Last winter I had the opportunity to work at two Maya Agriculture/Organic Farming/Permaculture projects in the Yucatan Peninsula under the auspices of the Institute of Modern Spanish in Merida and Volunteer Inn Mexico. My first venture was to Alma de Tierra, located in Tecoh, a village about thirty kilometers from Merida. I arrived there in early November of 2015 and stayed for seven awesome weeks. Alma de Tierra is located on the outskirts of Tecoh and is not very large, about 1.5 hectares. When I arrived, Alma de Tierra was about a year and a half years old. The proprietors of the project, Alex, Blanca, and María Fernanda (Mafer), had worked hard for that time and they had the beginnings of a remarkable series of planting projects.
When I entered through the gate of Alma de Tierra, #65-A, Calle 29, with my fellow volunteers, Mark and Lander, we were immediately greeted by three friendly dogs, Gorda, Pacito, and Perry. Alex’s house is just inside the gate to the right, and he came out to greet us, or just to see what all the commotion was about. From his house the ground rises up to where the campsite sits. There is a large, five-person tent resting under a large awning, big enough to cover the tent and a community table with room left over for more tents and a large blackboard where our weekly tasks were listed. The high ground runs in a curve from behind Alex’s house to the campsite and then over to the kitchen and Blanca and Mafer’s tidy palapa. Inside the curve, the ground runs down and flattens out. In this area is where they created their Mandala Garden and Semillero, or propagation house. The Mandala Garden is just that. It has few straight lines. The planting area is composed of curved beds centering on a circular bed. In these beds are filled with a great variety of plants, mostly edibles. Tomatoes, eggplant, lettuce, bok choi, carrots, lentils, basil, oregano, broccoli, cauliflower, radishes, spinach, beans, luffa, okra, squash and more, as well as some volunteer ornamentals like zinnias and sunflowers, thrive in this area. On the other side of the Mandala Garden, the ground rises up again to the back corner of the property, an area called ‘Buddha Hill’. From there, the highest point on the property, you can look down on the Mandala Garden and up to the Palapa, kitchen, and campsite. The slope of Buddha Hill is planted with sqush, watermelon and other low-growing plants.
The rest of the property is planted in trees; cotton, papaya, coffee, cocoa, cedro (spanish cedar), lots of citrus and other native fruits trees, more squash, watermelon, and sesame (which produced a bumper crop of sesame seeds after I left). When Alex purchased the property, he left the existing trees alone, so there is a great variety of old native trees, including the sacred Ramón tree, zapote, and jicaro, on site. These, along with the remarkable plantings the proprietors have done, make the place look a lot older than it actually is.
Our daily routine during weekdays started at 6m with preparing breakfast and watering everything. We all shared in rotating between preparing breakfast and watering. On Monday after breakfast, we would put our task list for the week on the blackboard. Preparing meals, watering, weeding, planting seeds, transplanting seedlings, harvesting, planting trees, cleaning the kitchen and campground, monitoring tools, taking care of the soil mixes like bokashi and Berkeley soil, and special projects were all divided up among us. After breakfast, we went about our assigned tasks until 12, when we would have lunch. After lunch, we were free to have a siesta, go to town, or do anything we wanted until 4pm, when we would start working again, usually some easier work like sorting seeds, making labels, bagging up soil mixes, or making natural insecticides. At 6pm, we would be finished for the day. We would take a shower or rest for a while, then we would usually walk in to town, where there were a couple of cyber cafes for internet connection (the camp has electricity but no wifi) and a panaderia where we would buy fresh pan dulces for an evening snack, which we would eat back at the campsite with Alex. Then we would play chess, read or just talk until crawling in to our tents to sleep.
On Saturdays, we would go in to Merida to the Slo Food market, where Alex, Blanca and Mafer would sell their products from the garden. The volunteers had the choice of going in to Merida or staying in Tecoh. I always went in to Merida with Alex in his truck, pulling a trailer full of plants for sale. Sometimes I would stay in town overnight with my daughter, Madeline, who lives in Merida, and go back to Tecoh Sunday evening. A mini van service (called combis, they hold about 16 people) runs from Merida to Tecoh and back all day from 6am to 8pm. Sundays were free to do whatever we wanted to do. Sometimes we went to cenotes in the area, sometimes we just hung out at Alma de Tierra, resting up for another work week.
My time at Alma de Tierra was remarkable. Despite the lack of amenities, sleeping in a tent, cold showers, dry toilets, and no wifi, the ambience of the place more than made up for these. I learned a lot, taught a bit, enjoyed the work, and you could not ask for more amiable companions than Alex, Bianca, Mafer, Mark, and Lander. I have been back to visit a few times, and the gardens just keep getting better. They even have chickens now! The last task Alex, Lander and I took on before Lander and I left was building a deluxe chicken coop.
After leaving Alma de Tierra, I spent a week in Belize, and then went to my next project, Uma San Raphael. Uma San Raphel, or Uma Temozon, is a bit more remote than Alma de Tierra. The closest town of any size is Timozón, which is about a twenty minute cab ride from Valladolid. From Timozón, the only transport to the Uma is in the proprietor’s truck. Tony, of Cuban origin, has been in the Yucatan for many years. He is passionate about preserving and restoring the Yucatan’s natural environment. Ongoing projects include re-planting native trees, especially cedro and mahogany which, because of their value as lumber, and because of the clearing of forest land to plant henequen, have been almost wiped out in the peninsula.
The Maya Agriculture project is a new addition to the Uma’s repertiore. Last year a group of volunteers from the Institute of Modern Spanish and IVHQ Mexico cleared some land and in late December my cadre of volunteers arrived to start planting. We spent two weeks there. My daughter, Madeline, was in charge for the first week. We had fourteen volunteers from around the world on the project. We stayed in a palapa on the property. We slept in tents or in hammocks. A Mayan family that lives on the property just up the road from our campsite provided us with breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. We had a large bath house with toilets, sinks and showers close by. Our weekdays started with breakfast at around 8am, then we would work until 1pm, then we broke for lunch. After lunch, we were on our own for the rest of the day. Weekends were free and a lot of volunteers went to Valladolid or Cancun for the weekend. Our work day consisted of creating vegetable and herb beds in the traditional Mayan style and planting seeds in them when they were prepared. We planted broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, radishes , various herbs, squash, peppers, beans and tomatoes. We also cleared another large piece of land and transplanted papaya seedlings and planted more vegetables. In the evenings we would usually stay up at the Mayan family’s homestead around the large outside dinner table where we shared meals. The family was very sweet, as is typical of Mayans, and we enjoyed the food and often watched them making hammocks, which they seemed to do with every spare moment. Tony was there almost every day. He went out of his way to make sure we were comfortable and had all the materials we needed to proceed with our project. We were there over the Christmas and New Year holidays. Madeline had to leave after the first week. I took over for the second week. We managed to get all of the cleared area planted and we kept it all watered. When we left, we had a good start on a garden space that would help feed volunteers and locals.
Again, this was a very enjoyable experience. Tony and the locals were all very nice to us. I did not miss not having the amenities of civilization like wifi and TV. I did not go online the whole time. We spent our spare time talking to each other and learning each others’ native languages. I picked up some Mandarin, Cantonese, and Maya, and brushed up on my French a bit. We were close to Valladolid, a very picturesque colonial town well worth getting to know, and some of us went to Rio Lagartos, a nearby coastal town renowned for its lagoon, which contains a large population of flamingos, is surrounded by mangroves, and has been used for centuries to produce salt by isolating and evaporating sea water. We took a boat tour of the lagoon and everyone considered it the highlight of our stay in the area.
I have been back in Merida since January, planning our next project with the Volunteer Inn Mexico, which will involve, among other things, setting up a volunteer camp and initiating a permaculture project at Laguna Bacalar on the Caribbean coast of the Yucatan. I hope it will provide volunteers with as rewarding and enjoyable an experience as Alma de Tierra and Uma San Rafael provided us.