Floating Islands, Lake Titicaca, Peru

While in Puno I took the chance to do some sightseeing for a day. And the main attraction is on the lake itself, Lake Titicaca.

It is one of the most famous local attractions for tourists – a visit to the see the Uru people (los uros) who inhabit a multitude of floating islands just a few kilometres by boat from Puno. It is certainly another world. The indigenous people here pre-date the Incas, living on islands of reeds they made themselves. Even today they still make their homes and their boats from the reeds.

Tourism helps to keep these communities going, but much of it felt staged. From the welcoming sing-a-long to the information talk and the hard-sell of the local crafts I hoped the communities maintained their sense of identity, and not just a tourist facsimile. When the tourists aren’t around, the people here still have to maintain their way of life.

As well as a visit to Los Uros, Puno has a few other attractions, including a ship built in the 19th century (MN Yavari) that took six years to be hauled up over the Andes from the coast and then reassembled on the lake. As well as checking its seaworthiness I climbed up the local hill overlooking Puno (Condor hill) and later relaxed in a fine cafe with a cup of local fair trade coffee.

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Update – Earthquake in Guatemala: Finca la Florida community needs help

Thank you to everyone who helped this community with a donation! Out of this sad event the news is good – they hit the fundraising target of $5,000. Here’s an update from early January from co-ordinating fundraiser Katie Barnes:

We’re so excited that we’ve reached our goal! Thank you so much to everyone who helped. Remember, just because we’ve hit $5,000 doesn’t mean that you can’t still contribute — La Florida can still absolutely appreciate and make use of all donations!

Hopefully the community will be able to salvage some of its coffee harvest this year. Thanks again to everyone who contributed. You can continue to find more info below, which I hope will give updates on their rebuilding process.

http://www.indiegogo.com/guatemala-earthquake-recovery/

http://fincalaflorida.com/index.html

I posted last Christmas about my time there, and here’s a video too. If you are able, consider making a donation. It will all help!

https://fairtradebikeride.wordpress.com/2011/12/25/finca-la-florida-eco-tourist-fair-trade-community-colomba-quetzaltenango/

Earthquake in Guatemala: Finca la Florida community needs help

It is with sad news that I write about a community I visited almost a year ago, Finca la Florida in southwest Guatemala. The recent earthquake that hit the country on 8th November has had a major impact on this community and its livelihood. I spent three days with the people here and it was one of the highlights of my trip. Although they are poor, they try to be self-sufficient. However, in a situation like this, there is little, if any, federal help to get them on their feet again.

I was contacted a few days ago by Katie Barnes, who has visited La Florida twice. So both of us have seen this wonderful community for ourselves and how, even in the best of times, they struggle to make a life for themselves above the poverty line. Within the community are around 50 families. Ten homes have been badly damaged along with the Casa Grande (the old house that had been converted for their eco-tourist project). Young coffee trees in their nursery have been hurt; honey-making equipment too. Most importantly, water pipes required for coffee processing is broken. The timing is particularly bad as it is harvest time; without the means to process organic, fair trade coffee, their income will be severely impacted.

Katie has established a ‘crowd sourcing’ fundraising website. If you are able, please make a donation to help this community get back on its feet. Katie has detailed the exact damage and cost to make the repairs. You can see exactly where your money will go. For example, $1,500 is required to buy and install new water pipes.

http://www.indiegogo.com/guatemala-earthquake-recovery/

http://fincalaflorida.com/index.html

I posted last Christmas about my time there, and here’s a video too. If you are able, consider making a donation. It will all help!

https://fairtradebikeride.wordpress.com/2011/12/25/finca-la-florida-eco-tourist-fair-trade-community-colomba-quetzaltenango/

Football, Ecuadorian style

Football. Best game on the planet. I’ve seen many games in England and the odd one or two in Vancouver. One thing on my list during this trip was to try to catch a live game somewhere. It proved difficult to be in the right place at the right time, but the stars eventually aligned and I got an opportunity to see a match in Quito, home of Deportivo Quito. The competition was the Copa Libertadores America (the South American equivalent of the European Champions League) and the opposition on the night was Velez Sarsfield from Argentina (I have no idea who they are either).

I hoped it would be a good game, certainly different from what I’d experienced before. And it was…from the crush of getting into the stadium, where half of it was closed and so fans had restricted points of entry and impatience reigned. We were packed into one side of the stadium, a decrepit-looking thing, though the views of the nearby mountains, with aircraft flying under the backdrop, made a stunning panorama. I was seated on bare concrete not far from the hardcore fans. The flags and banners were out, and the huge bass drums were being readied. Fencing surrounded the pitch, which was a shock. I can’t imagine fan safety was ever a priority for these occasions.

As the game was about to start, Velez got a typical away-team reception of a chorus of boos. There wasn’t a single away fan, unsurprisingly. The Quito chants were underway, the flares were lit and the drums rolled.

Into the game and I notice the differences. The pace is slow, like treacle. There’s little goalmouth action. The funniest part is when the referee, miles behind the play, books a Velez player when he made a foul. Just as I’ve seen on television many times, the ref races over and dramatically shoves the yellow card in the Velez player’s face. Hilarious. Right before the end of a desperately poor first half, a Quito player hoofs the ball downfield towards the Velez area, a real up-and-under. The Quito forward gives chase and falls inside the Velez penalty area. Diving, surely? No, the ref (again, miles behind play) agrees with the linesman’s flag to give a penalty to Quito. The fans go absolutely mad and the penalty is duly converted, 1-0. Then the flares really got going. A dozen of them. The fans chant, the drums bang louder. I’m surprised when some riot police jog onto the pitch to accompany the ref when he blows the half-time whistle.

It quietens down quickly, and the food vendors walk up and down the aisles selling their snacks. Nothing vegan, though, so I skip the offerings. I notice one young lad, shirtless, carrying a fire extinguisher, and wonder how he managed to smuggle it in. Quickly though, I spot several more lads with them. The players come out, and the extinguishers are let off in unison. Colour-coordinated in pink and blue, the air is filled with dust. The flares had already gone out, so the fire risk was minimal, and then the CO2 dust rains down on the crowd.

The chants continue but the noise erupts once again when Quito score early in the second half. It looks like they can play after all. Later I notice the ref has a paint gun to mark the ’10 yard’ distance at free kicks. He carefully marks where the ball is to be set and where the opposing players can stand. What an idea! Why don’t they use that in the Premiership?? When one of the players feigns injury (sorry, that’s my prejudice – all players in South America feign injury…) a golf cart comes on to cart the player off. Needless to say he is absolutely fine.

The game peters out, despite another goal for Quito. They win 3-0 and the crowd are happy. The chants continued throughout the rest of the game. An estimated 9,000 were there, though it was hard to tell given how empty the stadium looked on the other sides. But I didn’t care. It had been quite an experience for me and I enjoyed it, despite having to sit out in the cool mountain air. It wasn’t as good as English football, but you try telling that to the thousands of Quito fans who left the stadium, paying 10 cents to use the toilet on their way out.

Unfortunately I forgot to bring my camera, so here’s another picture of Carlos Valderrama…

Carlos Valderrama is Colombian, but you just can't beat that hairstyle

On the way to the waterfalls

From Juayua. a picturesque little town snuggled amongst western El Salvador’s volcanoes and coffee farms, it’s a short distance to some spectacular waterfalls.

I’d been told it’s advisable to take a guide, but it being a short walk I thought I’d wander there anyway and see where I got to. Halfway down the dirt road I spotted a little ‘car park’ off to one side and general activity that was out of keeping with the rest of my walk. A quick look and I noticed a couple of tour buses and a group of people that were distinctly non-local. I decided to join them, as surely there was only one place they were going. Strangely no one seemed to notice my arrival, or cared enough to say anything. Even the security guard who was accompanying the group was indifferent, or ignorant, of my joining them.

I had to laugh at the assortment of people. American and eastern European accents filtered through to my ears. Loudness prevailed, from the talking to the clothing. It was surreal and I felt like I’d been teleported into a new world because it was so far removed from all my travelling experiences. Everyone was wearing a wrist band, which I later found out made them members of whatever ‘all-inclusive’ resort they were staying in on the coast. A day out for them, up into the mountains. I figured it was safer to stay with them but it didn’t take long to reach the waterfalls. Other tour groups and locals were enjoying the water, as it roared out from cracks in the rocks. A hydroelectric plant was located nearby that takes advantage of these waters, and also created pools that locals took great enjoyment in swimming in.

After I’d had my lookaround I decided against hanging around waiting for the group to reform and walk slowly back to their air-conditioned bus, and made my way back myself. In the back of my head I knew that someday in the future I’d be in some other strange place, probably doing exactly what they were doing. So I didn’t laugh too much…

Guatemala: generosity from first to last

I was getting itchy feet. It was time to make tracks into El Salvador. After Christmas in Panajachel, I had a few days in the lovely town of Antigua (somewhere I would have liked to have spent more time) before making it to Guatemala City. This was going to be a new experience for me – the big city, el capital – and so cycling into and out of here would be a challenge.

Donning my face/dust mask (I don’t think it helped much) I dodged and weaved in and out of traffic, cursing the city drivers who wouldn’t indicate, the buses and their exhausts and tried to find another pair of eyes to keep myself in the clear on the road. Luckily though, the route was fairly straightforward and I managed to get to my hotel without too much trouble.

A couple of days there and I was off (unfortunately missing out on a visit to UPAVIM [United For a Better Life], a local group of women’s artesans that also set up education for local children). On New Year’s Day. What better (and quieter) way to get 2012 off to a good start. In fact it was a perfect time to get out of the city as it was eerily quiet. I wasn’t too interested in finding the best party in town anyway for New Year’s, so an early start out was perfect. I rang in 2012 chatting on skype to a good friend, and that was good enough for me.

It took two days to reach El Salvador, and my last night in Guatemala gave me yet another example of the generosity and warmness of the people I’ve met here. My map gave me the impression that the town I headed to was ‘big’, but it wasn’t. Asking a genteman who’d stepped off the bus if there was anywhere to stay in town, he said there wasn’t any hotels, but indicated there was somewhere I could find. He ended up taking me to his sister’s house!

By that point I was tired and didn’t care what they had to offer, so a dilapidated room and mattress was good enough, though I had to wander through their house to use the bathroom. Sheila and Jesus seemed to have a procession of visitors throughout the day, perhaps because they had a huge widescreen tv, still with it’s wrapping on. The next morning when I tried to pay Sheila, she refused, though she did seem quite interested in the gold ring I was wearing…

From day one, when I was helped by a young lad to push my bike up a short hill when I was slipping on the wet road, to this day, I’ve found the people in Guatemala to be hospitable, generous and welcoming. Most people here have very little and their warm attitude was quite refreshing and at times humbling. How would El Salvador compare?

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Chajul (II): Village life

In all I spent 24 hours in the village of Chajul. Although the Fair Trade visit didn’t work out as I hoped, I found the village a fascinating place and got a little insight into how people here live.

Of all the places I’ve been to, this one felt the most isolated. I hardly heard Spanish being spoken. The indigenous population are Ixil. The women and girls all dressed in traditional clothing; each region has a distinctive design. To an outsider such as myself it looked as though their customs and traditions have carried through into the 21st century. However, this region carries more tragic circumstances. It is the heart of the Ixil region, and during the civil war (1960s to the mid-90s) around half the Ixil population disappeared or were killed. The Asociacion is one organisation working hard to help rebuild the local populations and their local customs.

A good education continues to be difficult to achieve, and most children still do not get much beyond a few years at the primary level. Given that children under 15 make up a large percentage of the population it is an uphill struggle. I saw lots of youngsters out in the streets and few looked like they attended any kind of school. As youngsters go, they looked happy, and I laughed at how they can so easily make themselves happy with the most basic ‘toys’ to entertain themselves. I saw some kids ‘sliding’ down the street sitting on an upturned bottle crate, whilst others had made a kite out of a plastic bag. They were very friendly though and shouted out at me, often in some funny English word they’d picked up from television.

It looked to me that poverty was a problem in the village. Aside from lacking the ‘luxuries’ of television and hot water, many dwellings looked basic and shabby. People would crowd at a local store to watch television, though mobile phones were everywhere. A typical ‘house’ is a single room dwelling made of wood or concrete. There is little light or ventilation so the smoke from the stove/fire inside has little escape. Even for me, walking the streets I found the smell and pollution quite overpowering.

The local market was pretty crazy, particularly when goods show up ‘fresh’. Second-hand clothes were hugely popular and so are bananas, as I could hardly find any anywhere! And tortillas were proving tricky too. Eventually I tracked down a woman at one of the ‘comedor’ places. They’re hand-made and she had some spare so I got some pretty fresh ones. Hands-down (sorry, bad joke) they’re better than the machine-made ones…I even went back there the following morning, made to order!

I felt like I’d visited a place that few outsiders would see, and I was happy to have the experience of seeing the village; just sampling all the tiny things that made it different. Beyond the town there are many even more remote communities, but I was happy just to spend a short time there. At times I felt uncomfortable, being so obviously an outsider in this very traditional village. I sensed this most particularly when taking pictures in the village. It was pretty clear that most people were uncomfortable if they saw the camera pointed at them. It’s always a challenge to record and document places and people but also respecting their privacy.

And even though the Fair Trade visit didn’t work out this time, my time in the village made the trip worth while.

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UCIRI Fair Trade Co-op (III): Coffee visit, Chayotepec

I spent the next couple of days in the ‘village’ of Chayotepec. It is tiny; a collection of eight families perched in hillside dwellings at the end of the dirt road I’d travelled up the evening before. I didn’t really know what I’d let myself in for but it turned out to be hugely eye-opening and unlike anything I’d experienced before.

I’ve seen rural life in the developed world, but this was in another league, or at least to my eyes it was. From the buildings people lived in, to where they were situated, how they lived and got around, it was a real learning experience. I started out with breakfast at Irma’s (and went there for all my meals whilst in the village). Like most ‘houses’ in the village it is a basic brick building with open doorways and very random add-ons constructed. Coffee was available for each meal – easily available as most of the villagers have coffee bushes growing in their gardens that they roast and grind themselves. Despite the water (boiled over the stove which gave it a ‘tasty’ smoked flavour) the coffee was good.

After breakfast I spent some time with Rosendo, a coffee farmer. We walked and he showed me where his coffee bushes were located (more than 3,000 of them). It took me a while to notice the look of the bushes as they were growing amongst many other types of bushes and trees in the forest. The harvest doesn’t start until December so most of the berries I saw were still green. Rosendo is part of the UCIRI co-op (though some of the other villagers belong to another co-op) and he told me how that works for him and how it has benefitted him, his family and the community over the years. Unfortunately my Spanish is still limited so a lot of what he said I didn’t understand. His wife’s family also have neighbouring land where they grow coffee and it is all done in the traditional way using certified organic practices. Coffee-growing goes back many generations for them.

Village life still looks very traditional. The school has 11 pupils though it was clear that the ‘older’ young people had to leave the village for other opportunities. Irma has two daughters in the US and four of Rosendo’s children live elsewhere. The village has only had electricity within the last few years, and now they have TV and mobile phones. Internet access was not available when I was there. Everyone kept chickens, cows were kept in nearby pastures and everyone had some kind of fruit or vegetable tree growing on their land – mandarins, avocados, oranges, squash, peppers among others. I got to see how chiles are dried with a family who lived down the road from the village.

Time obviously works differently too. Most of the villagers are up early and the taxi leaves on its morning run to Santa Maria every day at 5am, repeating the round trip again in the afternoon. I got highly confused that the village runs on ‘normal’ time and not ‘summer’ time (1 hour ahead). I was early for all my meals…

I got a real sense that the people in the village seemed quite happy, despite the obvious hardships that life there can bring. Life is basic but everyone has what they need, including most of their teeth. I noticed most of the older adults had teeth missing and some gold replacements for the essential ones. It was funny just watching them when they had their mouth open. Most villagers seem to have a way of generating additional income outside of coffee. The ‘eco-tourist’ project has helped Rosendo and Irma’s families; the village taxi; villagers make or sell things for other villagers, such as cheese, peppers or fruit.

On the second night with rain having been falling steadily all day and the village clouded over, I got a little worried when the taxi didn’t seem to return ‘on time’. Perhaps the road got tricky, or the weather was really bad down below…and then I had to laugh at my Western way of thinking, of how we worry so much when things don’t run like clockwork. The taxi runs twice a day and has done for years and so of course they’ve experienced far worse than the weather I’d seen. It comes back when it comes back…not a minute sooner.

The promotion of the village as an eco-tourist destination is still in its formative phase, or so it looked to me, though they’ve been promoting it for a few years. There’s now a central learning centre (not quite finished) and five cabanas for tourists. The people offer guiding and an insight into local day-to-day life. But it’s not free! I was happy to support them in their project as it didn’t seem like they get many visitors right now. Cheese-making, local crafts, coffee, visiting the forest for animal and ecological interests were all possible. Rosendo told me about the numerous different animals and plants that can be found locally. It’s definitely an ‘escape’ and an easy place to switch off and learn about a whole different way of life.

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UCIRI Fair Trade Co-op (II): Central Warehouse, Lachivista

The next morning I got a better look at my accommodation for the night and the rest of the UCIRI facility. On one side of an open courtyard there were several rooms where some of the staff lived. On the other there is the roasting and packing area. I got a brief tour of the area then and a better look when I came back down from the mountains.

It was another morning of “letting things go” with some waiting around for the trip up to the village of Lachivista and the central warehouse. The tentative plan (and I am still unclear as to how loosely the locals go by the clock…) was to head up there around 10am from the office, so I settled in with a coffee and had more of a look around with some attempts at chatting to a couple of the staff. By 11.30am it looked like we were off, but then that became 12pm. Eventually at 1pm we were ready to go. Again, another lesson for me to let things go and just trust that everything is fine. It probably didn’t help that I was still a little unclear as to what the day would bring, but at the same time it was good for me as the whole thing was such a new experience.

An hour later we arrived. Lachivista is not very high up (probably less than 300m) but the road there was winding and had numerous potholes, rocks and in one section had been washed out completely, shutting it for two weeks. The facility is quite the place – a central office, warehouse (bodega) for bean packing/storage, a small health and dental centre, credit union, cafeteria, meeting area, accommodation rooms for staff, fruit processing area (for maracuya and tamarind), greenhouse with coffee plants, a basketball court…and probably more.

The farmers are scattered in many locations and this is where they bring their green coffee.The harvest is typically from December to February so the warehouse looked almost empty, though there was still plenty of coffee in there. The greenhouse is where they cultivate different varities of coffee in their early stages so the farmers can purchase the plants and take them to their own farms.

The way UCIRI has developed over the years means the producers have many more opportunities for diversification and access to credit if needed. Coffee prices are volatile but with UCIRI they at least know that they are able to live a life of dignity and respect.

The meeting with the organic inspectors perhaps went on longer than anticipated, so by the time it was all done and everyone had eaten it was getting late (well for me it was – around 5pm) and I was told I’d be going up to the ‘eco-tourist’ village in the mountains. Trusting that all was in hand, I got a lift with one of the UCIRI staff to the next village to then switch to a local taxi (collectivo) that would take me up to the village of Chayotepec.

The collectivos are everywhere in Mexico and mostly they are glorified pick-up trucks, with bench seating and a cover for transporting people and any local goods. Now was my chance to get a ride in one. The excitement soon gave way to more unease as the road out of town started as a dirt track…exactly where was I going??!? Slowly grinding uphill various people would hop on or hop off and I wondered where they lived. This seemed to be the middle of nowhere…and the road got steeper, more rutted…surely there can’t be a village at the end of this road, can there?

An hour later, at dusk I arrived. I was told by Fransisco that someone in the village would help me out when I arrived. I could do nothing but trust that all would be fine. I tried explaining to a couple of guys there that I knew nothing about the village, what I was going to do there, or where I was staying. Even though a gringo doesn’t show up very often there they took things in hand and I was soon shown to my cabana in the dark. A newly-built simple room, it looked welcoming right then. A couple of locals then brought me some coffee and biscuits and I was left to reflect with a sigh of relief and wonder on the day’s events.

UCIRI Fair Trade Co-op (I): Head Office, Ixtepec

One hundred and twenty days and more than 7,000 km since I left Vancouver, I finally closed in on my goal of my first visit to a Fair Trade producer. My thoughts while riding the 60km from my stopover to Ixtepec were many, but my greatest concern was whether I was pedalling to the right place! I’d not been able to confirm my visit with the co-operative and hoped that I was heading the right way and that they’d be happy to see some random gringo show up on their doorstep.

UCIRI (Union of Indigenous Communities in the Isthmus Region) is a coffee co-operative formally established in 1983. It comprises more than 50 communities located in different regions of Oaxaca that represents more than 2,500 members. It’s origins were formed several years before then led by Dr. Francisco van der Hoff, who went on to use the example of UCIRI to help create the first Fair Trade certifier, Max Havelaar, in the Netherlands in 1988.

As it turns out, it was easy to find. Their front walls are painted a deep red and yellow in the style of their coffee brand. Three-feet high lettering is hard to miss. I pulled my bike through the garage entrance and was warmly welcomed by Celso and Raymundo. It took a few minutes to convey why I was there, but they seemed happy to see me. What followed over the next day or two was where I got to learn a little about how day-to-day life works outside of our time-oriented Western culture.

Riding solo for several months makes it easy to control my time. Now I was at the disposal of UCIRI. I was told that Fransisco would be along later that day and as he spoke English I’d be able to tell him more about my trip and what opportunities would be possible for me with UCIRI. I had arrived around lunchtime, so apart from gesticulations, some good coffee and a spot of my usual lunch, and I waited and looked around the office before Fransisco arrived.

After some discussions with him and his staff, a plan was put together that I’d go up to the main processing and packing area in Lachivista and then hopefully go further up into the mountains to see a coffee farm. Accommodation for that evening was a bit vague – a room somewhere nearby. But first we went back to Fransisco’s house to clean up the garden and mend the chicken shed. Not exactly what I was expecting…

It was 7pm before we headed back into town and where I could get my bags to the room. I’m used to sorting accommodation early, so having to wait this late (for me) was unsettling, but I knew I was in good hands. I just didn’t know what kind of room I’d be getting. My limited Spanish meant I hadn’t realised that some UCIRI employees have rooms at their roasting facility half a mile away. I was shown to a spare room, and with great hospitality given a bed and blanket. By then I was pretty tired from the day’s events and made do with a dinner of granola that I had in my bag, while looking forward to what was to come the following day.

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