Monday, May 31, 2010

Hostels, A Case Study:

Most hostels offer private rooms at a high price and dorm style rooms for a low price. Typically the dorm rooms have four to eight beds in them, meaning if you travel alone or in a small group you're likely to have some roommates wherever you go. I had my first experience staying in a hostel dorm room by myself in Bern... and it left a lasting impression.

While depositing my things in my room after dinner I discovered several things. I had been assigned to a room with six beds (three bunks). The first set of bunks was occupied by a college couple from Colorado. The second by two girls from Austria who spoke minimal English. The third belonged to me and a guy that wasn't around at the time. I discovered, however, that he had found my bed a convenient place to let his wet laundry dry... which was a nice welcoming touch I have to admit. As I had just run into a cute Australian my mind was elsewhere focusing on trying to get back downstairs so I could get a drink with her, so I didn't think much of it.

The next morning I woke up in a rather unusual, but effective way. I was on the bottom bunk and the unknown guy above me apparently needed to be up early to go who knows where. After rummaging through his stuff (waking me and the Austrian girls up) he left to go down the hall to take a shower. I promptly fell back asleep.

When I woke up again I had a bit of a surprise. The unknown guy was back from the shower and collecting some of his things from the bunk above me. This meant that he was literally standing right in front of my face. He was also quite naked. "And a good morning to you too, sir", I wanted to say. Instead I decided to roll over and think of more pleasant things such as my dog dying or eating a jar of mayonnaise.

Moral of the story: A hostel might have more to offer than it advertises...

Vacation: Survival Tips and Musings from Europe

I just got back to Mali after a much needed three week vacation to Europe... The place Eddie Izzard refers to as "where the history comes from". I had an amazing time and fell in love with Switzerland in particular. My only regret is that I can't speak German, otherwise I probably wouldn't have come back... Here are a few stories and highlights from my trip. Be amused, entertained, or informed. You'll probably get a bit of all three.

The genesis of this trip began with the prodding of my friends Julie and Steph wanting to visit me and have an excuse to go to Italy. They also managed to drag our friend Sam into the mix, and so we made plans for nine days in Italy. After I did the math I realized it made sense to stay in Europe as long as possible since it is still quite hot in Mali at the moment. So, I decided to make my dollar/euro/CFA go as far as possible. I made plans for an additional five days on my own and six days with a friend, Paige, who I had met at Tech last year. One of her roommates, Alex, also came along. They had both been studying in Helsinki this past semester.

My time in Italy included stops in Rome, Florence, Venice, and Cinque Terre. I won't bother listing everything that we saw. Just think of everything typical of Italy. We did that.

Favorite part of Italy:
Hearing a priest perform mass at San Miniato al Monte on a hill overlooking Florence and then going to dinner at a wine bar down the hill just outside the old city wall.

Tips on Italy:
If you buy a Gelato, don't expect to be able to eat it in the shop unless you pay for a table. Tap water doesn't exists in Italy, it's a myth. Be quiet while in the Sistine Chapel or you will be loudly "sshhh-ed" by the Vatican guards. Try the house wine. Not all gnocchi is created equal. A menu may translate something to English as "sweet pepper" when it should actually read "spinach". Even with a railpass, you still have to pay a 10 euro seat reservation fee for the good trains. Your hostel room might not be close to the hostel office, so wear walking shoes. Your hostel may or may not change your sheets/towels every night if the room even comes with them. Toast in a bag - embrace it.

My favorite part of the trip took place in the magical land of hope and wonder that the locals have dubbed Switzerland. Snow capped mountains, forests, rivers, lakes. Integrated transportation that incorporates bikes, buses, boats, trains, and trams! And because of the difficult terrain... amazing feats of engineering! The longest, deepest tunnel in the world! Flow control structures on rivers that act as weirs for the drainage of entire mountain valleys! Mandatory separation of municipal waste (paper, plastic, metals, glass, organic/compost, other)! Fine chocolates! The list could go on forever.

I spent time in Lucerne, Interlaken, Bern, and Zurich. I couch surfed for the first time in Lucerne and met some great people. One of my hosts was a civil engineer, another a chef, and the third a conference organizer for international pharmaceutical companies. I got to talk about nerdy engineering stuff, eat great home-cooked food, and learn a lot about Switzerland, Europe, and the other places they had been to.

Tips on Switzerland:
You can rent bikes for free in most major cities for up to four hours. With a rail pass you don't have to make seat reservations for any trains. They prefer Swiss francs, but a lot of places will also take euros or even dollars! English is widely spoken, so fear not unschooled American travelers who don't speak French, German, or Italian (all national Swiss languages). Weird fountains are everywhere. Things cost more, but like anything, a higher price usually indicates better quality, which is what the Swiss are all about. You can't throw a stick and not hit a watch store.

I spent time in Munich, Heidelberg, Freiburg, and was in Frankfurt for about 2 hours. Among other things I went to a castle, saw a concentration camp, hiked around in the Black Forest, went to a few beer gardens, and had more bratwurst, schnitzel, potato pancakes, and sauerkraut than is healthy for one person in such a short amount of time.

Tips on Germany:
Despite being famous for cars, the Germans have truly embraced the bicycle. They're everywhere and sidewalks are divided into pedestrian and bike lanes. Make sure you're in in the appropriate one or the consequences could be disastrous. In the Black Forest area, make sure to try Black Forest Cake (Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte). Germans do pain au chocolat better than the French. You can order beer by the liter (~ 2 pints). Sauerkraut is a winter food, making it difficult to find in warm months. If a menu lists an item, but precedes it with the prefix "mega", the menu is not joking. Example: "mega-schnitzel" comes as a large plate of fried potatoes that is overlaid with a plate-sized schnitzel. The Germans don't mess around when it comes to meals.

I spent less than 72 hours in the French Republic, but hit all the important stuff. By that I mean I went to Strasbourg and Paris. Strasbourg is the seat of the European Parliament (European Union) and Paris has been described to me by a Frenchman in Segou as "the only real France". I saw all the famous stuff in Paris and added the Paris Sewer Museum into the mix. That one is a "must see" and "must smell" if you ask me. I took a ride on a high speed TGV train to get from Strasbourg to Paris, but in the best of French traditions it broke down three times on the way. Despite this, I did manage to become one of the fastest moving objects on the planet at the time for about an hour when the train did manage to reach an average speed of over 280 km/h (175 mph).

Tips on Europe:
If you order a "coffee" you are not going to get not so much coffee as you are going to get the thought of a coffee in the American context. Rather, you will get a shot of expresso that will last about 4 seconds. If you order a "water" you are going to get a bottle of water that has gas in it... not a glass of tap water. This you must specify. If staying in hostels, bring a lock and bedding as some places only provide these at an additional cost. Don't be surprised if you get incredulous looks from people that are sitting in your assigned train seat when you ask them to move (Italy especially). You can spot a Canadian backpacker in Europe a mile away as they all have Canadian flag patches on their packs. I assume this is to done to identify themselves as persons who will freely give out hugs and good-natured accompaniment as I think it is genetically impossible for a Canadian to be of an ill disposition.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Interesting Short Stories and Excerpts

Food Security
One of the biggest problems in Mali is food shortages across the country despite the fact that the majority of society is involved in subsistence agriculture or commercial farming. One of the nights Shaka (the tech trainer) was in my village he decided to take a walk around the edge of my village. When he came back he mentioned that he was amazed at how much farmland there was in the area and how big our community garden is. He remarked that he was baffled at the fact that Mali experiences food shortages every year despite the amount/potential of food production. When I ask him to explain why he thinks this is he makes a hand motion to indicate the villagers and then points to his head and says, "no good". His point was that the farmers are capable of producing enough food for themselves and city dwellers, but don't understand the economics of farming or how important it is to store grains.

A Slithering Surprise
During the brick making process for the school well we ended up stacking the bricks into a large block for curing and so that it would be easier to spray them with water. When it came time to put them into the well we had to brush off excess concrete and dirt from each brick before carrying them to the well hole. While picking up one of the bricks I discovered a snake several feet long that had made its home between two bricks. I asked Shaka to take a look at it and he said to stay away. I had no idea if it was dangerous or not, but we both decided to err on the side of caution and not find out. So, I grabbed a nice long piece of rebar and effectively made sure there was one less snake to be found in the world. And if it's any consolation to the snake, it wasn't personal... it just gave both Shaka and I the hibbly-jibblies.

A Work Ethic Story
There are many times when Mali is a very confusing, frustrating place for me. One of the things I don't quite understand is the work ethic of villagers. When they do work, they do so with incredible vigor. However, actually getting men to come out of the shade where they have been drinking tea often proves to be very difficult. For example... My counterpart won't work in the afternoon. And he won't try to look for other people to work in the afternoon either... because people don't do work in the afternoon... apparently. Also, if there is a wedding... you get the day off. And since everyone goes to everyone else's wedding, you get a lot of days off. The same is true of baby naming ceremonies and funerals. All said and done, I'm surprised any work gets done in village most days. Clearly this is a work to live culture, not one in which people live to work. You are not defined by what you do, but simply by your existence and your interactions with others.

This is difficult for me. I come from the upper mid-west. A very German sort of place where what you do with yourself is important. You live to work. Productivity is valuable. Time spent sitting around with friends not "doing" anything is viewed as time wasted... and there's nothing worse than wasting time in America.

In village there is very much an attitude of "We'll get to it... eventually". I operate more under the premise of "Let's get to it now".

The 1/2 Epic Saga of a Well Construction Project

I spent the past month at site with the exception of a 12 hour trip to Segou to get my hair cut and swap my old, broken bike for a new, totally righteous one (it came with a water bottle, wow!). I used the month to execute the first half of my second PC project: well construction. I also had a visit from my PC boss and my grad school adviser on separate days.

My second PC funded project includes the construction of two wells and village training on how to use a new well construction technique. One well is being put at the village school, and the other is in the community garden. The training involved having a PC technical trainer come to my site from Bamako for about 10 days to help construct the first well at the school and use the time to explain how things are done. The idea was that the villagers would then be able to construct the well in the garden using the new technique on their own.

This entry is a daily accounting of what turned out to be a very frustrating few weeks. Regular text is a literal description of what happened or what was said. Text in italics is my own personal narrative of what I was thinking at the time.

A Brief Background
The common well construction practice in my part of Mali is to dig a hole in the ground as far down as possible into to water table and then lower 1/2 meter tall reinforced concrete cylinders into the well by hand to prevent the well walls from collapsing later on. Lowering the cylinders is extremely dangerous as they weigh several hundred pounds each and villagers often use old or damaged rope/rigging which sometimes breaks. This can lead to injuries or cylinders being dropped in the well shaft where they can break or become stuck in odd positions.

The new construction technique that we are using for this project uses circular (curved) bricks to line the well and a cutting ring to extend the well deeper than would be possible with the traditional method. This method is a lot safer because the weight of the bricks is far less than the cylinders and you have the ability to make the well deeper to ensure it doesn't dry up as easily.

The process involved is as follows. First, start making concrete bricks. While these are drying dig the well down to just above the water table. (if the soil is stable, you don't have to worry about lining the shaft as you dig, which is the case in my village.) Then you cast a concrete cutting ring in the bottom of the well. (This is a concrete ring with a triangular bottom that acts as a blade. All the bricks lining the well are placed on top of it.) Once the cutting has cured you start digging soil out from underneath it while placing bricks on top. By doing this the cutting ring will sink into the water table and the well shaft will be lined, which prevents the much more unstable, saturated soil from collapsing. When you have gone deep enough into the water table where water is preventing further excavation you line the rest of the well with bricks and backfill the lower half of the well with gravel. Finally you pour a concrete splash pad around the well head and cast a concrete cover with a door to keep things from falling into the well.

Early April
I had a meeting with my counterpart and the village elders to discuss the logistics of the project. We agreed that PC would supply funds to pay for skilled labor, the technical trainer, cement, rebar, and special construction tools. The village's contribution will be aggregate for making bricks and concrete (sand, gravel), materials transportation, unskilled labor, a barrel of water every day, general construction tools, and food/lodging for the technical trainer. The elders pointed out that I have budgeted too little money to pay the well digger. This is something my counterpart should have caught when we met with the well digger to discuss pricing.
From step one the project began on the wrong foot with my counterpart not doing his part to make sure everything was accounted for. As a result, we were beginning the project without enough funds according to our budget. Fortunately I over estimated on some things so I wasn't too worried about that.

Wednesday, 4/7
I ask my counterpart to arrange to have sand brought to the construction site at the school. He says sand will come tomorrow

Thursday, 4/8
I talk with Madu, who is the head of the village school committee, and ask if sand has arrived. We find out that four carts of sand (of an estimated 20 required) came that morning, but two we taken to the garden, not the school.

Friday, 4/9
I go to Dioro, our market town, to buy cement, rebar, and special tools, which are then brought back by villagers.

Saturday, 4/10
We start making curved concrete bricks (we need about 350 total). My counterpart told me several people were coming to help, but my counterpart and I were the only people to show up. I had also asked for more sand to be delivered, but none came. We make about 50 bricks, but our cement to aggregate ratio got messed up, so the bricks ended up being very poor. I ask for a barrel of water to be brought, but it shows up after we finish working. We end up getting all our water for making bricks from the old school well. Madu and Abudu (the school administrator) come to see our work and are very critical.
The well digger was supposed to start digging, but he and my counterpart got into a huge argument over the amount of money that should be paid to begin work. My counterpart refused to pay the digger's starting price, so we find a different well digger. He can't start until Monday.

Sunday, 4/11

I ask for sand and water, which is promised, but neither comes. I wanted to make bricks, but no one could work (all day apparently) because there was a wedding that day. I also ask my counterpart to have rigging and a pulley system set up for the well excavation. He says he'll take care of it.

Monday, 4/12
I again ask for sand and water. One cart of sand arrives, no water. Only my counterpart and I show up at the job site to make more bricks. The new well digger begins working. The well rigging doesn't show up. I ask my counterpart, he says he'll take care of it.

Tuesday, 4/13
I ask for sand, rigging and water. None comes. No reason given. I express my frustrations to my counterpart. He says tomorrow will be a productive day and that having water brought to the site is not a big priority because the old school well has water in it.

Wednesday, 4/14
I ask for sand, rigging, and water. Several carts of sand come. No water, no rigging. My counterpart tells me that rigging is not necessary because we aren't digging a well "that" deep. I tell him to get the rigging set up by tomorrow in anticipation for the technical trainer's arrival. Three villagers come to help make bricks. We end up using so much water that the old school well goes dry (which is why I wanted water brought to the site in the first place). At this point we have made about a third of the total number of bricks we need.

Thursday, 4/15
I ask for sand, rigging, water. Nothing comes. The well digger is now at a depth of 4 meters. So far the soil has been nothing but hardpan clay which is so difficult to dig through that the well digger has had to replace the handle on his pick axe multiple times because he keeps breaking it. The digger and my counterpart have a discussion in which the digger expresses his concern that we might hit a confined aquifer. If this is the case, when we hit water, instead of simply finding mud, it would be like punching a hole into a container under pressure. The result being that the well could flood several meters deep with water before we would have lined it with bricks to prevent a future collapse. My counterpart tells me that sometimes when digging wells they encounter a confined aquifer... something he neglected to tell me earlier, which would have been very good to know. Later that day the digger hit water at 4.5 meters, but the aquifer was unconfined... Thankfully.
The technical trainer (Shaka) came to my village. The plan was for him to take a bus from Bamako to Dioro and then have someone pick him up in Dioro with a motorcycle and bring him to village. The bus ended up running late and arriving at 10 pm. My counterpart's son went to pick him up, but after waiting for a while and getting confused about which bus to look for he came back to village without Shaka. We then had to scramble to find someone to go back to Dioro to get Shaka, who at this point was waiting in the dark in an unfamiliar place. He ended up arriving in village at 11 pm.

Friday, 4/16
I ask for sand, rigging, water. A few carts of sand arrive. No water. No rigging. Shaka asks me why there's no rigging set up at the well. I explain to him that I have had difficulty getting any kind of village participation on the project and that rigging had been promised the day before. Shaka's purpose for coming was to construct the cutting ring and then go back to Bamako while it cured. I thought we would be able to do all the work in one day, but because of a lack of village help that day we ended up only doing prep work on Friday.

Saturday, 4/17

We cast the cutting ring in the bottom of the well and made some bricks. More villagers show up to help and watch after Shaka complained to my counterpart. Shaka tells me that with all the difficulties I have had up to this point he doesn't think I should start any other projects like this once the current project is completed. After work that day Shaka went back to Bamako. His plan was to come back on Monday, the 26th, to help sink the cutting ring and line the well with bricks.

Sunday, 4/18
I ask for sand, rigging, water. Nothing comes. No work done.
At this point I'm starting to get very frustrated with my counterpart and village.

Monday, 4/19

Same as Sunday. Wedding given as the reason for now work or supplies. I ask my counterpart why barrels of water aren't coming to the job site. We need water there every day for making bricks and to pour on the bricks that have been made already to help them cure in the hot weather. (My counterpart is aware of this.)
My counterpart asks what we need water at the school for. I remind him.
Deep down I'm screaming at the top of my lungs, "What have we needed water at the job site every other day for up to this point?!" Unbelievable!!!

Tuesday, 4/20

I ask for sand, rigging, water. I actually got a barrel of water. No rigging, no sand. The plan was to make 200 bricks that day. The idea was to cast the rest of the bricks needed that day so that we would have a week for them to cure before Shaka would be back to start putting bricks in the well. Several people showed up to help, but after lunch we ran out of sand and only ended up with 120 bricks.

My PC boss did a site visit that afternoon to see how I was doing. I explained that up to that point I was having a very difficult time getting my village to commit to their end of the bargain with the project. After giving several examples of my frustrations, my boss (who is Malian btw) came to the conclusion that my counterpart was the cause of most of the problems. We ended up having a meeting with key members in the village where my boss explained that I was very unhappy with the way things were going.

During the course of the meeting my boss and I discovered that there are two committees governing business related to the school. Apparently the people in charge of these committees were not communicating with each other and as a result a lot of things were falling through the cracks. My counterpart was also organizing certain things on his own which were not being followed up by one of the committees. I had no idea about any of this before hand. I didn't even know there were two school committees. All of this was stuff that my counterpart should have communicated with me.

Wednesday, 4/21
I ask for sand, water, rigging. A few carts of sand show up. We need to make about 100 bricks today. We can't make bricks later on because they wouldn't have had enough time to cure. My counterpart and I are the only people who show up to work. We make 60 bricks by lunch time. My counterpart then says that he's tired and that we should stop for the day and make the rest of the bricks on Thursday. I explain that this is unacceptable and that I'm coming back that afternoon to make the other 40 bricks regardless if anyone else shows up, but that I expect him to find some people to help me. My counterpart explains to me that people in village don't work in the afternoon in hot season. When I ask why he is unable to give a legitimate explanation. I come back that afternoon with one other person and finish making bricks.
At this point I am absolutely furious with my counterpart and have no desire to work with him, but have to in order to keep this project going. I need to keep things moving to get ready for Shaka's return and ensure that all work on the first well is completed before I leave village for a few weeks of vacation in Europe.

Thursday to Sunday, 4/22 to 4/25

I ask for sand, rigging, water. Sand and rigging finally come Sunday... the day before Shaka is to return. The rigging my counterpart brings to the job site is undersized and inadequate. A few carts of the sand that showed up were not the kind we needed.

Monday, 4/26
Shaka returns. Same bus fiasco occurs. Bus runs late. Someone goes to Dioro to pick him up but gets tired of waiting and comes back without him. Shaka ends up waiting in the dark alone. When my counterpart finds out about this he has absolutely no urgency to remedy the situation. He doesn't even explain to Shaka what is going on when we call him. My counterpart takes the phone, asks where Shaka is, says the motorcycle came back to village and then hangs up. Doesn't say we're sending someone else or anything like that. Shaka calls his boss who calls me asking what the hell is going on at 10:30 at night and why don't we have our act together. All I can say is my village has dropped the ball yet again.

Tuesday, 4/27
We sink the cutting ring. The well digger comes to help with this. After about 1/4 meter of digging we hit a saturated sand layer. The sand was so plastic that it was seeping into the well under the cutting ring faster than gravity's ability to push the cutting ring down. As a result a cavern about 1.5 meters deep formed around the entire circumference of the bottom of the well. Essentially all the working area up on the surface at this point was suspended as a cantilevered ledge around the well. Not good. We had to stop digging and start putting bricks into the well and backfill immediately to safeguard against a possible collapse.

Wednesday to Sunday, 4/28 to 5/2

We line the well. The well ended up being about 5 meters deep and we were only able to lay about 1 meter of masonry a day because we had to wait for the mortar to dry before moving our work platform up the well shaft.

Monday, 5/3
We pour the concrete pad around the top of the well and cast the well cover. After 10 days of curing we'll put the cover on the well and shock the well with bleach to eliminate any contamination that might have occurred during construction.

Project Summary
Despite the frustrations, mistakes, and delays we got the first well finished on the last day I was in village before leaving for vacation. The new well has about 3/4 meter of water in the bottom and the water is clear, which is good. The day before I leave for vacation the well digger begins the second well. I leave the fate of the second well in the hands of my counterpart and another villager who helped with the school well. I'm honestly not expecting the second well to be finished by the time I get back to site (even though they will have plenty of time to do the work)... but maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised.