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Newsletter: Maruata—Turtles, Dengue Fever, Women's Nursery Collective, "Wave capoeria"

January/February 2003


Mexican buses put ours to shame.

Black turtles mating

(photo by permission from Creagrus)

Dear Ecological living enthusiasts:

We're just now getting back to normal after an intense month working in Maruata last December.

This visit encompassed both the best and the worst of my experiences there, which is saying a lot. Here's how it started...



Scene: A tropical beach at new moon midnight. Stars blaze, all else is black.

A mom, a dad carrying a baby, and an 11 year old girl come stumbling onto the beach, after 4000 miles of travel, the last one on foot, through a couple dark creek crossings.

"Hmm...nobody here at Teodoro's. I guess we'll have to live without our stashed stuff tonight. Yes, I think we can make do without our tent."

We stumble on, dizzy with sleep.

"What about here for a camp site?" I shine the flashlight against the sand by the rocks.

"No, there might be poop there. How about over here?"

"Hey look—there's turtle tracks."

I play the flashlight up the trail.

"Whoa! There's the turtle!"

After a decade or two of cruising thousands of miles though the seven seas, a 200 pound black sea turtle is back here at the beach of it's birth to lay its eggs.

I snap the light off immediately. We confer, and decide to camp on the next beach, past a rock outcropping, so the noise and light of our setup won't disturb the turtle.

I help get the kids snuggled in. Every one else is too sleepy, so I go back to visit solo.

By starlight, I can just barely follow the track to the shadow of cliff at the back of the beach. Then it is too dark. I listen intently, and think I hear the scratch of flipper against sand.

Negra turtles move agonizingly slow when digging their nests. Ssssss—A flipper full of sand. Then, what seems like ages later, ssssss—another flipper full.

When you've been doing it for 200 million years—since before birds, mammals or any flowering plants appeared, before Pangea split into separate continents—I guess there's no rush.

Eventually I make out the turtle. This is a special blessing. I've only seen a couple turtles laying eggs, and usually the egg poachers are already there waiting when I've shown up. As I watch the turtle, I wonder what I can do to protect the eggs. Eventually I remember a trick that has worked in the past: make a hole a few feet away from the real one, so it looks like the eggs have already been poached.

The turtle is taking it's sweet time. It is so magical it is hard not to share. I go back to see if Lynn and Maya are sure they are too sleepy...and find another black turtle laying eggs right on the other side of our camp! A double blessing, and a very auspicious start to our work. The family is too sleepy, so I head back to wait until the turtle has finished laying so I can do the hole trick.

But—damn it! Flashlights play over the rocks. The poachers are there. I sneak up in the dark and glare at them, but I know better than to interfere. I slink back, deeply disturbed. Later, they come and take the eggs from the second turtle. They'll probably sell them for a night's high, and everyone—them, the turtles, the ecosystem—will be worse off.

Our baby following the turtle tracks the next day


About Dengue Fever

Lots of bug bites in the photo above-one of these might be the very mosquito bite from which I contracted dengue fever.

Though our kids had a fever, they tested negative for dengue on our return to the states, thank goodness.

Lynn and I researched dengue, and found precious little information of use to people facing the prospect of a second, potentially life-threatening infection, other than "don't get bit again." Considering dengue has surpassed malaria as the most widespread disease of its ilk, the lack of information is disconcerting.

We finally did find a treasure trove of information in the mind of Enid Garcia, of the US Center for Disease Control in Puerto Rico. If you are planning on spending much time in the tropics, bring this information on dengue with you.

It turns out that if you have simple but adequate medical care—enough oral and( if necessary, IV) fluids to keep you hydrated, your chances of dying from dengue hemorrhagic fever are very low.


Kids playing in the sand under a palapa, a few feet from a turtle nest.

Dengue Fever

Heaven and Hell—the best and the worst—typically find themselves in close juxtaposition in Maruata. I've been aware of, but not directly involved in the hell part...until this visit.

On the seventh night, I get dengue fever. For a feverish week I can't think a thought straight. I bundle under several blankets in the tropical heat all day, except for slow shuffles across the sand to pee.

Second dengue infections can turn into dengue hemorrhagic fever, which is a nasty disease. Your serum leaks out the walls of your blood vessels from every orifice and internally, until what's left is too thick for your heart to pump. Manual, a man I worked with in April (photo), died of it last month.

The prospect of second infections casts a dark pall over the future of the project. It gets darker when the whole rest of the family comes down with it. Who wants to risk a grisly death for their kid, however worthwhile the cause?

From this low point, pretty much everything looks black.


Back to work

As soon as I am well enough to think, I set out to get the work momentum going again. Heavier, it all seems too overwhelming.

Then one day we visit a much smaller community. There is no trash, there's plenty of room for our baby to play without stumbling into piles of human feces.

The whole canyon and beach belong to just a few families. The main family is totally into our work, and obviously wants us involved as much as possible. One composting toilet and the feces management would be ideal. One sealed sanitary well and the drinking water problem would be solved. The scale is incredibly much more manageable than a village of a thousand people. I feel I can handle this, and my energy comes surging back.

The woman of the house is raking the sand under their palapa (shade structure). I ask her if there are any turtles on this beach.

"Amigo, there are turtles under your feet!" she smiles.

I look around incredulously. She rakes over a gentle mound in the sand and says:

"Here's one nest, over there another, there another. Here, we care for the turtles, we don't eat them. Under this palapa there are fifteen nests, two of them from last night. Last year, some travelers were eating dinner at our table, and a hundred baby turtles came boiling out of the sand between their feet!"

The family and I make plans, very exciting ones. I return to the village, and even it looks like paradise again.


Women's garden committee and cooperative nursery

Laura Orlando of the ReSource Institute spent the first week here, and got some very good initiatives going. With only a week left to work, I tore into several of these projects simultaneously to make up for lost time. (The way to adapt from gringo speed to Mexican speed is for the gringo to do several projects at once, so that each individual project can proceed at Mexican speed and everybody is happy.)

We are looking at the entire village of Maruata as an ecological systems design. It is a complex problem set, as different efforts influence each other. In a situation like this, it is often the case that to do one thing you need to do another thing, which in turn involves yet another prerequisite, and so on. Before going down this time I looked at all the prerequisites and at bottom were trees, or the lack there of.

Trees are critical for the restoration of the watershed. They reduce peak storm flows and so would help prevent the spring box we've made from getting smashed by a deluge of stormwater. They would also increase the dry season flow, so we wouldn't need an additional springbox. Trees also provide material for housing, firewood, and trade in valuable tropical hardwoods (seeClaves).

They can also use up the greywater generated by households. This prevents the greywater from pooling into permanent, festering puddles, eliminating breeding ground for mosquitoes and reducing the incidence of dengue. Fruit bearing trees would lessen malnutrition. And, trees give shade and lighten the spirit.

Instead of buying trees from outside vendors, Laura suggested that the women's garden committee start a nursery collective. Several members have already started collecting seeds and growing native hardwoods. With the garden committee, we also started designing and planting greywater orchards in sun-baked yards, providing shade and eliminating septic greywater pools in one fell swoop.

Three of the eleven garden committee members and their kids at the spring to scout for plants and plan the project.

Nursery coordinator Isidra with a dozen baby wild fig trees for the nursery. The five foot diameter tree behind her is an adult of the same species.

Greywater puddle before^

Greywater orchard after>

Wave capoeria

Around this time I started to get back into the ocean. It is normally a source of much energy for me, but I hadn't set foot in it for a long time.

The ocean in Maruata is not what you'd call surfable. The waves are thick, six to eight foot high closed-out shore breaks, which crash explosively in knee-deep water. On the beach, you could be standing on damp sand and an instant later in the same spot be chest deep in an intense current, first in, then out. I watched this ocean for a long time, trying to figure out how to play with all that power.

Finally, I started just playing with the surge. I'd stand at the top of the steeply banked sand, watching the waves. When two big ones broke on top of each other, forming a chest-high wall of churning whitewater, I'd light out running full speed down the incline, take a flying leap over the turbine, into a forward judo roll on the far side. I'd complete the roll underwater, alighting with my feet rapidly skimming the surface of the sand as the current swept me backwards to my starting point. From there I figured out many variations.

Occasionally, of course, I'd get flattened. It was not unlike doing judo with a bear.

This time, however, the ocean was unusually calm. It was more like dancing contact improv capoeria with an exceptionally strong and flexible woman...

It's midnight on my last day. New moon dark again. Of these last twenty four hours in the village, I'm destined to work twenty. But now I head into the ocean for a break.

The warm water is like green-black silk on my skin. Bright yellow-green streamers of phosphorescence stream off my arms as I play. In capoeira (Brazilian dance martial art), the basic move is a rocking back and and forth in a crouch, with the arms blocking the face. I discover that spiraling is the basic move in wave capoeira: Body at an angle, arms breaking the surface on one side, digging in to power the spin on the other.

I spin a nearly breaking wave effortlessly past me. The heavens wheel overhead, but from years of African dancing I don't mind the dizziness. A wave breaks just in front of me—two underwater spins and I'm back on the surface in the same spot, ready for the next. This one is just right for bodysurfing—I unfold the spin into a powerful start down the wave and take it into the beach. I let the return current, only six inches deep, but fast, roll me back out for more. An unusually big wave stacks up over another broken wave, and I spin around to let the whitewater back flip me into a handstand. The phosphorescence is so intense, I can see the light of it with my eyes shut tight!

Two hours later, I ride my bike to the new community well site. By headlamp, I grab a liter of water to send to the lab in the US. The community is getting behind the idea of using me as their consulting engineer on all government projects. The government pumps about a million pesos a year into the place, but their projects are 90% non-functional. This will be their third try on the well. I ride back with the light off, armed with rocks against the dogs, watched over by the milky way. The southern cross is about to set, so it's late. I sink into sleep for an hour, then head home.


Maruata projects page 1