Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Water, Wind, and tomato sauce

Sacha Yaku, the organization my mom and I founded to support the community water system in Ecuador, has been invited to speak at the Boston opening of the film "Flow." As a bit of reciprocity for them helping us get the word out, I figured I would post a link to the film's trailer on youtube. While the film is overstated in saying that the world is "running out of clean water," it is definitely true that access to clean water is a huge problem in the world, and one that is predicted to increase with climate change. And, as always, it is the people with least access to money and resources who are, and will be, hit hardest. The fear of corporate control of water may also be a bit extreme, but it is based on hard examples, such as this one: CocaCola pumping so much water for their Coke manufacturing plants in India that nearby village wells dry up. That fear is an unfortunate reality for many communities.

And back here on Pine Reservation, at Oglala Lakota College (see sign above), today was another good example of how often our role as "fellows" in underserved communities often consists more of putting pre-existing pieces together than in creating new ones. The other students that I am working with have been focusing on developing the wind resources on Pine Ridge Reservation. They had been asked to look into ways to get 50 meter meteorological towers (met tower) set up on the reservation with anemometers (instruments that measure wind speed) to investigate the wind resource at several locations predicted to be "hot spots" based on regional models. Today, during Al's tour of Oglala Lakota College, we got to get up close to this met tower, which was installed by OLC in 2004.

From a distance we all thought the tower was one of the short ones -- only 20 or 30 meters tall. That would be useful, but not nearly so useful as a 50 meter tower. The wind always gets stronger the higher up you go, so you can extrapolate from a 20 meter tower but it is much much better to get real data from up there. When we got to the base, we discovered a sign explaining that there were anemometers at 10 meters, 30 meters, and 50 meters on the tower!

[Photo: Allison, Al, and Stephan at the base of the tower]. Unfortunately the professor who initiated the project has since left OLC and Al doesn't think anyone else has taken up the mantle. Stephan suggests we look into whether it would be possible to move the tower to another site--now that they have a few years of data here there is not much point in keeping it in the same place. And boy do they have data: an average wind speed of 7 m/s = 16 mph makes it a class 4 wind site.

This is the view of Oglala Lakota College from the base of the tower. It is actually a really neat place -- today we saw the TV production department, the library, the war memorial, and the historical center, which was amazing.

And to close, some fun pictures...

In our inventory of lab equipment, we ran across some amusing items. My favorite were the "CapSeal Bullet Ferrules" -- apparently they are used to seal off capillary tubes or some such thing.

Here is Allison attempting to come up with a good name for the glassware she has unearthed -- it looks more like a cow udder than anything else.

And, to keep this blog a bit more well rounded, I figured I would include an embarrassing Kendra-moment shot as well -- the time I opened a can of tomato sauce and flung half of it onto my MIT shirt. That poor shirt has been through a lot in Ecuador, but this might top all of that mud and rain. Still, the chili I was concocting turned out rather tasty so I figure it was worthwhile in the end.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The lab at Oglala Lakota College

I finally actually have a work-related photo -- Stephan and I in the lab storage area with Al, the lab director. We are rummaging around through equipment and supplies they have in storage to dig up some of the needed items for the parameters we hope to run.

Tuesday we plan to return to the lab to help Al inventory this room and at the same time find all of the supplies that will be relevant. It should be a really fun and productive day as we find and try DO probes, pH meters, and maybe even a cold vapor adaption to the atomic absorption spectrometer...

Beadwork on Pine Ridge

When I was growing up, my dad did a great thing for me. He figured out that I was somewhat creatively/artistically inclined and asked my art teacher what he should do. She said buy her some art stuff and get out of the way. And so it was that I grew up spending pretty much all of my free time making things -- jewelry, rock and pine cone paperweights, dream catchers, cards, what-have-you. I had a particular fascination with American Indian-inspired crafts.
A wall hanging from the room Allison and I are staying in.

So it has been a bit of a childhood dream come true to see all of the crafts out here. Women still keep up the tradition of making moccasins for newborn babies and for adolescent girls, and I often see women at the office, at Kili radio, working on a pair of moccasins. There are many other crafts around here too. One that I really want to learn is quillwork. This is what the plains Indians, and others, used before the arrival of glass beads from trade with Europeans. They dried and died porcupine quills and wrapped and stitched them onto moccasins, shirts, leggings, bags -- pretty much everything that they now decorate with beads. I think the results are simply stunning...
Image from: http://sustainablejewelry.com/img/earrings.jpg

I hope to learn to do this, at least the basics, before the summer is out. And I may be in luck since we have just moved in with a new family and our host is an expert in all these different crafts. For now, she is out of town for the week and we are taking care of her house and dog and playing around with bead work, since it is more simple and familiar.

Here's what I've done so far. Allison did a lot more of this kind of thing growing up than I did, so she has been teaching me some tricks of the trade as well.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Faces in the Rocks

Sunday we had to go to Rapid City to pick up another engineering student who will be spending the rest of the summer here. On the way we managed to capture this rather amazing photo:

Things really are wild out here in South Dakota -- horses, buffalo, cows, deer, rattle snakes, mountain lions, and the occasional brontosaurus!

In all seriousness, though, a lot of amazing dinosaur fossils have been found around here so dinosaur images, memorabilia, and models are rather abundant.

It turns out that Mt. Rushmore is about thirty miles from Rapid City , so we figured we ought to go check it out. The faces are quite impressive in person, with the whole rest of the mountain face beneath piled high with rubble. Each chunk was at one point meticulously blasted off with dynamite.
Taking advantage of the same trip, we also went and checked out the Crazy Horse Memorial. Although the sculpture is nowhere near finished -- only his face has any definition -- the memorial made a much bigger impression on me than Mt. Rushmore.

Here is how the carving looks now. It was started in the late 1940s and, when finished, will be as tall as the Washington monument. The idea came from a group of Lakota Elders who wanted to show that American Indians had great heroes too, like the white man's leaders being carved at Mount Rushmore. They found a sculptor by the name of Ziolkowski who was born thirty one years to the day after Crazy Horse died. Ziolkowski took up shop and, by himself, began blasting away chunks of the mountain. He has since died and now his wife and seven of his ten children continue the effort. The project has never received any federal funds because the creators believe it needs to come from the good will and support of individuals, not the government.

Here is the model of what the sculpture will look like when it is finished. There are no known photographs or portraits of Crazy Horse, an Oglala Lakota chief who helped defeat Custer in 1876 and then was bayoneted after surrendering a year later. The portrait is, therefore, a symbolic one--of one of the last Lakotas who never lived on a reservation, never signed a treaty, and never spoke English. In the sculpture he is gesturing along with one of his most famous quotes: "My lands are where my dead lie buried."

Although the statue is intended to be symbolic of all American Indians, it is kind of neat that Crazy Horse was an Oglala Lakota, the same group we are living with on this reservation.

It also turns out that there is a huge museum at the Crazy Horse Memorial. I absolutely loved seeing all the beaded moccasins, arrowheads, garments, baskets, quillwork, etc. I saw some amazing stuff from different tribes in Wisconsin, which was really fun. Those kinds of experiences always make me extremely reflective about the past, present, and future... about cultures, about cruelty...about the planet and our role on it...about the world and my role in it. I have no conclusions or words of wisdom except to know that it is something so important to grapple with, to seek to understand, and really just feel.

If you are still curious about Mt Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial, you can check out this interesting article I ran across about the two memorials.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

oh so many chemistry protocols...

Finally, a real "work" update. We have a couple of different projects going on, but our highest priority is to do the groundwork so that the tribe's community college, Oglala Lakota College, can process water and soil samples for various tribal programs. These include stream water quality samples, drinking water samples, and environmental soil samples.

We are working on preparing a report of sorts that we can take around to get feedback and buy-in from all the different groups involved. For the last few days I have been searching out EPA-approved protocols for around 50 different parameters and trying to match them up with the list of equipment at the lab to see how many of them can actually be done here. The NSF grant has gotten Oglala Lakota College an impressive array of equipment, so it seems like they actually have the capability to run the majority of the parameters needed, which is great. I'm starting to go a little dizzy from all the high tech machines and intensive chemistry protocols, though.

The big challenge is going to be the funding aspect and making sure that the income from the tests is enough to cover all of the cost of supplies, maintenance, and personnel. We are also working on figuring out how to make this a dual education and service initiative by exploring the potential for improving the college's lab course offerings and summer internship programs, with the goal of developing a training program for students to become technicians in this or other labs.

Meanwhile, however, the only real chemistry we've been doing has been kitchen chemistry. Last night I boiled some carrots and forgot a few in the water. In the morning the water had turned a rather bright green color. Check it out...

If anyone has any idea where this color came from I'd be very interested to know. Copper ions maybe??

Also, since we made sun tea again I thought I'd post a rather more satisfying picture of how the tea darkens.

Another project we are helping with is an ongoing project to re-design the solid waste management system for the reservation. They currently have nine transfer sites that everyone has to drive their trash to. They are hoping to be able to switch to a household pickup system which would be more convenient for people and facilitate a monthly fee to generate revenue for the waste management system. We are going to help prepare a GIS layer with all of the homesites, businesses, schools, and tribal and federal programs to figure out how many dump trucks are needed to cover the whole reservation.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Backyard food, drink, and sunsets

This entry is mostly an excuse to share some beautiful photos, along with a few stories about the wonders to be found in the (rather large) backyard of our host family.

Here I am, armed with a shovel and a bucket on our expedition to gather some echinacea (purple cone flower) and timpsula (Lakota for prairie turnip). The prairie turnip is most abundant in June and was one of the staple foods for Lakota (Sioux) people here on the plains. They still gather it, dry it, and store it for many months to use in soups, etc. It is a root vegetable somewhat like a potato.

Here are some purple cone flowers and a picture of me holding the biggest root we dug on our first day. It is the root that is used as "tooth ache medicine" and the whole plant that is used in teas and in commercial cough drops, pills, etc.

Here is Alison holding a timpsula, and the chopped timsula we prepared after finding a grand total of four -- what can I say, it was the middle of July and quite a bit past prime timsula season.

We have taken to making "sun tea" on the back porch -- common practice around here. You take a gallon jar, put four or five teabags in it, and then let it sit out in the sun for an afternoon. It makes warm-ish tea that you can then mix with sugar and ice for a very refreshing drink.Here is a pretty little windmill -- commonplace on land used for ranching as they are used to pump water for cattle.

Another view of our house, this time in the light of the late evening with the moon above.

And finally, a sunset. I couldn't resist.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A little bit of perspective

I've been wanting to do something for a while to give a sense of the geographic expanse of Pine Ridge reservation, of the beautiful rolling hills, grasslands, and badlands, and of the challenge the tribal government faces in providing services to such large region. So here it is, a cutout of Pine Ridge reservation to the same scale as a cutout of the state of Massachusetts. [If you are a wisconsin-ite and the Massachusetts comparison doesn't mean much to you, then know that the length of Pine Ridge Reservation is about the same as the distance from Mt. Horeb to Milwaukee.]

Imagine trying to organize trash collection and disposal for 26,000-ish people over such an area. Or deliver water. Or get out emergency relief. And just imagine how hard these people are hit by recent fuel prices when they have to commute to work or the hospital or the grocery store over such distances (there are plans in the works for a bus system but nothing exists yet). Food for thought...

Kili radio, labwork, and the badlands

Last Friday we accompanied Bob to Kili Radio, a 45-minute drive from the office. Bob spent an hour on the air discussing disaster preparedness, specifically for tornadoes. Apparently it is a big deal because the prefabricated "trailer houses" that many people live in around here are easily blown over in a tornado because they lack the foundation and basements that other houses have.

As a bit of a radio nerd myself (I host a weekly public affairs program called Spherio on MIT's radio station) it was a lot of fun to poke around and trade stories with the announcers. We listen to Kili radio a lot around here, and it plays a whole lot of different kinds of music, from pop, rock, and rap to country and oldies to pow wow music. I've really enjoyed listening to the traditional songs in particular, and some of them are even written and sung in English now as well as Lakota. I also love to hear all the local announcements for garage sales, parties, Indian taco sales, and puppies to give away. It reminds me of the announcements for parties on Radio Huayacocotla La Voz de los Campesinos as I always heard them in Mexico -- except that Kili doesn't tell you the time of day nearly so much as Radio Huayococotla, maybe because more people here have clocks and watches...

The station is beautiful, perched up on the side of this hill with a giant new wind turbines that will go online at the end of the month. Although small windmills for watering cattle are commonplace, this is the first wind turbine for electricity generation. The reservation has some of the best wind resources in the country and there are a number of proposals on the table for the tribe to develop commercial wind fields in the near future.

Last Thursday we went up to Rapid City for a meeting on solid waste management, a challenging issue for the tribe, but one they are really working to improve. On the way, we drove through a different side of the badlands -- at one overlook the immensity of the sandy buttes was distinctly reminiscent of the grand canyon.

And last but not least for this entry, yesterday we went to the main center of Oglala Lakota College outside of Kyle and talked to the staff at their laboratory. The lab has some incredibly nice equipment -- X-ray spectrometer, Atomic Absorption Spectrometer, an Ion Chromatograph, and a Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer to name just a few. The equipment came through a NSF grant, but they have a much harder time getting "soft" money for salaries of lab staff, etc. Right now there is only one full time person in the lab, with some interns for the summer. So our next big task is figuring out how much money could be generated by running samples for tribal programs to see if it is economically viable to support the staff, supplies and equipment maintenance that would be necessary. As always, the technical issues are dwarfed by the economic and organizational challenges...

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Video from Pine Ridge

Here is a short video that Allison and I made with photos and video clips of our first few weeks on Pine Ridge reservation working for the Oglala Sioux Tribe's environmental protection program.

So far, things have continued to be relaxing and entertaining. As always our project ideas have proved to be more complicated and problematic than first anticipated, so I'll update on that a little later when things evolve a bit more.

For now, enjoy the video update on some of the fun experiences we've had so far -- fourth of July fireworks, gathering Echinacea and Timsila roots, and learning to drive a quirky old truck and navigate gravel roads that all look the same.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Pine Ridge, South Dakota part 1

I arrived at the Pine Ridge reservation in Southwest South Dakota three days ago. I am here along with one other MIT student, Allison Brown, to work as interns for the Oglala Lakota tribe's environmental protection program. We have spent the last few days mostly just getting our bearings, learning about all the different tribal programs and about the organizational structure and realities of the reservation.

We are living with a host family outside of Wounded Knee (yes, the Wounded Knee of the Wounded Knee massacre). As with most houses around here it is a small, perfect rectangular shaped one-story "trailer house," perched on a ridge overlooking a huge expanse of rolling hills with pine trees. It is absolutely stunning [The first photo is of the view from the back deck]. And since there is running water, a real mattress, a stove, and a washing machine, I feel like I'm living the high life after Ecuador. Michael Herd Many Horses, who we are living with, is a walking library of tribal history and is fascinating to talk with. [Second Photo is of the badlands from the drive in]

The office is in Pine Ridge, the only real population center on the res. It has one big intersection, a gas station, a couple of restaurants, two high schools, an IHS hospital, and all of the tribal government offices. It looks like we will be working on a couple of different projects -- one to get the Oglala Lakota College lab state certified to process water quality samples (that way the tribal programs don't have to drive up to rapid city to drop off samples at a lab there and they'll be able to keep the money on the reservation). The other one is investigating the impact of septic system drainage fields on water quality. [Photo is of me in front of the Environmental Protection Program office].

Yesterday we got a tour of the water infrastructure facilities for the reservation. Right now they use a network of groundwater pumps, water towers, and distribution lines. Chlorine and fluoride are dosed automatically into the inflowing water, and they run all of the standard water quality checks for US drinking water systems. It was amazing for me to see all this after working in Ecuador -- this is how a real water system is supposed to work! There are also about 300 families that aren't hooked up to the distribution system and are waiting to be added once a new surface water line is brought in from the Missouri River. For now, they get a 65 gallon tank of water delivered once a week. Considering how many people often live in the small homes on the reservation (10 or 12 is not uncommon), it has got to be a real stretch to make 65 gallons last a week. [Photo of PVC pipes with gaskets that auto-seal together instead of requiring glue. I have never seen these in Ecuador but they are standard here -- the tribe's Department of Water Maintenance and Conservation says they won't touch the ones with glue fittings because they break down after 10-15 years. Bad news for Santa Ana]

Tomorrow will be my first 4th of July in the US for a long time. We have the day off work and it is going to be interesting to see how the festivities proceed around here.

Some of you have asked about my plans for applying to medical school in Cuba -- so far there is little to report. I am still planning on applying (the deadline is the end of September) and continue to investigate the pro's and con's of this route as I continue to apply to American medical schools as well.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Ecuador 2008 - part 2

It sounded so easy -- fill the filter from the bottom with water from the elevated water tower to alleviate air binding. It seemed even easier after we were able to get the entire bottom flow installation taken care of within the first three days of our stay in Santa Ana. We thought we could fill it up the next day and have lots of time to troubleshoot the slow sand filter and train everyone in the use of the chlorinator. But then we found a leak in the pipe that ran down to the filter. We patched it, and waited 24 hours for the glue to set. On the next attempt, part of our installation popped apart under the pressure (Noe and Esteban who had been doing the gluing of PVC parts had missed one section). Glue, wait, try again. Another part popped off, dumping the activated carbon on the ground. Glue, wait, try again. It holds. By then it was Thursday, and all day long we kept checking back, hopeful that we would see a layer of water rising up out of the sand bed. Nope.

It wasn't until Friday morning (our second-to-last day of work) that we finally saw water break through the surface of the slow sand filter, indicating that we had successfully filled it from the bottom. After much celebration we were finally able to put the filter back online along with the chlorinator. Luckily that all went smoothly and effectively, so the system is now officially working!

On Friday we also did a set of activities about water, bacteria, hand washing, and chlorine with the first through sixth graders at the elementary school in Santa Ana. The photo is of me explaining to some 1st-3rd graders how to measure chlorine using the test kits we left with them.

On Friday I was reminded of something that I am always underestimating -- how complicated the chlorination part of the process really is. The operator has to measure how many seconds it takes to fill a 10 liter bucket of water, use that to calculate the flow rate in liters per second, and multiply by 236 to find the number of milliliters of granulated chlorine required for three days. Then he/she must add 300 liters of water to the chlorinator along with the right amount of chlorine, and assure that the solution is dripping out at a rate of 100 milliliters in 86 seconds. Francisco did an admirable job of learning this process in the space of two days, Friday and Saturday, over which time we made him do the whole thing twice through.

Saturday night, as always, the community cooked up a big feast served on large banana leaves and strung out wires for a boom-box and two lightbulbs. With that we danced all night long -- everyone from grandmas to toddlers dancing to traditional Kichwa music and Ecuadorian cumbias, periodically interrupted by performances from various youth groups. Along with the usual traditional dances, this time we saw a few break dance numbers from some of the young boys in the community, spinning and twisting to some kind of rap in Spanish. Every time the wiring went bad for the boom box they would switch to the traditional drum dance with one man and one woman while they worked to reconnect the cables. I can truly say that these parties in Santa Ana are by far my favorite of any I have attended.