Monday, February 21, 2011

News coverage of Bottle School projects

Here's a link to a story featured on NPR titled "Trash to Treasure" which discusses a Bottle School project similiar to the one I'm putting together - Laura Kutner, the volunteer featured in this story, is a recently returned Peace Corps volunteer....

Friday, February 18, 2011

An adorable little street urchin

Ok, so this happened a couple weeks ago but it’s still hilarious.

The kid you see in the pictures is named Lucas – he’s cute, mostly because he’s got lots of gall and he’s only 10 years old. Skinny and brash, he’s probably one of my favorite kids in my town. He’ll see me walking by, stop wrestling with some other kid and run up, grab my arm and ask me to teach him how to hit on girls in English. Then he’ll shout garbled versions of what I tell him and make the teenage girls giggle as they walk by.

So the other day he was walking around with this sign and of course I had to take pictures. Apparently he’d been working the local bus routes:

Here’s a closer look at what the writing says:

Translation: “Help me – I can’t speak”. The part he scribbled out on the side says “I’m blind”, which lets us know he was a little indecisive about which fake handicap to embody.

For those of you that aren’t familiar with this hustle, it’s really simple. You go on the bus with a sign, pretend to be mute, hold out your hand and people give you money. It’s reaallllly easy because all you have to do is look pathetic and not say anything (and a lot better than faking blindness because then you’d have to run into stuff.)

I’ve seen children and adults purport muteness on buses for years and I’ve always been a little suspicious – all they have to do is remain quiet! It always seemed really easy. Anyway, regardless of whether all those people I refused cash deserved it or not, I finally had physical proof of the hustle (Lucas can definitely talk) and it made me roar with laughter.

I got him to show me the money he pulled in – it looks like he made about 9 quetzales, which is a little over $1 and not too bad I think ….

You have to admit that this picture is totally cute, regardless that Lucas is a total scam artist. Adolescent mischief is essentially the same everywhere, I guess ☺

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Identifying a community

I wrote about some progress with my Bottle School project in a recent email, but it seems worth repeating here for posterity and for everybody else that didn’t get cc’d (I also wrote in Spanglish, which was probably confusing)

Check out this blog post for background information – a basic idea of school construction, design, etc.

Now – the official first step of a Bottle School project to identify a community with whom you’ll work. Here’s a picture of the main road in the village where I hope to build a school made out of 6,500 plastic soda bottles (so cool!)

There’s no school here, just a couple of areas where de facto classes are held for the 52 students of elementary school age. On the right you can see a structure wrapped with blue tarp; it looks like this from the front:

The floor is made of dirt, and a few stray dogs can usually be found lying around trying to stay cool – the midday sunshine here can be punishing. There’s another area where classes are held, which can be seen faintly on the left side of the first photograph – it’s actually the verandah of someone’s house:

The need for a school in this community is obvious, but there are plenty of Guatemalan villages that need schools, unfortunately. As a project coordinator, therefore, the question is to decide with whom you wish to work, which is important because a Bottle School project represents a partnership with the community in question – they’re the ones responsible for collecting the bottles. Furthermore, each two-room Bottle School (approx. 7 x 14 meters in size) requires that all 6,500 20 oz plastic bottles be stuffed absolutely full with inorganic trash (candy wrappers, styrofoam, etc.) Sound time-consuming? I’d say so – collecting the bottles represents a huge task, but filling just one takes like 10 minutes. Here’s a very brief, accidentally-shot video of me struggling to cram a plastic bag into a soda bottle with a piece of rebar:

Ha ha, very funny. Anyway, so the sheer amount of work requires that you partner with a motivated and dedicated group of people who won’t waste your time. What’s more, the community also has to provide all unskilled labor in the school’s construction. Hug It Forward, the NGO with whom I’m hoping to partner, agrees to provide only for skilled labor and building materials (obviously not including the bottles…)

Basically, the Bottle School project isn’t meant to be manna from heaven, a huge influx of cash appearing from United States that precludes the residents of some lucky community from lifting a finger – it’s meant to be a collaborative effort. The Bottle School project insists that a community to get involved with its own development, which is arguably just as important as building a school for needy students or cleaning up the environment.

At this point I haven’t run into any roadblocks or detours yet, so I’m still feeling pretty optimistic about the whole project. We’ll see where I’m at in about 4 months :)

Friday, February 4, 2011


Yep, that’s a crate full of dyed baby chicks. Without a doubt, they are all busy asking each other what the @%$^ is going on.

So apparently this is a Valentine’s Day thing here. Round February each year, some entrepreneur goes all Rainbow Brite on a crate full of pollitos (baby chicks) and comes to the market to get the kids riled up. Here’s what he looks like:

I love the look on his face. He’s so blas√© and so cool, despite the fact that a limp sack of water is hanging from his mouth (fyi – the cheapest way to buy purified water here is in a 500 mL plastic bag, so don’t think what he’s doing is abnormal, it’s just that he does it with PANACHE)

The kids seemed pretty excited – in the five minutes I stood there agape and snapping a mess of photos, I think dude sold at least 4 chicks. The price of these little abominations? Just 1 quetzal, which is the equivalent of about 12 cents. Heck, why not buy two?

I sorta tried to find out if you’d eventually end up with a magenta chicken, but these little guys apparently expire in a few days because of the dye. It’s supposed to be nasty stuff, bleeding out when doused with water….it sounds kind of gross, actually.

These are disposable chickens here, temporary pets.

It’s wild but like I said, it seems to be a brisk business. I took the photos/footage at around lunchtime but by 8:00 pm dude had sold every one. I thought I’d find him in the same spot, but the peeping I’d heard turned out to be a solitary turquoise chick across the street, wandering on the floor of a bodega and flanked by its 11-year-old owner. She simply sat there and watched, unmindful, while the chick peeped around in circles, bewildered and oblivious in its own right. I stopped and stared, and then kept on walking home and grinning about the crazy stuff I see here in Guatemala.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Flirting with Death

My bus caught fire the other day!

No joke – I actually saw flames behind the instrument panel. People started running towards the front door, somebody said, “we’re all going to die!” and smoke gushed out of the hood. However, after throwing a little water on the engine (three separate times), we just kept on going, climbing a steep mountain slope in an overloaded school bus.

I felt a little like my life was in the hands of drunk-driving teenagers – the driver and his buddies thought the whole ordeal was pretty funny. I was definitely pissed at first, eventually resigning to subtle annoyance, and finally shaking my head when it was all over, relieved to be alive and yet amused at the insanity of what just happened. It was 6:30 am.

Seriously though - if your ENGINE CATCHES FIRE you should stop a second, take note of the situation and do some problem solving:

1. The bus is on fire.
a. Why is the bus on fire?
2. Perhaps it’s because we’re seriously overweight and the engine wants to commit suicide.
a. Is this a problem?
3. I dunno; do you think it’s a problem?
a. ………..

Anyway, so the bus was filled to capacity with passengers. There were like 2 cords of wood up top plus substantial cargo. The maintenance and mechanical state of our bus was God Knows, and the mountain slope was twisting, turning, and represented a 1600-meter elevation gain. As we were coming up a really steep incline, my seatmate pointed out that smoke was coming from the hood. We stopped, poured some reserve water on the motor and kept going, but 10 minutes later smoke flooded out again and a flickering orange light*** appeared within the engine.

At this point people got a little more riled up, but the driver just re-soaked the engine and we kept going, trying to keep the temperature low with periodic splashings of water. Forget reducing weight or offloading passengers – we just rallied the vehicle until reaching level ground.

The whole thing was crazy but we made it and I have to give the driver credit for knowing the operational threshold of his equipment. At the same time, it was pretty unnerving watching these guys laugh about what felt like mortal danger. Only in Guatemala.

*** this would be fire.