La Montaña

One fun thing that happens when you step out of your comfort zone and immerse yourself in an absolute new reality is something I like to call “the dream swift”.

It is a very straightforward theory which lacks a more authentic name. Basically, I am talking about how our night dreams are interestingly affected by the atmosphere that surrounds us and how our mindset and mood changes are made clear by the things we dream.

That Saturday March 27th in El Veinte I woke up in my hammock outside for the fourth night in a row, just covered by the early morning sky and a couple of spider webs carefully built between the two wooden poles from which I hanged. I dreamt of trees, water and the beauty of the jungle and hand-made corn tortillas, it was a timeless dream where nothing happened. It was just there, a weird sensation of belonging to another lifestyle.

I stood up, Rosa was in the kitchen and I really felt like having a coffee.

During the morning Julia, Claudia, Tian and myself reviewed the material and the insights from last day’s workshop. The night before we had defined together with some key actors from the community the main challenges and aspirations for the tourism and handcrafts enterprises in town. Now we had a wall full of post-its and a lot of abstract shapes and lines in some big pig pieces of paper waiting to be arranged in order to start generating ideas in the second phase of the workshop. After some hours we had everything ready: we had the material, the dynamics, I even knew what was I going to say, we were just worried about something: that nobody would show up.

We decided to calm down our anxiety by starting a publicity campaign, we launched an “El Veinte” version of what would be a Facebook Event Post: the loud-speaker… which is basically paying 10 pesos to Mr. Miguel (a small shop owner) to let us use his loud-speaker tied at the top of a tree to give announcements to the community. First he plays 30 seconds of a popular song to call everybody’s attention, then he gradually plugs the microphone in… “hello, hello, this is an announcement to all the community” we must start saying, then he lets us do our thing two consecutive times before playing 30 more seconds of a goodbye song.

In the afternoon, after a delicious mole meal, 17800374_1316528405051293_1441748503127993335_nwe drove up with Felipe, Rosa’s husband, to the town of Xpujil to get some telephone signal and a cold beer. On the way back I was way too dusty to ride in the back of the pick-up again so I sat in front with Felipe, and I had one of the best conversations of the whole trip, a conversation which reminded me of my dreams of that night…

“Some years ago” he started saying after I asked a couple of questions about the jungle ”someone got taken by The Mountain”. I looked at him with confusion so he continued his story using a slightly mysterious and epic voice:

“He was the husband of one of my cousins, he went hunting one day but he didn’t come back so after three days myself and other men from the village started to look for him. We found him after a couple of days of search but he was almost unrecognizable, he couldn’t speak, he was walking in his four legs, his hands were bleeding and muddy and his clothes were almost all gone, The Mountain had tuned him into a beast. But that’s what happens, that is what the mountain does, you get lost and she adopts you in the kingdom of wildness.”

“What happened after?” I asked

“Well, we had to tie him down to bring him back to the village, he started recovering his humanity after some hours, but when he really came back is when we arrived in his home and saw everything prepared for his funeral, then he got really angry and started yelling, but at least he was a human again.” He finished.

That story was to stick to my head all day, partly because of the story itself, but mostly because it impressed me how he referred to the jungle as The Mountain, as it was a living entity with will by itself.

That night we started the second phase of the workshop with only three people, but soon we were around 8, a very heterogeneous group, we realized it was the perfect group size to maintain a fruitful conversation where everybody could participate. It was truly great to be there listening to all those honest and creative ideas from people from the community.


Overwhelming Transition

Waking up at six o clock to take a cold shower is a sure way to wake up.  Would have probably preferred a warm one but some showers only do cold. Anyway, the water temperature didn’t much affect the excited mood of finally being on our way to the jungles of Calakmul. With all last minute purchases done the day before, we headed straight for the main bus stop in Cancun, where we boarded our fist bus for the day, destined for Chetumal .

Air-conditioned and with hours of Spanish dubbed films to be enjoyed, the first bus and the 6 hours of Mexican road went by quickly. After a change of busses in Chetumal, from air-conditioned to windows open and no bathroom, we headed inland and into the jungle. The open windows presented us with a new realization, the jungle was burning. In many places the road was completely covered in smoke, and flames were dancing on the roadside. It still puzzles me how something that I for some reason thought would be protected, was up in flame and with no fire trucks to be seen,  just some normal everyday forest fires.

The buss wasn’t affected in anyway by the roadside fires and we arrived in Xpujil a couple of hours after our previous change. Here we would wait for our Mexican team members, so we could then make our entrance in El Veinte together.  With one main street and some smaller side streets, we walked through Xpujil in half an hour. The small town mainly consisted of shops that sold pretty much everything and some restaurants here and there.

After maybe an hours wait, an Audi arrived outside the place where we had made camp and we were greeted by Tian and Emiliano for the first time. They had been driving the whole day and were almost stopped and turned back at a roadblock somewhere. Luckily they had both looked like doctors.

Once we had met up and exchanged some quick travel stories from the day, we continued our journey to the final destination of El Veinte de Noviembre in two cabs and the audi. The road to El Veinte was pawed but full of holes, which meant that the drive there was quite slow and full of swift turns. Eventually after a lot of hole dodging we arrived.

We were warmly greeted by Ofelia aka Offe and her family, who were preparing a very welcome dinner for us. Everybody was more or less starving after the days travels. During and after a very delicious dinner of tortillas, rice, black beans and some extraordinary salsa, Offe told us about how the village and the jungle surrounding it was experiencing a long and most unwelcome drought that had affected the maize crops very negatively. We also learned that the jaguars were moving closer to the village and that the tucans we saw around the fruit trees in the yards were an anomaly, caused by the lack of food in the dry jungle. After dinner we were given our lodgings and an hour of hanging up hammocks commenced.

When everybody had their sleeping quarters sorted out, we all gathered around the table at one of our host houses and we had the first diary meeting of the week, sharing thoughts and choosing key words that now make up the headline of this post. Once sharing was done the dark night sky was already upon us and everybody felt exhausted after the day’s travels.  A moment of watching the millions of stars that had suddenly appeared and then it was time for some well-deserved sleep. Climbing in to the hammocks, not yet aware that Mexican roosters have no sense of decency.




Cancun, Sun and Clamatos

The team has arrived! The first days have been enjoying the hot weather of Cancún (+30 and under zenith sun) and getting to know the vast city and its colourful sights. Our group took flights for different days but we all managed to find our ways to the Instituto Tecnológico de Cancún. We have had the priviledge to meet the experts, and the warmth of Mexicans is just overwhelming. To sum up the things we have doing so far, here’s a brief list for our readers:

  1. Workshop on Monday. All the three subgroups in Mexico met and we presented our plan and background for the trip for Mexican professors and students as well as other staheholders. Later we discussed our fears and hopes for the upcoming field trip.
  2. Workshop on Tuesday. The ideas for final presentation. The outcome was that we will be showing the presentation live on internet so that everyone around the globe are free to follow what is happening! Super cool!

What is a trip to Mexico without any pictures so here’s a bunch

We have been trying to survive without access to Internet since it’s accessible in only limited number of places. Until the next time!


Final Countdown

Flights, check. Expert meetings, funding applications, Skype calls to Mexico, timetable for field trip – check, check, check and (almost) check. It is surreal to think how soon we will arrive in Cancun, meet our Mexican partners and finally, after the long anticipation, finally set foot in El 20 and start all the activities that we have planned for. Everything has gone well until now, but could something still go wrong? Possibly, and I guess that’s what the Plan-B’s and C’s are for in our risk management plan – and let us not forget that the Finnish alphabets continue all the way to Ö.

The field trip is now roughly planned to details, although nothing is set in stone as we need to stay flexible for unforeseeable changes. Anyway, long story short, the main activities during that one week in El 20 will be as follows:

  • Niklas, Pietu and Ville will be the scientists testing water from approximately 30 sources in order to determine the quality of well and rainwater, and confirm the contamination sources
  • Paavo has devised a master plan to measure the household material footprint of the villagers in order to gain an understanding of the material cycles within El 20 and consider the sustainability of the current system
  • Julia will conduct workshops with the women of El 20 on Artesanía para el Bienestar (artistry for well-being) in order to explore ways to raise money for the village’s emergency fund through selling of local artisans
  • Together with our partners from Tecnologíco de Monterrey, we will define the details for making decisions in regards to the future of El 20 sanitation. This means that if it is confirmed that the groundwater is contaminated by the current sanitation system, there needs to be an assessment of what the next steps will be.

We have completed our final workshop, which at the same time is our final official meeting together before the trip with our mentor Elina. We did something that a stereotypical Finn does not practice on an everyday basis: we had a heart to heart about our feelings. We discussed our fears, dreams, and expectations about the upcoming field trip. Although (thankfully) no hatred towards each other emerged, the discussion was empowering for us to think about what we, as individuals, can contribute to the project and what can we do to mitigate the fears and bring the best out of our journey.


Amidst the workload we have also found time for our team to take off focus from the project and arranged a final supper together. It is time for this dream team to reflect on the things we have achieved and look forward for the good things yet to come.

¡Ahí vamos, podemos hacerlo!


Two weeks to go

It’s finally here. The single piece of (electronic) paper that makes this project seem all the more real. The flight ticket receipt. It’s really happening.

The fluctuation of air travel prices from Helsinki to Cancún and back have been oscillating wildly. Since most of us didn’t have enough money to buy the flights without any kind of sponsorship or grants, we were forced to monitor the rollercoaster-like fluctuation of prices with emotions ranging from hope to despair, waiting for answers to our funding pleas. But as one shouts shall the forest answer, as Finnish saying goes, and thanks to the irreplaceable aid from MVTT, we were able to get the tickets. Mexico, here we come!

As for the project, the things are rolling ahead with the gentle guidance of us scarabs. The water tests to be performed have been chosen and most of the equipment are accounted for. The tests include nitrate, ammonium, hardness and coliform bacteria. The first three can be acquired from Finland and before the trip we are planning to go to the water lab in Otaniemi to test the functionality and procedure of the test.

Coliform bacteria tests have caused a bit more headaches. These bacteria are an indicator for food and water safety and we suspect that it might be present in the well water in the village. Problem is to find tests that are not too expensive and can be done on-site and that still give reliable results on the presence of the bacteria. There are many simple tube tests that are meant for individual household water testing and for now we are leaning on these tests because of their ease-of-use and cost. They do not indicate anything of the amount of the bacteria present but at least tell us if there are any, and where. This will help to plan future actions accordingly.

The law of transferability of structures

Philosopher Esa Saarinen teaches course “Philosophy and systems thinking” in Aalto University. Students love this course for either one of two reasons

  • It’s really easy three credits, if that’s all one’s searching for
  • It can help engineers broaden their mindsets and find ways of thinking that are extremely helpful in both personal and professional life.

I’m part of the latter group. Many people have questioned this with comments like “yeah, I get that you LIKE the course but what CONCRETE thing did you LEARN? What concrete benefit did you get from the course?”

Most of the time the benefits I have gained from the course have been at mindset-level and thus it has in fact been hard to provide concrete evidence on the helpfulness of the course.

Until now.

My concrete evidence is in a form of a story. Here goes.

We were struggling with planning water testing in El 20. Many of the fancy equipment we are used to using in Aalto were too heavy, too expensive or just too needed for other courses, so we couldn’t plan on taking them with us. How could we test the water without our equipment?

That is where one of the learnings from Esa Saarinen stepped in. The law of transferability of structures. It goes something like “If the method works very well in one context, it most likely works well or somewhat well in other contexts also.”

Fish tank water testing kit

This way of thinking was first used by our water sampling expert Aino Peltola. She came up with the idea of using very simple and very cheap testing methods created for testing the fish tanks in every home. Even children could use these easy kits! They were simple, they were cheap and they were light, so we could easily take them with us to the target location. With this kind of equipment, we might even be able to teach the villagers how to do the testing!

However, Aino hadn’t thought of a similar way of testing for harmful bacteria in the drinking water of the village. That’s when the law of transferability of structures came to my mind. I had used very simple bacteria testing kit in my summer job at paper and pulp mills last summer. The exact kit I used was not useful to us as such, but it opened our minds to the possibility of the existence of such kit. 30 min of googling and we found a kit that seems to be just what we need.

Only future will show us, whether it will actually work. Nevertheless, the law of transferability of sturctures has brought us closer to solving the problems related to water testing in the village’s rural conditions.

We’re gonna make it. We’re gonna make a difference!

– Paavo

Friday the 17th

As the last day of the working week, Friday was upon us. This meant a meeting with our mentor Elina. This meeting took place so as to go through what progress has been made since the last meeting and general issues that have arisen.  The meeting was held in Otaniemi at the Water lab and after Elina left for other appointments we sat down and discussed how to move forward with the group in the computer class.

Some dates were set, tasks were delegated and even an application for flights was sent in, hopefully with a positive response.

The progress so far is looking good and the final version of our project document is coming along nicely. This document contains more detailed plans on what will be done and it will act as the spine for the project. Earlier this week we were given the feedback on the first version and changes are being made accordingly.

The group is working very well together, and a good overall picture of the project has been established. Although the small details still need some work, all is going smoothly forward and the project is looking good.