Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Portland (OR) Recycles in Parks

A few days ago, I got an email that mentioned how Portland, OR, is bursting with blooming trees and budding flowers. Today, I got an email from a friend that the park in our neighborhood now has recycling containers. Thanks for the photo, Dave!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Water and Milk

One of my favorite comments about our bike has been in regard to the water bottles. We each have a clear bottle and a white bottle in our cages. A man observing the different parts of the bike mused aloud, "Oh, one bottle for water [pointing to the clear one], and one for milk [pointing to the white bottle]."

So obvious. So logical. And yet, so wrong. Milk? On a bike ride? Yuck! Makes me realize how many zillion situations I am probably misinterpreting in these different cultures.

Roadside Attractions on the Way to Huehuetenango, Guatemala

San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico, could have had wider sidewalks (more and more I am convinced that the two ingredients that make a city palatable are wide sidewalks and trees), but overall it satisfied our needs with pastries, a cool climate, internet connections, and a women workforce cleanup crew. (The tourist information office said that men drive the trucks and collect residential and business waste; women push the carts and sweep the streets.) We even ran into some friends from Oaxaca (small world). We rolled out of town through pine trees, thinking that four days off the bike would render us fresh and sporty. Our butts still hurt and our legs did not exactly gush with strength. But we kept pedaling.

Like I mentioned in my last post, traveling by bike lets us take in the local scenery pedal stroke by pedal stroke. There are so many subtle variations in the landscape. One valley housed woodworkers, with folks planing boards and making bedroom furniture and cabinets. In another valley, pottery and ornate ceramic birds lined the roadside (mmmm... fragile, heavy items... no purchases this trip). The consistent theme though, no matter where we roll, is trash.

The composition of the trash lining the roads is mostly plastic bottles (and their plastic cousins). Close to a town. In a town. Outside of a town. Far away from a town. We see plastic bottles all over. Anywhere there's a sign, "Don't put trash here (see photo right)," there's sure to be trash. The sources range from intentional -- from dumping bags of rubbish to chucking broken cd's out the window -- to careless -- blowing out the back of a truck -- to somewhere in between. One man's business cards littered the side of the road for at least three kilometers. Was this curious propaganda for his business? Or had he just packed up his office and accidentally left his trunk open? Or was his kid mischievously chucking the cards out the window? (One of his cards is now taped inside my journal).

Anywhere there is a pullout next to the road, there is a measure of trash. Sometimes it is combined with a putrid, acidic smell: mmm, burning waste. Some towns are very intentional about their dump. For example, we pulled off the road into the landfill for La Trinitaria, just south of Comitàn de Dominguez, Chiapas. As I flicked the kickstand down, a guard sauntered over from his hangout, I mean post, in the shade (an old minivan seat, a table, and a tarp strung between the trees). When I told him I work with trash in the States and would like to see his dump, he cheerfully said, "Well, come on over and take a look!" (in Spanish). So we moseyed over.

The dump was quite a dramatic scene. Billows of smoke wafted up from an abyss that created beautiful shadow-effects in the late afternoon sun. A man pulled up in his personal car and chucked bags of trash and yard debris off the cliff, as if to demonstrate how easy and carefree it is to get rid of crap in this town. The guard, Jorge, led us on a little trail to the side and proudly described the dump's features. It is 14 meters deep. It occasionally gets lit on fire, and pushed further back into the cave/hole by a machine. A pack of dogs lives and breeds down there, living off the garbage; you can sometimes hear them rattling around or yipping. People occasionally belay down into the rubbish to scavenge for metal. Sometimes, they die and have to be pulled back up (that's what we think he said). As Jorge spoke, the smoke cleared a bit and I was able to get a few clear shots through the haze: yup, piles of smoldering rubbish, sliding back into a deep cave. It was impressive, though I'm still mulling over in what sense it was impressive.

Jorge demonstrated a flexible interpretation for the concept of "rules". Here is my translation of what he said a few minutes into our tour: "You're not really allowed to take photos. I mean, you are allowed, 'cause we're now buddies [we had known each other for seven minutes at this point]. But if the Captain was here, you couldn't take pictures." Same thing when I asked about fees: "If it's a small load, no worries. If it's a bigger load of trash, like from a business, they're supposed to pay. ::pause:: But... if they bring me a soda, it's cool."

He knows his work well; Jorge has worked this position for 12 years. When I asked him how long the cave will remain the town's dump, he replied, "Siempre." (Always.) Just like Coca Cola.

The next day we crossed the border into Guatemala. (The landscape made us EARN that border crossing... after getting our passports stamped in Mexico, it was four kilometers of uphill chugging, past a dump (the vultures in the trees didn't start circling, so we figured we would make it) and finally into Guatemala, where they kindly stamped our passports (no bribes needed), checked our trailer of suitcases (yep, looks good), and waved us on our way.

Just like Mexico, Guatemala is beautiful. For a day-and-a-half, we pedaled (mostly) uphill through a river valley lined with chopped firewood, coffee beans spread to dry, women weaving red traditional cloth, construction (lots of sand and gravel collection) and little kids waving (I snapped this over-the-shoulder photo of kids pushing our trailer on the fly). On Thursday evening we rolled in to Huehuetenango.

Huehuetenango is not a polished town by any stretch of the imagination, but it has good pastries, yummy alote drinks in the morning market, and a really friendly bicycle shop, Mario's. The waste workers are male and use similar carts to the ones I saw in Mexico. We have spent two full days here: our clothes are clean and waterbottles full. Time to head west to Quezaltenango (Xela) and Lake Atitlan.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Beginning of a Tandem Bike Tour: Oaxaca to Tehuantepec

It's hard to know how things are going to shake out a year down the road. Last year, when I was ironing out details with the Stevens Fellowship Committee to travel and look at trash, I thought that I should go to Latin America in order to both learn Spanish and juxtapose Europe's trash scene with the waste management strategies of developing countries. I also have a somewhat apocalyptic view of the world, and, with the skyrocketing price of fuel, I thought, "If everything gets messed up, I can just walk home from Mexico, Costa Rica, or anywhere in between."

Planes are still flying, and probably will be for a while, but if everything does go to hell in the next few months, I can now get home on a bike. Actually, we can get home on a bike (I love that pronoun).

It's a tandem. It is green. It is made by Bike Friday, a gem of a company in Eugene, Oregon, that specializes in folding bicycles. My partner, Gene and I started talking about the possibility of turning the Central America portion of travel into a bike trip on a beach walk in November 2008. By the time we took a test ride the following month, we were hooked.
  • We are not tied to any bus schedules or routes.
  • Landfills and recycling centers outside of town (not on normal transportation routes) suddenly become accessible.
  • We can stop anywhere.
  • We can go anywhere.
  • Our fitness level increases substantially with each pedal stroke.
So Gene came back from Antarctica and met up with me in Oaxaca, Mexico, with our bike. We went for a couple of test rides. We looked at other bike touring blogs. We talked to lots of people whose reactions ranged from, "You're crazy," to "The roads are steep, curvy, and treacherous," to "How cool!" One of our friends who works at a migrant shelter had some particularly dire accounts of certain roads, border crossings, and regions where people are "preyed" upon. Safety has factored largely in our discussions. There is no way we can blend: Gene is 6'5", I have blond hair, and we are on a bright green tandem. But we are friendly and cautious, and are giving it a whirl.

So far, everything has gone safely and smoothly. We pedaled 283 kilometers from Oaxaca to Tehuantepec over 3.5 days (a slow, but honest start). Our departure was classic -- we overestimated how much we could fit in the trailer and made a last-minute donation to the migrant shelter, as well as sent some stuff home with another friend going to Portland next week (thank you, friends!). We finally pulled out of Oaxaca, Mexico, on Sunday morning to lots of cheering and hollering and well-wishes from our housemates.

The scenery has been fantastic with rolling hills and lush river valleys springing with greens amidst an otherwise arid landscape. We have had some long climbs. We have had some killer sunset descents through very curvy valleys. We are acutely aware of the passing landscape: smells, temperature variations, and especially every incline (we come to a screeching crawl at every uphill, no matter how slight. We'll get there...). I have only done long-distance hiking in my past, and I must say, I quite like how much ground you can cover on a bike.

Everyone has been courteous and friendly. Drivers give us plenty of room when they pass us on the road, often with a wave, smile, or friendly toot. One gas truck driver even stopped to take our picture. (I got crafty and made bright yellow flags to make drivers extra-aware of our presence.) In towns, we get a positive welcome. There is something inherently happy about a tandem bicycle that puts a smile on peoples' faces. Locals come up to talk with us; we're both quite certain that the tandem serves as a gateway to further interactions, like helping this little town (photo: right) unload bricks for their community center.

Except for a couple of tweaks (thank goodness Gene is a bike mechanic), the bike has performed stunningly. Serendipitously we watched a James Bond movie and realized our bike, a "Q" tandem, is probably named after the character "Q" who makes all of the cool gadgets for 007. When we descended to the coast and felt our energy get zapped under a blanket of suffocating heat, we disassembled the bike ("we" here means "Gene") and packed it into the trailer (that cleverly becomes two suitcases).Then, we fit all of our camping gear in the suitcases with the bike (yeah 007), and caught a bus up the steep mountains. We felt slightly guilty as we passed a couple of other bike-touring cyclists on the Pan-America highway... but as we looked out at palm trees blowing in crosswinds, and dogs panting in 100-degree heat, we simply reclined our seats further and took a sip of water. We are now in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, our departure point for Guatemala and points further south.

We're still got work to do. Hydration is a full-time job. Also, I realized my Spanish needs more concentrated effort when I couldn't figure out if a sign was advertising fried coconut or cold coconut. And my "trash research" has been admittedly slow. But it's all coming along, sip by sip, pedal by pedal.

I didn't expect this element of adventure (not to mention wonderful partnership) in my travel plans a year ago, but I sure do like it.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Brown Suits, Orange Bins, Big Brooms

This is the uniform and equipment of the waste workers in Oaxaca. They go around and service all of the public garbage cans. They also knock on the doors of people that do not want to bring their garbage to the garbage truck.

This is the book by an author, Alejandro Calvo Camacho, about the composition of waste in the municipalities surrounding Oaxaca. I didn't get to talk with him, but I sure like his book. I bet I'll like it even more when my Spanish improves.

My landlord started composting (and everyone joined in)

So, remember my landlord? The one that brought me to the baptism party? I mentioned that I was very interested in trash, recycling, and composting. The next day, no joke, there was a bag next to the trash can for organic scraps. I couldn't believe how quick he went for it! One lady who has lived here for a year says she had never seen any food waste composting. Until now...

See? Look at the photos. The first shows the layout of the kitchen, with the water bottle, trash (blue plastic bucket), and the new bag for food scraps, perched below the water bottle. (Someone is pouring out coffee.)

Here's a closeup of the bag of food scraps. This household eats a lot of fruit and drinks a lot of coffee.

By the end of the first week of putting food scraps in the plastic bag, I started to get nervous... fruit flies were starting to arrive, and I couldn't tell if this was a very energetic start that would crash and burn without follow through.

But no. Agustin pulled through like a composting champion.

It turned out that he already new how to compost -- he had put his leaves and yard debris in a layered pile for years at his "rancho", a property out of town. We went out to the ranch together where he showed me his set-up.

A month later, the original plastic-bag-on-the-side has been upgraded to a big bucket under the stairs, labeled, "Basura Organica!" It has a loose fitting top that is easy to pick up and dump your food scraps inside. The best part is that Agustin gets to bring along his assorted tenants on the organic diversion ride. Even though the bucket is 20 feet from the shared kitchen, everyone (at least nine people at the moment) brings their mango peels, coffee grounds, watermelon rinds, and vegetable scraps over to the bucket. Agustin then transports the organic scraps from the house out to his property on the outskirts of town every weekend. (He makes the trip regardless of whether or not he is transporting organics.)

I don't know how much I really influenced this situation -- maybe he was planning to start composting last month -- but it sure feels good to be a part of it.


Someone once said to me, "We are like Pavlov's dogs here in Oaxaca, Mexico. Every bell and whistle develops a response."

He was right.

The gas truck rattles. The corn-on-the-cob man calls out on his nightly rounds, "Ehh-LOOO-tay." The knife-sharpener uses a distinct whistle to let you know his sharpening skills are near. Need water? Wait till you hear, "Aaaaaa-gguuuaaaa."

The same is true for trash.

The waste collection truck comes by in the morning. Sometimes early. Sometimes later. (Time isn't quite so precise at this latitude.) While hanging off the back of the truck, the worker in the back rings the bell while the driver pulls over to the side of the cobblestone road. Folks from the neighborhood come running down the street with their bags of waste. They throw their bags in the back of the truck. Some materials get separated: the driver loads cardboard up top; the helper gleans metal into a bag hanging off the side of the truck. The truck rattles on to its next stop.

Ring the bell. Bring the trash.

Some people aren't trained so quickly; I just heard a story of a family that chronically misses the bell. They have gotten in the habit of getting in their car with their trash and driving after the truck (they know its route). Seems like a curious [ahem: terrible] use of time and gas, but hey, whatever gets the job done.

Sunday, March 8, 2009


Flags. They point stuff out.

Tops of mountains.
Important email messages.

This week, flags point out 200 poops along a popular trail in Colorado, and a tandem bicycle, pictured right, that will carry my partner, Gene, and me through Central America.