The little group of Playa del Carmen volunteers known as the Playa Pals for Mahahual returned to Mahahual with more supplies on Saturday, September 8. We were saddened to find that despite publicity and promises by the Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations, no one other than private volunteers and the occasional government assistance truck has been to Mahahual. Three weeks after Hurricane Dean devastated this region, there are still no established relief programs in place. There is no regular supply of food, water or medical supplies. There is no organized assistance for rebuilding individual homes. In some isolated areas, there is literally no help at all.
With the help of the Dutch consol and a number of Holland ex-pats who we affectionately refer to as “the Dutch Army,” we took more than 200 despensas (packages of food containing rice, beans, cooking oil, coffee, soup, soap & tuna); about 450 mosquito nets for hammocks; boxes and boxes of mosquito repellent, sunblock and mosquito coils; lots of blankets; bags of donated clothing and new underwear for children and adults; many tarps and, as always, bags of candy for the kids.
We pulled in to the parking lot of the Costa Maya Inn where Kevin Graham, local organizer of volunteers, and his group of helpers have set up headquarters. There to our joy was a large Cristal truck which Alex, one of our Dutch friends, had arranged to come from Chetumal to meet us there. They had 1200 gallon jugs of water, which they sold to us at a discount and delivered for free. Everybody pitched in unloading the truck and putting the water into the vans and pickups which were going to be distributing aid door to door throughout the area.
We were asked by Kevin to distribute our truckload of goods (food, water, clothing, mosquito repellent) in the central part of Mahahual nearest to the beach and the former tourist area. The other truck and van were directed to other outlying areas. If you’ve never been to Mahahual, it had a beautiful beach looking out on the Caribbean Sea. Lining a sand road which ran along the beachfront were small hotels, shops and palapa restaurants. It was a tiny tropical village. The second road back from the beach began houses, again mostly wooden with palapa roof. Behind them was the giant mangrove forest. Wherever the forest opened up, small Mayan style houses had been built. There is a school and a very small city hall.
A local Mahahual resident, Otto, guided us door to door. He was invaluable. He knew families that were in trouble and he knew houses that looked abandoned and destroyed but were actually home to people still living there. He also knew where to tell us to drop food and water for people who were off working but would return. Unfortunately, the population of Mahahual has dramatically shrunk since we were there last. The area experienced a forced evacuation when Hurricane Felix threatened. Although the hurricane came nowhere near Mahahual, many of the residents decided not to return. It is no small wonder given what we saw there on this day.
As always, the people of Mahahual were friendly, gracious and effusive in their thanks. We asked one local resident, as we offered him food and water, if he had received any government or Red Cross help. He said that the government had been through once since the hurricane, offering despensas, but there had not been enough for everyone. He replied that a local official had been telling people that if anyone asked about the assistance, he should not say that the “gringos” brought it down.
We also saw little in the way of rebuilding of the homes that were destroyed. On our previous visits, the town had been a beehive of activity with people digging out and beginning to put up new boards, walls and roofs on their small homes. We saw none of that this time. We learned from a local newspaper article that palapa style homes could not be rebuilt or fixed up unless the owner first obtained a permit from the local government at the cost of $500 pesos. Any attempt to rebuild without a permit, according to the newspaper article, would result in a government-enforced halt on work. We personally saw more than one building with “Clausurado” signs, indicating that no permit had been obtained. It appears that larger concrete structures are exempt from this permit.
Although we observed no Red Cross or government aid offering food, water or medical assistance, we did see surveyors in several locations near the beach. We stopped and offered them water and asked who they were. They informed us that they worked for the governement and were surveying for the building of the new malecon (oceanfront walkway). It seems that a “new” Mahahual more conducive to tourists and cruise-ship daytrippers is planned. That plan seems to include an expanded and modernized beachfront. It does not seem to include the small colorful wooden Caribbean-style buildings and homes that existed before.
Among other changes that we learned of, Kevin informed us that the community kitchen which had been serving up to 200 people per day was closing on Sunday (yesterday). The kitchen had been one of our primary means of distributing food and water to the people of Mahahual. It had been run by Francisco, a volunteer chef who worked nonstop for the past three weeks but always seemed to have a smile. Our question of course is who will feed these people if the kitchen is closed? Another change we saw were new signs throughout Mahahual posted by the Department of Tourism proclaiming that Mahahaual would be rebuilt. And, near the beginning of town there is a large sign hung by the people of the nearby areas of Placer and Ubero which says “We have received no help; we have been forgotten.”
We have to say again that despite announcements by the International, American and Mexican Red Cross organizations that they would soon be offering aid in Mahahaul and the rest of Costa Maya, there was no sign of any organized help.
With the drop in population, the Playa Pals discussed last night focusing more on individuals rather than on large-scale relief. Claudia made a request on behalf of a 70 year old man. He has a serious infection in his leg that needs immediate medical attention. He is afraid that if an ambulance takes him to the hospital, he’ll just be abandoned. Claudia asked if the Playa Pals could pay for an ambulance and oversee his initial medical treatment. She asked for approximately $500.00 for this, and we said yes.
In the same vein, Willem and Alex of our Dutch Army contingent came back from their distribution of goods with a sad story of a family, two adults and three children, living in one of the poorest areas of the mangroves who were desperate for assistance. The family had lost everything, and both parents were so crippled from rheumatoid arthritis they could not easily begin to recover. The guys were invited into their home and found nothing but a hammock. NOTHING. The guys suggested to the rest of our little group that we give this family special attention and provide them with some of the necessities of life even beyond a package of food or water. We all agreed that we would spend some of our money and donations buying such things as cooking pots, plastic table and chairs, specific clothing for the children, shoes (no one had shoes, and the ground and swamp water is filled with parasites), and whatever else we could think of to help them create a home again. The thought of our group is that without institutional help, we cannot possibly sustain food and water for everyone in Mahahual, but we can help some specific families. The Playa Pals for Mahahual still have some money left in the treasury and will be spending it this week on another shopping list to be provided by Kevin. We will all be heading down again next Saturday, sooner if Kevin says he needs us.
We’d like to tell one more story. As we were handing out food and water in one area, a pregnant woman with a small child accepted some of our help. A short while later she returned with a bowl which she had obviously made herself by cutting the bottom of a plastic container. The bowl was filled with water and a few cubes of ice, which she then asked us to pass around our little group, insisting that we needed it because we were working so hard. That’s when our friend and fellow volunteer Heather started crying the hardest.
By way of something positive, here is an email we received the night before last from Kevin Graham, who is coordinating the volunteer relief efforts in Mahahual. It was originally written to his fiancee, but he sent a copy to us:
To My Playa Family…
The most incredible thing happened today. Early today we had no more water to give the public commissary which is preparing 300 meals per day in centro. Then an entire water truck from Cristal arrived courtesy of our friends in Playa……I think 2500 1 Gallon Jugs and we distributed it to go out with the convoy from Playa. They brought hundreds of mosquito nets from the Dutch Consul, dozens of lonas, and enough dispensas to go around all the areas of Mahahual and Xcalak, too. It is amazing to see what Luna Blue, playa.info and the Dutch community are doing and it all appears to be seamless. It is really hard to tell who is bringing what! They work together beautifully and selflessly.
After the convoy was split up and sent their different ways with volunteers from here I was privately worried that we may not have had enough dispensas to last for a more than a few days. Just then a huge bus full (same size as an ADO) of college students from a university in Cancun arrived and asked for me. I have no idea how they ended up her but will find out. In addition, they had a moving truck full of at least 1200 dispenas. What an emotional moment. When the students asked me to tell the entire group what Costa Maya means to me I couldn’t help swallowing my words…they know what it means to now. One doctor that came with the group came up to me and thanked ME for taking care of the Mexican people. I told him that I will never come close to repaying the kindness and warmth that the Mexican people have given me. The students and volunteers from here connected instantly and worked together to deliver dispensas to the pueblo and then went with a guide to Limones, Chacchoben, and Noh Bec on the way back to Cancun. There will be enough food for another week now, too.
The town is shutting down the public commissary tomorrow, so now we are all really worried. Still no aid from anyone other than volunteers.
Lic. Kevin Graham
We’d like to end with these words:
“And if ye mingle your affairs with theirs, then they are your brothers.” — the Koran