Author Archives: Traian Bruma

Who’s rich? Who’s poor?

These days, when I’m counting every sol, a donation comes out of nowhere in my RON account. It sais “today it’s my treat”. The dear friend that sent it explains on whatsapp: “I was thinking of those days when we were in the town and you were buying the food … and I said that if I were there with you, I’d like to buy you a lunch”.

It’s one of those amazingly beautiful things that can happen because I put myself in a vulnerable position. People can help you only if you need help and they know it. My ideal used to be to not need help, but I realise what a poor life that would have been.

Three ways Mexico impacted me

I landed on Mexico City on 16th of May and flew out on 22nd of October, after 160 days. The original plan was to stay for two months. I spent most of my time in 6 (/31) mexican states: Chiapas, Estado de México, Puebla, Oaxaca, Guanajuato, Mexico City. I also briefly visited Zacatecas, Michoacán and Quintana Roo. I visited six alternative universities:

I wrote about three of them here. In this article, I will look at the overall experience and the ways in which I was impacted. After five months and thousands of km, I feel that I learned, I changed and I expanded in significant ways. I got to know Mexico through the interaction with hundreds of people that generously hosted me, shared their stories and their tortillas, invited me to parties, took me on hundreads of km roadtrips, gave me directions and answered my curious questions. To them, to the awesome mexicans I met, I’m grateful for the good times I had and for leaving Mexico a different person. Here are three ways in which this experience transformed and enriched me:

(1) In the footsteps of Freire and Illich
From the beginning of my journey, there were two powerful thinkers whose traces I wanted to follow: Ivan Illich – the maverick social critic of modern institutions and Paulo Freire the creator of the pedagogy of the oppressed. I wanted to see their ideas in practice. I was delighted to find both Freire’s ideas developed and actualized in Puebla at Universidad Campesina Indígena en Red, in the form of “pedagogia del sujeto” and Illich’s radical thinking taking a concrete form in Unitierra Oaxaca and Unitierra Chiapas.

These projects work in rural and indigenous communities and are similar in their aims but slightly differ in approach. Seeing them in their context greatly enriched my thinking. I was inspired to see my future work in a rural context, creating learning environments that help people oppressed or ignored by the system build their autonomy, reclaim the dignity of their lives and defend their lands and livelihood. More than that, I see these people being able to inspire everyone else that another world is possible. I switched my focus from “learning spaces” to “being spaces” that have learning as a core process. I see myself designing a nation or a village rather than a school. I had a glimpse through Unitierra at the potential of informality and destructuring learning structures like diplomas, curriculums, professions. Through UCI Red, I came to appreciate and live the “fecundity of the encounter” and to value the idea of meeting people where they are, offering, for example, diplomas if that is what they want. I got to understand the two approaches as being beautifully complementary. And I got to see education, or better said learning, as a deeply political act.

(2) Learning Architects as models of being
I’m always in search of role-models – people that by their way of being stimulate and inspire my own becoming. Mexico was generous with role-models. I will mention a few who’s living example will nurture my process of becoming a better learning architect:

To Victoria I’m grateful for being a joyful, curious and voracious learner, a generous learning partner and inspiring in me the joy of living and learning.

Learning about medicine plants from Don Lupe.

With Victoria, learning about medicine plants from Don Lupe

To Doris & Oscar I’m grateful for being an example of choosing a life of service and generosity, looking at people with infinite kindness and cultivating a humble force.

With Oscar and Doris, at UMA in Valle de Bravo

With Oscar and Doris, at UMA in Valle de Bravo

To Benjamin I’m grateful for being a genius in disguise, searching deep in philosophy, synthesizing and creating powerful ideas at the same time with being beautifully alive and humane, funny and hospitable.

After a long drive from Puebla - Zacatecas - Michoacan - Puebla

With Benjamin and Jorge, after a long drive from Puebla – Zacatecas – Michoacan – Puebla

To Gustavo I’m grateful for the strength and dedication in keeping alive and embodying a radical thinking model that the world needs and for the clarity of the worldview from which it springs.

With the Unitierra team, at a workshop for starting a community radio

With Gustavo and Unitierra team, at a workshop for starting a community radio.

(3) Zapata vive! 
The plutocratic condition of the world walks without the mask in Mexico and I stared at its ugly face. There are everyday things like the aberrant highway fees making it so that the rich and the poor even drive on different roads, not to mention going to different schools and living in different neighbourhoods. Beyond the everyday inequality, a climate of violence came through many stories I heard, especially a brutal repression against people resisting the system. Nine people were killed in teachers protests in Oaxaca this year and two years before 43 trainee teachers were disappeared in Ayotzinapa. “It was the state” said a huge message displayed by Roger Waters in his concert in Mexico City, reflecting what most of the people I talked with think about Ayotzinapa. These two examples illustrate a general climate of brutality in which some brave people find the strength to resist and fight back. They say “Zapata vive, la lucha sigue” in the face of this brutal and out of control system. At enormous risk, with few material resources, people organize and resist. Marching with the teachers against the neoliberal reforms, hearing about the takeover and self organization of the town of Cheran, the zapatista movement, the Oaxaca commune in 2006 was like drinking from the fountain of hope and courage. After 500 years the colonization continues and the resistance is there, teaching the world to resist and to hope.


I said goodbye Mexico with gratitude and nostalgia. There is so much more to discover and learn and there are so many noble fights to fight. I hope to be back soon. Thank you Mexico for this first round!

Nomadic Christmas

It was Christmas and I was alone in Da Nang. I decided to spend my first Christmas as a nomad reading on the shore of the river. 

View from the riverfront

View from the riverfront, where I liked to read

I was on a bench, with my earphones on, when a girl asks me if she can sit down. “Of course, please!” I said and put the earphones back.

She stayed for a while, then left. She came back with two coconut juices. “Aaaaah … she want us to talk” … the dummy realises. She was a university assistant lecturer, teaching information technology at a local university.

In our 20 minutes conversation, an idea sparked: What if we would go to the nearby town of Hoi An, 30 km away from Da Nang. I was finding excuses to say no. I was afraid. I was coming from China and was aware of some nasty scams with girls inviting you for a tea. She was also hesitating.

We decided to go. We had to take her motorcycle. On the way, she insisted that I drive. I didn’t drive a motorcycle for 15 years, it was dark and it was Vietnam. I drove from the back. 

View from the back of the motorbike

View from the back of the motorbike, before geting out of Da Nang

We got to Hoi An which was a charming little town. A canal with floating lights. Some theatre/dance performance in the street, further down a game I never heard of. Alien beauty. We stopped to have dinner on the side of the canal. Here are three pictures I took with my crappy phone:


Some kind of street theatre


The canal was full of floating lights


A strange game

And here is one from the internet that ilustrates how I saw it:


We spent around two hours and we got back. The experience was surreal. There was no scam, no hidden intention. This little experience gave me a well needed reset and I hold it dear as a reference of the type of moments solo traveling offers.

This was last year’s Christmas present. This year I’m in Brazil, 17 600 km from Vietnam, almost on the other side of Earth. christmas-difference

This year I spent the Christmas alone in a hostel. Well … not alone, with three dogs. Even the owner left :-)) … but I spoke with dear friends from Romania and that was my present for this year. 

Feliz Natal do Brasil


A day in the life of Nachita

IMG_20160902_164749The directions I got from Benjamin were minimal. I prefer a little adventure of discovery instead of a precise script to follow. I took a bus from Puebla to San Miguel Tenextatiloyan, jumped to a “colectivo” that left me in the center of Zautla – a village of a few hundread inhabitants. From there, I walked 20 minutes to CESDER – Center for Studies for Rural Development. Halfway through, the stone paved road ends.

It’s friday afternoon, around five, when I walk through the main gate. No-one seems to be around. Maybe Benjamin didn’t call and everybody left.

Eventually, I get to the last building up the hill where the offices are. I have my list of four people from Benjamin. Rosy is there but she does not apear to be expecting me. Actually, I’m used to not really being expected. Even if they know I’m coming, they don’t really know what to do with me. We have to invent our way. My first concern is to make people confortable with my presence, let them know I will blend in by myself and need no special attention or special arrangements.

Rosy was unsure what to do with me. I was going to be there in the weekend when everybody would go home. The worst was not bad at all: I would spend two days in the library. But I was hoping I would get more “real life texture” of the place. I was hanging around the offices when Nachita and Irma joined the conversation. I vaguely knew them from the last time I was there. Both were students at CESDER before becoming part of the team. Nachita is a partner now. Speaking with them, it turned out that there was not much going on at CESDER but they were joining a training in another village, two hours away. It was related to the defense of territory.

Friday night Nachita came by to the guest house just to throw some old food and we ended up chatting for 2-3 hours. Nachita is an indigenous woman, in her 50s. She has one son and one doughter. Her husband left home to bring more money so the kids would go to college. Both of them graduated from college but Nachita’s husband found another woman and did not return. The doughter had two bad work experiences in a row. She worked for a agency that was managing government funds. She was supposed to go to a village but there was one engineer in the team that said “There is narco there, it’s too dangerous for you. Let me go to this one.” Both this engineer and another one working in the same village were killed by the narcos. Now she has a boring job in an airport. The engineer had a family and Nachita’s doughter had to make peace with the thought that is was her who was supposed to be there. Her son had a job also in the state of Jalisco. He was supposed to be a mechanic but he was often sent to get the repaired cars back to the clients. When he was coming back from a cliend, on foot, three guys assaulted him. He ran, one of them reached him and started kicking him. Before the others two got to him a lady with a car stopped and picked him up. She saved his life. He got back to Zautla. Nachita really appreciates that Zautla is a peaceful community, unlike many other places in Mexico.

Nachita is a great storyteller. She teleported me in a place where 8000 people gathered from 32 communities in Zautla Municipality. They dragged the chinese out of their offices to give count of the mining operation they were looking to start. The municipal president was leading the group. One engineer from the company said that they have a permit from the president. People were angry. They could lynch him if this was true. He challenged the engineer to bring the permit. He said he has it on computer so some of the people escorted him to an internet cafe to print the permit. He was red and could barely read what he printed. It was not a permit. On the spot, the company got a 24 hour ultimatum to get out and they did. They won that time but the neighbouring municipality, where Nachita was born, faced the same problem: a chinese mining company, threatening their water. This time, it was not that easy. There were 128 communities in this municipality. She went in a caravan with Irma, a coleague from CESDER, from village to village, paying the gas from their own pocket. Some people were being suspicious: why do you care so much? Who is paying you? In time, they learned how to react. There were also good experiences. One time, learning that they pay the gasoline themselves, an old woman folded her sweater and started collecting money from the assembly. Eventually, they only made it to about half of the villages.


I loved listening to Nachita’s stories, especially about their fight to protect the territory. The next day, Saturday, we would go to a training related to the defense of the territory. I met Nachita at eight in the morning, took a silver van from CESDER, picked up Rosy, Irma and her three doughters and drove 2 hours to a town called Cuetzalan. Irma was wearing a t-shirt saying: “Water is more precious than gold”. There in Cuetzalan there was this cooperative of coffee producers, one of the oldest. Their training center – a two story building – was hosting this program. The large hall at the entrance was also an expo of the products the cooperative makes: bags of organic coffee in the middle, some traditional blouses, shampoos and body creams, some sweets.  From the hall we entered one of the two rooms where an U shaped row of tables were expecting the 12-15 people. Without any introduction, we started listening to a 2h audio program about the last year and a half leading up to Ghandi’s death. After the program, the two facilitators, Sonia and Leo, were presenting a proposal for the follow-up. This Saturday was the last meeting of a longer program about Ghandi’s non violent approach. Unlike the previous gatherings when they would discuss after hearing the audio program, this time they planned the follow-up. People in the room would be multiplicators, they would air the program to community radios in shorter pills and they would have a bigger event in October. The meeting ended in this planning note and we got back in the van and drove another 2 hours back to Zautla where we got around 17:00 in the afternoon. At the last gas station we split the gas money in fours. It was 100 pesos (5 euros) each.

There seems to be nothing extraordinary about this story. Yet, from the persepective of my search, this corner of reality is shining bright. Irma and Nachita were students in CESDER – “a school for the poor”. The way they choosed to spend their Saturday means a lot. I remember visiting the social entrepreneurship center of Middleburry College, a fancy liberal arts college that costs 60.000$ per year. I have little hope from the Middleburry students to stir the world into a different direction. Why would they when the world is working good for them? But if the people who experience the injustice of the world could do that … and if a school that costs 500$ / year and where students pay 50$ / year could nurture changemakers? What if instead of dreaming to integrate in the society we have, they would build a piece of a different world? Nachita and Irma stayed in their village, found meaningful work there, developing the community. When facing the chinese company, they are representing a logic that the world needs. When they sacrifice their time and the few material resources at hand, they show a strong clarity on what is important for them and their community. Irma’s girls see their mom wearing the activist t-shirt saying that water is more valuable than gold. When they win against the chinese company they are the David defeating the Goliath Profit Machine. The dignity, will, clarity and humbleness of their fight “por la vida” as they say is what the social entrepreneurship center of Middleburry can’t begin to replicate. But things from CESDER can be replicated. The meaning of this indistinctive Saturday in the life of Nachita is hope and a question: how can we get more of these Satur/days?

Nachita is first in the second row, from right to left

CESDER Team, Nachita is first in the second row, from right to left