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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Health Insurance

       I've been in a six-month battle. At times it has been hard fought. At other times I don't realize it is going on. What I'm talking about is health insurance. Growing up I knew having health insurance was important. I knew that it was something my parents took care of, but like any kid, I had no idea what it was, how to get it, or how much it cost. I think I naively assumed it was something everyone had, but I also never understood how it fundamentally worked. Abstractly I knew that it helped pay the costs for medical care. Terms like co-pay, deductibles, and network coverage meant very little to me at that age. I  was pretty lucky growing up. I never broke a bone, never needed serious medical attention for anything, and other than being a little pudgy with a mouthful of hardware, I was a pretty healthy kid. Part of me thinks that luck played a major role in my lack of emergency medical care. Looking back at it now I sort of feel like it was building up to something dramatic. Sure enough that moment came when I turned 18 and I tore my ACL playing basketball.
       The injury was pretty text book in that I fell at an awkward angle jumping up to steal a pass and twisted me knee in a way it was not supposed to twist. After getting an MRI a few days after the swelling went down, I was told that I would need to have surgery. From my perspective, the operation and subsequent 6-months of therapy were all taken care of by my parents through the insurance we had. Little did I know that getting approval for the operation was more of a battle for my mother then I realized at the time. I never thought it would be complicated to make sure the insurance company would pay for the procedure? I didn't realize that we had to contribute a portion just to be eligible to have the rest paid for. Being 18, I didn't think about how complicated health insurance claims could be because my family took care of everything, and told me to focus on rehabilitation so I could head off to college in the fall.
       Three years later as I was applying for the Peace Corps I was told that I'd need to have my wisdom teeth pulled. This time we had to pay a higher percentage of the bill to do the procedure because the operation was technically "elective." When I graduated from college I was placed in the Peace Corps insurance system, which pays for everything from major operations to bug spray without asking second questions. As I was wrapping up my service, however, I started to think more and more about my personal need to get my own insurance plan for when my service was completed. The Affordable Health Care Act had been passed, and the timeline to enroll in the marketplace coincided with when I was completing my service. I was aware that Peace Corps offered volunteers a an relatively expensive but extensive insurance policy for up to 18 months after service. With the passing of the Affordable Health Care Act, however, that policy had been cut to only cover a maximum of four months. After hearing that news I started looking into my health care options through the healthcare.gov website at the end of October 2013.
       When I was in Paraguay, I did read about current events in the states, but when I started hearing about the problems with the healthcare rollout I didn't really understanding what was happening. I was in the middle of winding down my service and was focused on planning a trip for after I was finished. I never thought that this modern looking website wouldn't work. The thought never even crossed my mind. I then came across a blog post that furthered culled my concern about getting health insurance through the Affordable Health Care Act that pertained specifically to RPCVs: (http://mapya.wordpress.com/2013/10/03/why-obamacare-is-fantastic-albeit-confusing-for-peace-corps-volunteers/). The information was very enlightening, and convinced me that I wouldn't have a problem getting covered when I got home. I even applied through the market place while in Paraguay. I found the website to be pretty straightforward, but struggled to answer some of the questions. In particular, I couldn't seem to accurately describe my financial situation as a Peace Corps Volunteer on the website.
       When asked to provide my income I was befuddled. In the Peace Corps we make roughly $3,500 dollars annually that is put aside to given to us at the end of our service, and another roughly $3,500 to live off of annually in country. These numbers are approximations, but basically for 2013 I would make about $7,200 plus about $1,000 from personal investments. That number if adding it all together is about $8,200. According to US Census Bureau the poverty threshold for a single person in America in 2012 was $11,720 (http://www.irp.wisc.edu/faqs/faq1.htm). From a strictly monetary perspective, I lived below the poverty line based on my income. The problem was that I was not in poverty at all. My living situation in Paraguay was comfortable. I had some savings, on top of that I didn't have a credit card bill, wasn't paying off loans, didn't a car back, didn't have car insurance, my health care coverage was free, and I wasn't supporting a family. The questions on the application for Health Care totally bewildered me. I  answered them as best I could, but  couldn't get a response about my eligibility.
     When I left Paraguay at the end of November, I had health insurance through the after Peace Corps health plan. I could could extend the coverage through March 25, 2014. Given my lack of understanding about the problems with the Health Care role out, I figured I would wait it out until I got back to the States. I kept hearing that the system didn't work, and decided not to press my luck at that time.
       When I did eventually arrive back home I reapplied to on healthcare.gov. I was still running across the same problems I had with answering the questions about my income. I knew that the White House was pushing enrollment, especially for young people. Before I continue I think it is important to mention that I am a 25-year old man that currently (knock on wood) has no serious medical conditions. I like to think I live a healthy lifestyle, and I truly wanted to get on a health plan through healthcare.gov. I think I applied in early January after being home for a few weeks. After completing my application I given a generic 11 page pdf that said I "May be eligible for Ohio Medicaid." I kept thinking Medicaid? Isn't that for disabled people? I quickly realized that it was more for low income people, and seeing that my answers to the questions about my income put me into that category. I had no idea what to do? After not hearing anything for a month I called the phone number on healthcare.gov. The people on the phone were very nice. I explained my situation to them, which went to go something like this:

Me: "I recently returned from serving in the Peace Corps, and my income is low as a result of just having returned and being in the process of procuring employment. I plan to find work in the next few months, but I have no idea what that will look like. I can afford a basic health plan, but keep getting told that I should apply for Ohio Medicaid?" What should I do?"

Person on the phone: "Well hmmmmm. As you know there have been a lot of problems with the website. Where did you say you were from?"

Me: "I currently live in Ohio, but that is subject to change"

Person on the phone: "Well I will take down your information and resubmit your application"

Me: "I've already waited a month, and heard nothing? Can you think of another option"

Person on the phone: "You could reapply? What county do you live in?"

Me: "Hamilton County"

Person on the phone: "Lets see where you can go in your area. You could try the Cincinnati Health Department?"

Me: "What are they going to tell me?"

Person on the phone: "Honestly, they would just have more information."

Me: "Can you think of anywhere else I can go?"

Person on the phone: " I actually live in Florida. I'm Sorry I cannot be of more assistance."

Needless to say this information wasn't helpful. I reapplied, and got the same message about applying for Medicaid again before I called the phone number again. This time I got some more information. According to the guy on the phone, none of the roughly 700,000 applications filed from the healthcare.gov website had been submitted to the Ohio Department of Health. I had absolutely no idea what that meant? From the way it sounded nobody in the state could use the website get affordable health care. My situation was an outlier. There was not protocol for me within the system. On top of all that the clock was ticking on my health care options. A huge reason why I wanted my own plan was that I be turning 26 in June. I figured it would be better to get a plan well in advance so I'm not scrambling come June. Now I was hearing that I needed to fill out the exact same application that I had completed four times on the Ohio Department of Health website, which was a much crappier version of the Federal website. The questions were almost exactly the same, but the interface looked like something from the late 1990s. The guy who told me I should do it this way asked me where I lived . I said Cincinnati. He said that the speed of a reply depends on the population of your county. I said, "well Hamilton County is one of the biggest in the state." He said, "yeah it might take a month to hear back."
       I was totally fed up. I couldn't believe that a healthy, young, supporter of the the whole concept of universal health care was unable to figure out how to get a reasonable plan that I could afford without going on Medicaid. I was furious, so I decided to try to get private insurance. That process was more complicated, more expensive, and more limiting based on networks and geographic regions. I had several conversations with private insurers who weren't really helping me out. Eventually desperation came into play. My insurance was running out, and I had to jump onto my mother's plan so I had some kind of coverage come March 25th. In that time I lucked out. I got a job that offered a health plan. I jumped on my mother's insurance for a week before I moved to Washington, and was able to enroll in an employee health plan. Story over? Hell no.
       A week after I started my job I got a phone call from my mom telling me that I got two letters from The Ohio Office of Medicaid informing me that I would receive a Medicaid card in the coming weeks. I never received, an email, a phone call, or any other information before I was enrolled in the program. I  now have to cancel this for obvious reasons. What I've learned since, is that Ohio's government expanded aspects of the Affordable Health Care act for the poor, which is great. It did not embrace all aspects of the law. My State's leadership sort of froze me out, and it honestly really bothers me that I couldn't figure out how I could get into the system. 
       I have been trying to resolve this conundrum since before I left Paraguay, and I am still trying to work it out. The worst part about it is I have no idea what I could of done differently? I would see advertisements on all form of media. I heard President Obama on American Top 40, and Between Two Ferns. promoting the website I saw countless links on the Internet, and I saw a cavalcade of celebrities telling me to apply. In spite of all that I couldn't figure it out. I honestly feel defeated. I saw this, and to extent still see it, as something American's should be proud that we accomplish as a society. I should have been one of the people this helped out, but instead I find myself disappointed in my country and even worse in myself for not being able to figure it out.
     

Monday, April 14, 2014

New Start

       I remember having long conversations with returned volunteers about what it would be like to come home. The transition back to the states is harder than leaving is what we're told they day we arrive in country. In fact, one of the first things we were told by the staff was that you cry twice when you come to Paraguay, once when you say goodbye to your family in the states, and once when you leave Paraguay at the end of service. While I didn't cry in either situation both instances were extremely emotional. As I sit here now, having accepted a job in Washington DC,  on the precipice of starting a new experience after only having been home for three months, my Peace Corps service feels sort of like a dream.
       I never thought I would get a job as quickly as I did. Luck probably had more to do with it than anything. The process of getting a job in the states is a lot of hurry up and wait. You apply for a ton of positions online in a rush of inspiration and then wait for weeks on end in the hopes that you get to the next step or even receiving the courtesy of a rejection email. Then its rushing again once you finally hear something, but cannot remember what the job is because you applied so long ago. Making travel arrangements, figuring out logistics, and doing your best to present yourself in a way that makes you a hirable candidate. Then nothing again as you sit and wait to hear back. That process takes weeks, and you go back to your routine until you suddenly get a call back asking if you can start the next week as you try to figure out a way to uproot your life, review the employment offer, and attempt to figure out how in the hell you are going to get to the job on the first day. I need a place to live, I have no furniture, I don't have a clue how to move around in the city and the list goes on
       The crazy thing is that is normal. Most people I talk to can relate to that situation, so my feelings about how hectic and unnatural it all seems are muted a bit. The thing I keep coming back to however is that figuring out those types of challenges is what I did in Paraguay, but instead of analyzing a health benefits package or filling out an I-9 form I had to hand wash my clothing or rewire my electricity. The ability to adapt to new situations that I got used to in Paraguay is sort of the same as I open this new chapter of my life. What makes it different is not being familiar with it. In Paraguay I made sure that I took things in stride and dealt with problems as they came up. Day-by-day, managing expectations, and asking questions are simple ways to live, but are so applicable in a multiplicity of contexts whether that is in Paraguay or in the states. 
       I'd by lying if I said being back in America has been easy. Transitions are always tough especially when you account for the stark differences between the United States and Paraguay. Those differences are overwhelming and they take time to figure out. I know that I will eventually get more comfortable in my new surroundings in DC, but life never really slows down and the second you think you got everything under control is the second that something throws you for a loop. 

Monday, March 3, 2014

Television

       I have now been home for two months. The strange thing is that I still feel like I never left home. The routines of my parents, and the overall lifestyles of many of my friends aren't drastically different than they were before just in different settings. Yet, in spite of this seeming comfort I still find myself overwhelmed over the most random junctures of day-to-day life.
       Most recently I've noticed how much our entertainment is rooted in watching stuff on our phones, TVs, or computers. I find myself captivated with all the forms of media, and the how remarkably easy it is to access anything. Thinking back to college, I remember how bonded I felt to friend groups based off of a video on YouTube, but it seems even more ubiquitous now then it did back then. Granted some of that could me own perception having been removed from an intensely wired society, but something tells me there is more to it than that. In conversations I find more and more that the substance is driven by seeing something online. It is almost as though seeing someone get hit in the crotch with a potato gun fired from a guy in a Santa Claus suit give us more substance to our lives than our day to day actions. To be honest, if I saw something like that online it might actually be the most bizarre thing I see in a day and would thus be inspired to talk about it. The problem I have with it is that I find myself constantly looking at screens because of the importance of finding relatable topics to bring up to my friends in conversation.
       If I am at a bar there are at least a dozen HD TVs in the room I am in. Often times there are more. It is almost impossible to not look at the brightly colored screen especially when Sportscenter is on beating another story into the ground with their team of 65 analysts. In Paraguay, I did see young people constantly on their phones or using social media, but for the most part the art of the conversation reigned supreme. You had to carry on a discourse with another person because there were no other distractions aside from what was going on around you. The substance of those interactions were more focused on the immediate environment. The truck that blew out a tire, the mango that almost hit Juancito on the head, or the lack of a particular item in the store. People were not constantly on the move from place to place. Interaction occurred incessantly all around and that is what we talked about.
       Since I've been home I notice I comment on why we as Americans do certain things the way we do. Why are bars full of big screen TV's? Why when it is -15 degrees outside does my water come with ice? Why are our my instincts when something breaks to buy a new one rather than attempt to fix it? These question plague me and constantly weigh on my mind. Everybody has something interesting to say if you really probe them about their interests, but it is easy to deflect the questions to a more light hearted YouTube clip, or the most recent episode of whatever show.
       I am super guilty of this. I would read just about every night when I was in Paraguay, but now I find myself binging on books when I have time riding in a car, or waiting at  doctors office rather than having some consistency. I get distracted too easily by what is on TV or the internet. I am not even saying it is a bad thing, but my social interactions are more dictated by what is popular rather than what I actually find important. If you want to sit around and watch TV all day that can be a tremendous stress reliever, but why is it everywhere I go? Are we so tired from doing our jobs and working to support ourselves that we really don't have the energy to do something active with our free time and I don't mean a regimented daily work out at the gym that is preplanned. It is almost as though spontaneity has been been eliminated from our lives. If social calendars are not planned in advance through a text or email do they even happen as much as we subconsciously want? It is weird to go up to a neighbor's doorstep and say hi without advance warning these days just to name an example.
       I find myself asking questions that I never would of thought of before. Questioning even the most familiar things makes me realize how complex our lives really are. There is always something new to learn. Some social trend, app, or other piece of technology, but I find that most of these things are just tools to help us find the activities we really enjoy doing. The problem is how overwhelming that can be when all you really need to have a good time with your friends is a setting and a topic.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Crockpot Conundrum


            Two nights ago I decided to make some dip for the super bowl.  I got the recipe from a woman who I worked with in college, and while it is easily the unhealthiest concoction imaginable I was pining hard to eat it. The dish requires several bricks of Velveeta cheese, some Bob Evans Italian Sausage, a can of cream of mushroom soup, and a jar of salsa. After browning the sausage the ingredients are put into a Crockpot as the onlookers are forced to wait as the room fills with the smell of artificial goodness.
            The dip turned out to be as good as I remember it, but some simple science caused the clean up to be a bit more difficult than I could’ve imagined. Taking a Crockpot from a cold plug and heating it up too quickly led to a bottoming out of the removable pot. It literally cracked in a perfectly symmetrical circle where the bottom of the pot was hung an inch above the heat source. This caused a sticky gooey mess that sealed the broken bottom in a burnt cheesy mixture that resembled the aftermath of a bout of food poisoning than a dip that was just eaten.
            My immediate reaction was to throw it away, but then I thought how ridiculous that sounded. Why in the world would I throw away a Crockpot just because a replaceable part broke? Surely I would be able to fix it with minimal effort? I was actually upset that my thought process immediately went towards replacement, a more expensive but easier option, than trying to use a little ingenuity to fix it. After all, those types of problems happened every day in Paraguay.

            
Then I started to realize that maybe my initial reaction was the only option. I was disturbed at the thought that maybe trying to figure out the name of the part of the specific brand and model of the Crockpot, finding a place that sold the part in a retail store or online, paying for it and waiting for the order to be filled would probably cost more than buying a new one.  I reluctantly threw it away, and am not proud to say that the action bothered me all day.
            Yesterday, my mom and I went to replace it. I agreed to pay for it because I broke it and thought that the cost would have to be higher then when we bought the original. We went to a department store, and started to browse around. I was shocked by how many options existed. Some had full digital monitoring system that looked more like a satellite than a kitchen appliance. Others were so technologically complicated that the cost tripled the amount that my mom had bought the original for. After spending about 10-minutes looking through the options an employee offered to help us find one using their in-store computer registry. To my absolute amazement we found the exact same Crockpot, with an additional smaller Crockpot that could be shipped to our house in 5 days for $10 less than the one my mother had purchased several years earlier!
            I couldn’t believe it. I kept thinking how is this possible? How often do people buy Crockpots that justifies such a low price? Then I thought, well, I broke one just because of a sudden 25-degree change in temperature, so this has to happen all the time. The overall cost of the basic model is still low enough where the is no room to even carry replacement parts for the thing even though Crockpot technology hasn’t really changed at all since they were invented in the 1970s. In fact, as we were leaving my mom said that my grandmother has two that she has had for decades, and that when I move to my own place that I could have one of them.
            I’m convinced that all the fancy Crockpots I saw for crazy amounts of money with all sorts of digital gadgets on them probably aren’t as reliable as the original models that only had an on and off switch. Despite all the technological marvels that have occurred since the Crockpot was originally invented the models seem to be designed to fail within a 5-year period even the ones with all the bells and whistles. A Crockpot is a nice thing to have, and my family uses them all the time. What I cannot get over is how something that is so technically simple can be redesigned to look nicer, with improved materials, and work worse 40 years after its invention. I just wish I could of found a way to fix it for the same small effort it took to get a new one.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Beginning the Transition

       In my last few days in Paraguay I had several people ask me whether or not I would continue writing in this blog after I returned back to America. To be honest, I always thought that this would end the day I left Paraguay. The whole reason for writing it was to give people insight to the work I was involved in with people in my community, and to provide some general information about a country not often thought about on a global scale. I hadn't even considered writing about the transition back mostly because those would be ramblings in America, not Paraguay. The more I thought about it, however, the more I realized that all those ramblings in Paraguay had left an indelible mark that would dramatically influence my decisions when I finally returned. While I still haven't figured out what the experience of being a Peace Corps Volunteer in Paraguay is in the long and short runs, I know that it had to of done something that overtime will hopefully become clearer in my mind.
       After traveling for 3-weeks through Bolivia and Chile I left Santiago at 10:10 PM on December 19th. It wasn't until I was sitting at the gate that a flurry of emotions hit me that I had been suppressing since I had left Paraguay. Aside from the Paraguayans I would miss there were countless other people, things, and places that kept popping up in mind. Would I ever seem them again? Would I be able to go to that place in the future? When, if ever, will I go back there? Those feeling were compounded with the emotions of seeing my family for the first time in two years. I think I almost broke down on the plane several times just thinking about it all. Thankfully a women in front of me had a panic attack about the plane tacking off, and wanted to get off. Seeing that interaction, and the hundreds of movies available to watch on the touch screen TV's were enough of a distraction to get me through the first leg of my journey. When we arrived in Atlanta the phenomenon of being in America for the first time since I left in September 2011 really started to hit me. I never thought that I could be overwhelmed by a modern bathroom, but as I entered the facilities in the Atlanta airport I was taken aback by the fact that you could flush toilet paper, the facet automatically spit out hot water, and a seemingly old fashion paper towel dispenser turned out to be an automated machine that spewed the perfect amount of paper toweling to sufficiently dry my hands. I was much more used to no soap, freezing water, and minimal toweling at best, so having everything work in that efficient manner overwhelmed me a bit more than I thought possible. After braving the modernity of the bathroom I started heading for my gate, and was exposed to American morning television programming for the first time since I left.
       As most morning shows go, this one was a myriad of pop culture trash stories intertwined with national and international news. There was a two minute bit on some guy saying racist comments from this super popular television show that I had only heard of in passing called Duck Dynasty. Then there was a 30 second update on the brewing civil war in South Sudan followed by a three minute breaking news piece about a theatre in London collapsing during a performance where nobody died. I understood that news is meant to appeal to the people watching it, but having come from a place that was lower down the development scale I was saddened by what my country saw was important information. That's not to say this particular news program was most well informed show on TV, but it being my first exposure to American media it was a bit overwhelming.
       When I finally saw my parents for the first time the emotions finally boiled over, and it hit me that I wasn't going back to Paraguay. Seeing the city where I grew up for the first time since I left was pretty incredible. Cincinnati has gone through numerous development projects since I left. There are all sorts of new apartments, bars and restaurants in several areas where there was previously nothing. There is a large casino in the middle of downtown. Houses and buildings that I passed on a daily basis growing up are sometimes different colors. Supermarkets, bars, restaurants, and stores have more choices than I could imagine, and I have often found myself getting overwhelmed by those choices. All technology seems to be put in place to simply to make things happen faster like having your check split without even asking. I was so used to struggling through who owes what when the bill comes that I sort of missed the incipient banter that inevitably followed resolving the check. In Paraguay, if I found a stout beer I would literally scream out loud. In America, every bar has at least four choices all which are slightly different. The way we interact with people is also remarkable.
       The way we as Americans interact with each other is peculiar to me now, and I finally understand why Paraguayans thought I was so strange on some levels. We have this instinctual ability to ask extremely directed questions at each other. To me, it seems more like a mechanical process to produce the desired result as quickly as possible. Drawing out emotions in conversations that are meaningful is a talent that not many of us pocess. Since I've been home, granted its been a week, the first time I see people that I haven't spoken to since I left they ask my two questions in this order: "How was it?" and "What are you going to do next?" Its not rude, its just how we interact. The questions are general enough that I could ramble for hours, but instincts tell me that I have to have a short an concise answer. Before we left Paraguay we had a closing of service conference that had a secession about transitioning home. In that time we discussed elevator speeches in which we gave a five minute summery of a good story, a challenge, and a funny story from our service. I, for whatever reason, haven't quite figured out the perfect way to tell that story, but I have a lifetime to figure it out. I hear all the time that people don't care about what you did, and that the hardest part of transition is that seeming lack caring, but I don't think it's that simple. It's not that people don't care I think it's more they don't have the capacity to understand in that moment. I view it as my responsibility to get them to care, to show them that this something meaningful to me and that if you're willing to listen it can have some semblance of the same meaning to you. It's getting to that conversation that has been the hard part because those two years that I spent in Paraguay were two years that other people spent doing interesting things as well that could've been as meaningful if not more to their lives as my experience was to mine. The conversation is reciprocal, and it is a skill to be able to illustrate how my experience relates to others. This has been a crazy week and I am still figuring out what it means to be home again. All I know at this point is that things seem eerily the same, but strangely different and recognizing the differences has actually been quite fun so far.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Saying Goodbye...Again

Well as hard as it is to believe, my two years of Peace Corps service have been completed, and I have to admit that it really hasn’t hit me that I am leaving tonight. Packing up and saying goodbye constantly for seemingly about a month has taken a pretty big toll emotionally. Couple those feelings with the inevitable challenges with dramatic transition, and you got yourself a big mess when trying to wrap things up and finally say goodbye for now to a lot of people who I have come to care about.  I had a very positive experience in Paraguay and the adage you learn more from the people you’ve come to help than you teach them certainly seems true at this juncture.
                  I like to think that I used this blog primarily so people at home could see what I was doing, and how I was living. The more I wrote about in it the more I noticed a change in style from short anecdotes to larger themes about the culture, economy, and Paraguay in international contexts. Those small projects that I found myself involved tremendously enhanced my understanding of Paraguay in the larger contexts, and a better fostered personal understanding of how the country functions. Paraguay is a small poor country. The division of wealth is astronomically skewed, and the tides of globalization where omnipresent and incessantly expanding in the two short years I was here. I saw one President get overthrown, and another get elected in. I sat in on community meetings, and read a lot about Paraguay’s government and history. The spectrum of my experience is truly remarkable, and it kept me guessing at every juncture. Despite all the challenges this country still faces it still somehow manages to leave an indelible mark on the psyche of the people who spend time here, and I marvel at how happy people are despite not having many things I would’ve deemed essential before my arrival. A truly happy life isn’t one that is defined by material processions or individual achievements, but rather by the people you choose to share it with. If I have learned anything in my two years it how essential relationships are in making us complete human beings. I truly believe that if you surround yourself with loved ones who share common interests and help each other out than the path to a beautiful life has already been discovered. Time truly flies when you’re the happiest, and for me these two years went by in a breeze.

                  My plan is to continue writing as in this blog as I travel and transition back to the states, but I wanted to thank everyone who took the time to read even one entry. I found this blog to be a respite in a sometimes hectic lifestyle, and I truly appreciate the support and kind words I have received concerning my writing. Look for a new entry when I get back to the states on December 20th, so until then suerte!

Friday, November 1, 2013

Eco-Brick Bench


            Introducing new ideas, or projects in a community is very difficult. There are so many facets that determine whether or not something is going to be successful that there is no clear indicator of how something is going to work until you try it. A good example of this is seen in the usage and production of ecological-bricks. What makes them an interesting example is that they are a relatively new idea in Paraguay, but their creations taps into a common cultural norm of reutilizing things. Paraguayans are constantly finding ways to reuse things that I would consider garbage. Got rotting boards in your house? No problem, use them to make a fence. Some shelf or door break? Get some small gage wire and rig it back up. I've even seen people deconstruct their house piece by piece only to rebuild it somewhere else. A lot of this has to do with cost and availability of materials, and yes while many things are no ubiquitous, the decades of self-reliance still prioritizes reusing stuff as much stuff as you possibly can.
             Eco-bricks are pretty simple to make. Basically you fill plastic bottles with plastic bags, wrappers, or paper products until the bottle is densely packed to the point of being hard as brick. Given the rise of plastics, especially grocery bags, soda bottles, and candy wrappers, there is a plethora of these materials all over Paraguay. The sheer amount greatly contributes to the growing problem with trash management not just Paraguay, but many other developing countries. With growing accessibility to things like plastic bottle cokes, and Nestle candy wrappers a there is a big spike in the amount of garbage individual families produce that is compounded across the country. It is amazing how much trash I produce individually. It used to be that I could fill a bag of garbage per week, but ever since I started making eco-bricks, my trash productions have been halved. Over the course of nine months I filled ten bricks. The school was able to make 49 from leftover garbage, papers, and trash thrown in the streets in just three weeks. In short these bricks are not only effective, but also easy to make and free to produce.
            The idea originated from Guatemala where an environmental NGO started, recognizing the rising costs of building materials and the ever-growing multitudes of trash, started filling up empty plastic bottles to use in building schools, benches, and other small buildings (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eco-brick). By layering the bricks, setting them in wire fencing, and coating them in cement you get yourself a pretty stable small structure. The costs are virtually nothing, helps reduce waste production, and cleans the streets. There is, however, some debate concerning the structural integrity of the bricks. If they are not densely packed then they're susceptible to crumbling. Obviously the solution is to make sure they are all in good shape before hand, but when doing this with children you're dealing with attention spans that can be shifted at the drop a hat. While from what I've seen, kids are very enthusiastic to fill up the bottles, but less inclined to pack them to capacity. Nevertheless, given the plan at the school next to my house was to build a small bench; we could overlook a lot of these less than ideal full bricks.
            The most basic design Peace Corps Paraguay has developed requires 28 bricks, a bag of cement, and about 20 regular bricks. You can buy a regular brick for a nickel, but cement costs about $12 per 120 lbs bag. That is a bit pricy, but still not over the top expensive. Bricks made in Paraguay are not that much different then bricks made anywhere else. Heavy clay soils are mixed with some chemicals, dried, and baked in a giant kiln. The problem is how fragile they are. The cheapest bricks will break if they fall from a height of a foot. It is a very labor-intensive process that has to be done with care. Eco-bricks, while useful, do still need to be flanked by regular bricks so they structure can better hold its form. In our case we decided to make a small 28 eco-brick bench, so setting the structure in wire before hand wasn't super important but building a support structure was.
            When I got to the school the day we were to build the benches we picked out a location and began digging a small trench to layer normal bricks as the foundation. We then mixed cement and started building up the bench with four layers of eco-bricks of seven across with regular bricks on the flanks. We decided to leave one side of the bench open to better demonstrate what we did. I left the morning classes feeling good what we accomplished. In the afternoon I thought all we would have to do is smooth out the cement, and fill in a few holes. When I sauntered up to the school in the afternoon, however, I saw that all students were there filling more eco-bricks with the teachers. I was informed that the bench was off center, and they wanted to extend it. I was thrilled by the enthusiasm, and quickly started digging the extension. After several hours, and 31 eco bricks later, we had our bench. We determined that having the top layer of regular bricks is a more effective way to encase the eco-bricks, and it made for a more stable seat. Ironically the extension made the bench more off center than before, but the teachers seemed thrilled.


            I have no idea whether the eco-brick bench will lead to construction of similar things in the community. What I do know is that this new idea inspired the students and teachers to work independently of me in finishing up a project I helped educate them about. It not only temporarily reduced the trash consumption of the school, but also added a new place to sit for virtually nothing. I don't see Paraguay consuming fewer plastics in the future, which leads me to believe that this type of project will continue to have legs moving forward.  Paraguayans have an inherent comprehension of how to build things and how to reutilize things. Tapping into those engrained cultural norms can be a very powerful tool in introducing new ideas no how big or small.