It was 4:30 am of Day #2 in my Monarch Ultra adventure in Mexico. Having just crawled back into bed after my 3rd pee break for the night (which is normal for my now 61 year old body), I was hoping to catch another hour sleep before my 6:00 am wake up. But sleep eluded me. My mind kept coming back to the previous evening. As our van drove through the completely deserted streets of the border city of Reynosa, Mexico at 10:30 PM after our meeting with the Reynosa Rotary Club, I was asked if I was a “good to go” for running a section this day. This is what I had come down to Mexico for. To help directors Clay and Carlotta run some of those “open sections”. I was both excited and honoured to be able to do this for the team. And run for the Monarchs.
By the time 6:00 AM rolled around I had quietly massaged most of my muscles groups in the darkness trying to release their tightness using a hard rubber ball I brought with me. My 61 year old, 6 foot 4 inch frame had been subjected to being crammed into a bus seat for 57 hours, travelling from my home in Canada. But this really is nothing compared to what the Monarch butterfly would have to endure. I took the bus down for several reasons. One of them to have an idea what the Monarch would have to face. There really is no comparison. I was just sitting in a climate controlled bus. Monarchs are semi-tropical. Unlike other butterflies that can overwinter as larvae, pupae, or even as adults in some species, monarchs cannot survive the cold winters of northern climates. Through some sort of environmental cue, Monarchs know when it is time to travel south. It is a race against time during fall migration. They must leave the north before they are trapped by the cold. The website “Journey North” mentions “If a Monarch’s thoracic (body) temperature is below 55° F (13° C), it cannot fly”. With the autumn temperatures dropping week by week, with each passing day, monarchs have a smaller and smaller window of time in which they can fly. During that window the Monarchs also needs to locate nectar producing plants to fuel their arduous journey. As well as locate a safe, sheltered area for the night and when the temperature becomes too cold to fly. The day the Monarch Ultra departed Peterborough on September 19th, AccuWeather recorded that day with a low of 5C and a high of 23C. This same link mentions 10 days earlier (September 9th) the temperature had actually dropped to 0C.
Six days before I left to go on the bus in Canada on October 17th I was working my crossing guard duties at Ontario Highway #93 up in Canada when a Monarch butterfly delicately circled directly overhead a couple of times. It was so late in the season. Astonished, I then observed it flying away in a southwest direction towards Mexico. I had been extremely anxious about my trip to Mexico up to then to the point where I could barely function, much less travel to Mexico and run ultras. I had stopped reading articles and travel advisories on Mexico. I had gone to my doctor for help. And even went off of social media to try and normalize my mental health. I had not seen a Monarch in days. And it had been 28 days since the Monarch Ultra relay launched in Peterborough, which is the approximate time the Monarchs begin their migration. It was 25 days since I ran my section north of London. This one solitary Monarch would have such a gruelling journey ahead of it as it raced against the clock to make it to it’s wintering grounds in Mexico in time. Witnessing this lone Monarch circle above me a couple of times to me seemed to be a sign. “Carl, everything was going to be okay. Go take that bus and follow the 4,300 kilometer migration route of the Monarch”. In the entire world, there is not a butterfly that migrates like the Monarch. It was if the Monarch was telling me, “And in Mexico, while running with the Monarchs, run Carl run. Run with all your heart and soul and might”.
Once everyone got up at Paco’s (our home stay host in Reynosa) house, I got changed into my running gear. Soon we were gathered around the kitchen table to a hearty breakfast prepared by our team chef Guenther. It takes an incredibly gracious host to allow someone you have just barely met to take over your kitchen and raid your fridge and cupboards of what you have on hand to prepare breakfast. That is exactly what our host Paco did. Guenther served an amazing breakfast with protein, carbs and plenty of potassium rich potatoes and fruits. A perfect breakfast for my run that day. After breakfast we cleaned up, packed up and boarded our van to follow Paco back to the Holiday Inn where we were to meet our police escorts.
Much like in Canada, the police in Mexico have their own jurisdictions. You go from one state to the next, and there will be a different police force serving that region. In addition there is also Federal Police. In Mexico, there are 31 states, plus 1 federal district which is Mexico City. The border city of Reynosa, where we spent our first night has a population of 881,000. According to the website Breitbart “The local police force there was disbanded years ago, when the government sought to create a unified command with police officers that had been properly vetted and trained”.At our meet up, on the street opposite the Reynosa Holiday Inn on Tuesday October 22nd there was an amazing representations of the amazing connections we made the previous day. Our welcoming State officials from Tamaulipas, our gracious homestay hosts from the Reynosa Rotary Club, our wonderful police escorts, along with ourselves the team from the Monarch Ultra. There was a substantial delay in time as Tamaulipas police and the Monarch Ultra team were working last minute to secure possible police escorts into the next state of Nuevo León. Up to this point there had been no confirmations. In the end, we were not able to secure those escorts. But it worked out wonderfully. When one door closes, another door opens.
We just happened to have some invitations from groups interested in our relay to come to the city of Monterrey (population six million). But unfortunately Monterrey was not on the running route that mapping expert Clay Williams and team had drawn up 11 months earlier. In the end, everything worked out perfectly. By going to Monterrey we could run in some areas that are considered to be safe by locals. And run even without a police escort. Interesting enough, Monterrey is still in the state of Nuevo León, and is the capital city. It is one of the most developed cities in Mexico. Advantage Mexico has stated that “Locals who have been to the US will tell you that Monterrey has a look and feel more like an American city than a Mexican city”. Mexico News Daily mentions that “Monterrey is ranked as the best city in Mexico for quality of life”. The international human resources consulting firm Mercer ranks Monterrey as 110th out of the world’s 231 most important cities. Some of the key factors in the rankings is “infrastructure — access to transportation, reliable electricity and drinkable water”.
After leaving the Reynosa Holiday Inn, our two police escorts cars led us to the immigration office so we could get our Visa’s. Typically Canadians travelling to Mexico as a tourist (say going to a resort) would not require a Visa. A valid passport would be all that is required. Even though the Monarch Ultra is 100% volunteer, it is a special, unique project within Mexico, which would not fall under the “tourist” description. Following receiving our Visa’s, our wonderful police escorts led us to a local bank, where we could withdraw some Mexican pesos. The police escorts always seem to draw some attention to us from other motorists and pedestrians. We used the bank machine in the bank entrance for our withdrawals. Shortly after, two bank employees came out to “see us”. It turned out they actually saw Carlotta on the news as she shared all about the Monarch Ultra and the amazing reception we received in Reynosa. They humbly asked if they could have their pictures taken with us. So we posed for lots of selfies and group photos. By now it was getting around lunch time. With our police escorts we stopped at a street vendor for some authentic Mexico cuisine. Street vendors in Mexico are far different from the street vendors in Canada with our typical hot dog and pop stands. This would be the first of many, many street vendors we would visit in Mexico. For our low Monarch Ultra budget, the food is very inexpensive. Food is nearly always locally sourced. It is prepared from scratch right in front of our eyes. Unlike your typical restaurant, there is nothing out of view with these street vendors. Everything was meticulously clean at each and every street vendor we visited. Street vendors are extremely hard workers, and by supporting them we were supporting a local family within the community.
Our dear police escorts drove us to the south end of Reynosa where their jurisdictions ended. We stood outside our vehicles mingling and chatting while waiting for the next police unit to come and relieve the current unit. For myself there was a bit of a language barrier that made it difficult to communicate with these dear police officers. With many hand gestures and the odd word we knew from each other’s respective languages we were able to communicate on a very limited basis. However, there are some forms of communication that are universal. When the new police unit arrived we said our goodbyes to the unit that had escorted us for the previous two days. Lots of handshakes, selfies and group photos. The dear policewoman who had accompanied us those two days had tears welling up in her eyes as we were saying our goodbyes. It is a picture embedded in my mind I will never forget. She, and all the dear police had become our friends. I think of her often, and pray for her and her colleagues safety as they daily put their lives on the line in keeping law and order on their daily beat of Mexico.
Our new police escorts were just as friendly, though we never got as much opportunity to get acquainted with them. They escorted us as far as they were authorised to go, which is just into the state of Nuevo León. From there the Monarch Ultra team was on it’s own. As we continued on, I carefully observed the country we were driving through. We drove past a massive gas processing refinery plant and gas pipeline distribution centre. It was an incredible sight seeing these gigantic fields filled with clusters of silver piping thrusting themselves skyward like industrial dandelions. I recalled vaguely of a gas plant in Mexico that had an explosion seven years earlier in which 26 people died. This was the refinery. The oil and gas industry in Mexico is state owned and called Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex). If we had that police escort, I would have been running past this refinery. It made me very grateful to Clay and the team to always put safety first. The highway was extremely busy with fast moving cars and tractor trailers. Without the flashing lights of a police escort, I would feel extremely vulnerable in the heavy traffic. And a lone runner like myself would feel very vulnerable against any potential crime or violence. In the opposite direction going towards Reynosa we drove past a couple of police and military checkpoints that had a lot of police in full paramilitary gear manning those checkpoints. The location of those checkpoints are always changing to keep an upper hand on ongoing criminal activity. Going past those busy checkpoints made me grateful for those hard working police.
After a little while we saw the sign for the Highway 40D, which would take us south-west towards Monterrey. This would even be completely new territory for Clay, Carlotta and Rodney. A year ago after receiving enough funding from a Kickstarter campaign, the three of them were able to take a reconnaissance trip from Canada to Mexico. To see first hand if the route would be viable to run in person as a relay after the many hundreds of volunteer hours over the course of a year that Clay spent from his home computer of mapping the course out. The route involved 4,365.78 kilometers of open, public roads carefully mapped out (and found here on-line), which can be printed out as 75 run segments on 988 pages of printed maps and directions with 1,112 lines of turn-by-turn directions. The route would take 47 days for up to 100 runners to complete, and supported by the Monarch Ultra team. Through 3 countries (and across 2 borders), 113 counties and municipalities, 14 states and provinces and 5 major ecoregions. Unlike a regular 42.2 kilometer marathon that has planned layout and location for maybe 8 aid stops, Clay Williams had planned locations for 438 aid stops along the 4,365.78 kilometer route. Clay is well known for his mapping skills with the Canal Pursuit for Mental Health Relay Run, which he has directed for the past 5 years. It is a 750 km run along the Trent Severn Canal and the Rideau Canal to raise awareness and funds for the Mood Disorders Society of Canada. And to raise awareness and end stigma around depression and mood disorders.
After all the planning and work that Clay had put into this route for the Monarch Ultra, I can’t imagine how difficult it would have been to take that detour off the planned course. But safety is the number one priority. To have faith and trust in people you have never met behind those invitations to “Come to Monterrey please” was huge. There were no registered runners for the next few days. There was also no receptions planned in any of the towns of General Bravo, China, General Terán, Montrmorelos, and Hualahuises. Towns that were part of the original route. It was as if a visit to Monterrey was meant to be. The website “Trippy” mentions that the distance between Reynosa and Monterrey is 220 kilometers (137 miles) and has a driving time of 2 hours and 28 minutes. Much over half of this distance was actual detour off of our original planned route.
It was well into the afternoon by now and Clay mentioned there would not be time for me to get an ultra distance run completed before dark. And asked me if I was okay to run the next day instead. I was totally okay with this. And we headed out to our check out our 1st invitation in Monterrey. It was for a personal tour of the Papalote Museo del Nino Monterrey (Papalote Monterrey Children’s Museum). It ended up that Priscila, the museum manager is the daughter of my new amazing environmental friends Arnulfu and Elda in Reynosa. And through the incredible power of Social Media we connected. Priscila was mentioning to me through some on-line questions I directed her way that the first time she heard about the Monarch Ultra was on social media last year. It was such a nice surprise when her parents told her that they had contacted us (Monarch Ultra), so she couldn’t miss her opportunity to invite us to her museum.
Papalote Monterrey is the 3rd Papalote Museum in Mexico. They opened their doors on the 15th of July 2018. The first museum is Papalote Chapultepec which is focused in empowering children and this year is celebrating its 26th anniversary. It is in Mexico City. The second one, Papalote Cuernavaca, teaches children about creativity and different artistic movements. Papalote Monterrey, where we visited is dedicated to teaching children about the environment.
When you go to a typical museum, you pretty well know what to expect. There a few interactive exhibits, but what you are most likely to see are museum artifacts displayed behind glass windows. And a lot of walking. As a parent, I never really took my children to visit museums when they were very young. These museums for the most part are not designed with young children in mind. And there is always that underlying fear, that if my child touches something that might not be behind glass, and breaks it, I am out a lot more money than the admission price.
When I arrived at the grounds of the Papalote Monterrey Children’s Museum, I really did not know what to expect. The words “Children” and “Museum” just do not seem to go together. In my mind anyway. Boy, was I ever in for a surprise. Priscila met our Monarch Ultra team as we entered on their beautiful garden property. This is located within a 114 hectare urban park named Parque Fundidora, which translated means “smelting park”. It is on reclaimed land of a former steel foundry. Pollinators gardens with flowers rich in nectar were attracting butterflies by the hundreds. Monarch butterflies, as well as many species of tropical butterflies I have never seen before. Our Monarch Ultra filmmaker Rodney was in his glory. The shutter of his camera was clicking with a flurry. Priscila was mentioning that their gardens are all native species representing the three eco-regions that exist in Nuevo León: Tamaulipan Matorral, Chihuahuan Desert, and Sierra Madre Oriental Pine-oak Forests. These beautiful re-created eco-regions were a taste of what I and the Monarch Ultra team would be running through over the next few days.
Little did I realize when we were touring the gardens I was actually walking on the roof of this subterranean children’s museum. The museum is not only dedicated to teaching children about sustainability and the environment, it practices it. The museum is in the process of becoming LEED certified. LEED is an acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, which is the Green Building Rating System developed by the U.S. Green Building Council. Green building is the practice of designing, constructing and operating buildings to maximize occupant health and productivity, use fewer resources, reduce waste and negative environmental impacts, and decrease life cycle costs. There are four different levels on which LEED certification can be attained — Certified, Silver, Gold, and Platinum — and they are determined by a credit, or point, system. An article on the website Archello mentions that the Children’s Museum “Papalote Verde Monterrey” is expected to receive one of Mexico’s first LEED Platinum certificates.
There are three lower levels underneath that 16-meter-deep earth roof. The lowest level houses a 300-seat subterranean IMAX Theater which is naturally cooled by the earth, making it one of the most unique in the world. The museum has the first IMAX 3D with laser in all Latin America, the world’s most immersive cinematic experience yet. Including the IMAX theatre, the museum has 9,038 metres of surface space of which 7,578 square metres is new construction. For air comfort the museum has a state of the art air condensed fluid passive cooler system and the museum has it’s own residual water treatment plant to reuse grey water.
Not only is Papalote Monterrey Children’s Museum the most environmentally friendly building I have ever been in, it teaches all about the environment and sustainability to the children (and people of all ages) who visit. Some key areas taught are:
Commitment to the Planet/Respect for Natural Resources
Humility before Earth’s greatness
Responsible resource consumption
Gratitude for all that we receive from Nature
Optimism to participate in the solutions
Perseverance to achieve goals
Empathy for all living beings
Inside the museum you’ll find over 70 permanent exhibits which teach children about sustainability, divided in 6 areas: I am, I belong, I understand, I express, I communicate and Early learners. They have 10 stations with the most representative animals of Nuevo León where kids have to discover what animal was there by their footprints and excrements. Once they discover the animal they stamp a little passport with the animal’s footprint. So many of these exhibits and stations are all about participation.
There are two main exhibits in the Papalote Monterrey Children’s Museum. They are Aramberri the sea monster and Einstein the Brontosaurus. Priscilla mentioned to me that the Aramberri Sea Monster’s fossil was discovered in Aramberri Nuevo León in the mid 80’s by a student from de university (UANL) while doing some field work. At first they thought they were dinosaur remains, but it wasn’t until almost 20 years later in 2003 that a group of German paleontologists identified the fossil remains as a huge marine reptile, more specifically a Pliosaur. This specimen was over 18 meters long but it´s believed that they could grow up to measure over 25 meters long. Their replica was made in Barcelona Spain by QOTaller Natura, who are a very professional team of specialists in reproducing natural ecosystems. The replica in the museum is 15 meters long, weighs approximately 3 tons and it is suspended from the roof of the museum. It was installed in March 2017.
The other special exhibit is Einstein “the Brontosaurus with a brain”. It is a real, genuine fossil that was discovered in a small ranching community called Ten Sleep, Wyoming. He received this nickname after it was realized that the braincase was preserved along with the rest of the skeleton. Einstein is also the first Apatosaurus skeleton found in direct association with its skull. Priscilla also mentioned, in addition to the braincase, several cranial elements including both quadrates, left maxilla with teeth, isolated teeth and several skull fragments comprise Einstein’s skull. The rest of its skeleton is approximately 80% complete.
As I studied the features of the replica of the Aramberri Sea Monster and the skeletal remains of Einstein the Brontosaurus, I tried to picture what it would have been like to witness them in their magnificent glory. Fully alive on our planet earth. And as I also observed those precious children from my vantage point on the balcony happily digging for fossils directly under Einstein I felt a wave of sadness sweep over me. What kind of earth will these children be facing 30, 40 or 50 years from now? What animals and plant life are alive on earth today, but will no longer be alive in a half a century. Extinct, the same fate as Aramberri Sea Monster and Einstein the Brontosaurus.
Will there be elephants on earth in 50 years time? Will there be jaguars? Will there be giraffes? Will there be polar bears? Will there be Monarch butterflies? An article called “The Extinction Crises” by the Centre for Biological Diversity states “We’re currently experiencing the worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Although extinction is a natural phenomenon, it occurs at a natural “background” rate of about one to five species per year. Scientists estimate we’re now losing species at up to 1,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day. Unlike past mass extinctions, caused by events like asteroid strikes, volcanic eruptions, and natural climate shifts, the current crisis is almost entirely caused by us — humans. In fact, 99 percent of currently threatened species are at risk from human activities such as habitat loss, die-offs from pollution, chemicals and pesticides, poaching and climate change. It could be a scary future indeed, with as many as 30 to 50 percent of all species possibly heading toward extinction by mid-century”.
From that same vantage point on the balcony I looked down to my right at the “Little Grocery Store” teaching model. Do I really think about the effects on the planet my purchases make? So many factors play a part. What is the environmental footprint? Is it manufactured in a far away country? Is the packaging single use? Is it fair trade? Does it support a local market and regional economy? Does my purchase exhaust resources, or is it sustainable? And lastly, is it that important to me that I really need to buy this product?
In all of my life I have never seen anything like Papalote Verde Monterrey Children’s Museum. And neither had Clay, Rodney, Guenther or Carlotta. The museum sets a standard by focusing not just on what happened in the past. But by learning about mistakes we have made in the past and how we can all change that. And make a difference for a brighter future! The focus at the museum is children. The lessons learned there are for each one of us. It is so exciting being a part of the Monarch Ultra. Wherever we go, we meet people like Priscila and organizations such as Papalote Museo del Nino Monterrey that share the same passion as we do in the protection of our planet. It is extremely encouraging and exciting. On behalf of the team at Monarch Ultra, thank you Priscila for the amazing tour. And for answering my questions so thoroughly about your museum.
The museum website is http://monterrey.papalote.org.mx/index.html