New Post-Starring CJ Hamilton

My 9-5 job is working with the Mexican equivalent to the US National Park Service, CONANP. However, living in a small town has its perks as it’s easy to network and I have also been able to create side projects. Three days a week, I teach English to a group of university students in the morning before my 9-5 gig, and once a week in the evening, I teach a Zumba class to a group of women in a small town nearby called Amajatlan.

I’ve been really lucky to have a number of people from the US visit me in Mexico. All of them have been friends from the town I grew up in, Gainesville, Florida. I love living abroad, but it is always a comfort to have a visitor from home. These guys have known me since high school (or longer) and have seen me grow from a teenager into a young professional. We share a rich history and they provide advice and perspective that you can only get from people who know your whole story. It means a lot to me when they spend their time, resources and energy to travel to Mexico and be a part of this chapter of my life. This post is about one such visitor, CJ Hamilton, a good-hearted and caring friend, who besides coming to Mexico to enjoy the experience, donated his time to my community.

CJ is an optometrist, and prior to his visit, he spoke about offering free eye exams and donating glasses to people in my community. I immediately took him up on his offer, choosing Amajatlan as my community. I took the help of two dear friends from Amajatlan, Pablo Verde Fuentes and his wife, Juana, to create a list of people who had eye problems and needed to be seen by an eye doctor. Pablo and Juana graciously offered their house as the location to conduct the eye exams as they had a large, dark storage room, which CJ needed to effectively do his work. I also got the help of a young, 18 year old guy called Javier, to help me in translating. CJ needed the help of a couple of bilingual speakers and Javier speaks English very well. Together, we would be CJ’s translators for the day. In addition, my friends from Amajatlan kindly volunteered to cook for those of us who would be working all day. We ate so well- Juana made the best tamales for lunch, Selene and Armando gave us fish, and Beta and Bety prepared one of my favorites for dinner-mixiotes- steamed chicken with vegetables.

I have to pay my respects to CJ, because we had him working pretty hard that day. I took full advantage of his visit. On the same morning at 8am, February 15, 2017, prior to conducting the eye exams, CJ made a visit to my English class where my students interviewed him. They asked him questions such as “What do you like about your country?” “What do you know about Mexican culture?” and “What do you think about Donald Trump?” You can ask CJ about that last one. It was a great opportunity for my students to speak to a native English speaker, learn about American culture and share their culture with CJ.

My English students with CJ (if you are wondering about the hearts and balloons they are for a presentation my students had for Valentine’s Day):


After class, we headed to Amajatlan to set up for the eye clinic. People started arriving at 10:30 am and we didn’t stop until 9:30/10 pm. I know-poor CJ. But he was great, greeting everyone with such warmth, making jokes in Spanish and giving it his all. That day he examined 69 people and was able to provide almost all of them with glasses.


We all learned a lot that day. As people arrived, Pablo had them fill out a form which asked general questions about their eye health. Afterwards they entered the storage room where CJ was set up. I read over their form and translated it to CJ, who then examined the patient. After examining, CJ had Javier check with them for which glasses best suited them. We were a pretty good team and after a dozen patients or so had a good grasp on the process. CJ was also very patient with us. There were recurring problems among patients such diabetes (which after cataracts is the second most common cause of blindness) and high exposure to sun and dust. CJ even mentioned that in addition to glasses we should have collected and donated sunglasses. Most patients work on farms and so are exposed to the sun, wind and dust on a daily basis. Interesting cultural note though, is that when we asked people why they don’t use sunglasses, they said it’s because they feel embarrassed to use them. I have to figure out a way to overcome this-any ideas?




The community of Amajatlan, my English students and I, are forever grateful for CJ’s kindness. We thank him from our hearts.

Conference to Promote Conservation in the Metztitlán Canyon Reserve

In November of 2016, my coworkers and I, along with a group of community members called “Tihui,” organized a conference in the Convent of Metztitlán, Hidalgo, Mexico, to celebrate the 16th anniversary of the declaration of the Metztitlán Canyon Reserve as a protected region. The objective of the conference was to bring academics, government agencies, students, sustainable business-owners and community members together to share their knowledge on sustainable conservation practices. We expected about 200 people to show up, but ended up with over double that number. Presentations were given on local cacti species, research carried out by archaeologists, carnivores (including photos captured by cameras placed in key areas throughout the 8 municipalities that make up the Metztitlán Canyon Reserve) and conservation efforts being carried out by “Ecochavos,” an energetic, environmental youth group.  Between presentations, people visited informational stands of government agencies such as CONAFOR (Mexican equivalent to the US National Forest Service) and CONAGUA (a branch of the Mexican environmental agency that deals specifically with water issues), universities and sustainable business owners including “Aripica Dulces,” a group of women that make traditional sweets, and “Oaxaca,” a greenhouse for cultivating cacti to prevent illegal extraction. Additionally, we held a contest where students had to create their own carnivore using recycled materials. Below is a collection of photos of the conference that shows just a glimpse of what was accomplished that day.


The incredible location of the conference “El Convento de Santo Reyes.”



Students from the middle school of San Cristobal, Metztitlan perform traditional dances. 


Sustainable business owners share information at their stands. Product: cacti. 


Sustainable business owners share information at their stands.Product: straw baskets,hats and souvenirs. 


Students construct animals of the Metztitlán Canyon Reserve using recycled materials.


photo-8Students construct animals of the Metztitlán Canyon Reserve using recycled materials.


The wonderful people I worked with to make this happen: the CONANP team of the Metztitlan Canyon Reserve



The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government, the Peace Corps or the Mexican government.





The National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (CONANP) is responsible for the protection of natural areas such as The Metztitlán Canyon, to ensure environmental conservation as Mexico continues its economic growth. As part of CONANP´s strategy for the mitigation and adaptation to climate change to protect wildlife, environmental education activities promote citizen participation in studying, monitoring and developing strategies to understand and adapt to climate change. To strengthen the capacity of CONANP’s environmental education program, Peace Corps and USAID provided support and funding to assist community members in designing and implementing a school-wide environmental fair that inspired teachers and students to study and protect birds against the increasing effects of climate change and promote mitigation and adaptation strategies to protect biodiversity.

Students participate in  an activity where they learn about soil conservation to protect natural habitats for birds:


The environmental fair was implemented with the participation of 150 people from the elementary school of San Cristobal, Metztitlán, Hidalgo. Funding was used to purchase materials for the fair’s activities, produce card games, posters and pamphlets focused on climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies. Funding was also used to  purchase binoculars for the observation of birds and other vulnerable wildlife.  A survey completed by teachers from the participating school noted that 8 teachers and 142 students showed increased knowledge in climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies. Teachers were appreciative of the opportunity for their students to learn about a new topic and shared comments such as, “The students learned through a fun manner with the activities. The materials used allowed the students to learn better and it was a good strategy by the coordinators.” CONANP was eager to produce the educational materials for the fair and will be using the materials to design and implement similar fairs in other schools and communities, therefore strengthening their capacity to implement education programs addressing climate change. Part of the resources produced-posters, pamphlets, card games and binoculars-remained with the participating school. Teachers will use the materials in their classroom activities, for field visits and to replicate the fair with future students.

Students learn about the importance of protecting The Metztitlán Lake, an internationally recognized RAMSAR site and important habitat for migratory birds:







Feria ambiental para promover estrategias de mitigación y adaptación al cambio climático para la protección de la biodiversidad

La Comisión Nacional de las Áreas Naturales Protegidas es la agencia gubernamental responsable para la protección de áreas naturales tales como La Reserva de la Biosfera Barranca de Metztitlán en Hidalgo, México. Como parte de la estrategia para la mitigación y adaptación al cambio climático para la protección de la vida silvestre, CONANP implementa actividades de educación ambiental donde el público participa en el estudio, monitoreo y desarrollo de estrategias para entender y adaptar al cambio climático. Para fortalecer el programa de educación ambiental, Peace Corps y USAID provinieron apoyo y recursos financiaros para que los miembros de la comunidad junto con la CONANP diseñáran e implementáran una feria ambiental escolar. El objetivo fue inspirar a maestros y estudiantes en estudiar y proteger aves de las consecuencias del cambio climático y promover estrategias de mitigación y adaptación para proteger la biodiversidad.

Estudiantes aprenden sobre la conservación de los suelos y hábitat natural para la sobrevivencia de las varias especies de aves:


Participaron 150 personas de la primaria de San Cristóbal, Metztitlán, Hidalgo. Usando los fondos, se elaboraron juegos educativos, posters y folletos enfocados en el tema de cambio climático. Además, compramos binoculares para la observación de aves. Hicimos una encuesta con los maestros y aprendimos que había un aumento en el conocimiento de 8 maestros y 142 estudiantes. Los maestros se sintieron agradecidos por la oportunidad para ellos y sus alumnos en aprender sobre un nuevo tema en una manera divertida. Compartieron el comentario de que “Los estudiantes aprendieron a través de una manera divertida con las actividades. Los materiales les ayudaron a aprender mejor y fue una buena estrategia para los coordinadores.”

CONANP usará los materiales para implementar aún más ferias en otras escuelas y comunidades. Eso fortalecerá su capacidad de implementar programas de cambio climático para educar al público.  Una parte de los recursos-posters, folletos, juegos y binoculares quedaron en la primaria de San Cristóbal. Los maestros los usarán para actividades del salón, días de campo y replicar ferias similares con futuros estudiantes.

Estudiantes aprenden sobre la importancia del sitio RAMSAR, La Laguna de Metztitlán, para las aves migratorias con la Ingeniera Nely Rivera:



Pangong Lake

Pangong Lake

Have you ever heard of the movie 3 Idiots? If you are desi, then you must have (or else you are living under a rock), and if you haven’t, you may want to check it out if you are at all interested in world cinema. 3 Idiots is an Indian movie that released in 2009. Directed by Rajkumar Hirani and starring the award-winning actor, Aamir Khan, 3 Idiots became a huge success in India, breaking all box office records at the time and was very popular in other Asian countries such as China and Japan. The film is a comedy with a simple message-follow your passion when it comes to your professional career and enjoy life.

But this blog isn’t about the movie. It’s about a location where a couple scenes from the movie was shot, a location in India that has been made famous by movies like 3 Idiots and numerous other Bollywood films. This summer I had the fortune of traveling to Pangong Lake which stretches from the Ladakh region in Jammu and Kashmir, into China. Actually, the lake’s geographical border is a little confusing to me, because people would say Tibet and China interchangeably. So I am not sure if the lake extends into only Tibet, or actually all the way to China. Also, l learned that the lake is located in a disputed region, so maybe someone can clarify this border dispute for me. I do know that it is crazy beautiful.




Pangong Lake. 

Our trip to Pangong Lake began from the largest city in Ladakh: Leh. A note to take seriously: when traveling in this region you should calculate double the time to reach a destination because roads are narrow, rocky and prone to blockage from landslides and flooding.




Drive from Leh to Pangong Lake


Drive from Leh to Pangong Lake. 


Drive from Leh to Pangong Lake. 


There is a large military presence in Jammu and Kashmir. This photo is of an Indian military base. Paved roads such as the one shown here have all been built by the Indian army. 


Drive from Leh to Pangong Lake. 


Journey delayed by landslide. 


Journey delayed by flooding. 



On the way we saw these guys. They’re called Yak and they are found all throughout the Himalayan region. They are domestic animals (there are also wild yak but we didn’t see any) and used for their milk, meat and transporting good across mountains. They have long hair which makes it possible to live in high altitudes and cold regions. Here you’ll find yak instead of cows, as they have larger lungs and are better adapted to the low-oxygen environment. 

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Big squirrels! Or properly known as marmot, relative of the groundhog. 

Upon reaching Pangong Lake I was surprised to smell saltwater. I thought it would contain freshwater, but the Pangong Lake is in fact a salty lake. This is because it is landlocked and does not drain to any rivers, so all the salt that’s there remains. Although I visited this beautiful area in the summer,  I would love to go back in the winter, as I was told that the lake freezes over. If you are traveling through India, consider visiting this iconic spot. The highest saltwater lake in the world, it will literally take your breath away.



Yohualican is an archaelogical site in Cuetzalan, Puebla (Mexico). It was first settled by the Totonacs and later by the Aztecs. The Aztecs built their temples literally over the temples of the Totonacs. The people living there today speak their ancestral language, Nahuatl, as well as Spanish. Their main source of income is selling traditional art, clothing and food items to tourists. Enjoy the pics!

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El Viejo Cactus




Un empresario a los 26 años, Ángel Daniel Balderrama Cabrera tiene un negocio de un vivero con su familia, donde venden una variedad de especies de cactus. Ubicado en Las Pilas, Metztitlán, Hidalgo, El Viejo Cactus está ubicado dentro del área natural protegida, Reserva de la Biosfera Barranca de Metztitlán. Para proteger las especias silvestres de cactáceas, la CONANP apoya a los comerciantes como Daniel y su familia con financiamiento y capacitación técnica. Con ese apoyo, junto con programas de educación ambiental y monitoreo, han reducido la extracción de plantas endémicas y en riesgo. Ahora la gente puede evitar extraer plantas silvestres y comprar en un vivero como El Viejo Cactus, conservando el medio ambiente y apoyando a la comunidad para llevar a cabo proyectos productivos y sostenibles.

Cactus en venta en El Viejo Cactus
Rango de precios 15-250 pesos cada planta

Mammillaria shiedeana

Mammillaria shiedeana (residente)

Este fin de semana, el 2 y 3 de junio 2016, El Viejo Cactus celebrará 12 años de negocio. Visítalo y aprender más sobre la biodiversidad de la Reserva de la Biosfera Barranca de Metztitlán y otros especies de cactus.






An entrepreneur at 26, Angel Daniel Balderrama Cabrera runs a small greenhouse with his family where they sell a variety of cacti. Located in Las Pilas, Metztitlán, Hidalgo, El Viejo Cactus is located within the federally protected zone of the Metztitlán Canyon Reserve. I work with the government agency responsible for protecting the region, CONANP, which is how I know Daniel. As an effort to protect wild species of cacti in the zone, CONANP promotes businesses such as El Viejo Cactus. By providing financial and technical training support to people such as Daniel and his family (in addition to rigorous monitoring and environmental education programs), the rate of illegal extraction of endemic cacti species has reduced significantly.

Cacti that can be purchased from El Viejo Cactus
Prices range from 15-250 mexican pesos per plant

Mammillaria shiedeana

Mammillaria shiedeana (resident)

This weekend, On July 2 and 3, El Viejo Cactus is celebrating 12 years of business and the local public is invited. If you are in the area, please come out and support them and learn something about local biodiversity.



Los Viejitos

Get to know Cephalocereus senilis, commonly known as Los Viejitos 


Photograph taken by Selene Leonardo Verde.

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Los viejitos at the botanical garden in Metztitlan, Hidalgo.

I have to say, before coming to the state of Hidalgo in Mexico, I had never given cacti their much deserved respect. They are pretty cool. The federally protected zone of the Metztitlan Canyon is home to over 60 species of cacti, one of which is cephalocereus senilis, or commonly known as los viejitos. Los viejitos translates to “old guys” in English. Why old guys? Not only are they covered with white hairs to protect them from the sun, but they grow approximately just 2 cm per year. From the photographs above you can see that they are at least a couple hundred years old.


Baby viejitos. Yea I know, oxymoron. (Photograph taken by Selene Leonardo Verde).

Unfortunately, not a lot of people (including locals) are aware of how slowly viejitos grow, and because there always seemed to be an abundance of them in the area, extracting one from the wild was thought to be no big deal… it WAS a big deal.

Viejitos are an endemic species, meaning that they are found in just few parts of the world and nowhere else. I have learned quite a bit about these guys from my coworkers at CONANP (equivalent to the US National Park Service), who are responsible for educating the public about the species, as it is now endangered. In Metztitlan, Hidalgo, there is a botanical garden where the general public can visit and view los viejitos up close (in addition to just walking up the hills, which is a good hike.) The benefit of visiting the garden is that it is safe for children and contains a diverse group of species in a small area.


Community members visit the botanical garden. (Photograph taken by Selene Leonardo Verde):

I am grateful for the privilege to live in an area where I get to these guys every day. If you ever happen to visit Mexico, don’t miss out on the chance either.

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Viewpoints from community friends

The director of Peace Corps Mexico asked for short videos about working in country. As part of the assignment, I asked two community members to share their views on our accomplishments. We took the videos with my smartphone, but unfortunately the files were too big to send over the internet, and after waiting 2+ hours for the videos to load at the internet café, the electricity cut out. I was unable to make the deadline, so I am sharing the videos now on Chai Time.

The first video is of my coworker, Pablo Verde Fuentes. We work with CONANP, La Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas (similar to the US National Park Service), to improve livelihoods while protecting a region rich in biodiversity. Pablo is not just a great coworker, but a great friend. If there is anyone that has my back, it’s this guy. The video was shot in his home in Amajatlan, Hidalgo, Mexico.

The second video is of a woman I met in a dance class that I teach, Beta. Beta is one of my closest friends now and I spend a lot of my free time with her family. The video was shot at the community gazebo, with the church on the right hand side, cemetery on the left, and mountains with species of cacti in the background.

A big thanks to Pablo and Beta! Muchas gracias a Pablo y Beta.

English Translation: “Hi, I’m Pablo Verde Fuentes. I’m Priyanka’s coworker in the Metztitlan Canyon Reserve. Well, Priyanka and I have accomplished various things related to environmental education. We’ve supported each other, I have participated in in some schools with her in environmental education with children and young people. We’ve worked hard to promote conservation.”


English Translation: “Well, when I met Priyanka I invited her to my home. I introduced her to my wife and my mom who have spent the last seven years performing traditional dances from our state. Priyanka said she would like to participate with them (and teach Indian dance if they were interested). The group was originally between 10 to 14 people. When Priyanka first joined, well, no one wanted to participate, they were unaware of her culture. However, after three classes the women of Amajatlan were ready to dance her dance. Today, from 10 to 14 people, minimum 20 people show to the class and maximum 45. The women of Amajatlan have already performed a dance in public that Priyanka taught them. Well, I think Priyanka leaves in July. I would like for her to return some day to visit these women and see if they have continued practicing what they have learned of her culture. This is all Priyanka, bye!”

English Translation: “Well from Priyanka we have received a lot of good things. Let’s see, she came to teach us dance from her country and talk to us about her culture. It’s something very beautiful, it’s a motivation that us helped us, as women from this village, well, to be more united, and it’s something very beautiful that I will always remember and even though when she is not with us we are going to continue with what she has taught us, enjoying the beautiful dance that all we women who participate with her love so much. It’s something very beautiful. My name is Beta Hernandez Cruz and I am very grateful that she has come into our lives.”

Disclaimer. The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

Implementation of an Environmental Education Program

The Necaxa River Watershed, or Cuenca Hidrográfica del Rio Necaxa (CHRN), is a federally protected zone in the states of Puebla and Hidalgo. Situated within the cloud forest ecosystem of the CHRN are five reservoirs that capture water for the production of hydroelectricity. The CHRN is a RAMSAR site, attracting migratory birds and supports a diversity of plant and wildlife species such as bromeliads, orchids, otters, boa constrictors, ocelots and many more. The CHRN also provides a livelihood for communities who make a living off of farming, fishing and tourism and whom rely on its forests for wood for the construction of their homes, cooking and heating. The CHRN was declared a protected area with the intent of protecting hydroelectric production and environmental services provided by the region’s forests, soils and water for the benefit of communities and as part of Mexico’s national initiative to mitigate and adapt to the climate change.

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One of the reservoirs in the protected area. 

With the help of 2 directors and 15 teachers at two schools, we designed and implemented an environmental education program focused on two major problems- the lack of awareness of the fact that the area is a federally protected zone and the contamination of reservoirs from waste. Prior to the program, 20% of teachers and 16% of students knew they lived in a protected zone. As far as waste management goes, every year 40 to 46 tons of garbage is removed from each reservoir.

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Garbage collected around the reservoir. Photo credit: CONANP, CHRN

In designing the program, the Peace Corps manual “Environmental Education in the Schools: Creating a Program that Works” was used as a guide and Participatory Analysis for Community Action (PACA) tools were used to develop relationships with community members and obtain information on the area. A curriculum was developed, implemented and then evaluated by teachers. Our goal was to have 50% of the students be aware of the federal designation of the CHRN as a protected zone and to have at least 50% of classrooms separate inorganic from organic waste.  This would then allow for pepenadores (people who collect and sell garbage) from the community to pick up the trash. The municipal trash service wasn’t an option since it just mixed everything on pickup. The second school opted to enter into Terracycle, a program that collects and pays for your garbage. The school decides how to use the money-scholarships, books, materials for school fairs, whatever they want.

In three months, 525 students and 15 teachers received presentations and training on the importance of the CHRN, RAMSAR sites and migratory birds, source separating garbage, recycling inorganic waste, composting organic waste and municipal waste management practices.

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Students learn about the animals and plants in the protected area. 

What initially began as a project in the schools spread to the community, where I was asked to give composting workshops to fertilize home gardens.



Composting workshops for home gardening. Photo credit: CONANP, CHRN

By the end of the program teachers reported that 80% of students could name the protected area and its major characteristics, compared to 16% at the start of the program and 11 out of 15 (73%) classrooms separated inorganic from organic waste.

Personally, I am very happy with the results, and with the hard work showed by community members. Their teamwork and curiosity to learn is what made this project successful. They turned every challenge into an opportunity and from day one were ready to work as my partners. My kids were pretty great too, curious and energetic about learning.

Like any project, there were challenges. There was no outside funding, and all resources came from within the community (a fact that I loved). After all, most of the materials used were garbage anyway. Teachers didn’t respond to emails, but the solution to that was to just plan and discuss everything in person, which meant more time in the community and less time in the office-no complaints there. Things got rescheduled, but never canceled. My colleagues in the office wanted a “bigger” more “flashy” project, but I convinced them that if we started with something the community already had interest in, and which was relatively easy (solid waste management is something I felt very comfortable with and garbage is a simple topic for younger kids to understand) then later we could do more. I was right-when we got done with these two schools, the supervisor of the school zone called and said he had 16 more schools who wanted to work with us in developing a program.

This project taught me the power of using participatory methods in developing a community project, the challenges that go along with it, the importance of identifying natural leaders in the community and then developing a working relationship with those people. I also learned to adapt to the working style of the community, and to keep things in perspective, remembering that life doesn’t just consist of projects. There were times when I almost forgot that, which I think it’s easy to do when you come to a foreign country leaving your friends and family behind for two years, ready to give all of your time and energy to protecting one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. What kept me in check was reminding myself that I was working with communities living in some really tough situations-robberies, alcoholic parents, single-parent homes, domestic violence, etc. My respect goes out to my Mexican counterparts, whom despite all this wanted to work with me to solve environmental issues.


I would like to acknowledge Peace Corps, CONANP staff in the CHRN, and the directors, teachers and students from Primaria Miguel Hidalgo in Las Colonias de Hidalgo, Huauchinango, Puebla and Primaria Ignacio Manuel Altamirano in Xaltepuxtla, Tlaola, Puebla. Specifically Lic. Elizabeth Licona Santiago, Lic. Diana Carpintero Martínez, Lic. Leticia García Gante, Lic. Juan Agustín Hernández Melo, local environmental educators Moises Cardona Ramirez and Fernando Trejo Castro, and Dirección Ecología, Huauchinango, Puebla. In addition, this work could not have been completed without sustained and regular direction from my graduate adviser, Dr. Mike Walter, and committee chair member Mrs. Rebecca Schneider. I also thank them for their patience in working with a graduate student in a different country, time zone and sometimes questionable internet connectivity.




The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.