Sunday, May 24, 2009

Granada and Rivas, Nicaragua

Never use FedEx. At least, not if you are in Nicaragua.

FedEx routed our replacement hub to Europe because someone at their hub (heh, lots of hubs) in Memphis thought Nicaragua was in Africa. After three weeks of phone calls and emails between Bike Friday, FedEx, and us, the hub was finally delivered, ironically, by a kid on a mountain bike.

Back on our bike, we headed south through Sebaco. Gene thrilled the local kids with a ride on the back of the bike while I marveled at the amazing veggies in the market. We continued south. Just as it was getting dark, we rolled into a little town where a nice man and his wife let us camp in their sideyard.

People are so friendly and curious when you travel by bike. About 20 people gathered as we unpacked our house (tent), beds (thermarests), and kitchen (stove). That night we got hammered by a rainstorm, but luckily stayed dry in the tent.

The next day, we rolled into Granada. In Granada, a friend of a friend, Bill, graciously showed us around town. Bill is one of those guys that speaks five languages (or more), has lived overseas more than half his life, and knows a whole lot about a range of subjects. Of course, I asked about the trash scene in Granada. Bill said that a German is helping Granada digitize all of their documents and tracking information. Hopefully, with a more robust database, Granada will be able to track who is paying for garbage service and identify inefficiencies in their system.

So much of our experience in a town is driven by the people we meet. Largely owing to our pleasant introduction (via Bill), we were quite smitten by Granada and its charming streets, old churches, and historic buildings. After one day of gringo-land, we were ready to roll south. It was Friday, and I was eager to meet with the City of Rivas' mayor's office.

We pedaled hard and made it to Rivas by 1pm. I quickly showered and walked down to the mayor's office. I had been told by Matagalpa's mayor's office that Rivas had the first sanitary landfill of Nicaragua. Rivas' solid waste guy met my queries with blank stares: "Nope, lady, all we have is a big landfill. You can visit it, if ya like."

So we did. Saturday morning, we rode the tandem out to the dump. Federico, who has worked at the dump for nine years, showed us around. It is a very quiet operation. About 15-20 people glean out materials from the 7-8 truckloads per day. Looking at all of the organic material, I asked if anyone composted. Nope, he said, the only money is in aluminum.

Mounds of plastic bottles and other materials are stored next to houses of the people that work in the dump. Like the rest of the world, they are waiting for the markets to bounce.

We headed south down the Interamerican Highway, and made a quick stop on Lake Nicaragua to look out to Isla de Ometepe, rising out of the choppy waters.

Onward to Costa Rica.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Connect the Dots, La la la la.

For all the folks that like maps, here is a visual representation of our progress through Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua.

1558.4 kilometers, mas o menos.

Giddy' up!

Matagalpa Invests in 2nd Sanitary Landfill in Nicaragua

When Gene and I rolled into Esteli, Nicaragua, I hoped to bump my "hablar" and "escribir" into the next text bracket. My one-on-one Spanish instruction evolved into field trips with my teacher, Elsa, to local dumps. This post is about our visit to Matagalpa, the home of Nicaragua's 2nd sanitary landfill.

Elsa and I took a 1.5-hour bus ride over to Matagalpa. This breadbasket region of Nicaragua has onions, rice, coffee, tobacco, and vegetables pouring out of fields and into markets. We walked through the city of Matagalpa, past the cemetary, and up a few kilometers on a rolling, dirt road. We turned a corner, and there it was: the current Matagalpa dump. It is a beautiful place surrounded by lush, green hills.

We walked through the trash scenery, heading towards a group crowded around a truck that was unloading its waste. Cows milled in one corner. Vultures picked at a bag dripping with a suspicious, red liquid. The leader of the waste pickers, Miguel Angel Betanco, came out from the group and greeted us.

Miguel gave us some numbers and stories on the Matagalpa dump.
  • Amount of time he has worked in this dump: 15 years.
  • Population that scavenge in the Matagalpa dump: 50-80 people.
  • Amount of trash delivered per day: 8 truck loads.
  • Average income per person per day from gleanings: 40-50 cordobas per day ($2-$2.50).

As we talked, a group gathered around and dogs came in close. The key ingredients to any scavenger's wardrobe is sturdy boots and a stick. The best materials to collect are aluminum, copper, and scrap metal. Miguel said that people routinely get food out of the trash, but that most are careful to check the expiration dates. As he spoke, I watched a kid reach his hand into the pile of trash, dig out a mango, and take a bite.

Unlike the chaos I saw at the landfill in Guatemala City or the scenes depicted in Slumdog Millionaire, this Matagalpa landfill was tranquil, almost bucolic. They arrive at the landfill in the morning, sort through trash, then return home. I admit: I'm a romantic. We didn't visit anyone's home, and from what I understand, their houses are largely dirt-floor shacks with marginal roofs that leak in the rainy season. No one wants to live like this for very long. One organization that also works in Tijuana, Mexico, is currently fundraising to get the kids clean water and a place to study. Clearly these people have needs, but overall, it seemed mellow.

By the time we had finished our interview, everyone had finished scavaging and the cows had moved in on the pile. We said goodbye and walked back into town to the mayor's office. Elsa and I met with four people that afternoon. They were all helpful, organized, and motivated. It was amazing. The head of Solid Waste offered to bring us on a tour of their yet-to-be-opened-brand-spanking-new sanitary landfill.

The next morning after a two-hour delay, we finally hopped in a truck and went 11km outside the city. The road was bumpy. At one point we forged through a river. Our guide, Fernando, mentioned that the river would make the dump difficult to access in the rainy season. Not a single piece of litter lined the road. This is completely virgin land: only touched by the farmers that currently live out there.

We saw the processing facility.
We peeked into the storage facility that will hold segregated items for sale.
We looked at the composting structure, which was basically an overhang with two hose bibs.
We drove out to the sanitary landfill, which is a big cement swimming pool with a filter running down the middle. They plan to install 23 of these swimming pools, ahem, landfills, throughout the property by the end of the project. Total cost of the project: 17,000,000 cordobas ($850,000USD).

Essentially, we saw lots of freshly-poured cement.

I could not see any redeeming quality about this new site. It is 3-4 times further away from the current site, which will increase transportation costs. There's that issue of getting over the river in the rainy season. It is in untouched countryside. In a region with very cheap labor and very few mechanics, its operation plan seemed equipment-heavy.

GIVEN THIS INFORMATION... (Thank you, Aldo Aravz, Director of Municipal Services).... Matagalpa, population 109,000, has 14,920 residences and 18 commercial centers. The topography of the city (very hilly) makes collecting waste challenging: only 83% of the city gets waste services. Thus, there are 63 illegal dumping spots. The City has 7 trucks, but only 5 of them work. The river that runs along the west side of town is chronically filled with waste. Approximately 70-80% of the city's waste is organic. Only 35% of the town pays its waste collection bill.

Given this information, they built buildings, poured landfills, and made plans to buy more trucks??!! They installed a four-system sort bin outside their office with "glass" as a category? No one carries glass bottles in town.

THIS IS WHAT I WOULD DO...Flatten out some land at the current landfill. Buy a 20-foot industrial conveyor belt. Hire folks from the landfill to sort the materials that arrive. Spread out the hiring so that all families from the current-landfill-working-families benefit. Start sorting everything; start composting. There are only eight truckloads per day; once the loads from those trucks is sorted, start sorting the landfill waste that is already there. Employ people while making the landfill smaller each day. At the same time, start an education outreach campaign in the city. Invest in rubber boots and rubber gloves, and begin a River Clean Up effort on the first Saturday of every month. Also, invest in the collection of dues: currently only 35% of the population pays their garbage bill? As the collector knocks on each door for 10-50 cordobas ($0.50-$2.50) per household per month, if people cannot pay, sign them up for a 2-hour clean-up slot where they will pick up litter in their neighborhood.

Why is this hard to do? Because it is so much easier to invest in infrastructure than it is to invest in people.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

A Polo Field, Hot Coast, and Three Border Crossings

We rolled out of San Andreas Ixtapa, waving goodbye to our MayaPedal buddies and keen to be back on the road. We skirted to the south of Antigua, dropped mucho elevation, slid through Escuintla, and coasted (heh) onto the Pacific lowlands of Guatemala. Volcanos kept us company to our left as we rolled through relatively flat terrain with cows and sugar cane.

The first night we tried to camp at a African Safari Theme Park (I know, random), but the owners were worried we would get eaten by the tigers. Instead, we pitched our tent up the road on a polo field (even more random). Flat earth, with meticulously pruned grass? Can we please take a doggie bag and roll out grass like this for camping every night? Except for the mosquitoes and brutal heat, it was delightful. Gene practiced his polo shot on our tandem horse.

We crossed into El Salvador with perhaps the most mellow border crossing of my life. The guards were hanging out on the bridge. Kids were jumping off the bridge into the river. It was dusk, and everything felt so relaxed. It was weird, too, to suddenly be using US dollars (El Salvador's currency). I was still in the habit of translating prices into dollars, and ended up having sentences in my head, "So these cookies are 25 cents... so... they're... $0.25. Got it."

We really liked El Salvador. It's Central America's biggest secret. Sure, there are 15 murders per day in the capital. But if you stick to the beach, you will find pupusas (really yummy tortillas stuffed with beans and cheese, eaten with cabbage and salsa...yummy), friendly people, and warm oceans with perfect waves.

Even with beautiful surroundings, it wasn't easy. I got sick for a few days. It was brutally hot. My butt hurt tremendously from my saddle. We body-surfed a few times in El Tunco, but I mostly remember clutching my stomach in intestinal pain. I resorted to a rice-and-banana diet for two days. I was so grumpy, and just wanted to jump off the bike and throw tantrums. Blagh. One night, in a disgusting hotel, I broke down and cried, "This is so hard! We're biking. My butt hurts. We go cheap on everything. It is so hot. Everything itches. All I do is daydream about air conditioning and cold juice." (I know: total wuss moment.) Gene calmly replied, "That's the point. We wouldn't be doing this if it was easy." And all of a sudden everything turned on its head. Strangely, the world felt better again. Thanks, Gene.

We crossed paths with some incredible cyclists. One morning in El Salvador, we were biking along at a good clip. We passed this guy in yellow. He pedaled harder and caught up to us. He then hung with us for 15 kilometers. On a mountain bike. With his 10-year-old son on the back. We were easily doing 30 kph (19 mph). We were so impressed and wanted to hug him! Instead, we bought him and his son breakfast. Gene also inflated his tires and added grease to his rusty chain. What an athlete.

This guy was biking his two kids to school. Through two feet of snow. Uphill both ways. (Okay, not really, but they max out their bikes here.)

Honduras was a three-day adventure of tropical coast, climbing, and then rolling hills. We went through more than ten gallons of water in that time. This is a picture from our usual routine: we buy a big jug, fill up our water bottles, and then drink the rest. We then roll onwards, feeling like seals with so much water in our bellies and in our trailer. We are addicted to TANG and all of its flavors. Orange is our favorite, but lemon comes in close second. It is a bit disturbing to drink eight liters in a day, and then pee only once. Before I go any further, I'll stop this paragraph and take a sip of water.

We crossed the border into Nicaragua at the end of April 2009. Nicaragua. Nicaraguita. The land of poets, murals, and history buffs. Our first night we camped on a baseball field I thought it was some random project, but it turns out that baseball is Nicaragua's national sport.

The next day, just 20 km from our destination of the week -- Esteli, Nicaragua -- we heard a crunch. Gene pulled over. We loosened the rear wheel and it completely broke apart, falling in pieces. ¨That doesn´t look good,¨I thought. Our axle had broken! Snapped in two. In three! I didn´t know axles could break.

We disassembled the bike on the side of the road, packed it up in the suitcases, and hitched a ride into Esteli. While Bike Friday worked to get us a new hub, we enrolled in Spanish school. I turned my Spanish teacher into a solid waste expert. Instead of having class in school, we went to landfills. Instead of homework, I drafted questions for the Solid Waste departments at the Mayors' offices. We went to a brand new sanitary landfill in Matagalpa. More to come in the next few posts...

Monday, May 4, 2009

I Want This Town to Make it Work.

I want this town to make it work.

The town is San Andreas Ixtapa, Guatemala. It's 45 minutes from Antigua. Its population is 19,000 (including the nine surrounding villages).

A man, Luis, runs a waste collection business in San Andreas Ixtapa. He goes from house to house, two times per week, and picks up the trash with his ridiculously strong assistant, Hilverto (photo, right). One day, as Hilverto picked up the trash, I ran up to the truck and asked if I could take pictures. Luis said okay. I then asked if I could see their operation. After trying to put me off (no, I don´t mind flies. no, I don´t mind smells), he agreed to bring me to his dump site. Here is what transpired.

After making his collection rounds through town, Luis drives us in his big, white truck (full of waste) out to his farm ten minutes to the south side of town. There, I watch as his son throws bags of trash out the back of the truck. Luis and Hilverto tear the bags apart, pulling out plastic bottles, glass bottles, metal, and other bulky items. The piles of stuff around the farm indicate other gleanings: big plastic jugs strung together; an old banner casting shade next to the tin shack; I even see a stack of cardboard egg crates smooshed together.

It is the usual trash scene: Flies buzz. The dogs nose through open bags. I ask Luis the hardest part of the job. He replies with his finger, pointing to a bag of raw chicken thrown away by vendors in the market. Looking into a bag of rotting flesh, I agree: this is gross. (And no, Luis and Hilverto are not wearing gloves or any semblance of safety gear.) Anything that does not get gleaned out of the bags of trash gets raked into the ravine behind the trash pile.

Once upon a time, Luis went to the effort of segregating organic materials and throwing them in a hole. He climbs into some bushes and brings out a handful of rich earth, and explains how compost works. His hole of compost is filled, and he no longer segregates organics.

I wrap up the tour. Luis washes his hands and escorts me to the bottom of the hill. As we walk, we talk about his options. Luis charges 20 Q ($2.40 USD) per month for this service. He feels he cannot increase his charges because people will either switch to the other service in town (the municipality, which doesn´t even acknowledge his presence), or households will begin to dump their waste directly in the river.

He is a committed dude, trying to get the recyclables out of the waste stream, but he has been doing this work -- by hand -- for ten years. I think he is tired. Commited, but tired. I mention that in some cities, trash collection costs money while recycling is free.

What if... (his eyes lit up and he continued the thought for me)...

...he increased costs to 25 Q per month for people who continued to throw trash away, but offered ¨reduced¨ charges of 20 Q a month for people that segregated recycling? That would not only keep his revenue generation steady (or increased), but would also yield greater segregation rates at the front end.

My mind was spinning with visions.

This town could be the poster child for recycling in Central America. He could paint his truck with "we recycle" and have a mural depicting the different recycled materials. The city could host waste management conferences. The town could take pride in having clean rivers. Kids could participate in neighborhood cleanups every month. They could apply math skills by participating in a waste sort (where they would separate and weigh the waste stream, then create pie charts representing the waste composition). Antigua, 45 minutes away, full of well-meaning do-good travelers; they would eat it up (ie: ¨Tour The Town That Recycles for Ten Dollars¨). Residents would like living in a cleaner city that had clean rivers (see photo, right, showing the current state of the river, chock full of plastics and trash). Crops would grow better with locally produced compost.

Oh this could be good.

But it just needs someone to bring it all together.

There's a Peace Corps Volunteer in San Andreas Ixtapa. She's motivated (she just started her first worm bin). She's got her hands full with a lot of other projects (Sustainable Agriculture Marketing). But maybe this waste management angle will develop. I wrote up ten pages of notes and ideas. Like any good community project, the driving force can't be her; it has to be the community. Whether they want cleaner rivers, more eco-tourism, or lower fees, this town could make it work.... if the town wants to make it work.

G´luck, Sara. G´luck, Luis. G´luck San Andreas Ixtapa. Keep me posted.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Volcanic S'mores

This post has nothing to do with garbage.

In mid-April we climbed Pacaya, a volcano outside of Antigua, Guatemala. Rosie, a rock star Reed College lady (also from Portland, OR) joined us for the day.

The climb was mellow -- a few kilometers up a gentle, dusty path. Then we got to the part where the rocks were only three-days old. When we stood in one place for too long, our shoes started to melt. The hot air scorched my legs.

We scrambled over to a spot where we could see the lava through the rocks. We then performed the power play of the mountain by pulling the following out of our backpack: marshmallows, graham crackers, and chocolate. (Gene had picked up long sticks on the hike.) If you click on the picture of me with the stick and marshmallow, you can see the red lava beneath the puffed ball of sugar.

Volcanic s'mores are delicious. We shared with some Canadians and they were psyched.

Just after this picture was taken, I had quite a scare when someone above us dislodged a rock. It came tumbling towards me in slow motion. I couldn't move. Luckily, it broke right above my ankle and rolled to the side. (I felt like I was in an Indiana Jones movie stunt, only I emitted a girlish squeal. Yes. I admit it. I was scared.) Besides toasted sandals, I got off lucky with just a scrape.

We walked down the volcano that evening with bellies full of roasted sugar and chocolate. Mmmm.