Wednesday, February 23, 2011

La Semana Nacional de Ciencia, Tecnologia y Innovacion

At some point in February Carlos started getting calls from the BBC. None of us knew it then, but the dominoes of good fortune were about to fall. Within a matter of weeks two online articles* were published about Maya Pedal. After spotting the BBC's piece, Guatemala's national paper, Nuestro Diario ran their own- a beautiful, full color, two page spread. (page 46)

Then calls for interviews started coming in from all over central and south america. And somewhere in the barrage of phone calls Maya Pedal received an invitation to Guatemala's National Week of Science, Technology and Innovation Conference. It was to be held in the capital; we were told the president would be there.

So we prepped for the adventure by tuning up several of the machines and giving them a fresh coat of paint. Someone (I can't remember who, maybe the architect) put together a spiffy glossy poster briefly explaining Maya Pedal's mission and history.

On the first day of the conference Carlos asked Erin, Allison and Luisa to represent Maya Pedal. Either the architect picked up the machines, or Carlos drove them out to Guatemala City, i can't really remember. --Another note on not remembering things, i say "the architect" to refer to a member of the board whose name escapes me other than Carlos' nick name for him, el arquitecto.

In any event, the girls went out and set up the display and machines for what turned out to be a mostly empty building. The non-empty part of the building being Guatemala's vice president, not the president, and accompanying security detail. The ladies were pretty bored by the whole process and mostly just wanted to get out of there. So for day number two Carlos asked me to go with him to man the booth. I was excited to have the opportunity and it was convenient as i needed to fly out of the city after the conference was over. You can stay with the architect, Carlos told me.

I had been told not to take the bus between Guatemala City and, well, anywhere. There are regularly hold-ups and murders on the buses, especially at night. So when Carlos asked me to go with him i assumed we'd drive. We didn't, we took the bus. But it was daytime and i trusted Carlos' judgement.

A several hour long and completely uneventful bus ride ensued. We arrived in Guate sometime in the late morning and walked to the hotel. I couldn't help still being somewhat on edge, i was forewarned by many of the dangers that await in Guatemala's capital. But again, no muggings or murders between point a and point b.

The hotel stood in an affluent part of the city, it wasn't the most ornate hotel i'd come across in the capital, but it certainly fit its surroundings. We waited in line outside for some time, then waded through crowds of chattering school students on the way to our booth. At the entrance to the main conference hall security asked us for our pass, Carlos produced a photocopied pass that had no identifying information linking us to it whatsoever, but that was enough.

Things were mostly set up at the booth when we arrived, but we did some slight rearranging of things to Carlos' liking.

The big poster i talked about is all the way in the back left corner. Myself and Erin both made it onto it:

Carlos held down the fort for the first while, answering questions and encouraging people to try the machines. There was less engagement with his inventions than i anticipated. There was certainly curiosity, but it was curiosity from afar, the kind that points rather than touches. The experience wasn't altogether surprising, even in San Andres Itzapa people didn't seem that affected by Carlos' work. One woman, a frequent visitor to Maya Pedal, asked me once why we north americans were so captivated by his machines. It was clear, even after i tried to explain, that she just didn't get it. The unspoken question, seemingly shared by most, was why would you use a bicycle when you could use an engine?

That mindset was, apparently, as pervasive in the nation's capital as it was in Maya Pedal's hometown. But that's not to say that there weren't those more interested in the machines. Several people, mostly young men, were very excited to jump on the bikes and try them out. And a few young women seemed just as interested, however, were far less inclined to actually test them.

While Carlos entertained questions i explored the rest of the booths. I'm not much of a science person, plus my spanish is pretty basic, so not much kept my attention. There were displays on recycling, something to do with the internet, plants, and a whole lot of really technical stuff that i had no idea what they were. Graphs. Charts. Really big words. In spanish.

The one that did catch my interest, and seemed to be the most popular, was this one that had a little robot whizzing around on the floor. It was a display put on by the technology program of a particular university. They had plenty of dissected models and parts to examine, but the carpet lobster was definitely the main selling point.

After i checked the place out i joined Carlos at our booth. We sat for a while and talked, then broke for lunch. After lunch, Carlos announced to me that he was leaving. And that i was going to run the booth on my own for the remainder of the conference. Uh... well, okay, i can do that.

Upon Carlos' departure i tried to prepare myself mentally to answer technical questions, but my preparations were made in vain. And to explain what happened next i'm going to share a similar, but more exaggerated, example from a different latin american adventure.

Winter break of '07 i traveled to Ecuador for a month, in my first week there i went to an eco-lodge called Shangri La. While not uptopia, it was pretty gosh darn close- one of the most amazing places i've ever been in my life. The lodge is a beautiful hand-made wooden cabana, with several stories, thatched roofs, an entire floor for hammocks- its at the edge of a cliff 300 ft. above the Rio Anzu, a gorgeous winding river, the backdrop for which is the rainforest. It was absolutely breathtaking- when i die i hope heaven looks so good.

So here i am with about 20 other guests- all Ecuadorian university students, and they don't seem the least bit interested in their surroundings. But they were very interested in learning everything about me and having me spend lots of time with them. They even ignored the tour guides and their own instructors to talk to me. I was completely shocked. I just couldn't believe that this spectacular place paled in comparison to one white guy. And that's what was really going on, it wasn't about me at all, it was about what i represent as north american white male.

The science conference was pretty similar, but a condensed version. Once there was no Carlos to deflect their impetuous curiosity, swarms of blue uniformed students descended upon the booth. And, again, the amazing things right in front of their face were completely obscured by the chance to talk to a real live gringo. The ones with more social grace at least asked a few token questions about the machines before they opened the flood gates of inquiry. The younger ones didn't know or care for pretense, they just jumped right in, usually with 12 of them all asking questions at the same time. I'm 26. No i don't know the president. Yes i have a girlfriend. I come from Philadelphia. Philadelphia, yes. Its a big city, near New York city.

One highlight from the whole ordeal was when a group of middle-school girls ran of to grab their english teacher. In a few minutes they returned with said teacher, looking embarrassed, i'm guessing mostly because of the girls' method of retrieval... Do you remember at 5th grade school dances how a group of girls would form a giggling mob, surround one of their friends who liked a particular boy, (sometimes nabbing him too) and then proceed to bring them together, both red-faced and trying to escape? The mob of girls would then stand there excitedly watching the awkwardness unfold, sometimes interjecting on the behalf of their somewhat traumatized friend, and over-reacting to every word and movement? This was exactly like that. Except we were both adults. Surrounded by sixth grade girls, who wanted us to speak in english. And then get married.

The lets-ask-3000-questions game was pretty humorous, but after two days of incessant grilling, its amusement began to dwindle. When it was nearing the point of frustration, i began to exercise deflection, a clever technique i learned from my father. Basically, I started sticking the kids on the bikes and taking pictures of them. And once one had their picture taken they all wanted their picture taken. Deflection successful.

At the end of my first day i and all my luggage were picked up by the architect. We drove in his truck out to his newly acquired city home, he was presently staying in an apartment with his family elsewhere. The architect, who very generously put me up for two nights, as well as had his personal assistant look after me, had only one request: that i water the lawn. More than a fair trade.

As one would expect in an unmoved into house, there wasn't much by way of furniture. In absence of a bed i slept on top of my sleeping bag and used my store of clothes as a blanket.

While watering the lawn, the razor wire surrounding his yard caught my attention. In a country where you can't count on the police, you have razor wire.

The next morning the architect's assistant dutifully picked me up as promised and it was back to the conference. A good amount of what happened on the second day of the conference i already touched on (girl mobs, deflection, etc) so i'll jump right to the end.

I had a lot of time to kill until the architect's assistant would come to pick me up, so i was in no rush to break down the display. Instead i wandered around the building checking things out. With the conference wrapped up, and the crowds lightened, i took the opportunity to get some shots of the space.

After pretty much everyone else was out they let me know it was time to leave. To expedite the process they offered me the help of an employee with a cart. He took the machines as i grabbed everything else. I followed him into a strange back room, large and concrete it seemed a space more appropriate for a warehouse than a hotel. My favorite part was the giant floor elevator, it looked like it could fit two small cars, or one really big elephant.

We put everything on the elevator and i implored them to let me ride it down as well. To my surprise and dismay they said no. My experience there, and in Ecuador too, is that there really aren't laws in the way we think of them. Or, rather, there aren't lawsuits over issues of liability: if you get hurt doing something risky its your own damn fault, so of course you can't sue anyone over it. Maybe its different in the big city, maybe its different if its a white foreigner, maybe they were genuinely concerned for my safety as a fellow human being. I'm not sure, the thing went mighty slow...

We got the machines all the way to the front of the hotel, i told them that i had to wait for a ride, and they were nice enough to let me park in the entrance in an out-of-the-way spot. That spot happened to be in front, and to the side, of the hotel's restaurant. I was tickled when the hotel staff, including one of the restaurant's chefs started coming out to jump on the machines. Of the entire conference it was they who were the most interested in what Maya Pedal was doing- they asked lots of questions about designs, wanted contact information, and inquired into pricing. They understood the machines in a way that the school students, and many Itzapans, didn't. Their intrinsic value was obvious to these self-selected emissaries of the hotel; one of them exclaimed that the water pump would be perfect for his uncle's small farm.

It was these 5 or 6 staff members who really made the whole thing worth it. Seeing their genuine excitement and interest was really uplifting. And not one of them asked me whether i knew Obama.

*i currently don't have a link to the first BBC article, i will post it when i locate it.

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