Archive | August, 2011

San Diego Zoo Safari Park

27 Aug

Less than a week out from Costa Rica, I indulged in some local tourism at the Safari Park. Here are some of the highlights.



26 Aug

This picture and poem was posted by someone on reddit and I figured I’d throw it up here.

Tashirat: Part Three

16 Aug

This is the third and final post in this Tashirat series.  See One and Two

As wonderful as my Tashirat experience was, half the fun of my trip was exploring the surrounding area.  Tashirat is a short bus ride up the mountain from Tepoztlán, a town in the Mexican state of Morelos.  There are few gringos around, but on weekends the quiet mountain town is flooded with tourists come from Mexico City to explore the market and hike up to El Tepozteco.

 El Tepozteco is an Aztec pyramid that overlooks the Tepoztlán Valley.  It can be reached by climbing two kilometers of stone steps–not an easy climb, but one that some of the women from Mexico City do in heels with a baby on their backs.

The real reward of this climb (besides the climb itself, which would be enough, beautiful as it is) isn’t the pyramid, but the view from the top.

When it comes to eating in Tepoztlán, there’s no place better than the central market.  There are a number of restaurants nearby (some of them tasty, most of them overpriced), but none beat the crowded stands in the center of town.  If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, most of them offer dried crickets.  If not, have a quesadilla or taco with fresh tortillas, local cheese, and your choice of fillings.

For desert, nothing beats Tepoznieves, a local ice cream chain with half a dozen shops around town.  They have dozens of flavors; rose and aniseed were my favorites, but I loved them all.

And the best place to eat your ice cream?  In the courtyard of El Exconvento de la Natividad, a world heritage site in the center of town.

Inside, the walls and ceilings are covered with beautifully painted designs that are over three hundred years old.

There were other adventures–a trip to the Grutas de Cacahuamilpa Caverns, a full-moon fire ritual, a festival in the tiny town above Tashirat where the locals fed us chicken mole with homemade tortillas and orange soda–but I have neither the pictures nor the memory to do justice to them here.  There will be more adventures and new posts, and I’m sure to make it back to Tepoztlán and Tashirat sooner or later, but I think it’s time to lay this particular trip to rest.


Tashirat: Part Two

15 Aug

This post is a continuation of Tashirat: Part One

In the sparse, sad journal I kept in my time at Tashirat, I compare trying to write about my day to taking pictures with the cheap camera I had at the time (there’s a reason that so many of these pictures were pulled from the Tashirat website).  Neither my descriptions nor the poor-quality photos could capture the beauty of the place.  But I’ve dredged through my memories to rescue what I could, and done my best to make it presentable.  This post focuses on the kids; the third and final Tashirat post will talk about the surrounding area.

One of my first days there, and on various days afterwards, I hung out with Danari’s brood.  Her eldest was usually off being tutored, leaving four more at home: two girls named Tanisha and Estefany, a boy Gaby, and a baby named Jordi.  I fed them their lunch–cucumber and homemade tofu–and kept an eye on the boys while the girls chattered away in Spanish, pulling my hair into multiple ponytails and showing me their coloring books.

Jordan (Jordi), the youngest of Danari’s kids, was nearly catatonic when he came to them.  The youngest of five children, all of whom now reside at Tashirat, Jordi was suffering from severe neglect.  The five siblings had been more or less abandoned by their parents, left in the care of a boy of eight who was just barely able to keep them alive.  When they arrived, all five of them shared the same speech impediment.  When it began to disappear, the staff realized that the younger kids had all learned it from their brother Abundio, who had been their sole caregiver.  Like the rest of the Tashirat kids, these five bloomed under the care of the Tashirat staff.  After months of care and attention they began to see some smiles from Jordi.

Here are a few more Tashirat pictures, taken from their facebook page and the Tashirat website.

More information on Tashirat can be found on their website.  If you’re interested in making a one-time donation to the orphanage or the Ixaya school or sponsoring a child, you can do so here.

Tashirat: Part One

15 Aug

It’ll be a few weeks before I’m settled in Costa Rica, but I can’t imagine a better start to this blog than a post about my first solo trip.  I spent a month last summer volunteering at an orphanage in the mountains of central Mexico.  It was a phenomenal experience, and I know that sooner or later I’ll find my way back.

Located in the mountains above Tepoztlan, a town in the Mexican state of Morelos, Tashirat started as an Ashram in 1994.  They began to take in orphans in 2003.  In 2008 they opened the Ixaya School for impoverished children.

Tashirat provides a permanent home for children deemed unadoptable by state orphanages.  The stories of these children are varied and heartbreaking; they have been abused, abandoned in markets and under bridges, and left in government orphanages too crowded and understaffed to care for them properly.  These children arrive malnourished, chronically ill, uneducated and emotionally damaged.  But under the care of the Tashirat staff, they blossom into healthy, happy, lively individuals.

I heard about Tashirat through a friend of a friend, and the more I learned about the place the more certain I was that I needed to see it for myself.  So I spent the summer following my first year of college traveling abroad, first to Australia to visit old friends and then to Mexico.

I’ve been flying solo since I was ten, but this was my first time flying anywhere with no familiar face to greet me on the other end.  To get to Tashirat I took a plane, a taxi, a bus, and another taxi.  Not a difficult journey by any means, but daunting to a teenager who’d always had a family member to greet her at the airport.

As it turned out, those transfers were the easy part of my journey.  When I finally arrived at the gate to Tashirat, I was greeted by an empty stretch of road, a few raindrops, and the distant roll of thunder.  Apparently word of my arrival hadn’t gotten around.

The houses at Tashirat are spread out, connected by dirt paths leading through the brush, and the buildings near the gate were deserted.  I set down a path at random, carrying my overstuffed rolling suitcase on one shoulder. Finally I found an occupied house (one of the farthest from the entrance, as luck would have it).  The door was opened by a middle-aged Mexican woman with a maternal countenance and a baby on her hip–Danari, the one staff member who spoke no English.  A smile replaced her worried expression as I managed to explain in my broken Spanish that I was a new volunteer.  She had her husband lead me back in the direction I had come from, to the house of an American staff member.

Misha and Me

Once there, I was fed a typical Tashirat dinner of raw vegetables and homemade tofu while the woman put her children to bed.  (They live family style at Tashirat, with each staff member and a handful of children in their own house.)  As I ate, the household’s eldest child, a twelve-year-old girl named Misha, chattered away in English that far surpassed my highschool Spanish.

Misha’s mother led me to the volunteer area, a cluster of rooms surrounding an outdoor kitchen.  The volunteers looked up, startled to see a stranger coming in out of the rain, but welcomed me warmly enough once I was introduced.  We chatted for a while, our conversation punctuated by flashes of nearby lightning and the most awesome, deafening thunder I’ve ever heard.  They turned in early, leaving me with some blankets in a spare room.

No sooner were the sheets on my bed than my room began to flood.  Bugs scurried out of the cracks in the stone wall as I hurriedly rezipped my suitcase and pulled it up away from the water.  I retreated to the second bed in a room occupied by another volunteer.  It was drier, but equally plagued by confused insects looking for a place to wait out the storm.

It was still before nine, earlier than that California time.  While the other volunteers retreated to bed, I plugged my earbuds into my laptop to watch Beauty and the Beast (90’s Disney is to entertainment as comfort food is to eating).  I wasn’t nearly tired enough to shut my computer screen and let darkness engulf the bugs that swarmed the floor and the walls.  So I watched the cartoons flicker across my screen, periodically swatting ants off my pillow as I listened to Belle sing about her poor provincial town.

I battled disappointment for the next week or so, my enjoyment of the people and the mountains tempered by insecurity and a feeling of uselessness.  The staff needed little help with the kids, living the way they did, and so I would wander the grounds, hoping to be put to work but too shy to really put myself forward.

Tashirat had recently lost its volunteer coordinator, so things were terribly disorganized just then.  An Irish staff member called Aron had taken over her duties (this in addition to raising a group of boys, buying and distributing everyone’s food, overseeing various projects, and more or less running the place).  I won’t attempt to describe the man in a blog post–suffice to say that his stories, smile, and paternal prowess had most of the volunteers a little in love with him.

The Tashirat Greenhouse

Aron put me to work in the greenhouse, where seeing the rows of weeds retreat each day drove away my feelings of uselessness.  Now, when I say weeds, I mean weeds.  Because Tashirat was (is) chronically understaffed, the greenhouse had been left untended for some time.  It doesn’t take much neglect of a garden for the indigenous plants to reclaim their turf, especially in the rainy season.  These weeds were the size of plants, some of them as tall as I am.  I was given a machete to aid me in their eradication. But each day I cleared more ground, forcing their retreat.

As I settled in, I helped with other odd jobs.  I would carry meals from the kitchen to the schools, help Aron sort out each household’s weekly groceries, plant trees, and watch the kids.  I came to love the place, throwing away my preconceived ideas of what it would be like and living in the moment.

I loved the nightly storms, torrential rain accompanied by lightning and thunder that would shake the buildings, drowning out every other sound.  And I loved the other volunteers, as varied in personality as they were in nationality.  The group while I was there included an Irishman (Aron’s brother), a Canadian piano teacher, a young Australian nearing the end of her gap year, and a long-term volunteer from Mexico City.

I was fine with the lukewarm showers, the ashram ban on meat and sugar (I cheated every time I went into town, eating tacos and locally made ice cream), and even the sawdust bucket toilets.  The one thing that I couldn’t tolerate was the bugs.  I could appreciate them well enough on their own turf–bright green spiders and beetles with intricately patterned shells.  But their brethren–the crawling, biting, invasive things that refused to accept my bed or my clothes as enemy territory–those I took issue with.  Preoccupied by the bugbites that covered my legs, I barely registered the warnings that I had been given to shake out my clothes and boots before putting them on.  Until one morning picked up my jeans and a scorpion fell out.

“Scorpion,” I called to the volunteers who stood outside in the kitchen.

“What color is it?” asked Antares, the Mexico City native.

The scorpion lay still, maybe hoping to pass unnoticed on the bright white tile beneath it.  “Brownish,” I supplied.

“That’s fine!  It’s the light brown ones that can kill you.”

“It is light brown,” I called back.

She poked her head around the corner to look.  “Oh.  Yeah, that kind will put you in the hospital.”

I trapped the scorpion under a glass and managed to get it into the bushes, not quite acclimated enough to pick it up by the tail the way a local would.  I was careful to shake my clothes out after that.

More information on Tashirat can be found on their website.  If you’re interested in making a one-time donation to the orphanage or Ixaya school or sponsoring a child, you can do so here.