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.  

Friday, June 22, 2012

Building the UNS

Last night, Luis picked me up from my hotel in Zacapa, and brought me to his house in Estanzuela.  I met his wife Aura and two daughters Diana and Ariana who are 8 and 11 years old.  The entire family speaks English very well, and they have been extremely hospitable hosts, generously offering me food, medicine, transportation, and anything else that I am going to need for the project the next few days.  Their house is extremely nice with internet and a phone that can call unlimited minutes to the US, and probably has more advanced technology than my home in Wilmington, NC.  Also, their house is only a block away from the town center of Estanzuela where I have been working with Carlos and Robert the past few days, so everything is incredibly convenient.  Right now, I am super grateful to Luis and his family for all of their support, because they are really doing their best to make my stay in Estanzuela as nice as possible.

Pouring concrete mixture into UNS molds
Today, we got the metal parts for the UNS back from the welder shop in Estanzuela, where they had replicated them to build machines in the future.  I stayed in the town center of Estanzuela assembling the mold for the peanut sheller with Juan and Junior, who are going to be helping me out with the aflatoxin tests and experiments for the next week that I am here.  Since we completed the mold after lunch, we brought it home to Luis' house so that we would have time to work on it later.  At the house, Danilo, who is one of Luis' employees, helped me pour the concrete mixture                   into the molds, and we let them harden for about 6 hours.

After we finished pouring the concrete, I went with Danilo to see some of the farms surrounding Estanzuela, where there are a lot of mango trees and cattle-raising.  We also got to see an exotic bird farm which was really cool, and I posted some pictures that you can see.  Overall, the countryside surrounding Estanzuela is really picturesque with an amazing view of the mountains in every direction, and it feels like a great atmosphere to live in.

Ostriches on Estanzuela farm 
When I got back to Luis' house, he took me out to a pork roast  with some of his friends, where there were about 8 guys hanging out drinking beers and cooking pork over an open fire, which is something they do every week.  I tried some spicy pork and tortillas which was excellent, and also some butter-filled grilled onions which were quite tasty as well.  Even though I couldn't understand all of the Spanish conversation the entire time, they made an effort to let me know what was going on so I felt welcome.  The atmosphere was really laid back and people were making jokes all the time, so it was a fun experience.

We left around 8 pm to come back to Luis' house to check on the UNS mold after 6 hours.  It had not hardened enough yet, so we waited until about 7 hours and then roughed up the concrete sides with a wire brush.  It is currently soaking overnight on Luis' back porch, and it will probably be strong enough for testing by next Monday afternoon.  

Tomorrow, I am planning to go with Luis to visit his farm, and maybe advise him about some solar technology that he might be interested in.  Since most places close for the weekend, I will probably not be able to do much aflatoxin testing before Monday, and then I will resume our experiments with the UNS and UV scanner.  

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Peanut Presentation

Today was the final day with Carlos and Robert in Zacapa, and this afternoon they drove back to the Mani+ headquarters in Guatemala City.  This morning before they left, we prepared a powerpoint presentation in Spanish for Carlos to give to the major farmers and government officials in Estanzuela.  The presentation included detailed descriptions of the different types of technology used for peanut production, as well as crop yields and ways to increase efficiency.  I recorded the 30 minute presentation with my camera, but I will probably not be able to upload the large file to YouTube for a little while until I get better internet access.  However, I posted a few pictures from the meeting on the blog, and will try to upload the powerpoint presentation as well if that is possible. 

Estanzuela farmers listening to peanut presentation
As an interesting side note, before the presentation Carlos, Robert, and I visited the local paleontology museum in Estanzuela, where we saw some cool fossils and Mayan artifacts from the region.  I took a few pictures that you can also see on this blog.

Now that Robert and Carlos have left, I am going to be on my own for about a week in Zacapa working on this project.  I will be staying with Luis, who is a government official of Estanzuela and lives right in the middle of the city.  He has a son in the US, and he speaks English very well, so I think that I will be in a good position with plenty of support to continue the project for the next week.  Because of logistical issues, Carlos is planning to pick me up a few days early next Thursday June 8, and then I will stay in Guatemala City for a few days until my flight home on July 1. 

For tomorrow and next week, I plan to continue to talk and interact with local peanut farmers to determine what their main concerns are, and also to run more aflatoxin tests with the UV scanner and UNS.  I will probably visit the peanut farms in Chiquimula again next Monday and Wednesday, and then stay in Estanzuela to do testing and other experiments for the rest of the time.  Adiós for now, I’ll talk to you later. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Initial Aflatoxin Testing

Today Carlos, Robert, and I stayed in the town of Estanzuela, where we finished assembling the UV scanner and started some of our initial tests for aflatoxins.  Overall, assembling the UV scanner box was very straight-forward, and all of the UV lights and electrical wiring worked as expected.  Afterwards, we tried shining the UV light over some of our peanut samples that we collected yesterday from Chiquimula, with some striking results.  I posted a video of our test, and you can see an unshelled peanut which is infected with Aspergillus Flavus fluorescing under the UV light, and the fungus looks like a large clump of vegetation with white speckles on the peanut shell.  

Alcohol used for initial testing - incorrect solvent
Once the UV scanner was built, we tried to test the peanuts from Chiquimula with the AflaCheck test for aflatoxins +/- 20 ppb, but we were unsuccessful.  All of our tests gave us false negative results because we used the incorrect solvent for the tests.  The only alcohol available in Estanzuela was 70% Sucrose Octa-acetate, but the AflaCheck test requires 70% methanol solution, and we would need to travel back to Guatemala City to get some.  Since AflaCheck is only a qualitative test to see if a sample is above/below 20 ppb, this data is not essential for our experiment, so we will probably skip this test altogether for now, and save it for future experiments on aflatoxins.  

To get data for this experiment, we will rely upon the laboratory tests in the University of Guatemala, which is an exact quantitative test to determine the aflatoxin level in ppb.  This afternoon, we collected our first 5 peanut samples to be analyzed for aflatoxins in the lab, with our 50 lbs bag from Chiquimula as the initial supply.  Using the UV scanner setup with both the small array and large bulbs, we prepared 5 samples to be analyzed in the lab:  a control, small light array – good peanuts, small light array – contaminated nuts, large bulb – good peanuts, and large bulb – contaminated nuts.

Since Robert and Carlos are travelling back to Guatemala City either tomorrow or the next day, at that time they will take the peanut samples with them and get the initial laboratory tests done for us. 
Tomorrow, we are going to prepare a short presentation for the Mayor of Estanzuela and the major farmers in the region, to talk about the benefits of growing peanuts as a crop.  We plan to introduce some ideas for ways that they can improve their process, both to increase the quality standards and make the process more efficient.  Also, tomorrow I am planning to work out some more logistics for my transportation/lodging needs if I stay longer by myself in Zacapa or Estanzuela.  Overall, the past few days have been very productive with the help of Robert and Carlos, and I hope to maintain that momentum for the experiment after they depart. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Starting out in Guatemala

(I wasn’t able to find internet my first night in Zacapa, so here are my blog posts for the past two days)

June 18 - Hola from Guatemala!  Yesterday morning I arrived in Guatemala City, and all my luggage was cleared through Customs without incident.  Sasha from Mani+ picked me up from the airport and dropped me off at my hotel located in “la Zona Viva”, which is the cultural/entertainment center of Guatemala City.  Even though it was Sunday night, the night life was very active and I was able to explore several bars/discotecas within a few blocks of my hotel. 
This morning, I was picked up from my hotel by Carlos Giron, who is my main contact within the Mani+ organization, along with Robert Tauscher, a rising Senior at Vanderbilt University who is volunteering for the Mani+ organization this summer.  I will be travelling with them for most of my trip in Guatemala, and we are working together to set up contacts with local peanut farmers in Zacapa, to teach them both aflatoxin-reduction techniques and also ways to increase the yield of peanut crops in general.  Because Carlos’ father is from Zacapa, he knows the area very well, and he travelled with us on our trip from Guatemala City to Zacapa, about a 4 hour car ride.

On the way to Zacapa, we stopped by first in a nearby small town called Estanzuela.   There, we had a meeting with the mayor, Julio Giron, who is a semi-close relative of Carlos and his family.  Although the mayor was friendly, he was not entirely receptive to our project because he doubted the economic feasibility of growing peanuts as a cash crop.  While Zacapa has traditionally been a large peanut producing region, in recent years the majority of farmers have been growing watermelons and cantaloupe instead because these crops tend to be more profitable.  However, the main concern that the mayor raised was the high cost of peanut shelling, which we believe can probably be solved by the introduction of a UNS.  The next few days, we will be travelling to both large and small peanut farms around Zacapa, and from talking with farmers directly we hope to get a better sense of the current situation and the main costs/problems that they are facing to grow peanuts. 

June 19 - Hello again, tonight is my second night staying in Zacapa, and I am borrowing Carlos’ Tigo device to connect to the internet here.  The conditions at the hotel here are fairly rustic; there is no hot water sink/shower, and Carlos’ window has a large bullet hole in the middle.  However, it is a convenient location to visit peanut farms all around the region, and we're only about 15 minutes away from Estanzuela, which is going to be the base town for most of the Mani+ operations in the Zacapa region.  

Today Robert, Carlos, his father, and I visited a 3 acre peanut farm in Chiquimula, which was approximately 1 hour south of Zacapa.  We traveled with two farmer representatives from Estanzuela, Juan and Amilcar, who are interested in introducing the peanut crop to new farms in their region, and they wanted to see an example of what Guatemalan peanut farmers are doing now.  In Chiquimula, we saw the entire line of peanut production, from growing the plants in the fields, to storage in a warehouse, to shelling and roasting.   

Mountain View from Chiquimula
From our visit, we found that all steps of the process used very low-level technology, with very conservative practices overall.  The farmer was not adding any fertilizer/pesticides/herbicides to his crop, and he did not use irrigation either because he believed that was unnecessary.  Since the farmer was satisfied with his current yield, he told us that he wasn’t interested in changing his growing practices unless there was a specific market demand for that.  

Afterwards, we visited the peanut storage site in Chiquimula, which was essentially a wide open concrete house with a few piles of peanut storage bags stacked in the corners.  Overall, we were happy with the setup of the storage facility, which was breezy and had a few electric fans for ventilation, and also a roof and concrete barrier to prevent rain from getting into the peanut bags.  The main storage practices that worried us was that peanuts were kept on the ground of the facility before shelling, which exposed them to various bacteria and fungi, and also the type of storage bag that was being used.  In the Chiquimula storage site, they had plastic threaded bags which tend to trap moisture, contributing to fungi growth and increasing the likelihood of aflatoxin contamination.  We purchased a 50 lb bag of unshelled peanuts from the warehouse to test for aflatoxin, and we also plan to run some tests with the UNS and UV scanner after we set those up in the next few days.

Plastic-threaded peanut storage bags in Chiquimula
The last part of the process that we saw in Chiquimula was the shelling and roasting steps.  The storage facility had three motorized peanut shellers in the same building, and the shelled peanuts were brought to a different concrete house for roasting and salting.  In the second house, the peanuts are first spread out on a large plastic mat, and a woman goes through the nuts one basket at a time, picking off the inner red skin.  In addition to the pictures I took of Chiquimula, I also recorded a short video of the woman handling the shelled peanuts, who ran her hands constantly through the pile of peanuts like the hand-shelling style common in Africa.  After the red skin of the peanuts is removed, they are roasted in a wood stove and then salted, all in the same concrete house. 

Overall, all of us were surprised to learn how condensed the entire peanut production process is in Chiquimula, and that many of the important steps of the process are located in the same place.  Tomorrow, we are going to visit some small farmers nearby Estanzuela, and talk to them about setting up a peanut production process similar to Chiquimula, but with many improvements.  We are also going to test the 50 lb sample bag of peanuts for aflatoxins using the UV scanner and AflaCheck test, and also prepare some initial aflatoxin test samples that we will send back to the lab in Guatemala City to determine the exact ppb concentration that we are starting from.  Good night for now, and I'll be in touch soon. 

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Final Day in Wilmington

Hello again!  This morning I went to the Full Belly workshop to pick up the boxes that I am going to be bringing with me to Guatemala.  I took some pictures and video that I posted on a different page of this blog.  I also included a short video demonstration of the first prototype of the Peanut Aflatoxin UV Scanner box in action, so you can see how that works. 

Also, today I picked up a two packs of 50 medical-grade surgical gloves and one pack of 50 surgical masks.  They were approximately $30 total from a local pharmacy in town, and will supplement the free samples that I already obtained from our county hospital.  During all of the experiments, we will use gloves while handling the peanuts, both for protection against harmful aflatoxins and to avoid cross-contamination between peanut samples.  We are using the masks during shelling, and afterwards will test them for aflatoxins, to double-check that the UNS does not expose the person operating the machine to harmful fumes containing aflatoxins. 

I going to sleep early tonight because my flight leaves at 7:10 am tomorrow morning, and I have to be there 2 hours early for the custom built checked-in baggage (two halves of the Peanut Aflatoxin UV Scanner box.  Tomorrow, after I arrive in Guatemala, I am meeting up with Sasha deBeausset, who is part of the Mani+ organization and will be my first contact in Guatemala.  She is planning to pick me up at the airport when my plane lands around 12 noon, and transport me and all of the Full Belly luggage to a hotel in Guatemala City where I'm staying the first night. 

Bye for now, the next time I post it will be from Guatemala.  Talk to you then!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Getting ready for Guatemala

Hi everyone!  This is the first post of my travel blog, which I am starting for my trip for The Full Belly Project to test aflatoxins in Zacapa, Guatemala.  I am leaving in two days on Sunday morning, so right now all of my travel plans are finalized and I am packing everything up to go soon.  I have been preparing for this trip for the past 4 weeks in Wilmington, NC, doing research on aflatoxins and building a UV aflatoxin scanner box to bring to Guatemala.  I posted some background information on another page linked above, where I explained some of the my previous experiences working with The Full Belly Project and also included a short bio.  I will continue to update this blog with more pages/information about our aflatoxin research and our work with Vanderbilt University as I get the opportunity. 

Tomorrow, I am going into the workshop on Saturday morning to take some pictures/video of the current equipment that I am bringing on the plane, which includes the two halves (top/bottom) of the UV aflatoxin scanner, and a cardboard box for the Universal Nut Sheller (UNS) assembly.  Also, I want to give some video credit to The Full Belly Project volunteers who have been doing the woodworking to build the aflatoxin scanner box.  This has been especially important because we needed to build the box to be sturdy/light/compact enough to pass all of the IAATA and Delta requirements for international checked baggage to fly on the airplane. 

In other news, today I received the VICAM AflaCheck test in the mail, which includes 25 +/- tests for concentrations of aflatoxin above/below 20 ppb.  I packed the test kit in the top half of the UV aflatoxin scanner box, and I will be able to use it in the village to have some immediate feedback whether or not our aflatoxin-reduction technologies will be effective.  However, to obtain exact quantitative data about the ppb concentrations of aflatoxin, we will send samples to a lab in Guatemala City for HPLC/ELISA testing.

Overall, I am feeling really excited about the trip and seeing rural Guatemala.  I have never been outside of US/Europe/Canada before, so this will be my first experience in a small village working with local farmers.  I took the first dose of my malaria pills today (Malarone), and I have a large supply of pills for traveler's diarrhea just in case.  I'm looking forward to meeting some native Guatemalans, and hopefully I will be able to help a few of them with the Full Belly technology that I'm bringing along. 

Feel free to comment on these posts if you have questions/thoughts/advice for me about my trip; I welcome any feedback that you have.  I will try to keep you all updated for this blog regularly throughout the trip, so anyone following this can track my progress and the results from our experiments as we discover them.  Talk to you soon!