July 28, 2014
My last two weeks with blueEnergy had been a mad scramble to begin the construction of the latrine. After four hundred bottles were delivered to the beneficiary’s farm, I scouted for cheap (or, even better, free) labor to clean and fill the bottles with clay and transform them into the final Eco-block product. Fortunately, with the tremendous help of another volunteer, I enslaved the children of some blueEnergy employees to do my bidding (or rather, tried to make them work. I’m terrible at motivating children…). The entire process took an entire week with the beneficiary, his four children, two of his construction workers, and my five-strong army of children from blueEnergy all on board. Actual construction of the latrine took place concurrently while we filled bottles, and the foundation and chambers were completed by the end of the same week. blueEnergy latrines, for the most part, follow the same design. The foundation consists of a four-inch-thick concrete slab, on which the chambers are constructed with concrete blocks and held together with mortar. The function of the chambers in a double-vault composting latrine is to collect only solid waste, while the urine-diverting dry toilet (or UDDT) does just as its name suggests: It redirects the liquid waste to a sand-and-gravel biofilter. Only one chamber is in use at a time. After a year, when the chamber is full, it is closed off to allow its contents to dry sufficiently for safe human handling. The second chamber is then put to use for about a year before it, too, becomes full, and the contents of the previous chamber are removed and can be applied on crops as fertilizer.
A stack of bottles the kids and I filled in one afternoon
I was filled with a sense of dread as the end of the final week approached; it became more and more apparent that I would leave before seeing the project through to completion. The construction coordinator, whose presence was required for construction to happen, was not always available, and a few materials did not arrive on time. As the internship’s end date loomed around the corner, these unforeseen delays continued to push the schedule further back. Not until the day before I had to give a presentation on my work with blueEnergy did we finally begin building the latrine walls with Eco-blocks. My project supervisor had repeatedly reassured me that, in the end, somehow everything works out. The morning of my presentation, we finished installing the first two rows of bottles in the latrine walls. I cried a little on the inside from immense joy, knowing that all my efforts culminated in the majestic—albeit incomplete—structure that stood before me.
My project supervisor keeping me updated on the status of the latrine
Now I know that last time I promised to share all the juicy details of the Rocky Point solar panel installation, but it coincided with the delayed Eco-block construction… I was torn between the two choices. In the end, I made the responsible decision, as heartbreaking as it was to forsake a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Nevertheless, I departed from Nicaragua brimming with stories to tell and souvenirs to shower on friends and family. On my last full day, I travelled to El Bluff, a small Caribbean island just a twenty-minute panga ride away from Bluefields. For the Berkeley students, we had made a full circle in our two-month-long adventure in Nicaragua; it was only fitting that we returned to the site of our first weekend getaway. Bright and early the next morning, I flew out to Managua and spent a day in the capital with an ex-blueEnergy volunteer and his family, who took me to a nearby town called Masaya, where I splurged on handcrafted, artisanal goodies to bring back home. As I spend the rest of my summer back in California and reflect upon my experiences in Nicaragua, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what I’ll miss most: the approachable and friendly locals; the diversity among blueEnergy staff; the weekend outings to communities; the absence of punctuality (also known as Nica time, or one’s arrival half an hour or later after the appointed time); and, of course, the plethora of mangos, pineapples, coconuts, and other tropical fruits that can be purchased across the street for less than a dollar! What I definitely will not miss, though, are the mosquitoes. Good riddance!
My shout-out to blueEnergy on the sandy shores of El Buff
July 6, 2014
With only two more weeks remaining, the pace of my project has been rapidly picking up speed. My project coordinator, another long-term volunteer with whom I’m currently collaborating, has wanted to explore the possibility of replacing concrete blocks (a common and well-accepted building material for blueEnergy latrines) with a more environmentally friendly substitute known as Eco-blocks. Thus, my research has focused on how to put this concept into practice. Eco-blocks are constructed from plastic PET bottles filled with compacted trash, sand, or other inorganic materials and can form sturdy, earthquake resistant, and less expensive structures with a lifespan of over a hundred years. After reading extensively about past Eco-block projects, I put together an informal and tentative guide on how to build latrines using Eco-blocks. Once the construction coordinator revised and approved it, the next step involved gathering all the materials. Sounds easy, right? After all, most supplies can be purchased at nearby lumber yards and hardware stores. However, the most crucial element of the project – the plastic bottles – posed the greatest challenge. While they are readily available and ubiquitous on the streets of Bluefields, collecting four hundred of them off the roads (we need that many just for the latrine walls!) would have been too time-intensive and impractical. My project coordinator and I decided that, instead, we would buy them from the municipal dump, where workers sift through trash for plastic bottles and prepare them for recycling. After going through the frustration of visiting the dump on four separate days, talking to three different supervisors, and dealing with cancellations and unreliable service, I finally reached an agreement with them and secured the bottles we needed. I felt a tearful moment of joy as I watched the process of loading the bottles into the truck and delivering them to the beneficiary go swimmingly. I was so sure that some complication would arise (again) and thanked my lucky stars when things continued according to plan. With everything in place, construction will be in full swing in the upcoming week! Aside from my work on Eco-blocks, I’ve also been turning pre-made sketches of the original latrine design into AutoCAD drawings and visiting past blueEnergy latrines. One of the projects was a unsuccessful solar that, though still in use by the beneficiaries, was ultimately unsuccessful. Because the rainy season does not provide enough sunlight to heat up the excreta chamber, the fecal matter inside does not undergo complete desiccation, and, as a result, does not become sterilized and safe for human handling. Another latrine that I visited was actually fabricated by one of last year’s Cal Energy Corps fellows placed in Nicaragua, who designed it for a rehabilitation center for teens with a history of substance abuse.
One-and-a-half hour walk to and from the dump on a winding, unpaved dirt road
In more leisurely news, the other Berkeley fellows and I, accompanied by two new short-term volunteers, traveled to the towns of Wawashan and Kahka Creek last weekend. A turbulent two-hour panga ride and a bruised butt later, we had zipped past the two familiar communities of Pearl Lagoon and Kakabila and up the Wawashan River to reach our first destination. We visited an agroforestry reserve managed by a local organization called FADCANIC and stayed a night at a hostel in Wawashan before we headed out to the second town. From the dock of Kahka Creek, we trekked across hilly, marshy farmland for about an hour until we reached an ecolodge located on a wildlife reserve. The reserve has in captivity a large, endangered mammal called a tapir, which has a body like that of a large pig and a short, flexible, movable snout. The conservationists working at the reserve are currently looking for a mating partner for the female tapir. So guys, holla at her! I’ve even included a picture for anyone that’s interested.
The lady tapir – single and ready to mingle!
On the third day, we hiked back to the Kahka Creek dock to catch a 6:00 AM panga ride that returned us to Bluefields.
On the panga ride back to Bluefields, down the Wawashan River
Next weekend, I’ll be off on another exciting adventure in the community of Rocky Point to install solar panels! With the bittersweet end fast approaching, I’ll be counting down the days and appreciating every moment I have here before I’m homebound!
June 22, 2014
Today marks the halfway point! Since the last time I wrote, I’ve gone on two weekend excursions to the communities of Pearl Lagoon, Kahkabila, and Corn Islands. The first trip began with a scenic one-hour ride on a motorboat (here, it’s called panga) that zipped through a winding water channel bordered on both sides by lush, dense mangrove forests. The other interns and I arrived in the afternoon at Pearl Lagoon, a small Creole town in the municipality of the same name, just north of Bluefields. We spent a night at Hotel Casa Ulrich and awoke to the sight of the dawning sun just surfacing above the shimmering waters, before we left our tropical island paradise for yet another one. A half-hour panga ride whisked us away to our next destination at Kakabila, home to a small indigenous Miskito group. In recent years, the community has made efforts to promote sustainable tourism through hosting tours and providing housing for visitors in a family-owned ecolodge called Lakiya Tara (Miskito for Morning Star). As we were the only guests in this straw-thatched, three-bedroom hostel, we had the whole place to ourselves! The absence of other tourists, the idyllic scenery, and the three-course meals made Kakabila the ideal weekend getaway trip, without busting the wallet (lodging for one night is only $6 per person!). A native resident, who dubs himself “Captain Edward”, led us into the thick brush of the jungle for three hours to try our luck at finding baboons, although we came out unsuccessful and only heard them taunt us. Nevertheless, it was far from putting a damper on an overall wonderful experience. I awaited the next excursion to Corn Islands with much excitement, and, indeed, it did not disappoint!
On the panga ride to Kakabila
We flew on a small propeller-driven aircraft from Bluefields to Big Corn Island (“big” relative to its sister island, Little Corn Island), where we then transferred onto a panga to reach the neighboring island. The light drizzles that soon intensified into howling thunderstorms reminded us that the rainy season had started, but the perpetual rain did not deter us one bit. Still, we swam and snorkeled in the crystal clear turquoise water of the Caribbean Sea, dined on the pristine sandy white beaches, and relaxed in swaying hammocks to the white noise of breaking waves. But all good things must come to an end, and we wrapped up our trip with a night’s stay at the less touristy (but equally beautiful) Big Corn Island before returning to Bluefields.
The view from my shack on Little Corn Island
As for business in the WASH team, Narayan and I, guided by a blueEnergy employee who is a local of the city, continued with our follow-up visits of the families that have received biosand water filters from the company. During the third week, we collected samples from various households and tested for the presence of coliform bacteria in blueEnergy’s makeshift lab. The samples are passed through a membrane filter, which is then placed on a pad soaked in a growth medium called Membrane Lauryl Sulphate Broth (MLSB). The bacteria are allowed to multiply during incubation. The count of coliform colonies qualitatively indicates the amount of fecal matter; the more colonies there are, the greater the fecal contamination is. We were also involved in the installation process, delivering the concrete filter bodies to the beneficiaries and adding in the layers of sand and gravel.
A stack of Petri dishes ready for incubation
In the fourth week, the focus of my research completely shifted gears. I have been reassigned to research the design and implementation of latrine technology. Besides an adequate infrastructure to distribute potable water, Bluefields also lacks a municipal sewage system for collecting and treating domestic wastewater. Thus, each household must come up with its own solution to safely dispose of human refuse, which is often handled in a way hazardous to human health and the environment. I am now tasked with improving upon existing models of blueEnergy latrines and creating a new, viable design for the beneficiary. Because of my new assignment, another blueEnergy member suggested a nickname for me, one that involves the Spanish word for latrine (letrina). It’s okay if it isn’t immediately apparent to you! I just hope that the nickname doesn’t stick…
June 5th, 2014
Since landing, I’ve been bombarded with the fresh sights and sounds of Nicaragua and even received a very warm welcome from the mosquitoes (I quickly learned their fondness for fresh meat from California). There are a total of five new blueEnergy members: four Cal Energy Corps fellows, including myself, and a volunteer from Connecticut. We arrived in Bluefields, the coastal capital of the Autonomous Region of the Southern Atlantic (R.A.A.S.), just in time to catch the end of Palo de Mayo, the city’s celebration of the beginning of the rainy season. The past two weeks I’ve spent digesting the myriad of new cultural experiences. The city celebrated Palo de Mayo with a parade, in which groups of colorfully costumed dancers representing their respective neighborhoods (or barrios) made their way through the crowded, bustling streets. Their enthusiasm to share their culture through choreographed dance remained unfaltering even in the sweltering heat and oppressive humidity. In the last days of May, the month-long festivities culminated in the interactive Tulululu dance, in which participants walked through all the barrios while linking arms to form an arch for others to pass under it.
The Palo de Mayo festival
The first week consisted of acclimating to an entirely different environment and, most of all, learning about blueEnergy’s—and our—role in sustainable development. We began work this week and were assigned to our separate projects. My partner Narayan, one of the four Berkeley students, and I belong to the WASH team (Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene) and will be focusing on the issues related to providing potable water to the local families. Because of the country’s lack of municipal water systems, almost all families receive their water from often unsafe, contaminated sources. blueEnergy has already developed a viable method for constructing and distributing working filtration systems to several families not just in Bluefields, but also in more remote communities in the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. My work so far involves analyzing the water quality from both the source (usually hand-dug wells) and the filters, and doing follow-ups on the beneficiaries to ensure the maintenance and proper usage of their water filters. As time progresses, our work will evolve into constructing these water filters.
In the meantime, I will keep updating this blog with more tales of my adventures in Nicaragua. Stay tuned in for more!