Sunday, July 25, 2010

Mexico Diaries: Day 4 - Panthers and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

This diary series covers my trip to the Mexican state of Jalisco to study the effects of NAFTA and the Green Revolution on subsistence farmers in rural areas. The trip began with a few days in Guadalajara, the largest city in the state. On the fourth day of the trip, we traveled through the countryside to the small town of Cuquio, where we would spend the rest of our trip.

Day 4 began like usual, with a fantastic Mexican breakfast at our hotel. I ordered chilaquiles verdes, huevos rancheros (sunnyside up eggs on a tortilla), pan tostada con marmelada (toast and jam), and frijoles fritos (refried beans). And, as luck would have it, the hotel finally provided real coffee instead of Nescafe. One of our trip's organizers, Ann Lopez, had purchased a pitaya (a type of fruit from a cactus common to this area) and asked our waitress to have it sliced and peeled so the group could taste it.


Pitaya on a plate with papaya and some mango

The pitaya looked a bit like a white kiwi. For my money, I'm sticking to mangoes while I'm here. The pitaya tasted okay, but I didn't like it as much as I like tuna, another kind of cactus fruit eaten in Mexico.

Later that day, I snuck off to get another latte. As I returned to the hotel, I saw a man in a police uniform with an enormous semi-automatic rifle in front of the gates. That must be our ride. I asked him, "Are you from Cuquio?" The municipal government was so pleased with the work of Ann Lopez (the woman who set up our trip who has been visiting this part of Mexico twice a year for a decade) that they had arranged to have the police provide our transportation for free.


Packing our luggage into the truck

As we assembled our group, the police helped us load our luggage (including the 11 bags of donations) into the back of their pickup truck. Then we piled into a brand new van that seated all 11 of us (and not one more!) and off we went.


Some dilapidated buildings on the way out of town


People selling food by the side of the road

It took us a while to leave behind the familiar sites of Guadalajara. As we reached the outskirts of the city, the buildings became more and more dilapidated. Soon, we were surrounded by a lush green valley as we drove into the mountains. At the bottom of the valley, we saw the Rio Verde (Green River), which should be called the Brown River because that's what color it is. Once upon a time, it must have been clear, but today it is full of Jalisco's eroded soil.


The Green River


The beautiful countryside of Jalisco


Another picture of the countryside

The one feature that unites both the city and the countryside are the ads for Coke, Pepsi, and Mexican beer. As we continued driving, we began to see farmfields, mostly planted with corn but some of blue agave (for tequila) and even cacti (to grow tunas). A few years back, there was a shortage of blue agave, making the price for it spike. When all of the farmers planted blue agave to cash in on the high prices, the price crashed. Some of the fields of agave we saw were obviously abandoned.


Agave growing on a hillside

Nearly every flat surface (and some hillsides) around here is planted in corn. Sometimes, you can tell that the corn is planted less densely. That's the maiz criollo, traditional Mexican landrace corn, interplanted with beans and squash. Other times, the corn stalks are packed tightly together, standing like soldiers. That's the corn planted from semillas mejorados (literally "improved seeds," the Mexican name for hybrid seeds).

As we entered corn country, we began to see advertisements for hybrid and genetically engineered corn seeds as well as for the fertilizers and pesticides that go with them. You can hardly go one mile in the Mexican countryside without seeing signs for DeKalb (Monsanto), Asgrow (Monsanto), Syngenta, Pioneer (DuPont), BASF, Bayer CropScience, and Dow AgroSciences. Where there were no billboards or stores, Monsanto posted its signs on trees.


DeKalb (Monsanto) "Un angel in tu tierra" ("An angel in your land")


Asgrow (Monsanto) with the slogan "Siembra tecnologia cosecha exito" ("Plant technology harvest success")


Yet another Monsanto sign. It's a blurry pic but it says "DeKalb: Un angel in tu tierra"


A blurry picture of a cornfield. Notice how densely planted the corn is... no room for beans and squash!


Asgrow (Monsanto) ads on trees

Every few feet, a tree would tout a Monsanto product, like the cleverly named "Oso," "Tigre," and "Pantera" lines of seeds (Bear, Tiger, and Panther). These are advertised along with "Faena" (RoundUp, under its Mexican name, meaning "chore" and implying that Roundup does the job of weeding for you). Most infuriating was the DeKalb slogan "An angel in your land," displayed next to the DeKalb logo of an ear of corn with an angel's wings.

If only the people of Mexico could know what this really meant! I grew up near DeKalb, so I know what that's like. It's your typical Midwestern corn and soybean monoculture with enormous fields of nothing but corn for miles and miles. That and all of the environmental problems that go with it, from soil compaction to fertilizer runoff. For all I know, there's Atrazine in the drinking water there. And all that corn goes to factory farmed livestock, high fructose corn syrup, and ethanol. It doesn't even turn into real food. Is this what Mexico wants to become?

At last, we reached Cuquio. A large, beautiful gate marked the entrance to the city. Next to it was an enormous Coca-Cola ad. As our van rolled into town, Dr. Lopez began to recognize familiar faces. It wouldn't be long before word got around that "Ana" (as everyone calls her) was in town. We stopped to greet the town doctor, a man who so appreciates Ann's work that he refuses to charge her or anyone in her group for his medical care.

This is a theme, everywhere we go in Mexico. Her hotel room was free in Guadalajara as well. She is so loved that nobody will charge her for anything. And I can't say I blame them. She is one of the warmest and most compassionate people I've ever met. The entire world, including the Mexican government, has forgotten the people in this part of the world, except for Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, Dow, DuPont, John Deere... and Ann Lopez.

After a short drive on cobblestone streets, we pulled up in front of the hotel. Here, in Cuquio, I feel like I've been dropped into a Graham Greene novel. The hotel is really something to see. It's gorgeous.




The hotel courtyard












A well in the hotel courtyard

On the same street as our hotel, there are a few stores - a small grocery, a liquor store that also sells shoes and horse saddle supplies, a fruit stand, a bakery, an ice cream shop, a shop offering faxing and long distance calls, and a furniture/TV/washing machine store. On the corner is the city government and the office of the municipal president, Cornelio. In addition to serving as president, Cornelio also runs a fertilizer and agrochemical store. That said, he's on good terms with Ann, he's very supportive of her work, and according to her, he cares more about the poor people in the countryside than many other municipal presidents she knows of.


Tony the Tiger, supplying the grocery across the street with sugary cereals


The bulk bins in the grocery store... some of the only unprocessed food they've got (in addition to a small fruit section).


Make your long distance calls here

One block over, there's a large open square and the town's church. Next to that, there is a large marketplace, with stores selling clothing, toys, food, and other gadgets surrounding an open square facing a stage where plays are sometimes performed. Upstairs in the market, there are several restaurants. Ann gave us a tour shortly after we arrived, offering to show us the TWO restaurants that have never made her or anyone else sick on her trips here.


The church

For me, arriving in Cuquio was a little terrifying. We could buy bottled water, but we had to put Grapefruit Seed Extract drops in it, because you never know when it's just tap water that someone bottled up and sold. The two restaurant choices offered beans (whole or refried), tortillas, cheese, meat, and any combination thereof. You could also order rice soup from one and posole, a regional specialty, from the other. And in addition to the problem everyone in our group shares of risking food poisoning, I had my own special problem. Every single store, restaurant, market stand, and even our hotel had TVs on, which give me migraines.

I joined my group in sitting down at the restaurant and ordering my first bowl of posole. I had no idea what to expect from my week in Cuquio, but I hoped it would include lots of posole and no food poisoning.


Posole without meat

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