Monday, October 31, 2011

This Day in History

One year ago today, I got up at 5 in Sumpango, stuffed my cat in a tote bag, and stood in the back of  a packed bus for over three hours with my training host parents as they accompanied me over the crazily curving roads to my site in Sololá. I had just recovered from a violent food-borne illness, and was both eager and anxious to start the chapter of Peace Corps Volunteer as I left behind my status as a Peace Corps Trainee. 

Since then I have lived in four different housing situations with two additional host families in two departments and have spent over 150 hours studying two different Mayan languages.  I have worked in a school, a health post, in homes, kitchens, gardens, and a cooperative.  I have been in turns lonely, bored, eager, cynical, frightened, euphoric, determined, content, pessimistic, apathetic, inspired, and a host of other states of being.  I have improved my tortilla-making skills, my cockroach killing techniques, and my ability to endure being the center of attention.  I have made new friends in my Guatemalan communities, have strengthened Volunteer friendships, and been incredibly supported by friends and family from home through calls, cards, and even some visitors.

It is staggering to know that I have [only / a whole] year left.  
What the next year of service holds, I won’t pretend to guess.  
There’s only one way to find out!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Chipi Chipi [The Famous]

I got out of bed one night to head to the latrine.  I blearily made my way outside into the intense quiet and for one heart-leaping moment, I was convinced it was snowing.  In the glare of my headlamp I could see gently falling flecks swirling around my head.  Of course, I was comfortably standing outside in shorts, a tank top, and rainboots, so that explanation didn’t hold water.  It dawned on me that this new precipitation – not quite fog, mist, or drizzle – was the Chipi Chipi that the Verapaces are so famous for. 

The rainy season seems to be transitioning out of its roaring phase in which the clouds open up and pound down on the tin roof with a force that makes hearing one’s own thoughts a challenge.  This new mood of soundless wet creeps in and out of the valley and leaves laundry damp even when hung safely under the eaves.  This gentler phase is welcome.  It means the pathways are drying out into solid ground once more, and I no longer fear an involuntary slip-and-slide experience on my way between my house and the road. 

It does signal that dry days are probably not far off.  I need to begin to monitor how well the rain fills my water tank.  In the months to come I may wistfully think of the days when my laundry wouldn’t dry once I reach the point that water is not readily available for laundry on a whim.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Stoves [The Once and Future Project]

In my time in Alta Verapaz I have spent a fair amount of time working on developing an improved efficiency wood burning stove project. The cooperative where I work held a general assembly in September and voted down participating, so I won't see these put in during my time here. It’s a disappointment in some ways, but it was the decision of the community and that’s how things need to happen in participatory development.

I thought I'd still share what I've learned about the technology, since it is work that is being done by many other volunteers across Guatemala. Although its not a project I'll get done, it is certainly a relevant need for my community in A.V.

To set the scene, here are a few pictures of the current state of affairs in kitchens in my community. Almost all houses use an open fire on a fire table, relying on the smoke making its way out between the space where the roof and walls do not meet. This leads to smoke in the living space, which leads to increased respiratory problems affecting women and children the most. What's more, it's a very inefficient use of fire wood, putting a squeeze on family budgets (either through money spent to purchase the wood or time spent to collect it) and exacerbating deforestation problems.   

Now here is a set of photos of an improved wood burning stove under construction.  Most of these are from the trip that Wendy and I took to the department of San Marcos back in June to learn the construction process.  This particular style of stove is unique to that community, and was designed in collaboration with the participants/users to fit the cultural needs as an acceptable substitute for their previous set-up.

The builders take a hoe to the hard packed dirt floor to get the base level
and measured out to the right dimensions.
The base is three sides of a box built out of cinder block.
To prepare a concrete slab under the burning chamber, they built a frame
without nails so the wooden pieces could be easily removed and reused afterward.  
The finished form ready to pour the concrete.

The slab has rebar in the middle to provide structure. 
At this point the stove is left overnight to allow the concrete to set.

The next day, a third layer of block is placed upon the slab.
The blocks are filled with pumice to increase the thermal retention.
Bricks create an inner chamber, leaving another buffer of pumice between the blocks and bricks.
A pumice filling made the floor bricks ramp upwards toward the back of the stove.
This helps with air flow, and to prevent users from over-loading the stove with firewood.
The cracks were filled...
...and the stove top checked for a perfect fit.  
The chimney is a cement tube for the first meter, then continues up as metal.
The "hat" on the top of the chimney is a signature of every "improved stove."
The exterior is coated and smoothed, although the stove top is left loose for easy removal during cleaning.
A family posing by their completed stove.
The final product has the four signature features of an improved stove: A metal stove top, a door where the fuel is inserted, a chimney, and a "hat" on the chimney top. In addition, this stove is has a larger work space along the top, since the stove is the main item in Guatemalan kitchens. This provides counter space for use in food preparation or for eating. The side left open below the fire chamber acts as an ideal space to store fire wood, particularly in rainy locations such as Alta Verapaz where it is a challenge to keep firewood dry.   

Although these stoves won't be appearing in my community any time soon, I do still have hope that they will eventually be the standard kitchen ware here. I know that the process of developing the project captured the imaginations of many cooperative members, and that some of them may be just the leaders this community needs to get the project to fruition at some point in the future.