A Smashing Cultural Exchange

As I’ve said many, many times here on this blog, as well as to many Peruvians, the Peace Corps has 3 main goals. The first has to do with providing technical assistance, while the 2nd and 3rd goals have to do with cultural exchange. Goal 2, specifically, involves sharing U.S. culture with our host-country counterparts, who, in my case, are any and all Peruvians. One of the main ways I have fulfilled this goal in the past has been by sharing some American dishes with my host-family and neighbors, as well as frequently sharing music and photos of my life in the United States. However, now that I am living by myself full time in Huaráz as Áncash’s PCVL, have my own apartment, and have regular access to wifi/electricity/many other amenities, I decided it was time to aprovechar (take advantage) and add one of my personal loves, video games, to my Peruvian life.

So, when I returned to Perú after my month-long vacation in the United States in August, I brought back a little piece of my childhood, namely, my GameCube. I honestly never thought in my wildest dreams that as a Peace Corps Volunteer I would still be able to play video games, let alone my very own GameCube, but since the opportunity presented itself I couldn’t let it pass. While I’ve had my Game Cube with me for the past 2 months, it took a while before I found the chance to actually put it to use.

That opportunity finally came a few weeks ago when I held a class on trash management with the Hinchas de la Conservación (Conservation Fans), an environmental group consisting mainly of university-aged students who support SERNANP and Huascarán National Park in various outreach opportunities (presentations, theater shows, recycled art projects, etc.). While many of the Hinchas are environmental engineering students, my counterpart at SERNANP (she coordinates the group) and I decided it would be good to train them on various environmental topics so they could better represent the interests of the park.

And so, on Saturday, September 30th, we had our first class during which I gave everyone a 19-question pre-test and then proceeded to teach them all the basics about environmental pollution, trash management, microplastics, and the creation of mini-landfills. This was to be the first session of five in a series about various environmental topics, however, it ended up being both the first and last session since we are in the process of recruiting new members for the group. But don’t worry, the environmental education classes will continue once the new members join the group in November.

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The Hinchas learning about trash decomposition times

Anyways, after concluding the session, as a surprise treat I broke out my GameCube which we hooked up to the large TV in the SERNANP office.

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My GameCube’s first go on Peruvian soil.

As you can see, something was off with the color, but otherwise, everything worked really well. I decided the Hinchas’ first foray into the world of GameCube should be with the classic, Super Smash Bros. Melee. While the controls can be a bit challenging at first, especially for those who have never before played a video game (like most of the Hinchas), most of them figured it out rather quickly and had a blast. Favorite characters included Fox, Captain Falcon, Donkey Kong, Mewtwo, Samus, Yoshi & Kirby. Those who picked Captain Falcon had the most success since his Falcon Punch (just press the B button) basically kills anyone who doesn’t know how to play.

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And the winner is…Yoshi!

Unfortunately, after playing for about 30 minutes, the screen went black and I noticed a strange burning smell. Turns out, I forgot once again that Peruvian voltage is higher than U.S. voltage, and so the GameCube power cable got burned. I should have known when we had problems with the color from the start, but you live and you learn. It was a sad moment, but I’ve ordered a new cable (as well as a power adaptor) which should arrive soon via a nice friend, and I’m hoping that only the cable was burned, and not the actual GameCube itself.

Anyways, despite the minor electrical mishap, I was really happy to be able to directly share a bit of my childhood with some of my Peruvian counterparts/friends, and I’m hoping this was just the first of many future Super Smash sessions. While it might take a while before the Hinchas can put up a good fight in Super Smash Bros. Melee or Mario Kart: Double Dash (assuming my GameCube didn’t die), I’m hoping some of my fellow Volunteers can give me a good challenge en lo mientras.

Until next time,

MGB

P.S. My title was both a reference to Super Smash Bros. Melee as well as to one of my favorite childhood cartoons.

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Year 3 Begins

So it has been a while since I last updated my blog (about 3 months), and in that time a lot has changed. After finishing up my service in Caraz at the end of July and then spending a week or so getting adjusted to my new role in Huaráz as PCVL, I got to go back to the United States for the month of August for vacation.

I had a great time being home and took advantage of the time to see a lot of family/friends, to go hiking, to eat lots of food (I gained a lot of weight), to go to the beach, to catch up on some movies I had missed while in Perú, and to go see the solar eclipse.

 

 

Overall, I had a fantastic time, but on September 1st, the time came to get myself to the airport and get on a plane back to Perú. Honestly, it was harder to leave this time than it was at last Christmas, but once my plane landed and I was surrounded by Peruvian Spanish once more, I felt at ease. I spent a day in Lima eating some tasty ceviche before catching a night bus on the 2nd to Huaráz.

Being back in Áncash was wonderful. The clean mountain air. The beautiful snow-capped mountains. The beautiful Sierra clothing. Coming back to Áncash after a month in the U.S. was quite refreshing, and I quickly remembered all of the reasons that I decided to stick around with the Peace Corps for an extra year. When I arrived at Huaráz, I went to chill at our Peace Corps hostel to drop some things off and relax before heading up to my apartment complex in the afternoon. When I got there and talked with the owner, she said my apartment was still occupied (turns out the person wasn’t leaving til October 1st, not September 1st like I had been told originally), so that I would stay in one of her older daughter’s old rooms for the month. Not what I was expecting, but if I have learned anything in the Peace Corps, it is how to be flexible. And so, while inconvenient (less privacy, no place to cook), I’ve been through more stressful and awkward things when working in Yuracoto/Caraz, so it was no big deal.

So after moving my stuff in, I treated myself to a nice dinner and then prepared for the upcoming week. On Monday and Tuesday, the Regional Department of Education of Áncash was hosting an Environmental Education Congress for teachers, students, and science/technology/environment teaching specialists from all over the Áncash region. The Environmental Education Congress is one of the many activities included in the  National Plan for Environmental Education sponsored by both the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of the Environment that must be implemented in each region (state) of Perú. While the implementation of the Congress fell under the purview of the Regional Department of Education, the planning involved various institutions, including SERNANP (the Peruvian National Parks organization), who is my partner organization for my 3rd year of work with the Peace Corps. Consequently, I was involved in some of the planning of the Congress and was asked to give a presentation during the Congress about my work with composting/vermiculture with the schools of Caraz & Yuracoto.

So, on Monday, September 4th I gave a presentation about the benefits of composting to about 50 people representing teachers, students, etc. from various schools all across Áncash. The presentation went over well, and the entire first day of the Congress was a huge success.

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The mesa de honor at the start of the Congress

Day 2 went swimmingly as well, and I ended up giving another unexpected presentation at the end of the day about the environmental plan I co-developed and co-implemented with the teachers at Micelino Sandoval Torres in Caraz. The coordinator of the school’s environmental committee was originally going to give the presentation, but unfortunately, she had to leave early. For the first year of implementation and coordination, I think the inaugural Environmental Education Congress was a big success. There were a lot of interesting presentations, from both different environmental experts as well schools, and I hope that the event inspires the teachers and students who attended to continue implementing new environmental projects in their schools and homes.

So, all in all, my return to Perú and Huaráz started on a high note! In the next few days/weeks, I’ll be updating you all on how the rest of my last 1.5 months have gone and what I’ve been up to.

Until next time,

MGB

From Tree Nursery to Tree Planting: Part 1

Sometimes I work at the town landfill. And in actuality, it is often rather fun because apart from disposing of lots of trash, they also make a lot of compost, have over 20 vermiculture beds, and have an old, unkempt tree nursery. This is the story of my fun times at the landfill, and how we launched an impromptu reforestation project.

This post is the first of a series that will cover one of my larger projects here in Caraz; building a tree nursery & consequently planting the trees grown. I will be publishing one post in this blog series/week over the next month or so. This series will cover all aspects of the project, starting with planning, the actual creation of the nursery infrastructure, the plant production, and finally the most rewarding component: tree planting. I hope you enjoy the series, and be sure to check in each week for the latest installment in this great tree-venture.

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Way back in July of 2016, the gerente (boss) of the Gerencia de Servicios a la Ciudad y Gestión Ambiental (Department of City Services and Environmental Management) of the Municipalidad Provincial de Huaylas (Provincial Municipality of Huaylas) and I were approached by a group of students from the local university. As part of their studies, the students had to create a work plan to address a local issue in the community. This group chose to address some of the environmental issues facing Caraz, notably the dirtiness, contamination, and abundance of trash often found at the town market.

Now, you might be thinking, but wait, this is supposed to be a series about trees, why are you talking about trash in the town market? Well, over a few meetings, I worked with the group to develop their plan about the trash in the market, but during these visits, it became clear there was a desire to do more. And so, my boss at the Municipality talked the students into become a somewhat more formalized entity, a group of sorts that would collaborate with the municipality on environmental activities and projects. Thus formed the Club Verde (check them out in this other post).

So, now that we had a committed group of young people, we began to brainstorm some plans for potential collaborations, other than addressing the trash concerns in the market. One of the big ideas we settled on was to do a big reforestation campaign, planting lots of trees around Caraz. However, we had one big question: where are we going to get all of the trees?

Well, we quickly realized that we were going to have to produce our own trees if we wanted trees to plant. But where? In the end, we settled on the town’s landfill since it conveniently had old, unused tree nursery infrastructure, as well as an abundance of organic fertilizer (compost, humus), which would be essential for tree production. And so, the stage was set: we would reactivate the landfill’s tree nursery.

But what does “reactivate” a tree nursery mean? Tree nurseries aren’t robots or computers. Well, it depends. Tree nurseries require many components to function: a water source, a system of irrigation, a source of organic material for the soil substrate, germination beds to grow the plants, shade (young plants can burn with too much sunlight), regular workers, etc. In our case, most of the infrastructure was present, but was just old and unkempt, having been left unused for several years. Consequently for us, “reactivating” the tree nursery meant first and foremost a LOT of cleaning.

Across two to three visits to the landfill, the Club Verde, some of the landfill workers, and myself spent most of our time de-weeding and reforming the once immaculate germination beds (long cut-outs where the trees are grown). After a lot of work, we managed to get 6 germination beds up to snuff, meaning we could commence with the following phase of the project.

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De-weeding and digging out the germination beds.
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Lots of shoveling was involved

Check-in next week for phase 2 of the tree nursery reactivation project.

Until next time,

MGB

Albino Toadlet

For those who know me really well, it is common knowledge that my favorite kinds of animals have always been herps, which is to say reptiles and amphibians (lizards, turtles, snakes, frogs, etc.).

Consequently, while here in Perú I have been on the look for reptiles and amphibians everywhere I go. I will add a post at some point with photos of all of the different reptiles and amphibians I have seen and/or captured while here in Perú, but for the moment enjoy this little tidbit.

Last week, while visiting the tree nursery in the landfill where I sometimes work, I noticed baby toads hopping all over the ground. Seriously, with every other step I took, you could note tiny, brown figures hopping along the ground. I wasn’t too surprised to be surrounded by toads since there is a small riverbed near the landfill that fills with water during the rainy season, but it was an unexpected occurrence. There must have been eggs and tadpoles there for some time, which had finally metamorphosed into toadlets.

Anyways, while walking around the landfill I noticed a small hopping figure that looked a bit, well, different. It stood out, and on closer inspection I realized because its legs were PINK! I quickly scooped it up, examined it more closely, and discovered it had red eyes, which would indicate that the toadlet had some form of albinism. It was an awesome discovery; usually albino animals don’t survive for long in the wild given their atypical colorations. After a brief photo shoot, I put the tiny toad inside the tree nursery with the hope that he would be safe from predators for sometime within its protective mesh. We shall see. Enjoy some pics!

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Unfortunately I neglected to take any pictures of a normal looking toadlet for comparison, but rest assured they look anatomically identical but with brown skin and bumps.

Until next time,

MGB

Earth Day 2017

Each year on April 22, we celebrate Earth Day. Why do we have a day to celebrate the Earth? Well, because the Earth is our only home (for the moment), and we need a yearly reminder that we should care for and protect this beautiful planet on which we live.

As an environmental Volunteer here in Perú, the different environmental holidays that occur throughout the year provide perfect opportunities to plan environmental activities or presentations with my host-country counterparts. One group with whom I have been working since last July is the Club Verde (Green Club), which consists of a bunch of young people from Caraz who are interested in improving the environment in and around the city. While they started as just a group of students from the local University, they are now a more formalized entity (Asociación Club Verde –Caraz) and I have been working with them on the implementation of their plans and ideas for this year.

As a group, they decided they wanted to implement some sort of activity for Earth Day, but after 2 meetings we had about a million ideas, but no one, concrete idea to execute. However, in the days leading up to Earth Day, they finally decided on two different activities.

The first was to plant flowers in one of the less-cared-for parks of Caraz during the morning of Earth Day. I mean, it’s Earth Day, so you are pretty much obligated to plant something, right? Here are some pictures of the process! Also, check out the Club Verde on Facebook!

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The flowers to be planted

 Planting the flowers

 

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The flowers became a tad wilted, but that is completely normal

The second activity was a screening of two environmentally themed movies, one for kids and one for “young adults”. My site-mate, who is a Youth Volunteer, had started a Sábados de Cine (Saturday Movie Nights) with her youth group, and so she let us take over the process for the weekend. For the kids, we decided to show The Lorax, which was a big hit and has a great message. Deforestation is an enormous problem in Perú, and so I hope that those in attendance were able to take something away from the movie. For the young adults, we decided to screen The Day After Tomorrow, a movie that rather dramatically shows the potential consequences of climate change in our world.

While the day was exhausting, it was great to be able to celebrate Earth Day through a diverse array of activities. In addition to my activities with the Asociación Club Verde – Caraz, I also worked with the UGEL (local branch of the ministry of education) to distribute about 200 trees to different schools in the province to be planted. We are also currently working to organize the production of more trees for a huge reforestation campaign in November.

Well, I hope this past April 22 you all took some time to appreciate this wonderful planet we call home. If you didn’t, there is still time to do something to help our planet, like plant a tree!

Until next time,

MGB

Trash Talking: Eco-Ladrillos

As I mentioned in my first Trash Talking post, one of the biggest environmental challenges facing Perú, apart from Climate Change, is trash management.

Simply put, Perú produces a lot of trash (not as much as the U.S. though) and does not have the infrastructure in most places to properly dispose of it. Consequently, scenes like the one below are extremely common in many parts of Perú.

But, there is a lot that can be done to address the trash problems. One really awesome way to manage trash in rural locations, is to reuse it for types of construction.

Wait…trash as a construction material??? What do you mean?

Well, I’m talking about Eco-Ladrillos (Eco-Bricks) which are amazing. So what is an Eco-Ladrillo? Basically, Eco-Ladrillos are plastic bottles that are filled to the max with non-decomposable trash waste such as plastic wrappers, plastic packaging, plastic bags, etc. until they become a firm, durable construction material. In creating an Eco-Ladrillo, the key is compaction; you have to put the trash inside, smash it down with a rod, then add some more trash and some more smashing until you have a firm, trash filled plastic bottle. Below is a promotional photo for Eco-Bricks listing all their benefits: reduce contamination, minimize trash waste, serve as an insulating material, etc.

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Feel free to translate on your own time.

 

Now, I learned about Eco-Bricks during training and I have been obsessed ever since, hoping that I would get the chance to use them during my service in Caraz. Well, that opportunity finally came when I became involved in development of the Environmental Plan for one of the schools I work with, Micelino Sandoval Torres. In creating the environmental plan, we decided to address various issues: poor trash management, lack of green spaces, lack of cleanliness in the bathrooms, etc. When we began to talk about trash management, I made sure to give a pitch about Eco-Ladrillos to the professors involved in the plan’s creation, and fortunately a few were as interested as I was.

So with 2 teachers we made a plan to create a bunch of benches in the school in the school using only cement and trash.

The project started back in August when the two teachers began teaching their students how to make eco-ladrillos, and giving each student the assignment to make 10 with 2 months. But, we didn’t just stop at the students, we also got the parents involved. On September 1st, we had a session with some padres de familia (parents of the students) to teach them how to make Eco-ladrillos. It was really fun, and each parent was tasked in making 2, which their kids would later bring to school.

From there, the teachers took over and kept reminding their students to make more and more Eco-Ladrillos. Until we had a decent amount, we wouldn’t be able to make anything.

In mid-October, we had a big session with a few different classes of students in second year of secondary school to address quality control of the Eco-ladrillos; the students would pass me an Eco-ladrillo and I would evaluate whether it was up to snuff (think Willy Wonka). The good ones were put into costales (basically potato sacks) and the bad ones (too soft, not enough trash, etc.) were returned to students who got to work shoving more plastic bags and plastic wrappers inside.

By the end of the session, we had approximately 240 Eco-Ladrillos which were good to go. In order to complete our bench, we estimated that we needed about 300, so we were just a few short. Over the next 1.5 weeks, we had the students at full chamba (full work) to create more Eco-Ladrillos out of all of the remaining trash we had collected.

Finally, after starting the project in August, the construction day came on October 27, 2016. My counterpart teachers picked a class of seniors to assist with the construction, and then we were off. Like most activities, things didn’t go perfectly; we started late, the “sand” we had to mix with the cement was too large, and the students fooled around quite a bit. However, with the students’ construction expertise, lots of patience, and lots of trash, we were able to create an AWESOME bench.

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The students of 5to E mixing the cement.
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Laying the base-layer of cement for the bench
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Putting down the first layer of Eco-Ladrillos
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Onto the second layer of Eco-Bricks, also adding a fresh layer of cement.
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A few layers in to the future trash-bench.
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Adding the final touches- gotta make sure they get the credit for their work
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The final product!

And there you have it, a bench made out of trash! In the end, the bench includes around 300 Eco-Ladrillos (I still need to count them) across five rows, amounting to about 60 kilos (132 pounds) of trash re-purposed. The bench has since been improved slightly; the front face has been smoothed over with cement and two trees were planted inside. As soon as I can snap a photo of the finished product, I will be posting it up in here.

And so, after 3 months of work, our first dive into the world of Eco-Ladrillos was a success! The teachers and students all had a fantastic time, and the plan is to continue the work when school starts again next March. The dream is that for the following year, EVERY class in the high school (~950 students) will learn how to make Eco-Ladrillos and will have to contribute at least 2 so we can continue to create more of our beautiful, trash-filled benches. And who knows, maybe we’ll even create something else out of Eco-Ladrillos, such as chess tables. Honestly, the possibilities are endless since I’ve seen walls, bathrooms, and even school rooms made out of these materials.

Now, even though Eco-Ladrillos are touted as a rural solution to trash management, the technology should be limited to Perú, and other countries who struggle with trash management. I’ve come to realize that in the U.S., we produce SO MUCH waste, especially plastic waste, and so I would love to see this technology employed back home in the States. Yes we have great trash collection in the U.S., but if we try to follow the 3Rs (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle), we should constantly seek solutions for how to reuse our waste before we taking the easy route of just throwing it in the trashcan.

Well, I hope you enjoyed today’s installment of Trash Talking, and that some of you readers (especially other Peace Corps Volunteers), will take initiative and see the feasibility of using Eco-Bricks in your communities.

Until next time,

MGB

Trash Talking: Recycled Costumes

As I mentioned in my first Trash Talking post a few weeks ago, one of Perú’s biggest challenges at the moment is trash management. While the biggest barrier to advancements in trash management here in Perú is probably lack of infrastructure and technical experience, another important one is a general lack of environmental awareness. Simply put, many people just don’t know the consequences of pollution or how to properly manage this waste. Consequently, a LOT of my work revolves around sensibilizando la gente sobre los residuos sólidos (raising awareness about solid waste) via various means; charlas (presentations), conversaciones informales (informal conversations), programas de radio (radio programs), y eventos (events).

Oftentimes, teaching about trash management and raising awareness can be extremely fun, as is the case with the event I am highlighting today. A few weeks ago, I participated in a super fun event that I coordinated with the Provincial Municipality and the Environmental Youth Group (Club Verde) with which I work; a recycled costume contest.

You see, we wanted to engage the creativity of the schools in the city and at the same time celebrate trash management, and this is what was born. We invited all of the schools of Caraz to participate in the event, and had four categories: pre-school, primary school, secondary school, and post-secondary education. The rules were simple; design a Halloween costume using only recycled materials (wrappers, newspaper, plastic bottles, old trash bags, old wire, etc.). Each school was allowed 2 participants, and in total we had over 10 schools participate with over 40 students showing up in their “recycled” costume.

Like most Peruvian events, we started off with a parade around the town square to show off all of the hard work by the students!

 

Afterwards, we headed into the Coliseo Cerrado for the actual contest. Here are some photos of the amazing competitors, photos courtesy of one of my counterparts, the Municipalidad Provincial de Huaylas.

I’m hoping that this event was just the first installment of something that will continue and evolve año tras año (year after year).

Until next time,

MGB