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Summer 2014 Blog - Kareem Hammoud

Kareem Hammoud is spending the summer at blueEnergy in Nicaragua

July 20th, 2014

4 efficient cook-stoves, 4 eco-bricks test structures, 2 eco-brick benches, 2 Spanish articles, 1 project report, 1 final presentation (en Español), 1 corrected construction manual and 1 newly written manual later, my work with blueEnergy has concluded. The past two months with this organization have been challenging yet immensely rewarding, humbling yet enlightening.

I have gained a new perspective on the peoples, cultures, resources, and development paradigm in a part of the world I may have never visited otherwise. I have only scratched the surface of understanding the incredible patience, flexibility, adaptability, and determination required to run a nonprofit “the right way,” a way that attempts to improve communities from a grassroots, bottom-up approach as opposed to throwing aid that is deemed “necessary” for a community by higher-ups that have no experience understanding its needs.  I also appreciate the restrictions that come with trying to get things done in an area with major infrastructural defecits, either in the areas of transportation, energy availability, or modern plumbing.  Proper development demands time on a scale I was not present long enough to comprehend. Nonetheless, blueEnergy’s 10 years of existence have made visible impacts in the communities of Bluefields, Nicaragua, and I admire and respect the dedication of its employees and international volunteers to moving its mission forward.

My last two weeks in the country were a whirlwind of cookstove installations, documentation, and last-minute construction projects. As I mentioned previously, I left Bluefields on a 4-day trip to rural communities to install 3 efficient cook-stoves in 3 different homes. The trip was my most challenging one, as the isolation of each home required we hike in all of our construction supplies on foot and by horse. We had to walk between 1.5–2 hours each way to two of the houses from a lodge we were residing in, thus necessitating overnight stays in each of the respective homes (the night I learned sleeping 8 hours in a hammock isn’t as pleasant as I initially imagined). Despite the sore feet and ridiculous amounts of bug bites, our group managed to install 3 beautiful cookstoves that I hope will serve each family for many years to come.

The cookstove installation team hiking in construction tools to a beneficiary home in Punta Fosil.

The cookstove installation team hiking in construction tools to a beneficiary home in Punta Fossil

The family and the installation team pose with the freshly completed eco-stove in Punta Fosil.

The family and the installation team pose with the freshly competed eco-stove in Punta Fossil

While our four eco-bricks test structures were complete, my team and I had to come up with some way to test their long-term durability so as to not waste our efforts. After discussing our options, we arrived at the unexpected decision that we would build two benches for use outside of one of the blueEnergy office buildings. What started as a half-joke rapidly became a reality as my coworker Giana and I found ourselves pressed for time to pump out two benches in less than three days, coupled with our zero experience in building furniture. However, we pulled it off, and now there are two plush benches supported by eco-bricks on blueEnergy property. Our hope is for the benches to serve as active test structures, as underneath all the concrete are 3 different types of adobe and 3 different types of eco-bricks with possibly varying strengths.

The completed eco-brick benches being put in use.

The completed eco-brick benches being put into use

Now, I return home with great memories, new knowledge, dirty fingernails, a few mosquito bites, and the grizzliest beard to ever grace my face. Thanks for the opportunities and experiences blueEnergy and Bluefields, I hope to return again!A sweet sunset.

A sweet sunset

July 5, 2014

As I sit here writing this blog post, I realize it is at the end of a day in which I’ve done almost nothing. While this type of day has been quite atypical for my stay here in Bluefields, the past two weeks have been a little more toned down in terms of activities scheduled per unit of time. However, last week saw the arrival of 6 more summer fellows (3 of them from our favorite red-colored school Stanford), so new faces and personalities have spiced things up a bit.

First, an update on my work. The last 10 days of working with blueEnergy have been a nearly even mix of office work and non-office work. In the office, Giana and I have edited an older manual on eco-stove construction, filled out large portions of a general project report, edited some eco-stove posters, and created 3D models in SketchUp. We have also been working hard to write a new manual on our eco-brick construction and test process (all in Español!) so as to inspire future work in blueEnergy and hopefully culminate in an eco-stove base being built entirely from eco-bricks. Speaking of eco-bricks, Giana and I have also continued to monitor our first two eco-brick test structures and have started the foundations for our next two. So far, we’ve found that our adobe mixture made with a proportion of cement dried considerably faster and created a more durable material than the non-cement adobe.An eco-bricks test structure- bottles secured to chicken wire with fishing line. No adobe mixture (yet).

An eco-bricks test structure- bottles secured to chicken wire with fishing line. No adobe mixture (yet).

 2 completed eco-bricks test structures. Covered with a first layer of adobe mix (red clay+sand+horse manure+plant sap water), then a top layer of cement.

2 completed eco-bricks test structures. Covered with a first layer of adobe mix (red clay+sand+horse manure+plant sap water), then a top layer of cement.

Much of our other non-office work was spent in the workshop building stovetop pieces, chimneys, and combustion chambers for three eco-stoves we will be installing this coming week. This installation trip I speak of will be our longest and most intense yet — we will be traveling to three different communities to install three stoves from Sunday to Thursday. The communities are near a forested area called Kahka Creek, a peaceful and relaxing place we coincidentally visited for a weekend trip just a few days ago. We stayed in another eco-lodge once again, and I will be excited to return so I can say what’s up to the adorable tapir they have in a protected shed there. Meeting the 2-year-old tapir (named Batata after the area she was find in as an infant) was definitely the highlight of the past weeks – I had been deprived of spotting them when I studied abroad in Costa Rica. The tapir is Central America’s largest native land animal, and they are extremely rare to see mainly due to their endangerment. Deforestation is a primary contributor to their population loss, and they are slow to reproduce to compensate. Some Michigan biologists are currently working on finding the Kahka Creek tapir a mate before releasing her back into the wild again.

The Kahka Creek eco-lodge. ¡Que relajando!

The Kahka Creek eco-lodge. ¡Que relajando!

Batata, the tapir_0

The tapir, Batata. The proboscis nose is flexible like an anteaters!

Next week should be interesting. For now I have to pack my things and rest up – the panga leaves at 6:30am tomorrow!

June 20, 2014

Hola again! Another two weeks in Bluefields have flown by faster than Spain’s World Cup hopes. I’m nearly breathless from all the trips, work days, field installations, and local activities, but I’m still hungry (quite literally) for more.

As I mentioned previously, I am interning with blueEnergy’s “eco-stove” construction team. Working with another Cal Energy Corps fellow (Giana) and French volunteer, we are not only building and installing efficient cookstoves in Bluefields communities but also actively researching the viability of using “eco-bricks” to build the foundations of the stoves. Eco-bricks are repurposed plastic bottles that have been packed tightly with non-biodegradable trash. If prepared properly, they are not only a durable, lightweight, and seismically resistant replacement for normal building bricks, but they also help curtail the problems associated with street litter and trash-burning that plague communities that lack a waste recycling infrastructure.

Some finished eco-bricks

Some finished eco-bricks

Research on previous eco-brick projects around the globe claim that the bottles and trash must be completely clean and dry, however, so as to not promote growth of fungus, microbes, or humidity which can deform and weaken the bottles. The average 500mL bottle also holds MUCH more trash than you would expect, meaning you need a lot of trash to begin with. After spending many hours this past week collecting trash from the streets, washing and drying it, and then stuffing it into disappointingly few bottles, my co-workers and I are quickly realizing the logistical difficulties associated with this process. Nevertheless, we are currently working on two eco-brick test structures and are ready to study whether the bricks hold up like the Internet says they will.

Another highlight these past couple weeks was constructing an eco-stove in a protected agro-forestry reserve, about an hours boat ride up-river. The region is known as TikTik Kaanu, an area with scattered populations of the indigenous Rama tribe and some Creole folk as well. We spent two days installing the stove, and it was a great experience. Although hard work in the humid climate and a pesky mosquito swarm, it was still rewarding.

Completed -eco-stove- in TikTik Kaanu

Completed eco-stove in TikTik Kaanu

Outside of work, our past two weekends were spent visiting three other areas outside of Bluefields. The first was the beachfront Creole community of Pearl Lagoon, the second was the Miskito community of Kakabila. Kakabila is populated by only 90 families that are proud of their indigenous heritage and the rights to their land that come with it. Aside from expanses of forest, Kakabila residents also have rights to a large area of coastline and ocean waters. Many of the males used to be turtle fishermen, but declining stocks and threats to the species have turned these men towards eco-tourism excursions instead. The third place we visited is one of Nicaragua’s premier tourist destinations: the Corn Islands. Located some distance off the Atlantic Coast, you can get to the islands by either a 6-hour ferry ride or a 20-minute plane ride. After flying into Big Corn Island, my group and I embarked on a 30-minute “panga” (small passenger motorboat) ride across the open ocean to Little Corn Island. I made the mistake of sitting at the front of the boat, and the rough, bouncing waves made short work of my underside.

Group selfie on the panga ride to Pearl Lagoon

Group selfie on the panga ride to Pearl Lagoon

Even though it was raining or overcast most of our trip, we still had an enjoyable time swimming in the warm, blue waters, watching World Cup games, eating noteworthy attempts at American cuisine, and hanging out with the largest concentration of gringos-per-land-area in the country.

A view from the beach on Little Corn Island

A view from the beach on Little Corn Island

June 5, 2014: Bluefields, Nicaragua

After a two-tiered flight from San Francisco to Houston, and Houston to Nicaragua’s capital, Managua, I completed my 7-hour journey and was greeted with a wholesome “¡Bienvenidos a Nicaragua!” Just kidding, the man in the customs booth didn’t even respond to my “Hola.” Luckily, this treatment was not indicative of the great experiences that were to follow over the next two weeks.

I, along with four other summer fellows (three from UC Berkeley, another from Connecticut), first had to travel from Managua to the city of Bluefields, an endeavor that was required due to poor transportation infrastructure between the west and east coasts of the country. Your options are limited to a 1-hour plane ride, or a 6-hour bus ride plus a 2-hour boat ride. We opted to fly for obvious reasons, and thus I experienced my first long-distance flight in a single-propellor bush plane. I felt like Indiana Jones.

blueEnergy summer fellows pose in front of the plane that brought us to Bluefields

blueEnergy fellows pose in front of the plane that brought us to Bluefields

The Atlantic-Caribbean coast is mostly made up of lowland tropical forest, which, when combined with its proximity to the warm ocean, leads to a very humid, hot, and tumultuous rainy season. The rainy season is what we will be (and are) experiencing throughout our stay in Bluefields while working for blueEnergy. While I love the warm rain, the I will probably never get used to the stifling humidity. Bluefields itself is one of the most interesting cities I’ve ever visited. As the capital of the Atlantic autonomous regions of Nicaragua, it is situated in a bay that houses six different ethnicities ranging from African slave-descendants to local indigenous tribes to the mestizos of Spanish descent. The culture and food is thus an interesting mix of Caribbean island (coconuts and fried chicken, Afro-reggae music, Creole-English language) and Spanish influences (rice and beans, Latin-American pop music). The city also has a resident population of taxis, which are pretty much the only vehicles on the road aside from the occasional truck, motorcycle, bicycle, or mule-drawn carriage. With ~800 taxis to support the city of 45,000 occupants, that means there’s a taxi for every 56 people (New York City has cabs for every 600 people). Taxi rides are insane. With manual transmission Hyundai 5-seaters, drivers expertly maneuver roads (which are only sometimes paved) by driving around other cars into opposing traffic, ducking in and out of their own lanes, dodging pedestrians, motorcycles, parked cars, and dogs. They also drive quite fast and are very cheap – no matter the destination around the Bluefields city, the flat rate per head is 12-15 cordobas (~$0.50).

palo de mayo kareem

A snapshot of the Palo de Mayo Festival

During our first week at blueEnergy, we mostly had orientations around the city and lectures that introduced the development paradigm that blueEnergy operates under. We also had the privilege of experiencing the city’s annual Palo de Mayo festival, which celebrates fertility and the unification of the many cultures that reside in the area. This week, I started my work in the organization’s energy division, in which I am helping to build, install, and modify designs for energy efficient cook-stoves. The goal of this project is to reduce deforestation by reducing the wood inputs necessary for fueling home stoves while also alleviating the health hazards associated with cooking over traditional open-flame stoves. I learned to weld on the same day I was tasked with welding pieces of two stoves we are building, so that was fun. We will be installing these two stoves in some communities next week. In the meantime, I look forward to continuing to socialize with the awesome people that work at blueEnergy and seeing more real-life examples of how this organization implements successful projects in the Bluefields area. Until next time!

kareemMe welding some metal rods for a stove

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