Epilogue: What did we do here?

This question was pondered during our second post five months ago, and I dare to say that each one of us have thought about this question, if not while gazing at the starry sky from the back of a pickup truck after saying goodbye to El 20, then during the two days leading up to our final presentation, both in Cancun and Helsinki.


Up until that Thursday, I had assumed that one of the hardest we would have to endure as a team was racing against El 20s future Ronaldos on a basketball court playing football, but, I was wrong. Keeping our calm and sticking as a team from 9AM to 11PM, while absolutely exhausted from the previous day’s travelling, was really where our patience and perseverance were put to test. Condensing our thoughts and learnings from three different sub-projects from a time period of one week into the matter of ten minutes, coupled with Google Slide’s reluctance to cooperate, was a challenge. Thankfully, we had a practice presentation together with Uxuxubi and San Pancho teams in the evening, where we were able to exchange ideas and receive valuable feedback from our mentors. It was amazing to realize how different our projects were, and how many stories there were to tell. After all was done with our presentation, we were left with a little bit time for ourselves to practice and a few hours of sleep for tomorrow morning’s presentation. The presentations of all Aalto Lab Mexico teams can be viewed here.

1.jpgCredit: Carolina Izquierdo Espinosa, 2017


Credit: Carolina Izquierdo Espinosa, 2017

After a brief celebration of our work, we headed to the beach of Cancun for the last time, where we exchanged our final goodbyes before preparing for our next day’s early departure. The same happened during our final presentation in Helsinki: after presenting what we did, we exchanged goodbyes and left our recommendations to the hands of the future Aalto Lab Mexico students. We learned a lot during our journey about the three projects, and there is still a lot of work to be done in the future to truly empower the residents of El 20 in a sustainable way while respecting their way of life.


While the days in El 20 were long, everything that we had planned for, all the water testing, material footprint interviews and tourism workshops, happened within a heartbeat. Although our time was limited, we were still able to find time for free time beyond our work to spend with the children, bond as a team, and just simply sit down in quietness, trying fathom the beauty of all that we were surrounded by. I remember the discussions we had prior to this trip, how all of us wanted to go to El 20 and make a positive change, but little did we know that El 20 would also somehow change us – perhaps not visibly, as pointed out by our wise peer Alan – but somewhere that is not obvious for us to see.

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But one thing that our team can agree on with certainty is that we are forever grateful for this experience and all the people that we had had the utmost pleasure of getting to know during our journey.

– Dream Team, 2017

Artesanía para el Bienestar

Back during the first field trip to El 20 in 2012, ALM saw the opportunity to develop a Cultural Brand. The rationale behind this was to help the villagers gain access to the mexican healthcare system, as their biggest fear was not having enough money to pay their medical bills if such case occurred. In 2013, the Cultural Brand developed into Artesanía para el Bienestar (Artistry for Well-being), a strategy that could contribute to the well-being of everyone in the community through selling of local handmade crafts. The idea was to give the tourists an option to buy products at a slightly higher price, and that excess amount would then go to a communal fund in case of medical emergencies. Together with a few craftmakers of El 20, ALM designed stamps that could facilitate this strategy. In 2015, four women were given the stamps in order test the strategy.


During the field trip, we were eager to hear what has happened during the past two years with the stamps – and it was confirmed, that the strategy has indeed worked. We heard good stories, of how someone was able to afford their medical expenses because of the emergency fund. However, these stories were limited to only a couple – after them, the fund was almost emptied. Why? Because El 20 does not have enough tourists visiting to ensure regular sales. This gave us reaffirmation that this concept can be taken further to do good for everyone in the community, and that community tourism is something that can help to guarantee more regular sales in order for all of it to work. Of course, what has been done up until now has been merely a prototype, and a lot still needs to be developed and polished with engagement from both ALM and the community. This extends also to finding suitable community tourism strategies.


What amazed us the most, was how much the women themselves felt the need to have the strategy. Although they don’t have to, they are willing to give out the excess money that they make from the products that they made, for the well-being of everyone. The sense of community we witnessed in that table will certainly be the virtue that, when we have reached the perfect co-design effect (as described in the work Dra. Claudia), will allow them to travel unimaginable miles long after our work is done.

Reference: Garduno Garcia, C..2017. Design as Freedom, p.161. Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture.

Exquisite Rainforest

El 20 de Noviembre, 7:30PM, half an hour after the agreed appointment, and nobody had arrived yet. One whole week of planning the workshop with endless details seemed to be going down the toilet. We had invited the whole town using a funky communal loudspeaker, and then knocked door by door inviting everybody to join the workshop, to which they told us, sure, they were coming. I kept wondering why wouldn’t they arrive? Are they not interested in community-tourism? Did we forget to specify the day? Or maybe they think we are just a bunch of “gringos” fooling around?


Luckily, none of those were the case.   We were going to be in this mayan community of only 400 people in middle of the Calakmul rainforest, for a whole week; and the entire group was working towards the same objective: to improve life quality in “El 20”, but each of our teams was to use different approaches. I was part of the community-tourism team. Our mission was to understand how tourism already worked there, and how it could work in the future, considering the environment and stakeholders involved. We had to get a glimpse of the needs and desires of all the community villagers from El 20 to then understand how tourism could achieve a better life quality for everybody.


Our whole approach revolved around co-design: creating innovative solutions together with the people we are designing for. Last year we carried out interviews to understand and map out the current tourism system in this same community. The result after processing the information was an ideal tourism-system where people would benefit economically from tourism while enhancing social cohesion and protecting the dazzling jungle that surrounds them. Now, one year later, it was time to get to the next level of co-design, to get people involved in the process to make that optimum system reality. Now we had to create ideas on how to build that reality for El 20.


So, how would we get the community villagers involved in the design process? We decided to go for workshops. The aim was for people from El 20 to express their thoughts on how they could contribute to build this ideal community-tourism project. So for several days we planned the workshops with high detail; it consisted on three phases: first to recognize and map out their own current tourism system, then identify opportunity areas where each person could contribute to improve it, and finally generate a bunch of tangible ideas. Once it was elaborately planned out we invited the whole town to assist.

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The workshop was going to be split throughout two days. But the first day there was a huge party to which the whole community went.  So there we were, 7:30PM, waiting for everybody to come, thinking our whole co-design strategy was a fiasco.   But they eventually did show up (!) two hours late but finally there. We had to make the whole workshop in half the time, which was not easy at all. We were very excited, but the people from the community didn’t seem collaborative, or maybe they didn’t really understand much of the workshop activities we did, the overall flow of the workshop wasn’t that smooth.


The next day we woke from our hammocks and the first thing I saw was a couple of toucans eating fruit from the Anone Tree outside our house, a great way to start the day. At once we had eight hours to redesign our workshop, make it more engaging, and get the result we sought: tangible ideas for the tourism project. So we planned different: a circle where everybody could speak out loud what they thought could work from their own perspective for tourism. And for the second workshop, everybody arrived late again, but we didn’t worry that much then. This time more women, who were not directly involved in tourism attended. They spoke out loud, and at that moment we only functioned as facilitators: they spoke out loud their ideas and we helped land them into different projects where they would get involved in the tourism system, such a selling the products they did to tourists and at the same time adding value to El 20 from a touristic point of view. We discovered there was a significant amount of people in El 20 who weren’t involved directly in the industry but wanted to be part of it, and, above all, they did have valuable means of contributing to the project.


On the other hand we understood that it’s a slow process and it’s not easy to get people to act by making just a few interviews and two workshops. Understanding the right approach to achieve the communities’ participation is not as simple as it may sound. We need to keep working on it.   This means investing in going back to El 20 more frequently over the rest of the year, and share ideas and actions with this magic community, always with a longer perspective effort.


Material footprint

We worked on many things on El 20. One of the sub-projects we had was related to material footprint. Material footprint is calculated for individuals. It tells, how much resources one person uses in a year in kilograms. All the resources that one uses, affect the material footprint. What kind of clothing one has, What kind of food does one eat, how much does one travel, in what kind of house does one live in etc.? An example of this is a phone. My phone weighs from 100 to 200 grams, but when one calculates all the reasources that are needed to produce the phone, the material footprint of the phone is closer to several kilos or even tens of kilos.

As I mentioned, material footprint is the amount of resources one individual uses in one year. It has been estimated, that 8 tonnes per year is the threshold for one individual, which the Earth can sustain. If everyone on the planet used just 8 tonnes of resources per year, we would be fine. However, in Finland the average material footprint is 40 tonnes! So there is still work to be done on this area in Finland.

Before I went to El 20, I thought that they would have really small material footprints. That they didn’t have any of the appliances we take for granted here in Finland. I thought they barely had electricity. So you can imagine my surprise, when we arrived to the village and saw that there was a car parked in front of every other house. I had imagined that there would have been something like 3 cars in the whole village, but instead they had closer to 50. Moreover, instead of having very limited availability of electricity, they had as much as they wanted. They were connected to the main grid of Mexico, and surprisingly that seemed to work just fine. They even had street lights at night. They had no blackout or shortages of electricity during the week we spent there.

What I learned from this, is that even though one does his background research, there will always be surprises on the field.

Before the trip I would have estimated that the footprint of almost in the village would be somewhere around 4 tonnes per year. Now, we have done our calculations, and we estimate that it is from 6 to 26 tonnes per year. So there is huge variation in the village. From 6 to 26, even though my hypothesis was that there would be very little variation. That is due to the fact that the men of the village commute to work 15km to Xpujil every day alone in their cars. This activity alone constitutes to a material footprint of nearly 14 tonnes per year. So it is understandable that there is a huge difference between the material footprints of those who commute and those who don’t.

This is the last post about material footprint from this years’ ALM. Thanks for reading! The project is likely to continue next year, so all there’s left to do is wait for next years’ team to be chosen and hope that they will find an innovative way to communicate their progress on this project to all of us.



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!