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.