Thursday, April 23, 2015

a place in the sun

La sangre sin fuego hierve. Blood boils without fire
- Mexican Proverb

I've spent a little bit of time in Mexico recently. Actually, it's been quite a bit of time. Yet it's never enough. There are so many things I love about Mexico: the food, the ocean, the people. But I can't forget about the sun. In Mexico, the sun is an entity in and of itself. It calls the shots; when we wake up, when we go to sleep, how we spend our days. It has been both lovely for me as well as painful. My first trip to Mexico I burned my feet being out in the sun too long, and they swelled up into giant tomatoes. I learned my lesson.

I try to never miss a sunset when 
I'm on the Gulf Coast of Mexico

The sun in Mexico is almost always shining. Even when it rains, a few minutes later the sun inevitably comes out. It's a sunny place. The sun shines down upon us, a constant reminder of the heat we must endure every day in this endlessly tropical climate. So it's not really surprising what I'm going to talk about next. The energy of the sun can only lead us to one possible conclusion. That's right, I'm going to talk about solar energy. I recently learned an important lesson about using the sun's energy.

I must admit that I'm still learning about solar energy. And a lot of what I do know I learned very recently, both in a classroom as well as in practice. I have lived in a hot, tropical, sunny climate. I have left a clear bottle of water out in the sun. Heck, I've even left one in my car on a sunny day. How hot was the water? Hot enough to burn. And hot enough to cook.

This is what the local people I visited in Mexico already knew; the sun can cook things (other than just their skin). Yet, they weren't, to the best of my knowledge, really utilizing the sun's power for cooking. I needed to find out why. There had to be a reason (or reasons). But before I could find out what people knew and didn't know about the sun, what the locals were or weren't using the sun for and why (or why not), I was beat to the punch. Because a group of generous souls set up solar cookers for these same villages where I spend much of my Mexico time. 

A new solar box cooker

Don Alejandro shows off a new & highly 
efficient wood burning stove.

What have I learned since these solar cookers were introduced to the villages? The sun is hot. And everywhere. And free. Except that it's not free; not exactly anyway. There are so many costs, some I saw coming, but some of which were totally unforeseen. I have to admit I was surprised how enthusiastic everyone was when they saw a demonstration of the solar cookers. There are a few types (solar oven, solar stove, efficient wood burning stove) and they're all impressive. However, they are all small. Too small. And expensive. Too expensive.

They cook one pot of beans. Which isn't enough. We know it's not. Because we asked. And because I thought about it. I can't remember the last time I used one pot to cook a meal for a group of people. Especially one involving rice, beans, meat and tortillas. 

They are cost prohibitive. This we also know. How expensive are they? Well, using the cheapest materials we could find, they are still too expensive. Honestly, anything over thirty dollars is out of the locals' price range.

However, seeing the demand for the solar cookers, I saw an opportunity from my capitalistic American point of view. They just needed to set up a stove factory. I was certain the completed stoves would sell like hot cakes. As long as we could get the cost down. So we would have to be creative. We would have to use alternative, and thus cheaper, materials and buy in bulk. We would have to design an equally efficient stove using new designs. And then we would have to get the stoves to actually work. But I knew it was a good idea. Build the stoves, I thought, and they will come.

I suggested to a few local friends that they might want to be the ones to capitalize on this untapped high demand marketplace. My friends looked at my like I was out of my head (more-so than normal, as I tend to offer up pretty nutty ideas to anyone who will listen). They couldn't imagine how to make the ovens more cheaply. But I pushed them on this point. I knew it would be possible. I just didn't exactly know how.

The original design for the solar box cooker (an oven)

The materials and ingenuity question weren't actually the biggest barriers my friends needed to overcome. They first needed start-up funds; they didn't have the necessary amount of cold hard cash. So I started to channel my inner venture capitalist. We would simply search for some start-up funding. It would be easy. We knew people in Merida. They would have money. After all, we were planning to set up a small solar cooker making operation, not a high tech computer company. How hard could it be?

The answer is hard. But also easy. Because i
t turns out it is possible to cut down the cost of the cookers by using alternative materials and increasing quantity. So we don't need a lot of funds. Just a few supportive friends with a little bit of money. Which we found we have. In spades. And just how will we design less expensive stoves? Turns out we have friends who know how to do this as well. We are rich in resources. 

I have high hopes we'll be able to drop the cost of the ovens significantly. But we still have miles to go before they can become affordable to the local population. But I know it will happen. We will figure it out. It is possible. Nada hay nuevo debajo del sol. There is nothing new under the sun.

Friday, April 10, 2015

fitness therapy

Coming down from my marathon high, I had to decide where to go next. While I wasn't about to give up running any time soon, I found myself longing for something new. And because of the weight I had gained while training for the marathon, I was also looking for a way to kick start my metabolism. Years ago, running had done that. A few years ago, after settling into my running routine, I started lifting weights with a trainer and, no surprise, the new exercise gave my metabolism another nice boost. So once again I found myself at a crossroads. Where should I go next?

With no shortage of workouts available to me, I chose TRX. Or rather, I decided to give a few new workouts a try and TRX came out on top. For now. I'm not an all or nothing kind of person. While training for the marathon, I would lift weights, run intervals, climb stairs, go for (short) bike rides, and practice Yoga and Zumba. The majority of my workouts were runs, but not all of them.

The past few years I've also tried working out at home. I'm a fan of Jillian Michaels - I find her voice less annoying than others and her workouts tough. But home workouts weren't cutting it for me. I could just crap out easily and no one (except my belly) would ever notice.

I first decided to sign up for a month of unlimited classes at a nearby gym. Actually, it's a gym located directly on my commute home from work. The gym had two very important components and these are the reasons I chose it above all others. It offered classes in the evening. And it had online class registration. It was very no nonsense. You sign up. Then you go. All I had to do was go that first time (always the hardest for me).

And I went. I didn't know much about the gym or the types of workouts it offered or what I was going to experience. I did know the gym wasn't CrossFit and I had heard (and read) great things about TRX. But I don't think I really understood how tough the classes would be. I had just run a marathon, after all. I could easily conquer anything they could throw at me.

Well, this particular gym has become my sanctuary. The classes are small. Everyone knows your name. So I continue to go. And work my butt off. The gym offers a small variety of classes. The two I rotate between are HIIT (high intensity interval training) and TRX (total body resistance exercise). HIIT is basically indoor boot camp. TRX is basically a trapeze. Except not really. It's a set of adjustable stirrups used to help you throw your own weight around. It requires coordination and is not a natural fit for someone as uncoordinated as myself. Yet I find myself loving it. My own weight has caused me to work muscles in my arms I never thought existed. TRX has caused me to feel the burn while holding a plank, feet still inside the stirrups. And pressing my own body weight has caused me to spend the better part of my first week in pain. And yet, I go back for more.

My TRX and the class set of TRXs

I tried a few other gyms on my quest to mix up my post-marathon workouts. From Orange Theory to track workouts, these programs involved too much running. As I runner, I know that criticism might sound strange. But running is the thing I do myself. If my goal is to work out hard, I don't really enjoy a class where half of it is spent on a treadmill (for so many reasons). I still run outside several times a week; varied short midweek runs and one long run every Sunday. This is my recovery/training program. And it feels like it's working. Every run is less exhausting than it was before. At times I even feel light on my feet.
A little motivation at the gym

Because in addition to my interval, short, and long runs, I go a small gym. Where everyone is kind. And there's no waiting in line. There are only people who swear by the TRX. I just mostly swear at it. I think I have a love-hate relationship with the suspension stirrups. But I can feel my body transforming. I can hold positions longer. I don't know how long this new fad workshop mechanism will keep me satisfied, but I'm enjoying the ride. Once over the steep learning curve, the TRX has quickly become the mechanism with which I will transform my body. And it definitely passes the time more quickly than the elliptical machine ever will. And that's good enough for now.