some delicious bread (we were beginning to tire somewhat of tortillas at every meal) and a banana. We said goodbye to Daniel met with Manuel, our instantly likeable guide and were on our way to La Neveria. We didn’t get far before we stopped outside Manuel’s own home. He told his wife he was going to la Neveria and would be back later. In the Sierra Norte they do not use daylight savings hours as in the rest of Mexico so there had been some confusion as to when he was to leave. This is something you always have to double-check here - is that “our time” or “your time”? His wife looked him up and down and asked him was he not taking his jacket. It seems the some of the same conventions permeate the whole world. Neither age (Manuel was 67 though he didn’t look it) nor culture seem to have any effect on the maternal instinct.


Manuel explained among other things that the route markers are estimates and not exact. This was something I had begun to suspect as the hours seemed to exceed what I would have expected from the kilometres we had been covering. He reckoned if you add about a quarter to their estimates you are closer to the truth. He pointed out Té do poleo a magic herb that cures all stomach problems, and then pointing to a hiking sign pointing in a very ambiguous direction explained how some tourists come to the region and go hiking without a guide and regularly get lost (which didn’t surprise me in the slightest) and the guides would get called out to look for them at night. “Besides, you can’t ask the signs any questions” he added with a grin. We had started to see a lot of hovering birds and Manuel explained that they were called Colibri but that the locals called them “chupa rosa” (which means “suck pink”) as they stuck their beaks into every flower they passed.


Everywhere we walked new life was springing forth from death – moss and mushrooms growing out of rotten tree trunks, flowers sprouting from donkey pats, anywhere something died, it was recycled into life by something new. A sense of eternity seemed to pervade the whole forest.


We descended through a steep forest and down to a river. We crossed the river and took a break before the ascent to La Neveria. On the way up Manuel pointed out Durazno (a yellow fruit), mageito (a small flowering agave), a type of lemongrass they use for tea and the variety of mushrooms was mind boggling. Manuela explained that there were three categories of mushrooms of which the last is sort of a mix of the first two – edible, poisonous and hallucinogenic! He pointed out that even the edible ones can make people very sick if they are not cooked properly. At 67 years of age, and bounding through the forest and up the hills with a very light step, Manuel was someone to take lifestyle tips from!


We arrived into La Neveria and Fulencio showed us to our cabin and we headed to the comedor for lunch. Unlike the other villages the set-up here was outside the village – in order to enjoy the full tranquillity of the jungle Fulencio explained. Marguerita was our cook here and she prepared us a delicious squash and squash-flower stew with rice and tortilla, and an apple for dessert. We stayed to chat with her as we waited for our afternoon walk to la Cascada (the waterfall). She showed Karla around her kitchen which had both an old-fashioned fire stove and a modern hot plate. She used each for different purposes. The apples were from the trees that grew outside the comedor and variety of apple trees grew in the area.


Fulcencio met us again and we started our walk to la Cascada. Fulcencio pointed out various oak trees, bromeliads and ferns. He also explained a bit more about the animals that live around here though they kept to themselves – rabbits, skunks, coyotes, something which sounded like a raccoon from his description, snakes and a couple of other things my Spanish vocabulary lacked and my Spanish translator refused to help with. After about an hour we arrived at the waterfall, which was very not spectacular – but was quite pretty. The walk and Fulcencio’s company had certainly made the trip worthwhile.

After we got back to the comedor we picked up some chocolate for the following day and I had a couple of beers waiting for dinner and we chatted with Marguerita. She explained a lot about the eco-project we were on and how the villages organise themselves. The jobs as guides, as well the tourism organisers and cooks were all voluntary (i.e. unpaid) jobs that would rotate every year. This was not something I had been aware of. She explained that everyone took on a voluntary job for the benefit of the community as a whole and that they would do one year on and two years off. The community would also ensure that married couples would work in different years to ensure one of them would have the means to work the fields etc. Not all villages run on exactly the same model we found out later (e.g. some had paid guides) but the basic principle was the same. The volume of traffic through the comedor varied according to the weather, the season and more recently the global economic downturn and the bird flu epidemic but could drop to zero for weeks at a time. Marguerita said she liked the job when there were people and she certainly seemed happy for our company as we were hers. Dinner was a Tlayuda (a large crispy tortilla served with tomato, avocado, cheese, beans and (optional) pig fat. It was delicious! After dinner we met with a couple of other trekkers (from Australia) who were heading the same way as us for the next couple of days but we had separate guides so would not be hiking together. After a another beer or two it was time for bed.

- Dave

Day 2: Cuajimoloyas to Benito Juarez and on to another Mirador

After Maria made us a final meal of omelette and bread with a pear to finish it was time to say goodbye. We met up with Walter again and headed off for Benito Juarez, a village named after a prominent Zapotec president of Mexico, one of few from this era to have left office without a stain on his reputation. Waletr pointed out evidence of a burrowing animal he referred to as a “tusa” which is about a foot long, eats potatoes and has a long tail. On return my online translator said “it clips”… not too useful!


We passed a host of other plant life and the scenery was superb - radiantly verdant. One advantage of walking during the end of the rainy season is the stunning colours of the foliage. Every day on this hike we have seen some rain though not enough to prevent us from walking and usually it has been only for an hour or two, and then it clears up again. Some of the cactuses (or rather agaves) were quite phenomenally big. As we scrambled up t a mountainside some of them measured up to about 12 foot wide (about 4 metres). Eagles soared overhead and small blue birds flitted between the trees as dragonflies hovered here and there.


We arrived into Benito Juarez and after dropping off our bags in our lodge we headed to the comedor for lunch. Here we met the friendly Emilia and hew son Daniel who was curious but shy and would poke his head around the corner till we spotted him, then squeal and return to the safety of the obscurity. Emilia made us a delicious soup made from something similar to yams and a chicken in a rich dark sauce (a kind of mole for those who know Mexican food).


After lunch we had a self-guided walk to another Mirador. This was not a long walk but the sun was coming out and we took things very slowly, enjoying the calm, the fresh air and the lovely vistas. We walked slowly and gently uphill for about an hour before we arrived at the Mirador where a surprise awaited. Not only was the view superb, they had also built a massive viewing platform (not for the feint-hearted), and a suspension bridge that disappeared mysteriously in the mist. There was also wires for a “tirolesa” (where you traverse ravines in strapped onto a cable; the English translation came out variously as zip-line, flying fox, zip wire, aerial runway, Tyrolean crossing and even Death Slide!). Sadly there was no one there to operate it, and we later heard that because of the heavy rains it was not operational at the moment. Shame!


We wandered back down to Benito Juarez, another tiny village with a restaurant (almost exclusively for tourists), two small shops, and, as in every village in the Sierra Norte, a basketball court. After a shower and getting someone to start our fire we went back to the comedor for chicken soup and quesadillas. Then we played some cards before zonking out again.

- Dave


Day 1: Llano Grande to Cuajimoloyas and on to the Mirador

After an early start and a taxi to the bus station in the pouring rain we were on a bus to the Sierra Norte, a mountainous region of immense biodiversity north of Oaxaca city. This diversity owes to the fact that this region is a conflux of two diverse and contrasting temporal regions – neoartic and neotropical. The result is one of the planet’s 17 special zones of biodiversity and a wealth of plant life, mushrooms, ferns, orchids and cactuses. Furthermore jaguars, tapirs and spider monkey are also to be found in the area. An interesting book on the subject of biodiversity in Oaxaca which I have just finished is Oaxacan Journal by Oliver Sacks which recounts a fern tour of Oaxaca but is enlightening on many topics of science as well as the history and culture of Oaxaca today.

Anyhow our bus drove up and up into the Sierra Norte and spat us out in a small village called Llano Grande where we met with the head of the tourism project who explained the route we would be taking and the danger that if the heavy night time rains continued we might have to alter the last day of our plan as the roads to the village in which we intended to catch a bus back to Oaxaca might be impassable. We were properly out in the sticks now. We met our guide, Eduardo, who was ever attentive and very eager to please with titbits of information about the nature surrounding us and the people that live amongst it. The first thing we noticed was the conspicuous absence of mosquitoes – this was not due to the rain but to the altitude of around 3000m in Llano Grande, a village with a meagre 100 inhabitants.

Eduardo pointed out various plants and insects as we walked – various cactus species, gladiolas in various shades, numerous types of pine tree, caterpillars, blackberries and a host of mushrooms. He also explained what his people (the Zapotecs) used the plants for and it covered a bizarre spectrum from dandruff relief to fabric softener as well as the usual (and many less usual) medicinal plants (for stomach problems, kidney issues, altitude sickness, as eye drops, for headaches and even dodgy knees). Not since the Amazon had I felt this riotous explosion of life everywhere – and the industrious use of these plants by the locals. He told us that the main animals in this region were squirrels, deer and rabbits. He also pointed out a bird of prey called a “gavilan” in Spanish, which I’ve not been able to translate. Eagles also patrolled the skies. We arrived into Cuajimoloyas at lunch time and met with Maria who was to be our personal chef for the next three meals. This meal, as every subsequent meal on the trek, started with a choice of coffee (very weak coffee usually), tea or hot chocolate (the real treat) and a sweet hard bread that is a traditional Zapotec speciality. Maria also brought us over to the stove and explained our options – egg, tomato, beans and rice or a stuffed pepper with rice or some meat dish. We opted for the eggs, tomato and beans which was basic but tasty – hiking food.


After lunch Eduardo returned back to Llano Grande and we did an afternoon walk with Walter, a guide from Cuajimoloyas. We walked up for a while before descending quite sharply for a bit. The scenery was still stunning and the plants seemed to change a bit, perhaps due to the slightly lower altitude. Finally we started climbing up through Coyote canyon (and yes coyotes live around here too it seems), up again through Calvario cave and climbed up to the Mirador (or “viewpoint”). This was the first of many spectacular viewpoints. The mist only added to the mystery as distant villages and peaks appeared and disappeared from my stunning 360 degree panoramic.

Back to the village and Walter started a big fire in our lovely lodge (in the fireplace, no need for panic!) and we hung up our wet clothes to dry and headed down to Maria for a dinner of flat fried beef, rice and beans. We climbed back to our lodge and got into warm snug beds and fell asleep immediately.

- Dave

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Tlacolula Market and Santa Ana del Valle


Sunday is the day to go to Tlacolula. Everyone had been telling us this since we arrived. So it was Sunday and to Tlacolula we headed. The rain had been heavy again the night before (we are in the tail end of the rainy season and while we have only had light and occasional rain during the day the nights seen plenty of heavy rain since we’ve been here) and the bus moved slowly through rain-filed pot holes and on Westwards towards the small village of Tlacolula which is transformed from a sleepy backwater on the rest of the week to the hub of the regions commerce on a Sunday. Buyers and sellers from throughout Oaxaca state descend on Tlacolula transforming the streets into an enormous marketplace where you can buy almost anything you can think of from rain covers for your straw hats to industrial sized cooking pots and everything in between. There’s of course a huge food section selling fruit, veg and meat but also a restaurant area where you can but your meat from one vendor and have another cook it for you and serve you at your table.


The real highlight for me was the authenticity of the market. This is no tourist show, and the locals in traditional dress are wearing traditional dress because they have always worn traditional dress, not because they think tourists like it. That said there were a few other tourists around but they were quickly swallowed up by the bustling crowds.. An old woman snoozes on her desk while another walks past with a live turkey under he arm. A weaver tucks into some corn, half-hidden behind her carpets. We stopped for a coffee and a chance to take it all in leisurely as the bustle continued all around. I could have stayed there people-watching forever. Before leaving Tlacolula we stopped in at the 16th Century Capilla del Santo Christo with its beautiful dome and ornate alcove. The square outside the church as well as the church itself are also excellent places to observe life.


We made our way back to the bus station and caught a bus for the short duration to Santa Ana del Valle, a beautiful village with what seemed a lovely church, what is said to be an interesting museum and a big empty plaza with only the two village drunks for decoration. Sunday it seems is not the day to visit Santa Ana as everything is closed, the restaurants are shut (the emergency Snickers had to be hunted out to fend of starvation), and after a short walk through the desolate ghost village (which in fairness was quite pretty) we decided it was time to go back to Oaxaca and get ourselves sorted for the next 5 days of hiking in the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca, one of the world’s 17 places of utmost importance in terms of biodiversity. It is also part of a community eco-tourism project which is bringing community level benefits in each of the villages visited, with all funds raised shared out at community level. I haven’t gone hiking in a long while and I am really looking forward to the next few days.

- Dave

Museum of Oaxacan Cultures


Today after a leisurely start we headed to the Ethno-botanic gardens only to find that they can be visited only at set times and only on Tuesdays, Thursday and Saturdays from 11am to 1pm for English tours. We added it to our schedule for next Saturday as we had missed today’s tour and would be in the mountains for Tueday’s and Thursday’s tours. Instead we walked to the far side of the block right next to the stunning Santo Domingo church, Oaxaca’s most impressive church dating from the late 16th Century to the museum of Oaxacan cultures, a museum with ubiquitously good reviews. We entered the building which used to serve as a monastery. The museum starts with a history of the building itself, with its beautiful inner courtyards and shady, breezy alcoves which act as a buffer against the heat. From the alcoves and the large bay windows you could see the Ethno-botanic gardens below and the vast array of plants, flowers, tress and ferns that are endemic to Oaxaca.


Back inside the museum there are four rooms devoted to pre-Hispanic Oaxaca, tracing the origins and the history of places such as Monte Alban and Mitla amongst others. One of the rooms contained the contents of tomb 7 at Monte Alban, one of the site’s most important discoveries – made thanks to Alphonso Caso in 1932 and dating back to the 14th Century. I had heard about the contents of this tomb in Monte Alban and it did not fail to impress with articles made from a myriad materials from gold and silver to human and feline bones revealing the extent of trade practiced by the Zapotec at this time. Amongst the treasures were various trinkets – gold and silver jewellery, crystal goblets, masks of various materials as well as some intricately woven clothing. The most interesting and perhaps shocking was the human skull encrusted with turquoise and jade with shell filling some of the eye sockets. It would appear to have been used in some form of worship and given the history of human sacrifice you have to wonder whether the donor would have donated it willingly or not…


The next rooms take you through the grim history of life under Spanish rule and through the independence battles of Oaxaca, and finishes by looking at the multiplicity and diversity of indigenous cultures in Oaxaca, examining briefly and cataloguing each of its 15 languages spoken by just over one million of Oaxaca's inhabitants. 30% of Oaxaca's population is made up of indigenous people, significantly higher than any other state in Mexico. The adjoining library had a special exhibition on writing which started with a replica of a cuneiform tablet from Ebla in Syria (of which I myself a copy on my bedroom wall from my visit to Ebla in 2007) and ends with an iPad! No one can accuse the exhibition of not being up-to-date.

- Dave

Cooking class


After breakfast this morning the food theme continued as we headed to one of the city’s famous restaurant for a cooking course. On the menu were some traditional Oaxacan favourites. We met Oscar, the head chef in the lobby and sat down to discuss what we would be making over the course of the morning and early afternoon. Sipping coffee (or a local “lemon tea” made with a herb similar to lemongrass) we discussed the options and settled on a selection with some gentle nudging from Oscar.


Then it was time to go to a local food market to pick up our ingredients. Oscar’s expert eye and knowledge really brought the market to life, and the colour of the fruit, vegetables and traditional dress meant those of us inclined to reach for a camera could not stop snapping! We had settled on a main course called “mole de fiesta” (or “party sauce”) which had no less than 22 ingredients so we had to visit many stalls to pick up what we needed. In addition we were to make plantain croquettes, guacamole, rose petal ice-cream, some form of almond-based hot drink, cheese and squash flower quesadillas, fresh tortillas and a range of salsas including passion fruit salsa (the latter really intrigued me).


We all got stuck in with most of the chopping, peeling and general tricky work done in the kitchen just out of view by Oscar’s Sioux chefs so we only had to do the measuring, stirring, blending, frying, wrapping, tasting etc (i.e. the fun stuff). The cleaning too was outside our remit for which everyone was grateful. Our group was very mixed including Chinese, American, Canadian, Colombian, Swiss and of course Irish – and everyone was a foodie to one degree or another. Oscar kept everyone involved and the time passed quickly as we all cooked in a way we were far from familiar with. For the hell of it, here are the 22 ingredients in the mole de fiesta: turkey/chicken, garlic, onion, salt, water, pasilla chillies, mulato chillies, cooking oil, raisins, almonds, pecans, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, plantains, tomatoes, peppercorns, cloves, oregano, thyme, cinnamon, pork lard and Oaxacan chocolate shavings!


Finally everything was underway and Oscar offered us a drink, and discretely left us to our service. The table was beautifully laid, and the dished came out one after another – small portions, but enough that we were all stuffed and delighted by the time we got to finishing the rose petal ice-cream. I can’t wait to try some of these at home. Certain ingredients will have to be substituted but Oscar was very good at suggesting alternatives that would work instead of some less commonly found ingredients. Again that depended where you live. For those living in San Francisco the availability of Mexican ingredients was not a problem!


We spent the afternoon wandering through the charming crumbling streets of Oaxaca, walking off the excesses of lunch. Well at least till dinner time!

- Dave

Envia Microfinance tour

Today we took a relaxed morning, enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, some reading time, some sunshine on our patio and then headed off to meet up with Envia for their special Microfinance tour of Teotitlan. Started only a couple of years ago Envia have used the model of microfinance started in the 1970s in Bangladesh whereby underprivileged people who are unable to obtain credit from banks are given small loans by NGOs, which are used to start or expand businesses, and are paid back as any other loan. You can read more about microfinance here.

What Envia have done is that they charge a group of tourists a fee for witnessing this project in action and use that money to provide loans free of charge. When the loans are repaid, they take their own low admin costs from this and reinvest the rest in further microfinance and other projects such as free English lessons for the people of Teotitlan. We met up at the Cultural Institute of Oaxaca, where Envia are based and drove out to Teotitlan again. Over lunch, Emily explained the project and how it works, how funds are spent, pay back policy and anything else we could think to ask. The restaurant where we had lunch was one venture that had already benefitted from Envia’s loans. Loans range from 1,300 Pesos (about GBP65/USD100) to 3,000 Pesos and rely on people forming groups of three (or more) to act as guarantors for each other and only after repaying the level one loan of Ps1300 can people apply for a level 2 loan etc. Though there are many micro-finance companies in Mexico the average interest rate remains as high as 70% p.a. for various reasons (including profitability for these firms). Envia on the other hand offers interest-free loans, making them more attractive to people on the very edges of society and most in need.
In return loanees need to come to meetings once a week to pay back the amount agreed and need to present their ideas to a group of tourists on two occasions. After the second presentation they will receive their loan money.

After a quick visit to the charming church our first stop was to a small home where we met Christina. Christina was a weaver with a small business. This was her first loan (so Ps1300) and she wanted it to buy 16 kilos of yarn and 3 kilos of warp (the heavy material that is used on the weaving frames). By buying in bulk she would be able to get a better rate and thus increase her profit on each item she sold. The extra profit (even after paying back the loan) would help her to further expand her business.

Martha was another weaver and she was looking for 3,000 Pesos (GBP150/USD225) to buy 50 kilos of yarn. She was on her 4th loan, used for a variety of projects from fruit tree planting to buying other people’s weaving projects which she then sold to a Mexico-city based website that already sold some of her own weaving. Martha was a true entrepreneur and was using the loans not only to help herself but also to create more work for her fellow villagers.

Next we met Catelina, who explained both her project and that of her mother. Her mother’s project involved a special foam made from a particular cocoa bean that needed to be buried for six months, and the foam is something used in all such hot drinks served during specials times – weddings, funerals, the Day of the Dead celebrations. Much as we tried we could not quite get our heads around this one! Her own project was Herbal Life (a supplement health shake designed to aid weight loss, think Slimfast with more of a “health” spin). She sold individual shakes which she sold to customers for Ps19 (GBP0.95/USD1.40) or the whole container for Ps500. Even though it was a small village, she was not the only person selling it and one other girl from the village was selling it too. She wanted the loan to extend the range of products she sold to attract in more customers, and keep the ones she already had.

Our last stop was at the shop of Christina and her mother. Her mother was looking for a loan to buy live chickens, kill them, pluck them and sell them. The margins were tight and a previous attempt with a slightly different model had failed due to some of the chickens dying. Christina herself wanted her 4th loan to expand the range of products available in her small modest shop (Emily later explained that the shop now sells a lot more than it used to and that it was very gratifying to see this progress). One thing she wanted to add to her store was corn – not chicken corn which the already sold, but corn for humans, for tortillas!

The project is a very simple one, a very basic one, but one that encourages enterprise, encourages people to work for themselves and to get out of the cycle of poverty and disempowerment that pervades many rural communities in Oaxaca. Envia have plans to expand their projects to other, perhaps needier villages when their funding allows. This is one project we have every intention of making a part of our tour. As we drove back to Oaxaca everyone in the car felt the buzz of being a small part of something that was making a small but real difference to people’s lives.

- Dave

Friday, 3 September 2010

Mitla, Hierve El Agua, El Tule...


We decided to join a local tour to see some of the nearby highlights of Oaxaca city so our tour promised 5 places in one – El Tule (the world’s widest tree), Mitla (Oaxaca’s 2nd greatest archaeological treasure after Monte Alban), Hierve El Agua (a bizarre geological landscape with a petrified waterfall), a mescal factory (mescal is a popular spirit made from the agave plant, not dissimilar to Tequila) and a weavers in the famous weaving village of Teotitlan. We squeezed into the back of a small minivan - we were the only non-Mexicans for this tour – and were on our way. The first stop was at El Tule and the tree, a Montezuma Cypress, really is quite something to behold – 11.6m in diameter with estimates of its age ranging from 1500 to 3000 years old, rivalling even the ancient Monte Alban. Some very famous naturalists such as Alexander von Humboldt made a special visit to Oaxaca to visit this tree.


Nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it towers over the 17th Century church in whose courtyard it stands. Alberto, our guide for the day, provides us with some illuminating stats: the volume of the tree is about that of three large planes, and consumes some 1300 gallons of water every day. This has led to a serious drop in the surrounding water table (of up to 6m) casting doubts on the future of El Tule. The entrance fee to visit the church (and tree) is used to combat this issue.


All around the hedges of the church’s yard are skilfully shaped into animal forms and a neat park stands around that. As we pass out of the yard a brass band passes through the pretty park and birds flock overhead. We would like to take some time to explore this little village that has sprung up around the tree but we are on a tight schedule to reach our 5 destinations and it was time to hit the road. As we headed further east Alberto explained that due to the poor road towards Hierve El Agua and the fact that rain was likely in the afternoon that could well exacerbate the road condition we decided to go there next and to stop in Mitla on our return instead. The road was indeed in pretty poor condition and the heavy rains of the previous days hadn’t helped. However the views were spectacular as we climbed up high above the valley and its fields of agave, and down the other side. I chatted with a family from Oaxaca who now lived in neighbouring Veracruz but were back for a visit, after more than twenty years.


Hierve Al Agua means “the Water Boils” but it is a misnomer as the mineral-rich water is in fact cold. The name is a result of the steam rising from where the water springs forth creating the illusion of a hot spring. Beautiful natural stone ponds make for stunning outdoor swimming pools and the constant run of the mineral-heavy water has created what look like frozen waterfalls (or “petrified waterfalls”). The beautiful landscape here is totally unique and I have to admit I have never seen anything quite like it. Fortunately we were given a little more time to wander around here as it really was something quite surreal.


After Hierve we trudged back up the hill and down the other side and stopped off at Mitla, one of Oaxaca’s most important and most revered historical sites. The ruins at Mitla date predominantly from the 13th and 14th Centuries when Mitla would have been the dominant religious centre where human sacrifice would have been a central part of their worship. Of the original fifty two flat pyramids, only one remains. This ornate pyramid was spared Spanish wrath for one simple reason – it was carved with stone crosses. These crosses had no connection with a Christian crucifixion but the superstitious Spanish were afraid of destroying it. The 52 pyramids was related to a passage of time (as were most of their archeological and mathematical creations here but it does not refer to the 52 weeks in a year but rather to do with the alignments of planets where every 52 years, three planets were said to be aligned (I didn’t catch which ones). Within the various panels carving were made up of 365 tiles or on smaller ones of 264 tiles.


These were not arbitrary numbers, the first of course representing the number of days in a year, the second represented the number of days a child would spend in the womb and formed an important unit of time in early Zapotec calendars. The intricate carvings and their internal symmetry reveal evidence of a very advanced civilisation with a strong understanding of mathematics, astronomy and architecture. “Where is it today?” Alberto wondered aloud, gently needling the architects in our group with a good humoured smile. He explained that though less extensive than Monte Alban today that was only because of the almost complete destruction of the site by the Spaniards. What remains however is more intricately designed, and the reason for this is that it was meant as a place for their ancestors and therefore doubly revered. In life one never knew the same reverence amongst Zapotecs as one did in death.


From here we drove a short distance to a large restaurant with an excellent buffet of Oaxacan food, the ideal place to try out the lovely moles (pronounced “molays”, a rich dark sauce served with meat usually), meats, tortillas, veg dishes and desserts.



After stuffing ourselves we drove to a mescal factory where we were explained the process of collecting agave, cooking it, fermenting it and finally producing mescal from it. After the short tour we were invited to try a variety of mescals – 8 year old, 5 year old and a new one to start with. The 8 year was so smooth you could hardly taste it though it was pleasant. The five year had a bit more bite but was tasty whereas the new one was rough, and required the Tequila treatment (well a variant - a slice of lime and a salt and chilli mix – to make the bad taste go away…). Next was a whole range of creams that were actually very good in general. These combined mescal with various ingredients to create a cream liquor – passion fruit (my favourite), cappuccino (tastes like Baileys), and a 13 herb concoction our host described as “Oaxacan Viagra”! There were plenty more, which I happily sampled which possibly explains why I don’t remember more of the flavours!


Merrily we moved on a weaving store and one of the most famous in Mexico, located in Teotitlan, a village where everyone (or so it seems) is involved in weaving. After a demonstration of how all wools are dyed using a combination of only 5 natural colourings (which alongside two shades of wool can create about 126 colours in their carpets) we were explained the labour involved. Some carpets took 45 days of work, and a day would usually yield just 3-4cm of carpet. Some of the carpets were truly beautiful and each one is unique, many incorporating ancient Zapotec designs and symbols.

After a long but very enjoyable day we were dropped back to Oaxaca for dinner and an early night. Tomorrow we will go back to Teotitlan but in a very different context to which I am very much looking forward. More about that tomorrow!

-Dave