The Small Pieces Make the Big Picture

IMG_1561We had the morning to explore the area around Cerocahui before catching the train to our next destination in the Copper Canyon.  Being that we were pressed for time, a hike to the nearby waterfall was out of the question.  Appeased by the promise of a waterfall viewing in Creel, we headed out by van to sites offering the most amazing views of the Urique Canyon, the deepest in North America.  We did not see any guardrails separating the road from the canyon rim along the way.  The potential dangers of the route were made all the more real by memorial crosses, marking accident sites where loved ones had been lost.

Our final destination, Mirador del Cerro del Gallego on the rim of the canyon, was approximately one hour’s drive from our hotel.  The outlook, complete with a glass-bottomed viewing deck and a suspension bridge between look-outs, provided stunning vistas of the Urique Canyon.  I surprised myself by trying both.  Steve, who fears for my safety when I am walking a straight line on flat ground, was panic stricken as I dipped and bounced my way across on the bridge.  But, a little nervous of heights himself, the result of a long ago fall from a rooftop, he had no choice but to watch from the sidelines.  Back safely on solid ground, we looked down on the Urique River and the small town of Urique, 1,800 meters below.  Wow!  Just wow!

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Urique was totally isolated, disconnected from the outside world until 1975 when a road complete with switchbacks and hairpin turns was built.  Telephone service and electricity did not arrive until the 1990’s.  The town now serves as on outpost or hub for distribution of supplies to even tinier surrounding areas.  Mind you, with a population of just over 1,000 people, many of whom are Rarámuri, Urique is pretty small itself.  Temperatures are so extreme due to the tropical climate of the canyon bottom that many families move higher up in the surrounding Sierra Madre during the summer months.  

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The van was pretty quiet on the way back to the hotel as we were all completely mesmerized by what we had just seen.  Steve was in such a state of awe that he initially missed all signs pointing to our first shopping opportunity.  Yes, yes, I know.  Steve anticipated no shopping opportunities.  It had been one of the selling points I used to convince him to go with me in the first place.  The smaller the suitcases, the less likelihood of shopping, right?  However, I did conveniently forget to mention that Ruth suggested we pack a couple of empty garbage bags in our suitcases- -for the beautiful Rarámuri baskets we would find.  (Because, of course, baskets fit better in bags than suitcases.)  And lo and behold, I had packed two of them in my suitcase one day while he was still at work.

But let me tell you.  This was a different kind of shopping altogether, and even Steve was intrigued- -no, no blown away by the works of art offered to us by the Rarâmuri women.  And there is absolutely no other way to describe the baskets displayed in front of us than masterpieces.

The baskets are woven using the needles from the local pine trees found in the canyon, IMG_2147specifically the Colorado pine, and the leaves from the sotol plant (desert spoon, spoon flower).  They range in size from minuscule (perfect for holding earrings and other tiny treasures) to quite large (ideal for books, blankets, and dried flowers).  Depending on size, the baskets can take anywhere from one hour to three days to make.  Many are left in their natural state, while others are dyed using materials like roots and flowers for colors.  Rarámuri women can take their baskets to a special store in Creel, where they receive supplies in exchange for them.  A popular trade is for tissue paper, which is used to create colors not available in nature.  All proceeds from the sale of the baskets taken to this shop support the Clinica Medica Santa Teresita, a medical clinic for the Rarámuri people in and around Creel.

Our friend, Jerry, went a little nuts!  (Thank goodness!  She kept Steve’s attention focused off of me because I might have been going a little bit nuts too!)  It was difficult not to though.  The woman selling the baskets was older, and she seemed tired.  I think we all wanted to buy from her so that she could go home and rest.  I was embarrassed to pay so little for her beautiful handicrafts and had a hard time understanding why the prices were so low.  Yes, she had no cost in materials, but the time she spent on her weaving and the talent required seemed far greater than the 30 pesos she asked for a small basket with a lid.  It was so important to me that she knew how much I valued what she had created.  And when I told her to please keep the 20 pesos change from my purchases 1) because change is often very difficult to come by and 2) because I honestly did not think I paid her enough, the woman insisted on giving me a “regalo”, a gift.  

We thanked her and turned to leave when Ruth noticed an item in a plastic bag that had not been taken out for display.  She asked about it.  The woman shook her head and clucked her tongue.  “No, es may caro.”  She seemed embarrassed by the price she was asking.  We all begged to see it, and the woman pulled out the most incredible hand woven sun hat from her bag, all the while shaking her head and mumbling “muy caro”, very expensive.  This beautiful hat somehow ended up on my head, and you know what is coming.  That is where it stayed.  

The “very expensive”, hand woven, hand dyed hat was $5.00.  I experienced big views all morning, but it took until the afternoon for me to see the big picture. 

Big Things Come in Small Packages

We had a couple of hours on our own to explore Cerocahui before our “official” introduction, but honestly, we only needed about 15 minutes.  The town, nestled in a fertile valley on the edge of the Urique Canyon, is very tiny.  It is home to maybe 900 people.  A few small, independent grocery stores surround a central plaza.  A cluster of homes are located just off the main area.  In spite of its size, there are three local schools.  Formerly a mining town, forestry, farming (orchards and vineyards), and tourism are the primary sources of employment and income today. 

 

The Jesuits arrived in 1679.  Slowly, they introduced Christianity to the Rarámuri Indians, the indigenous peoples of the Copper Canyon.  (Tarahumara is the name given to the indigenous people of the Sierra Madre by non-Indian peoples.  The correct name is Rarámuri, meaning “light feet”.)  The Jesuits stayed until 1767, when they were expelled by the Spanish king, who much preferred using the Indians for free labor in the mines.  

Cerocahui does not appear in any history books again until 1937, when a Jesuit priest, Padre Andres Lara, returned to the area.  Padre Lara built the first roads making travel into and out of Cerocahui easier, though horses and mules were used up until the 1970’s.  The Pacific Chihuahua Railroad, completed in 1961, was truly the first public transportation in the area.  Long distance telephone service and electricity were slow to arrive, owing still to the isolation of Cerocahui due to the geography of the area (late 1990’s-early 2000’s).  

The roads only made it easier for the Rarámuri people once they arrived in town.  Even today, access to their homes high in the Sierra Madre or deep in the canyon is granted  via nearly invisible pathways.  Many of the Rarámuri prefer to remain separated from the modern community.  They do not speak Spanish or possess official documents like birth certificates.  They do not own cars or telephones.  They do not have electricity.  Distances are covered and messages communicated by moving up and down the canyons on foot.  As a result, the Rarámuri are strong and gifted runners.  Some men, identified from an early age with the gift, compete in and win long distance races around the world.  Any money earned is shared among the members of their communities.

Unfortunately, they have not remained as separate as they would have liked.  The isolation of the Copper Canyon appeals to others for more nefarious reasons.  The Rarámuri have been forced by drug cartels to grow illegal crops instead of the food that sustains them- -or their land has been stripped from them.  They are forced to move to areas where the earth is not as suitable for farming.  Their children are threatened, harmed, or even taken from them.  As if that is not enough, the Rarámuri are suffering from a decade long drought.  Many of their children have died from starvation.

Rarámuri families may have 14-15 children.  The boys work with their fathers learning skills in the fields and around the homes.  Some are chosen and trained as runners.  Typically, it is the women who have more interaction with the outside world.  They sell their beautiful woven baskets, carved walking sticks, and copper jewelry to the tourists who come through the Copper Canyon on El Chepe.  An education grants the women an opportunity to learn the Spanish and math skills they will need.  However, the truth remains that many families choose to enroll their daughters, aged 4-13, in the Virgin of Guadalupe/Tewecado Boarding School in Cerocahui to keep them nourished and safe more than anything.  

IMG_5337Our “official” tour began at the Tewecado (“Place of Girls”) Boarding School.  The school was established in the 1941 by four sisters from the Servants of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Poor.  It is a private school and receives absolutely no government support.  Incidentally, the school receives no financial support from the church either.  Day to day operations and maintenance costs are covered by private donations only.  Nuns care for the nearly 100 boarders, providing them with three daily meals, safety, and an education.  Yes, this is the order of importance, as the Rarámuri live very much in “today”.  Parents bring their daughters on foot from as far as 4-5 days away; therefore, visits with family are often infrequent.  The site is also a day school for as many as 250 students within walking distance.

The students in residence were playing in the center courtyard when we arrived, enjoying a bit of IMG_6467downtime before afternoon Mass.  The girls drew, played soccer, and ran races across the courtyard.  Their skirts and blouses were a riot of bright colors, designed to reflect the Rarámuris’ joy of living.  Most of the girls kept their hair covered at all times, and all covered their hair upon entering the church for services.

Learning responsibility is also a focus at the school curriculum.  The girls wash their own clothes and own dishes.  Immediately after eating, they reset their places at the table for the next meal.  In their homes, the girls sleep on the ground.  The Devil lives underground, and the Rarámuri believe that by sleeping closer to him, their troubles will go down, leaving them.  At the boarding school, everyone has her own bed in a dormitory.  And every single bed was made!

Donations recently paid for a new, modern kitchen area- -a necessity for sure, with so many mouths to feed.  We left candy with the nuns to distribute to the girls as a treat, and many of us made monetary donations as well.  So much good was being done with so very little. 

IMG_0007The girls began lining up for Mass, so we hurried to the church before their arrival.  Padre Lara completed reconstruction of the mission as well.  The entrance into the grounds is as large as it is to provide room for dancing, as the Rarámuri always danced when they came to Mass.  The alter area and supports for the center dome are all that remain of the original mission building.  And today, the Cerocahui mission serves as the center of Easter season celebrations for the Rarámuri people; many walking great distances to participate. 

Cerocahui is a small town in the center of an enormous landscape.  How easy it might have been to pass it by, not ever knowing it was there.  But what gifts its discovery held- -a rich history, a resilient people, celebration, and hope- -shining brightly in the eyes and smiles of the Copper Canyon’s future.

If you would like to make a donation to the school, you may do so here.

Taking the Scenic Route

Following the guide for the first leg of our trip on El Chepe into the Copper Canyon was a bit more challenging than I anticipated.  While every single bridge, tunnel, and lake were noted on my “Authentic Copper Canyon Guide”, so were many interesting sites like “cool cemetery on the left”, “thin waterfall on left that runs almost year round…with a banana tree”, and “cross with railroad lantern for fallen worker on the right”.  I was making myself a little trainsick turning my head back and forth continuously in an effort to not miss a single thing.  Steve was having to answer a lot of questions- -most of them with a standard response of “I do not know.  As in “I do not know what kilometer sign we just passed.”, “I do not know if that was an organ pipe cactus.”, and “I do not know if that was San Felipe with the pretty yards or Loreto where peanuts and sesame seeds are grown.”

And some points I could not help but miss, even though I was really working hard not to.IMG_6828  Like when I read the word bridge, I assumed that it would be obvious because the bridge would be up pretty high, right?  Many of the “bridges” we traversed were under 100 feet long, and they connected land separated by culverts, not rivers.  Often we were kilometers down the track before I realized that I was three bridges behind!  Tunnels were a little easier.

Two hours or so into the trip the landscape began changing.  Cacti gave way fig trees, mangoes, papayas, and avocados.  We could see where the rivers, Septentrion and Chinipas, joined to form Río Fuerte.  We moved from the plains and prairies of Sinaloa into the Sierra Madre Occidental in Chihuahua, where corn grew in terraced fields.  Vegetation became thicker and greener as we gained elevation.  (We would actually gain close to 8,000 feet in elevation from El Fuerte to Creel, our final destination.)  Derailed cars were left abandoned where they fell, the beauty of the landscape hiding the power of this system and truly, its inaccessibility. 

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Finally certain that I knew exactly where I was, I put down my guide and moved to the back of the car and exited.  Where the cars connected was an open-ish viewing area.  There was still a roof over my head, but the windows had been removed from the sides, allowing me the opportunity to stick my head out the side of the train as we entered La Pera, a 3,074 feet tunnel.  The tunnel makes a 180 degree turn inside the mountain.  In addition to making a U-turn, we gained 100 feet more of elevation. 

It was amazing to find the scenery I had viewed on my right going into the tunnel on my left upon exiting!  It made perfect sense that this was the spot on the line chosen to celebrate the railroad’s completion on November 24, 1961.  A dedication marker made with 22 feet rails and letters over two feet high looked small next to the mountains surrounding it.

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If I had not been using the guide, I am not sure I would have realized where I was supposed to get off the train.  I did not hear an announcement being made.  Well, obviously, my friend Ruth was not going to leave me behind, but what about the people who did not have a Ruth?  Or a kilometer by kilometer cheat sheet?  We arrived at the Bahuichivo stop and had to make a mad dash to the doors.  Then we became the overwhelmed group as people who were boarding pressed closer and closer the train.  The smaller suitcases proved ideal as we were easily able to maneuver them in and out of the crowds to the far end of the station where our ride for the next leg was waiting.

Bahuichivo seemed like a bustling little town, but we were headed to Cerocahui, where  spectacular views of the Urique Canyon and our introduction to the Rarámuri Indians awaited us.  Steve was just glad that there was no guide for me to follow between the two.  He enjoyed an almost 11 mile trip in peace and quiet.

On the Right Track

IMG_6435I think the one thing my husband most appreciates about me is that I am a pretty cheap date.  Um… I mean that I have the ability to find immense joy in seemingly simple pleasures and pastimes.  You know, like a van ride to the train station in El Fuerte.  I managed to secure a window seat for the trip (of course I did)  and kept myself entertained watching the world go by.

As we left the hotel, parents were dropping their children off at the school across the street.  On mopeds.  Like all of their children.  At the same time.    It was inexplicably fascinating and quite nerve wracking for me.  I get a little spooked alone on a bicycle now and then.  And here were three elementary aged kiddos, completely relaxed, as they shared the moped seat with dad. 

The town was waking up as we made our way to the train station.  Vendors pedaled their snack carts into and around the plaza.  Tarps were rolled back on the tables where handicrafts and souvenirs were displayed and sold.  Men and women, headed to work, crisscrossed the streets in front of us.  And slowly, all of the busyness slipped away as we moved away from the center of town and into the countryside en route to the station. 

The train was scheduled to arrive at 8:00 am, but… that was not a guarantee.  We were there by 7:30, as were many other passengers- – just in case.  I used my time to review what I knew about El Chepe so far.  Yes, Ruth, ever the teacher, had provided us with a packet of information about the places we would visit on our trip, including the complete history of the railroad in the Copper Canyon.  And I am pretty sure I am the only one in the group who read it.  That is just the “cheap date” in me!

The railroad was first visualized by Albert Kimsey Owen.  It would begin with the development of a harbor in Topolobampo Bay near Los Mochis in Sinaloa.  The grand plan was that the railroad would run from the port through northern Mexico and into Kansas, making trade easier between Asia, Europe, and the United States.  Part of the plan also included the development of a utopian colony, funded by people who bought stock in a corporation Owen set up.  Eventually, Owen became more focused on his colony (and fighting to control his role as its leader).  So, Arthur Stilwell joined the cause and carried on Owen’s vision, receiving funding from the government of Porfirio Diaz and U.S. communities and oil companies.

Work began in the 1890’s and continued slowly up until 1910, the start of the Mexican Revolution.  Mexico was not able to fulfill its financial obligations as a result.  And that pesky Pancho Villa kept attacking the trains.  All work ceased.  The project languished until the nationalization of the railroads in 1940.  The Mexican government spent over a billion pesos between 1940 and 1961, when the line was completed.

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The Chihuahua Pacific Railroad (El Chepe) is without a doubt, one of the engineering marvels of the world.  The line from Los Mochis to Chihuahua includes 37 bridges, 86 tunnels, and rises 8,000 feet in a 410 mile trip.  At one point the track even crosses over itself to gain elevation.  And El Chepe is almost as fun to say as Los Mochis!

El Descanso Tunnel is 6,000 feet long.  Chinipas Bridge is 335 feet high.  The Rio Fuerte Bridge is 1,600 feet long.  What was accomplished by the Mexican engineers and railroad workers was a feat beyond the capacity of many developing nations at the time.  They were dealing with the Sierra Madre Occidental after all, a mountain range that had baffled engineers during the earlier phases of the project.  

I was interrupted from my review by the sounding of the train’s whistle.IMG_6433  The next part happened quickly, and it was a little like a free for all, as there were no railroad employees organizing the crowds.  We lined up right next to the tracks where we anticipated our assigned car would be once the train stopped.  Well, there was a yellow safely line we were supposed to stay behind, kind of like the one they paint on school sidewalks to keep kids out of the way of buses… You know how that goes.

The next part was very similar to the congestion experienced at elevators- -the people waiting to get on crowded the train doors, overwhelming the people trying to get off.  The crowding was necessary though.  This engineer did not mess around.  The loading and unloading was finished in less than five minutes.  The engineer blew the whistle twice.  That was the signal to move fast and now.  Fortunately, having read the background info, I was not one of the folks who was now making a sprint for the railroad cars.

My luck continued.  Yep, snagged another window seat!  A couple of folks in our group settled in for a nap.  Another group headed for the bar.  Me?  I pulled out my “Authentic Copper Canyon Guide to El Chepe”, a kilometer by kilometer detailed explanation of what I would be seeing between El Fuerte and Bahuichivo, our destination that day.  I had five hours of simple pleasures coming my way!

All Aboard!

I am not exactly sure how old I was when I learned about the existence of the Grand Canyon.  Probably much older than I should have been.  And I did not have the opportunity to see it for myself until I was almost 50!  So it is really no surprise, I suppose, that I was as equally unfamiliar with the Copper Canyon in Chihuahua, Mexico.  Here I was again feeling completely overwhelmed by all I did not know in the world.

IMG_6366When I heard that my good friend, Ruth, had a trip to the canyon planned for early spring, I begged and pleaded with Steve to go.  The begging and pleading was necessary because of his status as the only male in the group the last time… and the shopping.  In fact, the strongest argument I made was that since we were traveling by train, small suitcases were recommended.  And small suitcases seriously limit your shopping load.  It did not even occur to me to point out that the Copper Canyon is four times bigger and ten times deeper than the Grand Canyon or that it is home to the Rarámuri Indians, known for their long distance running abilities.

Ruth has a passion for the history of Mexico, and I knew we would learn a lot from her.  In addition to being a historian, Ruth and her husband Rudy own and operate one of the best bakeries in San Carlos.  Steve knew he had made the right decision in joining the trip when minutes into our van ride to El Fuerte, Sinaloa, Ruth showed us how the Sierra Madre Occidental were formed using her delicious banana bread to demonstrate the shifting of the plates.

The town of El Fuerte was once the capital city of Sinaloa, Sonora, and Arizona. It is IMG_6370named for the Spanish fortress, El Fuerte, built in the early 1600’s after Mayo Indians destroyed the first Spanish settlement.  General Diego Martínez de Hurdaide was responsible for its construction after being sent to the area to quell further uprisings. Hurdaide was cruel and ruthless.  He believed that Indians had no souls.  And he actually had them baptized… before he killed them.  After silver was discovered in the Copper Canyon, the fort served to protect Spanish mining interests.  The Camino Real runs through El Fuerte to Alamos in Sonora.

Our hotel, La Posada de Hidalgo, was a combination of several old homes, including the mansion of former mayor and trader, Rafael Almada.  The Almadas spent five years building their home at a cost of 100,000 gold pesos.  It was considered the finest home in El Fuerte at the time.   Pine wood used for ceiling beams was shipped from Seattle, Washington, and Rafael’s wife, Rafaela, originally planned to cover steel columns in the center courtyard with gold.  The government refused her design, as it was a blatant abuse of wealth.  I was glad to hear the government was against some abuses after all.

IMG_7047It is also believed that Don Diego de la Vega, El Zorro, was born in a small home that is now part of the hotel.  In fact, Steve and I actually stayed in the very room where he may have been born.  Never mind “believed” and “may have been”.  I was certain I was standing in another spot where history was made.  And even though Don Diego moved to California long before he became El Zorro, I still zipped around the room making Z’s with my pretend sword and basically annoying the hell out of Steve.  And when Ruth mentioned we would be seeing a Zorro show… Whew!  You cannot buy that kind of excitement and take it home in your suitcase!

 

Beautiful, brightly painted, colonial buildings surround the main plaza.  The walkway to the gazebo is lined with palm trees, gifts from Cuba and California.  The church and municipal palace are also located on the main square.  Visitors can ride a small train throughout town checking out the sites.

Wait.  A little train?  It took me a minute to figure that one out.  Yes, it most definitely should have been obvious.  El Fuerte is the first stop on the El Chepe railroad line running east into the Copper Canyon.  And the reason we were there to begin with!

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We Can. We Will.

To say that Guaymas and San Carlos have a little trash problem would, sadly, be a gross understatement.  For the majority of the population it is not for lack of trying.  Each morning, I see shopkeepers take to the streets and sidewalks in front of their stores, sweeping up debris and gathering trash that has accumulated overnight.  Hoses are turned on and drives and walkways are sprayed down in an attempt to keep blowing dust in its proper place.  Garbage is bagged and set in or near cans, barrels, and dumpsters.

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Photo Credit: David Pozos

Unfortunately, those cans are not always emptied in a timely fashion.  As I understand it, a former mayor decided that once he took office, garbage collection would be contracted out to a private firm.  City trucks were repurposed or sold.  And when a new mayor was elected, and money for private trash collection ran out, Guaymas experienced a bit of a crisis.  Realizing they were not going to be paid, Promotora Ambiental S.A. (PASA) stopped collecting trash.  While citizens continued to responsibly clean up their messes, the trash piled up and became an easy target for animals and nature.

Citizens persisted and found creative ways to deal with the problem.  Bags were tied to IMG_7461 2fences, out of the reach of animals, and garbage was delivered to the front steps of the municipal government building.  Neighbors worked together to keep their blocks as neat as possible, rebagging daily after dogs, cats, and strong winds did their best to undermine their efforts.  Yes, there is a landfill; however, dumping can only be paid for with a credit card.  Many families in our area do not have a car or truck for hauling, never mind a credit card.

Slowly, the mayor is rebuilding the city’s fleet of garbage trucks. In the meantime, winds continue to blow and animals continue to forage.  And the PASA strike certainly does not explain the piles of beer cans left on the beach each weekend or the snack wrappers and plastic Coke bottles floating in the Sea of Cortez.  It does not answer for the groups who leave their cookout messes on the patios of their vacation rentals.  It does not excuse the carload of kids, who drop an Oxxo bag full of trash out the window of their car, as they speed down the highway.  Fortunately, there are concerned citizens attacking these areas too.

Clean Up San Carlos, a volunteer group of Americans, Canadians, and Mexicans, meet each week and pick up trash in a designated area:  on the beach, the main thoroughfare, or in the desert.  Bandidos de Basura brings educational programs about littering, recycling, and responsibility into the local schools.  Universities, high schools, middle and elementary students join Clean Up San Carlos or sponsor their own clean ups.  Aqua y Más, an orphanage, participates in local beach cleans.  There have even been international efforts between students in Arizona and Guaymas.

IMG_7146 2This past Saturday, BAE Systems, a global aerospace company located in the Rocafuerte Industrial Park in Guaymas, was proud to contribute to the efforts to keep our community clean as well.  In a belated Earth Day celebration, our small but mighty group of employees, spouses, girlfriends, and children met at 8:00 in the morning.  After the obligatory selfies, we donned our gloves and masks and set out to clean the highway in front of the park, or as much of it as we could before a) we ran out of bags b) we ran out of dumpster space c) the heat did us in or d) all of the above. 

They say one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.  Umm, I suppose that all depends on your definition.  Little Alonso was thrilled when he found a golfball.  I was more startled when I discovered the man sleeping in the culvert.  It also seemed odd that I found so many Q-tips.  Like is it really a thing to clean your ears while driving down the road?  And let me add  that plastic bags truly are the devil- -anywhere, but especially in the desert.  They attach themselves to the spiky, sharp trees and plants.  Trying to remove them makes an even bigger mess.  (Shameless but necessary PSA:  Please strongly consider toting your snacks, beer, soft drinks, and Q-tips in a canvas bag from here forward.)

And actually, the more we found, the more obvious it became that this was not necessarily litter.  (As in “No, Amy.  No one cleans his ears while driving down the road.”)  It was trash that had been blown from trucks or garbage receptacles.  And as gross as it was to have to touch some of it, even with gloves on, I was  happy to see that not much of it was recent.  Slowly but surely, the message of caring for the environment is spreading.

During our crawl down the main drag, our group was joined by five city employees and 409f3f74-1a55-44a9-b052-a3e683125a4aone random citizen, who just wanted to help.  We were honked at a lot by people who were happy with our efforts.  Of course, they could have been appreciating the view of 20+ people bent over along the road.  In spite of the heat, the dust, and, yes, the trash, I loved working side by side with such a great group of people.  I am a tad jealous that my husband gets to spend his days with them.

Change in behavior and attitude does not happen overnight.  BAE Systems is just a small cog in the wheel of the community service and pride taking place in our communities daily.  One chip bag, one bottle, one Q-tip, one new garbage truck at a time. 

The World May Be YOUR Oyster, But the Oyster Is the World to Guaymas Pearl Farmers

I tend to be an over planner when we have visitors to our home in San Carlos.  I simply want to highlight all of the attractions in our community that make Guaymas/San Carlos such a special place.  I also want my guests to look beyond the unfinished building projects and the trash blowing around in vacant lots.  Unfortunately, it is sometimes easier to see the negatives than the positives, and it is important to me that friends and relatives are given the opportunity to see past what may be right in front of them.

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One of my very favorite places to take visitors is La Granja de Perlas del Mar de Cortez, the Pearl Farm.  And no, it is not because I am hoping they will thank me for my hospitality with a necklace or a bracelet.  I am most definitely not a jewelry person.  I typically wear the same pair of earrings for at least six months before it even occurs to me to change them.  It is the story behind the success of this business:  the history, the science, and the sheer will and patience, that makes this a must stop on any Guaymas tour.  The jewelry just happens to be an incredible bonus.

That story begins in the 1600’s, when Spanish conquistadors first arrived in this area of the Sea of Cortez.  They could not help but notice the beautiful pearls worn by the Seri and Yaqui Indians.  At first they were content to trade for the gems, but eventually, as demand increased, the Spanish enslaved the Indians and began fishing for the pearls “”themselves”.  The Yaqui were known to be the best pearl divers, and the Spanish took full advantage of their skills.  By the 1800’s, the oyster beds between Kino Bay and Guaymas were completely wiped out.  The Spanish simply moved across the sea to the Baja peninsula.  In 1940 the Mexican government  completely banned pearl fisheries, hoping to preserve the oysters that remained.  It looked like the end for the Sea of Cortez pearls.

Fortunately, two students at Tec de Monterrey University in Guaymas had other ideas.  Douglas McLaurin, a biochemistry engineering student, and his partner, developed a business model based on their belief that the cultivation of Sea of Cortez pearls was possible.  Based on his own research, their professor had little faith that their endeavor would be successful.  The pair earned a “C” on the project.  They did not let the mediocre grade deter them.  In 1991, they began experimenting with the Rainbow Lipped Oyster on the campus of Tec de Monterrey and in Bacochibampo Bay in Guaymas.  

IMG_1510The intricate and time consuming process is detailed here.  In short, it takes four years from start to finish for a Sea of Cortez Pearl to grow.  The oysters are moved four different times, as they develop, starting out in “kiddie condominiums” and eventually graduating to individual “apartments”.  Their shells need to be cleaned every eight weeks, as barnacles andIMG_1505 other sea creatures can attach to them and cause damage and/or death.  Talk about labor intensive!  The team today still relies on the expertise of the Yaqui people in providing care to the oysters as they grow.

At the age of two, the oysters are strong enough to handle the introduction of a nucleus.  A 30 second operation is performed, where a spherical nucleus is implanted into the mantle of the oyster.  A hemispherical pearl may be cultivated by cementing a flat-sided nucleus directly onto the shell.  The shell is opened just enough for a very small tool to be inserted inside.  Quick, steady, and precise.  The grain of sand myth is an insult to the skill required of these men.  And there are no guarantees.  The oysters go back into the water for another eighteen months!

Today, Douglas and his partners, Enrique Arizmendi and Manuel Nava, farm one square hectare with 200,000 oysters under cultivation.  Their process has been honored with a Full Product Integrity Rating from the Fair Trade Gem Federation- -the only pearl farm in the world with this designation.  This is due to the fact that their pearls are not processed with chemicals, bleach, or by burning.   They are merely rinsed under tap water once harvested.  The owners also recognize the importance of being good environmental stewards and promoting a respectful labor environment.

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La Granja de Perlas typically produces about four kilograms of pearls a year, making them the rarest in the world.  Any pearls that do not meet product standards are returned to the ocean.  And those that do make the cut are used in the design of some of the most beautiful jewelry in the world.  The partners work with artists in the creation of very unique pieces, all available for purchase on site.  And I have to admit, each time I visit, I become more of a jewelry person.

I scheduled a nine o’clock tour for my aunt, uncle, and myself.  The two of them looked at me like I was crazy.  Fortunately, Perlas del Mar de Cortez offers multiple tours daily to accommodate all guests, even those who like to sleep in!