Saturday, September 5, 2009

My new home in San Francisco

I am completely in love with San Francisco. I knew it was a cool city, but I wasn't prepared for just how amazingly cool.

Check out this map of San Francisco to get you oriented. Downtown San Francisco is where are the crazy tall buildings are (the financial district, Union Square, etc). The Mission is an awesome neighborhood with a really high Latino population, lots of latinamerica feeling stores, markets, and restaurants, plus dollar stores and thrift shops. As you can see, my house is right by UCSF and Golden Gate Park is pretty much my backyard...

Photo from:
This is a picture of Strawberry Island, which is in the middle of Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park. I have been running to stow lake in the mornings, across the bridge to the island, around the island and back. It is absolutely gorgeous!

This zoomed in gives you a better idea of my neighborhood. I had no idea how much I lucked out on my room -- the rent is incredibly cheap because the room is very small, but the location cannot be beat.

Plus I have everything I need in my room -- a closet that fits all my stuff, a bed on a loft, and an amazing nook under the loft with a little table and pillows to sit on. You can see more pictures of my room (including my desk, which I now have in my room, unlike my last 3 years at MIT) in my picasa album.

And now, here is a list of some of the things I love so far about living here, in no particular order.

1. Living 3 miles from the ocean -- an easy bike ride through Golden Gate Park.
2. In case I don't feel like biking, living a block away from the MUNI streetcar stop on the line that goes to the ocean and also to downtown San Francisco.
3. My 'commute' to school that consists of walking a block to Irving street, getting in an elevator and going up 8 floors (yes eight) and I am in the student union. Cross the street and I am in the academic buildings.
4. My room, how small and fun it is, and how it won't let me accumulate stuff even if I want to.
5. My house. It is really spacious and full of character, and the other women who live with me are total kindred spirits -- environmentalist, socially conscious, spanish-speaking, etc.
6. The sheer number of ethnic restaurants within walking distance.
7. The friendly people in San Francisco. Multiple complete strangers have offered me coupons in stores -- combined they saved me $25
8. The random breathtaking views of the ocean, or the bay, or just down an insanely steep street I see while walking/biking through San Francisco
9. The street names carved into the sidewalk tiles at street corners, kind of like in Cuba.
10. The quantity of thrift stores and dollar stores within a few blocks of each other in the mission
11. No winter
12. The fact that San Francisco is, if anything, even more hippie and progressive than Boston. wow
13. Fresh produce from farmers markets YEAR ROUND : )

Monday, August 31, 2009

A month in madison; off to San Francisco

I've been home in Madison for just over a month now -- the longest time I've spent at home since I left for MIT four years ago. Free from work and school, I had a lot of time to process the past and add some definition to my vision for the future. It has been a month of deepening relationships with family, re-connecting with old friends, letting go of a three year relationship and learning to love again. I spent a week wilderness canoeing in Ontario's Quetico Provincial Park with my dad, visited my beloved grandmother in Duluth not once but twice, realized what a truly amazing person my sister is, and became inspired by the company my mother founded, which makes its own brand of hormone free and organic whey protein powder for shakes and drinks: 'teraswhey'.

The whey plant by a pond in Reedsburg WI, and a canister of the final product. Fair trade chocolate, yum...

People often ask me what it is like to come back to the US after a semester in Cuba, or a summer in the rain forest of Ecuador. The answer is that I now go back and forth between developing countries and the US so often that I no longer get culture shock when I go nor reverse culture shock when I return. Instead, I feel like my lives in each setting, once so completely distinct from one another, have been merging. Four years ago, when I went to MIT, I filled the trunk and back seat of my mothers car with my stuff and found it hard to imagine how international students simply arrived on planes with a couple of checked bags.

Off to medical school in San Francisco.

Tomorrow I move to San Francisco, and instead of taking a car full of stuff, I am taking the same amount that I always take to Cuba, or Mexico, or Ecuador -- my hiking backpack plus a school backpack. There is a pillow, blanket, and sheet in there this time since I'm not staying with a host family, but the rest is pretty much the same. Why? Because really, it is the same stuff I need to be comfortable and happy anywhere, with slight variations for climate.

A semester in Cuba

Where I have I been for the last 6 months? A country where e-mail contact was a real challenge, never mind blog posting, and hence the absence of posts since January. A country where ice cream cones cost 5 cents on the street and medical school is free, not only for its citizens but for thousands of aspiring doctors from developing countries around the world. A country with comparable health statistics (child mortality, life expectancy, etc) to the united states despite economic hardship exacerbated by an economic blockade left over from the cold war era. The country, of course, is Cuba and I was there for a semester at the Latin America School of Medicine (website in spanish).

Inside the glass windows is the library, and below it is the stage used for country 'galas': 2 hour performances by each country including music, dance, and skits to share their culture with the rest of the school.

Turns out that in addition to the thousands of students studying medicine for free in Cuba from across the Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa, there are over 100 US students studying medicine in Cuba under the same scholarship, thanks to Fidel Castro's generous offer to extend scholarships to US students who want to work in underserved communities and the efforts of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO). As someone who has wanted to study medicine for a long time, wants to work in under-served communities, but is quite concerned about the debt from a US medical school, I applied and was accepted to the program.
My group of 36 students from Mexico, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Uruguay, Paraguay, Panama and El Salvador

The beach in front of ELAM.

I had an amazing semester at the gorgeous campus of ELAM, a former naval base right on the ocean. I met students from across the hemisphere, learned a tremendous amount about my own country, and became extremely inspired by the school, its mission, and the students who study there. I also developed a deep admiration for the Cuban medical system in which each neighborhood has a small clinic staffed by a doctor and a nurse working to facilitate health rather than just treat illness. My space in the dorms. I had the top bunk and a locker to store my things.

In the end, however, I decided to accept a different offer -- at the University of California, San Francisco. It was an extremely hard decision to make, and in the end it came down to rather ordinary considerations -- the program in the US is a few years shorter and it is easier to stay in touch with friends and family. I know that I could have been happy and become a very good doctor had I chosen to stay in Cuba, and a big part of me wishes that I were doing just that. It was so hard to have to chose between two worlds, when I feel so strongly that the tremendous divide between developed and developing countries should not exist.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Successes come in pairs

Check out more pictures from this trip and past trips at:

Our January trip to Ecuador ended up being as successful as I could have possibly imagined. We finished installing nine rainwater tanks in La Encañada. An example is shown to the left. They consist of a bamboo gutter, a covered 550 liter plastic water tank on a platform, and the necessary hosing and adapters to deliver that water to the bathroom toilet and sink and a kitchen tap. We installed these systems over the course of six days of community work and for under $1,000 total budget.

We made laminated versions of these signs and put them up in every household to remind them how to maintain their rainwater tanks, how to use the secure 8 liter drinking water storage containers we provided, and how to dose each of them with the right amount of chlorine to have 100% safe drinking water.

On the last tuesday before we left, we went to the mayor of the Mera Municipality, which includes both La Encañada and Santa Ana, and presented a report on the work we had done. Basilio later reported that he felt the mayor was floored by the document, and he promised to provide all of the materials should they want to do such an installation in another community. I think he probably will too, since it is such a great deal for him -- give around $1000 worth of supplies (a fraction of the usual tens of thousands of dollar infrastructure projects they deal with) and have a community feel like the mayor has really done something substantial. It's a great deal for us too: the Santa Ana technical team gets all of the expensive supplies paid for, and Sacha Yaku only has to provide a small amount of administrative funds and pay for the time put in by the technical team -- expenses that the municipality is not willing to or able to make.

The technical team in Santa Ana is already getting requests for water quality testing, hygiene and health workshops, and rainwater tank installations. They are working on a proposal right now for a small community that sits in between La Encañada and Santa Ana called Chinchayaku. Although one never can tell with these things, the mayor is in office until April and wants to make communities happy in order to get re-elected, so I think it is quite likely that this project will go through!

And all of that is merely the first of our pair of successes. The other success is in Santa Ana. Not only do they continue to have water all day everyday, but we also manage to close off that pesky channel the water was escaping through in the river intake. What took us weeks during the first summer in Santa Ana (2006), took us three days this time. And it is a good thing it only took three days, because three days was all we had! We literally poured cement on Wednesday, came back to Santa Ana for the traditional 'despedida' or goodbye party, and then left at 6am on Thursday morning. Here are some photos of the operation:

(Hauling rocks and sand through a swamp and up a hill to the river intake. Men and women worked together to carry several cubic meters of material up the hill for this wall.)

(The temporary dam of sticks and plastic we built in order to have a dry place to build a concrete wall)(The construction scene)

(Jesus Moya finishes off the concrete wall)

So Santa Ana has clean drinking water, so does La Encañada, and we hope that it is only a matter of weeks before Chinchayaku does as well. Not bad for one trip.

Clean water for a new community

A short update from the amazon rain forest of Ecuador.(This is the group I am working with - Emily, Nicole, Fatima, Kendra, Dorothy)

We've spent about 5 days now in La Encañada, a new community with just nine families. (The moon rises over La Encañada)

Turns out we'll be able to give them all water systems from the start. There are fewer families, the local government chipped in some money, we got a little extra from the MIT Public Service Center, and suddenly we have enough funds to make it happen!

Its a funny thing – we know were doing our job right when we are essentially superfluous. The team we have put together from Santa Ana is amazingly capable – with everything from leading planning meetings, to selecting the right trees to cut down for platform construction, to teaching basic hygiene to children in the school, to leading a water and health workshop in the whole community. (One of the platforms we've built for the rainwater tanks)

It is a pleasure to sit back and watch them work, mostly speaking to the members of Encañada in their native language Kichwa. They mix in enough spanish words and ive picked up enough Kichwa that I can mostly tell what they are saying. Every once in a while i'll make a suggestion , like why dont we install one tank today so we are sure we know how to do it, and Basilio, or Melida, or Esteban will jump on the idea, start speaking to the others in Kichwa, and they'll act on it.

That's not to say that I have been completely useless – the other day I unclogged a toilet that hadn't worked for two years. The family was pretty elated since they had been just going out in the woods for all this time. Its the little things that count…

I have to confess that the performance of both the Santa Ana team and the 9 families that make up the community of Encañada has exceeded my expectations.

Melida and Esteban did a fantastic job on the hygiene and health workshop, with only a little coaching from me. A bit more work on project management and documentation skills, and a bit of funding, and I think this team could really go into a new community and give clean water.

Tomorrow we have the day off and one of hosts in Encañada is taking us on a hike up to a hill from which we are supposed to be able to see santa ana : )

Monday, January 26, 2009

In Santa Ana once more

I´m back in Santa Ana Ecuador for the fifth time now, this time with four other students and big plans to form a team from Santa Ana that will help other communities implement individual rainwater tanks. It rains so much here that 500 liter tanks are big enough that families have enough water for drinking and cooking almost all the time, and the tanks are around $80 each so it is a pretty reasonable price to provide clean, accessible water (we´ll be running hoses from the tanks with a little faucet on the end which they can put in their kitchens, which are usually separate structures from their houses with thatched roofs and a fireplace to cook on).

On January 6th we leave Santa Ana for one of their neighboring communities, La Encañada to implement five of these systems along with the team we have formed in Santa Ana. Then these families will pay back the cost of the system over a year so that the community can buy 5 more, etc. There are only 15 families in La Encañada, so after 2 years they´ll all have the systems.
As for the community water system in Santa Ana, it has its problems but they are way more minor than they were before. The new operator is this amazing 15 year old boy named Inoc, the son of Melida, one of the most responsible women in Santa Ana, so we are really excited about the community´s choice. (Inoc and Kendra fixing a leak in Santa Ana)

We´ve been working with him over the last 3 days and we´re getting pretty close to fixing up almost all of these little problems -- an amazing improvement over trips past. Slowly but surely Santa Ana is getting a handle on how to operate and maintain this system.

(Inoc standing at the river intake. Notice the semi-crooked wall in the background (the wall we built during the summer of 2006) and the water escaping to the front (where we need to build another such wall)

I love being back here. I love the people, the place, and this crazy water system that we´ve patched together over and over again. Santa Ana feels like a second home by now, but there are always new things to do and learn. It was my first News Years Eve here so I got to see how they build and burn life size dolls as a symbol of forgetting the past, then dance all night long. We made it till 4 am before we went to sleep.

Then last night we went hunting toads by moonlight on the other side of the Pastaza River. The technique is to listen to their calls and track them very quietly, then shine a flashlight on it once you are close enough and grab it with your hand. It was so beautiful under the stars and the moon, wading through shallow pools that form on the bank of the river. I think today we´ll get to eat frog maito (maito is a traditional way of cooking fish or birds or other kinds of meat wrapped up in a bananna leaf and cooked in the fire).

(On our day-trip to La Encañada, we brought a computer donated by TecsChange. These are some photos of its journey -- by horse).
(And by canoe).