On January 9, 2012 I left Canada and headed south with a group of 18 students from Mount Sentinel Secondary School’s Quest for Community Program. I joined them as a chaperone on their quest to investigate what makes communities healthy, vibrant and sustainable through two weeks of traveling, giving and working in Oaxaca – Mexico’s poorest and most culturally-diverse states.
We started our trip in Oaxaca City, a beautiful. bustling city on a high plateau, where we took Spanish lessons at Instituto Cultural Oaxaca, visited several small local businesses who were benefiting from zero-interest micro loans we funded through Fundación EnVia and spent time with the children of Hijos de la Luna, while taking time to explore the city and soak in the culture. We also visited Monte Alban, a vast architectural site and ruins of a once-prominent hilltop city of the Zapotec and later the Mixtec indigenous peoples – where we learned about an ancient community.
We soon left the city and headed for the hills – literally. We spent four nights and three days in the mountain villages of La Neveria and Benito Juarez – both at around 3,000 metres above sea level. The residents of these tiny communities are mainly of Zapotec heritage and live quiet lives farming the hillsides of the Sierra Norte mountains, just north of Oaxaca City. But they have also formed a partnership amongst the eight villages (Pueblos Mancomunados or Commonwealth of Villages) through which they govern themselves with direct democracy and promote ecotourism in the region that allows more young people to stay in the communities. While there, we pitched in to help local farmers with their corn harvest, gave gifts of blankets, toques and mitts to local children and also learned more about their governance and community structure.
Then it was time for the long descent back to the valley where we spent the final days of the trip at Tierra del Sol, a learning centre for sustainable living. Nothing goes to waste at Tierra del Sol, where they practice biointensive farming, build with the materials at hand, use solar and wind energy, and don’t accept any plastic or other types of waste from the outside.
We were there to learn the principles of sustainable living, but also got a rare chance to put them into practice while helping out a young family.
Mario and Sol live at the end of a dusty dirt road in an 8-metre by 8-metre mud brick house, with a tin roof and no walls inside. Before we got there, they were cooking outside over an open fire in the hot desert sun and using a hole in the ground for a bathroom.
With the help of Tierra del Sol founders Pablo Ruiz and Adriana Guzman Salinas and the volunteers who come to learn from them, we helped Mario and Sol learn the biointensive method of organic farming, built an earthen oven, and got close to finishing a dry toilet, shower and walls to block the wind – in two days. Our main building materials were corn stalks and mud made from the soil we were walking on.
And, it was an exercise that benefited everyone involved. We got to learn new, valuable skills. Mario and Sol were overjoyed at their new facilities, as well as the fact that so many strangers had showed up to help. And Pablo and Adriana got the opportunity to help spread the principles of sustainable living in their community.
On the final day of the trip, the Quest for Community kids held a toy-making workshop with a group of local school children. It was great to see how quickly they bonded and how much fun they had together.
This is the first installment of photos from our trip to Oaxaca. I will be following it up oon with my personal photos from the trip that convey my vision of the place and its people.