I still remember getting butterflies in my stomach every time I read the intro to my project thinking to myself: “Damn, this is going to be such an amazing experience…”, I guess it was much more than that; “Life changing” would be a better way to put it.
My project in La Ventanilla revolved around ecotourism and the protection of the environment, two big tasks which are achieved daily by the oaxaqueñan community. Every member has their own job to do and their collective contribution and hard work protect the unique ecosystem in La Ventanilla.
As a volunteer I was able to get a good insight into the lives of these people and their daily routines. Every week I was working with a different family, helping them out with various tasks. Some of the highlights of my project are the following:
Working in the “palapas”: on the nearby island from La Ventanilla, two families with very high entrepreneurial skills have opened up two restaurants for the tourists who come on the boat tours. My first and third weeks were spent in these small restaurants or palapas as they are called. Every early morning I would help the respective families to prepare the ingredients needed for the day (maize dough and ice packs being the most important ones) stacking everything in a wheelbarrow. This was followed by an adventurous trip through the jungle, down to the nearest boat where everyone rushed to get the best seats, usually as far away from the wheelbarrow as possible. Once on the island, the usual routine begun: start by making about 200 tortillas or sopas without burning your fingers too badly, collect coconuts which ought to be cracked with the golden arm of the Mexicans: the machete, make some frijoles and get the quesillo strips ready. The real fun begins when an influx of tourists decides to make an appearance and everyone turns into headless chickens shouting incomprehensible Spanish to each other.
The mangrove reforestation project: In 2012, hurricane Carlotta ravished more than 70% of the mangrove trees population in the lagoon and the surrounding areas of La Ventanilla. The two dominant species of trees found in the lagoon are the white and the red mangrove which carry out vital functions for the ecosystem:
1. Oxygenating the water and acting as nutrient enhancers as they tend to create sedimentation by slowing down the water flow
2. Providing shelter and camouflage for crocodiles and various types of fish by colouring the water around them but also to endangered species of birds such as: Garza de nieve, pico de cuchara, tiranos tropicales which can be found only in this oaxaqueñan region
3. Siltation: mangroves filter out toxins and improve the water quality for the submarine life
Since 2012 the locals have initiated a Mangrove Reforestation Project to try restore the lagoon to its previous state but this will be a lengthy process (20 years was a time frame mentioned to me) as these trees’ rate of growth is generally one metre per year.
I was proudly initiated in the process of planting some of these trees. Children generally have the task of collecting mangrove seeds. This is usually taken very competitively between small gangs of girls and boys. In the meantime Boni, the “Padre” of the project and I, we would be going into the lagoon (where the crocodiles are) to fill up buckets of mud so the mangrove can grow directly into its habitat. The mud was then hand placed (talk about mud treatments) in tiny plastic bags with a seed in the middle, leaving it to settle for a few days. When the time was up, we would transfer the trees into the lagoon, planting them one by one. At first, this was a very grimey job which required a lot of patience and washing soda for the mud plastered clothes but soon I came to the realization that this was one of the biggest contribution I could’ve physically add to their community. The mangroves are considered the golden treasury, the heart and soul of La Ventanilla due to the functions they carry out for the protection of this habitat. As for me, being a part of the project and planting at least 2% of the tress knowing that I was protecting generations and generations of crocodiles, turtles, birds and fishes, weighted enormously in my soul.
Night time patrols: the La Ventanilla beach is a meeting centre for turtles such as Golfina, Prieta and Laud, who come to lay their eggs during the August-December period. The community tries to protect the turtle eggs from predators, sometimes humans being the most dangerous of them all. This is done by organised night patrols which tourists can partake in, to find the nests, remove the eggs and place them in incubators then releasing the turtles in the ocean on the first night with full moon after hatching. As a volunteer I got the opportunity to go in these patrols almost every night, sometimes at very unorthodox hours ( 11pm, 2am and 4am being the most frequent). The walks usually last 8km, about 2 hours long and they are done with no lights in order to not scare off the turtles. Overall, this is a beautiful experience which should be enjoyed by everyone at least once in their lifetime. The feelings and excitement you experience as you see a tiny being paddling their way to the ocean in their first few hours of life cannot be compared to anything else.
Boat tours: the main source of finance for the cooperative comes from the boat tours offered to tourists on a daily basis. These informative tours focus on educating the tourists about the work that goes into protecting the area, the different species which form the ecosystem and how each individual’s action could impact directly on the area. In an attempt to protect the submarine life from the pollution caused by engine boats, the local men paddle the boats and keep away from fishing in the lagoon, allowing the fish to reproduce and regenerate their numbers.
Besides learning how to paddle my way down the lagoon, my other task was to translate the tours from Spanish into English and French. Although my Spanish was very limited at the start we somehow manage to understand each other and satisfy the tourists, big time. The locals were proudly presenting me as “nuestra voluntaria” encouraging the tourists to approach me. This was an excellent way for me to practice my Spanish and also tie some very good friendships with people from Mexico and others from different corners of the world.
Management of the cabañas: La Ventanilla facilitates cabin housing for the tourists who wish to spend more time learning about the ecosystem of the area. As a volunteer I had the task to help cleaning these cabins, a chore for some but a fun adventure for me. During this time I had numerous fights with the washing machine, played ninja with a bottle of bug spray and some humongous cockroaches and settled real fashion catwalks with the bed sheets and the children living nearby. What seemed to be a daunting chore at first turned out to be the funniest part of my volunteering project.
Protecting baby crocodiles, turtles, iguanas, deer and a monkey: La Ventanilla hosts a large population of crocodiles, around 1600 marked at the last census. These live in the lagoon and feed off fishes, birds, sometimes abandoned dogs and are a real attraction for the tourists who come visiting on the boat tours. During certain times of the year the men go off seeking the crocodile eggs to protect them from being eaten by other crocodile species. This is a very dangerous job to do considering how aggressive the mothers become when they sense this happening. Once the eggs have been removed from the nest they are placed in incubators and kept safe for a year after they hatch. Usually the baby turtles and crocodiles are put in the same cubicles. My job was to clean these cubicles twice a day, feed the baby crocodiles tiny pieces of chicken and make sure that no curious tourist would get their finger bitten off. While with the iguanas it was very simple: attempt to take their leaves away and they will chase you halfway down the island. Trust me, I have experienced it.
On the island there were other animals to be taken care of as well. The deer herd was my favourite, especially when there was a new member around because that meant I got to feed them milk with a baby bottle. I felt like a real mother hen.
There is also a monkey called Yuppi. He likes to show off by acting like Tarzan to win off the ladies’ heart. He is something the Mexicans would call “bandido”.
Lastly there are about 7 horses roaming around the beautiful island. Sometimes, as the sun was setting I was allowed to go riding with some of the caretakers. Imagine this: riding down a beach which stretches on for miles and watching a beautiful sunset mirrored in the waves of the Pacific while a slow breeze caresses your face. It felt like the whole Universe was giving you a hug.
Hammock making: if there is one thing that needs to be known about me is that I LOVE hammocks so as soon as I met Hugo, “el maestro”, I asked if I could be taught how to make these beautiful peace havens. The technique used by him is unique to the Yucatan area in Mexico and it is known for creating very durable and long lasting hammocks. Before you start, the view in front of you is pretty daunting, with a sea of threads waiting to be braided in tight knots but once you get the hang of the technique, things start to fall in place pretty quickly. By the end of my 6 weeks I have successfully braided a hammock which I proudly hanged to the ceiling of my room in Ireland as a beautiful reminder of the tens of Mexican sunsets I watched in the hammocks on the beach.
These are only a few elements of the “work” I carried out in La Ventanilla and some of my adventures. Over the 6 weeks spent there I met people and experienced things which gave me whole new perspectives on life opening up my eyes, my mind, my heart. I realised how oblivious our westernised culture is to climate change and to the impacts our actions back home have in communities which are miles and miles away from us. I integrated into a whole new culture dominated by a patriarchal system and had to subdue to it, even with all my feminist beliefs. I learned, spoke and lived through a new language, stepping out of my comfort zone with every single word I pronounced. And guess what? I loved it, every part of it.
Lastly, I returned home with a backpack of memories and stories, notebooks filled with projects, ideas and observations and most importantly: friendships which will last a lifetime.