Volunteering

Mitraniketan and Mysterious Ooty

Mitraniketan is a small community located in the state of Kerala. It was started on the basis of providing education for village children around Kerala who wouldn’t normally be able to afford schooling. Over the years, it has grown to host over 300 elementary students, a people’s college, an organic farm, a small dairy farm, and a bakery. They also have a large community of people who visit as volunteers, curious tourists, or people on yoga retreat. We visited with the purpose of volunteering.

Morning assembly area. All the students would sing every morning.

Morning assembly area. All the students would sing every morning.

The organic farm was starting to grown coconut trees from the seeds.

The organic farm was starting to grow coconut trees from the seeds.

Organic farm section.

Organic farm section.

Massive bull in the diary farm section.

Massive bull in the dairy farm section.

The people’s college received funding from a group of Mitraniketan enthusiasts from Denmark a year or so ago. The funding went to a project they called “Eco-campus project.” This project was looking at the whole Mitraniketan community-which includes the elementary school, people’s college, farm, bakery, and shared areas-in regards to water conservation. In recent years they have seen a drop in water levels as well as a decrease in the amount of rainfall they receive in a year. The work they are doing should help retain the water in the soil around the campus. Some examples of what they have completed as part of the project include planting of banana trees, coconut trees, and digging various trenches in key locations to trap the water. It was all very interesting and we learned a lot from the staff there during the tours.

Trenches around the trees to trap the water

Trenches around the trees to trap the water

Trenches next to the path to trap all the water that runs down the hill.

Trenches next to the path to trap all the water that runs down the hill.

Planting banana and coconut trees.

Planting banana and coconut trees.

They have other small projects that they want to do but haven’t had time since they have been focused on the water conservation. One of those projects was to look at the types of plastic wastes that is produced on campus and provide containers to sort these from other garbage. Dave and I were in charge of this project for the week that we stayed in the community.

Dave and I decided that to understand the types of plastic wastes and suggest sorting we needed to understand all waste streams coming from the campus. We walked around and took pictures of all the different types of waste we saw and where it was on campus. We had one of the students walk us around the dorms as well. It was amazing the difference we saw between the boys dorm and the girls dorms. Overall we found a variety of different types of waste and suggested they have three different bins-compostable waste, plastic bottles, and waste to be burned or appropriately disposed of. We provided a report and they seemed to be excited with the results. I hope what we did was actually beneficial to them and can be used in the future.

Trash can they use currently.

Trash can they use currently.

Boys dorm.

Boys dorm.

Clean girls dorm with some girls shying away from the camera.

Clean girls dorm with some girls shying away from the camera.

The boy on the far right was the one who helped us with the dorms. His name is Sudeen.

The boy on the far right was the one who helped us with the dorms. His name is Sudeen.

Snapshot of our report. Dave really wanted me to include this.

Snapshot of our report.

Mitraniketan was a blessing for both Dave and I. Before we arrived, we were really frustrated with the issues we were having with the trains, the touts, the rickshaw drivers, along with the stress from finding hotels, the endless beeping, and other exhausting traveling duties. The small community they created was so relaxing, quiet, and welcoming that we didn’t want to leave after the week we were there. We even asked if we could stay longer, but other tourists were coming in and there was no space.

One of the reason it’s so relaxing and stress free is because all of the meals are prepared for you. This is great because you don’t have to find non-spicy restaurants and we got to try a lot of different south Indian dishes. The food we had here was probably some of the best we’ve had in India. My favorite was a jack fruit and coconut dish.

Jack fruit are...

Jack fruit are…

HUGE!

HUGE!

Overall both of us had a great experience visiting the Mitraniketan community. We would recommend it to anyone visiting the south of India. We left refreshed. Thank you Mitraniketan and all the great people that it includes.

They have a pottery making area and this guy is a master.

They have a pottery making area and this guy is a master.

They were digging this very deep well to provide water for locals right next to the campus.

They were digging this very deep well to provide water for locals right next to the campus.

They have an area dedicated to making mats and other things out of coir, which is rope from coconut fibers.

They have an area dedicated to making mats and other things out of coir, which is rope from coconut fibers.

Coir weaving machine.

Coir weaving machine.

They had an engineering section that would produce new equipment to help the locals with a certain task, this one was for sifting.

They had an engineering section that would produce new equipment to help the locals with a certain task, this one was for sifting.

Some boys playing in the park area.

Some boys playing in the park area.

Some of the girls building a wall to help with water conservation

Some of the girls building a wall to help with water conservation

The boys helping out around the campus.

The boys helping out around the campus.

Dave was talking to all of these guys about Soccer, he never got to play with them though.

Dave was talking to all of these guys about Soccer, he never got to play with them though.

Wall building

Wall building

Rubber trees! They were not part of the farm, but right next to it.

Rubber trees! They were not part of the farm, but right next to it.

Our next stop was a hill station called Ooty in the state of Tamil Nadu. They have many tea plantations and Dave and I signed up to do a trek through the tea plantations and local villages. It was a great experience and we had some excellent pictures. Unfortunately, Ooty is also the place where we lost our camera. After 6 months of traveling we didn’t lose one thing, I think that’s pretty awesome on our part. But, I guess it was bound to happen at some point. It’s too bad it was our camera, not because it’s an expensive item, but because it holds pictures we can’t get back. But, we were lucky though because Dave unloaded all our pictures before Ooty so we only lost the pictures from Ooty and a few from Mitraniketan. PHEW! Anyway, we only have memories now of Ooty and a constant vigilance to not lose anything again.

Categories: India, Uncategorized, Volunteering | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

Rio Muchacho Organic Farm Volunteering

From Quito, Dave and I took a bus ride to Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador. I will have to say that this was the longest, most uncomfortable bus ride we’ve been on so far. We got an estimate that the bus ride would take anywhere from 6-9 hours. Well, it took 8 hours and 45 minutes.

The most unpleasant part was that the bus arrived at 9pm at night and the room we reserved at Coco Bongo Hostal apparently didn’t exist. The owner had mistakenly given it away to someone who she thought was us. She then proceeded to direct us in a city that we didn’t know to a hotel that might or might not be open and have rooms. We were not very happy after a 9 hour bus ride. I don’t suggest staying at Coco Bongo if you need a place to stay in Bahia. The hotel su descanso ended up having a room and it all worked out in the end, it just was one of our first, but I’m sure not last, unpleasant experience with not getting what we expected.

The following day we took a boat taxi across the river to San Vincente and then a bus to Canoa. In Canoa there is an office for Rio Muchacho, the farm that we volunteered on, where you take a taxi to go to the farm. I say taxi because that is what they called it. It’s actually a pick up truck where you sit in the back and ride for a good 20 minutes on paved roads and then another 20 minutes on dirt roads. Don’t worry, we were assured it was “safe.”

Dave holding on for our taxi ride.

I took a seat on our taxi ride. Nice views on the dirt road to the farm though.

When we arrived Kevin and Nicola greeted us. Kevin is an intern who has been there for over 6 months and Nicola is one of the owners. They had saved lunch for us, which was very nice of them. We proceeded to start helping out with the activities in the afternoon and got our routines for the following week.

Panoramic of the farm.

The farm has a consistent routine:

6:00 am – wake up and get ready for the animals

6:30 am – put on your rubber boots and head to the animal area or kitchen depending on your routine.

View of the animal area.

  • Chanchos (pigs) – mix sugar cane syrup with water and give it to the pigs, mix grains with water and then feed to the pigs, shovel out any wet area of the pig pens and by wet that means urine and crap. After that, put a small amount of  sawdust where the pend was shoveled. And lastly, collect dry leaves to give to the piglets to rest on.

Chanchos eating.

  • Caballos (horses) – see chanchos. The chanhcos were a lot of work and whoever was on caballos was helping with chanchos. I was on Caballos the second week.
  • Pollos (chicken) – Feed the baby chicks ground up corn and fill up their water and feed the adult chickens corn. Dave was on Pollos the first week.

Pollitos eating their ground corn.

  • Cuyes (guinea pigs) – Cleaned out the cages and feed the cuyes

Guinea pig cage

  • Concina (kitchen) – cut up watermelon and pineapple and wash dishes. I was on the concina the first week and the second week Dave was doing the concina work.
  • Dave doing some dishes

7:30 am – routines are done and breakfast is ready. Breakfast consisted of fruit salad with granola, tea made from the pineapple peels, and some sort of starchy bread.

7:45-8 am – wash breakfast dishes or rest if you’re not on dish duty

8:30 am – Morning work

  • Some days we had a “Minga” which is an indigenous word that means group work. This could have consisted of moving brush, moving compost and so on.
  • Working in the vivero and semillero (nursery)

    I worked in the nursery for a week planting seeds and filling those bags.

  • Transplanting leeks

    Watching Nicola explain how to remove the baby leeks.

    Leeks transferred. Success!

    Proud of my hard work.

  • Planting lettuce
  • Digging trenches and/or holes

    Corney and I working hard digging the trench in the hot sun.

    Dave did most of the hard work. He was made for heat.

    It was hard with the hot sun baking us.

  • Weeding
  • Watering
  • Moving the Chancho Train

12:00 pm – Morning work is complete and lunch is ready. Lunch consisted of soup as the first course, and then rice with a vegetable side, salad, and juice.

Lunch. Yum!

12:15-12:30 pm – wash lunch dishes or rest if you’re not on dish duty

1:30 pm – 4:30 pm – Afternoon work

  • Making marmalade

    Our first task on the farm, chop a lot of mandarins for marmalade. We chopped for a good 2 hours. We also separated the pips (seeds for those of us who don’t speak British English).

    After the chopping and seed separating, the mandarins get boiled until soft and the pips and other whites get boiled to create pectin. They are combined with the same amount of sugar and simmered until it starts to set. Then placed into sterilized jars.

    We made a lot of marmalade the first week we were on the farm.

    Our finished marmalade in the office in Canoa. We’re famous, kind of.

  • Watering
  • Drawing instructions

    He’s a professional.

    Hopefully Dave did a good job so people understand what to do and what not to do.

  • Decorate cups
  • Plant flowers
  • Ride horses for visiting students
  • Every Wednesday was cultural day. So we made rings from a local nut and visited the giant tree.

    Dave cutting the nut into a ring like shape before sanding it.

    Sanding the inside and outside of my ring.

    Finished rings!

    Dave climbing the giant tree.

    One of the strangest trees I’ve seen. It sends roots down from its branches and it can eat other trees!

6:30 pm  – Dinner, which consisted of rice and some vegetable sides

6:45 – 7:00pm – wash dinner dishes or rest if you are not on dish duty

7:30 pm – Night activity

  • Watching movies on dirt or permaculture
  • Making coffee

    Build a fire and then roast the coffee beans to the desired darkness level.

    Tomas and Kevin grinding up the roasted coffee beans.

    Dave enjoying his freshly made coffee.

  • Making chocolate

    Cacao beans prior to being roasted.

    Roasting the cacao beans.

    Peeling the freshly roasted and very hot cacao beans.

    Grinding the cacao and mixing with panela (sugar cane). We decided on a one to one mixture.

    Mix the cacao and panela mixture with milk on the stove and add more panela if needed.

    Enjoy!

    mmmm…chocolate and pineapple.

  • Hanging out and making friends.

    Cornelia, Tomas, Steffi, Kevin, 3 Ecuadorian Guys that were only there for the weekend, Sarah, Erin, and Zach

    Nicola and her adorable twins Raphael and Florence.

    Our packed full taxi pickup on our way out from the farm.

    The cabana Dave and I stayed in for two weeks.

    They compost everything. This is the humanure pile.

    A portion of the garden.

    Pineapple!

    Pretty birds

    Overall we had a fun time on the farm and it was a good experience. We now know how hard farm work really is.

Categories: South America, Traveling, Volunteering | Tags: , , , , , | 7 Comments

Stove Project (Proyecto Estufa) Update

In a previous post we described the stove project that we had an opportunity to work on while attending school at Pop Wuj Spanish Language school. The stove project is just one of the ways that Pop Wuj helps the local communities near Xela. The project is done in three phases: Phase 1 includes laying down the cement base; Phase 2 includes laying down three layers of bricks using clay cement and regular cement; and Phase 3 includes installing the inner ramp (to direct smoke to the chimney), the metal stove top, and chimney pipe. In the previous post we described phases 2 and 3 because those were the steps we had been involved in up until that point. We weren’t sure at the time whether we would have an opportunity to participate in phase three, hence the addendum.

Phase 3 is a relatively fast step when compared to steps 2 and 3, but is a very important step because it’s the foundation for the entire stove. So the first phase requires a bit more attention to detail to ensure the rest of the phases and the final product are the best they can be. We were lucky to have Carmenlina on hand again to ensure quality throughout the building process. In addition to bringing quality to the table she’s also a speedy worker.

The stove recipient cleaning up the remains of a small fire that he previously used to cook with.

The stove recipient cleaning up the remains of a small fire that he previously used to cook with.

The first image (above) illustrates one of the effects of using an open fire with which to cook. All of the surfaces (walls, ceiling, pillars, light bulb, etc.) inside of the building are coated in a black residue from cooking with an open flame over a long period of time. I couldn’t help but think about the similar effect the open flames have on one’s lungs. Many of us back home enjoy a campfire from time to time and may experience this to some extent, but we definitely don’t spend several hours everyday over an open flame preparing meals. It’s easy to see the immediate benefits of these stoves. This is a known problem in certain parts of the world and there are many projects going on to help address the smoke inhalation issue. Here’s a link to a stove project a friend of ours worked on in India in collaboration with a group called Design Impact.

Sarah and Dave chopping cement blocks with machetes. It's amazing what you can do with a machete.

Sarah and Dave chopping cement blocks with machetes. It’s amazing what you can do with a machete.

The working crew that day included Sarah, Fredy, Carmelina and Carlos.

The working crew that day included Sarah, Fredy, Carmelina, Carlos and Dave (behind the camera).

This man lived at the home where the stove was installed. He was a construction worker in the past and was a master at mixing cement. He waited patiently as we unskilled laborers attempted the mixing process but took over to make sure it was done properly.

This man lived at the home where the stove was installed. He was a construction worker in the past and was a master at mixing cement. He waited patiently as we unskilled laborers attempted the mixing process but took over to make sure it was done properly.

Carmenlina laying out the base.

Carmenlina laying out the base.

Sarah and Carmenlina verifying the outer dimensions. Sarah's engineering skills coming in handy here.

Sarah and Carmenlina verifying the outer dimensions. Sarah’s engineering skills coming in handy here.

Sarah and Dave posing with the finished product.

Sarah and Dave posing with the finished product.

We visited the stove we finished last week. Still look awesome. It needs many more weeks to dry before it can be used though.

We visited the stove we finished last week. Still look awesome. It needs many more weeks to dry before it can be used though.

A view inside the stove. You can see the ramp leading to the exhaust hole in the rear of the stove.

A view inside the stove. You can see the ramp leading to the exhaust hole in the rear of the stove.

On a separate but related topic, this stove project reminded me of a project I’d heard about some time ago taking place in the Philippines. According to a video about the project, many of the buildings there are similar to some we saw here in Guatemala in that they are dark inside during the daytime and aren’t connected to an electrical source to power a light bulb. The project is called “Liter of Light“. It helps solve the problem of low light or no light situations in buildings by installing a 2 Liter soda bottle filled with clean clear water and a little chlorine (to prevent growth of algae) in the roof/ceiling of the building. During the day when the sun is shining the 2 Liter bottle filled with water transmits the light from the sun through the water into the room where it is installed. According to the folks that came up with this idea it can put off the same amount of light as a 50-60 watt light bulb. This of course depends on the strength of the sun outside. Nonetheless it’s a very cheap solution when compared to the electricity and bulb needed otherwise.

We shared this idea with the folks at Pop Wuj and they expressed great interest in incorporating this project into their already large scope of projects. They’d like to potentially install a water bottle light fixture in the same homes that receive the stove. It’d be really cool to see that take place. If you are someone who’s involved in communities that might benefit from this and you happen to be reading this blog post, check out the Liter of Light website.

Thanks Pop Wuj for allowing us to participate in such a cool project.

Categories: Central America, Traveling, Volunteering | 2 Comments

Proyecto de Estufa (Stove Project) and Traveler’s Sickness First Victim…

First off, I know it’s been awhile since we last posted. Sorry.  Our brain has been working hard trying to learn Spanish. Which is VERY hard and exhausting…but I digress.

Back to the Stove Project!

Pop Wuj is committed to helping the community around Xela with a handful of different projects, one of which is the stove project. A couple of women who work for Pop Wuj travel to different communities outside of Xela and visit families to characterize the need for a new stove or not. Every Wednesday is the stove project day where students (and teachers if their class is in the morning) volunteer to go build one of three stages of the stove.

So far Dave and I have volunteered two days and have been able to build stage 2 and 3 on the same stove! Since the locations are outside of the city we get to take chicken buses too.

Sarah and her Teacher Patty on the Chicken Bus

Ryan (another Student), Freddy (Dave’s Teacher), and Sarah and Patty walking to the house

Stage One:

This stage includes building the base and foundation for the stove. It uses cement blocks, known as just blocks in Spanish, and cement to bond them  together. There are three layers of blocks. Sand is then filled in the center of the blocks to bring it up to the same level. You can see the first level in the pictures below. We did not build this it was there when we started the second phase.

Stage 1 completed the week before and ready for Stage 2

Stage Two:

I think stage two could be the most difficult stage and takes the longest time to build. Although this could be biased since I didn’t build stage one and there were only 5 of us working on stage two and about 7 or 8 working on stage three.

Stage two has three different materials. Baro, which consists of a clay, water, and a brown sugar liquid to make it sticky. Baro is the thermal insulation for the stove. It goes on the inner 2/3’s of the stove. Cement is the second material that goes on the outside 1/3 of the stove and is to hold the bricks together. The bricks are the third material used in this step.

The first thing you do is soak the bricks. Eighty bricks in total, it was good practice counting…I made it to 80, with only one wrong pronunciation.

80 bricks soaking in the water

Then you make the Baro. The Baro is very sticky and very dirty. All three of us, Ryan included in this, were mixing the Baro and there for no pictures. Sorry.

Sarah measuring out the clay for the Baro

A layer of Baro goes on top of the blocks on the inside 2/3’s and a  layer of cement on the outside 1/3. The first layer of bricks are placed on top of that about a finger width apart. Which turns out is very important for the next step. The bricks were also leveled before the next step took place. This involved putting more Baro or cement to even things out.

Dave and Sarah placing the bricks on the Baro and Cement layer.

The next step includes putting the Baro, which let me remind you is VERY sticky and doesn’t slide in very easily, between the bricks and then on top of the bricks. Again, Baro on the inside 2/3 and cement on the outside 1/3.

Ryan and Dave working on getting the Baro and cement in the back of the stove. Notice the small working space.

Repeat two more times until you have three layers total. Making sure to leave space for a door in front and a chimney or chiminea in Spanish in the back.

Ryan and Sarah on the second layer applying Baro and Cement

And tudah! (I googled this word and still not sure if this is how it’s spelled.) Phase 2 complete. Except for the clean up and ride home…

Looks beautiful!

Sarah cleaning her hands of Baro

Dave and Freddy cleaning the tools

Adios!

Phase Three:

Phase three includes putting the floor down for the inside of the stove, the chimney, and the metal top. The first task for Dave was to carve a brick in a gradual arc shape for in front of the chimney while I mixed the dried Baro from last week to a better consistency.

Dave carving the brick with a Machete

They actually had him make two because he did such a good job on the first one. This is for the other stove near by.

Sarah mixing Baro

Then next process was lining up the chimney and cutting a hole through the roof. This process was mostly done by the teachers and Carmenlina, who is the stove master.

Carmenlina, Patty and Freddy figuring out where the chimney will go.

While the roof was being cut, Carmenlina was placing the gradient stove floor. She put the bricks down so it slowly increased in height towards the chimney. Then more Baro between the bricks.

Sarah, George (another student), and Carmenlina putting the Baro down.

Next was placing the chimney through the hole and connecting it to the stove. Dave caught an awesome picture of the women receiving the free stove watching the teachers do this step. She was very grateful for this stove.

Grateful eyes watching the stove making.

Following the stove is the placement of the metal top and more cement to top it all off. Notice the perfect cement job done by Carmenlina on the chimney block. Once this done, they let the stove sit for 7 weeks to dry out. Once dry, they return to put a door on and then the stove can be used for a long time.

Carmenlina works fast but is very good at what she does.

Students watching how to make cement.

Reaching the long spots for Carmenlina.

Dave trying to master the trowel. He either wasn’t going fast enough or not doing a good enough job, Carmenlina eventually took the trowel from him.

our teacher’s told us “good work” or “bueno trabajo”

There was enough people this time that another stove was worked on as well. Check out the other group…

Other group of students cleaning their tools.

The two ladies who live there and were receiving the stoves were very grateful and made everyone (there was 14 of us total) some hot beverage that consisted of chocolate and rice. Everyone had to take some, they were not taking no for an answer. There was a lot of concerned students…they didn’t want any bacteria friends from this drink. Dave and I both tried it. Not my favorite. The texture was similar to rice pudding, not a fan.

Some pictures of us leaving that day…

Carmenlina leaving the house between the rows of corn.

Walking towards the street to catch the bus.

A hill of corn, onions, broccoli, etc. behind the house.

And finally Dave and I treated ourselves to the chocolate covered frozen bananas we’ve been seeing on our walk home every day.

They were yummy…

Lastly, I’ve either made the post so long that you’ve been waiting in anticipation for the first victim of traveler’s sickness or you completely forgot. I’ll go with the first…

It was ME…I’ve had stomach problems since Friday and then Tuesday after lunch I had a fever of 99.3 for well over 9 hours. I don’t know the exact time, about 5 hours into the fever (a fever that ibuprofen nor aleve helped, I know tylenol would be best…but we didn’t have that) I broke down and took a dose of my antibiotics. The fever broke sometime in the night and I felt good enough to go to the stove project the following day. I’m still not feeling 100 percent…time will tell if I need something else.

As a side note, Dave has had some minor stomach issues, we’re afraid he wasn’t far behind my problems, but no fever yet. Good job Dave.

Thanks for sticking in there for this long post!

Cheers, Sarah

Categories: Central America, Volunteering | 10 Comments

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