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.   

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Today is my last day in Tulum. The rest of the team has arrived and we’ve spent the morning discussing the program, what Heber and I have learned over the past week and getting everybody up to speed on how to blog! No excuses now.  🙂 We have taken over the conference room at the hotel and the view is very nice. The sun has come out for the second wave of the team. Tomorrow they will get to meet Marcos, Santos and Julia in Xyaat. I’m so excited for them. Ok…I have to go catch my shuttle to the airport. Good luck to the rest of the team!

Cheers,

Janice

Hola from Tulum!

Heber and I have spent the past four days in the field with little access to our cell phones let alone our computers. When we were finally able to connect to the internet this morning we realized that we are a bit addicted to our computers. J The staff at the hotel is having a difficult time understanding that we are working. They keep reminding us to go have some fun. J I’m not sure that Heber and I could be happier than sitting in the lobby typing away. Such a relief! It might be more difficult to work if the sun was out but it seems that I brought the rain with me from Seattle. It has rained on and off every day since we arrived.

The program officially began on Monday with a trip to the community of Xyaat in Senor about an hour and a half from Tulum where Heber and I are staying. However, the adventure actually began on Sunday when I picked up the rental car at the
Cancun airport.  The drive to Tulum is usually very easy but with rain coming down in buckets it was a bit scary.
 
I arrived at the hotel much later than anticipated but was able to find the rest of the crew at one of the restaurants. I finally met Heber in person!
Kate Dodson from the UN Foundation filled me on the past several days that she had spent with the community we were going to be working with and we made plans for our trip to Senor the next day.
 Senor is a small Mayan community about 30 minutes north of Felipe Carrero Puerto. Carrero Puerto (this is what most people call the town) is roughly 30,000 people and acts as the hub for the many Maya communities in the area. In Senor the all the streets are dirt and the houses range from sticks and palm leaf roofs to concrete block structures, again with palm roofs. There is electricity and many of the people have television in their homes. It is a very strange thing to see the modern TV and the dirt floors in the same house. The people sleep in hammocks and also use them as furniture during the day. They run cloth or plastic sheets along the ceiling directly below the roof peak to catch scorpions which sometimes fall from the ceiling and on to the people! Xyaat House 
 As with every other Maya group we have met, the young leaders of Xyaat (the community building the tour business) were incredibly passionate and enthusiastic. They speak Maya and Spanish but very little English. Luckily with my broken Spanish and Heber’s translations we had a great time communicating.  Xyaat SignXyaat TeamXyaat only offers two tours. A nature tour and a cultural tour. Each tour is very loosely constructed and varies depending on who the customers are and what they want out of the tour. We quickly discovered that one easy fix for these guys would be to help them provide some structure to the products.  

We experienced the Nature Hike first. We headed out to the Laguna Azul about 20 minutes outside of Senor. The road was a bit rough but we made it in one piece. The basic version of the tour is to hike a trail used by many local Maya around the edge of the lagoon and see the flora and fauna. The tour included a stop a an observation tower. this is my third experience with observation towers in Mexico. They always test my faith a bit. 

 Laguna Azul Tower

During the hike our guide spent time pointing out indigenous plants and their traditional medicinal uses. We learned to always find “East” by looking at a vine-y plant that always grows toward the morning sun (and it was true, we saw the same thing over and over again…better than a compass!). We saw leaf cutting ants crossing the trail (something I had only seen on National Geographic specials). It was great! At first it seemed that little pieces of bright green leaves were jumping and floating in a line all by themselves. Upon closer inspections you can see the ants marching along. There are 18 types of orchids that usually grow along the path but unfortunately someone had stolen several so we only saw 12. The Xyaat team plans to bring in more orchids from other parts of the jungle to replace what has been lost.

 Laguna AzulThe tour continued to the cenote (opening in the earth were water is exposed to the surface). However, in this case the cenote is inside the lagoon. To be honest, I really couldn’t tell the difference between the water of the lagoon and the water of the cenote. Our guide explained to us that they know when there is a cenote because there are certain species of fish that only live within the cenote and will not venture in the lagoon water. Also, if you are swimming within the boundary of the cenote and dive down you will feel a different kind of pressure in your ear drums. I took our guide at his word.   We were running late (a major theme here that has to be gotten used to) so we hurried back along the same trail to the truck and headed back into town for lunch and the cultural tour.  We had a traditional lunch of white bean soup, tortillas, and scrambled eggs with some type of green vegetable mixed in. Yum!!! After lunch we began the cultural tour back in thevillage of
Senor. Our first stop found us at the home of Don (term of respect) Cresencio, an elderly Mayan gentlemen who is the one in the village that knows how to work the Heenequen plant. The plant is about 6 feet tall and has long spiky leaves similar to a giant Aloe Vera plant. He hacked off one of the leaves with a rather large machete (visions of Indian Jones came to mind). He then bent the leaf over a board and started scraping the green juicy parts off with the machete until all that was left was long white fibers. Amazing. He then used a traditional leather strap on his leg to role the fiber into rope. 
 We then headed over several blocks to the house of the traditional medicine man, Don Lucio. He is called a Hmen in Mayan which means something close to priest. He showed us around his botanical garden and explained how he uses the plants to heal the rest of the people in the community. The strangest item we came across was a potato-shaped fruit that grows on trees and has the rough skin of pineapple, but white. When ripe the fruit smells like very stinky cheese. I’m not sure what it is supposed to heal but I do know that Heber had a heck of a time getting the smell off his hands (he was the only one brave enough to touch it). J Lesson learned – don’t touch anything!  Xyaat Plant

The plant above reminded me of the one from Little Shop of Horrors. It was about 5 feet in length.

We then went to the house of the local storyteller, Don Abundio Yama, who gave us the history of the Caste Wars. Up until the 1930’s the people of the
Yucatan were very independent and barely knew the Mexican government existed. When the government decided they wanted the land they tried to take it from the Maya. The Yucatan Mayans asked the people of
Belize for help and they fought the Mexican government together. There were many Chinese fishermen leaving in the area at the time (who knew?!) and they also helped fight. Many Maya have Chinese ancestors. Don Yama is one of these Chinese Mayans and is highly respected as an historian and has been flown to
Europe to share his stories.

We met with a few more members of the community before returning to the Xyaat office for a review of the day and planning the follow day’s activities.

That evening we joined our friend Don Julio Muerno (representative of COMPACT and a friend of the UN Foundation who is the leader for over 70 projects in the
Yucatan focused on sustainable business including honey making, forestry, fisheries and tourism) for dinner in Carrero Puerto and discussed the challenges faced by the Xyaat community and who the audience would be for this type of product. The challenges are many including location – Xyaat is at least 3 hours from
Cancun, 1 ½ hours from Tulum and 30 minutes from Carrero Puerto. The staff is passionate but untrained and not very business savvy…yet.
 

The following day we met with Don Julio for breakfast and a recap of the prior day’s activities. We then all headed back out to Senor to have a brainstorming session with the Xyaat team. We were only supposed to be there until Noon but as things naturally happen we didn’t leave Senor until well after 6.

Heber, Julio and Xyaat team 

Macros

To be honest, Heber and I were feeling a bit overwhelmed by the challenges faced by this community. They have many obstacles in front of them; the most difficult to overcome may simply be the location. We drove back to the hotel in Tulum that night a bit concerned about how much we could really help these wonderful people.  On Wednesday we drove into the town of
Tulum and visited the office of Community Tours Sian Kaan (CTSK), the same group that we worked with during the first employee program. It was great to see my old friends but better yet they shared some fantastic news!!
 

First, they have seen 125% growth in sales since last year’s program. They attribute that growth specifically to the work done by the World Heritage Alliance and Expedia. Secondly, they just found out that they won a very prestigious award for being 1 of the 5 best sustainable programs in
Central America. Along with the award will come a cash prize of $30,000! The good work they can do with that money is unreal. They again said that without our help they would not have won the award. It was so satisfying to hear about their success and see it first hand.

At the CTSK office we met with several presidents of the different groups that make up the cooperative of CTSK. We spoke to them about our work with Xyaat. This group of people enthusiastically supported the program and even offered to allow the manager of Xyaat the opportunity to come work with CTSK for 1-3 months to learn the business, basically an internship. They even talked about perhaps helping to fund the program a bit as the person that does the internship has a family and would need to make a minimum salary so they could continue to eat. I asked at one point how much would be necessary per month…only $600. It is mind-boggling how so little money can have such a positive impact. They are committed to helping because the Xyaat group is Mayan and they are all one community at the end of the day.

Heber and I concluded that we needed to spend more time with the team at Xyaat so we made another visit to them on Thursday, mostly to see the rest of the cultural experiences (traditional broom making, recycled rope making, instrument making and ceremonial scribing). We were lucky to meet a couple from
England, Ian and Faye, who heard about Xyaat and wanted to experience the cultural tour. They joined us during the tour portion of our day. 
 broomJanice, Ian & Faye making rope
One of the most endearing parts of the day was when the 62 year old Mayan broom maker insisted on climbing up a huge tree and picking us fresh oranges to eat. I hope I am still climbing trees at 62!Gathering oranges

After hearing about the success of CTSK, understanding the level of support CTSK was willing to provide to Xyaat and meeting the English couple Heber and I had our confidence restored. (As a side note, I spoke to the concierge of the hotel we are staying at in Tulum and they did say that while Americans prefer to sit on the beach, the English and Germans ask all the time for cultural experiences).

During one of the stops we saw a very sad site…a young jaguar had been hit by a car and killed. The man who makes instraments found it on the side of the road and brought it back to the community. The Maya were very very sad aboubt the loss. They respect the jaguar and do not hunt them. Also being a very practical people, they were going to try to salvage what they could of the animal. It was very beautiful.

 Jaguar

[NOTE FROM THE EDITOR: No jaguars were eaten at lunch. Traditional Mayan food includes corn, beans, squash…but no jagaur. A thank you goes out to those who provided feedback. Sorry to have alarmed you. 🙂 ]

During lunch we ate traditional Mayan food cooked in the ground (technique is called Pibil).

Starting the pibil Pibil continued

 pibil part 3pibil step 4

 pibil foodmore bibil

We were also treated to another aspect of the cultural experienc, traditional music and dancing.

 Dancing

We spent the rest of the afternoon sharing our thoughts with the Xyaat team and discussed next steps. We did discover that they do not currently have a contract with the ejido (tribe) to use the land. We told the team that is was very important that they secure these rights as soon as possible for as long as possible otherwise they could find themselves out of business before they begin. We later spoke with Don Julio who agreed ed to meet with the ejido. He and Heber will present to the ejido on Monday to help them understand the project and why it is in the interest of the entire community to help make this project succeed.  We also spent time digging into the details on pricing, logistics, etc. Heber spent a great deal of time explaining the need to “productize” their offers so consistency is developed. We explained the role of each of the other participants coming from Expedia and ask the Xyaat team to prepare materials that would help move the project along once the other Expedia team members arrived.  We finished up the day around 5pm (again, we had planned to leave much earlier but when in
Mexico…) and met Don Julio for coffee in Carrero Puerto to share our thoughts on the day. We stopped in Tulum for dinner and got back to the hotel around 10pm and crashed.
 We have been sitting in the lobby of the hotel (where the wireless access is) working on the presentation and preparing the blog. We are next to the front desk and I can tell you one thing…the front desk staff of any hotel are simply not paid enough. J I think many folks are cranky as it has been raining every day. Sadly, many of the tourist I’ve seen walk through the lobby do not understand the concept of getting burned even on cloudy days. J  
Tomorrow is our personal day and we have decided to visit the ruins of Tulum (I’m checking out an self-guided audio tour that we sell as a Destination Service) and then driving down to road to Punta Allen so Heber can see some of the Sian Kaan biosphere. Tomorrow night the rest of the team flies in and we will spend time in the evening sharing information and a couple of hours on Sunday presenting our learnings before I head to the airport. Luckily Heber is here for a few more days and can help the rest of the team get settled and up to speed quickly.  I will be sad to go but I know that we are doing amazing work here and we are truly making a difference in the lives of these people. I hope anyone reading this will have the opportunity to participate in this program in the future.  Heber promises me that he will share his thoughts on the blog soon. He has been very focused on creating the product presentation.   Adios!  

Xyaat is coming soon…

February 24, 2007

Stay tuned….

This has been the first of the two weeks we came to the Yucatan Peninsula, and from the first moment we got here our World Heritage Alliance Employee Program has been full of energy and dedication. We couldn’t select a better team than our Fab Five, as I call them; Megan, Janice, Olger, Josh and Dustin are a perfect sample of what Expedia is all about . So energetic, positive and smart and with the soul needed for this program’s goal: to make a difference in the community of Sian Ka’an. Our first time together as a team was Sunday night,  we met for dinner with “Don Julio” from the UN who has worked with Maya communities for the last 10 years. He spoke about his experiences and recommendations  which included to keep a “sack of humor” during our two weeks experience… His words were very inspiring, reminding us to be happy at all times. Then on Monday we had our introduction to Sian Ka’an… a 6 hr tour around the biosphere. At night we were invited to a dinner downtown Tulum. Close to 40 members of the community came to welcome us.

Tuesday meeting with CTSK and talked about our projects. We had to speak English and Spanish simultaneously so that we were able to communicate. It’s amazing to see the interest from all the people who attended….

Another good night sleep.  I could get used to waking up to the sound of the ocean.

The first tour today is was for the fish trolling or deep sea fishing tour.  Janice has a great description of the tour in her blog entries so I will not get into much detail here.  After catching our first Mahi-Mahi (Yes Janice, mine was smaller! J) we had to take a seasick Janice back to shore.  I went back out for another try and managed to catch a decent size barracuda.  All fish were returned to the sea in accordance with the environmentally friendly catch-and-release nature of the operation.
Professionals

Fish Trolling with the Professionals

Next we tried the kayaking tour through the canals and water ways of the bay among mangroves and in the vicinity of Bird
Island.  Gerardo, our guide, was eager to get our impressions on the tour and improve on it.  I really can’t see how he can improve.  This tour, as the others so far, proves to be well organized, informative, professional and thorough.  I only see that they may need better equipment and perhaps ways to store the kayaks in the point of destination.

Kayak

Still Life with Kayaks and Mangrove

The kayaks allow us to get in areas that boats would not and soon we navigate through mangrove tunnels trying to spot animals and, hopefully, a boa or even the rare manatee.  The tour is not strenuous and I could see families enjoying something like this as well as avid kayakers.I really feel the need to sit down with someone at CTSK to see their cost structure in order to help out with the pricing strategy.

Dona Irma

Doña Irma and I – she’s a huggable person. J

Late that afternoon, we head back to Tulum.  I’m exhausted!  You would think that this is all fun and games.  And it is to a point.  But after four days of getting up early, rushing out to meetings, taking off on tours for the entire day and coming together at the end of the day to debrief, discuss and plan next steps… your body and mind begin to feel it!  So I sleep for most of the trajectory back to Tulum in spite of the bumpy road.  We arrive at Maya Tankah early evening covered in sweat, salt and dust… a picture out of some adventure show.  Janice and I agree that a shower is in order before anything else and, unfortunately, because of some misunderstanding we miss a conference call with Laura and the team scheduled for that evening.

It feels good to be back together with team (all but Dustin who is touring the peninsula on a sales trip).  I feel we are growing into a cohesive group learning to work as parts of a whole.  We meet and discuss our parts… there are many questions on the table but we can see that something is starting to take shape.

Punta Allen – Day 2: Jaguars, barracudas and – oh yes – more mosquitoes!!! (6/21/2006)

The morning is hot from the beginning.  Amazingly enough I slept better in our rustic quarters than in the air-conditioned comfort of the hotel in Tulum.  But I discover that Dustin has hardly slept at all and spent the night pacing the room trying not to suffocate or get devoured by mosquitoes (so much for the magic incense!).  Apparently, having slept near the window saved me from an uncomfortable night.  Still, I feel like a kid in adventure land! 

The sands of Punta Allen

The sands of Punta Allen 

I need to train for the Seafair Marathon taking place on July 09 back in Bellevue, so I force myself out of bed, spray myself in a toxic cloud of mosquito repellent and get out to start an 80 minute jog.  I’m skipping a fly-fishing class that our guide, Gerardo, is conducting at 7 a.m. so that I get a chance to train.  The first 10 minutes go well and the heat is not unbearable.  But then I get on the road that leads to Tulum and the mosquitoes discover that I missed a big spot when I sprayed repellent: my back.  They are relentless and attack my back from all points.  The only thing I can do to keep them somewhat at bay is to run faster.  I stop to tie my shoelace and feel bombarded by needles.  The thought running through my head: why didn’t I take that malaria shot when I could!!!  I try to make the most of the run and try to put my mind on something other than the stupid blood suckers.  It is then that I start noticing tracks.  Thousands of crab tracks mark the ground, then some that are unmistakably birds.  Later I find pizote (or coati) tracks – a tropical cousin of the raccoons – and finally a big set of jaguar tracks (now I have definitely forgotten the mosquitoes… well… almost!).  My friends “escort” me all the way down to my palapa.  In the mirror my back looks like it has been sand blasted.  The mind keeps chanting “malaria” and “dengue” like a broken record. 🙂

I rush to shower and meet my team for an early meeting with town representatives to be introduced and hear their views on our project.  The same concern keeps surfacing in most of our conversations: the need to bring levels and types of visitors who will not disrupt the balance of the local population and their environment.  Many of these people have lived here long enough to remember what Playa del Carmen used to look like before it was developed.  In time they have seen the claw of development closing around them and threatening their way of life and traditions.  They have also experienced recently the exploitation by foreigners without scruples representing themselves as good Samaritans ready to help their cause, only to disappear one day with the earnings of the co-ops.  Naturally these people seem suspicious at times of a big foreign corporation showing up to partner with them and requiring no share whatsoever of the profits.  Wouldn’t you?

Our first tour today is to Bird Island, a fantastic heaven on a mangrove islet.  Frigate birds cover the tops of the mangroves and our guide shows us how to distinguish the young ones by the white color that still covers most of their bodies – since by size they seem adults to my untrained eye.  Adults hover above the waters of the bay and over the mangrove.  To stay cool in their nests in the heat of the day, the young birds (who still can’t fly) open up their wings creating a draft around their bodies.  These birds fish in a similar fashion as pelicans spotting their prey from above.  But unlike pelicans, frigate birds don’t dive to catch the fish, they elegantly glide above the water surface and pick up the fish in one swift movement.  In that way, they keep their delicate feathers from getting damaged by the salty waters of the ocean.  Other kinds of birds cohabitate with the frigate birds and it’s hard for me to keep track of their names.  But watching the birds fly by as we float around the islands is mesmerizing.

After Bird Island we go out to the coral reef for a snorkeling expedition.  It’s bumpy and I get to the front of the boat to enjoy the “roller coaster” ride.  After tumbling around for a few minutes I realize it’s not such a good idea and return to the safety of my seat.  We get to the coral reef area and I’m a little apprehensive since this is my first try at snorkeling and I’ve heard that the infamous barracudas abound in the area.  It’s because of barracudas that we need to take off anything that shines since barracudas are attracted to the glitter (off with the rings and the watch!!!).  Our guide Marco is an experienced diver who really knows the trade.  He directs the tour in a very professional manner and puts my mind at ease to see how well prepared he is.  He also gives us instructions on how to communicate and behave in the water.  He is also very protective of the reef and tells us that under no circumstance should we touch the coral.  The touch of a finger – he tells us – could damage an area of the reef that would take a thousand years to recover.  As if that wasn’t enough, he shows us a scar on his stomach caused by a kind of stinging coral.  (Note to self: touching coral = very bad!)  For safety and to avoid the temptation to dive down to see the coral closely, we wear life vests.

As soon as we dive we are surrounded by a surreal world.  We are in 10 feet deep waters and the sun light shines all the way down to the white sand bottom.  Brightly colored fish swim everywhere and the coral adds even more life to the scene.  Marco starts to point out the main features of the marine fauna we encounter.  Soon enough we encounter our first barracuda swimming our way.  They swim with their mouths open showing plenty of needle-like teeth.  My heart starts pounding but with a quick movement the barracuda suddenly changes course and swims away.  Other barracudas we find do the same thing apparently afraid of us.  Phew!!!  The rest of the swim is fantastic and I see that both Dustin and Janice are also calmly enjoying the experience.

Barracuda Bait 

Barracuda bait

Reluctantly we end our snorkeling tour and head back to shore.  On the way we spot dolphins and slow down for a better look.  Some other tour guide is there with a group of tourists and he irresponsibly not only allows a tourist to jump in the waters but also starts dragging her by the arm along side the boat.  Marco looks irritated and he explains how he could never allow that.  Dolphins are known to be very docile creatures by nature but these are also wild dolphins.  They could be protective and hurt someone who tries to approach them.  Besides dragging a person along a propeller boat is obviously a bad idea.  I test Marco and ask him – what if I really like dolphins and decide to jump right now?  His answer is direct and to the point: “I would get you out of the water and it would be the end of the tour for all of you.”  I really respect that!

 Dolphins

Dolphins

We get to shore and have another delicious meal cooked by doña Irma.  Then it’s time for fly fishing.  I haven’t gotten the training so I will just go along for a look.  Janice and Dustin each is lead by a guide in some very shallow waters of the bay.  I’m not much of a fisherman, but I can see how someone would enjoy the quiet relaxation offered by this sport.  I stand alone far from the two groups so I don’t disturb the waters.  Fish keep swimming by and I even spot several small sting rays.  One of them calmly swims around me and settles in the sand no more than three feet from me.  The tour ends with no catches to speak of… well, Janice did manage to hook the back of her shorts a couple of times.

Dustin goes back to Tulum that afternoon and Janice and I stay behind to try out a couple new ideas for tours: Kayaking and Fish Trolling.  We meet in the evening to discuss our impressions so far and to begin creating a plan for our section of the project.Tonight I move to a different “cabin”.  I have the privilege to sleep in the “Little Titanic”.  A 30-plus feet boat on top of which the hotel owner built a “cabina” complete with a roomy bathroom.

 Mosquito Nets

Mosquito nets in the Little Titanic

 Little Titanic

The one and only Little Titanic

– Olger