Saturday, November 22, 2014

Positive Peer Pressure

My students are currently working on debates in class, and Annette and I gave them topics which relate to what they're currently studying during their Middle School Issues unit in Life Skills. 

One of the teams was set the task to argue that "Positive peer pressure is more powerful than negative peer pressure."  A lot of them were having trouble with this.  They immediately whined, "How are we going to debate this?  It's not true!  You never see positive peer pressure...only negative."  

Their strong reactions surprised me a little bit.  I could immediately think of times in my own life I'd been influenced by positive peer pressure dating all the way back to high school...but very few times that negative peer pressure has worked on me.  So I've come to this conclusion: it all depends who your friends are. 

When I was in high school, I never touched a drop of alcohol or was tempted to try smoking.  The reason was only partly because I was a "goody goody" with no interest in breaking the rules.  I was also in a group of friends in which doing those things, rather than being "cool," would have probably gotten me shunned from the group.  In our group, you didn't have to rebel to be accepted and loved.  The temptation wasn't there.

I remember the fall of my senior year, during homecoming season when every day on the morning ride to school you'd see a new yard with the trees draped in rolls of toilet paper.  Rather than TPing the house of our favorite teacher, though, MY friends went into my back yard and filmed a short demonstration video entitled "How to toilet paper your own house."  We then dropped off the video (and a few rolls of TP) on the doorstep of our teacher's home.  Breaking the rules wasn't cool.  Being creative and silly and more than a little nerdy was.  

Positive peer pressure has followed me into my adult life, too.  Now, though, it is focused more often on healthy habits: exercise and wellness and eating less chemicals and added sugars.  I can't tell you how many races I've been goaded into signing up for, how many early morning swims I've attended because I know all my friends will be there and will give me a hard time for skipping.  

Just this past weekend, we convinced Michelle to come and run the 10K trail race at the volcano Pacaya, even though she didn’t feel ready for it.  We all knew that she wouldn’t regret the decision.  Beautiful views along the running route, good friends to share the experience with, no pressure to win or even "do well," and a morning of exercise?  What did she have to lose?  I think she’d agree she didn’t regret her decision to come with us. 

And then on Sunday, I was the one on the tail end of positive peer pressure.  I had told my friends a week ago that I was challenging myself to go seven days without eating added sugars.  So on Sunday, Chris asked me how the week had gone.  I told him I hadn’t made it (My excuses: One day dessert was served with my meal, and one day a co-worker brought me a piece of our principals’ birthday ice cream cake and what should I have done?  Treat the kid who was sitting detention in my room to it? LET IT MELT?!?!).  And then they let into a comical shaming so strong that while I was dying of laughter at the time, I may actually go back and complete the 7 day challenge before Christmas this year. 

Positive peer pressure is all around us, if we’re surrounded by the right people.  We convince each other we can do things we never dreamed of.  We look out for each other, encourage one another to make healthy choices.  We support each other. 
I just wish my middle school students were surrounded by such positive energy (or realized it) in their young lives.  

Our group of 10K runners at Pacaya

Monday, November 10, 2014

How to Mine Silver

One of my best friends here in Guatemala, Chris, works as a project manager at a silver mine.  For the last year we’ve known him, he has wanted to take us out to the mine so we can see the “other half” of his life.  He finally made it happen (for the first 3 of our friends at least) on Saturday.

As we got closer to the village where Chris lives 5 days of the week, he asked us to lock our doors.  A lot of the locals are in opposition to the mine, for many reasons.  From what Chris told us yesterday, a lot of their unrest is based upon ignorance.  They are scared of pollution and contamination from the mining chemicals.  What many of them probably don’t know is that Chris’s mine is one of maybe only 5 in the world that uses a new filtration system which enables them to use water on something of a “closed circuit”—meaning that there is no contaminated water being discharged into local streams.  Some of the locals are also against a US company coming in and making so much money on their resources.  Yet Chris explained the other side of that too; his company employs almost 1,000 Guatemalans, and more importantly, they train those local workers for high level positions so they gain the expertise to undertake projects like this efficiently and safely.  Furthermore, the company pays Guatemalan taxes and the local communities receive royalties from the silver mined.  The company is also actively re-foresting over-farmed patches of hillside and working to plant coffee (and a portion of those profits go back to local communities).  At the mine, they give free tours to local community members and explain these things and more, and with new knowledge, they gain more support.

Nevertheless.  There’s still a lot of resentment.  We passed multiple anti-mine signs, and Chris regaled us with stories of riots and close calls from his first year of working in the village.  (My pictures of the signs are blurry because I took them on the way home, as the sun was starting to go down, so lighting wasn't right through the moving car windows).  

"More than 98% say no to the chemical mining of metals.
Welcome Pacific towns in resistance."

"Water and life are worth more than silver and gold."

Aside from a kid throwing his orange peel at our truck, though, we didn’t have any trouble.

We arrived at the mine, and Chris showed us to his office where we suited up (in rubber boots, a belt containing a self-rescuer in case of fire and a battery for our head lamps, a hardhat, head lamp, reflective vests, and safety glasses) and listened to a safety talk before going underground.      

Helping each other get ready...those belts are tricky.

Ready to go underground! 
I’m not sure what I pictured the mining process to be.  I had a vague notion that I would not find men with pick axes chipping the shiny stuff out of the walls.  But beyond that?  I hadn’t even tried to imagine how it would be done.  So at the end of the day when Chris asked us what we’d learned, I kept wishing “everything” was an appropriate answer. 

Chris started by showing us maps of the mine—first 2D views of the mine both horizontally and looking down vertically, and then a 3D version on his computer, complete with projections of development in the next 5 years. 

2D maps of the mine

The mine is designed with long main ramps that slope down, and coming off them are little fingers of earth called stopes.  So in order to mine the silver, they dig a tunnel at the top and bottom of the stope, then drill small holes from the top (60ft deep) in which they put explosives.  They blow up the entire stope, reducing it to a pile of loose rock within the mountain.  Then a truck goes in at the bottom tunnel of the stope and loads up the loose rock, taking it to the surface to be processed.

One of the drills used to drill the bore holes for explosives.

Chris highlighting one of the holes for
the explosives.  

A stope that has already been blown.
(Couldn't get any closer than this to gaze over the gaping hole)

Hauled out of the mine on huge trucks.  Those tires are taller than me.

The rock then goes through a mill which reduces it from gravel-sized to a fine, baby powder consistency. 
(The mill is a giant rotating tube with heavy metal balls in it.  The tube rotates at the perfect speed so that the balls ride halfway up, then drop from the top, crushing the rock below them…over and over and over again). 

From there, the fine powder is mixed with chemicals and water.  The chemicals make the metals stick to air bubbles.  So the most concentrated silver floats immediately, and the bubbles are skimmed off the top of the water.  They then travel through several vats and immediately into the concentrate room. 

 (Couldn't get a great picture of that, sorry.  The vat
 was through a grate right below my feet.)

For the stuff that doesn’t immediately float, a bit more chemicals are mixed in, and that makes the lead (and the silver sticking to the lead) float, and then that is skimmed off and goes to concentrate. 

Skimming off the lead bubbles
If it doesn’t float there, chemicals are added which neutralize the old chemicals and make the zinc (and the silver sticking to it) float, and the same process is followed.

Now skimming off the zinc bubbles!
Then, the concentrate goes through a special filter which more or less squeezes out all of the water (like wringing out a wash cloth), and then drops the dry powder, ready to be shipped. 

The filter
It is then loaded onto a conveyor belt and deposited into 1 or 2 ton bags.  Those bags are loaded onto containers, which then travel by truck to the port where they will be shipped all over the world to be smelted into usable silver. 

Loading onto the conveyor belt

Filling a 1 ton bag

1 ton bags already loaded onto a container, ready to ship

Going back a step, the sediment that didn’t make it to the concentrate room—“the stuff that didn’t float”—goes to a separate, bigger, filter, which also squeezes all of the water (and with it the chemical reagents, which then get neutralized or recycled with the filtered water back into the plant) out of it.  What is left feels like clay, and is essentially just dirt—containing no chemicals and no silver.  

Larger filter.  In the process of opening (water has been
squeezed out) and dropping a sheet of pressed dirt.

Sediment coming out on the conveyor belt.

"No chemicals...and no SILVER!"

It is transported via conveyor belt either to be deposited back onto the hillside where it will be compressed, covered with topsoil, and re-vegetated, or to be made into concrete to fill in the empty stopes in the mine (so they’re not left with a hollow hillside ready to collapse).

Conveyor belts heading towards the hillside

Conveyor belts taking the sediment
to make concrete.

It’s all a really cool process, and it was an intensely interesting day.  It was also fun to drive around the mine with Chris pointing out, “That was my project.  I designed that.  I contracted that building.  I did all the calculations to make that work.  None of these buildings were here when I got here.”  Definitely an experience I never dreamed of, but one I’m very glad I had!

Up on the hill looking down at the whole mining operation.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Kite Festival Take 2

I went to the Festival de Bariletes Gigantes in Sumpango, Guatemala last year for Dia de Todos Santos, and I was impressed.  It was a good day. 

But when Chris, Michelle, and I went today, it was one of those rare wonderful days that combined good friends, adventure, culture, spontaneity, new experiences, and laughter. 

Michelle started the day off on the right foot by bringing breakfast burritos along for us to enjoy on the drive.  Chris set the tone with good music in the truck.  Even the fact that we spent probably half an hour stuck in traffic waiting to turn off the highway into Sumpango couldn’t get us down.  When we got close to the turn-off, Chris rolled down his window and shouted to the gent' manning the parking lot across the street to find out if there was a spot.  “Una!” came the response.  “Para MI?!” Chris entoned enthusiastically.  When the guy nodded “sure,” Chris popped the truck into 4 wheel drive, checked that there was no traffic coming in the opposite lane, and hopped the median to get us into the parking lot. 

So much traffic...
From there, we walked leisurely in the direction the crowd was flowing, and eventually found ourselves in the cemetery where Guatemalans had come out to decorate the graves of their deceased in flowers and pine needles.  A random stranger saw us stopping to marvel at all the colors and commented that he’d been up walking among the hills and had gotten amazing photographs and stories by stopping to speak with people up there, so we took his recommendation and trudged up the hill.  We watched family members pour Coca Cola over one mounded grave, peered over the shoulder of another group arranging rose petals and marigolds in a pattern, and stopped to speak with another who asked if perhaps Michelle and I could be his nieces.  Chris played that up and got a picture of Michelle with her “uncles” and the family grave. 

Michelle's new family?  ;) 

As we wandered back towards the main road, we ran into a colleague who was showing around the professor of the masters class I’m currently taking.  We walked with them a while, but as we joined the throng moving towards the area of the giant kites, they were swept away.  (We met up with them again near the kites, along with many other people from the school). 

So many people! 

The kites were impressive as always, and as we stood watching them, the clouds even parted, revealing blue sky and bright sunshine.  We watched  a few of the smaller ones fly, snapped our photos, and then made our way back toward the truck. 

On the way, we stopped at a shop selling machetes in hand-crafted leather sheaths, and Chris bought several on a whim.  Shortly after, we got our first cat call from someone in a passing truck, and Chris and Michelle began postulating whether the whistle had been for him or us girls.  I piped up that it was probably the machetes that did it, and this was generally regarded as the obvious answer.

To come home, we decided to take a back route and see a part of the country we hadn’t experienced before and have a little adventure.  I love my friends, because they’re the type of people who pull over to the side of the road just to snap a photo of the way the sun hits that cornfield, or to try and capture all the shades of green on that particular hillside in a photograph. 

See?  Not kidding about stopping to take photos.

We took a detour to follow a sign pointing to “Laguna Seca” (dry lake), but it turned out to be just the name of a village.  However, on the way there, we took a wrong turn and ended up buying ice cream from a man walking down the road carrying a cooler and ringing a bell (in the middle of nowhere, on a road about to dead-end).  So it was that our directions to Laguna Seca, were we to ever give them to anyone else, became “you take a left, buy ice cream and make a u-turn, take another left, and drive up the hill.” 

Best ice cream sandwich ever?  Wafery goodness.

After that, the trip home was pretty uneventful.  We made it back to the city by mid-afternoon under clear skies and light traffic.  I couldn’t have asked for a better experience.