My first season building in Nicaragua we made bricks from a mixture of sand and clay (from the nearby riverbank), water (from the same river) and cement (purchased from a local cement factory). We pressed the mixture into bricks using a CINVA ram – a press operated by muscle power (and leverage) to compress the bricks, which were then placed in the sun to dry and cure. The houses we built had a brick half-wall topped by a board and batten upper wall (framed and sided with local timber, selectively culled).
Sorry, I have no surviving photos of the construction process or of the ram in action (but I have a great image in my head of an old photo from then, if that helps).
This woman in Kenya is going at this from another angle. While we used local materials, she uses plastic waste. So far she is making only brick pavers, but construction materials look like the next stage. The CINVA ram was developed at the Inter-American Housing Center (CINVA is an acronym for the name in Spanish, and the device was developed by Raul Ramirez in Colombia) to provide a low-cost locally-produced product. For what it does, it’s great. Her product is higher tech, with more expensive machinery requiring a more centralized production facility, but looks like a great way to reduce the landfill load of plastic waste (as well as slowing the growth of the floating “islands” of plastic trash in the oceans).
I am not advocating for one over the other – one is a great low-tech building method using local materials, while the other reuses plastic waste. Neither is anything to sneeze at.
We, by the way, changed from brick construction to stone. The stone was more bulletproof (I mean that literally) as well as holding up better during torrential rains.
A couple years ago I mentioned a story for another time. That time is here, so here is another story from the past, this one in Mexico.
I was working for a low-income housing co-op in Santa Clara, CA. On the side I was the Northern California Director of APSNICA (Architects and Planners in Support of Nicaragua). I quit the co-op job so I could move to Nicaragua and work full time, where we were building housing on cooperatively-owned cattle ranches.
I knew my Spanish was too rusty to live and work there, so I stopped off in Mexico for a refresher course at Cuauhnahuac, where I had studied Spanish several years before. I had three weeks to get up to speed. I brought my APSNICA slideshow along. As a self-imposed final exam I would present my 45 minute program in Spanish to the school. I had done it dozens of times in English, but this would let me know if I was ready to live in another country and work in Spanish. (I passed. Since I made up the exam, I got to grade it.)
The school placed students with families so we would be exposed to the language for more than the 6 hours/day we would spend at school. I was placed with a family with several children. The whole family slept on the living room floor to free up the bedrooms for students. One of the kids had had polio when he was younger. At 14 he wore a metal and leather long leg brace, which he took off to play basketball. A hoop (or maybe it was a literal basket, I don’t recall) was nailed to a pole in the street outside their house. Bad leg and all, he beat me more than once. (He called the game “basket”, as in – ¿Quieres jugar basket? -[“Do you want to play basketball?”]- but when he scored, he yelled – ¡Canasta! -[“basket!”])
I had a roommate, who was soon to start medical school -coincidentally in my home town. He said he wanted to be a family practice doctor and wanted to work with low-income clients who were not native English speakers. He knew that med school would present temptations to go into lucrative specialties and he wanted an experience to anchor him so he could resist those temptations. He would spend a few months volunteering in a clinic in a tiny mountain town in Puebla (home of Mole Poblano). A stint at Cuauhnahuac was first on the agenda, so he could talk to his patients.
We became fast friends. I was initially impressed by the maturity of his plan. I quickly remembered what I was doing at that age and how offensive it was when people were impressed by my maturity. I kept my mouth shut.
I went off to Nicaragua and Ken went off to Zacapoaxtla. We agreed to meet and travel together when I finished work. In those days, the only communication available was snail mail. International mail traveled at a snail’s pace. I wrote to Ken with a plan and date that I could arrive. I didn’t hear back.
I took a series of buses to get to Zacapoaxtla. I was the only gringo around. I found a clinic but no one was around. I found a hotel. When I went into the restaurant across the street for dinner, I was asked if I had come to town to see Ken, there being no other reason they could imagine a gringo being there. I said yes and that I had gone to the clinic but couldn’t find him. She told me he didn’t work in this town, but in the next village up the road, Tatoxcac.
After breakfast the next day I started up a narrow road winding through the mountain. I kept passing others walking up the same road, only to have to pass them again later. I learned that there was a path that left the road at every switchback and cut straight through the woods. The walk back down the mountain was much faster.
I made it to the little clinic. It was open but empty. I wandered through and then back outside and saw someone waving to me. The doctor walked up and asked if I were Steve. She said Ken was out of town and would be back the next day. She asked where I was staying and we made a plan for Ken to meet me for breakfast at the restaurant across from my hotel (the one that already knew who I was).
We had breakfast and hatched a plan to conduct a Mole Poblano tour. We traveled by bus from town to town throughout the state of Puebla, eventually getting to Puebla (the capital) itself. We ate Mole in every town. We ate in restaurants big and small, more and less fancy. We concluded that the best Mole Poblano was in a little village where there was a large open courtyard with big picnic tables. Surrounding the courtyard were individual open-air kitchens under a corrugated tin roof held up by poles. Whichever one you sat nearest fed you. The one we chose had two items on the menu – pechuga (breast) and pierna (leg). Either was served in a clay bowl covered in sauce and accompanied by a stack of tortillas. If you ran out of sauce before you ran out of tortillas, they refilled your bowl (no more chicken, just the sauce – but that was the best part). If I dug out my journal I could probably name the town. I could maybe find that market if I found the town. That’s not the point. The point was that we had a really good time eating a lot of really good food and had a great tour of the state in the process. And if we did it again, we might find the best mole somewhere else.
Ken went on to med school, became a family practice doctor, married another family practice doctor, went to work for a community health center (interestingly, the one which took over the clinic where I had volunteered in the 70s), eventually became Medical Director, and is now the CEO. I think his plan worked.
I watched the “One World: Together at Home” concert, with all of the artists recorded at home. I felt like a fraud. Everyone was lauding the heroic frontline healthcare workers risking their very lives. Yes, I’m a frontline healthcare worker. Maybe I’m in the second line. I dress funny nowadays, but mostly I just do my job. I don’t really do anything heroic. Maybe it’s like the old joke about the definition of a Yankee (the closer you get the more specific and nuanced the definition). Or the notion of a “war zone”. In the 1980s, many people in the US considered all of Central America to be a war zone. When you got to Central America, the war zone was in Nicaragua. When you got to Nicaragua, it was the Matalagalpa region. When you got to Matagalpa, it was out near Muy Muy and Matiguás. Where I worked, between Muy Muy and Matiguás, it was over the next ridge. I never saw the war zone.
I’m no hero. But it would be nice if the wall-mounted hand sanitizer dispensers actually had hand sanitizer in them. It would be nice if I hadn’t worn the same single-use mask for three weeks (and counting). It would be nice if I were allowed to wear an N-95 respirator if I saw a COVID-19+ patient – but those are reserved for the ICU and IMC patients. Since I work in an IMC (intermediate care center), I should be careful what I ask for.
This is not a word to be tossed around lightly. But Our Only President first asserted absolute power, then said that the authority rested in individual state governors, then tweeted LIBERATE MICHIGAN, where he doesn’t like the governor and where a shelter in place order is active. I don’t know about you, but I remember a lot of National Liberation Fronts. The point of that word was to overthrow the existing government. So when Trump tweets that we should “liberate” a state (Michigan isn’t the only one, and your state may be next) at a time when a demonstration has been called in that state (and who is organizing and funding those demonstrations?) we all know what he means. Sure, he can hide behind the words and claim he just wants to ensure our constitutional freedoms, but we all know what that word means.
Think about that. We have a president advocating for the overthrow of government – not the federal government, but individual states. He may not be technically committing treason, since he’s not advocating nor attempting to implement the overthrow of the US government; but he is advocating for the overthrow of governments within this country and there is news that funding is coming from people within his government, if not from him personally. We have a president who claimed absolute authority. Then he realized that absolute authority is accompanied by absolute responsibility. Since he has already said, “I don’t take responsibility at all”, he may have figured out that he didn’t really want that authority, as he has spent his career blaming others for his failings. As soon as he relinquished that authority, he began attacking those who took it on.
I’m gonna pretend I can ride a century without training. I trained hard for the Horribly Hilly Hundreds in June; surely some of that will bleed over into September, eh?
The Ride is a century sponsored by my employer. It is on (approximately) the autumnal equinox; seems like a good excuse for a century ride. It’s in a not-too-hilly area where I don’t ride a lot. I oughta be able to do this. They want me to raise $350. I mostly want to ride that day. It’s a century and it’s the equinox and it’s a Sunday so I don’t work. Seems like enough reasons to me. (Reasons? I ain’t got no reasons. I don’t need no reasons! I don’t have to show you any stinking reasons!) Since it raises funds for the Carbone Cancer Center, I welcome your donations in my name (Half-fast Cycling Club).
This is going to spawn multiple tangents, so strap in for the ride. The Ride reminds me of a plan I once had for The One Ride. I designed the logo, t-shirt, jersey, and the tagline: “One continent, One rider, One cause.” It was to be a solo cross-country fundraising tour to raise funds for the JNCL Research Fund. It never happened.
JNCL is short for Juvenile Neuronal Ceroid Lipofuscionosis, which is long for Batten’s Disease. Battens’ Disease is an autosomal recessive genetically-transmitted disease. In lay terms, you inherit it from your parents. If both are carriers of the gene, you have a 1 in 4 chance of getting the disease. What does it mean? “Juvenile” means onset in childhood. “Neuronal” means it involves the neurons – cells which transmits signals in your nervous system. “Ceroid” refers to a yellow to brown pigment. “Lipo” refers to fats. “Fuscin” refers to a specific brown pigment in the retina. “Osis” means an abnormal condition. In short, this whole thing refers to an abnormal deposition of pigment in the retina and fatty deposits along the cells which transmit information in the nervous system. (Lipofuscin is a specific fat-based pigment that builds up as a waste product.) In short, our body fails to break down certain cellular wastes, which build up and cause symptoms.
In practical terms, it means a disease which leads to blindness, night terrors, seizures, eventual deterioration of the nervous system, and death before the age of thirty. Why am I telling you this? Because I had two nieces who died of this disease. While rare, it is most common in people of Finnish extraction (that’s me). So I planned a coast-to-coast tour to raise funds for research. At the time, the genetic component was just being discovered. One lab in the US was capable of running the tests to see if you were a carrier. There is still no cure and treatment is only symptomatic. Trouble was, I had a job and two young kids, so the trip didn’t happen, and my nieces died. That was another impetus to finally make the coast-to-coast trip last year.
Anyway, The Ride raises funds for cancer research. I see cancer patients in my day job, so I thought I’d raise the issue here. Donate if you will – no pressure. Time for the next tangent.
This weekend is the 54th annual Orton Park Festival. It takes place in an urban park (which was once our first cemetery). The park is a tiny oak savanna. The festivities begin with a performance by Cycropia, an aerial dance troupe. They string trapezes and various other accoutrements from an old burr oak in the park. It is only August, but it has suddenly changed from Pilsner weather to Oktoberfest weather. In February it doesn’t change from Stout weather to Maibock weather.
Tonight was a performance by the band formerly known as Get Back Wisconsin. Due to a cease and desist order from someone who claims ownership of Get Back, they are now Madison Mystery Tour (As of this writing, the website is a work in progress, due to the name change.) They perform a concert of each Beatles album on the 5oth anniversary of the album release. Abbey Road will be performed Saturday, October 5, 2019, at the Barrymore Theatre. I’m only telling you this because I already have my ticket. Tonight was mostly pre-Abbey Road material. The encore was “Here Comes The Sun”, which brings me to the next tangent.
It was 1987 – “En 1987 aquí no se rinde nadie” was the national slogan of Nicaragua. It was done as a call and response. The leader shouted “En mil novecientos ochenta y siete aquí” and the audience responded “no se rinde nadie!” In English, that’s “In 1987, no one here surrenders!” For those too young to remember, the US was trying to overthrow the Nicaraguan government in 1987 via an illegitimate war funded, contrary to an explicit law, by the illegal sale of weapons to an enemy (Iran), with the profits diverted to a CIA-organized and funded mercenary army (the Contra). Clearly, this was an impeachable offense, yet President Reagan remains a hero to many – a mystery to me.
In 1987, I was in Nicaragua, working for an organization called APSNICA (Architects and Planners in Support of Nicaragua), building housing on cooperatively-owned cattle ranches. We selectively logged the forests, milled the lumber, and made concrete from sand and gravel dug from the riverbank (mixed with water from that river) combined with cement from a local plant. We leveled building sites with picks and shovels (but we did have a theodolite [a precision optical instrument for measuring angles between designated visible points in the horizontal and vertical planes.]). We poured concrete slab floors and built masonry half-walls from river rock and concrete. Framing and siding were from the trees we cut and milled on-site. Zinc roofing and nails were imported from Canada. We constructed a potable water system, dug outhouses, and built a school for each group of twenty families.
It rained all night. The next morning clouds were thick. I was on the trucking crew and we were driving the loggers out to the woods. Keith Greeninger was on the logging crew. The clouds parted and the sun appeared. Keith and I were standing on the rear bumper of the truck, holding onto the superstructure onto which we would, before lunch, load freshly-milled lumber. We looked each other in the eye and began to sing “Here Comes the Sun” to each other. It was one of the more magical moments of my life. We had not spoken on the ride. We just burst into song together, there being no other apt response to the abrupt change in the weather. An hour later, he was being rushed to the hospital in Matagalpa to suture a large gash on his forehead. Upon returning, he was not able to go out and do the dirty work in the woods, so he stayed in camp and wrote songs. He is now a professional singer-songwriter. “Here Comes the Sun” still brings tears to my eyes.
The song I’d like to post, “Another Nicaraguan Night” captured those nights sitting in darkness after the generator was turned off, trading songs with the Nicaraguans. Keith tried out his new songs then. This one was also written in camp. The original title was “Eyes of Your Young” but people misunderstood the chorus, so he changed the title so that phrase was written out. (It was an unfortunate Mondegreen.)
I returned to the US, moved to San Francisco and became a plumber. But that’s another story for another time.
By the way, the third Grand Tour, La Vuelta a España, is now in progress.
Details have been released for Cycle America 2020! Now you too can ride coast-to-coast! The ride departs Seattle on Sunday, June 20 and arrives in Boston Saturday, August 22. You can ride all 9 weeks or any part thereof. Total cost is less than $7500 with early discount. That includes route planning, sag support, most of your meals, and a place to lay your head every night! (Not to mention good friends, beautiful scenery, and seeing the country at a pace amenable to that.) For those of the Facebook persuasion, you can also find info and lots of pictures from past rides here. (And even the non-Facebook users can still see the pictures – they’ll keep asking you to log in or open an account, but you can skip that.) Such a deal! Tell ’em the half-fast cycling club sent you.
A special shout-out is due to my friend at Plant-Powered Pedaling, who just completed Paris-Brest-Paris – 1220 km in under 90 hours! PBP is the ultimate in endurance rides. I’ve been following this guy for a while – I use the term “friend” in the internet sense of the word. We’ve never met. I read his blog, maybe he reads mine. He completes epic rides and (as the title implies) does it on vegan foods – not only does that mean you can perform tremendous feats on a vegan diet, but you can somehow find food while riding for hundreds of miles without external support.