June 2008

Pavilion Lake Research Project 2008: Intro
Interviews with some of the PLRP submarine pilots

First Footage from the DeepWorker Submarines
Early PLRP footage from the subs. The male voice you hear is NASA astronaut Mike Gernhardt. The female voice belongs to the lovely Bekah Shepard.


A weekend in the Chaco is a reflective experience. People find so much comfort and fear in the desert. Being so stunningly empty, it is an ideal mirror – really you have only yourself. An eight hour bus ride down a road that is the caricatured of a vanishing-point study is something deeply moving.

The first leg of our trip took us about an hour and a half north of Asuncion – just at the edge of the Chaco. The Fundacion Paraguaya owns and operates a sustainable agriculture/vocational secondary school, and we all wanted to look around a bit. Also, that night they had scheduled a party in commemoration of the Dia de San Juan, so how could we pass that up? We didn’t have any clear idea of what to expect, but were cued in rather quickly by a festive banner hanging at the school that read quite simply “San Juan dice que Si!”

“Saint John says Yes!”

The evening began calmly enough – a traditional dance by some students, and a short play by others, followed by a very modest dinner of tortilla and salad.

When we left the dining hall and returned to the main quad area we were met with a sound can be compared to nothing less than repeated, rhythmic punches to the sternum. Rented speaker stacks screamed and grunted heavy bass lines of reggeaton, club beats, and techno mixes, and the entire yard was being torn apart by a strobe light. The kids went nuts. Seems like a reasonable and appropriate way to commemorate the patron saint, no?

This continued for several hours amidst the more traditional san juan festivities. For hours the kids tried desperately to clamber up at 25-foot high greased wooden pole to retrieve the prizes which had been hung at the top. Eventually they began stacking themselves, one on top of the other, feet on shoulders.

On the ground and through the air flew “pelotas tatas,” some sort of light fabric bundled into a ball, soaked in kerosene, ignited, and kicked around the yard. They actually looked a lot like comets flying around the yard. The only other reasonable comparison would be to the turtle-shell missiles of MarioKart, for those of you who remember. The more the balls were kicked around, the looser the bundle became, until eventually the kids were basically kicking around a flaming towel. I kept waiting, horrified, for it to wrap around somebody’s head or get caught on a foot and end the festivities, but it seems san juan was on our side.

As the pelotas were being shot around, a horrifying creature emerged from behind the school building. It looked much like the sort of dragon you would see on the Luna New Year, except instead of a long tale, it had only a modest box big enough for one person, and instead of an ostentatious, brightly-colored head, it only had the skull of a bull. A real skull, complete with horns. And here’s the thing – the horns were wrapped in that same kerosene-soaked fabric, and the foot-long horns were trailing fire through the darkness. The student who was underneath ran around the field chasing people. And not chasing people as a playful classmate would chase people, but as a bull with flaming horns might chase people – to gore them. He ran to the base of the pole where students were already stacked four-high and gave an emphatic jab to the rear of the student at the bottom, causing the whole tower to come sliding down on top of itself in a fit of laughter. To summarize the evening in one great understatement, Dia de San Juan was wide-eyed surreal.

The next morning we woke up at 6:30 and trudged out down the dirt road through the rain to the bus stop. The bus ran about 45 minutes late, but the five of us piled on, soaking wet and sank into the seats. It rained for most of the drive – turning the roads to mud, and a ride that should have been 6 hours into 8. Driving through the Chaco is unnerving for it’s monoteny on a beautiful day, but in the rain it summons entirely new levels of existential discomfort.

So we sat, a rickety bus full of huddled, bundled people watching our collective breath condense in the air and rise to the ceiling. Because of the fog on the inside of the bus and the rain on the outside, it was impossible to see very far into the Chaco. The road was also a perfect line. Between these two facts, several hours were enough to make you wonder if you might actually be dead – caught in limbo between our world and the next. It wasn’t miserable, or even uncomfortable to the point that it would be considered purgatory, but when I looked down the isle and out of the windshield I had the distinct feeling that I was riding along a damp, cold, entirely ethereal mobius strip.

When we got to Filadelphia, the weather was beginning to clear. Nevertheless the roads, and really everything, were so caked in mud that dirt became an inescapable feature of our time there. Filadelphia is really nothing much to speak of. It is an old Mennonite community that has incorporated an indigenous population – meaning the people are, and look, either completely guarani or very, very German. I feel like I have been abusing the word “surreal” on this blog, but I’ll go ahead and employ it once more here. It is incredibly surreal.

Other than that, Filedelfia has a small stone monument to the defenders of the Chaco, a small museum, and a modest zoo, which has a collection of wholly bizarre creatures captured from the Chaco and held in a small, fenced enclosure. Really there isn’t much else – I’m glad I was traveling with friends.

The location of the Chaco is another story entirely. It is so remote, so far from anything, and in the middle of an area so devoid of any desirable resource or particularly arable land that you wonder if the Mennonites didn’t believe that they deserved to be punished. To give you an idea of how unfit this place seems for life, I would call your attention to the plight of some Mennonites who thought that they would raise rabbits as livestock. In the summer, they have found, it is so hot that they can’t get the rabbits to breed.

The drive back from Filedelfia was incredibly pleasant. The bus had two levels and very cushy seats. The sun was out, and when it passed through the windows it bathed us in a natural warmth. I sat down next to a friendly looking older woman who was carrying a towel on her lap, only to discover several moments later that the towel contained a month-old puppy. I cannot exaggerate how cute this puppy was. It’s paws were literally the size of my thumbnail.

The ride back to Asuncion took about seven hours, but it was comfortable, warm, and we had good cheese and good company to pass the time. The clear skies gave us a great view of miles and miles of absolutely nothing. Being able to see the nothing this time, and watching ourselves move through it, was very cathartic. I made it back to the house relaxed, refreshed, and dusty.

There were two more interns when we got back. The count is up to 11.

I don’t work with normal people. Since I got to Pavilion Lake, I’ve had the opportunity to befriend an unreal group of people—people who’ve made careers at all ends of the earth, in outer space, and at the bottom of the oceans. Of course they’re all human, and they all take their jobs in stride as if it were the most common thing in the world. I think you have to, in a sense. But at the same time, what lets these people do such incredible things is that they never let it get old. It’s both a privilege and a talent to be able to pursue a job you love.

Adding to the list of characters here: Last night Dave Williams, the second of our two astronauts, arrived. Mike Gernhardt has been here since Monday. (Mike was wearing his flight suit today. My brain has more or less oozed its way out of my ear, and my heart has crawled up to take its place.)

This is the first year that Pavilion Lake has gotten the submarines, so there has definitely been a learning curve. These days, though, operations are running pretty smoothly, and the sub pilots have been able to start bringing up samples from the bottom of the lake. We’re researching microbialites, which are unusually-shaped carbonate structures. They vary in size and shape—from hand-sized to a few meters large, and from tall, chimney-like structures to structures that look more like heads of broccoli. We want to figure out how these structures are formed, and what causes the differences in shape and size. The submarines help us explore more than we possibly could by SCUBA.

Perhaps even more than the science itself, I’m fascinated by the technology that enables us to do this science. Thursday night Phil Nuytten arrived for a visit. Nuytco, which made the DeepWorker subs we’re using, is his company. Phil is a renaissance man of diving, pioneer of underwater technology, and, incidentally, a phenomenal totem pole carver. Yesterday he gave a really inspiring presentation. We got to see footage from the first solo dive deeper than 1,000 feet, see videos of the early development of the Newtsuit, and just listen to Phil talk about his career. He’s one of those people who either disregards or loves the fact that something hasn’t been done or doesn’t exist yet. You want to make a pressurized suit that can go down to 600 feet, but is still flexible enough to swim in? Sure. You just do your thing, Phil.

Yesterday Discovery Channel was here filming us, and they’re around again today. I’m trying my best to play it cool, but it’s totally not working.

For my entire life, I’d been under the impression that broccoli appeared on my plate magically. Due to some reason born from a profound ignorance of all things Earth inherent to my suburban East Coast upbringing, I’d never considered it in its natural state.


My naïve worldview was destroyed when my host father came home with real, fresh-from-the-ground broccoli plants. They blew my mind. They had leaves! Just like everything else! I’m not sure I can believe that these bizarre, extraterrestrial plants actually grow in cultivated fields just like any other veggie my mother had to force down my throat as a child. However, I do have a promise to go out to the family’s fields within the next few weeks to confirm what I’ve just seen. Until then, I’ll be holding on to my conspiracy theories.


Here’s a look at the goods:


Terrorism in Peru forced people from the countryside, like Griselda, out from their lands to move to Lima capital. Fear congregated masses of farmers in the already-existing urban poor areas. They settled illegally in the surroundings of the southern and northern cones of Lima la hermosa. They settled where our story takes part: las invasiones.

Las invasiones, (the invasions), are the human settlements of suburban Lima. Located on hills of sand, houses threaten to fall apart due to simple gravity issues. Houses, as well as electricity connections slide down the hills creating dangerous and inhumane life conditions.  

Las invasiones are on hills of sand because they are on the coast of Peru. One of them, called Villa El Salvador, shares the sea and the sun with privileged areas like Miraflores, one of the richest districts of Lima, but is miles away in many terms; to name a few: clean water, electricity, sewage, education, income, lifestyle, skin color, etc.

Miraflores and las invasiones are both Peruvians, are both part of Lima. However the contrast between both of them represents the economic and social inequalities that we all have heard of Latin America. So, Lima is nothing more and nothing less than Buenos Aires, Bogotá or Santiago. But this thing with the sea and the shore is what got me thinking this, my first time in Peru. I’ve got to explain myself, or better I’ve got to explain the geography of both Miraflores and Villa el Salvador.

So far we have the sea, part of both areas. The shore, however, is different. In Miraflores the hills that face the sea are mountains of stone. The hills in Villa el Salvador are hills of sand. This difference in the geography became the beginning of our project.   

As described before, participatory budgeting is the process in which the people and the government meet and decide together what the priorities for public investment are. The people in Villa el Salvador decided that neither clean water, electricity, sewage, education nor higher wages where the priorities for public investment. Crazy, right? Well, the fact is not that lower-income Peruvians have distorted priorities (which in some cases we could say the have, considering cell phones rates per citizen or satellite TV in comparison to money spent on food) but in Villa El Salvador there is one thing that is more needed than anything we could have predicted for a shantytown: a wall, more specifically contention walls.


We came to know contention walls here in Peru. Being from Argentina myself, I knew what a shanty town looked like. But this was different. Contention walls were a new thing for me and for my South American friends. They occupied an irremovable first place on the list of priorities. This is, we learned, because they are the beginning for development. With a contention wall, that prevents the sand to keep falling down the hills and taking with it houses and electricity cables, you can install sewage, clean water pipes and solid electricity pillars.


Why, if contention walls are so obviously needed, does the government need participatory budgeting to decide allocation of resources on building them?

Because the promises of governments to the unprivileged people are many times as volatile as sand. “Earthquakes” caused by changes of administrations or political turmoil tend to affect more harshly the unstable areas built on sand. People need to get involved in civic life in order to hold their authorities accountable. Participation is the many-times forgotten ingredient of democracy. This is what this story is about.


Griselda, an old woman, together with Marisa a middle age resident of a shanty town and Daniela, a young adult Politician will show us that world of sandy instability and promise of rocky development.


India rising: A new superpower for a new century – it’s a common theme here.

TV, newspaper and magazine headlines tell the story over and over again. And the words “My India is Great” are tattoed on the backs of the ever-present Tata buses. India may be a pluralistic democracy, but nationalism is the state religion here.

India’s papers, which judging by the ones I’ve read really are free and fair, tend to have a little bit more of a jingoistic ring to them than one would find in the NY Times or the Post. Politicians can be ridiculed and parties denounced, but India’s progress and soon to be preeminent world status is never doubted. People here want India to be respected on the world stage. Badly.

Here’s a quote from an article in the Telegraph, Kolkata’s English language daily. It’s taken from an article about the purchase of Ranbaxy (an Indian pharmaceutical company) by a Japanese company:

“Her reading is that it is the Japanese who will have to learn to adapt and not the other way around. The reasoning has a philosophical basis. The Japanese, she says, are moving to a different plane. Material things and crass corporate commercialisation matter much less than motives such as self-actualisation.

Indians, on the other hand, are descending from that plane. They are becoming more aggressive, more demanding. This is their century and they want to stomp over the rest of the world. In a fight of wills between a young, ambitious and pugnacious nation and a people committing temporal hara-kiri, the new Ugly Indian will prevail.”

Though the opinion discussed isn’t the author’s, it isn’t an uncommon one. People here hunger for national respect and success to an extent I’ve never seen before.

The question of whether India will actually be a superpower in the 21st century is an academic one that’s beyond me. I do know one thing, though: in the minds of many Indians, India already is.  

Our excursion to the Hare Krishna center never materialized. Instead, we spent our weekend making our way around Kolkata.

Getting around the city isn’t easy, though. Most major roads are completely gridlocked, even off peak hours. This – combined with the fact that Indian traffic is much like a game of Frogger mixed with playing chicken with a Tata truck – makes getting around an adventure. Every person forces their way. To pass you go into oncoming traffic and swerve back at the last second. Somehow, though, there aren’t too many accidents.

Here’s a guide to Kolkata traffic. Each conveyance has its own perils:

Private Car: This by far the most expensive and posh way to get around. They’re usually fixed rate so you don’t have to worry about haggling with the driver, and the ride is relatively comfortable. You still have to deal with the gridlock, though, and you still will be a tourist completely insulated from the local culture.

Cab: Expensive but often the best point-to-point transit method. Warning: your cab driver probably has no idea where you’re going either, and will probably pull over to ask for directions several times. You won’t be able to tell if he actually doesn’t know, or if he’s just strategically trying to run up the meter. Also, your cab driver may pull over to pee on the side of the road (see previous entry) or stop to buy chewing tobacco. This is par for the course. Also, don’t be too shocked if you play bumper cars a little bit with other cabs – minor accidents are no biggie. Once, our cab driver actually pulled over to change a tire; we helped much to the amusement of all passers by.

Auto(rickshaw): Autos are cheap, fast and usually run on standard routes. The bad thing is you can’t take them point-to-point, but they can be useful for getting to nearby places. These three-wheel contraptions wouldn’t fit more than a few people in the states, but the standard number seems to be six or seven here.  In the rural areas, that number can be bumped up significantly to accomadate . On a visit to a village last week I was in an auto with 9 other people: five in back, four in front with the driver sitting on the middle two. I had one cheek hanging outside the vehicle and watched as the ever-present Tata trucks passed on the right with less than a foot to spare.

Bus: Buses are cheap and they go everywhere. It might just take you a long time to get there.

Metro: Efficient, cheap and cool. Definitely the best way to get around. It’s too bad there’s only one line.

Bicycle rickshaw: cheap and surprisingly fast, but you are being pulled by another human being.

Everywhere you go, no matter by what method, you will attract attention. Staring isn’t considered impolite here, and people will often turn completely around – no kidding, 360 – to gawk. 

I have a friend who is blonde and has had more than her fill of unwanted male attention. Regularly, guys will stop in their tracks six or seven feet away, stand there and stare away, often while biting their lip. I know that sort of thing isn’t unique to India, but it’s defintiely frustrating for all the girls in our group.  

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