Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Whirlwind Tour of Soup Kitchens

I went for a long ride around various parts of Lima with Anita and Sylvia, two members of the religious group that is trying to establish soup kitchens, to see what opportunities there might be to help them save on fuel. We only spent a few minutes at each one, taking pictures and measurements. They were using lots of different fuels -- gas, when they could afford it, kerosene, wood, and even sawdust. They prefer gas because it´s somewhat cheaper than kerosene and a lot cleaner burning, but since one can only buy a tankful at a time (at a cost of about $10), when they´re short on cash (almost always) they have to settle for kerosene, which they buy a liter a time for less than a dollar.

Kerosene is burned in Primus stoves that look sort of like Coleman camping stoves, with a little pressurized tank and a manual pump. (See photo.) In some kitchens they prefer to use wood, but the neighbors always complain about the smoke. To burn sawdust they use a large empty cooking oil can that has a small door cut in one side. They place a large round stick upright in the middle of the container and pack sawdust all around it. Then they remove the log and remove the sawdust between the door and the hollow center, and start a fire in the middle. The door allows air to enter for combustion. Unfortunately the sawdust holds its shape well only if it is slightly wet, and that makes it burn much less efficiently, creating lots of smoke.

During the next few days I´ll develop a strategy for each kitchen (pot skirts, retained heat cookers, high efficiency wood stoves) and start teaching the people how to make and use the devices. The plan is that they will pay for the materials from their fuel savings.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

A Darwinian Explanation of Bad Driving in Lima

As I was talking to the taxi driver recently on my trip across the border from Ecuador to Peru, it occurred to me that there´s a very simple explanation for the fact that drivers in Lima are among the worst in the world. If you haven´t been to Lima, it´s pretty easy to understand what it´s like. Just imagine that everyone who drives a car here is participating in a game where the object is to get to your destination in the minimum possible time, and there only three rules: (1) Your vehicle cannot make contact with another vehicle except for incidental bumping of mirrors that may occur when you try to squeeze between two lanes of traffic, (2) If there is a policewoman (virtually all of the traffic police are women) physically present at an intersection, you have to stop when the stoplight turns red, and (3) You can´t drive on sidewalks when pedestrians are present.

My revelation occurred when the taxi driver, who seemed like a very normal driver, told me that he had lived in Lima for nine years before moving to the northern extreme of the country. He said that he hated driving a taxi in Lima because there was so much competition. So in order to make a decent living in Lima, a taxi driver has to really hustle. (There are no meters in taxis, so income is strictly related to distance traveled, not time of travel.) He has virtually no control over the price of his service, since he´ll have no customers if he charges more than others. And he has a limited amount of time to earn his daily wage. Darwin would probably look at this situation and say, ¨Of course they drive that way. It´s the only way they can survive.¨

A Public Mail System In Need of a Public

Peru´s national mail system, SERPOST, is probably the most underutilized public service in the country. Hardly anyone trusts in its ability to deliver the mail. So the major utilities, for example, don´t use it to distribute their bills. They prefer to hire a private courier service or maintain their own staff of delivery people. Their customers generally don´t have bank accounts (partly because they don´t trust banks any more than they trust the postal service) and they certainly don´t trust postal employees to handle mail containing money. So they don´t use SERPOST to make utility payments, either. They prefer to ride a bus for half an hour to the nearest office of the utility and wait in line for an hour or more.

Consequently the volume of the service is so low that they have to charge very high prices for postage to cover their fixed costs (about $2 to mail a simple letter to the U.S. or $25 to send a two pound package -- both rates about double the rate for U.S. postage to Peru). And because they can only afford to place a couple of employees at each of their offices, many of the less frequently used services are offered in only a few locations. For example, if you want to purchase a $20 money order, you can go to any bank branch and pay a $10 commission to obtain one, while you can get one for just a $3 fee at SERPOST -- but only if you´re willing to go to their branch in Miraflores, about forty minutes from where I live.

As if to confirm the near invisibility of the postal service in Peru, the SERPOST office in Chorrillos doesn´t even have a sign anywhere identifying it as a post office. There is, however, one very positive aspect of this otherwise seemingly hopeless situation: nobody receives junk mail!

I Join a Doomsday Religious Sect

The Evangelical Association of the Israelite Mission of the New Universal Pact is a fundamentalist, Old Testament based Christian group that was founded in Peru forty years ago and preserves some of the most ancient of pre-Christian traditions. Every Saturday at their central temple in Cieneguilla, about two and a half hours from where I live, they hold a service at their central temple where the main event is the ¨holocaust¨: they slaughter a lamb and burn it along with other offerings on a large wooden pyre built of seven layers of seven logs each. (Sorry, I don´t have any pictures to show you other than the entrance to the temple because they wouldn´t allow me to take any photos inside.) The temple grounds has separate entrances for men and women, and in the temple itself the men sit on the right side of the main aisle and the women on the left. There are no statues or images other than a replica of the ten commandments. They believe that Machu Picchu is the ¨navel of the world¨ referenced by the Bible in Ezequiel 38:12, and that their founder (who was born in Cusco and died in 2000) was a messiah who was sent by God to bring people back to the correct path. Following the prescriptions of the Old Testament, they don´t consume anything that is made from grapes, the men don´t cut their hair or beards, and the women wear a veil over their hair.

You may have heard of this group about eight years ago, when the end of the millenium was approaching. They were the ones who built a copy of Noah´s ark in the Amazon region to save some animal species and a few of their own members from the terrible deluge that would finish off the earth before the end of the year 2000.

I´m not sure how the group survived that disappointment, but they impress me as a group of people who are extremely dedicated to doing something about poverty, and not by looking for solutions from the outside. In fact, when I first sat down to talk with a couple of members about how I might be able to help them economize on fuel usage in the soup kitchens that their members run, the very first thing they told me was that if I wanted to work as a volunteer and share my knowledge, that was fine, but they were not interested in working with either government or non-government aid organizations. They feel that financial and material aid contributes to the culture of dependency, and the process of distribution of the aid is a strong temptation to corruption. And I think they´re exactly right on both counts.

OK, so I didn´t actually become a member. I´ve only joined their effort to help create self-sustaining comedores to provide an inexpensive daily meal in the hundreds of communities where their members live. One of my neighbors, Anita, is a member of the group. I´ve known her for a couple of years because she and her kids run the internet cafe on my street, but I had never known anything about her group until another of my neighbors recently told me that she was involved in working with these comedores. These groups are ideal candidates for the kinds of energy-saving technologies that I teach, because they cook such large quantities of food and a significant percentage of their operating budget goes to purchase fuel. And they use almost every kind of fuel available -- propane, kerosene, wood, charcoal, sawdust, maybe others -- so it will be an interesting challenge to adapt these technologies to all of the different fuels.

Saturday, August 18, 2007


I´m sure that by now everyone knows we had a pretty big earthquake here (7.0 on the Richter scale) on Wednesday, centered about a hundred miles southwest of Lima. Our power was out until yesterday, so I haven´t had any internet access. Lima was terrified and shaken but escaped with very little damage. The surprising thing was the duration of the quake -- almost two minutes. One report I heard on the radio said that there were actually quakes in two different places almost simultaneously. These pictures are from a Lima newspaper.

The major damage occurred in the province of Ica. A couple of churches were severely damaged (one during a mass, which resulted in a lot of deaths). Thousands of houses were damaged or destroyed. A tsunami warning was issued and was later canceled, but lots of fishing boats were driven ashore into buildings by high waves, so I assume there was at least a small tsunami.

We like to think that in times of disaster people come together and show their solidarity, but in this case an awful lot of people have been shamelessly taking advantage of the situation. Certainly there has been an outpouring of aid from people in other areas of the country and from other countries. But local residents have sacked stores whose walls were damaged by the quake; gangs of delinquents have roamed the affected areas at night stealing whatever they want from the damaged houses; bandits have robbed trucks carrying relief supplies at gunpoint as they edged slowly along the damaged roads; bus companies have doubled their fares from Lima to Ica.

The government has announced a program to compensate the victims, paying several thousand dollars to each family to help them rebuild. But that program will undoubtedly be abused too. My friend Walter, a psychologist who has worked in relief efforts for other quakes, says that he has often seen people whose houses were unaffected by the quake personally destroying their own houses so that the government would pay for a new one.