Archive for March, 2010

All the fruits of Mexico? Read n’ share…

March 30, 2010

The Small Town, Mexico Crew

by Cheryl Lohrmann

International Plastic Quilt Project, Tiny Gulf Town, Mexico
Well during the course of this project in Mexico, it was decided by the head of Leave No Plastic Behind, me, to name this project the International Plastic Quilt Project. Granted we’ve been calling it this for about a year now, and http://www.LNPB.org will continue to take you to our website for a bit, but it’s official, now. LNPB will always be a part of the history of Create Plenty, but no longer the name for the plastic-free challenge and art shows and such. President Bush’s flopped No Child Left Behind educational program has been discontinued and the joke is no longer fresh. We are phasing out the Facebook page and the website both to have fewer names, and also to reflect the kind of systemic work Create Plenty is doing. Like LNPB, the International Plastic Quilt Project is the outreach and education campaign work that needs to happen alongside the research and the policy-making. Education is the antidote to the money that is put into the campaigns that supports business as usual, the continual externalization of the environmental, social and health problems associated with synthetic products. On the solution side, training and incentives will make the alternatives to plastic so much juicier than the garbage manufactured to manipulate our taste buds and trash Mexico, among other magical places and their beings.

The IPQP is not the only project addressing this problem, thank goodness. It was confirmed to me, while here in Mexico, that this problem needs as many programs, gimmicks and viral campaigns as there is energy to produce them. These campaigns cannot just stick with people who have access to Facebook, however. They need to leave the United States and the technological realm as much they need to remain there, now. It needs to be in the nooks and crannies of the earth.In the towns where there is no running water all hours of the day. Where they look at you really funny when you say you want them to bring their plastic trash to the next workshop because they’re going to work with it. Where, in spite of the year-round sunny weather, they rarely eat fruit and opt instead for packaged corn chips afflicted with different sprinklings of flavor and fizzy Coca-Cola products disguised (between telenovellas selling centralized soap, salsa, and make-up) as cool, as refreshment or as both. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

In the comparatively progressive forward-thinking town of Portland, Oregon, many now know that we need to squeeze abundance out of our resources, in spite of a climate not favorable for growing passion fruit, mamey, cuyamito, grapes, nance, ciruela, ciricote, huaya, papaya, mangos, pineapple, pinuela, star fruit, figs, tamarinds, oranges, sweet and sour, grapefruit, melons, watermelon, sweet and sour, plantains, zapotes, huayaba, pitaya, saramullo, guanabana, lemons, coconut, limes, avocado and several others sure to upset my English-centric word-processing software. It is easy to see how good Mexico has it, if only they thought about it. Or if only their government would actively condone it, or if only Coca-Cola wasn’t controlling their government, whatever the case may be (Mexico is the number one consumer of soft drinks, 70% are Coke products and there are numerous accounts of its controlling influence particularly at election time. Its ex-president Vicente Fox was an executive at Coca-Cola before his election).

Town by town may not be the answer, but it needs to be a world-wide and consciously joint effort. The IPQP wants to bring all the efforts under one roof, yes, that would feel nice, but it also wants you to know that it knows that the problem needs to be solved systematically and with other groups doing a little bit of the same. With Create Plenty, this is now underway.

In Mexico this month we made squares that will travel around Mexico this year. Next stop, the big city of Merida, Yucatan where a group of scouts and another group of energetic and art-loving senoras are eager to begin in some way. We had both adults and children participate in making their own deodorant and toothpaste this past weekend at the art opening and in a workshop a few days before. They were fascinated by how simple it was to make an effective product. We gave them the recipes for other basics, like shampoo, and they wanted to make them the next day, please, if possible. In my developing Spanish, I told them that apple cider vinegar is perfect for conditioning their horse, but I meant hair. We had fun, they learned, we were humbled, but satisfied that we had done what we set out to do sooner rather than later. We didn’t wait for someday since it is now. Captain Charles Moore, on David Letterman about a week ago, said that the plastic plague in our oceans does not feel like the crisis that it is since its effects will be felt over time. Meanwhile we keep adding to the problem. Sound familiar?

It’s a beautiful crisis because its solutions are juicy, job-developing, skill-sharing, life-giving and abundance-creating. They taste good and they feel good. Kind of like junk food, but without plastic and the high fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated palm and/or canola oil.

Day 13 Leave No Plastic Behind, Merida Mexico

March 14, 2010

by Cheryl Lohrmann

We are back from the first two work days at the port. I like the tranquility and simplicity of this life outside of the big city of Merida. Of course it’s not simple. There are many tensions within a small town that can’t dissolve quickly among the few people who live there their whole lives or who return to visit often. It is a town with potential that is only tapped when the city of Merida needs an escape. Then it is really tapped, the energy of the locals, the resources, the scenery, all become spent until the city returns to itself. As hard as they work when everyone else is vacationing, these are the moments that provide enough income to hopefully last until the next surge of vacationers.

Last night we planned to prepare some shapes for kids to trace onto plastic pieces. We sat outside on what one might call a patio, but what is treated more as a dining and family room. Little by little more of the young people in the family were coming back for the weekend. One sat down to chat with us and Morgan started to explain the project. She is always ready for anyone who wants to learn. Rey’s godmother, Chucha (but who we refer to as Madrina) sat down to a video as it was starting and began to learn about the Isla de Basura, The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. She sat through the whole thing and after it was finished, she asked, “well now what do we do?” Perhaps she is the oldest Mayan to have a sensitive ear to this issue?

The workshops went well with a healthy number of returning participants but we continue to hold out for  the adults and older kids. Last week we were invited by a teacher at the secondaria, or junior high, to talk about our project, but once we arrived, the director of the school said we were not allowed. His explanation was murky. Some of the students of the school attended the workshop after school, perhaps as a form of rebellion but definitely to quell their curiousity.

The age range of those who have returned is around 6 to 12 and they did not seem to notice that we were low on glue, sewing needles, or paint. I enjoyed showing some kids how to sew for the first time, even if it was with plastic thread into a plastic bag. Of course the creativity is unblocked and pure genius. Morgan took students aside to watch videos about the Isla de Basura (Great Pacific Garbage Patch) and talk about how plastic NEVER goes away. Time went fast and we have some good looking squares emerging. Morgan says the kids are excited to learn how to make their own toothpaste next week.

I’m excited to talk with them about what they learned and what they will do to improve the outlook for the future. Their words will serve as simple artist statements and a synthesis of what they are taking away from it all- inspirational reminders for others who can also play an important role.

In other news the at-large older sister of some kittens Morgan raised (and spayed and neutered) found a suitcase inside the Merida house (she knows the secret cat passageways) and gave birth to three more kittens. Now there is a real-life practical distraction to put into the mix of working to prepare for the art show and getting supplies ready for the body care product recipes.

We have a local newspaper interview on Tuesday morning with El Diario Yucatan. Everyone in town seems to think we will have a huge crowd for our expo, thanks to Holy Week, which is sanctified with vacation time and the desire to head to the coast. I just received news that the Plastic Quilt has been accepted into the Maker Faire in San Francisco this May, an exposition on reuse developed by Make Magazine. In addition an art teacher in the UK is working with 30 young women to make squares and display them locally. Seems this project is learning how to walk.

Day 10, Leave No Plastic Behind, Merida, Mexico

March 14, 2010

Day 10, Leave No Plastic Behind, Merida, Mexico

by Cheryl Lohrmann

Today, before hunkering down to prepare for our first workshops later this week, Morgan and I went to Merida’s main market. Probably as big, or bigger than any Super Walmart, without the aisles, it is a sort of one stop shopping if the things you need include shoes, a guayabera, huipiles, books, hardware, spices, fruits, flowers, vegetables, and other bulk goods that put the best food coop to shame. It is a producers mecca for the everyday Meridian. We kindly excused the plastic bags they would begin to fill with our purchase, explaining that there was enough plastic in the world. Well you gotta put it out there.

In the fishing town last week, we visited a few women who were making tortillitas. They were immersed in their regular work of hand grinding hard coconut meats, adding some sweet spices to the mash, forming golf ball sized pieces to be flattened in a hand press and cooking them on a large cast iron griddle. As they slipped several tasty discs into small plastic bags Morgan happened to be explaining the plastic project to them. They were respectful, but had that same glimmer in their eyes as the vendors. It said, “good luck with that.” 

For us, the problem takes more explaining than a commercial transaction can hold. Also, we do have the luxury to have such a concern along with the time to act upon it.

Morgan is putting together the video presentation for Thursday and I have created a plastic mandala to use for artistic examples. It’ll get out there. We don’t think we have enough of anything, supplies especially, but resourcefulness is our message, too.

Day 5, Leave No Plastic Behind, Merida, Mexico

March 7, 2010

by Cheryl Lohrmann

Just returned from the countryside surrounding Merida, Mexico. A rave party rages on a few blocks away this Friday evening. One dog barks, and others follow suit, adding their voices to the movement. Ah, back in the modern city.

We scurried to leave Wednesday morning to catch the 10:30 am bus. It rolled comfortably through several small towns with concrete fences painted with Coca-Cola product logos (Cristal seems to be all the rage) and political campaign slogans. So many buildings seem to be unabashedly crumbling, while larger, seemingly newer buildings tower in the distance.

Along the coastline are luxury rentals for the oh-too-short vacation to sunny Mexico. Two story buildings with landscaped yards stand several yards away from the road. On the opposite side of the road, what do we see? A tourism-initiated landfill, baby blue and pink plastic bags filled with vacation detritus, shocks the senses. There is no trash service here, I’m told, and since the visitors are instructed to leave the rooms as they found them, it ends up in the nearest ditch. In the United States, throwing something away is exactly that: it is a ways away from our sight. To see so much in one place, out of “place”, is a shock to the senses.

A little further down the road, there is the small fishing town where we are doing our project. Everyone here depends on the sea for their sustenance. It’s a big part of what they eat and what they sell to the city. For what money they need, there is that which they have raised or can harvest from their land. It recalls an older time. For an oh-too-short period of time prior to the industrial age of mass production, the countryside provided the sustenance for any nearby city. Money and organic waste would return to the countryside to enrich the laborers and the soil in cycles of production.

It feels like camping since we are preparing and eating all of our meals outdoors. Our hammocks are hung in a palapa a few minutes walk from downtown, where Mariachi, a playful dog donning a holey Spiderman t-shirt, is eager to have company again. Because of the Nortes, the cool winter winds blowing from the Northeastern United States, the waves are too high for the fisherman, so we don’t get our omega-3 fatty acids until the lunch before our bus ride back, the third day.

In these first few days in the gulf town I experienced some new things indicative of a vacation to the tropics: drinking coconut juice directly from the source, treasure seeking on the beach front, chasing baby chickens into their protective cardboard box for the evening, taking an overdue bath from water heated over a wood fire, and snacking on freshly harvested tamarind, that mysterious fruit found in imported drinks and pinata candy in the U.S. I finally had a good night sleep in a hammock, and celebrated the brief unrehearsed conversations I could carry on in Spanish.

Our project is a curiosity in the town. On Thursday the plan was to begin the project, as advertised at the Palacio, which serves as a community meeting place or town hall of sorts. A little bit before 3 pm, we headed over and found it bustling. Two pick-up trucks were parked in front and men were lining the walls of the courtyard. Were they waiting for us? An audience of grown, weathered men is not something that this kind of project enjoys very often. They did know about us and were curious, but they were there for their windbreaker, a benefit as part of a program for fisherman to clean up the litter around town when the winds kept them from fishing.

The kids arrived slowly, all bathed and combed to meet the curiosity with their best foot forward. The tables and chairs arrived at about the same time, we set them up, along with our computer and demonstration table and began. We have this project divided into five workshops, the first was an introduction of the three of us, Morgan, Rey and myself (as best as I could in my second language), and an invitation to return next week with the plastic that they used, and collected. We also asked that they bring examples of thing they had made by hand, out of any material. That was it, we didn’t want to give too much away. Seventeen kids, an even smattering of girls and boys, showed up. We were hoping it would be the entire town, adults included, all nodding their heads in agreement that they would become the first town in Mexico to go completely plastic-free. We’d win the Nobel Peace Prize and take our work to the next town. We’d give sought after, sold out speeches as part of our book tour and enlighten and enrich the masses with self-sufficiency. People would finally get how it’s all connected. Rock stars and famous actors would endorse Create Plenty and the International Plastic Quilt Project…

Well starting with where we are, the next day we were heartened to hear that the older kids in the secondaria, or junior high, are also curious about what the two gringas are doing in town. Our sweet little palapa is across the street from the school, so as we were gathering ourselves together to head to tio and tia’s place for breakfast, a maestra from the school came to ask if we would also do the project there. As is true in the U.S., it’s best to attend to different learning levels separately. Luckily most of the kids are connected to adults. We’ll get them yet.

And thanks to our strong artist contacts here in Merida, we’ve been invited to contribute a paragraph and a few photographs from our work to an national interior design magazine called Ambientes. As a result, the website needs to be translated into Spanish by the end of April. Thankfully we have a capable and willing volunteer!

We will take the trek to the Gulf coast three more times. Morgan and I have spent the weekend recuperating, touring the city of Merida with Rey’s brother Checo (Rey has been commissioned to paint a mural in a small chapel this weekend), gathering some supplies, crafting and solidifying the lesson plans for the few weeks ahead to start this work here in beautiful Mexico.

Leave No Plastic Behind, Merida, Mexico, Begins

March 3, 2010

by Cheryl Lohrmann

Just before leaving the beautiful Baja Peninsula near the end of my self-designated vacation time, I came upon a copy of Log Book from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck. A collaboration between Steinbeck and a research scientist to create a pictorial representation of the vast life among the region’s coral reefs, the project began with humble means and ambitious intentions. In the first pages of Cortez, Steinbeck writes of his self-consciousness towards this undertaking. One important task was to charter a boat for the project. He felt ridiculous asking the fisherman whose livelihoods depended upon the sea. With vacant looks in response to his inquiries, most could not comprehend the purpose of the project and he surmised that there was no room for it in their focused operations. They did not have time to consider the reasons why anyone might do such a thing.

When I began to ask people to take a plastic-free challenge and make art out of the plastic they saved because even if you avoid it, you get it and then we have an art show (see, there’s no real easy way to explain it) I wondered if there was something else I might do with my time. Yet these days more and more individuals every day are taking vows to avoid the perceived conveniences of our modern lives. Now to organize these intentions into a movement of building the infrastructure of alternatives, starting from the grassroots? Is it ridiculous or is it so crazy it just needs to work?

It is one thing to do this project in the United States where the green movement has been fleshed out to the point where its many facets are all but a widespread reality. To take it to Mexico feels like quite another thing and smells of a stereotypical holier-than-thou mission. Happily, it is grounded in the sense that two locals, in this case friends of mine, are presenting this project to their neighbors in a nearby Gulf village. Morgan Lange and her partner, artist Rey Pech Cetz, have spread the word to six different communities, fisherman included, who have been invited to participate in one of six workshops. We begin Thursday, and an art show will be on exhibit on March 24.

We do not know how this virgin voyage will go. I know I will stand somewhat idly by due to my level of Spanish fluency at this point. As Steinbeck did, I am approaching this as an observational study, remembering that every thing that exists as a daily reality had to start as a ridiculous idea and move through many stages of troubleshooting.

At the last minute Rey and his neighbor, an electrician, are studying how to rig up a digital projector for Power Point presentations and YouTube videos to present to the participants. There are no supplies, maybe not even tables and chairs for our workshop space, but what do we really need? The creativity in this country is evident and yet the material exists at every turn, a perfect storm for this creative awareness raising endeavor.

Stay tuned for further posts in the Logbook of Leave No Plastic Behind, Mexico through March 2010.