Yucatan, Mexico Help Exchange

Posted from Isla Aguada, Campeche, Mexico.

On Friday, May 11 we arrived at a ranch in the northern Yucatan Peninsula for another Help Exchange stay.  It’s been almost five months since our last HelpX stint (click on the Help Exchange category on the right side of your screen to read about the others), so we were looking forward to working outdoors, meeting new people, staying put for two weeks, and not spending money.  But this situation didn’t work out exactly as we anticipated.

View of the first house from the second house - lots of work to do on the land

The owner of the ranch was born in Belgium, lived in the U.S. for over twenty years, and then eventually bought this ranch seven years ago in the state of Yucatan.  He escorted us to the ranch from a neighboring village because he warned us that finding the entrance is too difficult for people who had never been there before.  That was a good sign that it would be nice and secluded.  He also asked us to buy a hammock since the workers sleep in hammocks but he was short one.  We instead volunteered to sleep in Maggi.  So we were now, in essence, camping and working.


Misha gives a tour of some of the trees

The idea of this ranch is to be self-sustaining, like several others of our HelpX stays.  Solar power, wind power, and small batteries are used for the day to day runnings of the farm.  There is a motor in the well which pumps out the water that he uses for every aspect of life here, from drinking (after filtering it, of course) to cooking to flushing the toilet to watering the trees.  Funny thing about solar power… when there was no sun (even temporarily) there was no water.  That was definitely an adjustment.  When your task is to water 20 trees and the water hose is directly connected to the sun and there are a lot of clouds in the sky, well, it takes a while.

Papaya trees

The farm has banana, papaya, citrus, and a couple of other fruit trees.  Bananas are to be the main dietary starch on the ranch, but unfortunately not a single banana was available for consumption while we were there.  He also raises snails, the only source of ranch-raised protein, which again we weren’t able to try.  There are no other animals being raised for food but there is a dog, a cat, and countless lizards.  Right now his main vegetable crop are radishes, but there are also some cacti, the paddles of which are edible once they’ve been cleaned and peeled (called nopales).  And although there are a few tomato plants here and there, they are not getting the attention they need at the moment.  Papaya are definitely the most prolific crop at this moment, and the one we’ve been eating quite a lot of.  Everyday.

The second cement house

The owner has been working on construction of a second cement house, which will be used for future HelpX workers.  During our first work day, a snake tried to join in the construction fun, but after some careful prodding and directing, it was shown the door before Misha the resident German Shepherd had a chance to play with it.


Misha was there to supervise everything

There wasn’t a lot of variety in our daily activities.  Together we did plenty of weeding, but usually we were occupied with separate tasks.  One of us spent the mornings doing hard manual labor, such as excavating the rocky earth for dirt (a precious commodity here and obviously necessary when growing trees and vegetables) and carrying concrete construction blocks by hand around the farm; the other of us took over kitchen duty, making meals on the one gas burner, utilizing the electricity only when the wind turbine had provided ample, and washing dishes outside in buckets of well water because there is no sink – anywhere.

Hmm… which one of us was hauling dirt in buckets and sweating through his clothes in the hot morning sun while the other was indoors learning how to make bread in a pan on the burner or spaghetti in a pressure cooker with virtually no water in a kitchen that was, in actuality, a closet?

The kitchen in the closet

Erik on radish duty (nice ankle brace)

Well – you are ALL wrong.  Pepe was the laborer while Erik was the cook.  Believe it!  Pepe has the blisters to prove it (at least five on his hands in the first day alone).  Erik has been dealing with some ankle discomfort lately, and just walking on the ranch is difficult for anyone because the ground is so uneven and rocky.  Therefore, being inside the house was good for Erik’s ankle and besides, no one is as talented at washing dishes as Erik – and he was a great cook while we were there.  (Ask him about his spaghetti with green papaya - ¡Delicioso!)

Where Pepe worked everyday. Kind of like prison, right?

Pepe, along with the only other worker there (and he being from Oregon), chipped and hammered away at rocks and dirt, carrying buckets to another part of the farm to deposit into tree beds of the future.  Pepe also watered trees, which involved hooking up a car battery to a pump inside a fish and plant water tank (are you still with us?) and using a giant hose to direct the water to the citrus trees.  It’s all very clever and uses surprisingly little energy, but the systems took a little getting used to.

The reservoir, from whence came our shower water

There was, thankfully, an indoor toilet, but it had to be flushed by dumping a bucket of water into it.  The water for the toilet and the shower was supplied by a reservoir that had to be filled everyday with the hose from the well, which again, only worked when there was sunshine.  (There wasn’t always sunshine.)  We also had a period of a few days where the reservoir water was contaminated by some frogs who, under cover of darkness, made their way inside and laid their eggs.  So, for a few days, the water was full of frog eggs, and then for a few days after that it was full of tadpoles.  This made our daily water distribution – not to mention the debate of whether or not to take a shower – rather tricky.  Eventually the owner flushed and cleaned out the reservoir.  But it took him awhile to attend to this matter, because he was preoccupied with other issues…

Some of the snail beds

…The immigration system in Mexico is, in one word, inconsistent.  Some may argue that is it also disorganized and can be unfair.  And just recently new rules went into effect.  Soon after we arrived on the farm, the owner had his normal annual meeting with the immigration office in Yucatan.  After living here for seven years without a problem, this year they informed him that unless he transferred rather substantial amounts of money to his Mexican bank every month (the exact amount was calculated based upon the minimum wage in Mexico), he would have to leave the country.  Being unable to comply with their financial demand, they gave him eight days to pack up and go.

A solar "oven" for heating water for cooking

So, arriving back at the farm on Tuesday night, he was obviously distracted.  The good news is that he can change his “level” of citizenship and just live every six months on a tourist visa if he wants to.  The bad news is that it’s impractical – not to mention unfair – for someone who has lived here for so long, hires local workers, contributes to the economy, etc.  We’re not sure what is going to happen; all we know is that he left the ranch early Saturday morning (one week after we arrived) with hopes to fly to Brazil for a couple of weeks and then probably return.

Miss Kitty and family

Being a good guy, the owner allowed us to stay on the ranch for a few more days after he left.  We had a safe place to park and live, and even the keys to the house to use the water filter and kitchen.  We also agreed to take care of Misha and Miss Kitty (who recently had three kittens) and to continue watering the trees – based on the cooperation of the sun, of course.  There will, however, be no more hauling of dirt.

It was about a 10-foot jump into the cenote

We should also mention that as workers it wasn’t just all work and no play.  We worked mainly in the mornings; it wasn’t necessarily cooler than the afternoons (although maybe a little), but the sun was usually out in the mornings which meant water was more readily available.  By noon we would stop working and either eat lunch or head to the cenote, a big water-filled hole in the earth in which we swam (sometime in lieu of a shower).  We don’t know how deep it really was, but a local farmer tried to measure it and at 60 meters deep gave up.  There were also a couple of really friendly local workers who came by a couple of times per week, and they would work and hang out with us and let us practice our Spanish on them.  At night we would all use up some of the stored electricity from the wind turbine and watch a DVD (usually history-based) and then an episode of “Seinfeld.”

Camping at the ranch after everyone else was gone

Although our time on the farm was enjoyable, we unfortunately didn’t get a chance to learn a whole lot about the systems of operation because of the owner’s situation with immigration and early departure.  The weather was interesting, being virtually surrounded on three sides by the Gulf of Mexico.  It was hot, sunny, and humid, but there were usually plenty of passing clouds – and they pass with great velocity here.  It was also very breezy, sometimes just plain windy.  But we also enjoyed the many different birds and their interesting songs (nothing like those in Minnesota); we’ve never seen freely flying birds with such bright reds, oranges, yellows, and blues in their feathers.  Butterflies were also plentiful, gorgeous, and varied in many sizes and colors.  Then there were the countless frogs and lizards, lizards during the daytime and frogs in the evenings.  And so many unidentifiable sounds in the night: “Was that a frog or some type of bird?”

After staying at the farm until Wednesday, we headed back out on the road (four days earlier than we originally planned, before of the immigration complication).  We are camping and moving slowly west.  West?  Why west?  We were supposed to head south to Belize.

Big announcement coming up in a couple of days…

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3 Responses to Yucatan, Mexico Help Exchange

  1. Linda L Kidder says:

    I hope your next stop turns out better, although this one sounds like it was interesting even though it wasn’t as expected.

  2. Cathy says:

    You two are troopers. I am awaiting the big announcement eagerly. And why couldn’t you eat snails?

  3. Jennie Reul says:

    That sounds exhausting, Joe! Does it make you wish to go back to conducting?!

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