Saturday, March 21, 2009

appropriate infrastructure development


Saturday morning we woke up and had a proper look around Will´s place, made some eggs (which i was told had too much salt- a recurring complaint) and then headed out for AIDG´s workshop.

There was a group of chickens hanging out in the back yard. Though i don´t think this is where our eggs came from, they very well could have. From what i gathered the chickens subsist entirely on compost, which seems like a good system.

Erin was very excited about this brick oven, she has been pining to do some baking ever since she got here. In fact, she decided we would build one on the roof.

Will gave us a great tour of his office and the connected workshops. Everyone there is totally engaged in awesome low-tech projects, a lot of them seemed connected to water in one way or another.

The first thing we got to see was a testing bench set up to monitor the optimal usage of a micro-hydro design that one guy, Sam, had invented. (Micro-hydro is for small scale, personal use, electrical generation) His design is pretty ingenius, it basically channels water through PVC pipes to a bucket with a generator inside. I don´t know exactly how it works, but somehow through physics alone the water is forced to a higher velocity than it would reach normally and then streamed through the bucket. Sam admits the design has some obvious inefficiencies, from a purely scientific standpoint, but its not designed to be the most efficient generator possible. More than efficiency it is going for effectiveness- its designed to be built by anyone, out of materials readily available and easy to use- two points which are at the heart of appropriate technology.

The bench Will is pointing to simulates the conditions under which the bucket would operate. The bench is designed to allow detailed monitoring of electrical output and tight control over water speeds and (i think) pressure. They are currently running tests to find the optimal operating scenario for the generator. I don´t know much about hydro, but this design is unlike anything i´ve ever heard of- it could be revolutionary for personal electricity generation. Sam said its really big with survivalists.

Inside there was another bench designed to do "dry runs" of the generator inside the bucket. I can't remember exactly how it functions, but i think there are a variety of voltages and amperages that the generator can be tested on. Also, i gather its easier to test it dry if you're wanting to tweak the machine's innards.

Next we got an explanation of a device that had counfounded us all the night before. It turns out this thing is a water pump built by some MIT students some time ago. You literally stand on the two planks and step up and down to pump water. The AIDG folks were impressed with how quickly the students had built it, a matter of hours if i remember correctly. Though they didn't entirely trust it, they said it was a little wobbly to work and none of us were allowed a go. Supposedly it pumps out enormous amounts of water, and very quickly. Maybe even too quickly.

Next we got to see the "safe stove." Its called a safe stove because it contains and channels smoke very well. One of the leading causes of death amongst children in developing nations is smoke inhalation from indoor cooking set ups. The safe stove dramatically reduces the amount of smoke that is emmittted indoors. This type of stove is also sometimes referred to as a rocket stove because of the way that it intakes air- when it really gets going it makes a whirring noise like a quiet rocket. There is a small opening in the front of the stove to put in twigs and other small wood pieces, the wood sits on top of a small shelf which allows air to flow strongly up from underneath it. The air and flames are then channeled up through the highly insulated stove, heat the top elements and then exit out of a pipe in the back. For whatever reason, constricting the air flow to a small channel increases the efficiency of burning substantially. And the heavy insulation retains a great amount of that heat to use for cooking instead of dissipating out into the atmosphere. I'm a big fan of rocket stoves, and this one was particularly impressive.

Will's co-worker Vergel did an awesome job of explaining the stove to us. I was blown away when he said that the flames can get so hot that the shelf glows red. They worry about it melting sometimes- talk about efficiency!

Our final stop on the tour was outside to the bio-digester. I think i had startled its creator, James, earlier that morning with a barrage of questions. I was really eager to learn all about it and he was as gracious as one could be at 8:00 in the morning while making eggs.

Basically the bio-digester is an anaerobic (lacking oxygen) processor of organic materials. It utilizes certain microbial life forms to break down plant material into methane. (If there were oxygen present it wouldn't make methane, or at least not at the smae levels). The device is made up of two tanks, the first is the digestor, which is essentially a cement lined hole in the ground with a big 55 gallon drum floating on top and an underground pipe connecting it to the second tank. The second tank, form what i gather, is really just there to be the place where the excess spills over, gets collected and then used as fertilizer. In the first tank the big blue drum is pushed all the way down, as the methane is created it rises to the surface and lifts the tank- a good visual indicator of how much you've got. A tube comes off of the top of the tank and, eventually, will be connected to a special gas stove that can burn uncompressed methane. For every week's worth of compost James guesses they'll be able to cook two to three meals. I was impressed but James said this was nothing to more complex systems that are better sighted (to optimize sun exposure) there are versions in Haiti, he said, that can cook two meals a day.

The gas is kept from escaping by pinching the the tube, as well as putting in a small amount of water to act as a gas trap.

Dory looking excited, as per ususal.

Friday, March 20, 2009

the most epic weekend of my life


A few weekends ago we made a three day trip to Xela (pronounced shay-la or say-la) a large city that could be described as somewhere between Guate and Antigua. Really it seemed to have the best of both places, and not their worst. Xela has beautiful architecture, a gorgeous and well used central park with plenty of ammenities and not too many tourists. Antigua is a nice place to visit, but im sure the self-absorbed trust fund travelers would grate on my nerves after a while. If i had to pick a Guatemalan city to station myself it would be Xela.

We excitedly packed ourselves onto a bus, choco-coconuts in hand and chattered away for the rest of the ride. Erin and I played 20 questions. I stumped her with Elvis Presley, though she made a valiant three day effort.

Unfortunately when we switched buses in Chimaltenango we were swindeld into taking a specific bus. A "friendly" guy (who none of us suspected) told us that he had taken the bus a million times and that the ones passing by, reading Xela, were not the ones we wanted. They wouldn`t take us intot he town center, he claimed. So we waited while he suspiciously had money handed to him by a bus driver. The bus, his bus, finally came he got on with us and then mysteriously disappear a couple of stops later. Funny, that is probablly his entire job. Not only did the bus not take us to the center of Xela, it dropped us off 20 mins away where we had to get on another connecting bus that also claimed center-of-xela service. We were skeptical, and our skepticism proved correct. Though where we were eventually dropped off was much better than the bus terminal we thought we would be going to. I guess the universe was looking out for us after all.

The impetus for this weekend get away was to go visit our friend Will, a former volunteer. He is working now with a terrific group in Xela called AIDG (the Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group). They do awesome appropriate technology experiments and installations, which i`ll get to in a later post.

With decent directions, but a deep sense of navigational mistrust we cautiously sought out AIDG`s headquarters. Just as dark was beginning to settle we found what we thouhgt was the place (all the landmarks seemed to say it was) but we knocked ont he wrong set of big doors, and of course, got no response. Thankfully there was a phone there to give Will a call. He promptly came out to retrieve us.

We got a brief tour of AIDG`s headquarters, though it was too dark to see much outside of the main office. They have quite a complex and are adding two volunteer houses to it. Everyone was feeling a little worn out after a long day of wacky bus rides, oh, and were were hauling three bikes around with us as well, Will had requested we bring them to sell.

We had passed some exciting festivites in the central park and were curious to go check them out. Plus we were all very hungry. (I even tried to convince the girls to stop at Dominoe`s- it was the first theing we saw off the bus, but they, emphatically, were not having it). We ate at a place called Mikes ( i think) which had pretty good food for a decent price, which is surprisingly hard to find here in guatemala. I made friends with an adorable playful, and perhaps wild, little kitten. It was so cute i was tempted to whisk it away. The girls petitioned heavily, but having grown up with many (many) cats i know how much work and money goes into taking care of them, i also know what a trap it can be adopting cute stray kittens.

What we wondered into after dinner was even more festive and colorful than the Virgin Mary celebration that had gone on in Itzapa several weeks earlier. Though we weren`t entirely sure the occasion, the park was packed full of loud vendors and sparkling displays. There were all sorts of odd foods and enticing candies. I picked up something red and semi-solid, i knew it from my grilfriend`s family, i can`t remember the name but it is basically a homemade fruit leather. Erin picked up a fried coconut ball and it was absolutely amazing! It was so tasty that we all got some that night, then more throughout the rest of the weekend.

I can`t remember who thought this one up, but clearly it was a good idea.

And there were these weird fried dough intestine things that were, for lack of a more apt description, pooped out of machine into a vat of boiling oil. We were so curious we had to try it. It was sugary and fried, and significantly less gross to eat then watch being made.

I was really intrigued by the carnival rides at this place. They were mostly ones that spun around in a circle and almost all of them were operated by guy pushing them by hand. There was even one that used those little kid cars (you know like barbie cars and the classic little tikes orange and yellow car) as the seats. Those little twinkie beans couldn´t have been happier.

Amongst the booths that lined the street were these really funny little dancing puppets, you`d pay a few Q get an air pistol and then shot the target at the top. If you got it they`d dance for you. They were ridiculous and hilarious. I want one.

As the craziness began to lose its luster we moved on to a club where several of Will`s friends were playing a live set. We had no idea we`d be walking into gringo land, it was a little unsettling at first. Actually it was unsettling all the way through. The musicians that night were all very talented, but they chose to play a lot of popular songs from the 90`s. It was a lot like listening to Q102`s top twenty in the summer of 97- chock full of counting crows, pearl jam, lifehouse and a lot of other unmissed pop culture. What made the whole thing strange was how much the crowd was into it, it wasn`t just a pleasant walk down memory lane, they were belting along and dancing by their chairs. Perhaps Brahva was to blame.

Its interesting to me the things that expatriates hold on to. Though reveling in the nostalgic glow of of America`s hey-day didn`t speak to me on this particular occassion, i can totally relate to what was going on in that club. Being far from home, far from ones native culture, can induce a deep desire do delve back into things that feel "normal." In fact, those normal things begin to feel a bit special, certainly more special than they ever did at home. One time in Antigua i was strangely comforted by window shopping. Literally just wandering through stores to look at nicely packaged beautiful things.

While everyone else was slamming down beers, Anneliese whipped out a jar of beets and unabashedly ate them in a very grand way. This was by far one of the highlights of the night. I almost peed my pants laughing.

We then walked back to Will`s place, we were lcuky that they had enough space for all of us. Really great space (Will lucked out hardcore) full of a beautiful kitchen and dining room, large spacious rooms upstairs, a nice back yard areea for barbeques- it was sweet.

At night the dogs are counted on to take care of the days trash. Ther was also a big trash fire nearby with a drunk guy who liked to smash bottles at the dogs.