Many of us have been there: just as we’re making a valid point, or biting into a newly arrived taco, a stranger enters our beach scene and asks us to buy ___ (insert wood carving, hammock, jewelry, blanket, and/or small woolen animal). “No gracias” becomes almost instinctive, often solely because the act of relaxing and eating can conflict with bargaining.
Perhaps, like me, you’ve wondered further about our town’s beach vendors: Where did they come from? What are their children’s lives are like? What language are they speaking? Why do they still wear heavy woolen clothes in this humid climate? I’m never sure how to ask such questions without causing offense or creating significant language barriers, and I’m sad to admit that it’s become routine to quickly reply no and return to my conversation.
Four years ago, a woman named Elly Rohrer was working in Bucerias for an international project called Investours, out of Harvard University. They used “microfinance tours,” to raise funds for micro-loans for local entrepreneurs. The model is successful elsewhere in the world but was not working well in Bucerias. Elly reached the point of giving up, when an inspiration, aided by a full-moonlit beach, baby sea turtles, and the advice of her Mexican husband, implored her to try a different approach. She applied all her hard-earned knowledge towards building a new organization that fit Bucerias, rather than trying to make Bucerias fit into Harvard.
With the aid of some serendipitous benefactors and a loyal team of advisors, Elly started a nonprofit to support Mexican entrepreneurs in a more Mexican way: valuing human relationships over numbers.
Human Connections was born in 2014 with the simpler goal of “bringing international travelers and local entrepreneurs together to share in cultural and personal exchange.” In just a few short years, it has risen to the #1 tour in Bucerias on TripAdvisor (with 291 five star reviews!). In addition to cultural day tours, they now run a host of educational programs and internship opportunities for college students.
I took a tour with them this week and by the roll of the dice, ended up visiting a hammock-making family from Guerrero, a wool-making clan from Chiapas, and a culinary family from Mexico City (each tour is unique, allowing visitors to return again and again). We began at the Human Connections headquarters in downtown Bucerias with hot coffee, a review of the schedule, and some history behind the massive migration of indigenous artisans to the Puerto Vallarta area.
Tour Program Director, Maya Mitre, spent the day making sure everyone knew what to expect, felt comfortable, and understood the conversation across multiple languages!
We then made our way into Moisés and Zenaida’s humble living room in East Bucerias, which opened into a kaleidoscope of woven colors hanging from the rafters, with a large traditional loom right in the center, signifying the place it holds within the family. Their family came to Bucerias from Copalillo, the hammock-making town in Guerrero where they learn to weave by the age of six.
Zenaida explained that they used to weave with Agave fibers, a word she only knew in her native Nahuatl tongue. Her family would harvest the agave’s long spiky branches, then mash them with river stones and tie them to the banks to use hydropower to remove pulp and separate fibers for weaving.
Nowadays, they use cotton and nylon to weave their incredibly strong hammocks and chairs. “Strong enough to hold two elephants!” Claims Moisés, who says he can weave a large hammock in a single day.
Zenaida quips back jokingly that she could too if she weren’t also taking care of the grandkids, cleaning the house, and cooking all the food! Their fun marital banter is reminiscent of my own and brings a sense of humanity and trust that can be hard to find in a tourist town.
Suddenly the woman asking me to buy a hammock in the middle of my lunch has a name, a home, and an adorable granddaughter. The chasm closes a little as I realize I will never look at another beach hammock in the same light.
An hour later, we gather in front of a different colorful display of tiny elephants, realistic unicorns, and funky owls overlooking Bucerias’ dry river canal. The matriarch of the López López family, Doña Dominga, tells us she is the proud mama of nine children, the youngest of which, six-year-old Erika, sits at her feet brushing wool and throwing curious glances.
Doña Dominga explains in her native Tzotzil language, about the painstaking process of producing wool fabric, beginning with sheering the sheep by hand with scissors and using hydropower from their river to wash and felt the raw wool. The whole family works for six months preparing and weaving fabrics at home in San Juan Chamula, Chiapas, before migrating to Bucerias, where they turn their wool into hand-stitched animals and blankets.
Doña Dominga spends significant time talking about how they make their black longhaired skirts, and it becomes clear that their pride in wearing traditional dress intertwines with their pride of tribe, language, and family… hot weather be damned! I can’t recall spending that much time or energy making anything by hand, and suddenly wish I could give my young daughter the same education in discipline and craftsmanship that Erika receives daily from her mother’s expert hands.
We ended the four-hour tour with a delicious lunch at a small family restaurant run by Nayeli and Omar Rivas, expert chefs from Mexico City. Nayeli prepared chicken with Green Molé from Oaxaca, explaining all the different ingredients as she went, and describing the various moles found throughout Mexico. We washed it down with surprisingly good celery-lemonade and finished with a Rompope Flan. Being a local, I now have a new favorite lunch spot…but you’ll have to take the tour to get the location!
I can see (and taste!) why the Human Connections tour has so many five-star reviews, and immediately thought of people who would love to infuse their vacation with cultural depth and responsible tourism. I like to think that Elly’s moonlight beach inspiration coalesced from all those unanswered questions laying trapped between artisans and tourists, waiting for someone to pick them up and bridge the “no gracias” divide for us all.
Check out www.humanconnections.org to book a tour, volunteer, or learn more about their effective support of local entrepreneurs, and learning opportunities for students.