January 20, 2009

Returning Home

We left Akumal with mixed feelings. Sad that our time together was coming to an end, but excited to be returning to our homes, families and friends (oh, and of course the begining of the spring semester). I will miss the tropical weather and amazing beauty of the Maya coastline. But most of all, I will miss the students.

Waiting at the Cancun Airport for our flight:
Waiting in the cold at the Twin Cities airport for our respective rides home:

January 17, 2009

The Last Day

This morning we went to a lecture where Armando spoke to us about the turtles that live in Akumal Bay. We learned about some of the challenges that turtles face, such as development on the beaches and tourism. We had a chance to ask questions and later in the evening we got to see another turtle release. A crowd gathered on each side as the turtles made their way down to the beach. We were extremely lucky to see two groups of hatchlings being released so far out of nesting season, which usually ends in November.

During the day people went out on the beach for a last chance to soak up some sun, or grab a last souvenir, and eat lunch at their favorite restaurant. The closing feast was the final scheduled event for the trip. It was also the final chance for everyone to get together for once last time. Even with limited menu, everyone enjoyed their meals, and especially enjoyed the unexpected dessert.

Talking circle for this night was bitter sweet. Many shared favorite memories of our trip and of each other. We've all come away from this trip having grown, changed, and connected to one another in ways that will last for a very long time.


January 16, 2009

Getting Close to the End

It's Thursday evening with only two more days before returning to Minnesota. Students are in the kitchen playing cards again tonight. It sounds like they are having lots of fun - laughing and yelling a lot.

I thought I might take a few moments to reflect on my experience. I've facilitated learning abroad experiences and taught many courses before, but never have I worked such a cohesive group of kids, well, I should say young adults. The diversity in this group is so great, yet they get along so well. They range from 18 to 30+, from first semester freshmen to last semester senior, they come from Saudi Arabia, Lithuania, New York and all over Minnesota, their major interests range from education, family social science, landscape architect, environmental sciences, engineering, fine arts, pre-med and self designed majors, and their reasons for taking this global seminar are just as varied. How can such a diverse group of people genuinely get along in less than idea situations is amazing – high heat and humidity, long days and occasional visits from all kinds of critters (mostly bugs and lizards) from the nearby jungle? By the end of the day, they seem to still like each other. For example, the other day I was preparing to chastise one of the students who slept in late and missed class. But, before I got two words out of my mouth, the others quickly jumped to his defense. Seriously, you’d think these people have been life-long friends.

I don’t mean to imply there have been no problems, because there have been some. But, they seem to always rise to the occasion and do what is right for the group. For example the other day a few of the students thought it would be funny to engage in an impromptu insensitive “Indian rain dance.? Other students were offended and after learning about it myself, was equally offended, but more so I was disappointed in their behavior - especially since a part of this course was to better understand other people’s cultures and world views. Before we had a chance to address the issue in our talking circle, the offenders realized the inappropriateness of their behavior and came forward on their own accord to make amends and to apologize. It became a learning opportunity for the whole group – we talked for two hours about how we can become more sensitive to those who are different from ourselves.

Well, I guess this is enough reflection for one night! My brain officially checks-out at 11:00pm so I better stop for now.

January 14, 2009

January 13, 2009: The Last Community Service Day

By Alicia Bjork, Marco LaNave, and Audra Whalberg

After breakfast, we went to a local park that some of us had already been working at for a couple of days. As was common over the previous few days, despite the various challenges of limited tools and other resources, we appreciated the opportunity to give our time and energy toward community service projects.

We cleared the paths of the park, depositing the brush in a mysterious location across the street. A few of us found some young coconut plants, and replanted them. We also dug up rocks to place along the sides of the path and destructed a decaying playground. The raw strength of Mike, Sam, and Mark was enough to wrestle several wooden posts (trees embedded in cement) out of the ground. A couple of us enjoyed the individual destruction of a swing and a set of wooden stairs. From the beginning of the trip, we had been warned about scorpions, snakes, and other jungle inhabitants. For at least a few of us, the thought alone of their existence presented a difficulty in working in the dense jungle. One of us not only saw a snake a few days ago, but also came in uncomfortable contact with a scorpion at the park.

Marco and Kari picking up leaves
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Audra laying down the rocks
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Emily found a treasure of huge rocks
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Before and after: THE AFTER park
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Upon our return, several of us wrapped up community service with work on one of the dunes near the beach. We picked up garbage and dead plants, raked leaves, and made the difficult transportation of the waste to the on-site compost pile. We completed the project just in time, as the overcast skies of the last day and a half turned into a rainy afternoon.

Those of us who worked on the dunes celebrated our completed project by patronizing the local Mexican/seafood establishment, La Cueva del Pescador (The Cave of the Fisherman).

To conclude the evening, many of us enjoyed playing some cards (including an intense game with Saudi Arabian origin), ate delicious self-made grilled cheese sandwiches, and watched a couple of episodes of “Seinfeld.?

We hope the clouds clear up and give us some sunshine in our final days in Akumal.

January 13, 2009

Monday January 12, 2008

Today was the third day of our community service projects. Both teams participated in the clean up of South Akumal Bay. The amount of garbage was more than expected. Two passing tourists assisted our efforts by picking up trash that they passed on their walk.
After the beach clean up, Team One headed to the park again. Much progress was made clearing the pathway. Team two spent the early afternoon thinning the wetlands and replanting the removed plants.
After community service efforts, we had the afternoon free. Some people took one of the two available vans up to Playa Del Carmen in the pouring rain. Aziz brought one group to a delicious Middle Eastern restraunt for lunch. Others walked aroundand enjoyed the town or shopped for souvenirs and clothes. Those that stayed behind caught up on their required community service hours.
In the evening, we started with an early talking circle. We had a night full of movies, card games and relaxation. An enjoyable day for all, to say the least!
Best Always,
Em-J, Sam and Laura

Sunday, January 11th

Today, we continued our community service projects. One group went to half moon bay and the other group went to jade beach to pick up garbage. We found some interesting trash at the beaches including shoes, chunks of Styrofoam, and even part of a printer! We filled 5 bags of trash between the two beaches, and it was nice to know that we made a difference while we were here instead of adding to the problem like some other tourists do. However, it is frustrating that the beach will need to be cleaned up regularly to ensure that it stays trash free. In fact, Alma, the coordinator of our community service with CEA, told us that the last time the beaches were cleaned was in October, which means the trash accumulates pretty quickly! We spoke with Mark while cleaning the beach, and he told us that most of the trash actually comes from other countries in the Caribbean such as the Dominican Republic, as well as cruise ships that dump their trash while at sea.

Kari, Alma, Alicia, and Rachael picking up trash

Alma digging up trash

After picking up trash, we had the rest of the day off to get some much-needed rest! Almost our entire group took an afternoon siesta. Our recent decisions to experience Mexican nightlife at Playa del Carmen left many of us lacking sleep. We have found that clubbing in Mexico can be quite a cultural experience. For example, most of the music that is played is in fact American and from the early 90’s. We were also surprised to find that the club was equally populated by locals and tourists, even though the area of the city in which the club is located is overrun with tourists.

A learning experience that comes with clubbing in Playa del Carmen is figuring out how to get home. There are local busses known as Collectivos that run until 11pm, but for those who want to stay later, there is a cheap public bus at 1:30, a cheaper Collectivo at 5 am, or a taxi which is much more expensive, especially the closer you get to the clubs. A few of us attempted to take the public bus one night, and while it only cost 16 pesos, we were very lucky to make it home because the bus sounded like it was going to fall apart at any moment, and everyone was asleep and we almost missed our stop! Another group had the opportunity to take a taxi driven by a female, which is very uncommon in Mexico. She told stories of the additional challenges of driving a taxi that she must face as a woman in a field dominated by men. We have found that conversations such as this provide more information about the Mexican culture than can be found in any book. We hope to learn even more about the culture through conversation with the locals before the end of our trip.

Kari, Anna, Natasha

January 11, 2009

Mucho Coatimundi

A few days ago, I posted an entry about a lone Coatimumdi I saw behind the dorms at the edge of the jungle. Well, this morning as I was returning from cleaning the beach with Sam, he noticed there was another one. When we looked more closely, we saw three more inside the jungle. A cook from the Turtle Bay Café was siitng in back taking a short break. He said “muchos, muchos, muchos Coatimumdi.? I said “sí, cuatro.? He said, “no, muchos más - un minuto.? He returned a minute later with some bread. He tore up the bread and threw to the edge of the jungle. The jungle instantly came to life. Every branch and leaf suddenly moved as literally dozens of Coatimumdi emerged from the jungle. Each Coatimumdi would grab a piece of bread and scurry back into the jungle. Others then joined the feeding frenzy. Sam just said, “This is crazy! This is so crazy!?

Today was the first day of our community service projects. Centro Ecologico Akumal has organized a number of activities for us to dedicate our time to for the few days. This volunteer work will help CEA in their pursuit of a sustainable community as well as encourage positive and beneficial human interactions with the natural environment. In the morning Alma, who has been our coordinator from CEA, showed us a video that their organization produced regarding the recent increase in development for this area. This area started becoming popular in the 1970's as a tourist destination, since that time has grown 1000 percent, and with that development came workers from all around Mexico who needed places to live outside of the resort areas. The video also discusses how tourism is necessary and important for this area, however it must be conducted in a sustainable way and there are many things the individual can do to help. For more information on ways to help go to www.coralconnections.org.

We divided up into two separate groups in order to get the most work accomplished. The first group started out the day cleaning up the trash on the south end of Akumal beach. Later we drove to a small park located near Yal-Ku Lagoon to clean it up and make it appropriate and pleasant for recreational use. We used machetes to clear the trail, picked up trash, and used rakes to clear the paths. We then took turns doing Bay Patrol for CEA in the kayaks. This entails monitoring the snorkelers to make sure they do not damage the coral or disturb the wildlife. We were given a whistle and permission to yell at tourists, so it was a good opportunity to release pent-up aggression.

The second group went to the rocky shoreline north of Half Moon Bay first where we picked up trash, of which there was a lot of. It is very disappointing to see such beautiful areas cluttered with ugly garbage, especially because it is conceivably avoidable. Our next activity was working on one of the constructed wetlands located on the CEA property. We separated some of the plants from each other and then re-planted them in different areas so that they could grow better. Then we cleared leaves and dead debris in order to allow for better filtration. Later in the afternoon we cleaned trash and leaves from one of the natural dune areas, which provides better growth for the plants in the understory so the area is more stable and less prone to erosion. Although it was difficult work and hot outside it felt good to clean up each of these areas and benefit the natural environment.

January 9, 2009

Thursday, January 8th

One of the required readings of this course was Life Under the Tropical Canopy by Ellen Kintz. It mainly discussed the Maya city of Coba and today we got the opportunity to visit it. Coba was built in the classic era (600-900 a.d.) and was spread over 80 square kilometers. It is nestled among the scrub forest and is much larger than Chichen-Itza. Most of the group enjoyed Coba more than the other ruins because it gave a more complete picture of an ancient Maya community and was less touristy and commercialized. First, we stopped at a smaller temple where it was easy to see the additions that the Maya had made every 52 years. This practice was done because they believed that life was comprised of 52 year cycles where every cycle they increased the size of their temples by adding another layer. There were two ball courts but they were much smaller than the one at Chichen-Itza. Maya people from Coba would travel to Chichen-Itza to practice and have competitions. They would follow an agent sacbe, meaning road in Maya, 100 kilometers to Yaxuna, which is next to Chichen-Itza. Coba was the center of a web of sacbes, which main purpose was for trading. Unlike the other sites we have visited, there is a temple at Coba that people are still allowed to climb up. Everyone climbed the 138-foot tall Nohoch Mul, meaning large hill, even though it was really, really hot out. Nohoch Mul is the highest pyramid in the Yucatan Peninsula. We were rewarded with an amazing view of Lake Coba and other ruins.

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View of Nohoch Mul and from the top of it

From there we went to a cenote to swim and cool off after our sweltering climb up Nohoch Mul. It was an underground cenote and it had some tiny catfish swimming around. It was then time for lunch at a local buffet.

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Everyone at the cenote

Our last stop was at Aktun Chen, meaning cave with an underground river inside. It is an underground cave system that was formed by the ocean and was the first to be opened to the public in Quintana Roo state. There were many stalactites and stalagmites of different shapes and sizes. They are formed by water with minerals seeping through the ground and then fossilizing into calcium carbonate deposits. We could see fossilized coral and even a conch shell that was hanging in the ceiling, which is evidence that it was once part of the ocean.


Conch shell in the ceiling

On our way in, our tour guide showed us a fichus tree and told us we will be able to see its root system. When we first got down there, we saw the roots going straight trough the ceiling and then down into the floor again. As we kept going, we could see the roots of other fichus trees. Fichus trees have an amazing root system that will go really far down in order to find water. Our cave tour ended with a beautiful surprise. We entered a dark chamber, 45 feet below ground, where our tour guide pointed out some interesting things to us and ended the show by turning on all the lights in the chamber revealing a spectacular body of water. We got to see where the fichus roots reach the water and spread out on the surface. On the walk back from the cave, we got to see some Mexican deer and Mexican monkeys.

Fichus tree roots

The night ended with most of us exhausted and heading to bed early after our talking circle where we discussed the things we have learned here in Mexico that we would like to bring back with us into our lives in Minnesota. Some people, despite their exhaustion, went to Playa del Carmen to go dancing and enjoy the night life.

Written by Emily B., Audra and Sam

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Wednesday, January 7th, 2009 (Miércoles, 7 de Enero, 2009)

After yet another delicious breakfast at Imelda’s, Mark split our group into three to prepare in-class presentations on the topics of Ancient Coba, Modern Coba, and Agriculture, based on information gleaned from the course text, “Life Under the Tropical Canopy? by Ellen Kintz. Groups compared the kinship structure, economics, politics, and spiritual beliefs of Mayas throughout history and discussed the community and supernatural ties evident in the agricultural practices of the people of Coba. Mark commented that we all did a spectacular job with the presentations.


The afternoon was hot but enjoyable. Some went out in the kayak to patrol Akumal Bay, warning snorkelers of the potentially harmful effects of their actions on marine life, the coral reef, and the sea turtles. Others bought fresh fruit from the market that comes to Akumal each Wednesday and Saturday. Still others lounged on the beach, catching a tan, reading novels, or playing chess in the shade of the palm trees. As for Aziz, he caught the Collectivo to Playa del Carmen in another unsuccessful attempt to receive his package of snorkel gear from the States.

The evening brought a pleasant surprise and the highlight of our day. On the previous day (Tuesday), Centro Ecológico Akumal (CEA) had collected some baby sea turtles (tortugitas) that had hatched from a CEA-monitored nest. It is unusually late in the year for hatching, so we were lucky to observe the tortugitas. The eggs were laid on October 7 and hatched a full month later than usual. Since they hatched so late, and did so during the day – leaving them more vulnerable to predators, – the hatchlings were collected by CEA and transported to the safety of the ecological center. This evening, CEA planned to release the turtles to the sea, and invited our group to join them for this release.


We walked together to a calm, un-crowded stretch of beach. Alma Boada Sanchez, CEA’s Communication and Volunteer Coordinator; and Armando Lorences Camargo, coordinator of CEA’s Marine Turtle Protection Program; gently placed each turtle on the shoreline, about five meters from the edge of the water. If the turtles could traverse this distance, they would be ready to endure the long swim from the shoreline to the safety of the reef crest. Our group lined up, forming a protective path, on each side of the tortugitas. We encouraged the little turtles by cheering them on, and quickly bonded with our new friends, even giving them names. (Walter, Scamp, and Stanley come to mind). Some tortugitas took off excitedly while others seemed less enthusiastic (perhaps taking an evening siesta?). Six of the twelve tortugitas successfully reached the water, two others died the next day, one went for care at the turtle hospital, and the remaining three were returned to CEA for protection and care until a future release.


Another surprise greeted us shortly after we returned from the release: the first (and hopefully last) sustained downpour of our stay. It forced our evening talking circle from its usual place on the beach to the shelter of Mark’s living quarters. We shared thoughts about what we miss from the comforts of home, as well as what we anticipate missing about Mexico upon our departure. After the talking circle, various indoor activities brought an end to another exciting day in Quintana Roo.

-Allison, Marco, and Natasha

January 7, 2009

Today, after our usual breakfast at Imelda's, we had some free time until 3 pm when we had a lecture on geology. During our free time, some of us went to the beach and read, tanned, and played cards, while others did some of our community service hours in the kayak doing bay patrol. Bay patrol involves kayaking or snorkeling around the bay and making sure that tourists don't disturb the turtles or touch the coral reefs.
After our free time, a geology professor from Cancun came to tell us about the geologic origins of the Yucatan peninsula. He taught us about the disappearance of the dinosaurs which is speculated to have been caused by a chondritic meteorite crashing into the Earth and causing a crater to form with a diameter of approximately 10 km. We learned that the crater shape is determined by the kinetic energy of impact which melts the Earth's surface into a liquid around the impact site and then hardens into the shape seen today. Based on deep soil samples, geologists estimate that the impact occurred during the period of time known as the K-T (Cretaceous-Tertiary) boundary around 65 million years ago. The following is a picture of the impact crater:
After our lecture, we went to dinner at a local restaurant run by a Mexican family near our grocery store, and then we had a talking circle on the beach to reflect on our day.
The source of the picture is: www.geocities.com

January 6, 2009

January 5, 2009

Today we took a day trip to Tulum and Xel-ha.

Tulum means the ‘walled city’ and was built after Chichen Itza was abandoned. Inside the walls are the remains of temples and the home of the governor. Tulum is also noteworthy because many of the temples are on cliffs overlooking the sea. Despite that it was built after Chichen Itza, it is in worse condition because it wasn’t constructed as meticulously or as sturdy as Chichen Itza. Ninety percent of the buildings have been either destroyed or unexcavated. Tulum has beautiful beaches and has one of the highest points in the very flat region.



Xel-ha is an ecological park that incorporates the environment with an adventure park. Many of us went on inner tubes down the lazy river. We went snorkeling through caves and jumped off high cliffs. We saw many different types of fish as well as stingrays, manatees, dolphins, birds, and iguanas. They facilitate awareness about the ecology of the region by exposing tourists to wildlife. While they claim to be ecologically friendly by protecting wildlife and educating tourists, it is difficult to remain so because of the huge number of tourists they receive everyday.

Kari, Laura, Katherine

January 5, 2009

Mid-course Journal

I've been here for 10 days now and have seen some spectacular animals. Last week while snorkeling in Akumal Bay, we saw a school of small squid, several young green turtles, parrot fish, and spotted stingray. Yesterday was really cool. While snorkeling at Xel Ha, a 5 foot Manta Ray swam about two feet below me. You could feel to current created by the movement of it’s wide wing spread as it gracefully passed by. I wanted to reach and touch it – but of course I did not. This morning, I saw a Coatimumdi, member of the raccoon family, scouring the jungle floor for roots, insects and bird eggs. The books says they often travel in large troops of 20 or more, but the one I saw this morning appeared to be by itself. Below is a picture of the Coatimundi.


January 4, 2009

January 2, 2009

By Alicia Bjork, Marco LaNave, and Audra Whalberg

We started the day with two lectures. The first was given by the executive director of Centro Ecológico Akumal, Paul Sanchez-Navarro. He shared with us the many ecological problems resulting from the area’s exponential growth, particularly induced by a boom in the tourism industry. Not only is there an influx of tourists, but also an increased need for workers in the hotel and transportation services. The negative effects include a fresh water shortage, as well as waste management. For example, many of the resorts inject their sewage deep into the ground. This often ends up in the underground rivers and flows out into the ocean, where it harms the oceanic ecosystem. In trying to find solutions, there are many challenges. The monetary success of the hotels and their monetary contribution to the country seems to take precedence over environmental concerns, and the hotels are subject to few enforced regulations. Creating solutions is a matter of working with multiple levels of government, the private business sector, as well as the society at large, to recognize and address the wide range of issues.
Our second lecture was by Mark Krekeler. He is an industrial mineralogist at Miami University in Ohio. He is currently in Akumal with a research group that is trying to discover an efficient and sustainable waste management system. One option that is currently being used for sewage treatment is constructed wetlands. The Akumal area currently has about 50 constructed wetlands, which are capable of removing some bacteria, phosphates, and nitrates from human waste. They are far from perfect, however, as the constructed wetlands sometimes have insufficient area or can leak substantially. Mark also showed us a constructed wetland, using it as a model to explain how it operates. He also introduced us to a clay material (commonly found in kitty litter) that can also be used to filter some harmful chemicals from human waste. The clay is reusable and is relatively abundant in the Yucatan Peninsula. As with any solution to environmental concerns, there is still need for efforts regarding research and financing of such projects.

Picture 1: Mark Krekeler is explaining how the constructive wetland works

On the right side of the picture you can see the wetland with the plants that help to clean the water.

After our lectures, we walked up the coast to Half-Moon Bay to go snorkeling. Although we had to compete with some sizable waves (which caused a few of us to take in some salt water), we saw a diverse array of marine organisms including common and venus sea fans, grooved brain coral, sea plume, turtle grass, Sergeant Majors, foureye butterflyfish, porkfish, urchins, green turtles, blue tangs, a stingray, and a barracuda. We ended our planned activities with a talking circle on the beach at Half-Moon Bay. We shared our favorite quotes and conversations of our first six days in Mexico.

Picture 2: On the way to the Half Moon Bay
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Picture 3: Half Moon Bay
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Picture 4: Brain coral
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In the evening, several people went to Playa del Carmen for dinner, while others enjoyed the evening in Akumal…THE END.

January 3, 2009

Today we had lecture with David about marine life, then lecture with Mark about preparation for Tulum and Xel-Ha tomorrow. Then we had our first Pop Quiz!!☺!!

Since we’ve been living here for a week (and we didn’t do very much today) we thought we’d pose a question pertaining to the subject of our class: the relationship between the environment and present day culture and the native Maya.

Q: What makes a successful civilization?
A: We think an important aspect is sustainability, living within our means and thinking of future generations. In order to do this many factors need to be taken into consideration- population growth and available natural resources need to be measured accordingly, waste management, environmental impact, and economic gain.
Another important aspect is culture. A strong culture consists of agreement in civic, religious and social function.
Successful civilizations take a lot of teamwork and mutual understanding. In order for all aspects to blend and thrive, a community needs to have a system of open communication that ensures values and principles are upheld and appropriately evolved over the passage of time.

Written by the A-Man, EmJay, and Raquel