Posts Tagged With: agriculture

Biodigesters – Got Gas?

“Each day when I awake I know I have one more day to make a difference in someone’s life.” ~ James Mann

June 16, 2014

 

I love my work with biodigesters. It’s fascinating stuff and for those of you non-sciency types who don’t like to read technical talk about poo I tried to keep it interesting so you’d enjoy too. Keep reading. It’ll be worth it, I promise.

I mentioned long ago that part of my work here is with anaerobic biodigesters, which decompose locally-available organic material (usually manure) and produce methane gas for cooking as well as a rich, very liquid compost that’s excellent for gardens, crops or use as a foliar spray to repel pests. I have a lot of interest in promoting these systems on farms here in PY and also because I wanted knowledge to maintain the seven biodigesters in my community, installed by the previous volunteer, I decided to be part of the Biodigester training group last year. We are a group of Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) with specialized training who travel throughout the country helping other volunteers teach about and install these systems in their communities. This alternative generally replaces a señora’s need to cook (and breathe) over an open fire on the ground and haul firewood. It better manages manure, smell and flies on the farm. It makes for healthier living conditions while helping abate nutrient loss into surface water and the massive deforestation that occurs in PY. Here’s the story of one such event I attended recently…

 

The trip to the volunteer’s community was about 11 hours by bus, including waiting in the bus terminals and alongside the road for my next rides (and missing a stop – oops). By the first bus station I was STARVING so during my ‘layover’ I went to the nearby supermarket for lunch and discovered to my delight that they had a hot buffet of prepared food. Whoa – I could hardly contain my excitement! Almost like a restaurant! After much deliberation, I’d just decided what I wanted and was about to get the señora’s attention and then I noticed it: a cockroach exploring the case and the edges of the food. My hopes sank and my excitement evaporated. I was bummed but not completely grossed out. This is PY and hygiene, sanitation and other expectations are, well, different than the US. It’s not drama, it’s just a fact. I walked away and started cruising the aisles the way teens troll the strip at Old Orchard Beach. I digress. After another tour of the store and my need for protein and carbs outweighing the underwhelming fruit and veggie options, I went back to the case. Yes, I did. Afterall, I reasoned, the insect was barely longer than my thumbnail and it was just one (that I saw) and I’ve probably eaten elsewhere with similar or worse conditions without knowing it and that roast loin with ham and melted cheese looked so deliciously inviting and I was SO hungry for something other than bus-station-empanadas. I bought my original choices and tried to push that scurrying visual out of my brain forever. My innerds remained cooperative and unaffected and I continued my journey to my friend’s community. By the time I arrived it was nearly 9pm. Two other volunteers had traveled to help as well and we sat down to prep for our morning workshop. When our travel-weary bodies called it a day, our host gave us a tour of her humble abode complete with instructions on how to use her cool, new homemade composting squat toilet (her version of an aerobic biodigester and she did a great job building it too!). This was a first for me. The composting and the squat. How I made it a year and a half in this country without an encounter with the squat toilet is beyond comprehension. I’ve been terribly sheltered it seems. The fact that the toilet was on a raised platform to allow easy management of the compost underneath combined with the outdoor spotlight that happened to shine down directly and brightly onto the squatting hole made me feel like a Rock Star Appearing On Stage every time I had business to do and stepped up onto that platform. The Leo in me saw the proximity of the neighbors’ homes and desperately wanted to do a princess wave during my inaugural visit to the throne, despite it being 10:30pm. Perhaps only Leos would understand and appreciate such an opportunity, I don’t know. Despite my Leonine leanings, I’m not especially proud of the fact that I LIKE being the center of attention and “being in the spotlight”, and this was one time I would prefer to do without either. When stepping onto the platform and standing upright, the tarp surrounding the structure came to my hips. Barely. Pun intended. I’m sure I half-mooned the neighbors on multiple occasions before getting down to business. Grateful to be no taller, I found myself hoping for a power outage when nature called after dark throughout this visit.

 

Sample squat toilet - basically a hole in the ground or cement platform (this is a stock image from the internet; the one described above is MUCH nicer)

Sample squat toilet – basically a hole in the ground or cement platform (this is a stock image from the internet; the one described above is MUCH nicer)

At daybreak we headed to a local agriculture-themed high school of which there are many in PY. The day started with four of us teaching a workshop to 50 high school seniors about all aspects of the biodigester followed by hands-on application with the kids doing what they’d just learned. The kids were motivated and eager to see it come together, though we always have to convince new users that the gas does not make the cooked food smell like manure and the biodigesters themselves do not smell despite the hundreds of gallons of soupy manure inside because it is an enclosed, oxygen-free system. By 5pm we had started filling the plastic tube with water and were mostly done. All that was left was for the volunteer and kids to begin ‘charging’ it by adding manure the following day. They will add manure for the next three weeks before enough methane gas is produced for burning. This system was installed next to the pig barn for ease of collecting manure and putting into the system (as opposed to hauling buckets of manure across campus) and the fuel will be used to cook pig food. Pigs will provide fertilizer which produces gas and liquid compost. Compost will grow crops to feed the pigs and people. Gas will help cook the pig food (and in most cases, people food), which will result in more fertilizer for the biodidgester and meat for people. And a nice, closed-loop cycle continues!

 

Biodigester installation at a Paraguayan high school

Biodigester installation at a Paraguayan high school

The amazing volunteers who helped with this project (and the woman on the right is a volunteer's community contact)

The amazing volunteers who helped with this project (and the woman on the right is a volunteer’s community contact)

 

A completed biodigester after 2 years in use. The spout on top of the bag is where the gas exits into a hose that runs to the cooking area.

A completed biodigester after 2 years in use. The spout on top of the bag is where the gas exits into a hose that runs to the cooking area.

It was wonderful to participate in this installation, spend time with other volunteers, sharpen my technical and language skills, and see youth learning valuable new information and skills for their futures. And I can check “visit to a composting squat toilet” off my bucket list.

Categories: Peace Corps Paraguay | Tags: , , , , , | 6 Comments

Life is a Cascade of Moments

October 10, 2013

The Wing

I will not die an unlived life.
I will not live in fear of falling
Or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
To allow my living
To open me,
To make me less afraid,
More accessible,
To loosen my heart
Until it becomes a wing…
choose to risk
My significance,
To live
So that which
Comes to me as seed
Goes on to the next
As blossom,
And that which
Comes to me as blossom,
Goes on a fruit.

— Dawna Markova (resharing from my friend Anne Davis Klaus)

This is a collection of random reflections on life as a PCV in Paraguay after one year and with one more to go. I know in the years to come I will forget many of the details that make my experience truly incredible so here is a drop in the bucket of the things that make up this adventure-filled journey of a lifetime and fill me with gratitude for this opportunity every single day:

What it takes to welcome a stranger. How good it feels to be welcomed by strangers. The perfumed air of blooming flowers on jasmine and fruit trees. The hum of bees in those trees. The sound of baby goats bleating for Mum (and subsequently eating my rose bushes). The aroma of cow manure and burning trash. The sight and sound of kids playing happily -very happily- skipping, laughing, commanding each other’s actions. Large families where infants, many siblings, parents, aunts, grandfathers all share a roof and who wouldn’t dream of sending grandma to a home (even if they existed) and where a son or daughter will live forever at home to take care of their mother. Prairie fires. The huge, sapphire blue, cloudless sky. The screech of tero-tero birds. The knocking of woodpeckers (campo flickers) on the window in the next classroom or sparrows pecking at my own window. The way the sun splashes down my patio in the morning. The way the cows all migrate to the village soccer field in the afternoon. The way a señora invites me to lunch of cow stomach like it’s the most gourmet meal I could have. Drying my hair in the afternoon sun on my porch during language study. The rustle of my prayer flags in the breeze. The frustration of cows or chickens raiding my porch and eating harvest of mandioca, new seedlings, or drying seed pods.  The rooster that crows outside my door at 6am every morning. Hot chipa or sopa right out of the tatakua. Hospitality. Ducks bathing in puddles and ditches. The sight of vast prairie. The wind before a rain storm. Tiny frogs that hang out under the toilet rim. Those diamond-shaped snail things that crawl up the walls. Mean dogs. Mean cows. The sweetness of baby animals nursing. Public breastfeeding.

Flip flops – the footwear of choice. My 30-day exercise challenges. Time to think. Time to read. Time to indulge The Planner within. Time to foster my creative side. Skyping with family. Gifts from family and friends. Red soil. Red dust. Droughts followed by new running water system and hot showers. Trying new local recipes. Amazing tropical fruit: grapefruits, mandarins, mangoes, passionfruits, guava, papaya, kumquats, pears. Fire ants. La cigarra insects that sound like fax machines. The buzz of hummingbird wings in the lime tree just outside my window. Hot summers. Ceiling fans. How everyone invites you to ‘sit down’ as soon as you arrive. Coordinating non-winter trips to town with quick-dry clothing knowing each 3 mile journey between my house and the bus in blazing temps and no shade will generate clothes soaked in sweat. Generosity of my community. People’s (im)patience with my language. Steady doses of humiliating myself. Regular opportunities to question myself and my abilities. Joy in seeing my small accomplishments. Washing laundry by hand and planning laundry around the weather. Being unphased at seeing pigs or chickens mating on the soccer field. Rainy days that give me a guilt-free, stay-inside day. Tarantulas. Beekeeping. The one bee that came to visit every day and would sip honey from my finger. The satisfaction of having bottles of honey from my own bees.

Winters – with cold that insisted on hot water  bottles to pre-warm the bed and prevented me from bathing for days on end. The hilarity of watching cute piglets or baby goats run. Identifying fears I never knew existed in me and seeing them fade or fall through this PC experience and the personal growth and strength that has come from it. Learning two languages and, as a rite of passage, making an ass of myself. Being the Queen of faux pas. Occasional gunshots in the distance (especially New Year’s Eve!). Never forget dancing in the circle New Year’s Eve. The night sky, Milky Way, southern hemisphere constellations. Bamboo fences. Barbed wire fences. Creative gate solutions. Homes of cement, wood or coco trees. Cooking over open fires. No trash management. Paraguayans’ creativity when they need it as well as inhibiting customs (you can’t have terere and watermelon together unless you want to blow up; you can’t have both cheese and beef in your mandio chyryry-must be one or the other). Frogs crying in ditches. Dengue fever. Mosquito nets. Stingless bees. Glassless windows with shutters or security bars (rejas). Life on the patio. Terere and mate. Strange insect invasions. Black ants in the house by the thousands. Ox carts and oxen (gueis). Asado bbq. The sound of animals being butchered. Killing and dressing my first chicken. Learning to make chorizo. Chickens in the kitchen. Pigs in the kitchen.

The amazing ability of a bus driver’s assistant to remember who has paid, who owes fare, and who gets off in which town. Signs of Catholicism everywhere. Seasonal shifts in birds and insects, weeds and daylight, weather and food supply. The level of poverty. The level of happiness among locals (sometimes in inverse proportion to poverty). The level of corruption. How I dislike the clothing styles and television programs, especially game shows that objectify women. Three showers a day in summer. How spiffy men look in traditional po’i shirts. Upbeat Paraguayan music. Radio shows that won’t play an entire song start to finish without commentary, sound effects or simply starting a new song in the middle, just when I was getting into the groove. Soccer and volleyball. Kids’ fun with simple makeshift ‘toys’ of stumps, rope, scrapwood, rocks, marbles. Playing volleyball with kids at recess. Motos and motocarros. Incredible sunsets. Simple lives. Simple thinking. Community’s dedication to each other. Sharing. There is no concept of germs, hence the sharing. The ‘lindo’ factor. Missing my family. Amandau ice cream. Super friendly national police, unless they are guarding the Presidential Palace. Getting money at the bank. Shopping for fruits and veggies at the Mercado and getting Norte, rather than local, prices. Dancing tango alone in my house at night. The squawk of guinea hens.

Sand trucks going to and from the river. Paraguayans’ non-confrontational style. Chisme (rumor mill, known as radio so’o).  How much meat I don’t eat here. Poor soil. Running to the sunrise. Morning yoga. September is “cut and sell your firewood” month. Showers at night. Five to six hour bus rides to Asuncion with no bathroom onboard. Hazardous sidewalks in Asuncion. Treating myself to a nice hotel when staying in the city. The abundance of hostels. Mercado 4. Watching the movie “Siete Cajas”. Shopping Mariscal Lopez (can you say McDonald’s French fries and sundaes?) and Shopping Del Sol. At the supermarket, having to bag, weigh and sticker your produce in the department before getting to the checkout (and how many times I forgot to do this). Making soup on cold, rainy days. Mandio chyryry every morning. Popcorn almost every day. Cheddar powder for said popcorn.  How everyone uses oregano for flavoring their food but wouldn’t dream of putting basil or rosemary in a dish…they are only for tea! Paraguayans who mumble and will never be understood by me. How much I promised myself I would never pretend to understand when I didn’t but yet I still do it (how many times can one reasonably expect a person to repeat?). Spending weeks planning the perfect workshop to teach a new skill only to have no one show up, but often something good comes of it (we get to try again!)

All the things you can carry on a bike or moto (moto: 5 people, birthday cakes, live pigs, sheets of plywood or glass, filled propane tanks, hoes, chainsaws, bags on the handlebars up to the driver’s eyeballs of freshly butchered beef, etc). Weekends are for drinking but especially Sundays, all day. Sunday soccer tournaments where the winning team earns a pig carcass to BBQ. ‘Modern’ outdoor bathrooms with toilet and shower in a 3’x4’ space just big enough to stand in but not actually move. Termite mounds dotting the prairie. Diesel fumes. When the church was repainted from pink to red-orange. Friendship, support and regular talks with special PCVs. Rezos. Monday morning custom of visiting deceased family at the cemetery. Cool looking cemetaries. Crime. If you see it and want it you take it but it’s not stealing. Purple blooming Tajy trees. Lapacho trees are bright yellow and have matching butterflies that visit it. The neighbor’s Illuvia de oro (rain of gold) tree of dripping yellow blossoms. Grape arbors. Snakes. Giant beetles. The giant chalkboard in my ‘school’house. The view of hills from my front door. Watching the sun set from my hammock. School kids conjuring up any reason to peek or come into my house. Compost piles. Using worms to compost organics in the garden or in the kitchen. Experimenting with green manures (cover crops) to nourish the soil. Agricultural experiments, some go well, some are disasters, all are lessons.

Wide-brimmed hats. Long sleeved shirts. Carrying groceries in my backpack. The most plentiful thing in the freezer is ice, in tube-like bags that fit one’s thermos. Buying cheese from a local señora. Drop-in visits. Drop-in visits that yield goodies to take home. Outdoor lights affixed to trees. Roofs of tile, chappa, metal, thatch. Animals free-range and never need their hooves trimmed. Animals that sleep in the road. Buses that come to a stop, horn blaring, until the cows move out of the road. Things that are used for many purposes (one knife is used to kill a pig, weed the garden, cut carrots and rope). All parts of the animal are used and cherished. Wealth is measured in cattle. Sunflower oil is the most common oil for cooking but soy is very popular with cottonseed more expensive. Every store has at least ½ an aisle dedicated to yerba mate. Paraguayan diet is based on fat, meat, salt, and sugar, there are few fresh veggies much of the year. Veggies rarely eaten raw except as shredded cabbage salad or lettuce with tomatoes. Sweets, soda and artificial juice are popular (cheap too) despite all the fruit trees here. Palm trees. Pine trees. Wild pineapples. Chickens pecking bugs off cows’ legs. No mail delivery and no mailboxes. Buses are used to deliver packages long distance. Electrical and running water systems not dependable.

Inequity between womens’ and mens’ roles and work load. Horses that willingly stand up to their knees in water to eat grass. Eucalyptus trees. Bean ‘trees’. How people don’t eat many eggs as a stand-alone food source but rather as an ingredient. Making candles. Drinking wine in the privacy of my house. Rain blowing through the windows on a stormy day. People working barefoot even in the cold. Kids wearing jackets and snowsuits to class because there is no heat or insulation. Cultural practice of asking personal questions like your age, income, weight, cost of an item, marital/significant-other status, and not understanding how your life could be happy without a man in it. Pigs scratching their rumps on a light pole. Everyone has a cell phone. Men think it’s sport to share your phone number with other men. Dueling is legal if you are a blood donor and there are medical staff on hand. School days are either 7-11am or 1-5pm depending what grade you are in; in winter the afternoons are shorter because it gets dark early. Only 50% of kids finish high school. Ladies- long hair and ponytails, men- no facial hair. Plunging necklines. Tight pants and clothes. Skinny jeans on men. Sparkly accessories. Very high heels. Teacher strikes. School uniforms. School cancellations for rain, if it looks like rain, if it’s too cold, or there is a community function held at the school. Harvesting green manure seeds that then sit in my house for months waiting to be shelled. Herding cattle with moto, bicycle, horse or on foot. Leaky roof. Indoor gutters. Siestas. Paraguayan soap operas.

Teaching something new. Seeing others grow. Learning something new. Seeing myself grow. Making a difference in someone’s life. Making a difference in my life.

Categories: Peace Corps Paraguay | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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