Back to the problem at hand

It’s easy to look at Guateca and think it’s all about developing technologies for less developed countries while providing a new cultural experience, but it’s really got another equally important aspect to it. The goal of Guateca (not sure if this is official or just my thoughts) is not just to make a more sustainable and energy efficient “third world”, it’s to make the entire world conscience of their actions and influence wiser decisions that will improve and lengthen our stay on this earth. And while the education is mostly done during the vacation in San Pablo, the practice only begins there.

Now for us Californyeros, it’s time to bring what we’ve learned as well as our new mindsets and attitudes back to our homelands, in hopes of reducing the United States’ daunting statistics. Spark communication among our friends, family and neighbors about “smart grids”, shed light on embodied carbon emissions, and draw lots of energy curves . I’m gonna be spreading Pete’s videos to anyone who’s even remotely interested in the topic (once I figure out how to find them on youtube that is). I think it’s safe to say that we could all benefit from looking at these facts for a minute, because it really is like a reality check.

And so the real challenge has just begun. It’s time to do our tiny parts in what will hopefully be a turnaround in the  energy habits of the United States, in hopes that the rest of the world will either lead or follow on the same path. We need to start cringing at the sight of lights that have been left on (out of paranoia) in buildings that have closed for the night, use less air conditioning and feel the reality of the elements outside, and maybe invest in some solar panels. Because the steps towards sufficient energy use aren’t that complicated, they just need motivation. And motivation is not something that’s easy to come by, but everyone has it in them. It just takes a little bit of knowledge and maybe some reinforcement from the people you keep around you.

So to any college kid reading this, seriously think about joining Guateca 2013, ‘cus I’m pretty sure it’s open to all students across the United States (not sure about the globe, but 100% sure about California). It would be hard to beat the experiences you get there, whether you like hiking, playing music on the radio, drinking fantas of all flavors, or just chilling with some genuine people. Life there seems a little more simple, and way more enjoyable.



Energy Class Final Exam Results from Pete

For the past few years, I’ve been working with the question, “What happens to students’ performance when they become friends?”.  I’ve been stimulating group work and conversation in my classes by presenting information with videos on Youtube (for instance, please see ), leaving class time open for discussion, calculations in groups, and experiments.  Additionally, I’ve been collaborating with ~ 5 other instructors creating a freshmen “learning community” whereby a group of 100 freshmen are taught together and involved in local projects with community partners.  (Please see ).

Guateca has become an interesting case study because all the students did become friends.  The results are rather staggering.  Please see below the distribution of exam results, compared with those of students enrolled in my “normal” classes at Poly, on near-identical final exams.

Final exam results for PSc-320. Green is the distribution of 35 students I had this past spring quarter. The blue points are the 5 Cal Poly Guateca students, and the red are the 5 San Pablo Guateca students who took the final.  The lowest Cal Poly Guateca student has an “A” against the backdrop of this past spring’s class.

The average of the Cal Poly Guateca students is 1.2 standard deviations above that of my class last spring… or alternatively, the spring class’s average is 3.0 standard deviations below that of the Cal Poly Guateca class.  It is worth observing that the San Pablo students scored between 2 and 5 standard deviations below the Cal Poly Guateca students and close to a standard deviation below my Cal Poly class last spring.  There are several sources for this: (a) The San Pablo students started with considerably less technical understanding.  For instance, most students didn’t know exponents, scientific notation, or algebra at the beginning of the course.  They had way more to learn. (b) The exam was somewhat “USA-centric” in the questions, with many questions about California.  This of course gave the USA students an advantage in both learning (as they were inherently more interested in their own home), and performing.  (b) I taught the course, wrote the exam and corrected the exam.  I am from the USA, and have English as my first language, and Spanish a distant forth language (behind English, German, and Fijian).  There is an inherent cultural and language bias in both the teaching and evaluation.  In the future, I will try to make the Spanish exam more “Guatemalan-centric”.

Results from Physics 310 (blue) against a backdrop of performances of 17 students from a class during spring class, 2011.

The results of the more technical PHYS-310 show a similar trend: The Guateca students scored about a standard deviation above the students in the “normal” class I had in Spring 2011.

I could add more about my thoughts about why this happened, and the weaknesses in the “scientific study” (which include admission that the Guateca students had considerable restrictions against behaviors that could be considered “competition” for time with their classes such as drinking and having a job), but I’ll wait until I have more information and time for a more thorough analysis… I’m on sabbatical next year (2013-2014), and will give this some thought.


Sunday, Aug 19: Plan today was to meet at 6 am with the other Guateca students and head on a hike to Tajumulco–however it happened to be raining at that time and plans were cancelled. Very disappointed, especially since Transito and Carla had gotten up around 4 to make pancakes and empanadas for Brandon, Charlie, and I for our trip. By 7 the rain had stopped, and I called up Urias to see if he still wanted to go–but he said he had plans to play futbol that day. Defeated, I sat down in the kitchen to read when Henry came in and said that Urias had called him to say that he wanted to go and he’d be here in half an hour. Pinche chilero!

Threw all of the food Transito had made–enough for three people–into my backpack, along with a huge thermos full of coffee, at Transito’s insistence. Urias showed up and we managed to catch a ride in the back of Dany’s truck to San Luis at the top of the hill where we would catch the bus to the trailhead. The morning was chilly and gray clouds strectched across the sky–the perfect day for a hike! When we got on the bus and I took my backpack off, I noticed how warm it was, presumably from the thermos full of hot coffee inside. We sat down and I told Urias to check out how warm it was, so he did so and told me it felt wet, too. So I lifted the pack off my lap to find that coffee had completely soaked the bottom of the backpack and my pants since I had sat down. Apparently the glass container on the inside of the thermos had shattered and about two thirds of the liquid inside had been emptied into the pack, so I poured the remaining cocktail of coffee and broken glass out the bus window.

The bus ride took about an hour. At the trailhead we hopped off and headed to a little tienda across the street where we bought juice, both boxed and in a glass bottle, to replace all the coffee I had lost. Now, take note, at this point several poor decisions had been made, which were 1) leaving any water behind in San Pablo because I had coffee instead, 2) buying only a couple liters of juice to replace the coffee, and 3) buying anything in a glass bottle to take up the summit. Also, a note about volcan Tajumulco: it is the highest mountain in central America, at 4220 m (about 13,845 ft), although not the steepest climb around–volcan Tacana has that distinction. (I also don’t know what our starting elevation was–probably around 10,000 ft) I had also been told by many folks in San Pablo that it was a two hour hike to the summit, no big deal. Sweet, a stroll, no problem.

Tajumulco looms, kind of, from near the start of the trail. The summit is behind the hill shown here.

We finally started up the hill at 10 am. We passed by a little house near the start of the trail, where a recently pregnant skin-and-bones dog started to follow us. The trail wasn’t uncomfortably steep but it was definitely going up, and with elevation the terrain started to change. After rising above all the farmland and the last of the houses, we very quickly left any sort of tropical vegetation behind to find ourselves walking through groves of pine trees and open meadows of hardy mountain ground-covering plants, marked by deep rain-cut ravines. Totally gorgeous, even though the clouds and fog didn’t permit us a view of anything beyond the proximity of the volcano.

Coupla punks heading up the hill. Spirits are still high!

Urias hangs out with our dog


The dog convinced me that fewer clothes was the way to go. A little higher up, the temperature would soon convince me otherwise.

We enjoyed the company of our dog all the way up to the summit. As we approached the summit, we entered thick clouds and it started to rain. Views on either side of us were totally obscured by fog beyond twenty or thirty feet, and the trail continued to get steeper. We soon hiked out of the rain, though, and came upon a rocky clearing beneath a cliff, where it was obvious that most people came to party, which Urias told me was not an uncommon activity on the mountain. A building had once been there, as evidenced by the six short broken concrete columns and the mangled sheets of corrugated metal scattered around. We found a little ‘cave’ amongst broken bottles of spirits and graffiti-marked rocks to shelter us a little bit from the frigid wind, and broke out the food. As I unpacked our lunch I realized just how much food Transito had packed me and how much I had been carrying: The glass bottle of juice, two glass containers full of home-made apple sauce, a can of beans, a bag of empanadas and a bag of pancakes, a loaf of bread, and the empty, broken thermos. At least Urias was impressed: “Tienes mucha fuerza,” he told me. Time: 12 pm

Urias approaches the lunch spot

Enjoying our lunch and what would be the last drink for several hours.

The dog, for its effort, earned like four or five pieces of bread. Urias and I chowed down on the food, filling our stomachs and lightening the load in my pack, although at the end of our meal a container of apple sauce still remained full, along with about half of the can of beans and a few pancakes and empanadas. We still had a little ways to go to the summit, so we stashed our packs and headed up the ever-steepening rocky hill to the top of the volcano. At this point, I definitely noticed the thinness of the atmosphere, and we were taking lots of little breaks.

We finally made it to the rocky, ash-covered summit after about fifteen minutes of scrambling and resting, and enjoyed a view of fog and far-off clouds. We took a rest and enjoyed our accomplishment, tired and ready to head back down. We traversed around the crater a little bit, and Urias found a steep route of descent that he thought would lead us back to where we stashed our packs. Well, I didn’t think it was such a great idea, but we decided on it anyways and began a very steep descent over rocks and volcanic ash. When we reached the tree line only a few minutes later, we inspected our surroundings and Urias asked if maybe we shouldn’t go back up to the summit and return to our packs the way we ascended. I responded with something along the lines of “That ship has sailed,” not wanting at all to climb back up the 45 degree slope that we had just descended. What a joke that would turn out to be.

Almost at the summit

A couple of c-c-c-cold punks at the foggy summit of Tajumulco!

We continued to descend through the trees on the naturally terraced but still very steep slope, totally devoid of trail, for something like forty minutes in total. At many points our efforts to traverse around the hill to where we thought the trail might be were stymied by huge cliffs or valleys. At many points we stopped and discussed our situation, but neither one wanted to re-ascend the face, so we continued our downward progress. Finally, below us, we saw a herd of cows. “Is that a shepherd?” I asked Urias, and he tentatively agreed. Stoked to finally get some directions and see another person, we booked it down hill until we were almost in the midst of the cows. I realized then that I hadn’t seen a person, only another cow. Below us, in the distance, was a totally unfamiliar misty forest that went on forever into the foggy horizon.

Urias, thoroughly lost on our foggy, misguided descent

Well at this point we were pretty bummed, not to mention really tired, and the dog was still at our heels. With great reluctance, we submitted to the reality of our situation and began a very steep, slow, umotivated hike back to the summit. Our ascent was marked by sighs of exasperation and rests where we would suggest if, maybe heading in this or that direction might be a better idea than retracing our steps all the way to the top–but such ideas were always decided against, and after over an hour we finally, finally made it back to the summit.

We were so stoked to see a familiar place, but the fog still obscured everything in the distance, so we weren’t quite sure in which direction we should go. We started walking in what we thought was the right direction and, finding what we thought was unfamiliar territory, turned around and went the other way. Well this turned out to be a great idea as we ended up walking around the whole crater and found ourselves back in exactly the same spot. Eventually, we found the place where we had ascended, and made it back down to our backpacks at around 4 pm. Total time being lost: approx 2 and a half hours.

Relieved to have climbed Tajumulco again for the second time today

Made it back to the trailhead at 5 pm for a total of 7 hours on the mountain–and the dog had followed us the whole way. Totally beaten but satisfied with the comedy of errors that had been our adventure, we caught the bus home and I made it back to casa Henry around 7 where I relaxed with the other folks that were there by watching Dragon Ball Z on Charlie’s laptop. All in all a great adventure–although next time I’ll think twice before trusting my Guatemalan “guide.” Thanks a lot, Urias..!


Offing a sheep and Transito’s birthday

Got up early (Early for me—By 7:00 most people here have already been awake for 2-3 hours) Sunday morning after a late night in Tacana to help Henry cut pasto, like hay, for the horse Estrella and the sheep. I’d like to think I cut come choice plants, because for one of those unfortunate sheep it was her last meal. ‘Cause, you know, we killed a sheep—or at least were conscious collaborators in its demise.

Just a sheep, but I think I know what it was in for..

I solemnly led it from its pen to what could be called the back porch, where I helped Don Cecilio, Henry’s grandfather, to tie the sheep’s back legs and hoist it up to the rafters. Then I held its front legs while Brandon held its head and Don Cecilio did the deed. I’ll spare you the details, but that was two mornings ago (Monday) and we’ve already eaten the several parts of the poor sheep. The first meal gave me pause—it is a little strange to eat an animal when you know what it looked like only a few hours before—and it is unsettling to see how quickly a living creature can be disassembled and reduced to its base components. A little lesson in mortality, maybe, but as a card-carrying carnivore I feel it’s my duty to take part in the unpleasant processes that need to take place to get that meat on my plate. And it sure was (and will probably continue to be) tasty!
Monday happened to be Transito’s birthday, Henry’s mom, which was the occasion for the sheep’s death. Happy to be here with all the family in town, including Henry’s older brother Nedi who lives in Xela, the second largest city in Guatemala, and his older sister Yanely and uncle Rodrigo, who live and work together at Rodrigo’s café in San Pedro la Laguna, in Lake Atitlan. For lunch, Yanely cooked the first part of the sheep, a soup made with its liver—delicious. I really wanted to get home around 6:00 that night to help cook dinner, but somehow I found myself on another adventure with Ulises and Chepe to the nearby town of Toaca, and then Sana Java (Jaba?). It seems that almost every time I hang out with Ulises in the evening, I miss dinner. Don’t worry Ulises, it’s not your fault. Always an adventure: that night we ended up meeting Ulises’ uncle, Don Juan Perez, on the road back to San Pablo—then we ended up sitting outside of a tienda in Sana Java, listening to Don Juan recite poetry (that I could couldn’t understand, at all) until past 9 pm, which is more than an hour past dinner time, and I didn’t get back home until almost 10. All in all a good experience, but I sure hate to miss meals with the family. Sorry guys, it won’t happen again!
For lunch yesterday (Tuesday) we had our second sheep meal—a soup made with its stomach—and though Monday was Transito’s birthday, we didn’t celebrate it until last night. Almost all the family in town came over: Transito’s mom, all of Roberto’s brothers, (except our good pal Dany, who was working in his restaurant, and Mario who lives in a different town) Transito’s and Roberto’s nephew Ronaldo and their niece Cindy, Don Cecilio and his wife, etc etc; even Pete managed to come over for the meal. We ate Caldo de Oveja, another soup made with some sheep meat; rice and fresh salsa that Brandon and I made by dicing up tomatoes, onions, radishes, and jalapenos; tea made from pineapple, apples, and nanse; and some cake to top it all off. Obviously tortillas were involved. Brandon and I were made to sing some songs—I had to sing the song about aguardiente, the local liquor, three or four times—and Don Cecilio regaled us with some truly awesome ranchera songs from back in the day. All in all a pretty rad night. Happy birthday, Transito!
Today (Wednesday) some of us headed to a fair in Tacana—but I’ll let someone else fill you in on that. All I really want to say is that, after dinner, I ate yet another product from our beloved sheep: its blood, cooked with tomatoes, onions, and oil, until it reaches a soft, rubbery consistency. Tomorrow, I’ve been told, we eat the head. Rad—we sure are conservative of our resources (read: sheep parts) in this household.

-Nate, 8/16/2012

Poor sheep

Last Week in San Pablo

I cannot believe we only have four more days! My last day for teaching the school, math tutoring, and English class is tomorrow. The next day, we have our final exam, with the day after being a free day, and then….. we are on our way home. I can’t believe how fast this time has flown by. I have made so many new friends that I hope to keep for a lifetime. This was my first time traveling out of the country and I couldn’t have asked for anything better. It has inspired me to travel so much more and to even learn some more new languages (gasp). Before I came here, speaking Spanish or learning a new language was definitely seemed impossible. Being in Guatemala was a great way to spend my summer but I am excited to get back to my family in Washington. I’m sure the weather will be quite similar to the weather here, rainy and cold.

This week has been full of adventure, going to the waterfall, getting lost trying to find a path to the bottom, and visiting the dead forest. I don’t know which one has a better view because they are both so beautiful. From the dead forest, you can see Mount Tacana and all of San Pablo. It will definitely be different returning to the states. Before we left, we had a class on culture shock and what it feels like. I finally am starting to get a grasp on the culture here but I think returning to the states is what is going to shock me the most. Having a car, indoor plumbing, and all sorts of things we take advantage of in our everyday lives. The thing I am most grateful for from being here is what a humbling experience it was. 


Hola para una mas vez, familia y amigos!

The days are long here in San Pablo, and yet the weeks still fly by.  I’m not really sure how that happens, but its time for another update!

After weeks of research, planning, and testing, my “rocket stove mass heater” project has finally started to take shape! The past several weeks have been a lot of work, but we weren’t really accomplishing anything physical that we could see or touch, and so it’s been extremely motivating to actually start building, and I’ve regained a lot of enthusiasm for the project.

Our biggest hold up has been gathering materials; I’d guess (though I haven’t really estimated) that our stove and benches will be constructed from 3 or 4 tons of rock, bricks, and adobe when all is said and done, and gathering those materials has been a real pain. However, we’ve had a lot of help from Dany and his truck, and so we’ve managed to move most of the necessary materials to Casa Guateca, though I’m betting we’ll still need more. We’ve also taken a couple of trips to the bustling metropolis of Tacana, about 25 minutes outside of San Pablo, we’re we’ve purchased all the fire bricks, ducting, and the pièce de rèsistance, our enormous steel stove top, or “plancha”! We hope and plan to be about 90% done with our project by this Friday.

Below are some pictures of our progress thus far:

In other news, I’ve moved out of Casa Yoni and into Casa Mimi’s. Unfortunately, I was sick one too many times while living at Casa Yoni’s, and while it’s still a mystery as to why, I felt like a change of scenery and environment was best. I love my family at Casa Yoni’s, and I’m sad to leave them, though it’s not problem to visit whenever I like until the end of the trip. On the bright side, my room at Mimi’s is beautiful (and dare I say considerably more comfortable…), with a view to match, and my new family is exceptionally hospitable and welcoming. Also, the pancakes are amazing—in fact they’re famous throughout San Pablo!

I’ve also been able to get out on the weekends, in particular this past Saturday I made another trip to San Marcos, and on Sunday I went on an epic hike to the top of Volcan San Pedrito with several of the other students. The hike took us about 8 hours there and back—we were able to walk straight from San Pablo to the top of San Pedrito. It was exceptionally steep and beautiful, and San Pedrito is by far the tallest peak around, so we were able to get incredible views of the surrounding communities. Since it feels like San Pablo is an isolated mountain village, I was very surprised to see that, in reality, the communities and homes surrounding San Pablo are fairly uniformly dense and dispersed pretty much evenly throughout the mountains.

That’s all I’ve got to say for now! Adios, muchachos!

Lately Guateca has been looking like it’s just gonna keep growing and growing around here. Recently we had a meeting with some of the important figures in the community to show off our work and explain our ideas through so they can fully understand what we’re doing. It was kind of like a follow-up meeting from one we had around our second week here. We got some good feedback from Feliciano and Julio, who seem to be two of the main men here in San Pablo, and it seems like we continue to hold everyone’s support. I think they were pretty impressed with our work and were starting to want to get our efforts into the other houses of the community. Just yesterday a few men came from the University of San Carlos to talk with Pete about collaborating. These guys were a part of this group there called CIDETA, I can only remember that the last part stands for tecnologias alternativas. The goal was to get real college credits for the Guatemalan students participating in Guateca, which would be a huge improvement from the current offering of a diploma of participation.

Another interesting thing is that we’ve started offering math tutoring from 5-6pm right before English class. Apparently the first time there were not that many kids, but on the second day (my first day joining) there was at least twice the amount of students. And then just yesterday, the third class, we had to go to a different classroom that could hold all the kids. Tons of kids showed up eager as ever to learn math, that’s something you don’t see every day. It was pretty difficult trying to teach division and multiplication in Spanish, but there was never a dull moment.

This past Wednesday was a holiday and so several of us went to Tacana for some fun and games. It was kind of like a carnival where there were ferris wheels, lots of ring-toss type games, an arcade that went down a block, foosball, and plenty of stands selling chocolate covered fruits and pizza. It was pretty wild seeing so many people and running into other Pablences all over the city. We got to see these people dressed in crazy costumes (presumably mayan) dancing to marimba music just outside of this hotel where we ate lunch.

That’s about all I’ve got for now, I know you’ve probably hear d some of this stuff already from other posts. Just want to say thanks to everyone that played a part in getting us all here.