Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Dead Wheat Chronicles - Part 3: Food

There are people in the world so hungry
that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.
~Mahatma Ghandi

I balance atop a shaky steel beam high above solid ground as the hot tropical sun beats down, punishing my skin. Wobbly screws rebel against my efforts to secure the clear plastic to the roof of the newly constructed greenhouse frame of Dead Wheat's pilot aquaponics project. Sweat drips from my face onto the translucent plastic and runs down to where my hand nervously grips the steel. Drilling the self-tapping screws through steel requires a certain balanced pressure that is difficult to achieve, especially when one's mind is preoccupied with gravity's unfortunate consequences. Though I am intensely focused on my task, a screw slips, and I plunge the blunt end of the hex head drill bit into my work companion's index finger.

"You didn't want that finger, did you?" I ask with a semi-serious face.

"No, not at all," he replies with a grin and then peels the excess skin away with his teeth.

"Sorry, man," I say with a hard sigh trying to hold back my frustration. "This is irritating," I add. He raises his eyebrows in agreement while examining the damage to his finger. I suppose he has more reason to be frustrated.

I look out across the verdant landscape dotted with large gray boulders and admire the bright blue sky and rolling mountains of Chiriquí province in western Panama. A slight sense of déjà vu sets in as the situation and the frustration remind me of another greenhouse I worked on in the mountains of Ecuador. Though the causes of my frustration were somewhat different then, the lessons are nonetheless the same. I remind myself that my minor struggle is part of a much larger effort that could positively affect the lives of many struggling people here in Panama. When put in perspective, troublesome self-drilling screws and a bit of sweat do not seem so significant.

Working on the roof of the greenhouse

Aquaponics is Dead Wheat's answer for a contextually appropriate solution to the basic human need of food security, specifically here in Panama where the organization is based. The technology, however, is applicable around the world. It is not a new idea but rather an application of ancient techniques revitalized with modern materials or methods. Read more about Dead Wheat's food security program here.

The basic idea of aquaponics is an enclosed ecosystem for cultivating plants and aquatic animals, in this case Tilapia fish. The system is symbiotic, self-sufficient and preserves water through recirculation. Aquaponic systems include a tank to raise fish and grow beds filled with gravel rather than soil to grow vegetables, cereals, legumes, etc. The fish feed upon naturally occurring algae in the water while the plants derive their nutrients from the fish waste and filter the water before it returns to the fish tank. A wide range of nutritional needs, including protein from fish and vitamins from various vegetables, can be provided by these systems.

The Dead Wheat aquaponics project is a long time in the making, and is still only in its beginning stages. The pilot project on the Bliss property has already experienced a serious setback in January of this year. The greenhouse enclosing the grow beds and fish tank was complete, and the system was nearly ready to receive fish and seed. The strong winds, sometimes sustained hurricane strength, that accompany the transitional months between rainy season and dry season here in the highlands of Chiriquí province were too strong for the bamboo structure of the greenhouse.

The winds caused a complete failure of the bamboo structure.

Steve Bliss of Dead Wheat works to disassemble the fallen structure.

Clearing the debris from the concrete grow beds.

These setbacks, though devastating to finances and morale, are important learning opportunities. For this climate and its strong winds, bamboo is not a sustainable construction material. The new design implements steel structural support, plastic mesh to allow air flow, and a curved roof extending to the ground to deflect strong winds. Once Dead Wheat has the pilot project up and running, they will be better suited to implement scaled-down versions in communities that have expressed interest. Regarding the project's evolving design Dead Wheat comments, "As we continue moving forward, and as our understanding evolves, we have no doubt that our prototype design will require yet more adjustments." Completion of the new structure is only a few weeks away.

Construction underway on the new steel frame.

In the Ngöbe-Buglé comarca of Panama where Dead Wheat primarily works, the indigenous population faces a growing problem with food security. One study estimates that over half of indigenous children are malnourished! As Steve Bliss of Dead Wheat describes his early experience in the comarca, "When food commodity prices rose in 2008 [the Ngöbe] people went without. I was struck with all the issues: lack of water, lack of food grown locally due to poor soil, people making less than enough to eat when we experience a commodity spike and the bondage to poverty [that] brings."

Following these experiences, Dead Wheat set about "to design a simple, cyclical, contextually appropriate system that is energy efficient, uses locally available natural resources and, once operational, is independent from outside inputs in order to assist communities that are currently in a state of food vulnerability transition to a state of food security."

This is the point where traditional thinking and Dead Wheat's methods typically diverge. Most contemporary social aid programs provide handouts so that a result is immediately seen. This focus on instant gratification often overlooks the fundamental problems in a community and undermines any real and sustainable attempts to remedy the situation. The handout becomes compulsory as more members of the community develop a dependency rather than working towards a long-term solution. Why invest precious time, energy and resources into growing rice if a well-intentioned social program provides free rice?

Dead Wheat's method is to allow communities the freedom to define their own needs by investing in "longer term relationship building in communities to hear needs expressed in the routine of their daily lives. With this we can build capacity in the areas expressed by creating opportunities to gain knowledge. The village can then be empowered to make change themselves." This approach, however, is not widely used because it requires extensive time and effort and provides no immediate tangible results.

We often fail to appreciate just how extremely complex the issues can be when it comes to food security (or any community development issue for that matter). There are innumerable social, economic, environmental and cultural considerations including current farming techniques, local soil quality, climate, availability and accessibility of equipment and fertilizers, availability of water, local community politics, social hierarchies, cultural preferences, and the list goes on. Sifting through all of it is an immense task for anyone, especially an outsider. Allowing the local community to navigate the majority of the issues, which they are most familiar with anyway, helps streamline the process, grants dignity to the community and ensures a higher success rate.

Appreciating the complex issues, however, is not the central problem. I think the First World lacks a fundamental understanding of Third World food security issues because we are surrounded by food in the First World. We never have to worry about food or work very hard to acquire it. It is pervasive in our society beyond the point of superfluity. We cannot grasp the concept because even the poorest in a country as wealthy as the United States does not have to go far to find sustenance.

Rather than recognizing that this overabundance is due to many environmental and economic factors heavily leaning in our favor, we tend to attribute the problem to the impoverished by labeling them as incapable of providing for themselves. The ignorant, yet nearly universal, solution is to save the poor with our excess. As long as this approach is taken when a population is not in crisis, or continued after a population has emerged from crisis, it will create dependency and deny the dignity of self-sufficiency to an already marginalized population.

Ngöbe at a summer school nutrition program in the comarca.
Photo courtesy of Stacy Wasmuth
Blue Candy Photography

I am often overwhelmed by the varying, often contradictory, goals and methods that exist in the field of humanitarian assistance. As I stand atop the aquaponics greenhouse, I contemplate how Dead Wheat's methods differ from other projects and organizations. I realize something that I had not quite fully understood at the project in Ecuador: hard work and good intentions in community development must be accompanied by a long-term commitment to the best interests of any given community and those interests must be defined by the community itself.

We seem to always want the quick-fix solution, and we apply this in our approach to humanitarian aid and community development work. Developing communities without creating dependencies or alienating the community is a tricky task that involves first understanding the community, then building upon their capacities so as to empower them to create their own change. The old adage applies: "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." Unfortunately, we fail to apply this wisdom in many aspects of life, and, in the context of community development, neglecting this can lead to reckless policies that put impoverished communities at further risk. Dead Wheat has realized this fallacy and works towards a truly sustainable, contextually appropriate solution for each problem.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Dead Wheat Chronicles - Part 2: Air

For breath is life, and if you breathe well you will live long on earth.
~Sanskrit Proverb

I squirm in my seat seeking a bit of relief for my long legs while packed in the back of a small pickup truck fitted with two simple benches and a roll cage covered in canvas. There are twenty three people inside or hanging off the truck bed, plus three in the cab, as we rattle down the road made of dirt, rocks and small boulders. I share leg room with an older Ngäbe man wearing a tan cowboy hat, a young mother adorned in a dress of brilliant light blue holding her infant daughter, and a boy's pet kitten enduring the ride inside a burlap sack underneath the bench in front of me.

Two hours from the Pan-American Highway the dirt road ends at the
Ngäbe village of Llano Ñopo, our home base for this trip. I am accompanied by Jenni Bliss of Dead Wheat and Barry Rodriguez of World Next Door. Dead Wheat has a small concrete house built at the edge of the village for housing long-term, on-site volunteers. We will sleep there and start hiking early in the morning through the mountains deep into the Ngöbe-Buglé comarca of Panama. We have no specific route planned out. All we have is the reluctant assistance of a local named Juan and the name of a village deep in the mountains: Trinchera.

My first trip into the comarca with Steve Bliss and Barry proved to be one of the most challenging, eye-opening, and uncomfortable experiences of my entire trip through South America. We worked on an aqueduct project for the village of Kuite on the Caribbean side of the comarca, and I found out just how difficult providing potable water to remote villages can be.

Our purpose on this trip is to gather demographic data
for distributing smokeless stove molds in some of the most remote areas of the Ngöbe-Buglé comarca. Dead Wheat's website explains the concept of the smokeless stove and why it is an appropriate and necessary solution for the indigenous population in the region. The main reason the stoves are needed is the chronic health issues from constant smoke-inhalation due to cooking on open fires inside closed huts. Steve Bliss explains in detail in one of his blog entries:
Most of the homes located in the rain forest regions of the world use three-rock open fire stoves to cook their food. Due to the rains, they typically do this in mostly enclosed rooms. These open fires create a lot of smoke, which is the problem. But smoke is simply the result of gases released from the wood fuel that are not consumed by the flames due to an inefficient, uncontrolled burn. This same smoke in the developed world is best known for creating creosote build up in chimneys which occasionally creates destructive fires. But in this context, this smoke creates chronic health problems when breathed in on a daily basis. Also, inefficient burning wastes potential wood energy which contributes to high rates of wood consumption and deforestation.

Traditional hut of the region -
notice the thick smoke seeping through the thatched roof
(Picture compliments of World Next Door)

A prototype of the smokeless stove in operation

The information we seek on our hike includes typical demographics such as population and number of houses in each village for distribution purposes, but we are also evaluating the interest level amongst the people for these smokeless stoves. As Steve Bliss explains,
"[when] introducing a new idea to the [indigenous], one is faced with over four hundred years of history that is deep seated. They don’t really notice the health need. They think that the health issues are normal."

After a simple dinner of tuna and crackers, we organize our packs for the hike and lie down on cots and air mattresses hoping not to be accompanied by six-legged creatures in the night.

We rise early in the morning, 4:00 AM, to eat breakfast before Juan comes to start the hike at 5:00 AM. Barry reports that he had indeed received several critters as bed-mates during the night. "Did you at least catch their names?" is my response. An early morning chuckle slowly rolls out of him and Jenni as we sip coffee waiting for Juan.

At 6:00 AM, which is about 5:00 AM Latin Time, Juan finally strolls up, and we head out with our headlamps lighting the path.

The first thirty minutes are more or less easy, flat hiking, and dawn starts to break as we begin our first steep ascent. Halfway up Jenni, Barry and I are already sucking wind. Fortunately we can use the magnificent sunrise peaking over the mountains in the distance as a reason to stop and breathe in the crisp morning air.

After about an hour of serious climbing, we enter the first town called Alto Ciénaga perched on a plateau overlooking valleys and rivers leading deeper into the comarca. We pass a few thatched-roof huts before coming to a small, square shack with an open window in front and topped with corrugated sheet metal. Our guide Juan says it is a shop if we would like to buy something to drink. Apparently they sell Coca-Cola along with a handful of other luxury items like batteries, Tang packets, and chewing gum. As we approach, the man who runs the shack steps up to the window with a curious but skeptical look.

"Yan-toro" I say to the shopkeeper, proud to know at least a greeting in the native Ngäbere language.

"Buenos días" he responds in Spanish. So much for cultural sensitivity.

The shopkeeper tells us that the village is comprised of eighty to ninety houses spread widely across the top of the mountain and extending down to the river below. There are between 500 and 700 people in the village, and they have no reliable potable water source.
Their only option is to hike down to the river and then carry the water an hour up the hill in buckets. Drinking Coca-Cola was preferable since it was sure to be uncontaminated. Few, if anyone, can afford the luxury all the time though, and I ponder the health implications of making the soft drink a staple in an already malnourished diet.

Jenni, Barry and I debate the feasibility of an aqueduct in the area. Seeing that the village is situated at the top of the mountain, it would be almost impossible to find a water source, i.e. a natural spring, that is at a higher elevation than the village. Aqueducts are gravity-fed, and pumping water is a difficult, expensive and unsustainable solution. How many trained engineers that can service and maintain a water pump are likely to be found in the village?

We discuss the smokeless stoves, and the shopkeeper seems to think the idea would be accepted by the people in the village. Much of the land has already been cleared of trees, and finding sufficient firewood is a challenge.

Jenni and I ordering a Gatorade at the drive-thru... No, not really
Discussing the smokeless stoves with the shopkeeper

Alto Ciénaga we descend to the river, make the precarious crossing over slippery rocks and rushing water, and begin another hour and a half ascent straight up the next mountain.

Around midday we arrive in Llano Venado and eat lunch while resting under the shade of some trees bordering a vacant school.
The locals who live adjacent to the school tell us that there is no teacher, and therefore the school is not operational at the moment. The good news, however, is they do have an aqueduct that supplies potable water to the twenty six families in the community as well as the school, which serves students from other nearby villages.

Our smokeless stove idea is received with a bit of interest, though I imagine it is difficult to envision without seeing one in operation.

We continue on the hike with our guide walking way ahead of us unconditioned gringos. We keep having to pause for water and breath breaks every 15 minutes. I start to think that we are the ones who need water and air security rather than the indigenous.

Barry and I begin to struggle with knee cramps on one of the particularly long hills. We are carrying tarps and tents along with cans of tuna, water and other provisions adding a lot of weight. A young man leading a donkey passes us, and we ask how far to Trinchera. His eyes flash wide as he exhales heavily and turns to look back the way he came exclaiming, "Muy lejos!" Very far? How could it still be very far? We have been walking for nearly seven hours at this point, and our understanding was that Trinchera was an eight hour hike from
Llano Ñopo.

"How far from here?" I ask the man, knowing their time is not like our rigid clock-time and one hour could be more like three or four.

"Oh, about another half day or more. Maybe eight or nine hours," he replies. "We're doomed!!" flashes through my mind before I thank him and continue trudging up the hill.

Within two hours we reach a another village called Guayabal.
We stand on the trail overlooking Guayabal for several minutes to catch our breath and discuss our plan. Meanwhile a local man wearing khaki slacks and a red button-up shirt walks up from the community and introduces himself. His name is Isabel, and he is in charge of administrative issues for three communities in the area totaling around 3000 people. Isabel informs us that Trinchera is yet another eight hours or so away. So much for our original eight hour total estimate that we received before starting the hike. Slight miscommunication.

Isabel treats us with a healthy suspicion as we describe our work and ask for demographics, jotting down his responses
in our notebook. Jenni and I later discuss how strange it must be for these indigenous people to have a few ratty and worn out gringos walk into their town asking how many people live there and in how many houses. Suspicion seems to me a minimal response.

We discuss the smokeless stoves, and Isabel seems very interested in the prospect. He says he would be willing to oversee the production and distribution process for the three communities. Contacts like these are exactly what we want. By providing a stove mold to the communities, we allow the people to help themselves. It is a holistic approach to the problem that restores dignity to people that have long been marginalized and told that they have no value. Steve explains in greater detail in his blog entry that I quoted earlier:
There are many similar designs that are being mass produced in China and elsewhere, but they are only focusing on one aspect of the problem with little, if any, apparent consideration of the unintended effects of their good intentioned solutions. Let me explain.

Like many other groups, we work with the "Bottom billion" who are making around a dollar a day per family. They are unable to afford a manufactured stove, let alone its ongoing maintenance. And here's the dilemma. When good intentioned groups raise funds to buy mass-produced finished products for distribution, it meets [the indigenous people's] primary need, but fails to empower them with knowledge of the technology and the means to produce the technology so they can help themselves. Instead, it only serves to nurture a dependency on the outside world and destroys yet another layer of dignity. This has, and is, creating a culture of beggars.

Isabel also responds enthusiastically to an aquaponics project to supplement nutrition in the communities, even going so far as to request long term live-in volunteers. We are not in a position to take on this sort of project yet, but we are encouraged by his enthusiasm and initiative.

The three communities receive potable water from a large aqueduct, but after more discussion, Isabel admits that the tank is not working properly and walks us up to take a look.

Jenni, Isabel and I discuss the underwater tank's problem

A view of the large underground reservoir with a low water-level

Isabel explains that the water pressure is insufficient for providing ample water
to all 3000 people. Even at night when water-usage is low, the tank does not fill up. Our initial assessment is that there is a leak preventing water retention inside the tank. We admit to Isabel that we are not the experts on the issue, but we think that Steve would be able to easily find the problem and fix it with little hassle. He thanks us for looking.

That night, Isabel graciously allows us to stay in the concrete health post in the village for the night. We turn in when the sun goes down, around 6:30 PM, and allow our aching bodies to recover for the return hike to
Llano Ñopo. We will have to prepare a little better next time if we are going to make it all the way to Trinchera.

In the morning, we receive word that our guide Juan had left the night before. The reason is unclear, but we are nonetheless left to navigate our way out of the mountains on our own. Fortunately (for us, unfortunate for the people in general), the region has been heavily deforested for livestock and firewood, providing open visibility along the hike. From several points along the path, we can actually see
Llano Ñopo nestled in a valley far off in the distance.

View from the trail overlooking one of the region's valleys.
Picture compliments of World Next Door

Fighting cramps, dizziness and complete exhaustion from physical overexertion and dehydration, we arrive back in Llano Ñopo at dusk with only one wrong turn. Barry and I consider our prospects as back-country guides but quickly dismiss the idea after collapsing on the cement floor of the house upon our inglorious return. We had hiked in the heat of the tropical Panamanian sun over mountains and through streams for nine hours the first day and nine and a half back the following day. And now, we're done. Click here for a google map of the hike.

We celebrate our survival with heaping bowls of Ramen noodles with all their MSG flavor-enhancing splendor. We awake in the morning suffering from sustained nausea and fits of vomiting.

Due to our physical state, we miss our opportunity to catch the 8:00 AM truck back to the highway. At 9:30 AM, we stumble across the bridge and wait for the 10:00 AM truck.

While sitting on a ledge in the shade, I meet a young boy who tells me his name is
Elígio. He is eleven years old, and he had left his home in the mountains at 3:00 AM and walked eight hours to Llano Ñopo alone. He has no money and has had nothing to drink since he left home. I jump up from my nauseous stupor as if I were ready to run back to Guayabal, and I grab a water bottle and a juice box for my new friend. I hand him my last granola bar and tell him not to worry about the truck taxi fare. Surprisingly, Elígio's story is not uncommon.

At 1:00 PM a truck finally pulls up to take us back along the daunting dirt road to the highway. Jenni, Barry and I, all feeling and looking various degrees of awful, take deep breaths and climb into spots on the over-crowded, uncovered truck bed.

As we rumble down the rocky pockmarked road, I marvel at the amount of energy one must spend just to get around in this region. This trip, like my first with Dead Wheat, drove home the fact that operating in these remote regions coincides with extreme logistical challenges. For this reason, distributing stove molds and allowing the communities to produce the actual stoves themselves is a much more feasible solution, not to mention the positive element of empowering the people.

The sustainability of the design also adds to its attractiveness as a solution. Stoves can be fabricated using local clay resources or cement, and because the end users see how the stove was made, they are then better prepared to handle its ongoing maintenance. In the most remote areas, hauling a bag of cement to manufacture one or two stoves does not make any logistical sense, but using clay requires little more than a shovel and a few minutes of digging.

Furthermore, each stove mold can produce upwards of 250 stoves before wear-and-tear compromise its utility. At a cost of only $30 per stove mold, each stove produced costs only $0.12, which is a cost that is not passed on to the communities. The communities handle production and stove materials, nothing more. Family sizes average six to eight people meaning one stove mold impacts 1500 to 2000 people - all for only $30 (and perhaps a long hike). High-impact, low-cost, holistic solutions like these are vital to creating a lasting impact.

While our trip was physically debilitating, we are happy with the contacts we made and the overall positive response to the smokeless stove idea. In order for the technology to make a difference, the people must accept it and embrace it. They must also take an active roll in the implementation of the new technology so that it can be understood, retained, and seen as more than a handout worthy of neglect. This participation is as important as the stove itself.

"The greatest humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves..."
-Paolo Freire

To support Dead Wheat's smokeless stove initiative with a donation click here.

*Also, check out Barry's article about the issue on World Next Door's website.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Dead Wheat Chronicles - Part 1: Water

We never know the worth of water till the well is dry.
~Thomas Fuller, Gnomologia, 1732

I sit in a wide, wooden 30-foot-long canoe fitted with simple benches and a 40 HP Yamaha motor that powers us across the Chiriquí Bay on Panama's Caribbean coast. The boat, packed with bags, people and a lone chicken, hums along hugging the beautiful coastline buried in mangrove swamps with mountains swallowed in clouds in the background. My feet rest in two inches of water pooling along the spine of the boat. I start to wonder what the call to abandon ship sounds like in the local Ngöbe language. I glance around to study the looks on the faces of the other passengers. No one seems worried, so I ignore the water too.

Dark clouds hang ominously overhead, though my clothes and backpack are already soaked from our ride in the back of a truck taxi from the bus stop to the docks in Chiriquí Grande. The rain has since abated, but the moisture in the air keeps my clothes thoroughly soaked. As my feet slosh in their soggy sneakers, I think to myself, "This is going to be a common theme."

Water: The essential element. Without it we perish. With so much water around me (and on me), I cannot quite appreciate the reason for the trip out here in the depths of this region's rainy season. Steve Bliss of Dead Wheat International Foundation invited me to join the four-day affair in the Ngöbe-Buglé comarca (a region of Panama) to experience the challenges they face providing community development assistance in impoverished and often remote regions and, more specifically, help with an aqueduct project for the village of Kuite.

After an hour crossing the bay, the boat veers right and travels up one of the many tributary rivers for another three hours. Finally, we reach the small town of Kuite quaintly nestled next to the Mananti river. We grab our gear, including personal backpacks and a very large duffel bag loaded with tools and PVC plumbing parts for the aqueduct, and begin the 2 hour haul over streams, rivers and large pools of sloppy mud to our campsite.

Arrival in Kuite

Within fifteen minutes of starting, we pause to wipe the sweat
dripping from our faces and catch our breath. Barry, founder of World Next Door and our companion for the trip, exclaims with feigned enthusiasm and an accompanying grin, "At least we only have 95% of the hike left guys!"

"Haha, yep, and at least it's all uphill from here," I reply appearing gleeful.

"And, hey, the mud is only shin-deep," adds Steve amidst a heavy chuckle.

Sarcasm would become another common theme of the trip.

Navigating the endless mud

Fortunately, one of the locals who knows Steve sees us struggling and offers to carry the duffel bag of aqueduct supplies to the campsite for $5. With no deliberation, the chorus of irresilient gringos sings its affirmative reply, "YES!"

Two hours of sludge-and-trudge later, we arrive at our campsite and position our tent at the top of a hill to avoid rainwater build-up, only the ground is already sopping wet. A light rain mocks our efforts to create a water-resistant shelter, though we manage to shield ourselves from direct rainfall. By the time we finish, we are sweaty, soaked from rain and humidity, and covered in mud.

We sit under the rain tarp and chat while enjoying a delicious meal of canned tuna. Barry mentions an idea he has for an article about how much time, energy and money we
spend in the United States (and other developed countries) trying to be comfortable. The people that live here have no mattresses, refrigerators, air-conditioning, or any other modern creature comforts that we consider necessary to our well-being (and take for granted). Their perception of comfort is quite different from ours, and they are likely quite comfortable.

As I sit in my moist clothes on top of a deflated (uninflatable) air mattress inside a tent eating food from a can, the thought hits me that I am more fortunate in terms of nutrition and basic necessities here on this hill than many of the people in the region. I have filtered, potable stream water and high-protein food, which already puts me well above the majority who have no other choice than to drink contaminated river water and eat mainly boiled green bananas, plantains, yuca or other low-nutrition foods. Though I may be unprecedentedly uncomfortable, I should recognize my favorable circumstances and not complain (although the sarcastic remarks continue for the sake of comic relief - morale is important).

In the morning, we assemble a make-shift filter for the intake on the aqueduct with PVC plumbing supplies. The filter prevents only large debris from entering and clogging the line; water at the source is uncontaminated and potable straight from the stream. I, of course, test this by downing a few handfuls, and I am pleased to announce that after two and a half weeks I have yet to keel over dead or suffer any severe gringo gastrointestinal reaction.

Our installed filter system

From the intake location, PVC pipes carry water to a holding tank in Kuite. To get there, though, the aqueduct must first cross five to seven kilometers (three to four miles) of rolling hills covered in lush jungle, several streams and a large tract of swampland. Accompanied by two Peace Corps volunteers who are partners of the aqueduct project and live in Kuite, we commence hiking the length of the aqueduct.

Beginning of the aqueduct line as it heads into the jungle

As we walk, my rubber boots sink into thick mud and slip on unstable slopes. In spite of the wise advice I received from my mother about running with knives, I keep my machete handy and hack every vine, weed or any other seed-spawned plant life in sight. The metallic ring from each swipe fosters images of the Spanish conquistadors forging their way through these same jungles centuries ago, though our mission here could not be more different. The conquistadors sought to pillage, impoverish and impose their will upon the inferior barbarians; Dead Wheat seeks to empower communities and provide the basic necessities so people can escape the crushing oppression of poverty. The daydream is entertaining though, and I continue to slice my way through the jungle over the course of the next two hours.

The slippery slopes, thick vegetation, razor grass, and rain seem endless. Much of the aqueduct line remains unconnected, laying over trenches dug by the Kuite villagers where the line will eventually be buried. Walking the line gives me an appreciation for the difficulties of laying so much pipe across this unforgiving terrain.

As dusk descends, we reach the last obstacle between the intake site and the village's holding tank: swamp. "We're going through that?" I ask, trying to mask an incredulous and slightly exhausted tone.

One of the Peace Corps workers braves a first step into the muck and mire only to find his foot buried in a gooey mess with swamp sludge pouring into his knee-high rubber boots. "Hmmmm," is his only response.

"How far to the other side?" asks Steve.

"Wait, I thought you were the guide here," exclaims Barry.

Steve chuckles, and we debate our choices for returning to camp: cross the swamp of unknown size to the main path or backtrack along the aqueduct line and meet the path farther up.

As we hike back up the aqueduct line, the only thing maintaining our morale in our exhausted, water-logged condition is our insatiable penchant for sarcasm: "At least it's still raining." "The razor grass doesn't hurt that bad when it rips into your flesh." "I don't really mind that my toenails are so soggy they feel like they are coming off. They don't exactly serve any purpose." "I bet this mud is really good for your skin, assuming the jungle bacteria doesn't eat your skin." "I can't wait to take a hot shower when we get back to the tent...you brought the shower with you, right Steve?" etc...

Back at the campsite, we wash off in the nearby stream and open another delicious dinner of canned tune. Steve shares some of the difficulties of working in the region posed by the remoteness of the village. For example, transporting all the concrete and PVC piping requires the same four-hour boat ride from Chiriquí Grande to Kuite that we endured. Multiple trips had to be made over time to bring in the supplies. From Kuite, the 100-pound bags of concrete had to be carried individually to the intake site, the same muddy two-hour hike that we endured. On the first concrete pour, a heavy rain began that caused a sudden rise in the volume of water in the stream, which washed away the intake structure before it could set. The pour was rescheduled for the dry season, and more 100-pound bags had to be brought in.

At an overall cost of about $10,000 for materials and transportation, this project is no small feat, and it is an amount that would be practically impossible for communities like Kuite to raise. Most families are subsistence farmers, which means there is nothing left over to sell at a market. There is no money for extra goods, much less an aqueduct project of this scale. For an idea of subsistence farming life amongst the indigenous Ngöbe people, read Barry's article about subsistence farming.

Water is one of the things that we take for granted most in our lives. We forget how essential it is when it flows freely from our faucets, and we forget that many people are not afforded this luxury. The planning and logistics involved with getting potable water to these marginalized communities is mind-boggling. That is why it is refreshing to see organizations like Dead Wheat assisting in this difficult and often expensive process. The result will be tangible and will reduce the occurrence of water-borne diseases that affect many villagers in Kuite, mostly children and the elderly. They certainly understand the worth of water, and their well will soon be full.

Ngöbe children at a school near Kuite

All pictures by Barry Rodriguez from World Next Door. Thanks!!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Magic, Mystery and A Few Mosquitos

Three Frenchman, three Carolina boys, a guy from California and our Colombian guide sit around swatting mosquitos in the middle of the Colombian jungle. We huddle around a picnic table perched at the end of a long line of hammocks wrapped in bug nets and strung up under the thatched roof of an open-air gazebo - our sleeping quarters for the night. A lone candle casts its faint glow across our faces giving the evening an appropriate sense of mystery. We are on our way to the Lost City.

Our guide "Lalo" - 21 years young - recounts stories from his experiences leading the adventurous through the Sierra Nevada mountain range of Northern Colombia in search of the Lost City. His deliberate tone and calm countenance, accentuated by the flickering candle, lend gravity to the mysterious ambience. There is no lack of anecdotes; he has been working the trail since he was 15.

Lalo peppers his stories of adventure with bits of knowledge about the history of the region and our ultimate destination: la Ciudad Perdida (the Lost City). "Finally a history class I won't sleep through," I think to myself.

Founded around 800 AD by the Tayrona tribe (also spelled Tairona), the Lost City is an archaeological site that predates the famous ancient Incan site Machu Picchu in Peru by 650 years. Though the Spanish never discovered the site tucked away deep in the mountainous jungle of the Sierra Nevada, they did indeed discover (and pillage) the coastal tribes that inhabitants of the Lost City traded with, and when that trade was interrupted the city was abandoned. Two more similar sites are rumored to be hidden deeper in the mountains but have not yet been (re)discovered by westerners.

The current native tribes in the region - the Arhuaco, the Kogui and the Arsario - call the Lost City "Teyuna", and they consider the site the inheritance of all natives of the Sierra Nevada. Our campsite for the night is on a Kogui family's land - their round hut rests just a few meters from our hammocks.

Lalo shifts his lesson to focus on the Kogui traditions and beliefs. We sit mesmerized as he describes a spiritual life directed by a shaman (called a mamo) and centered around the mind and its potential rather than the body, intense marriage rites that last 4 days and nights endured by all men who seek a wife, spiritual rituals based around the coca leaf and the organization of community and family life.

I glance at my fellow gringos sitting around the picnic table to see if they are as entranced as I am and detect the amazement gleaming in their awe-struck eyes. We look like little children watching a magic show.

Lalo finishes his presentation and sits quietly looking back at us with a slight grin. The candle sizzles as it reaches the end of its wick. "Buenas noches," he says.

"Buenas noches," we echo. "Y gracias, Lalo." We slowly rise from our seats and head to our hammocks.

In the morning, I look at the round wooden hut with a thatched roof, dirt floor and loosely boarded walls but see it with a new perspective. Where before I saw poverty, I now see beauty in simplicity. While their living conditions are basic, they and their forebears have lived and flourished in this manner for more than a thousand years.
A fire burns inside the hut, visible through the vertical slats of the walls, and children scamper about in bare feet making no sound as they glide across the ground. My watch says 6:00 AM, but I am sure the Kogui do not know what time it is. The sun is up, and day has begun.

The sight of the fire reminds me of something Lalo mentioned before: the top cause of death amongst the Kogui is lung disease caused by smoke inhalation. While the fire is primarily for cooking, it is maintained at all times to also repel insects and provide warmth during the occasional cool night. Exposure to smoke is constant.

As I ponder their condition, a nagging thought pokes at my conscience: Should you attempt to change something that has served the needs of a culture for over a millennium?

While lost in my thoughts, I look to my right and spot one of the little Kogui girls studying me with a skeptical look from a bench a few meters away. "Hola," I say wishing I knew how to say 'Hi' in Kogui. She nods silently and keeps her eyes fixed on me as if trying to decide whether or not I am real. For such a young child, she sure seems rather austere.

I offer up my Recreo cookies, the Colombian version of an Oreo, as a gesture of goodwill - cookies are an intercultural peace offering. She accepts with the hint of a smile and munches happily on her bench, legs swinging with content.

"Te gustan?" I ask. She nods.

"Brilliant question, James," I say to myself. "Of course she likes the cookies." But what else do you ask an 8-year-old Kogui? I wanted to discuss her feelings regarding the influence of tourism on her people and their way of life, but something told me she was not ready for that one.

Tourism is presenting new challenges to this ancient culture. Though the Kogui seem to possess a steadfast adherance to their customs and traditions, the Kogui along the tourist trail to the Lost City are beginning to benefit economically. They own rubber boots, machetes, and saddles for their mules among other useful items. They also now have access to consumer products like the all-pervasive Coca-Cola, which they sell to tourists as well as consume for themselves.

What is the challenge? Well for one, I can imagine a variety of health issues related to the introduction of high sugar content, low nutrition foods. Suddenly I feel a bit guilty for the rush of sugar I just provided this little girl.

In addition, the Kogui and other native tribes in the region that are not along the tourist trail to the Lost City do not receive the same economic benefits. There has been some conflict regarding the fairness of this since the Lost City is considered an inheritance of all natives in the region.

There are also negative ecological impacts from so many tourists visiting the region. This intrusion affects all of the indigenous population since they rely on the land to provide their living. With the rapid growth of Colombia's tourism industry over the past 5 years and the rising popularity of the Lost City as a backpackers destination, this influence is sure to increase.

After experiencing the magic of the Lost City, I hike out of the Sierra Nevada mountains wondering what will become of the descendants of the city's constructors. The indigenous population throughout the Sierra Nevada faces difficult pressures from tourism, government encroachment, drug cartels, military conflicts, ecological changes, and more. It is a delicate balance between the modern and the ancient worlds that unfortunately heavily favors the modern.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Frustration Builds

I balance atop a shaky ladder constructed of long log braces and rickety stick steps held together with loose wire as I look out across the dust-blown fields surrounding Rhiannon Community in northern Ecuador. The hammer thuds against wood as I struggle to wrestle bent nails back into new braces that we cut from warped boards with a hacksaw. Our efforts to hold the greenhouse together through another day's pounding by the constant Andean wind are confounded by that same defiant yet predictable antagonist. The recycled materials we scrounged up from around the site fail to meet our needs. Dust stings my eyes and fills my ears, nose and mouth while my hair escapes the hat on my head to whip my cheeks in treacherous concordance with the intangible enemy. Frustration builds.

"You zink it work?" queries my French construction companion Ludo, speaking more with his large bushy eyebrows and lanky frame than with words. Though he is the mastermind behind the repairs design, he is as lost as the rest of us working on the project.

"I don't know buddy. I don't know," I reply in resignation with a slight shake of my head. I grab another bent nail and continue my futile task.

The Rhiannon Community is an organic farming community attempting to implement permaculture ideas to help increase self-sufficiency and decrease waste. A positive but complicating characteristic of self-sufficiency is a strong mentality of recycling and reusing. For our greenhouse repairs, we are meant to reuse the same plastic that has already been ripped and removed from the battered eucalyptus frame and tack it down with the same wood that failed to secure the plastic the first time.

At times the frustration creeps into the forefront of my mind and I find myself unnecessarily stressing over something outside of my control. Over the last year I have found myself in many situations where I could see my efforts doing little to surmount the task before me. Quite often my role has been as a short-term helping hand with no time to undertake any significant action in a project. I have learned though that maintaining a positive and flexible mindset is essential reguardless of the task. Being able to participate with enthusiasm and share constructive energy at all times is the best gift you can give someone.

The more I allow the stress and frustration to slip away, the more I see how my small efforts help support something larger than myself. For example, the community provides free English language classes in the nearby rural school, and, since Rhiannon is a permanent member of the municipality of Malchingui, maintains a consistent and long-term relationship there. Therefore, albeit indirectly, my actions supporting Rhiannon in turn support this positive presence.

The sun begins to set on another day of work. I look out across the valley behind the community and marvel at the snow-capped peak of volcano Cayambe drenched in the bright but dying colors of the day's last light. Stress melts away.

"Iz wery beauteeful, no?" says Ludo turning to me with his bushy brows arched high with inquisitive intent.

"It sure is," I reply in quiet contemplation. "We're lucky to experience it, aren't we?"

As I appreciate the beauty that surrounds me, I find myself giving thanks for all the difficulties and frustrations I have encountered along the way. Each new challenge has pushed me to higher levels of patience and positive thinking. I suppose when it comes to character-building, frustration provides the framework for self-improvement.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Bright Places Make Smiling Faces

"Qué estás haciendo?!?" demanded the little voice behind me, sounding more like a distressed complaint than a question. I turned around to face my interrogator and found a little lad of about 7 years with his hair neatly combed to the side, button-up t-shirt tucked in his gray trousers, and his face hopelessly contorted with concern as he watched my paint roller pass over the school's recently completed mural.

"I'm putting a sealant onto this beautiful mural to protect it," I replied after a slight chuckle.

"Ahhh, para protegerlo," he repeated, his demeanor instantly changing as my reply met his approval. He nodded and scurried off to his classroom.

I smiled and turned back to the wall with a renewed since of purpose for my simple task.

While I had not participated in creating the mural, I was content that I could contribute to something that the school and its students were obviously very proud of. A group of volunteers through the organization called Otra Cosa, had worked for two weeks to complete the mural, which transformed a dull cement-surrounded courtyard into a bright and colorful place where the youngest of the children at the school play during recess.

One of the final tasks to finish up the wall was to put hand prints of all the children along the bottom border of the mural. Working in assembly-line fashion, three of us volunteers finished over 250 hand prints in two days time and sealed up the final product. The result is maravilloso!!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Out On A Limb

The morning after Machu Picchu started out easy enough: check out of the hostel in Aguas Calientes, grab a fresh fruit juice at the market, and dodge trains for three hours while following the tracks to Hidroeléctrica where my Maltese travel buddy Rob and I caught a taxi to Santa Teresa for 5 Sol (the best US$1.66 I've ever spent). We had already walked the two hours along the dusty road from Santa Teresa two days before on our way to Aguas Calientes and agreed it wasn't worth the trek back, especially since my boots had wreaked havoc on my tender gringo heels opening up impressive, painful blisters on both feet.

In Santa Teresa we opted out of the simple 35 Sol (under US$12) direct van to Cusco thinking we could save maybe 12 Sol (a negligible US$4.00) by sticking with the original plan and catching a taxi to Santa María and then a bus to Cusco. I clung to the door handle of the Toyota Corolla wagon, a slightly newer model than my '88 back in the States, and tried to pull my attention away from the monstrous drop to the riverbed hundreds of feet below. The car drifted within inches of becoming a temporary airplane at each of the endless curves on the single-lane dirt road. An hour later I was still alive in Santa María at the bottom of the valley.

To our dismay, all the minivans heading to Cusco were full, and all the bus companies were telling us the same for every bus in the afternoon. Our next option was a three hour wait to catch the 4:00pm bus putting us in Cusco around 10:00pm, but we wanted to get to Cusco at a more reasonable hour. We sat by the only through-road in town waiting for the 1:30pm bus to see if we could sit on the floor when a giant truck came thundering into town and pulled up just shy of our roadside roost.

"Vas a Cusco?" I asked.

"" he replied as he unlocked the back hatch revealing the chasmal truck bed that was to be our roomy passage to Cusco.

Three brave French girls, Rob and myself ascended the step ladder into the truck, spread out in spacious luxury that is simply not available in traditional public transportation, and before long we were happily bouncing along towards our destination.

An hour into our bumpy ride, the truck slowed, paused and finally cut the engine. We heard some rustling and a few seconds later a round face popped up over the wooden walls of the truck with a quick but complex question, "Están apurados?" Are we in a hurry? Five confused foreign faces looked around at each other hoping to find a united answer. Naturally we wanted the truck to keep chugging along until we were in Cusco, but the best response we could come up with was, "Por qué?" Why?

Apparently there was a stack of firewood that they wanted to pick up, and we were in no position to demand that the truck continue. We silently acquiesced, and the truck roared to life, veered from the main route, and descended deep into the valley. I began to doubt my hour-old decision to enter this potential death trap as giant leaves from low-hanging banana trees whipped the top of the truck signaling our arrival to the middle of nowhere somewhere in the Sacred Valley of Peru. I quietly pondered what sort of ransom 3 French girls, 1 dread-locked Maltese and a gruff and grungy guy from the U.S. would pull in these parts.

Suddenly the truck stopped and began to reverse, pulling the tail end towards the inclined hill to our right. They were apparently attempting to turn this beast of a machine around.

"But we're on the edge of a cliff with the river below us, right?" I thought out loud.

At that point two things happened: 1) The back end ran out of back-up room and began crushing the limbs of a tree, and 2) I nearly panicked and grabbed my daypack, food sack and sleeping bag with the intention of leaping over the side wall of the truck to the safety of solid ground while this madman finished his maneuvering.

One and a half harrowing minutes and a twelve-point turn later, the truck engine coughed to an uneasy halt. The back doors swung open revealing solid ground on both sides of the dirt road with a long pile of firewood stacked along one side; at least this guy was not as crazy as it first appeared.

Our chauffeur said that loading all the wood would take at most two hours and left us to walk to the river, explore the surrounding bush, or sit around and stare at each other. Once the shock of my near death experience faded and my heart rate returned to readable levels, I looked from my travel companions lounging on the ground to the enormous pile of wood being loaded and saw an opportunity. Without a word I began grabbing logs and tossing them up to the truck bed, trying to keep pace with the crew of Peruvians that were all half my size.

Slowly a dialogue developed, and before long I was laughing and joking with our driver, Luigi, and his crew of roughneck Peruvian truckers. I asked them what they transport when their truck isn't full of firewood and gringos. It turns out they run a semi-regular route delivering food between Cusco and several towns throughout the Sacred Valley. They were on their way to Cusco to pick up another shipment, but could not pass up the opportunity to make some side cash on an unusual mix of cargo. I was thankful that the additional cargo was not livestock nor any product derived from their natural processes. I nodded my approval and continued loading at their vigorous pace.

We packed the entire pile of firewood into the truck in an hour, filling the prior spacious travel compartment nearly to the top. The truck's crew, my foreign travel companions and I once again climbed aboard and sputtered away climbing the valley road while dodging the giant banana leaves that were now whipping our torsos. From our panoramic perch, we had the most spectacular view of the sun setting in the valley as we ascended high into the Andes mountains.

We unloaded in 25 minutes or less in a small village near Ollantaytambo hurling sticks and heavy logs over the side of the truck into darkness. Our eyes battled wind-blown wood shavings for the final two and a half hours to Cusco.

Our nine-hour exploit ended around 10:00pm in the outskirts of Cusco. Luigi charged 10 Sol for his service of safe delivery, just 5 Sol less than the six-hour bus that arrived at the unreasonable hour of 10:00pm. As Rob and the French girls reached in their pockets to pay their tariff, Luigi added, "pero nada para mi amigo," signaling in my direction with a slight nod and brazen grin. A little extra effort had paid my way and earned me the friendship of an unlikely ally. We waved goodbye to Luigi and crew as their truck awkwardly lurched forward down the narrow Cusco street, and I was glad our penny pinching ways had forced us out on a limb.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Mines of Potosí

I was told that visiting the cooperative mines of Potosí, Bolivia is an experience that should not be missed. I would agree, but it is more of an intense humbling experience than a fun tour. Describing the conditions in which the miners work is difficult, but it is the closest to hell as I can imagine.

Upon entering the mine, large chunks of ice hang from the ceiling inches above your head, but as you move deeper into the mine the temperature rises, the spaces get smaller, and thick humidity makes movement extremely uncomfortable. Naturally light is at a minimum and is almost exclusively provided by headlamps, though electric cables coated in thick layers of minerals do stretch deep into the mines. In many places, crawling on hands and knees is necessary to reach the areas where mining actually takes place. Water and minerals leak down from the ceiling often creating large pools of murky water on the narrow foot path. Our guide told us that toxic materials like arsenic, sulfuric acid, and asbestos occur naturally inside the mines. She even pointed out arsenic minerals growing on the walls. Holes for dynamite are dug manually and explosions shake the mountain every few minutes. There are a large number of mines within the mountain, and all operate independently meaning that no one knows when an explosion in another part of the mountain is going to occur. With structural supports like the one in the picture below, collapsing tunnels is something that seems imminent.

The work that miners do is strenuous and equipment is basic. Pneumatic hammers are the only power equipment used, everything else is done by hand including hauling the large bins full of minerals to the mine entrance.

Four men work together to haul minerals out of the mine

I gave them that soda, but the present seemed a bit weak considering the situation

Miners working to replace a popped tire on their wheelbarrow

Due to the conditions in the mine, especially constant exposure to toxic materials, the average life expectancy of miners is around 45 years. The next time I start to complain about going to work at a comfortable, non-physically demanding, slightly boring job, or get stressed about commuting to work in traffic in my car listening to music with the A/C or heat on, I'm going to remember these guys and the hell they go through every day for a monthly wage that many people in developed countries make in a day.

Where I Am and Where I've Been