Friday, January 30, 2009

exciting new projects!

While i was supine, some interesting developments took place. Carlos finally did show, and augmented an existing corn masher to be run by bike. And Will began constructing a prototype of an add-on device he designed- titled "project: wheel"

I didn´t get to take too many shots of this while i was up, it was pretty quickly whisked away to a far off jungle. I´m not sure how it works, but the pedals spin the big fly wheel (which is just a bike wheel poured full of cement) and that turns something which grinds or mashes corn into a pulp useable for making tortillas. I wish i knew what all of the associated trays and containers do, but no one seemed to know, and Carlos was far to busy to explain.

Will´s design came out of a discussion we had with MP´s Volunteer Coordinator Rubin. We learned in this discussion that the bicimaquinas are not donated, as previously believed, but they are sold. Generally sold at a loss, but still too high for most to afford.

All of us came here to learn about bicimaquinas, to aid in their creation and donation to the masses. So this news was a good impetus to get thinking of ways to reduce costs, increase revenue, and encourage monetary and bicycle donations.

Will, a mechanical engineer by training, almost immediately began designing a grain mill model that could be connected to an existing bike. His design would reduced the need for materials, save labor time, and was simple enough that any of the volunteers (i.e. free labor) could produce them. Its small size makes it portable, and inexpensively mailed, thus extending the range of places it gan go within the country. Its immediate downsides would be that you can´t see or reach what you´re grinding, necessitating another person for the most efficient grinding possible. Also, without the fly wheel, it has less power and may not grind as well (Will didn´t seem to think so though).

It didn´t take him too long to mock up a prototype. It worked almost exactly as he envisioned. The small wheel you see is attached to a bike fork, the part that holds the front wheel of a bicycle. The fork is hinged to a stem (?) the part that hold the handle bars to the rest of the bike. The stem can then be attached with screws to the seat post, as you see below.

Because of the inherent friction of the rubber, the two bike wheels act like cogs which turn the chain and spin the grinder.

The grain mill is clamped to two pieces of rebar which are welded onto the top of the fork. The mill can be removed and a corn de-kerneler can be swapped into its place. Presumably other similarly sized devices could as well. The strap you see in the above picture is to increase the pressure between the two wheels to ensure solid contact. Also, the back axel needs to be propped up in order to keep yourself from biking away.

There were, of course, a few unforseen problems with Will´s design. The first was that the chain cog, or whatever its called, wouldn´t necessarily spin with the wheel. Will welded it on. Problem solved.

The next was that the angle of the prototype required the seat to come way up, okay for 6 foot-something Will, but not for your average Guatemalan.

I dont know what Will´s thouhgts are on how to fix this, but i thought perhaps a longer stem, also one that´s angled slightly up, in addition to one or two more pivot points, would allow the device to slip under the seat at a comfortable height, or any height, and it would conform a little more naturally to the shape of the bike. It would also get the gear of the mill a little further away from the bike seat.

Another problem was that the angle of the fork wasn´t quite right, and the whole thing sat slightly askew. Still workable, but less efficient and definitely not as nice to look at. I suggested to Will that perhaps during the construction of the model, that the stem have welded to it a threaded piece (threaded as in a screw). The fork could have welded to it the corresponding threaded piece and the two could be manually twisted into place until perfectly alligned and then tack welded right there (tack weld being a quick holding weld, to make due until you do a real weld). Will thought this was a good idea and could simplify getting the angles right, especially for less skilled workers.

Will commented that the wheel was too large, a smaller one would be better- more rotations per minute. I suggested that the wheel could be stripped entirely and the hub covered in rubber just like the liquadora (from a previous post). That would increase the RPM dramatically. But Will thought too dramatically.

Its a great start. I´m really excited by Will´s design, i think he´s really onto something. It will be awesome to keep working on it and see how it can be improved and implemented.

Roosters are my new worst friend

I have a loose list of things that i strongly dislike, Roosters, have recently been put at the top of that list.

The awful noise that they make is terrible at any time of the day. But of course, they choose the most innopportune times to make those noises. Namely 1 AM and around 4-5 AM. The worst part being the viral spread of their screams.

It only takes one rooster, one stupid awful rooster, to decide its time to make a fuss, then suddenly a mitosis of crowing begins. Before you know it, one has multiplied itself into 300 and roused all the neghboring dogs as well.

This cacophonous call and response can erupt at any time, last for any length, and end just as abruptly. And all for reasons our human senses could never perceive.

The worst, however, is actually the occasional addition to the chorus of a pig being slaughtered. Its only happened once, but i could almost swear that satan was squealing outside of the door, producing the most piercing, unnerving sound i´ve ever heard in my life. The dogs and roosters at this point make up the chorus of the damned, moaning horribly in the background of this aural hell.

I´ve decided to build myself a cave of wool felt. And foam egg crates.

Oh, and here´s the list:

1. roosters
2. hiccups
3. cobwebs in my face
4. sudden stops in the car
5. American Exceptionalism
6. being put on the spot
7. the way that Anime characters squint their eyes and their mouths get big enough to swallow a boat, while being incredibly whiny at the same time
8. choppy cell phone calls
9. dentists drills- even just the sound
10. amoebas

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


Several succesful gambles at eating street food led to one that wasn´t.

I´ve been pretty sick for the last couple of days, but i´m coming out of it now. Not many pictures taken, but would you really want to see them anyway?

For any first time travelers out there, the street food isn´t worth the hassle. I thought it was, mostly because i was winning my gambles. But on the other end i wish i had been more careful.

Not the end of the world, just exhausting and gross.

Many many thanks to everyone for all of the support, advice, meals, and general care- you guys are amazing.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Women for Development in Action

This morning I had to make a tough call, that turned out not to be so tough. Supposedly Carlos was going to work on a machine, a rare opportunity to learn from the maestro. The other option was to go see Las Mujeres de Desarrollo en Acción.
From Maya Pedal´s website:

This local women's collective produces 100% organic aloe shampoo from plants they grow in their own homes, using the bicycle blender. The sale of this shampoo helps support their families and fund their independently-run municipal reforestation project.

The choice to go becamse clear when Johanna told me that this wasn´t a happening that i could just go stop in on any time, it was a once-during-my-trip opportunity. Plus Carlos probably wasn´t going to show.

Johanna led us on foot to the women´s meeting place, just a few minutes from Maya Pedal.
Once there we were warmly greeted by several women and a host of lively children. We were immediately put to work and told that if we were taking pictures we weren´t working. Well... i guess that´s that.

The cameras had to wait til later, but once they emerged this is what they captured.

The aloe spears have to be cut down the sides, the the front and back skins cut off. The snotty fish-like interiors removed and put into a separate container. To call them snotty is really and understatement. Imagine your most snot-filled moment. Multiply it by ten. Then imagine your hands in that moment for hours.

After removing the skins from the flesh, it had to be blended to a smooth pulp. We took turns using the liquadora, which was satisfying, but tiring, for those who tried it. Their version was slightly different from the one in the shop, namely that its base was hand carved as opposed to manufactured. The women´s duaghter made a pretty spectacular effort at the blending, and, well everything for that matter. Clearly, work is the name of the game.

It was disallusioning to see the women pull out an electric blender to work simulataneously, primarily really, to complete this stage of the process.

Once blended, the goo ha to be boiled for a while in a large black cauldron ala the wizard of oz. From there it is strained and allowed to cool some. When its ready its added to 5 kilos of a store bought petro-chemical soap, this was more dissapointing than the blender to most. But as Chris put it, "That´s just real life."

The kids were really a blast, we all had a lot of fun chasing them around and playing games. They thought we were the most intersting things they had ever seen. They intrduced themselves several times and wanted to show us everything. At some point they grabbed a hold of Will´s camera and took a slew of photos, this was the moment that it suddenly became okay for the cameras to be out.

We had a ton of fun, the aloe was both disgusting and wonderful at the same time. It really did resemble pure mucus in touch and sight, but there was something about it (taste?) that made it feel refreshing and beautiful, like cucumbers or swimming on a hot day.

Anna Lisa was all about getting the stuff in her hair. She said it felt like something had been birthed on her head.

At the end of it all, the women made a delicious lunch for us. I said i didn´t feel so sure about eating it knowing that they had probablly not prepared things the way that we would for our lack of immunity. Nina made a good point that it wiould have been pretty rude to not eat it, seeing her point i decided not to rock the boat. The food was great- spicy bean soup with homemade tortillas, an excellent vinegar salad, and the best lemonade i´ve ever had. I´m glad i didn´t skip out, and so far so good.

Tomorrow we head back to buy some of the freshly made shampoo. About half of the crew stayed on for while to help with the dishes and work on the bottling. It was good to see the liquadora being put to good use (instead of us just making smoothies for fun). It was also really good to know that these terrific women, doing terrific work, could continue to do that work, if they chose to, with very little fossil fuels. And hopefully, some day it might make sense for them to hook up with a local soap-making group, or perhaps make their own.

Public safety? Uh, not so much. (A town covered in people Day 2)

Sunday was the second day of the festivities and it was based primarily at night. Though there dind´t seem to be anything happening everyone was packed into the town square, to the side of which there was a stage. And almost as if to answer the crowd´s desires there came a huge burst of flame, followed by Oooo´s and Aaaa´s and some applause. At first i thought it was some sort of pyrotechnics, because just before it happened someone began riling the crowd over the loudspeakers. Curious to see what they had cooked up I stood on higher ground to get a glimpse. About then the words of the announcer shifted, though his tenor remained strangely the same, he said "Be afraid, be afraid, get back, don´t come closer." Which then turned to "Firefighters, has anyone seen the firefighters? Please call the firefighters. Someone call them" The audience began to laugh, and there were some mocking calls for the firefighters from a couple of wise guys.

Turns out, a popcorn machine exploded, right in the middle of the crowd. No one appeared to be hurt, and everyone was totally enthralled (myself included).

Some poor guy ran up to spray it with an extinguisher, which was really quite brave, but when it sputtered the crowd laughed uncontrollably. To them this whole event was fantasticly entertaining, an unexpected addition to the night´s roster.

Then someone came up and poured a big bucket of water on the fire. Not a good idea if its grease. Not only did it not put out the flames, it channeled the flaming grease in a burning river right towards the crowd. At this point, people starting moving away, though most still remained relatively unfazed.

It was at this point that i decided i had had enough of the excitement. In part becuase of the flaming river, but more because it clued me in that the grease had caught, meaning that the gas generator was next and probablly soon. Basically a bomb.

Despite a twisted ankle i got out of there pretty fast (i´ll come back to the ankle in a later post).

From there i made my way to the alfombra, or carpet, carefully laid hours earlier by Carlos, his family, and the Maya Pedal crew. The alfombra is laid out for the carrying of the virgin- a true processional chock full of interactive theater and dramatic- and intentional- pyrotechnics.

The Virgin float, if its even appropriate to call it one, was not pulled, but carried on the shoulders of dozens of people. By far the nicest of the displays, it showed a scene of the virgin, surrounded by angels and cherubs, backed by her holy son. The whole thing was covered in lights, above and below, which required a generator to be carted behind it. The journey of the Virgin took many hours, purportedly going until midnight (i skipped out at ten). Its first stop was the carpet we made, essentially a path of woodchips and pine needles carefully laid out and adorn with colored wood pulp and flowers. The bearers of the Virgin gently destroyed the carpet we laid out (buddhist sand mandalas came to mind). And paused for a while simply to sway.

Some of the boys i´d met earlier during the making of the carpet were excited to have big kids around and wanted us to go with them during the processional. Past the carpet they led us through a back way to get an elevated view. I was suddenly part of the human mass covering the hills, porches and roof tops. What happened next was by far the highlight of the evening (other than the kamikaze popcorn machine).

The Virgin stopped around a bend and satan approached. (Actually, this part was pretty dull, its the next part that was awesome) A blue colored knight descended to fight satan. Jesus perhaps? Not sure. They had a token fight of touching swords and said a bunch of stuff that no one could really hear. Once satan, the man, was defeated satan, the bull, emerged- a much more interesting character than the dead pan sword tapping human version. Satan the bull did a wild dance up and down the street and suddenly burst into illuminated sprays, showering the onlookers with colorful sparks. His costume was covered in a series of tiers that would go off into sucession, growing all the more intense until a final climax. Everyone was in awe, it was an impressive spectacle and undoubtedly very difficult to pull off from a technical perspective.

The bull fought the Virgin several times, losing each time to the revered Guadelupe, and at one point he lost his costume. *To clarify, his costume was really a big structure he had to hold over his upper half, it consisted of a sheild roughly in the shape of a bull, with a bunch of protuding stems holding fireworks.* But losing the suit did not deter the dark knight, no, he picked it up sparks and all and put it right back on to keep going.

Every so often the marching band trailing the Virgin would start up and the bearers of the float would, in perfect time, take a few steps backwards, then forwards, then stop. Whether this rhythm was symbolic or practical wasn´t clear. The float must have weighed a ton, as it took about 40 people to carry it with great effort. The Virgin also made stops for several fireworks displays, some more grand than others. As well as a couple of roof top slap stick skits.

The first skit, which was very difficult to follow, but very funny to anyone who got it, had a few technical mishaps in the fashion of the evening. Several times during the skit fireworks were set off, presumably in time with a climatic moment. But twice the fireworks faltered, once falling off the roof and into the crowded street, where thankfully it did not exploded. And then again it flew sideways over heads, nearly missing an ecstatic audience. I was continually impressed by the fearlessness of this crowd- a fearlessness which made me very aware of the fearfulness of my own culture, and how this kind of event would have spelled lawsuits galore.

There were further low flying, low exploding fireworks throughout the night. A couple times the tail end of some brilliant explosion would rain down upon our heads. In fact, later in the night a firework bounced off of Anna Lisa´s head (which she thought was great!).

Misfirings included, it was a terrific festival and a wonderful introduction to Guatemalan culture. I´ve heard that Easter is twice as lively- too bad i won´t be here.

Beth and Chris, holding it down for the gringos

A town covered in people

This past weekend was a whir of activity as the rest country, or so it seemed, poured into San Andreas Itzapa. The reason? The Virgin Mary. Every year Itzapa hosts the annual festival to celebrate the Virgin, and it just so happened to be my first weekend here.

Everywhere you looked there were vendors selling variations on the same few food items. To a lesser extent people brought crafts to sell, though they were pretty overwhelmed by thousands of rumbling bellies. I ventured to try some of the street food, despite warnings against it. I had some great breads, some of which were dunked in what tasted like honey tea. There were dried plantains, french fries, soft tacos, some sort of kielbasa with several sauces on a hot dog bun. There was also plenty of ice cream and toffees and dried fruit. Mmmmmmm.

I´m not sure what its called but it was pretty good and very difficult to eat. The ladies who sat next to me were trying very hard not to laugh as huge chunks of it fell unceremoniously onto my lap. One of them even produced a spoon for me to use.

The festival was akin to something i experienced at college called "hot dog day." Though the official celebration occured only between two days, the fireworks started much sooner (and are still going). The first really big day was Saturday, when the parade began.

Though dotted with some religious displays, the parade was, to a large extent, not exactly religiously themed- as you´ll see in some of the pictures of dancing teeth, creepy women, and phantoms of the opera.

Just about every troupe in the parade had their own sounds system, and in some cases live bands, which made for a very very noisy town full of competing sounds.

Some of the sound systems were a little more extreme than others. Tied to the machismo no doubt.

What was most interesting about the parade was that it was more like a processional. Even though the performers didn´t appear to be changing there routines at all, everyone kept a few steps ahead of them to watch as they traveresed just about every street and side street in town. People, and kids in particular, crammed onto every surface they could to get a glimpse of the excitement. A large part of the excitement, it seemed, was just the process of following the parade. (This was a fascinating difference in culture to observe- Americans adults would only need to see it once, to watch it again would be a waste of time)

*Note the kids up in the bell tower

And here are a couple of the floats pre-parade

A pig. Maybe.

And us, sharing a tub of ice cream. From left to right: Beth, Anna Lisa, me, Josh and Heather. It seems our photographer didn´t notice Will and Nina. Oh, and looking now, im digging the kid flexing right above my head. Will wanted to get a picture of my flip flops being shoe-shined, and the little guy above me (and all of his friends) was very excited to do so, they called out "muestra muestra!" Which i think means, "show, show!"

We looked around the town center for the flower from the night before, but it was nowhere to be found. Someone thought it was scheduled for Day 2, but we found out later that it happened that day and we all somehow missed it. And Day 2... well, day 2 really deserves its own post.