Sunday, July 1, 2012

Goodbye Guatemala

This will be my final post from Guatemala; in a few hours I am getting on a plane back home to the US.  Sorry for the lack of pictures right now, the SD card reader on my laptop got jammed on Friday so I haven't been able to upload any since then.  Luckily, this happened at the end of the trip, so you already got to see all of the cool stuff from Estanzuela and the experiment in action. 

The past few days have been fun, as I have been mostly surviving on my own and getting to know Guate better (aka Guatemala City).  On Friday, I went on a day tour of Antigua, the top tourist destination in the country that also seems to have the highest volcano and earthquake activity in the area.  The guide told us that Guatemala usually gets a really big earthquake every 30-40 years, and the last one was 35 years ago, so that made it more interesting.  In Antigua, I saw some of the ruins and old Spanish churches, and also took a tour of a workshop where they make Jade replicas of Mayan masks/figurines, which is a booming industry in the area. 

On Saturday, I traveled into the historic district in Zone 1 of the Guatemala City.  I was warned before I left by the hotel staff not to venture out of the "safe zone", which was only the main plaza downtown and 6th Avenida, the main street with tons of shops, people, and heavily armed security.  I followed their advice, and since it was raining I spent most of the time in the entrance to the National Palace, which is the main government building in the city. There is really not that much to see in the historic district, just a bunch of shops/street performers and the main plaza.  The entire time, I was mostly trying to survive and avoid getting mugged, because there are a bunch of sketchy-looking people in the area and scam artists trying to hustle tourists.  I only stayed for about 1 hour before I called the hotel taxi to be picked up. 

For meals, I have been able to try out a bunch of excellent Guatemalan food in the Zona Viva district, all within 2-3 blocks where I am staying.  Thursday night, I went to Tamarindos, which is an Italian/Thai fusion restaurant where I had a plate of Guatemalan/Italian fried burrito wraps followed by a Pad Thai  (they also have strawberry butter for their bread, which I highly recommend). For Friday/Saturday night, I went to Tacontento, a restaurant with low-cost tacos/burritos located on the same street as the discotecas, so it is a cool place to hang out.   In addition, while visiting Antigua I had probably the best meal of my trip at restuarante Posada de Don Rodrigo, which was a spicy beef dish covered with 2 eggs sunny side up. 

Overall, I would say that my entire trip to Guatemala has been very successful.  The past two weeks in Guatemala have been an excellent experience for me, and I have had fun while doing this volunteer work for The Full Belly Project.  We were able to achieve most of our goals with aflatoxin research in Zacapa, and also have formed many connections with the town of Estanzuela and the Mani+ organization.  For the future, I am planning to stay in contact with Carlos, Robert, and Luis, and do more research on our aflatoxin project while I am back in Wilmington, NC for the rest of the summer.  I will post again when we get back the results of the aflatoxin lab testing, and also try to post a few pictures from Antigua when I get the chance. 

Goodbye Guatemala, it has been great. 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Trip back to Guatemala City

While I had been planning to be picked up by Carlos at 9 am this morning, to travel back to Guatemala City with him, that never worked out because he found out this morning that the brakes on his car were broken.  He called me around 8 am, telling me that he needed to get his brakes fixed, so he couldn't pick me up until tomorrow around noon.  However, Luis and his wife Aura knew about a secure bus that I could take directly to Guatemala City, without any stops. After I said goodbye to Luis and his family, and thanked them for their hospitality, Aura and Diana drove me to the bus station located in Río Hondo, which is one town over from Estanzuela. 

Bus Station in Río Hondo
I ended up taking a large double-decker bus from Río Hondo back to Guatemala City, which was very comfortable and had a great view of the countryside.  Other than a bit of construction on the roads, it was a smooth ride with no problems.  At the bus station in Guatemala City, Carlos was waiting to pick me up, so I was able to go with him directly to my hotel in Guatemala City.  It is the same hotel that I stayed in for my first night in Guatemala City, located in the Zona Viva district.  Since it was pouring rain for most of the afternoon, I did not venture out from my hotel much today except for dinner, and have been napping for most of the time. 

For the next few days in Guatemala City, Carlos told me that the Mani+ office is closed for the entire weekend because it is a national holiday in Guatemala.  Saturday, June 30 is Army Day in Guatemala, and most businesses here are on vacation for a three-day weekend starting tomorrow on Friday.  I am planning to meet with Carlos for breakfast/lunch some time on Saturday, but besides that I am pretty much on my own for the next two days, before I head back to the US on Sunday.  

Since I have heard such great things about Antigua, I booked a tour for the city for tomorrow, leaving at 9:30 am and returning at 5 pm.  It includes shuttle transport to/from the hotel where I am staying in Guatemala City, which I signed up for because the public shuttle transport is known to be dangerous. 

The next few days, I will post some more pictures/updates from my trip around Guatemala City as they happen, and also keep you updated on the laboratory testing for the peanut samples as we sort out those details as well.  Goodbye for now, and I'll post again soon. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Last Day in Estanzuela

Today was my last day of peanut testing in Estanzuela.  This morning, I removed the plastic screen on one portal of the UV scanner, in order to take some more pictures inside the box.  I got some pretty good pictures of contaminated peanuts under UV light, and you can see that some nuts have large clumps of Aspergillus Flavus attached to them, while most of the other nuts are clean. 

Junior operating the UNS to obtain
machine-shelled peanuts for testing
Afterwards, we continued preparing sample bags of peanuts that we will send to the lab for aflatoxin testing at the end of the week.  We prepared 7 samples of peanuts:
  1. Costa Sur – control, unshelled
  2. Chiquimula – control, unshelled
  3. Petén -  control, unshelled
  4. Petén – “bad” nuts, shelled
  5. Chiquimula – hand-shelled
  6. Chiquimula – machine-shelled
  7. Chiquimula – UV screened, machine-shelled
To keep the samples sterile and separate, we handled each of them using a different pair of surgical gloves for each sample, and sealed them in ziplock bags when they were finished.  In addition, to test the aflatoxin concentration in the air while using the UNS, Junior wore a surgical mask during the entire shelling process, and we saved that surgical mask in a separate ziplock bag for aflatoxin testing as well.  To prevent any additional growth of Aspergillus Flavus before they are tested in the lab, I am storing all 8 samples in an ice-cooler, which I will bring with me when I travel with Carlos back to Guatemala City tomorrow. 

At the end of the day, I went with Luis to the weekly city council meeting for Estanzuela, when they meet every Wednesday night from 5 pm onwards to take care of town affairs.  I only stayed for a short while, and when they invited me into the conference room, the Mayor of Estanzuela presented me with an award for The Full Belly Project, thanking us for our volunteer efforts to help their city.  They also gave me a personalized letter from the Mayor and the rest of the city council, showing their appreciation for our research to improve peanut production in the region. 

Receiving an award of recognition
from the Mayor of Estanzuela
Overall, the city of Estanzuela has been incredibly welcoming and supportive of The Full Belly Project and my research project during my entire stay here.  I cannot thank Luis enough for his generous hospitality during my visit; he and his family went above and beyond to accommodate me in their house for the entire week, even though I was a complete stranger in the beginning.  I am going miss the happy city of Estanzuela, and hopefully some day in the future The Full Belly Project will return to this place, and implement some more of the technology that we have to offer. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Chiquimula Trip 2

Today, I travelled with Juan to Chiquimula, to visit the peanut storage site again.  I talked to the manager there, Freddie, who gave us a lot of useful information about peanuts from different parts of Guatemala.  The three main regions where they receive peanuts from in the Chiquimula storage site are: Masatenango (aka Costa Sur) in the southern Guatemala, Chiquimula in the middle, and Petén in northern Guatemala.

Juan and Freddie discussing Guatemalan peanuts
 in the Chiquimula storage site
I also learned from Freddie that the quality of the peanuts varies drastically depending on the region that they come from.  For quality control at the storage site in Chiquimula, they pick out the bad nuts that look black/brown to throw away, which they cannot sell at the local markets.  For each 50 lbs bag of peanuts, the percent of “bad” peanuts which they throw out from each region are:

Masatenango (Costa Sur):  1 % bad
Chiquimula: 0.75 % bad
Petén: 55% bad

By far, Petén produces the largest percent of bad peanuts, and they have to throw out more than half of their peanuts, while the other two regions produce > 99% “good” nuts.  According to Freddie, the cause for this large disparity in peanut quality is due to differences in the climate, because peanut fields in Petén are exposed to more water and humidity, which can increase pest/fungi problems with the crops.  We obtained samples of peanuts from all three regions, which we will send to the lab in Guatemala City for aflatoxin testing at the end of the week. 

After visiting the peanut farm in Chiquimula, Juan and I went to a large warehouse in Chiquimula city, to pick up a delivery of juice boxes for the Estanzuela local schools.  Tomorrow, for my last day in Estanzuela, I am going to finish all of the aflatoxin testing with the UNS and UV scanner, try to get a few pictures of peanuts inside the UV scanner, and prepare some more samples to bring back to Guatemala City for lab testing.  The lab that Carlos is using in Guatemala City costs Q 800 per aflatoxin test, which is about $100 USD, and we probably plan to run about 8-12 tests total.  Although this is fairly expensive, the lab results should give an exact concentration of aflatoxin levels in ppb, so it is definitely worth it for the data that we will obtain.  

Monday, June 25, 2012

UV Scanner Testing

This morning, we brought all of the concrete parts for the UNS that we kept at Luis’ house over the weekend back to the Estanzuela town center, the place where we had been working on it before.  Juan and I finished attaching most of the metal parts to the peanut sheller, but we couldn’t complete it because we are missing the 4 large washers to attach the handle, and the metering plates were still at the machine shop to be replicated.  However, we were able to make the wooden supports at the local carpenter shop 1 block away, and we plan to have the entire machine completed for aflatoxin testing by Wednesday, when we will do the machine-shelled vs. hand-shelled test. 

Junior next to completed UV scanner box on table
For the UV scanner, we were also able to have a large wooden table made by the same local carpenter.  The table is 40 inches high so that the UV scanner box head portals are at eye level for most of the people here, which is slightly shorter than in the USA.  We also made a hole in the center for the contaminated nuts to pass through, probably to a bag suspended underneath the table. 

While we were waiting for the table to be built, I took some more photos/video of the UV light and how it works.  I posted a video passing the UV light over a bucket of assorted nuts, from the same bag that came from Chiquimula.  Since inside the UV scanner box is too dark for the video camera to capture, and the lens doesn’t work with the UV protection screen in the way, I made the video with a fair amount of ambient light, in a government office in Estanzuela.  However, even in broad daylight, the contrast between aspergillus-infected peanuts and normal peanuts is readily visible, and it is easy to pick out the 2 contaminated nuts from the rest of the peanuts, which are contained in a bowl with about 40 peanuts total. 

Peanut samples under UV light comparison

Afterwards, I saw some more farms in the area surrounding Estanzuela with Luis.  We visited an expensive green pepper farm that was completely enclosed in plastic netting, to keep insects from eating the vegetables.  We also took a pickup truck tour of the city corn fields, which you can see from the photographs are very successful.  I was impressed that both the green pepper farm and the city corn fields use drip irrigation, which is good because this method is both more efficient and uses less energy.  On our way back to town, we saw a Yuca field, which is a plant native to the area with a large root that is apparently very tasty.   Luis mentioned that we can try this before I leave Estanzuela, and I will let you know if we do.  

Tomorrow, I am planning to go to Chiquimula again with Juan, to observe more of their peanut production practices, and also to obtain a sample of peanuts from the Petén region in northern Guatemala.  Wednesday, we will run most of the aflatoxin tests on the UV scanner and UNS with all of the peanut samples that we collect, and I will prepare more samples for lab testing in Guatemala City.  

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Pasabien River

Saturday night, I stayed in the town square with Luis.  The place was bustling with activity, and there were about 100 people hanging out in the park area on benches, while kids raced around on bicycles and a few cars circled around blasting party music.  I met a lot more people who knew Luis, and they were all super friendly as well.

Waterfall in River Pasabien
Today on Sunday morning, I went with Luis and his family to River Pasabien, which is a cool stream that comes directly from the mountains where a lot of people go to swim.  Cool water is a luxury here because in Estanzuela, the drinking water comes from a hot spring deep underground, so all of the tap water and shower water is naturally hot (which is very nice during the winter, but not as great in the summer).  The river was very picturesque, with a waterfall and a great view of the mountains. 

After we returned from River Pasabien, I went with Luis to see some more farms around Estanzuela.  We saw papaya and cantaloupe fields, and also visited Luis’ friend Mario who owns another cattle farm.  I learned about the whole process of raising cattle from the calf stage until they are fully grown, when the cattle are shipped off in trucks to make beef.   However, Mario told me that he was going to need to relocate his farm soon, since the Guatemalan government is buying a large part of his land because it is in the way of a highway that is going to be built.  The highway is going to stretch all the way from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean, to compete with the Panama Canal. 

Mario at his cattle farm in Estanzuela
Today, I also tried some authentic Guatemalan foods.  I had cheese and pork empanadas for lunch which were delicious.  For dinner, I went out with Luis and his friend to a tiny place that made churrascos with corn tortillas in Zacapa.  We ate in the street, and the churrascos were excellent.  In addition to food, I learned a bit about trees in Guatemala today, and saw some Ceiba and Guayacan. Ceiba is the national tree of Guatemala, and Guayacan is a tree common in Estanzuela which looks like a giant-size Japanese bonsai tree and lives to be around 80 years old. 

Tomorrow, I am planning to resume work on the project, and finish assembling the metal parts of the UNS and make a table for the UV scanner as well.  I will run some more tests with peanuts in the UV scanner, and as a few people suggested I will get some better pictures of the UV light in action.  Yesterday, I bought a cooler to keep all of the peanut samples that I collect this next week, so that I can refrigerate them to prevent the growth of Aspergillus Flavus before the samples are analyzed in the lab in Guatemala City.  That’s all for tonight, and I’ll be in touch soon.  

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Estanzuela Tour

This morning, I travelled with Luis to the small farms near Estanzuela.  He gave me a tour of his small cattle farm, which had about 40 steers.  He owns another larger cattle farm with his brother, with around 800 steers.  The technology on the cattle farm was very rustic, because there was no electricity and the farmers working there used an old-fashioned rope-pulley well to get water.  Luis already has one solar panel in place for lighting, and is considering getting more, potentially through The Full Belly Project.  The fields themselves are very nice, and the cattle graze on Monbasa, which is a large green plant from India that thrives in the Guatemalan climate.  I got to see some of the cattle up close, and I learned about the different cattle personalities (some are friendly and follow you around when you pet them, but most of them are quite timid and jump away or charge if you touch them). 

Luis petting one of the friendly cows
Right around Luis’ cattle farm, we stopped by some of the other farms in the area, where we saw fields with mango trees, corn, okra, and cantaloupe as well.  The corn fields were brand new from 4 months ago, when the city made a deal with the international mango companies to use their fields during the off-season from March to July, when the land normally sits idle.  For irrigation, most of the farms near Estanzuela utilized a small canal around the perimeter of their land, which they dammed up periodically to flood their fields with water.  Although I saw a large diversity of crops being planted, there were no active peanut fields, so any peanut plantations that we start in Estanzuela will be built almost from scratch.

After we saw the farms, Luis showed me some more parts of the town Estanzuela.  In particular, the cemetery was very interesting because it was full of colorful houses for each family, and it had a bright and cheery atmosphere.  When we were driving around the town, I took a short video while riding on the back of Luis’ motorcycle.  A lot of parts of the video are very shaky because the ride was a bit bumpy, but hopefully it can give you the general idea for what the town is like. 

Town of Chiquimula
For lunch, I went out with Luis and his family to a mall near Chiquimula, which is a large city about 1 hour away from Estanzuela.  The mall was very modern with McDonald’s, high-end stores, and a large pool with inflatable bubbles for kids to play in (I took a picture of Ariana playing in one of the bubbles for you to see what I mean).  After lunch, we drove through the town of Chiquimula, which was bustling with activity, and now I am back in Estanzuela resting a bit before dinner. 

I will probably go out again with Luis tonight, and tomorrow he told me that we might go to a river near Estanzuela with ice-cold mountain water.  Talk to you soon, goodbye from Estanzuela.