Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Today, I got to play in the mud.  I’ll come back to that.

This is a few of Santa Cruz la Laguna, from the roof of the school.

In the morning, I went up to the CEPAC school to work with the solar team.  First, we check out the progress that the team had made in the afternoon.  Then we split into many small teams.  A few people cutting parts, some working on wiring, etc.  I went with MJ, Tim and Gayle to measure the voltage on the solar panels.  One is on the roof, and the other three were still in the basement.   The UM students went to the classroom to inventory parts for the class that is going to be taught.  I ended up floating between groups to take photos. 

In a couple of weeks, Carlos and Jose Ordonez will be teaching a class in solar technology here.  John brought the materials for the class.  The UM students inventoried the kits, then took the solar panels outside to measure the voltage on them.    Many children stopped to see what we were doing, and a few helped out.

In late morning, MJ and I left to San Marcos to join the project there.   We arrived in time for lunch at Suzi’s.  Then came the mud.  The project there is to build a few walls at a bilingual preschool, using bajareque.   Bamboo is tied horizontally with maguey.  The maguey is a local plant that is torn into strips and tied together to make a kind of rope.   Rocks are inserted between the bamboo, and then mud is used to fill in the cracks.

The mud is made by pouring water and dirt into a small (dirt enclosed) area, then stomping on it – a human cement mixer.

Rocks are broken into flat pieces.

Bamboo strips are tied together, and the rocks are inserted between them.  The rocks are wetted down so that mud will adhere.

To apply the mud, it’s thrown at the wall.  Later, plaster/cement will be put over the top of the wall.

John says this picture of my feet will go on the wall of his office, but I think he'll find more interesting photos from me.

Charlie is teaching us bajareque.  His blog is here:

CEPAC is sponsored by Amigos De Santa Cruz.  Their website is and they also have a facebook page under the same name.  (Pat was uploading a few of my photos there today.)

Our docks were full when we came back from San Marco, so we got off at this dock instead.

After dinner, we had a project meeting with everyone, then Tim borrowed the local guitar and serenaded us.
He sang Up On The Roof, by Carole King (made popular by the Drifters).  It seemed fitting since we've spent so much time there.  Tomorrow, he may sing more.   It's been awhile since I played my guitar - maybe I'll pick it up and see if I remember how.  :)

Tomorrow, Michael, Craig, Andrew and I are joining 2 locals to go to a remote school that doesn’t yet have electricity.  This is a scouting trip to determine needs for a future possible ATC project.  We’ll leave at 11:15, take a boat to a small private dock, then go on a thirty minute strenuous hike to get to this school.  The ‘town’ has a few hundred people and is fairly isolated.  When we finish, we’ll go directly to San Marcos to continue playing in the mud.  

Tomorrow is also the most complicated day – everyone in the group will end up working in two different sites.  Besides our main two projects and my morning trip, another group is going to a different remote school, also on a scouting trip for a heating project.  Doug, Kat and Tess are leaving on a side trip to Tikal.  Most of us will end up in San Marcos;  the solar project is nearly complete – they completed our improvised frames and installed the panels on the roof today, so only electrical work remains.  The bajareque is furthest behind, but we’ll make up time tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Yesterday when we got back to Santa Cruz La Laguna, we went for a swim.  We walked about a half-mile to the kayak place to swim there.  JC took a running jump off the dock, and landed on a rock, bruising his shin badly.  Tim and MJ helped him walk back, where he was laid up for the night.  Fortunately, much of the swelling has gone down and he’s much better today.

Four of us decided to swim back.  Ben and I left first, followed by James and Ryan.  The water was deliciously cold, much like Lake Michigan can be in early summer.  This lake has no outlet.  The water level has risen 15 feet in the past few years.  It's the largest lake in Guatemala, and is surrounded by mountains.  Swimming back was a bit like swimming upstream because of the wind.  It got a bit choppy toward the end.  

After dinner, John, MJ, Greg, Doug and Craig rehashed the solar panel mounting solution.  The design changed every two hours.  They ended up with a much more elegant design.  We have sacrificed a few things – the panels will be fixed instead of being able to change angles.

After dinner, I had my first opportunity to load pictures on my computer and look at them.  I’ve taken over 1000 photos so far.  No time while I’m here to really catalog and post them, so I’m only putting up a few for now.  John will appreciate them when we get home – it helps with his grant applications for funding.  Documentation of our trip and results is an important goal of this project.

This morning started with a breakfast of fruit & granola crepes.  Then we set off in our respective teams – same as yesterday.  No trucks were available when we were ready to go up the hill, so we rode in two taxis (tuk – tuks) instead.  We started with a planning meeting to go through the design changes, then everyone set to work. 

Doug and MJ made another parts run based on the design changes.  This takes a few hours, as a parts run means a boat trip, then finding the right hardware store, then returning by boat.

Michael and Carlos worked on mounting and installing the electrical parts of the system.  Carlos lives here, is an electrical engineer, and will be in charge of the system when we leave.  Michael is still in high school, but is fluent in Spanish from living in Ecuador, and is also skilled with electronics.  They make an awesome team.

Ben has experience with welding (his father was a machinist), so he was put to work cutting the metal and working out how the parts would come together.  This was not a trivial task, given the tools available.   Andres, another local, worked with Ben on this.  I made a few trips to the school’s workshop in the basement to find things like a level.  Because of the sparks, Ben wanted an apron to put over his T-shirt.  Since there wasn’t one, I gave him my Coldwater Creek jacket (thick cotton) to wear backwards – the photos are charming.  I just put on extra sunscreen.

Craig started working on the mounting on the roof.  We’re gluing some wood 2x4s to the roof.   He worked with Doug to position them correctly, then worked with another local guy (don’t know his name) to drill the holes in the cement roof. 

All teams were on a roll, and the project was finally moving.  By the end of the day, this project went from being behind schedule to being ahead of schedule.  However, I haven’t seen the afternoon’s work.

John came and pulled MJ & I down for lunch.  I chose a local Guatemalan lunch, but I don’t recall the name.  I know that it had crushed pumpkin seed in it.  Then we walked down the hill to catch the boat to San Marcos for the Green tour.  It was just MJ & me – John had planned to come, but he felt that he needed to stay with the solar project until it was back on track.

San Marcos is where the other team has been working on Bajarecque at a different school.  This is a Guatemalan technique to build walls, using mud and bamboo.  Charlie is in charge of this project.  He’s from London, but he moved to Guatemala and met his wife here.  He has been doing construction here for 8 years, gradually using more and more green building techniques.  

San Marcos is much bigger than Santa Cruz la Laguna.  When we got there, we found our way to the school, but our group was gone.  We used our meager Spanish to find that ‘el groupo’ had gone to ‘comedor’ and got directions to the restaurant – drawing with a finger on the ground.  (The Spanish words for left and right are NOT cognates.)

Charlie took us on a green tour of San Marcos to see various buildings using different techniques.  He’s become quite an expert in them – I will find the link to his blog, and post it here.  I’ll add more when I can upload photos.  Our tour was about a 3 hour walk, half uphill, then back down, stopping at different sites where he explained the construction methods used.  At the end, I had just a few minutes to see their team’s progress.

This is inside one of the houses that Charlie built.

As it was, we missed the 4:15 boat back, and had to wait for the next one.  The lake was choppy and we got back later, so no one ventured a swim today, not even JC.  Instead, we sat down around a fire with a few beers before dinner. 

This is such an interesting, diverse group of people.  All ages, different backgrounds, everyone with something to contribute.  Part of this, of course, comes from John.  Besides being a good designer and entrepreneur, he has an instinct for setting up and guiding teams.

This place we’re staying reminds me of Biras Creek in the BVI, where my daughter did her internship.  Ironic, because that’s the top resort in the BVI (besides the island owned by Richard Branson), and this is a remote location with limited resources. 

I think we’re only on the fourth day, but I feel like I’ve been here for a month.  Each day is so rich and full.  When I went to Australia two years ago, it felt like a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  This feels more like someplace I’ll come back to.  Perhaps with the ATC again, perhaps some other way.

Our group is John’s pilot for expanding ATC to non-students.  For those of you who are reading this and want to try it, there will likely be opportunities.  One thing that makes this a challenge is that every project ATC does is different.  Planning is for a different project each time.  ATC’s goal is to design & develop technologies  and share the designs, but this doesn’t mean repeating projects.

Tomorrow, I will return to the solar site for the morning.  I’m anxious to see the progress.  There is also an adobe house being built next door, and I want to see their progress.  For that house, they made adobe bricks with dirt from the site.  They’ve been laying brick walls, using mud between the bricks.   Everything used to build it comes from the site itself.  I’ve been photographing their progress along with ours.  In the afternoon, a few of us will visit a more remote village.  The community there has just completed building a school – they are too remote to send their children to the schools here, as it would require a boat ride.  The school does not yet have electricity.  We’re going to look at their needs and document them, so that ATC can come up with a design.  It might become a future ATC project.

I was about to add a few photos, but my computer is out of power.  So instead, I'll go back to the campfire.  :)

Monday, February 27, 2012

Today was a planning and organizing day.

We started with a buffet breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast.  Then we headed up the hill to the school in the back of two pickup trucks.

We started with an orientation and an overview of the projects.   Pat Torpie gave us a history of the CECAP school.  It’s a community-designed project – the community participated in determining its needs.  The school has both a preschool and a vocational school.   The school just completed its first year of operation.  There are 3 floors. 

John and Doug gave us a description of the solar project design and plan.  There are 4 solar panels that we’ll mount on the roof that will power 6 batteries.  More batteries may be added later.  This is particularly important to the computer lab. 

Charley told us about a traditional Guatemalan technique for creating foundations using bamboo to reinforce mud.  In this area, it’s often better suited than concrete, due to instability from earthquakes and volcanoes.

Then we took a 10-minute break to walk around and look at the school.  People gravitated to the roof, and the design experts jumped right into planning.  Often debating.  Discussions were about the angle of the panels, and where they should be placed. 

 Lifting a panel onto the school.

Some of us took this ‘break’ as an opportunity to walk around the town.

Lunch was prepared and served by the culinary students at the school.  A chicken kabob, and some pie that tasted great.

After lunch, John split us into 3 groups.  The first group was for the Guatemalan technique (I'll add the name of it later) – Andrew was in this group.  They took a boat to San Marco to start their project.  The second group worked on a design for a solar water heating system – a future project that two of the students are here to scope out. 

MJ and Greg, who have their own construction business, led the third group, which I was in.  Our group also had Craig, a retired engineer and Ben, a math and urban planning expert, and Michael, a student at Green Hills, and Carlos and Andres who live here and have been prepping the site for a week.

After inventorying parts, we discovered that we only have 4 of the specialized bolts and brackets needed.  That’s enough for one panel.  We also have 72 legs and we only need 16.  So the rest of our day was spent coming up with a completely new design to mount them, different from the manufacturer’s plan.  Ben and Craig came up with a way to use the extra legs to make a turnbuckle.  We decided to make a complete mounting frame, and made a parts list.  Greg and Michael went to the nearest town, where they found that each hardware store only carries one thing.  For example, one store had bolts.   As I am writing, there is a small group revising the design and determining what we’ll be able to accomplish this week.  It’s definitely an exercise in improvising using only local resources.

More photos to come....

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Andrew arrived last night, but was asleep by the time I got back from the concert at midnight.  This morning, I took him down to the grocery store to get a sim card for his droid.  He has a working phone here for the rest of the trip, though no data plan.

This morning, we met again at the Black Cat Inn for breakfast.  But this time, John had taken orders ahead of time, so the kitchen was better organized.  I had a traditional Guatemalan breakfast.

Next up was a 3 hour guided walking tour of Antigua.  Our guide was Elizabeth Bell, a historian who has lived there for 40 years, and has done a lot of research on the history.  She gave us great insight into the economic changes over the past 20 years.  Antigua did not have a public pay phone until 1999.  Today, there are more cell phones in Guatemala than citizens.  The internet has changed much with information accessibility.  Illiteracy rates are still very high, though they are declining.  Access to google is a plus for the younger generation, as they learn things that were not previously accessible.  I bought a copy of her book, and she signed it for us.
Our tour ended at a jade factory, where we learned about different kinds of jade, including that unique to Guatemala, and also the Mayan calendar.  

Really, for me, the best part of the day was meeting my friend Sara and her daughters.  They live in Guatemala City, and took a bus to Antigua to join our tour.  It turns out that their father knows Elizabeth, as he is also a tour guide, also.  I really enjoyed walking around with them and hearing how they're doing.  I will post pictures of them, as well, when I can get my photos to a computer.  I brought a few shirts for the girls (including one UM and one MSU).  I'd brought a book for Sara, but I left it on the plane - ah, well, perhaps it will educate someone else.  And I gave Sara my rolling ring that I'd gotten at the Portland Market (artists), when I used to travel there for business.

Below:  Me and my son, Sara and her daughters.

This photo is for our friends at RS.

Sara and her daughters gave me a beautiful hand painted picture on a curved clay roof tile.  It was done by a friend of hers.  As I understand it, the paintings are done on some kind of napkin, then decoupaged or pasted onto the clay, and then a finish is added.  It will look great in my living room, which needs some pictures.

At 1:00, we loaded our luggage onto a bus, and Ruben drove us across the mountains to Lake Atitlan.  It was about a 2 hour drive.  We stopped for a late lunch, where the last 4 members of our group met up with us - they'd flown in today.  I think our total number is 20 now.  From there, we took a boat ride in two small boats to Santa Cruz la Laguna, where we checked in.  Dinner is promptly at 7 daily.

This place has internet access, but no wifi.  In order to add pictures to this, I'll either have to transfer them to a USB stick (I didn't bring one, but my son will no doubt have a few), or borrow John's Tigo stick to log in from my own.  Either way, it's a multistep process.

Tomorrow is our first work day.  There are two main projects going on this week, and John says that everyone will have an opportunity to work on both.  The first one is the solar photovoltaic system at the school.  The second one is working on a foundation using traditional concrete and bamboo construction.  I'll have more to say about this later.  There is a third project for a few people - some students will be going up in the mountains to another school that currently has no electricity.  In 2013, ATC will have a trip there to set up a solar system for them; the students are going now to research the needs.

The next 5 days are all work days for the projects, though we'll likely have some free time.  And there is some discussion about scuba in the lake on one of the afternoon.

I am traveling with a diverse and interesting set of people.  John says that this is his pilot for more trips like this (open to nonstudents) in the future.  I know I'll be recommending it.  It's been an intense few days, all good, and I feel like I've been here for a long time, not just 2 days.  And I am starting to fade, so that's all for now.

This is out of order, but I had limited time and the concert was the best of many high points during the day, so I wanted to write about that first.

Other Saturday highlights.

We had breakfast at the Black Cat Inn, but the kitchen was only able to cook for a few people at  time, so it took most of the morning.  My French toast was good, but it was some kind of deep fried bread, not what I was expecting.

After breakfast, we had free time to wander around for a bit.  I was with others part of the time, and on my own part of the time.   I had lunch at the Rainbow Room, recommended by John.  I'm sticking with places that he knows have food that should not make you catch something.  While walking around, I ran into Pedro, Jose and the sound guy, finishing their ice cream.  They stopped in a music shop, where Pedro tried out some drums.  It was good that I ran into them, because I learned that the concert was planned to start at 8, not 9.

Antigua is in a valley between 3 active volcanoes.  Stunning scenery.

At 2, Ryan arrived, and took us for a tour to a few places.  Ryan is from Arkansas, and teaches math and physics at a school in Guatemala City.  So he's quite familiar with Antigua.  John had eaten one of those things he warns us against, so he didn't join our walking tour.  First, we went to the Artists market.  Ryan told us that you could easily spend an hour there, but I found this a good male characterization.  I could spend a day!  We will have free time next Saturday to go back.  At the market, he tells us to offer 50% of what's offered and settle for 75%.

We also saw the more traditional market, next to the Artisans market.  Sections with food, with clothes, with hardware, all kinds of things.  At an herb booth, the owner offered us marijuana - I don't think he was joking, though drugs are not a huge problem in this country (other than drug traffic through the country.)

Then Ryan took us to the coolest McDonald's that I've ever seen.  Not for the food, just to check it out.  There is a large courtyard with a fountain, with Ronald McDonald on a bench and a mountain in the background - I will post a photo soon.

Last night's concert was magical.

We took a taxi to the church where it was held.  (John insisted since it's outside of central Antigua.)  It's an outdoor venue in front of the church with seating for about 1500.  We went to the front of the line and Ryan explained that I am a friend of Pedro's.  They couldn't help.  But then Tim & Gayle saw a guy with an All Access Pass, so we talked to him.  When Ryan gave the same explanation and showed him Pedro's business card, he said, 'You're the ones from the airplane', and went and got our tickets.  Ben, Tim, Gayle, Ryan and I all went.

This is Pedro in front of the church for the sound check in daylight.

This is Jose from earlier in the day, at a music shop.

There was a beer tent, so of course we got Gallo while we waited.  The warmup band started at about 9 and then the main event started at 10.

Although Nicho is famous in the Latin America world, I had not heard of him.  All 5 of us have become fans.  Nicho plays acoustic guitar, and sings in Spanish.  His songs might fall into what we'd consider easy listening, though some are more uptempo.  He is an amazing guitarist, and Jose is great on the drums.  This alone would have made it an awesome concert.

Nicho is a great entertainer, also.  At this point, I understand about 50% of the Spanish that I hear, so I didn't quite catch all of the jokes.   Nicho came out into the crowd and performed there as well.

But there was more.  Right after Nicho and Jose started performing, Pedro came and found us in the crowd. He sat down and talked to us for about 5 minutes about the concert.  Jose had to run to the back twice to have the sound guys make adjustments.  On his way back the second time, I stepped out into the aisle and got another hug.  Then, during the performance, Nicho said that he had a friend in the audience from Michigan. Her name is Tina, but she goes by Lola on Facebook.  (For those of you who know Lola, she does not have an FB page, but this is close enough.)

It's the most personal concert experience I've ever had, and it was an honor to be there as their guests.

And for Tim, a fabulous birthday celebration.

I'll add more photos later, but for now, here's one that Gayle has posted.