Recently, my pal Mitch and I enrolled in an interesting conference to be held over a weekend at the nearby Hacienda Tres Rios Resort. Having had the good fortune to be a guest at the resort for previous events, I had a feeling that this would be an interesting weekend. Certainly we would be in luxurious accommodations and enjoying fabulous food. Hopefully, we would both come away with some systems for sustainable development and living that we could both apply in the design and building of our new homes in the jungle. As Birdie attends Ak Lu'um International School, the Riviera Maya's only not for profit ecological school, I also hoped that I might bring back some fresh ideas that might be implemented there as well.
We checked into our room early Saturday morning and met the other participants and group leaders who would be accompanying us throughout the conference. First on the agenda, an ice-breaking exercise designed to get us more in tune with our surroundings and ourselves and in the right frame of mind for the events ahead. The Sense Adventure Experience took us, blindfolded, on a tour designed to awaken each of our other senses and break down some of our social defenses. Some people love this tour...others, not so much. Naturally, I have no pictures of this experience but should you find yourself staying at the resort, I would recommend the experience. It takes a few moments to relax and allow yourself to get into the moment but, by the end, you should feel much more alert and aware of everything around you, the perfect state of mind to carry into the conferences ahead.
The weekend was designed to be a grand overview of permaculture, the ideology and the systems. For those participants embarking on a certification process, this weekend builds the foundation on which all other workshops are built and was certified by the Latin American Institute of Permaculture, Ecoaldea Gratitud A.C., and the Ecovillage Network of the Americas. Without a solid understanding of permaculture, past present and future, the various components of the certification will not be as useful or meaningful. The sessions were long and presented in Spanish by Maria Ros, a certified designer for self-sustaining and permaculture
human settlements and a representative of the Latin American
Ecovillage Bio-Regional Council. Mitch and I, the only non-native Spanish speakers in the room made good use of translation help from Hector Reyes, Maria's partner and founder of Casa Sanarte. The concepts were not terribly complex and having done quite a bit of research on my own, I was pretty familiar with many of the systems already. Still, there was a lot of information to digest. With only nuts, fruits and raisins and herbal tea to hold us over between meals, it was rather exhausting, both mentally and physically. I made good use of my camera, taking pictures of the slides rather than having to copy and translate everything on the spot.
There were almost 20 students in the group, including Mitch and me and it was an interesting mix of people. Each individual had arrived with their own preconceived notions about permaculture and their own unique motivations for attending. We shared the weekend with doctors, teachers, eco-farmers, builders, students and parents. Daniel, at 18 was the youngest and represented the hope of a new generation. At this young age, he is already building his own eco-farm on some land outside of Cancun. I don't know what you were doing when you were 18, but I can tell you the last thing on MY mind was the health of the earth and saving the future of humanity. Vanessa, 23, had completed a bachelors degree in nutrition but became passionate about permaculture and is now traveling around the globe, living and working in villages where she can learn more and put her skills to practical use.
In general, I was struck by the genuine interest and seriousness with which everyone approached the subject at hand and the interesting experiences and questions they brought to the table for discussion. I was not surrounded by tree-hugging long-haired hippy freaks (although I did feel compelled to warn Vanessa of the social stigmas attached to cute blond girls considering dreadlocks). Rather, I looked around the room and saw people not so unlike myself. I was particularly impressed with the depth of experience that Maria was able to share with us and the professional manner in which the information was relayed throughout the sessions. We covered a lot of information including eco-design, bio-construction materials and techniques, sustainable energy resources, heating and cooling systems, composting and organic gardening, the establishment and prerequisites for an eco-village and much, much more. I felt, in the end, that I would be well prepared to pursue more intensive certification workshops in any one of these components of permaculture although my motivation for attending this conference was not the certificate.
During breaks, we were served beautiful and nutritious meals especially designed for our group to have detoxifying effects while nourishing our bodies and minds. During the course, were to be free of all meat, dairy, saturated fats, refined salt and sugar and any chemical preservatives. The meals were vegan and reminded me quickly that my portion control is out of whack. As Rob and I have been giving serious consideration to our diets and lifestyles, it was not a complete shock to my system and I was pleased with most of the meals. I did come to realize how much salt affects my enjoyment of food and will endeavor to decrease my dependence on it as a seasoning and to make use of more sea salt and natural sweeteners in my cooking.
We also were treated to a backstage tour of the Hacienda Tres Rios nursery where the resort horticulturists cultivate many of the indigenous plants that populate the 326 acres of nature park that surround the hotel. When the resort was built great care was taken to not disturb or destroy the mangroves and the hundreds of forms of animal life that call the dense aquatic forest home. Since its inception, Hacienda Tres Rios has been at the forefront of sustainable development and is recognized
as a model for eco-tourism both regionally and nationally by Mexican
environmental authorities. Current eco-projects include the reforestation of some of the wetlands in Cancun and we were able to see the thousands of small plants ready to be moved to their permanent home. The resort’s nursery has produced more than 80,000 mangrove trees in four years. This year, Hacienda Tres Ríos donated 3,000 mangrove trees to help the Cancun
reforestation efforts. This donation represented over 90 percent of the
red mangroves planted in the protected areas of the Nichupte Lagoon. Quite impressive.
On the second day of the intensive conference, the group was invited to tour the lush mangroves by kayak. This was a first for many of the participants and navigating the small wobbly crafts through the dense jungle proved to be challenging (and humorous) for some. Once we all got our bearings about us and managed to control our kayaks, the journey through the mangrove proved to be a real highlight of the weekend. With our newly awakened senses, we experienced the mangrove not just with our eyes. I don't think I have ever been anywhere that smelled so ALIVE. We kayaked all the way to the ocean and back and took a break to cool off with a swim and some snorkeling in the natural cenote. Invigorated, we returned to our rooms to quickly change and return to the conference room for the final session of the workshop and the presentation of the diplomas.
Now, after all the notes have been reviewed and the information has been absorbed, do I want to cast off all my worldly belongings and live in an eco-village? Nope. Sorry, I'm not sold on the whole idea of living by consensus. I get it and I understand why for an eco-village to be successful it must be run as such. Still, it is not for me. There is too much U.S. capitalist left in me for that kind of living situation.
So, what did I take away from this weekend that I can apply to my life and our daily activities? Quite a bit actually. While the idea of living in an actual eco-community is not at all appealing, I do see how many of the concepts and systems can be applied to our existing community structures. For example, I think that Ak Lu'um is perfectly poised to incorporate many of the permaculture concepts and systems, not only within its physical facility but in the virtual fabric of the school community. As the sum of our skills and expertise is far greater than that of any individual teacher or parent, why should we not be looking to each other first for support rather than looking outside of the group. If my needs and the needs of our family business can be filled by another Ak Lu'um member, is that not who should receive our patronage first? Can we not make the fibers that connect our community stronger in this way?
The cost for this weekend workshop was 2600 pesos per person which included lodging for one
night, the conference, a backstage tour of the plant nurseries, the
kayak cenote expedition and all meals. Reasonable by my standards, but
still WELL out of reach financially for most people, especially those
who would perhaps benefit most from the information provided. It is my
hope to develop a relationship with the organizers and in the future
identify and/or organize small informal groups that might meet occasionally to learn
specific techniques that can be integrated into a family's daily life
and routines. Whether it be building a compost bin, starting a small
bio-dynamic garden, setting up a rainwater catch system or teaching our
children how to recycle we can all do our part to move toward a more sustainable, healthier future.
"Adios y hasta pronto!" from Swiper and Hacienda Tres Rios