Back in Bellevue

March 26, 2007

I have to say it was quite refreshing to return to cool and rainy Seattle after spending two weeks in warm and sunny Mexico!

Looking back, the trip was an amazing experience. By far the highlight was the people- every one of the locals that I met was very warm and friendly. Marcos and Santos from Xyaat were so passionate about making ecotourism work in their community that it was impossible to not want to do everything you could to help them.

All of us at Laguna Azul

Our group was great- everyone seemed perfect for their roles. Heber laid down all the ground work for us, learning as much as possible about Xyaat and their tours and giving us a great framework to start with. Dan did a great job with the marketing, coming up with some wondeful ideas for Xyaat to implement. Beth had one of the harder roles, making sense of Xyaat’s financial situation and coming up with a business plan that they could implement. And Magdalena brought lots of people together (Xyaat, CTSK, and others) to discuss ways to coordinate their efforts- not an easy task, but it turned out to be very successful.

We presented our final results on Friday to Xyaat, and I think it went really well. There was a lot of information to hand off to Marcos and Santos, but they seemed to really understand what we were telling them, asking lots of good questions. I designed a brochure and a matching simple web page (you can see a draft here), and they seemed very excited about that. We’ll have to help them further so they can get brochures printed and get the web site hosted, but that’s part of the program- we weren’t done when we left Mexico!

It was difficult saying goodbye- our group had worked so hard over three weeks and had really gotten to know each other and the great people here- including Marcos, Santos, and Julia from Xyaat, Manuel, Antonio, Emilio and others from CTSK, and Julio from the UNDP. It felt like a sudden end for all that work, but in fact it’s not over. We will stay in touch with each other and Xyaat going forward, and help them if they have any questions about what we’ve done.

Mexico was beautiful and the people were amazing- I am so glad I was able to participate in the program, and I can’t wait for an excuse to go back!

Dan, Magdalena, David, Beth, and Barrie at the Tulum ruins


PS- If you’re interested, you can see all of my photos from the trip here:


Heading back home

March 24, 2007

It is my last hour in Tulum, and I want to use it to give you a review on our last days of work here. 

We had shifted our final meeting and cross-training day from Thursday to Friday, because of two reasons: It was good to have an additional working day, and I did not have enough to fill a whole day, so it seemed a good idea to have both parts (cross-training and presentation of final results) together. Now we lack a little the “calm down” period, a relaxing last day with hanging around, talking about the project, giving feedback and brainstorming about ways to improve it. We did that last night over dinner a little bit though…

On Wednesday evening, Kate came from the UN Foundation, which we were very much looking forward to in order to gain some more background information on how the project was chosen, what they actually expected from us, what are their objectives behind the World Heritage Alliance, etc. Over time, we continually got more and more of that information.

On Thursday afternoon, Kate and me went to meet Manuel from CTSK and Fernando from RARE to discuss a little the cross-training project as well as overall UNF and RARE cooperation. It was a good meeting that made me modify my presentation and plans for Friday a little. On Thursday, we were most of the day fitting our parts of the presentation together and trying to get it translated, with Heber’s help from back home. We were running late, which is something I really don’t like, but finally all the presentation was put together and until dinner I even managed to translate my part, so I was feeling very relieved then.  Friday was the big day, and my part was the whole morning. We first had a volunteer from GVI here who spent some time discussing how to work with Xyaat on their English and when – now she goes their for at least 6 weeks in June.

Then we had CTSK and Xyaat talk about how they could envision their cooperation for cross-training, and we also had some mentorship from the side of CTSK to show what obstacles CTSK had to overcome and how they managed to do that. Our results of that half-day are quite good I feel – several training days have been agreed upon, with absolutely necessary topics. For example, next week CTSK develops a new tour – the whole process of defining, refining, structuring a tour will be so important for Xyaat to see how it should be done and what you really need to keep in mind. Then in the beginning of April, CTSK designs and prints new marketing brochures, parts of it in cooperation with hotels of the region – this too will give Xyaat a chance to see how to work together with other businesses. 

So, although I feel there were several things that could have been done differently / better, the results still are kind of what we hoped for. Also, as soon as you let people start working together, usually they continue and new ideas appear – so I am glad I achieved my most important objective of fixing some specific dates and areas of internship for Xyaat. Our worry is a bit that we are not sure in how far Xyaat actually can use the suggestions that we gave them in the afternoon. The others of our team were presenting their results, and although some product suggestions are easy to be implemented and they have all the marketing brochures, I am not sure whether they will really get the brochures printed and distributed, and whether they actually analyze their costs and implement the changes that we suggested (and that only would make them survive as a business) seems very questionable to me. I guess it is just so important to do some follow-up, and also to start from our side with just an email or so, asking how they’re doing, whether there is anything we can help with…  

I hope we have done a good job, and I hope our work makes the Xyaat business more viable than it was until now. What I also hope for is to see our feedback implemented in the next programmes (and Kate was so keen on getting our feedback that I have the impression she will take care is will all be taken into account!). As we said, this is still a pioneer programme as it was last June, so we should soak up any experience to make it better with every step we take. 


Finally – a structure!

March 21, 2007

The headline says it all… during the first week here, I think that all of us were quite confused about what we are actually supposed to do here, what our output should be, and so on. On top of that, we don’t have something like office hours here, and our office was the lobby for the most part of the time, so it was a bit difficult to coordinate the group of people. However, now we seem to have a bit of a structure and a rough plan on what happens during the next couple of days. Yesterday morning, we had some effective discussions (and at that moment, I was still glad that power went off, because in this way nobody could be distracted by computers and Internet and whatever might be going on). Now we all know what the others have been doing so far, and everybody had the chance to give feedback on the work of the others. Also, we figured out who depends on whom during the next days and in what parts we need to work together closely.

After this session and lunch, everybody now went to their rooms because there was power here until some minutes ago (now it is off as I’m typing), so we can go on putting our work together. (when I wrote this, it was Tuesday afternoon – just could not upload it until now)

We are all very much looking forward to Kate’s arrival on Wednesday afternoon, because she might be able to give us a better global picture of the project as well as some qualified feedback on our work. The biggest problem this time clearly is that there is nobody at the moment clearly owning the project, so that we keep making assumptions about why we’re here and what we’re expected to deliver.  Reviewing the last days, there’s a lot to tell – I think the last time I wrote was Friday. On Saturday, Dustin and me went on a casual fishing-trip with Manuel, which gave us a whole day of talking. We did not go into much detail about the cross-trainings themselves, as most open questions need to be answered either by Xyaat or within a conversation between Xyaat and CTSK, but we got some valuable information about CTSK and Xyaat in general, their history, efforts, problems, contacts, and so on. As to the fun part of this day, I’ve done many things I have never done or seen before: We went fishing with three different supports, and on the way to our spots, literally five minutes after taking off the shore, we ran into a dolphin family (I think it was a mum with two kids) playing around in the water. They were absolutely not afraid of us but stayed where they are, although altogether three tourist boats were watching them, and one woman all the time wanted to jump into the water (thankfully, her guide held her back although she was begging…). It was a great experience, as I had never seen dolphins in the wild! We also saw on our fishing trip a whole bunch of fish – either in the water or on the hook (but we released them back into the water!), for example a ray, which looked quite impressing.At the end, we went snorkelling in the coral reef, which again was new experience for me and I enjoyed it so much! After coming back out of the water, I was just so happy I had seen this fascinating underwater world. So when coming back to Punta Allen (where we took the boat from and also had a late lunch) I was as happy as one can be, especially because the fisher village itself is such a beautiful place as well. Nearly unspoilt by tourists or other exterior influences, it preserves its tiny-fisher-village flair, and the surrounding nature with the whitest sand I’ve ever seen, the coconut trees all over and the clear green and blue water – it all adds together to a place that seems like taken right out from paradise. 

Sunday was our day off, and Barrie and me went to Cobá to see the ruins there. It was a good trip – you can rent bikes there and ride on the nice trails that run through forests, connecting the spread-out ruins. They were really big, Muyil can’t compare to them at all! So this was a really fascinating trip, but I also enjoyed the fact that there was enough time to talk to just one person (as the day before, in a small group with Dustin and Manuel) and really get an insight into another persons thoughts on the project, the communities and our work here. I know five people is not a big team, but still, if we’re all together, you just can’t get too deep into one topic – for whatever reason, I wouldn’t even be able to explain it.   Yesterday, Barrie, David and me went to Senor again. The aim was to get their feedback on the brochure that David had done, but also to take
Barrie out there to let here experience their offer. I was there mainly for translating, but took the opportunity to have a chat about my work with CTSK as well. So during lunch and after the whole tour, we presented the work we had done and got some very valuable feedback from Marcus and
Santos. This time, Julia was there as well (we had asked them to have her participate in this meeting as well, because we found out she is a part of the core-group after our first meeting with Marcus and Santos a week ago).
Julia seems to be very shy, but they explained to me that she usually does not interact with the tourists, so this might explain it. While talking about the training opportunities, we found out that actually it is very hard for women to leave their town for something else than bare necessities. It seems to be harder for married women than for singles, but still it is very uncommon. Therefore, we were trying to figure out a step-by-step plan to get Julia’s parents used to the fact that she might be working with Xyaat and also interacting with other people, including receiving training out of town. Marcus and
Santos promised that they would try and convince her parents of letting her participate in the big meeting we’re having with everybody on Friday. This should work, as there is no overnight included and she is going with close friends and even family (Marcus is married to Julia’s sister). If it does not work, then the next steps are way more difficult than we thought… What would be in our mind for the next step, but still needs to be checked upon of course, would be to let Julia participate in a training with CTSK for a short time, such as just two or three days, and let her go together with Marcus or Santos, not on her own. However, this is all dreams at the moment, and we will know on Friday how tough the gender issues in the community really are…

Thanks for staying with me and my explanations again! I hope the things we write about are as interesting to you as they obviously are for us. It is a fascinating environment we are in here, socially as well as in terms of nature, and I really hope we can put together some things that Xyaat can use in the future for their business and that make a difference to them.  

After we finished our first day tour at Xyaat we were invited to checkout another tour operator in the area that has  a bike, bat cave and hanging serpent tour… So, we raced down the road to make it there in time for sunset, because everyone knows bats take off at dusk to haunt the night’s sky. I have to admit I was excited and scared about what this adventure might entail. We got to the tour headquarters and met our guide who is friends with Marcos and Santos from Xyaat. We mounted up on our mountain bikes and headed down the path to the cave. 421283307_dd8e353a69.jpgWe crossed paths with several hunters with their shotguns and dogs and about 20 minutes later we arrived at the cave at just the right time. The first bats had started to fly out of the cave. We donned our schpeluker’s head lamps and walked into the cave while hundreds of bats flew out of the cave all around our heads and bodies. The wind created by their flapping wings was thrilling as they ignored us to get out of the cave. We were a total of 9 in our group and since it was a bat cave with hanging snakes, flash photography was not allowed. In the first room of the cave we saw a pretty fat boa constrictor about 20 feet away looking for a meal. Our guide told us to turn off our head lamps, which was just crazy scary. So, there we were in the blackness with bats and snakes. We turned our lights on as quickly as possible once the guide directed us to do so. We then moved on to another area of the cave that had a small pond where we saw white blind snakes and white blind fish that appeared to be floating in mid-air because the water was so clear it was practically invisible. Then it got interesting… Our guide said that 5 of us could proceed to the crawl space height corridor where there were for sure to many more hanging serpents. The snakes coil up in small holes in the ceiling of the cave and when the bats fly by they grab them out of the air and eat them. kantemo_collage1.gifThe ceiling kept getting lower and lower the further in the cave we got and the snakes kept getting closer and closer to us as we passed by. The floor of the cave was covered in bat guano and we were all wearing sandals making the squishiness between the toes absolutely gross, but that was the least of our worries. The guide kept telling us to turn off our lights and after a few moments we would turn them back on to find that every snake had caught a bat while the lights were out. For those of you that know the TV show Fear Factor, well this adventure put that cheesy show to shame. When our guide said that we could go back to the entrance

I can’t tell you how fast we crawled out of that space with snakes inches from our heads. Looking back, I can’t believe how insane that tour was, but we all survived and had a beautiful starlit bike ride back to the base. The business side of this craziness is that it might work as an addon tour to the Xyaat tour during the day, just as we did it.  The bat cave operator has a decent business setup and already works well with the guys from Xyaat. If I can promote shark cage encounters in Hawaii, I don’t see why not bat caves with hanging serpents in the Yucatan!


March 17, 2007

The last two days were very exciting, so watch out for another long blog! Also, sorry for the small letters in the last one – I try to make it bigger now.

Yesterday, I spent the whole day talking – to start off, Dustin and me met with Manuel from CTSK for breakfast in Tulum. This was basically my first contact with somebody that I would actually be working with closely, so obviously a very important day! During breakfast, we had some casual talk, but actually coming back to the CTSK office, Manuel and I started getting deeper into the topic of how to help the folks from Xyaat and how CTSK could help them. It was soon clear to me that  Manuel is a great guy to have on board of such a project! He was very clear and focused, providing me with an overview of what could be options for internships for Xyaat people in the CTSK office and with their staff. Basically, there are three areas: The guiding and handling of tourists, the office and reservation management, and the marketing and sales part. We were talking for a while about this and also the possibility to discuss their problems with the Ejido with them, so that maybe CTSK could provide their experience of working with three communities. All the people in this area seem to have the same problems…

For lunch, I had arranged a meeting with the folks from Global Vision International in their home base in Tulum. This organization is having volunteers in Tulum for up to 10 weeks, and organizing English classes and environmental projects (mainly concerned with the coral reef and coastal ecosystems). My goal there was to find out about possibilities to cooperate with Xyaat, mainly for teaching them English.It turned out not as easy as thought. Although they seemed very interested in Xyaats tourism activities, they do only have a fixed program for English lessons in Tulum. After the fixed part of the program, there are per group about one or two who then would like to stay in the area and go to some community to do work there. This basically means for us that they are willing to help, but can not provide any guarantee for continued work. Still, the meeting was interesting, as Nicolas (the cultural manager of their project) and Kat (I think she’s the overall manager of this base of GVI) were very interested and had a couple of other ideas for cooperations, which I think will be gladly perceived by Marcus  and  Santos: They are interested in helping them with the environmental education program Xyaat is sponsoring for the schools, and also could help with the distribution of the tourism product (by sending volunteers, and also they work closely with the public tourism information in Tulum). We hope to welcome them for the cross-training day on Thursday next week. My goal is more to set up everything for them, so they can get in touch with the right people and also continue working after we leave – if I do everything for them, all our work would probably be lost after our plane takes off…

After lunch we sat together as a team at our current office – the lobby (it’s just so much more comfortable than the conference room!) – and discussed a bit our current work that we were doing. I felt this was really important, because it kind of gave us the working spirit back. Honestly, I had the feeling we were all a bit lost after Heber left, but it seems we’re getting more up to speed the last two days now.

Unfortunately I couldn’t stay until the end, because I had arranged to meet Manuel again in the evening – which was when we discussed more details of the internships that they could offer to Xyaat. Manuel made a good point – he told me about different people that had been working with Senor for years, mainly in order to get things with the Ejido straight – so there is a good point in saying that doing one or two seminars in the community is not really what would help set things right. We finally decided to include that in the Cross-Training day, which I guess is a good idea, as people from several communities working with CTSK will participate.   So that was yesterday – a lot of talking…. Today we went on the Forest & Float Tour of CTSK, which was a great experience! Dan, David, Beth and me met with our guide Antonio at 8:30 and headed off to Muyil, about half an hour down the road. We first went to the ruins of Muyil, which was great because I had never seen Mayan ruins before and also they were hidden in the forest just as I imagined it!
Then we had a walk through the forest, slowly moving into the wetlands (the path was made of wood about 20 cm above the ground –we did not get wet J ) and luckily the first time in my life I spotted birds when I was supposed to see them (up to now, on every tour I did that included birdwatching I couldn’t see anything except for green leaves).
From there, we arrived at the lagoon, which had crystal-clear water. After a fruit snack we headed with the boat to the canal in the savannas. The first that we passed was a man-made one (first constructed by the Mayas centuries or even millennia ago – apparently they don’t need to maintain it because the current does it naturally).
After passing the second lagoon, we entered into a natural canal that actually was half savannas, half mangroves (my checklist done – I absolutely wanted to see mangroves on this trip!) and here started probably the best part of the day: We put swimming jackets on, however not in the usual way but like diapers, and jumped into the water – floating down the canal for half an hour. We didn’t have to do anything, just  relaxing, enjoying the green around us, the sun and the refreshing water! It was fascinating, because while in the water you can’t actually see the surroundings, so when then we entered again into the boat and could see we were actually floating in the middle of a seemingly endless green savanna!
After coming back to our starting point at the first lagoon, we had some tasty traditional mayan lunch and then headed for the last part – the cenote. Dan showed me how to snorkel (my last experience was not very good, always had the feeling I could not breathe properly…) which I was very glad about – maybe still going out to the reef on one of the next days? We’ll see…. 

Barrie just arrived, and from just a moment knowing her can tell we will have a great time during the upcoming week! So, we’re soon off to dinner –can’t wait to eat! 

First thoughts

March 14, 2007

We came back from Senor yesterday, and after a shower and long discussions yesterday evening now it’s time to start working on the things we learnt there. I won’t go into detail about the tours we took in Senor, as Janice  told about that before, and I will leave our “add-on” to be told by somebody else (because I did not experience the most important part and am so mad on myself I did not do it! Wait for one of the guys to tell you what there is to experience in this country….) We also had Julio with us for parts of the tour, and it was great getting his insight on everything going on in Senor and Xyaat. Especially valuable to me was his explanation about the political organization of the Ejido, which is the land on which a couple of communities are situated. Not all people in the communities actually have voting rights for the leaders of the Ejido, but only those that own land. The land-ownership and voting right is usually inherited, but only one of the children receives it. Apparently the other children then still have land to farm, but they do not officially own the land they are working on. This political complexity (there’s a bit more to it than what I share here) produces many problems. In our case, one of the leaders of the Ejido is against Marcus, one of the main people in Xyaat (besides Santos and Julia). As Marcus is not owner of land, he can not even go to the Assembly of the Ejido where all major decisions are taken. However, most of the people are actually in favour of Xyaat, because they have seen in the past that the tourism activity generates income for many families. Also, they give a substantial part of their profit to a project of environmental education, which I consider very important (especially if you have seen all the garbage on the side of roads and even hiking paths at the lagoon).  

These conflicts with the Ejido are something we were getting very worried about when Heber first told us about, and we had a long talk on Sunday evening about whether or not we were able to / should help in this issue. Our decision was that we are not responsible for internal conflicts and should not be involved in their resolution, not even try to engage in it. What I still think we could do is to make suggestions to Marcus and Santos– such as having a contract with the Ejido laying down the rules of the game, or also more transparency coming from the side of Xyaat. However, our involvement in internal problems should really not go beyond laying out thoughts during a casual talk…. One more thought to that: It came out during the last days that the situation is not as bad as it first seemed – so we have hope and should not let ourselves take down by these things. 

Sorry for writing a long blog without pictures – that’s because I still have an analogue camera 😉  On Tuesday, after we had our second tour, we sat down for quite a while to talk with Marcus and Santos about what actually their dream is and where they want to go with their tourism activity. It came out that they really don’t want a big thing, and their biggest concern is that they themselves, but also the people in the community they work with, give up their traditional way of living (working in the milpa – their fields). Marcus has not been on his milpa for 2 weeks now, and Santos is currently paying somebody else to care about it for him. This is very worrying, as they see tourism as a way of generating income to a big part of the community without giving up their traditional way of living. They actually would like to have a tour for about three days per week, and the other four days being able to engage in whatever activities they usually have. What they also said is that there might be other people from Senor wanting to work with them later, but at the moment, as it’s just a small group of people, they really want to have a limited amount of tours. This is really important for us to understand – here it is not about generating as much demand as possible, but about generating a very specific and limited amount of demand. I think this conversation was possibly the most important one we had so far…

What we also noticed, and Beth and me were talking about that in the car afterwards, is that the group of people is great, not only because of their expertise, but also because of the different ways of thinking, lifestyles, personalities. One example: Beth needs to force herself to think on a small scale and in very basic and easy parameters – which is what I am good at, which is my way of thinking. Me, on the other hand, I have to force myself to leave any environmental, social and cultural concerns outside for the main part, and to focus on business and tourism operations – which is what Beth and the rest of the team are good at.  

These differences also came out last evening then when we had the so far most effective discussion internally as a group. We were sitting together and just thinking about possible ways of structuring their pricing, organizing transportation, etc. So what we noticed was the various cultures we come from actually help us a lot to see the problem from a variety of angles and going beyond our usual horizon. Until now, I have not really tried to think much in my role, my task that I have here, it has been more an overall getting to know the area, the people, the offer. Today now is the time to start thinking about it – I am doing the cross-training part of the program, and I noticed that there are several people and companies that Xyaat works together with. Also, there are training initiatives in the region. This gives me a good starting point, and I will spend the morning today with studying the various websites we heard about during the last days. Then, in the afternoon, I’ll drop by the CTSK office to meet some of the people there. Unfortunately, Manuel, our main contact, is gone to Mérida today. From tomorrow on then, I hope to be able to start a focused work with them during some days. I am not sure yet how it will all look like in the end, but I think we should focus on a general roadmap for training that can be used by Xyaat, but also for other communities in the long run. Then, I want to give CTSK all the tools that they need to train people – the whole variety of ways how to learn, how to teach, how to hold workshops… some presentation and moderation skills and some examples for teaching material. Then, and this is the most idealistic and strategic part, I want to lay down some options of cooperation between the communities of the region working in tourism.  

I have to say, these are my imaginations now – but I have not even talked to anybody from CTSK yet. So, what I am writing down here may change substantially during the next days, depending on their input and the further discussions we have in our group.   There are probably loads of things that I forgot to tell, which are also important, also going on in my mind…. But that was enough now I guess – will keep you posted on anything happening here – so keep reading! 

It’s so great to be here!  So far we’ve spent a total of 4 1/2 hours together and it’s already clear that we have a great team.  Janice and Heber gave us a download over breakfast of their work so far on project recommendations, and after hearing their experiences in Senor we are all very excited to go see it for ourselves.  We spent the last few hours getting our computers configured for the wireless connection here in our conference room, getting set up to blog, getting our Blackberries functioning properly, getting the printer hooked up – and now we’re ready to dive in (and I’m not talking about diving into the beautiful Caribbean that’s within eyeshot of the conference room)!  Now we’re off to lunch and to get the details of Heber’s product recommendations.