Thursday, August 5, 2010

Quetzaltenango and another perspective…

To catch up, finally, on what I have been doing this summer, here is the most recent post of my time in Guatemala:

After a couple of weeks of living like a homeless person on a volcano and carrying around my life in a backpack I arrived in Quetzaltenango “Xela”, Guatemala. I arrived by bus, passing through El Salvador and Honduras, stopping for a day in Honduras to visit a friend working as a Health Volunteer for Peace Corps. All in all, the trip took about 5 days and I arrived supremely exhausted, not wanting to see another bus ever again in my life. I was very happy to arrive at my host-family and meet some extremely nice people that I immediately got along with. I spent the next couple weeks with another NGO working in the field of ecological and appropriate technology, AIDG (Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group). Upon arriving at AIDG I knew it was different from most NGOs I had visited, and from most NGOs working in the general area of appropriate technology for development. They have tried to come at the issue from a business perspective. Instead of finding communities in need and directly working with them on projects, the traditional approach, they have tried to form a more pragmatic model.They have positioned themselves as an incubator for various business ventures including a local renewable energy workshop, Xelateco.

Xelateco has local employees and works in many areas of renewable energy and appropriate technology such as water filters and ram pumps, improved cook stoves, biodiesel, bio-digesters, solar water heaters, solar panel installations, and small-scale hydroelectricity generation. For their small workshop with the most basic set of tools they have impressive capabilities. They produce biodiesel from used cooking oil with a homemade reactor, some old 50-gallon tanks, some piping and small motors. The process takes about a week and produces 70 gallons of biodiesel in total. They have a work truck that runs on biodiesel and sell some to local businesses when approached. The workshop is riddled with pieces of this and that, experiments of technologies toyed with in the past and some they are still working with, such as their improved wood-efficient cook stoves. One of the most impressive operations they have managed to develop is the casting of bronze pelton wheel cups. Pelton wheel cups are the paddles that form a turbine used for high-head hydroelectric projects. They have developed a home-made furnace, fueled by used car oil and an air blower. The furnace is used to melt the bronze used in the casting process. They are also equipped with casting sand and have successfully developed a system for producing the pelton cups for repairs and installations of hydro systems. It is quite impressive. To date Xelateco has won contracts for repairs and installations of a handful of small hydroelectric systems in the area. They have also completed some small ram-pump installations for delivery of potable water to communities in need. AIDG and Xelateco work together on projects, with funding coming partially from the communities they service as well as from large donor organizations such as the United Nations Development Program. The goal is that Xelateco will eventually get off the ground and be a local source of appropriate technology owned and operated by locals.

Aside from the appropriate technology workshop AIDG also funds business plan competitions for local entrepreneurs called “Guateverde”, a meld of Guatemala and verde, or green in English.The competition has three main categories- renewable energy, sanitation, and water. They are currently coming to the end of the submission period of their second competition, and have received around 40 submissions so far. This is a huge improvement over their first competition, last year, which received around 18 submissions. The winner receives $10,000 USD for startup costs of equipment, legalization, etc. and up to $40,000 USD of low-interest loans from AIDG, in addition to business, technical, and logistical assistance for a period of two years. This is one of the freshest, most obvious, but not often employed tactic to achieve sustainable development.Ask the people here what they would do to solve their own problems! They are given the chance to really make a difference in their own lives, but they must prove that they are capable of doing so and that it will be a profitable or at least self-sustaining business. The technical abilities that AIDG brings to the table help the businesses get off the ground and provide key inputs to the mix, but the first push comes from locals here in Quetzaltenango- and that is the reason I love it.

My time here has been sporadically mixed between a lot of things. I spent some time helping the improved cook stoves team perform surveys in homes around the area to get a better idea of how energy is used in the home. It covered not just cooking, but lighting, bathing, etc. The idea was to understand how energy was used in households around the area, on a macro scale. The surveys were initially very long and hard to perform, but were subsequently scaled down and streamlined after a couple trial runs. Some days it was very difficult as we arrived in communities that spoke little Spanish. Mom, one of the indigenous languages of the area was spoken by almost everyone in some communities, forcing us to pick and choose who was to be interviewed simply by their ability to understand us. It was, once again(not a new thing in my life, ha), a humbling experience and reminded me of how difficult it is to deal with the diversity that exists in the world. The simple act of communication in an area like this would require proficiency in around 5 languages, some of them little spoken and little taught. It is not easy…

I have also spent some time around the office getting to know what AIDG does and how they do it, what the employees are working on, and getting invited to go see this and that. One trip was to a local Geothermal Power Plant, including a tour and explanation of the facility by the local engineer. Although it has been a long time since I took classes on heat transfer and thermodynamics, it was interesting to hear some of those terms like the Rankine Cycle and Degrees Kelvin flying at me in Spanish form the mouth of a Guatemalan engineer. It was kind-of exciting to understand what he was saying and feel somewhat comfortable with the idea. The plant provided around 15 MW of power that was then sent on through the ridiculously complicated electricity delivery system that exists in Guatemala. The engineer explained that the electricity was all sent to Guatemala City where it was then distributed back to the regions is served, losing a lot of potential along the way. He also explained that during earthquakes or other emergencies the plant had a system set up to shut it down completely. If the emergency was large enough to shut down other power plants in the region they could be waiting for quite some time, as they would need outside power to start the plant up again. They do not have a backup system to start up their plant after it shut down. The engineers kind-of laughed at us and shrugged, as if to say, “Who knows, we didn’t design it, we just operate it.” Nonetheless it was very cool see a plant of that sort in action, and HEAR the generators pumping out electricity to the population. Yet another way to quench our thirst for electricity…

All in all AIDG seems to have a great idea, and I hope they find a way to take it off the ground, expand it, and reach their goal of truly SUSTAINABLE development.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


Like I said, I am a thinker. I think too much sometimes. I am also a planner, although I like to think that I am not. Funny, right? So about a week ago while I was thinking and planning, I decided I should just write something down so I wouldn’t forget. This is what came out.

What do I really want out of LIFE?

To be used in a way that is beneficial to those people and aspects of the world that are most in need

To wake up every day happy to be doing what I am doing, because I know WHY and HOW to do it, and I am confident that I am working in the right direction

To end the day physically and mentally tired, but satisfied

To have a loving family that I love, and be able to provide for their needs, so they may explore and find what it is that they really want out of life

To laugh deeply, every day

To die without major "what-ifs"

Now if I could just whittle this list down to one bullet point, maybe, just maybe, I could go after it. But that would be too easy wouldn't it. It wouldn't be LIFE.

Hablar en otra lengua… (To speak in another language)

Today was a day of thinking. To some this may come as no surprise, and to my good friends it may possibly be a huge surprise that I do actually think. It was a day where I questioned what I am doing, why I am doing it, why I think it is important, among other things. So when dinner time came around and I was sitting at the dinner table with my host-dad, I let him have it. I opened up one box of worms after another. First I told him how I was not raised with any specific religion, then about how religion was explained to me by my father- (as a fence on a cliff top of a mountain on a deserted island, that some feel better with, and some are annoyed that people keep trying to put up fences for them, they just want to look down and see what there is to see, but there is no shame in wanting or not wanting the fence)(my interpretation of Dad’s description, don’t sue me!), then we talked about some semi-religious experiences (for you fencers) or coincidences (for you non-fencers) I have had, then we talked about the universe and the unknown, and we finally landed on my inability to find a way back to the feeling of satisfaction I vividly remember from the end of long days as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Although the specific stories I told him, and he told me, are interesting and worthy of a blog post (but let’s be honest, if I got a bad infection I’d think it was cool enough for a blog entry), they are not what I came out of dinner thinking about.

It is the fact that the whole conversation, the whole heart-to-heart, the connection we made, it was all done in Spanish. It is not important that it was done in specifically Spanish either, because it is just another way to put thoughts together. What I realized is that this other language was like a mask to me. Sometimes in English it is hard to show your face, your true colors, to even people that you know extremely well. It is a language we all know and use every day, so if we do not express what we are thinking correctly it is out of laziness, or even worse, lack of intellectual capacity. Sometimes it just sounds silly or absurd to hear our thoughts so starkly in a language we use all the time. Therefore a lot of times we keep quiet even when we have something we really want to question or mention or simply chat about. The fear of failure to express your thoughts or be judged or considered different keeps us in line, in check, and under wraps. But in Spanish it is like I am wearing a mask. I am not supposed to know exactly how to express every single thought I have with the most versatile word structure, I just need to communicate. The words that I use and the way that I say them- they are my mask. The way my eyes connect with theirs and the way I look down when something really makes me think- that all shapes the mask as well. I put on this mask and they see me. I can really reach across boundaries with the mask. It is something that transcends religion and language and culture.

I grew up in a suburb of Connecticut in a fairly comfortable lifestyle and economic bracket. My host-mother here grew up in a campo like the one I served in while in the DR, and my host-father was a crazy young kid in the city who changed from a heavy drinker and revolutionary who watched many friends die in wars to an architect and highly religious and insightful human being. Somehow, by way of una otra lengua, we completely understood each other tonight. I realized that moments like these are what make me keep searching for ways to return to the Peace Corps lifestyle. That real connection that happens when you put on your mask and finally someone can really see you, it is priceless. The fact that you know that your words weren’t the only reason that they saw you is indescribable. They saw you because of everything you did and said and acted but also because they were looking for you. They were searching for you, had their hands on your face with their eyes closed, feeling around and trying to make out the bends, corners, ins and outs of your mask. When they finally see it, see you, and appreciate you for sharing with them who you are, en otra lengua, it cannot be beat. That is the joy that speaking in another language brings to me, if only rarely, and is part of the reason I keep coming back to places like this.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

El Porvenir - Sustainability Report

After leaving Blue Energy I headed back to the west half of Nicaragua, to the edge of a volcano where I had helped to design and install a community water pumping system over 3 years ago.The community, El Porvenir, is made up of 59 families from very mixed backgrounds. As Nicaraguan history has shown, this is a nation of very distinct ideological groups. The Contra War of the 70’s divided the country and led to immense amounts of bloodshed, mostly in the northern mountain region. El Porvenir is proof that organization can lead to peace, as the community is comprised of Contras, Sandinistas, past military advisors, and political officials. They have formed a communal cooperative and live mostly on the profits from bi-annual coffee harvests.Through connections with an NGO in Managua, they have achieved fair-trade organic, rustic shade grown coffee status. They export their coffee to another NGO and roaster based in Pittsburgh (yes, Pittsburgh!) called Building New Hope. All hours worked by cooperative members are counted and then directly translate into an equivalent share of profits from sales.

Over three years ago as an undergraduate student I was looking for a senior design project that would have some MEANING and would be really VALUABLE to someone. Through connections with the service-learning office at Bucknell University I, and three other fellow students, designed a project to provide water to El Porvenir. At that time the cooperative’s only water source was a fresh-water well at the base of the volcano they are perched on, 1200 feet and 5 Km. below. The well, over 400 feet deep was fitted with a deep-well pump and powered by a diesel generator. The pump delivered the water to a steel water tank near the well, still at the bottom of the volcano. The cooperative also has three very large storage tanks up in their community, and catch rainwater whenever possible to satisfy all of their needs for water. In the approximately six-month “dry season” when rain was not consistent, they were forced to get water from the well at the bottom of the mountain. This meant they relied on their ancient Ford 500 diesel farm tractor to drive the 45 minute trip down the hill, fill up as many water jugs as possible, and then head back up the hill. Multiple trips were made every day to ensure that every person in the community was allowed at least two gallons of water every day. Six hours of work and 1,085 Córdoba (~$43 USD) was spent on gas and workers every day. It was not an easy life.

My team and I designed and installed a water pumping system that took water from the tank at the bottom of the mountain all 5 Km. up to the storage tanks in the community. The pump was run by an electric motor, with power from the same diesel generator already in use.

This summer I wanted to come back and see how everything was doing and, for the first time, speak with the men I had sweat with in construction over three years ago. Now I speak Spanish, and back in my university days all I could generate was a simple “hola”. To make the trip even more special, I was driven up the mountain by members of the Alumni Trip of the Bucknell Brigade, the service-learning trip at Bucknell that first exposed me to Nicaragua. We arrived at the top of the mountain after some slipping and sliding on the muddy trail uphill, and I immediately recognized a boy standing there watching these gringos drive up to their home. I asked him name, and he told me it was Alexander. I distinctly remembered him from a picture I have from my trip three years ago. The picture was of me chasing him around his school, much smaller, smiling ear-to-ear. He is the boy on the right. It was surreal to see him again, all grown up. I snapped a quick picture with him, and just kinda chuckled to myself. This world is crazy.

All in all I spent a week up in El Porvenir, sleeping in a hammock on the community center porch overlooking Nicaraguas valleys and volcanos, and waking up to the sunrise early in the morning(sometimes, haha). It was great to see people collecting water from the tanks at the top of the mountain, even though I was there during the rainy season and the pump was not being used. The galvanized steel pipe that entered the tank made the project very real. I was not involved in the installation of the pipeline, as that occurred well after the pump house construction which I worked on, so it was extremely satisfying seeing the project FINISHED.

I spent the days talking with people about the system, walking every inch of the pipeline, turning on the pumps and see the system work, and interviewing/auditing the water committee. All in all I am proud to say that the system looks to be pretty sustainable, overall. In terms of saving time and money to the community, the system is doing great. Before its installation I calculated that every home was receiving 10 gallons of water, and to provide these 10 gallons per house the cooperative was expending 3 hours of work and $542 Córdoba. Now that the system is installed I have calculated that each house is receiving at least 20 gallons. As a comparison to the previous system, to provide each 10 gallons per house, I calculated that the cooperative is expending about 15 minutes of work and $213 Córdoba. They are saving about 2 hours and 45 minutes of work as well as $329 Cordoba ($15 USD) for each 10 gallons of water they receive, and they have also at least doubled their water availability in the dry season. The system seems to be in good working condition and, in this first year of operation with many quick repairs and fixes, the cooperative handled all hurdles that came their way.

All in all, I feel extremely lucky to have been given the chance to go back and see, talk to, and get to know the people of El Porvenir. And I have to say, it was great to see how satisfied the whole community was with the project, and proud they were to finally have a constant water source year round.

I even had a chance to chow down on some forest iguana-doesn’t look as cute all skinned does it?

Bluefields - The Reggae Coast

It has been a while since I added an update- and a lot has happened!

First, I spent a month on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua learning from a small NGO called Blue Energy. Blue Energy works to provide basic services to remote villages on the east coast of Nicaragua. They maintain offices in Bluefields-Nicaragua, San Francisco-California, and Paris-France. The Bluefields office is where all of the action happens. For the past 6 years Blue Energy has been working to provide basic services, focusing on electricity, to the small remote villages along the coast. It has not been easy. First of all, transportation to these communities is only possibly by boat. Some of them have a rudimentary public “panga” transportation system comprised of small motorboats, but some of them have no public transport whatsoever. No roads exist, and locals only come and go with their personal motorboats (if they are wealthy enough) or by hitching rides with fisherman as they come and go. This makes project planning, coordination, community interaction, and continual project oversight very difficult.

Blue Energy has been struggling to deal with these problems, on top of the inherent difficulty of engineering design and technology transfer. They have implemented mostly hybrid wind-solar electricity systems within the communities they work with. The wind turbines are manufactured in Bluefields by Blue Energy volunteers (mostly international) and employees (mostly local Nicaraguans) in a workshop donated for Blue Energy use by the local technical college, INATEC.The design is based on a low-cost wind turbine developed by Hugh Pigott of coil stators, hand-cut steel rotors mounted with high-power magnets, hand-carved wooden turbine blades, the supporting steel framework, and galvanized steel support towers are all manufactured in house from readily available materials found in hardware stores. Over the years, design and fabrication improvements have made the process more streamlined, although much is still done completely by hand with the “measure twice, cut once” mentality.

In communities they have worked with the wind turbines are paired with a small solar array. Together, the two provide power to a bank of batteries, used to power a local community center or small health clinic. The idea is very powerful, and very attractive. But many problems have caused setbacks to this idealistic bunch of young employees and volunteers. First of all, the problem was defined as an engineering one from the get-go: how to provide electricity with wind and sun in the difficult conditions of the Caribbean coast. Blue Energy has realized that possibly the most important piece of the puzzle is community integration and understanding, as poorly maintained batteries, increasing maintenance costs, and less than ideal wind conditions have caused them to reconsider the use of wind turbines in every community. Two local women and a small team of volunteers head up the “Community” team and have tried to maintain better relations with the local energy committees, helped them organize and raise funds, and tried to help the technical team guide their designs in a more appropriate direction. Although the community team has obviously made huge strides, the results are mixed. The decision has been made to remove the turbines from various communities, leaving the solar array as their source of electricity. Also, lack of communication with the local government has led to the arrival of mini-grids of electricity in communities with BE energy systems, making them all-but obsolete. On the short team, the Renewable Energy system is more economical than the grid as no fees are needed to provide electricity, but on the long term the sky-high prices of deep-cycle batteries will ultimately render the systems cost-prohibitive, that is, unless the community organizes a fairly hefty battery-replacement savings account. Many problems are left to be solved.

.Blue Energy is also attempting to branch into areas of other basic services such as potable water and economic development. They have developed their own bio-sand water filter construction system and have placed more than 20 filters in communities, some purchased and some donated. Still, lack of sufficient funding seems to be hamstringing their operations. They are coming to the end of a large grant that has covered most funding over the past year or so and are waiting for hopeful approval of more, larger grants. Sadly, the grant approval process seems to have no definite time schedule and in the mean time people are waiting…

Nevertheless, I was lucky enough to visit some communities with Blue Energy systems, help with some wind turbine tweaking, climb up a turbine tower and help lower it for maintenance, as well as observe BE volunteers in action fixing damaged systems, installing new batteries, and training locals in system maintenance. Blue Energy is up against it, but one can only hope that with every day they will learn more and develop a model for rural development that will benefit their communities in a environmentally, economically, and most importantly socially sustainable manner.