By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
We recently traveled to the hills around Pluma Hidalgo to spend a couple of days with the Project TEN’s professional staff and young Jewish volunteers, primarily Israelis. In the February issue of The Eye, we reported on the important educational, medical, and public health services TEN was providing at the request of the village community members. In this issue we describe the work and life at the isolated TEN center.
To reach the Center from the main Huatulco-Pluma road, we drove our car part way up a rutted road that was encompassed on both sides by a wall of dense tropical vegetation. After parking our car, we were transported by Sivan, the Center Director, in the 4×4 TEN truck along a bone-rattling road that was barely visible through denser and denser jungle. As we reached the end, the vista suddenly opened to a long two-story building with an upper floor open to the air. The building overlooked a steep drop to tanks used in a three-step process to purify the water used at the center, terraced TEN gardens, and below them a privately-owned coffee plantation. “Welcome home,” Sivan said.
Since we were there on a Friday, the volunteers were not working in the surrounding villages. Their program that day consisted of a morning working in the experimental farm, an afternoon of preparing for Shabbat (the Jewish sabbath that starts at sundown on Friday), and an evening of celebrating Shabbat. We were invited to participate in all these activities or just observe.
The experimental farm is integral to the TEN project’s emphasis on public health and informal education. Given the typical diet of rice, beans and sugary drinks around Pluma (as well as in many impoverished areas of Mexico), the rate of diabetes and related diseases is extremely high in the nearby villages. The purpose of the experimental farm is to determine which crops can be easily and organically grown in the area in small individual gardens that can provide tasty and nutritious additions to meals. The ultimate goal is to train and assist villagers to have their own gardens and reap the health benefits. Only organic crops that turn out to thrive in the local environment are encouraged.
Just as the villagers would, the TEN volunteers cultivated the crops using only machetes or bare hands. The sight of young Israelis laughing and swinging machetes to prune, aerate the soil, and cut back invasive plants was a striking cultural anomaly, as most of the volunteers grew up in desert areas. Emulating the primary method of irrigation available to the local villagers, they water plants by capturing water from the river running down in the valley. And to fertilize the crops, two types of compost were being produced; one from scraps of leftover cooked food and the second from other unprocessed organic waste. TEN had previously tried to introduce worms into the compost to speed the decomposition process, but chickens, ubiquitous in rural Mexico, thought TEN was extending an invitation to a feast and rapidly devoured the annelids.
Some of the experiments turned out to be failures; strawberries did not thrive without colder weather than the cool nights of Pluma provide. Other vegetables just seemed to need more gardening time than busy mothers would likely have available. But many were thriving. The TEN director and volunteers proudly pointed out their flourishing fruit trees: lemon, orange, mango and passion fruit. Raised beds contained watermelons, tomatoes, nopales (edible cactus), chiles and other vegetables. Separate raised beds were replete with aromatic herbs and spices, including mint, lemongrass, two types of oregano, and ginger. It was amusing and educational to see the signs the volunteers had made to label the plants in English, Spanish and Hebrew.
Friday late morning and early afternoon were set aside for cleaning for Shabbat – very much a challenge in the first floor living quarters since all of the volunteers share one of two rooms (one for men and one for women). The halls are stacked with cartons of books and other materials to be brought out to the villages, and the storage room space is taken up primarily with computers to be distributed to schools. The bathroom consists of a central area with sinks and a constantly refilling multi-gallon bottle of filtered drinking water, and curtained off areas for men and women’s toilets and showers – just cold water we were told again and again by the residents. Although the professional staff have individual bedrooms in a separate wing, they are not much larger than a modern walk-in closet. Hardly luxury.
The upstairs communal open-air area is by contrast a delight. Couches and comfortable chairs provide a place to gather. Hammocks hang around the periphery and are sought-after places for quiet reading. Bookshelves are stacked with novels and other reading in Spanish, English, French, and Hebrew. The Educational Coordinator has set aside an area for materials to use in preparing for teaching in the villages, and -important for the TEN philosophy – nightly study of topics such as Jewish values, Jewish service, and Mexican culture. Dominating the room is a table large enough to seat the staff, volunteers, and guests.
The remainder of the day was spent preparing an elaborate Shabbat dinner. All other meals are cooked by Juana, who not only nourishes the staff and volunteers’ bodies with delicious vegetarian food but, as the only person with parenting experience, provides emotional support and hugs as needed. On Friday, Juana leaves early and the volunteers take over the kitchen. Small groups signed up to prepare specific dishes.
Cooking together is meant to be a community-building exercise, and for the most part it appeared to be functioning just that way. While soaking, peeling, chopping, slicing, and mixing, there were amusing conversations and intense conversations in three languages, singing, and good-natured teasing. However, given the diverse backgrounds of the volunteers – with parents from many different countries – there was naturally some disagreement about the best way to prepare specific dishes. The resolution – prepare the same dish several different ways: large challahs, small challahs, challahs with three strands braided, and “monkey-bread” challah. So the already elaborate menu became even more complex.
Participating in the cooking provided an opportunity to learn why the volunteers pay for their own transportation and $1000 (US) for three months of hard work, cramped quarters, and cold showers. While some of the reasons were idiosyncratic, most agreed that after serving in the Israeli Army it is almost expected that they would travel to the far reaches of the earth. Too, after growing up in cities or deserts, the description of the jungle of Pluma sounded like paradise. But most of all, the chance to learn first-hand about another culture and to learn another language appeared to be a primary motivation.
As sunset approached and the meal was cooking, everyone disappeared and returned freshly showered and wearing their best clothes. We gathered together on the sofas and chairs for a sing-a-long punctuated by favorite quotes and an explanation of why it was a favorite. Although definitely not ready for Broadway, the singing was obviously heartfelt and spiritual. The sing-along was followed by a traditional religious kabbalat shabbat (greeting the sabbath) service attended by about one-third of the staff and volunteers – understandable as many Israelis define themselves as secular rather than religious.
We, who have attended kabbalat shabbat services on virtually every continent, were very moved to be in the hills of Pluma with these exceptional young people who are providing their time and energy to making the world a better place. And, as we sat around the table having the delicious shabbat dinner, listening to them discuss what they had learned during the past week, we felt great pride in being part of a people for whom success is measured by whether or not the value of tikkun olam (repairing the world) has been passed on to the next generation.