Stories from Nicaragua - Energy's Spring Break

Charcoal Women - "Bio-char" fabricated using carbonization (anaerobic burning) of corn stalks and husks (bio-waste). Photo: Vanessa Treviño
Charcoal Women - "Bio-char" fabricated using carbonization (anaerobic burning) of corn stalks and husks (bio-waste). Photo: Vanessa Treviño

The following is a compilation of updates from one of three groups of students traveling over their spring break with the D-Lab: Energy class. Alix de Monts, Vanessa Trevino, and instructor Libby Hsu were in Nicaragua working with GrupoFenix, an organization working to produce and promote solar energy.

26 March 2012

Saludos de Sabana Grande, Nicaragua! Team GrupoFenix  (Alix, Vanessa, Libby, and Elisha) reporting from our second day in Nicaragua. It’s been an exciting time so far. A quick recap of what we’ve been up to: we landed in Managua at around 11:30 and said adios to the other Nicaraguan team [AsoFenix consisting of Kwami, Micaela, Laura, and Ken] as they met their community partner at the airport. We hopped into a Taxi and, after a few shaky starts and stalls, put-putted along to the bus stop on the outskirts of Managua.

Our bus was a packed retrofitted yellow schoolbus. Inside and outside vendors selling fruits, chicken, and other indistinguishable local dishes wander up and down the length of the bus. We tried a fried chicken and rice tortilla. We then zipped along the beautiful Nicaraguan countryside. We passed along some beautiful lakes, tropical jungles, and volcanic sloping hills. I think many of us took the opportunity to sleep as our 5 am flight meant that most of us hadn’t slept the night prior to leaving. Four hours later we hopped off at a bus stop on the side of the road and were greeted by two smiling women, who took us along a dirt road to the various Sabana Grande communities. We then each split up to join our various host families for the evening. We chatted a bit in Spanish, explored the community, and ate dinner.  The local specialty is a dish of beans, rice, tomatoes, and corn tortillas know as “Gallo Pinto”.

Day two: We were all up bright and early with the roosters at our respective host families. After a light Nicaraguan breakfast we headed over to the Solar Mountain to meet Susan and Mauro, who showed us the water pump and solar irrigation system used to grow crops on the mountainside. We also toured some houses in the village that were using solar power. Then we headed over to the Solar Center to meet a variety of other people who work with Grupo Fenix and learn about their endeavors involving solar cookers, water distillation, biodigesters, and solar panels. We ate lunch at the Solar Restaurant, where all the food was cooked using the power of the sun, including chicken, rice, vegetables, and even delicious banana and carrot cakes!

We spent the afternoon discussing the trials encountered while making homemade solar panels and are discovering some promising avenues for class projects, improving the manufacturing process and making use of more available materials. We are so excited at getting to meet so many people doing wonderful work in this remote community. Its almost time for dinner, and tomorrow we have another big day!

29 March 2012

This update is brought to you from a little internet cafe in the bustling streets of Ocotal, Nicaragua. Libby, Vanessa, and I are here doing some scouting on buidling materials and supplies at the local hardware stores. At 5:00 pm this city is full of life.. we walked into the cafe full of students checking their facebooks! It´s quite a change from the quiet life of Sabana Grande. 

So far it´s been a busy week. Weve been learning a lot about the community and the various technologies theyve implemented, ranging from a toilet-biodiester-restaurant-biogas-range system to solar powered water pumps. Today we saw a bike-power kitchen food blender. Yesterday we worked with some of the local solar panel makers and were able to resolve the issue theyd been having with air bubbles trapped within the solar panels. It was a team effort combining our knowledges of various engineering disciplines to come up with a solution. We´re not 100% sure it´s scaleable to larger panels so we´ll be doing some more testing tomorrow. Still it was pretty exciting to have an impact on the first attempt.. as we´ve learned here, not all development projects have immediate impacts. 

We´ve all been trying the various local foods, which mostly consists of beans, corn tortillas, a crumbly salty cheese, and local in-season fruit. For the most part our stomachs have been holding up to the dietary change expect for a minor incident involving an overdose of fried tortillas. [In her defense, they were delicious].

I think we all been pleasantly surprised by how welcoming our host families have been, taking the time to answer our questions, teach us how to wash our laundry in a creek, or carry water buckets on our heads. The schedule for the next couple days involves installing some solar bottle lights in a couple homes, further working on solar panel systems, as well as brainstorming with the residents about future project ideas. We´ve been surprised by the amount of wind here, which so far appears to be an untapped resource, so we may look into exploring wind technologies.

4 April 2012

So we all made it back to Boston, although GrupoFenix had a bit of an adventure coming back.

We had to catch the only bus that would return us to Managua on time for our 1 pm flight:  5 am.  It's the beginning of "Semana Santa" in Nicaragua - the week before Easter and the whole country is caught up in festivities. Apparently it's the biggest holiday there, so busses operate on special schedule. At 4:00 am we all wake up amidst the crowing of roosters to pack up our last belongings, and walk guided by flashlight along the dirt path leading to the highway. We're running a bit late: we know the bus comes at 5:15 but we were planning on being at the stop at 5:00. Yet, despite being 15 mins early we have barely time to catch our breath when two yellow school busses zoom into view. Poking his head out of the open bus door, a man calls out a "Managua, Managua, Managua". Before we even blink our bags are being hauled into the back of the bus, and as we're being ushered up the steps. Only after the bus picks up speed do the doors shut. It's early enough that we all find seats, but a typical bus ride can involve standing crammed in the aisle like sardines. The bus ride takes us through the varying Nicaraguan landscape, ranging from the dry arid environment of the North, to the swamps and lakes, to the rocky volcanic mountains. Eventually we enter the urban outskirts of Managua and, a bit later, the airport.

Overall the trip was an incredible, eye-opening experience. I think we all realized the immense value of living with community before determining projects. Back in Boston we couldn't even have begun to imagine what life in Sabana Grande is like. Talking to the families we truly learn what is important, what their needs are and how they differ from what we perceived . As Paul Polak mentions in his book Out of Poverty "1. Go to where the action is". We understand the truth in this statement now. 

We've brainstormed a list of potential semester projects, which include bike-powered devices, expanding solar powered pumps and irrigation systems, developing a low-cost method of encapsulating solar cells, improving cooking methods, developing new tools for carrying water and wood, and expanding lighting systems. We'll spend the next couple classes debating and discussing with our peers before settling on one big project to tackle. 

Pictures are worth a thousand words. I invite you to take a look at Vanessa Treviño's blog, which has some stunning photos. We're currently working on some more in depth blog posts for MIT Admissions, so stay tuned.

We're all missing our Nicaraguan friends, but we'll be in touch with them as we work on our projects. We hope our ideas and designs will impact their lives just as how their incredible kindness has impacted ours. Somehow, I think we'll all find a way to return to the little town of mud houses and fields. After all, it's easy to fall in love with this place - despite those pesky roosters.