Tuesday, January 25, 2011

One Year Ago / One Week Ago

One year ago I got a call from my dad. He had just found out about the Young Adult Service Corps. A day later I called Douglas Fenton, who explained to me more details about the program. He also told me that even though the deadline had long passed, if I could get an application and references in immediately, I could go on the discernment weekend in two weeks. I told him to let me sleep on it. I woke up the next morning deciding to call him and accept. Before I could, I checked my e-mail to find my flight itinerary for Florida. Two weeks later I met about a dozen people that were shockingly similar to me. We were all crazy enough to want to leave America for the great unknown. I became fast friends with most of the guys. I also met a couple of former YASCers on that weekend. One of them described their experience by saying, “The tough times are really tough… but the good times are really really good, and at the end of the day, I’m glad I went.” That is when I decided to commit to YASC. This line has stuck with me a bit, because it is completely true. Christmas alone sucked. But my day trip to Lon-oy more than made up for it.

Lon-oy is a small barangay in the diocese of North Central Philippines. I was there to observe an ECP micro-hydro project that has been extremely successful since the early 90s. The whole time I was there, I couldn’t believe the natural beauty of the area. It is where a major river begins, creating corkscrew-esque carvings in the rocks. A felt like I was in a level on Tomb Raider. There were long handmade footbridges, giant spiders, and shaky ladders hanging over steep cliffs.

Another thing the really impressed me were the people. I couldn't talk to the locals as much as I would have liked, because they usually just ask me questions about how the heck I ended up in Lon-oy.  However, I did observe their dogs, and you can tell a lot about a person from their dog. The dogs moved towards people, meaning they get pet more than they get hit. They looked healthy, meaning they are well fed and looked after. Not one looked like they had ever been in a fight. Seeing that set a really nice vibe for the rest of the day.

In the United States, I am quite interested in politics. The reputation of Filipino politics is that it is even more corrupt than in America. However, I saw two things that give me a great deal of hope for the future of the Philippines. In Lon-oy many people have to travel a great distance every day to tend to their farms. Some farms are on the top of the mountain. In the middle of town there is a large green fertile field. The grass was greener than anything I have seen in the Philippines. It was not a farm, but rather a field for elementary school kids to have recess on. Its presence means that no politician or leader has ever taken the land for himself, and the people put an extremely high priority on education and recreation.  

The second thing came from my time in La Trinidad. La Trinidad is not like Lon-oy. It is a big city that has to deal with a lot of big city problems. They invested a lot of time and money in a environmentally friendly landfill. This is a truly rare sight, even in the US. Most environmental project concentrate on everything the public can see. However the leadership of La Trinidad installed a collection system to collect and quarantine the environmentally hazardous runoff from the slowly degrading plastics in the land fill. Even in the US this stuff usually finds its way to the water when nobody is looking.

Here is what happened Friday at the landfill: The director of development for the ECP, Floyd Lalwet, knew La Trinidad had a highly advanced system for producing wood vinegar (aka liquid smoke), but they did not know what to do with the carbonized byproduct. My charcoal project utilizes carbonized material, but we have struggled to produce very much wood vinegar. So on Friday I met with a Japanese volunteer who designed their wood vinegar production system and an engineer from the mayor’s office. I left La Trinidad that afternoon with about 3x the knowledge of wood vinegar, as well as a rough design for a more efficient production system. I left them with training on how to grind, mix, and mold their bio-waste to produce eco-friendly charcoal. Within a week or two, La Trinidad should begin production of this charcoal. 

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

December Report

I guess when I delay my blogs like this, I end up having to write about things that happened weeks ago. However, I really do need to talk about the completion of phase one of a major solar project in Catubangan. Catubangan is a remote village that had previously been without electricity. They still have cell phones, but they have limited light to study under and no TV to gather around at night. They used to have to travel 10 kilometers, often by walking, to charge their phones and lanterns. The old school was heavily damaged by last fall’s typhoon, so now they study at the animal feed warehouse/ temporary Episcopal church/temporary Elementary school/ solar charging station. The project is still only in its initial stage. Within a month or two we will be installing a piping system of my design to provide the village with clean potable water.

I’m designing a solar powered water pumping system that uses one imported pump instead of two local pumps. By using one efficient submersible deep well pump we will keep the costs low and the system simple. Most of the local engineers have initially told me (and more importantly, my boss) that my design will not work. I then show them the pump specs and I can usually ease their concerns. However, this project will represent my competency as an engineer. A lot of people have at least a suspicion that I will fail, but I’ve done the calculations, and I know this project will be successful. Hopefully I can use the success of this project to gain more respect as an engineer instead of only as a volunteer.

I am also writing to you for the first time since Christmas. It was a tough Christmas for my family and me. There was no snow, no Christmas tree, and no hot wax fight with my sister during silent night at midnight mass. Instead, I spent Christmas alone at a hotel in Manila. I did however get to Skype with my whole family for about 3 hours on Christmas morning. December 26th was a different story entirely. That is when I started my new year’s vacation to Japan. My first stop was Kamakura. It was a beautiful old style Japanese town with a long woodlands hiking trail around it. On these trails were dozens of temples and shrines. I was able to spend the whole day hiking (which I love to do, but haven’t been able to do hardly at all since August), looking at wonderful Japanese shrines that were unlike anything I had ever seen before, and eating sushi. The guesthouse I stayed at even offered me the opportunity to eat a sushi dinner with them. The coolest part was after the meal, we ALL rock paper scisored for dishes duty. I can think of no better way to make me feel at home than actively trying to get out of doing the dishes. It was a wonderfully refreshing change of pace. That’s not to say I didn’t miss the Philippines. The fast food noodle places in Tokyo were convenient, but they have nothing on Mang Inasal. Tokyo itself was a really cool city, but the best part of the trip was meeting up with 3 of my fellow YASC volunteers. Exploring Tokyo, while sharing experiences and stories with my friends was a special experience. I already miss chatting with Steven, Christine, and Spencer. Chatting about nothing in particular is something I miss. It was very nice and refreshing to be able to do that for a week.

This is me at the fish market. Yes, that is grilled octopus. It was very cold in Tokyo compared to the Philippines. I usually had to wear all my light weight jackets I brought to the Philippines at once.

This is a giant bronze statue of budda.

This is the dinner I was talking about. All this food was shared by a Japaneese couple, their baby, a Japaneese girl, two Scots, one Spanish man, and myself.

This blog was not originally going to be about Christmas or Catubangan. It was going to be about Mickey. Mickey is a puppy that belongs to my neighbor Auntie Andrea and her family. Every dog in the Philippines acts more like a guard dog than most American dogs. They have to be a little mean to keep from being stolen. Mickey was different. Every time I opened my door he came running to my porch to greet me and play with me. I jokingly called Mickey my nephew. I travel too much to get my own dog, but I could always play with him for a couple of minutes whenever I wanted and then send him back home. Much like hockey was in New York, playing with Mickey was often the lone highlight of any tough days. I was heartbroken to find out he passed away while I was in Japan. This tragedy couldn’t have happened to a nicer dog, or a nicer family.