March 15 – 21: Bilwi, Nicargua – Diversity and Autonomy on the Caribbean Coast

Our two weeks in Nicaragua were filled with emotions for Deborah, as memories were tapped of her experiences working on the Pacific side during the years of the Sandinista revolution of the 1980s and then on the Atlantic side in the first decade of 2000, teaching a course on popular education at URACCAN university and collaborating with its youth-run cable television station BilwiVision through the VIVA project.

We are offering different blog entries for both: our second week on the Pacific side (colonized by the Spanish, primarily mestizo, and dominant in national politics) and our first week on the Atlantic or Caribbean coast, colonized by the British and marginalized by the Pacific side, creating a unique “pluri-ethnic” mixture of Indigenous (Miskitu, Rama, Sumu-Mayagna), Creole, and mestizo populations. During the Sandinista years, this region was drawn into the contra side of the war and fought for a limited form of autonomy, resulting in two regional governments.

Autonomy poster (1 of 1)  coast at muelle (1 of 1)

It remains poor, exploited by mining, lumber, fishing, and agricultural interests from both foreign and mestizo intruders, as well as on the path of the drug trade running from Colombia up the coast to North America.

Puerto Cabezas or Bilwi, the town

John initially wanted to take the challenging 12-hour drive on a new dirt road, to the coast, but we chose the safer option: a small plane from Managua to Bilwi, the Miskitu name for Puerto Cabezas. It is the major port in the northern region of the Coast, where we were hosted by Margarita Antonio, VIVA partner and Miskitu woman leader.

Margarita 2 (1 of 1)

We were told to be careful walking during the day and only take taxis at night. We visited the market, where used clothing, fresh fish and meat (including deer and guardatinaja, a large rodent) are aplenty while most vegetables and manufactured goods are imported from the Pacific side.

Used clothing market (1 of 1)  Bilwi market 1 (1 of 1)

There are 13 churches, with the Moravian (pre-Luther German) being the dominant one, and many protestant sects. One afternoon, we found a good beach for swimming and eating, as well as for cows and cars..!

Bilwi market and town


Casa Museo and Canal 22

16 years ago, when Deborah first came to the coast with Joshua (13 at the time), they stayed in the B&B of Judith Kain, a beloved artist and mother of Mirna Cunningham, first governor of the autonomous region and rector of URACCAN, former chair of the UN Forum on Indigenous Issues, and currently special ambassador to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Now the house has been transformed into a hotel, a museum of coastal Indigenous groups and arts, and a cultural centre where the launch of Deborah’s VIVA book in Spanish was held five years ago.

Casa Museo mural (1 of 1)  Denis, Deb, y Margarita

It also houses an organization founded by Mirna, CADPI (Centre for the Autonomy and Development of Nicaraguan Indigneous Peoples) and Cable Channel 22. Denis Mairena, current director of CADPI and former student in Deborah’s course in 2000, organized a meeting with the 15 young staff persons of the television channel. They described the programs they develop in three languages (Spanish, Creole, and Miskitu) committed to highlighting the voices and positive developments in coastal communities, as well as to educate the public around environmental issues such as climate change. We were shown some of their programs on you tube (see their overview of autonomy:, and asked to comment. It was very inspiring to hear the young aspiring broadcast journalists talk about what they had learned from the process of gathering peoples’ stories and making them heard creatively on air, a counterpoint to the influence of global satellite TV programs.

Casa Museo and Canal 22


Mujeres Creativas

One of the most moving experiences of our visit to the coast was to witness how Margarita, inspired by our VIVA project exchange, has created a collective, Mujeres Creativas, for Miskitu women to express themselves in multiple forms – through popular theatre, traditional dance, painting murals, biointensive gardening, and flower arranging.

Mujeres Creativas inside and outside (1 of 1)  Deb and Mujeres Creativas (1 of 1)


Deb and Mujeres Creativas 7 (1 of 1)

During a two-hour dialogue with a group of them outside their building, we heard testimonies of how this group creativity has helped them develop confidence and strength to speak out, to talk about issues, and to perform in public.

We had two chances to witness that creativity. One was a mural tour led by one member, Natividad, who showed us murals around the town that the women had worked on.

Bilwi murals

The other was an evening event during which they performed two dances (the dance of the mermaids and another of a woman liberating herself from a violent man) as well as two theatre pieces. The first portrayed a Miskitu family on the coast being visited and belittled by a daughter who had gone to the capital, Managua, and become more mestizo than the mestizos. The second revealed the complexity of situations arising as mestizos from the Pacific try to buy up land communally owned by the Miskitus; it showed a Miskitu community leader selling off some communal land and then being sanctioned by his community through a process of restorative justice. Video clips of these two pieces:


Krukira, a Miskitu village

Margarita took us one day to her hometown, over a dusty road and savannah, to Krukira, where we explored the small town (almost destroyed by Hurricane Felix) with its houses on stilts and fishing boats. We hung out at the home of her uncle Roger and enjoyed a great fish dinner with yucca, which along with a Toña beer, sent Deborah happily into a siesta on the porch hammock.

3 dugouts (1 of 1)  house on stilts

On our way back from Krukira, we stopped at a small riverside park for a swim, and returned two days later to the same spot for a longer swim. Margarita and Deborah went exploring in a dug-out canoe while John did his exploring while swimming off into the jungle in both directions.  Led by master chef Margarita, we cooked fish, lobster and yucca over a wood fire for a luxurious picnic dinner served on large tree leaf (biodegradable!) plates.

Krukira and river swim

We had several dinners with Margarita and her partner David, giving us a chance to learn more about the complex history of the coast, inter-ethnic and political relations, and a sober assessment of autonomy on the coast under the Ortega government (more on that in the next blog entry about the Pacific Side!). In any case, we felt especially lucky to have these two wonderful guides as our main partners for the week…!






March 12 – 13: El Cuco, El Salvador: The Beach Break

Another 12-hour ride, from Guatemala and almost through El Salvador on much flatter land and with surprisingly better roads, landed us on the Pacific Coast, in a small beach town, El Cuco.

beach expanse (1 of 1)  hotel from below (1 of 1)

We had one day to enjoy the wild waves of the ocean, which provided a surprising challenge when we tried to return to shore (John was having a good time, Deborah less so as the current pushed us toward the rocks..!)

When not swimming, we read and chilled out with the breeze on our cliff-side hotel, 275 steps down to the beach.

El Cuco Beach Break

Both evenings, we ventured into the small town for fish dinners, and on one occasion, the chance to sing Karaoke (to a cell phone app) and dance with the locals…!

Check out the couple singing Karaoke on our vimeo site:


March 14: Crossing Honduras: Borders, Bandidos, Banks, and Bad Roads

After one last swim, battling the wild waves in shallow water, and having a nice breakfast overlooking El Cuco beach in El Salvador, we headed off for what proved to be our most adventurous day yet. We knew that crossing two borders would present some difficulties, but little did we know what awaited us. When stopping at a gas station a few kilometres from the Salvadorean/Honduras border, we were approached by two half brothers – Orlando who spoke with a perfect Texas drawl, and José who flashed his official Honduras transit guide card, offering their bilingual services to help us negotiate what they said would be a very difficult crossing. We initially refused their help but later decided to hire them to leave a little money in local hands. They explained their strategy and warned us to not speak Spanish on the Honduran side, so as not to extract additional fees from Honduran authorities. “Follow us,” they said, as they jumped into a tuktuk (3-wheeled motorcycle taxi). At the border, they abandoned the tuktuk and went off in a fast trot, leading us around a long line of big trucks waiting to cross.

Guides running (1 of 1)  tuktuk (1 of 1)

We entrusted all of our documents to José who insisted that only he could get to the head of the line and move us through the procedures more quickly. Orlando kept us company, finding us some seats in the shade, ensuring us that José had all the connections needed to get us across border efficiently (he had been in the army and his uncle was the police chief in the capital!). As time dragged on, he regaled us with stories of the infamous gangs, and how young men, when invited to join a gang, couldn’t refuse (explaining why so many unaccompanied teenagers are showing up at the U.S. border to flee the gang threats and unavoidable violence).

As lunchtime approached (everything shuts down for this important mid-day meal), José appeared to announce that we could bypass three procedures (fumigation, inspection, and visas) for an additional $5 to the $15 required for each – for $60 total. It turns out we didn’t have enough cash. “No problem,” they said, “we’ll borrow the money and pay for you, and accompany you to the next ATM, 30 minutes down the road.” We threw our large bags on top of the bikes in the back and continued our adventure with our “guides” (bandidos?) in the back seat. Once at the ATM, they let us know that our proposed tip of $35 was not enough. On top of this, we either had to drive them back to the El Salvador border or pay for a taxi to take them back. So, three hours and $155 later, we were freed to begin the 2-3 hour crossing of Honduras.

We stopped in the largest town, Choluteca, where John waited patiently in line at several ATMs before finding one that would give us the needed cash for the next border. And then the roads – what amazing roads! The trucks ahead of us dodged and weaved into the oncoming lane to avoid the most impressive pot holes that we had ever seen…! Soon John (mistakenly) acquired the confidence of the local drivers, working his way through the obstacle course of potholes, passing large trucks and slower-moving cars. As it turns out, he seriously misjudged our Dodge Caravan’s ability to take on these treacherous roads. Our bags and bikes (and Deborah) bounced up and down as we hit some unavoidable and incredibly deep holes. Suddenly, an ominous loud flapping sound warned us that our rear right tire wasn’t up to the challenge; an enormous and sharp pothole had sliced the side of the tire.

Here we were in rural Honduras, in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately, a passing cyclist named Nelson, stopped and offered to help, ensuring us we could trust him. It took John and Nelson many attempts (jumping up and down, and banging with rocks) to loosen the overtight nuts holding our ruined tire. Deborah was sent off with a local campesina woman, Janice, to buy a coke as a potential lubricant to loosen the nuts. By this time, we had an audience of the family living by the roadside, cheering us on, and agreeing that Nelson was a Good Samaratin. We headed off for a nearby motorcycle repair shop to get more air in the new tire.

Nelson and John loosening tire (1 of 1)  Nelson and the coke solution (1 of 1)

Tire changing audience (1 of 1)  Nelson and John (1 of 1)

Overconfident still, and eager to get to the Nicaraguan border, John managed to find yet another dangerous pothole. The tire that was to save us was suddenly flat, with the rim dented in several places. This happened beside a roadside food vendor run by a lovely large family. They noticed the local mechanic zipping by on his bike, going home from work, and stopped him to come to our rescue. He picked up the flat spare tire, jumped on his bike, and pedaled off back to his shop. In the meantime, our new hosts, sat us down in the shade and offered us a cool drink made from the fruit whose seed is the cashew nut. We shared photos and family stories, learning about the 9 kids and grandkids, many of whom joined us as we waited. About 20 minutes later, our second Good Samaratin returned with a repaired rim and inflated tire. There were warm goodbyes from our new roadside friends, who wished safe journey to their entertaining gringo visitors.

cycling mechanic (1 of 1)   mechanic at work (1 of 1)

Hondina and family (1 of 1)

We headed off at a somewhat more conservative pace to what had been promised to be an easier and faster border crossing at the Nicaraguan border. Again we were greeted by less official looking guys offering to guide us through the process. Somewhat suspicious, John decided to walk along the line of 20 trucks waiting. Meanwhile, Deborah in the driver’s seat, was directed to pass those trucks to get to the front of the line. A young Nicaraguan of about 12 years old kept ushering us along, even though we hadn’t officially hired him, indicating what offices and windows to go to, and what documents were needed. Though slow, things seemed to be proceeding, until one official pointed out that our vehicle registration didn’t have an official police stamp on it, such as those in the U.S. We vigorously pointed out that Canada is a separate country, with its own rules and regulations, and that our registration was legitimate. He asked us to wait while he investigated. At that point, we found allies in a young couple from BC who were experiencing the same obstruction. While waiting, those functionaries processing other parts of our entry, took their hour-long dinner break. Dark descended upon us, and yet again John’s assurance that we wouldn’t be travelling at night proved not to be true.

With great relief, we finally entered Nicaragua around 8 PM, happy to be driving on a smooth highway. However, a few kilometres in, we were back to pot hole misery, even more tense on dark roads. By this point, Deborah was trying to helpfully point out upcoming dangers, but John suggested that she repress all audible sounds of reactions and assistance. Needless to say, it was not easy to be either a driver or a passenger under these conditions. And when arriving in Chinendega, 2 hours short of our destination of Managua, we decided to call it a day (after 12 hours!) and retreat to a local 4-star hotel (with a beautiful courtyard and large pool), to recover forces for the last lap in the morning. John had a partial meltdown when he managed to lose the hotel room key in the car, before we even got in the door. While he negotiated with reception for a second key, Deborah found the first key on the floor of the car. It was definitely time for a break…!

We were grateful at least that we had survived our worst day yet,  and that after driving for 12,000 km from Canada, we had our first car problems; and, in both cases, we were blessed with generous campesino families eager to help.


March 10-11: Antigua, Guatemala – Women Weavers Abound

After a 12-hour drive through the mountains of southern Mexico and into Guatemala, over breathtaking but narrow zigzagging mountain roads (the so-called “PanAmerican highway”), we arrived in the first colonial capital of Guatemala, Antigua, losing our original B&B reservation because both our Mexican cell phones expired as we tried to confirm it. We ended up in a lovely hotel with a courtyard and pool, and surrounded by two volcanoes; we decided to make these two days a “vacation within the vacation,” reading, blogging, and swimming.

Hotel Villa Colonial

Both of us had been here last in 1974, John with Elizabeth on their way to Panama and their South Pacific sailing adventure, and Deborah with Bob studying Spanish. So there were memories as well as changes, but the magical colonial architectural charm and historically earth-quake devastated churches persist.

inside church (1 of 1)  ruined church (1 of 1)

plaza columns (1 of 1)

We enjoyed meals in ancient structures, one where the maître d’ took us on a tour up to the rooftops, insisting on taking tons of romantic photos of us in the moonlight…!

Romantic rooftop

John ventured out toward one of the volcanoes, determined to hike up the mountain, but ran into some obstacles. First he took the wrong way for a long way up and down the steep hillsides overlooking the town. Then on the right road, he managed to turn the wrong way yet again. Finally directed by locals, up and down more hills, the pavement turned to dirt, rocks, dust and deep pot holes.

Volcano to climb  Bad road


Now far from town and high up the volcano, he noticed that he was almost out of gas. As the road improved further on, he assumed there must be a gas station ahead. Luckily it was mostly downhill, so he sort of coasted down the required 15 K + for a fill-up. No time for climbing, but an exciting adventure…!

Antigua is also known for its amazing artisan work, and we were drawn into immense shops with artifacts and piles of old huipiles (woven blouses worn by Indigenous women, even more now as a sign of resistance to western cultural intrusion/imperialism per Deborah). But our best introduction to the central art of weaving in Guatemala came from our visit out to the community of San Antonio Aguas Calientes where Deborah had taken hip-strap weaving lessons 41 years ago. There we found women weaving at their booths in the central market, as they softly tried to convince us that they could offer us a special deal. We came away with samples of this town’s style as well as stories from the two women who had woven them.

artifacts (1 of 1)

Antigua artisan



March 7 – 9: San Cristobal de Las Casas – International Women’s Day Zapatista Style

Delayed by our on-road adventures, we came short of our target of San Cristobal so spent the night in the somewhat modern capital of Chiapas, Tuxla Gutierrez, where we indulged in our first big meat meal in a Mexican steak house (and John was happy with the portions!).

The Importance of March 8

Arriving in San Cristobal on Sunday morning, we set out for El Centro where we found several pedestrian streets filled with a mixture of Indigenous people selling crafts, mestizo families out strolling, and domestic and international tourists.

Pedestrian street (1 of 1)  Street vendor (1 of 1)

The main plaza was the site of International Women’s Day celebrations, where placards and speakers denounced state and domestic violence (and alcoholism) and proclaimed their commitment to fight for land, territory, food sovereignty, and women’s participation in decision-making. A march of women – Indigenous and non-Indigenous, from all over Chiapas as well as international – descended on the square from UniTierra (another University of the Land) located on the forested hillside outside of the town. This was the culmination of a three-day meeting of sharing stories and strategies, related to the Zapatista autonomy movement. It was moving to see the diversity of women connecting their local issues to global processes.

8 marzo sign (1 of 1)

International Women's Day in Chiapas


On March 8, we also remembered Elizabeth Harris, on the fourth anniversary of her death.

After the International Women’s Day rally, we visited churches and a museum of local history, featuring a beautifully curated collection of huipiles (woven blouses) of diverse Indigenous communities in Chiapas and Guatemala, each with its unique design. These huipiles have become symbols of resistance and cultural reclamation for many women in this region.

Another cathedral (1 of 1)  Textile museum (1 of 1)

Textile museum inside (1 of 1)

An Alternative University of the Land

Later we made our way out to the campus of UniTierra, where the women had been meeting, as it was also the site of a week-long workshop Deborah helped organize with Mexican muralist Checo Valdez ten years ago for the VIVA project, bringing together popular educators and community artists from five countries. With only a vague memory of its location, we wandered about in the nearby countryside for an hour, enjoying the adventure, but almost giving up before going just a little further down the road to find the well-hidden campus in the woods. We were given a tour by one of the Indigenous students, Miguel, and noted many new buildings, student-run farm and bakery, and art everywhere. We visited briefly with Raymundo Sánchez Barraza, the director, who reported that Checo continues training local Indigenous artists in mural production, and invited Deborah to two more women’s events in the next week (when we’d be in Guatemala).

UniTierra Chiapas (University of the Land)

Back in town, we visited “Tierra Adentro”, a restaurant/  gallery/bookstore where Deborah collected yet more books as background for the film on food sovereignty and Indigenous women’s struggles.

Zapatista coop (1 of 1)

Zapatista maiz movement (1 of 1)  mujer and maiz (1 of 1)

The ride the next morning through rural Chiapas was impressive for its well-organized milpas (cornfields) on the hillsides and scenes of children going to school.

fields outside Chiapas 2 (1 of 1)


March 1 – 7: Oaxaca – Fellow Tourists and Revolutionaries in the Land of Mezcal

Running into neighbours

Oaxaca is definitely a draw for Canadians, especially during one of the coldest months in decades. In the first two days, we literally bumped into two of our neighbours. The first day we were recognized in the central square by Marion, a Cabbagetown neighbour of John’s and former student (OISE in the 80s) of Deborah’s. The next day, while having a coffee on a balcony café, we spotted Jenny Callahan on the street below; she lives right behind Deborah in Parkdale and comes regularly to Oaxaca.

Aside from these chance encounters, we planned our visit to coincide with friends Barb Thomas and D’Arcy Martin, at the tail end of their two-month stay in Oaxaca. So we enjoyed Sunday snacks and a swim in their B&B pool, then met them again Monday evening for a special dinner with Gustavo Esteva, renowned author, radical educator and public intellectual. He provided historical context for current struggles of Indigenous peoples (Oaxaca has a majority Indigenous population), striking teachers, and a unique consultative process with over 400 municipalities to determine their own issues and direction (the municipalities have warned the government that they intend to implement their plans for autonomy unilaterally if the government doesn’t approve them by April 15).

cena with Gustavo (1 of 1)

Fellow collaborators on food sovereignty

In 2009, Deborah along with Lauren Baker (who did her PhD on corn/maize in Oaxaca) and Michael Sacco (who founded ChocoSol based on relationships with Oaxacan cacao coops) invited Gustavo to York for a two-week intensive summer course on “Food Sovereignty, Indigenous Knowledges, and Autonomous Movements.” As the organizer of a national campaign, “Sin Maíz, No Hay País,” Esteva is the perfect advisor for a potential film on food sovereignty that features Mexican Indigenous women. He invited us to participate in seminars of UniTierra (University of the Land), which engages Indigenous Oaxacans in “communities of learning” to counter schooling which has denied their history, culture, languages and ways of knowing. One seminar was a critique of (western) education; another was on identity and cultural regeneration. A third was part of a series on “autonomy” which began with a communiqué from the leadership of the closely related Zapatista movement

Unitierra seminar (1 of 1)  Mujer y maiz at UniTierra (1 of 1)John, Gustavo and rootop garden (1 of 1)

On a tour of UniTierra, Gustavo and John were able to compare UniTierra’s year-round rooftop garden with the short growing season on Toronto rooftops.

We met a Mayan couple from the Yucatán who are spending some months in Oaxaca as they prepare to start their own UniTierra in their coastal state. They invited us to their temporary home in the village of the San Augustín Etla, where we visited the well-known (though somewhat elitist) Centre for the Arts (established by artist Francisco Toledo), enjoyed a fish meal, learned about their traditional agricultural practices, and loaded up on fresh fruit from their backyard trees.

Angel and Valiana (1 of 1)  SAE visit 2 (1 of 1)

SAE visit 5 (1 of 1)  SAE visit 7 (1 of 1)

Deborah also reconnected with Amado Ramírez Leyva, an agronomist who left university teaching 13 years ago to start Itanoni, a tortillería, restaurant and cultural centre dedicated to the defense of biodiversity and cultural diversity. Over two comal-cooked tortilla meals, we had intense conversations with him about the potential film, the deeper messages of the interrelations of plants and humans, and the narrative approaches that might draw a North American public into that understanding (including a suggestion that Deborah not limit the story to women).

John at Itanoni (1 of 1)  Itanoni 3 (1 of 1)

All of the conversations Deborah was able to have with people deeply engaged in food sovereignty movements have stimulated her thinking, challenging once again many of her assumptions, and suggesting new directions for research and artistic production.

Archeology and history

The Oaxaca region has a deep and rich history of diverse Indigenous civilizations. A powerful introduction to the Olmec, Zapotec, and Mixtec cultures was offered at the Casa de las Culturas inside the Dominican convent of Santo Domingo (which at various points had been occupied and ransacked by soldiers and more recently was slated for a major five-star tourist hotel)

Sto. domingo (1 of 1)  Dominicans at Sto. Domingo (1 of 1)

An intervention by renown activist artist Francisco Toledo saved the convent as a major museum and designed the adjacent former army camp as a botanical garden more defined by aesthetic criteria than either agroecology or scientific identification.

John took morning bike rides 350 metres up to the Monte Alban ruins twice before we visited them together.

John biking to Moute Alban

Another day we visited the amazing ruins of Mitla (see slide show below). This was Deborah’s first visit to these two sites, which John and Elizabeth had visited in 1974.

Archeology and history

On the way to Mitla, we also paid homage to a 2,000 year-old tree, El Tule (click link below for video) vimeo:

Artisanal practices

Oaxaca markets are ablaze with colour and endless creativity, in both handicrafts as well as culinary delicacies (there are countless cooking classes for tourists!).

John and hats  craft banner

Deb with  market chickens  Corner taco stand (1 of 1)

A day excursion to Teotílan, with family weaving businesses all along the highway into town, offered us a unique introduction to the preparation of the materials and the weaving of exquisite wool rugs. Graciela, the wife of master weaver Isaac Vasquez led us through the process, inviting us to try our hand at carding and spinning; we were especially taken by the magic of extracting the red dye from the cochineal insect, which is nurtured on cactus plants, dried, crushed, and mixed with lime and salt to create the brilliant red that was a major export to Europe for the robes of royalty and clerics in the colonial period. We were delighted to learn, after John made a major purchase of a rug, that it was in fact woven by Graciela, our guide..!

Weaving coop in Teotítlan

Oaxaca is the home of moles (chocolate chile sauce) and many other delicacies such as chapulines (grasshoppers) which we tested as the stuffing for chiles rellenos. Besides trying a couple of fine Oaxacan restaurants, we were able to try our own hand at cooking in a little apartment we rented for the week, called Casa de los Abuelos (House of the Grandparents). In fact, John, was able to connect with his granddaughter, Katherine, in the Gaspe, by Skype…!

John biking out of Casa de los Abuelos (1 of 1)  Our Oaxacan house (1 of 1)

Skyping with Anna (1 of 1)

Highway highlights and lowlights

 Soon after we left Oaxaca heading for Chiapas, we passed the 10,000 KM of our four-month journey..! We continued to have amazing highway vistas, grateful we were driving and not flying over the landscape; at one point, as our van was rocked by dangerously strong winds in an area called La Ventosa (Windy), we were astounded by the site of a veritable city of windmills (financed and constructed, in part, by Wallmart, to supply their superstores in Mexico!).

Windmills 1 (1 of 1)  Windmills2 (1 of 1)

Windmills 5 (1 of 1)

On the other hand, we also found ourselves on dirt roads that were called “highways” or winding our way up and down steep mountainsides, passing trucks on narrow twisty roads overlooking sharp precipices (dotted with shrines commemorating those who died on the treacherous roadways). On the way to Chiapas, after a particularly scary mountainside ride, we descended 400 metres to the flat land of Tehuantepec, where a statue of La Tehuana greeted us at the entrance. There, ironically while going 10 K an hour over a small bridge, entranced by the view of the beautiful river, John failed to notice that the car in front of us had stopped. He hit the bumper of a taxi in front, and thus precipitated a two-hour experience with a series of taxi owners and drivers, several traffic police, and two insurance agents. Luckily there was only a small dent in the taxi bumper and none whatsoever to our van, our Mexican insurance covered everything, and in the process we made friends with the protagonists…!

accident 2 (1 of 1)   accident 1 (1 of 1)

accident 3 (1 of 1)



Feb. 22 – 24: San Miguel de Allende – The CASA Connection


CASA (1 of 1)After two weeks in Guanajuato, we took the scenic two-hour drive to enchanting     San Miguel de Allende, which was an important place for John and Elizabeth and her mother Aileen over many years. In the 1990s they helped create Canadians for CASA ( now called Amistad Canada, an official Canadian registered charity) to support the Mexican NGO CASA which continues to provide much needed services to youth and families of San Miguel around many issues including reproductive health, nutrition, family violence and protection of the environment. It built a maternity hospital and family clinic and a midwifery school, the first in Mexico and has expanded its programs to include, among other services, school libraries in primary schools in many small towns in the surrounding countryside.

We were able to connect with current directors and members of Amistad, Charlie and Myra Novogrodsky, who offered us elegant digs in their rented hillside house.

Xichu house Charlie, John, and Myra (1 of 1)

There we became kids again playing on their water slide, listened to the CBC on (reporting record low temperatures), enjoyed some meals together and exchanged ideas of “must sees” in Mexico.

water slide 3 (1 of 1)  water slide deb (1 of 1)

The bikes came out for trips to the surrounding countryside. First we headed off to Jalapa (unknowingly having to first conquer a steep cobblestone street that almost sent Deborah back home).

John biking up cobblestone (1 of 1)  Deb on bike

En route, while riding into the bush for a publicity shot for his next big fundraising trip, John got a thorn in his tire, resulting in a flat and road side patch job. Bike calamities continued the next day when he set off on a solo trip, only to have the tire explode, forcing him back into town to buy (and then lose) another tire…!

John in bush

John repairing tire (1 of 1)

We walked downhill into town at sunset and celebrated his survival with a drink on a café balcony overlooking the imposing cathedral.

street scene SMA  magic cathedral

While our visit was limited to two full days, we took full advantage of the arts and cultural events the city offers. On arriving we found ourselves in the neighbourhood where a major mural festival took place recently. We also enjoyed the inspiring folk artists in the artisan market and had a fresh fruit juice break.

Murals in San Miguel


Bram in concert

The first night, we joined other expats at an Amistad fundraising concert featuring Canadian folksinger Bram Morrison, followed by a dinner with Amistad members, including Mel Kliman, our former president who did all the hard work to get our official status, and his wife Eva.

Bellas Artes 2 (1 of 1)  Visiting the Centro de Bellas Artes the last night, we took in three art openings (photography, sculpture), enjoyed free wine and music (vimeo link below), and later struggled to interpret (in Spanish) a Fringe theatre play on the mysterious life of Italian/American/Mexican photographer Tina Modotti.

nude photo exhibit (1 of 1)

To see the Bellas Artes openings and hear the featured musicians, click vimeo below:  


Feb. 25 – 28: Mexico City – Friends, Art and Politics

Reunions around delicious meals

Despite its monstrous size and population (20 million), Mexico City, DF, offered us intimate connections with old friends. For each of the three nights during our whistle stop visit there, we had heart-warming dinners with people who are woven into our respective histories.

Barrón family (1 of 1)

Soon after arriving at the home of Antonieta Barrón, Deborah’s research collaborator for over 20 years, we sat down for a family dinner of “cochinita pebil”, a Yucantan-style pulled pork slow cooked by Luis, her son-in-law. Antonieta is recovering from surgery, but remains active as a teacher/researcher and matriarch/nurturer of a large extended family. The next day, John’s son Tim got to reconnect with her 4-year-old grandson Emiliano whom he had charmed when we stayed there two years ago.

cochinita cooking (1 of 1)  dinner at Antonieta's (1 of 1)

That night we had dinner downtown with Julieta and the Arturos, both senior and junior, at a fancy Mexican restaurant in the upscale Polanco neighbourhood. Arturo was Elizabeth’s good friend during her first visit to Mexico in the late 60″s. John had suggested that we find a good place to talk and catch up on family news so was a bit dismayed when we got out of the car and heard the roar of  the very trendy crowded  restaurant. We had to shout a bit but had a good time…! The food  was good – although these sort of places seem to specialize in small servings on big plates.  Tim stayed with the younger Arturo and they certainly seemed  to be having a great time, sharing smokes and a lot of tequila.   I urged Arturo to visit us in Canada and he suggested they would come next year.

dinner with Velasquez family (1 of 1)

Tim and Arturo Jr. (1 of 1)   small serving (1 of 1)

Our third and final night in Mexico City, we had a homemade meal of chicken tostados in the home of Sara San Martin and Daniel Ponce, popular educators who Deborah worked with in the 1990s through the Mexican Institute for Community Development in Guadalajara. Daniel now works with the National Commission Against Discrimination and Sara is director of the Ecumenical Centre that works for human rights with groups around the country. It was also fun to catch up with their two kids (Josh hung out with them as a teenager): Sarita doing a residency in gynecology and Danielito, a drummer, most recently accompanying a Lila Downs tour.

Deb photographing Sara and Daniel

Inextricable art and politics

 The one day we ventured to the Centro (maneuvering three different lines of the immense subway system), we met up with John’s son Tim in Chalputepec park. Tim was in the city for a week to attend a huge electronic dance musical festival of 50,000. He got backstage pass benefits and plans to be involved in their festivals across Canada this summer.

The three of us went to the Museo de Arte Moderna to see a joint exhibit of the photographs of Tina Modotti & Edward Weston, focusing on their production in the late 1920s during their affair in Mexico. Tina was very involved with the famous Mexican political artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in 1930s period, the Mexican Communist party, and volunteered in the Spanish civil wars. WE saw a play about her life in San Miguel (in Spanish of which we only partially understood) and had seen a one woman play about her in Toronto almost two years ago.

After the museum closed early because of a planned demonstration about the 43 murdered student protesters, we walked down the beautiful wide Reforma Boulevard admiring the new very stylish modern high rise office buildings and the purple flowering Jacaranda trees and gardens to find a restaurant for  a late lunch. We noticed two sitting  women  with placards protesting the disappearance of a relative. They explained the manifestation would start a bit later further east at the Angel monument. The plaza in front of them had metal plaques on the stone pavement explaining, in the first person ” my name is…and I was murdered/ disappeared  while …” .

John with relatives of disappeared (1 of 1)  Missing student plaque

We spent the rest of the afternoon watching the noisy demonstration of thousands of students and  other political groups (very much tending to la izquierda- the left) marching down the now closed Reforma. Deborah acquired a large cardboard placard with pictures of the murdered students and John made a small donation into a demonstrators  cup and so also obtained a small banner: ” Nos faltan 43!”.   Quite a powerful reminder of the continuing problems the people of Mexico still face despite the veneer of modernity, democracy and economical development.

For a glimpse of the massive march, see our vimeo link:

The next day we returned to a favourite plaza, in Coyoacan, and discovered an amazing array of “catrinas” painted on the wall of an art school. To satisfy Deborah’s fascination and collection of these images reflecting Mexican perspectives on death, John followed the long wall and around the corner to capture these on video (below).

Ongoing love-hate relationship with technology

 We continued to both relish what our electronic tools offered us (Skype conversations with family, cell phones to reach Mexican friends, our beloved cameras, and this blog!), while also facing periodic small (and large) crises which tried our patience. We left our Mexican cellphone in San Miguel, so John found two (at $10 each), but we’ve yet to figure out how they work (desbloquear, elegir, añadir contactos..?.) John’s computer quite regularly disengaged from the Internet and his Nokia phone/camera went suddenly black and couldn’t be revived. As he mourned the loss of a lot of good pictures, it somehow came back to life, while showing the date to be May 2014….! Deborah’s laptop started displaying erratic lines and then wouldn’t boot up (4 days after the warranty expired); the local Apple doctor concluded the hard drive was finished and suggested either a $1,500 repair job or a new laptop at $5,000. Nonethless, he massaged it and suddenly it came on again, seemingly repairing itself and revived for another round…J

maps and devices (1 of 1)

Our ambiguous relationship with these devices was epitomized by our attempts to leave Mexico City to head south to Oaxaca, using no fewer than 5 tools: a screen shot of google maps on a computer, GPS on a phone, two Mexico city maps – one street map, one from an atlas, and a map of the country. There were major contradictions among them and none could help us as much as asking the locals (though some could also send us on wild goose chases). It took us two hours to get out of the city….and we were rewarded with spectacular mountain views as we passed through the state of Puebla and into Oaxaca state.

DF to Oaxaca mt views


Feb. 8 – 22: Hiking and Biking, Huffing and Puffing around Guanjuato

The mountains of Guanajuato presented their own challenges to us as hikers and bikers, offering us other ways to get to know the city and surrounding countryside.

A1bikes and cityscape (1 of 1)

The first week, John seduced Deborah into circling the city by cycling the Carretera Panoramica, a 25 kilometre circuit of beautiful views, steep climbs, and thrilling downhill drops. We took 7 hours, stopping often to photograph the city below us and the mountains around us. We lunched on tacos at the famous landmark, the statue of rebel hero El Pipila, who torched the gates to allow the first independence victory in 1810. The last two hours, beginning with a jarring steep descent on cobblestone streets, just about finished Deborah’s biking career. Despite her efforts to revive herself at the traditional Mercado de Dulces (sweets), she found it necessary to walk the bike up most inclines, panting to reach the finish line. John insisted on another beer and coffee break at a new trendy hillside restaurant overlooking the city far below.

Biking around Guanajuato


Clearly, we have different skills and approaches to biking: what is easy for John is a challenge for Deborah; what is a challenge for John is torture for Deborah. To prove this difference, John repeated the same circuit the next morning in less than two hours…!

B3Rachel and John in the mountains

Deborah’s very fit cousin Rachel, however, found this an opportunity to revive her cycling passion, and to repair her bike which had sat unused (because it was dangerous for a woman to bike alone). John oiled her chains, replaced the tube, pumped up the tires, and off they went for the challenging trip to Santa Rosa de Lima, Rachel cheerfully tackled the 500 metre climb and the ups and downs of the 15 Km mountainous route. Adam and Deborah, taking the easy way in the van, along with Folly the dog, cheered them on as they passed by and then celebrated their victory at their destination with a meal overlooking the valley. After exploring the exquisite tile stores in Dolores Hidalgo, we packed the bikes into the van, and all five headed back to Guanajuato.

Rachel and John to Santa Rosa


C0bike (1 of 1)

One day John decided he needed a major bike ride (and perhaps Deborah needed some time on her own), so he took off for Delores Hidalgo, about 60 Km to the east of Guanajuato, and made it back just after sunset. The trip included climbing about 1500 metres in total and with a stop towards the end at the artesanal brewery to take out a few more of their interesting products.

John's solo to Delores Hidalgo

The first week we hiked with Rachel into the ravines; much like Toronto ravines, they gave us a feeling of wilderness within the city except that the landscape was desert like and cactus filled. On the way back, Deborah’s discerning eye noticed a new craft brewery, offering John the perfect excuse to stock up on local beers.

John and Rachel hiking ravine (1 of 1)

Constant companions on any walk within Guanajuato were the cacophony of roof-top guard dogs, both large and small, fiercely protecting their owners’ property, and reminding us of the very culturally specific role that dogs play in Latin America. Check out these barking muts in the slide show below (and only imagine the accompanying sound effects!) However, we also made friends with our friends’ very gentle dogs, including Fernando and Hilda’s very large chocolate lab Bruno, and Rachel and Adam’s Folly.


Each mountain surrounding the city beckoned to be explored, with the requisite cross at its summit. So another day we set up to climb one of the steepest. The air was thin, and Deborah got dizzy from the altitude, so we didn’t quite make it to the top before sunset, but marveled at the layers of hillsides filled with colourful houses; with John’s zoom lens, we were even able to find our own home..!

(Click on images below for full screen view)

John hiking to cross (1 of 1)  Deb hiking mt 3

 Side trip to Leon

The second week we were invited to nearby Leon to visit Ana Guevara, a science prof who had participated in the Food Justice course Deborah co-taught at the Coady International Institute at StFX in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, last May.

John and Deb with Ana's class (1 of 1)

Deborah spoke with two of her climate change classes, making the links to her research on the corporate food system in Mexico as well as local and global food sovereignty movements. As both of us have been reading Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything, John entered into the conversation with students about the necessary government responses to the coming crisis. Ana gave us a tour of the very wealthy and beautifully designed campus of Tec de Monterrey, introducing us to colleagues and showing us the abandoned greenhouse where she hopes to develop a campus community garden. As a technical university training engineers and architects, it was interesting to learn about its emphasis on “ética y ciudadania” (ethics and citizenship) throughout the curriculum, and how ¾ of the student body does practical training or seminars abroad.

Leon visit

We walked through the Centro of Leon, another charming colonial city, and had a salmon salad lunch at a small alternative restaurant. On the way out of town, we braved an enormous shopping mall to get needed supplies for John’s avocado tree project.

Truco 7 with Ana and Alberto

Two days later, we hosted Ana and her partner Alberto for a weekend in Guanajuato; after lunch and strolling through the intimate narrow streets of the city, we produced a collective feast (and our despedida, or farewell dinner) with Rachel and Adam, which included a red corn pozole with octopus cooked in the solar oven. Ana hopes to keep in contact with Rachel and with our Guadalajara friend Fernando around her community garden projects in Leon; it’s been fun to connect our Mexican friends who share common interests..!


Feb. 8-22: At Home on the Hill in Guanajuato

After a month on the road, we finally settled in for two weeks in magical Guanajuato, a city surrounded by tall mountains with multi-coloured and multi-level houses built on steep hills of a ravine, mainly reached by foot through windy alleyways.

cityscape coloured houses (1 of 1)

It was the site of the Spaniard’s major silver mines (worked by Indigenous slave labour), the historical independence battle led by Criolle rebel leader Miguel Hidalgo in 1810, tunnel passageways and monumental architecture. The birthplace of muralist Diego Rivera, Guanajuato hosts the international Cervantino Arts Festival for three weeks in October (we’d love to return for that and Day of the Dead later this year, John by bike, Deb by plane!).

Hidalgo 2  Don Quixote

Miners monument (1 of 1)

Just strolling through the narrow cobblestone streets is a treat, with mimes and music on every corner, singing along with Los Estudiantes (roaming troubadours dressed in 19th century Spanish attire – listen below). One evening we took in an art history lecture at the massive University on Diego Rivera and his role in the Mexican left (understanding perhaps half of it, and relieved when there were images to look at!)

(View the city in the slide show below clicking on FS for full screen in lower right corner and by starting with first in the strip of images below)

Guanajuato city

We rented a house from Deborah’s cousin, Rachel and her partner, Adam, and shared many meals with them.

Rachel and Deb  John and Rachel (1 of 1)

They live the summer months on an island in Nova Scotia and the winter months here, where they have created whimsical spaces in their home, Casa Rosa, and the rental, Casa Palma (highly recommended for our friends!)

(Click on FS for full screen in lower right corner and tart with the first of the images in the strip below ;  Find Rachel and Adam’s cream coloured house with blue trim the first two images; our aqua coloured house with avocado tree to the right and above a red house can be found later)

Our houses in Guanajuato

Part of the treat for us was reclaiming domestic tasks such as shopping in the immense Mercado Hidalgo and cooking for ourselves. We relished fresh tortillas, tropical fruits, octopus pozole and fish ceviche, helped down with John’s famous margaritas and any new local artisanal beer he could discover. We experimented with cooking with the Uitzi (solar oven) created by Adam, aiming the mirrors at just the right angle to sizzle our octopus with the hot sun. (website for solar oven).

(Relish our experiences in the market, cooking and eating in the slide show below clicking on FS for full screen in lower right corner and by starting with first image in the strip below)

Buying, cooking and eating..!


13John spraying14bugs

 We also immersed ourselves in other tasks, each according to our passions: John worked daily in the garden Rachel has cultivated (with mango, avocado, orange and peach trees, and wonderful beds of arugula and mustards), turned over and revived the compost, and spent hours fighting a massive infestation of sap-sucking insects that threatened the very life of the avocado tree.

 17Dining room with laptops (1 of 1)

Cyborg Deborah reconnected with her pilates class via internet, Skyped with family, friends and students she is still supervising, and worked on her evolving website, with long-distance tech assistance.

Exploring our barrio

 We got to know Apollonia, the local storekeeper; Pepe, our neighbor who painted the mural that covered our wall, and exchanged “Buenas Tardes!” with folks we passed on our hikes up and down the hill.

Las Palmas mural (1 of 1)

One day while exploring the neighbourhood, we passed by one of the ubiquitous murals of the Virgin of Guadalupe, got a whiff of dope, and watched a group of local youth duck down to hide from Deborah’s camera. Jorge, the friendliest of the gang, offered to show us a local mural project in a garbage-strewn vacant lot they were reclaiming down the hill. There we met Leonardo, a regional coordinator with Pacto por el Pueblo, a project with “chavos banda” (local street youth into graffiti and hip hop). He and Ingacio, the local community leader, invited us back for the mural opening on the weekend. Ignacio himself offered a fascinating life history: sent for security training in arms around the world (including Canada), he was a bodyguard for federal politicians and witness to endless demonstrations of corruption; rejecting that life, he has now chosen to be a “generador de cambios”, or change agent, with local youth.

1Pacto por el barrio (1 of 8)

(View  the slide showof the youth mural project by starting with first image in slide show and clicking on FS for full screen in lower right corner)

Neighbourhood youth mural project

The first mural, a Mayan calendar, was flanked with the number 13, to represent the transformation of the youth and of the barrio hoped for from this project. As special guests, we were invited to pose with the youth for everyone’s cellphone cameras. We chatted with local women and enjoyed a community meal of chicharrón and a big birthday cake they had prepared. Deborah exchanged with the Pacto’s coordinators contacts with other youth mural projects in LA and Toronto.

See the next blog entry for our adventures around Guanajuato..!