Saturday, June 30, 2012

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: the Trilogy

Agriculture happens all over the world, and yet after a while, you come to realize - it's a really freakin' small world. There's everyone who used to work for the same company (and the string of legacy companies behind it).... There's everyone who knows your major advisor... And let's not forget, in my particular case, my unintentional stalker R., who - unbeknownst to either of us - belonged to the same tiny department at Purdue, got a job in the lab next to me, and moved into the same apartment complex. Thankfully, she became my very good friend also.

But here is the final example of how small the world of agriculture is, a closing argument if you will: Earlier this year I sent an e-mail to one of my old managers just to keep in touch, and I just happened to mention I would be heading to Senegal. A few days later, he replied. He was writing from Senegal, as a volunteer with the same program, and traveling with the same coordinator that I will be with!?!

The Farmer-to-Farmer program is part of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and it has projects that seek to provide agricultural extension and advisory to farm groups and agribusinesses in developing countries all over the world. If this sounds at all familiar to you, reader, it may be because last year I completed two assignments in Nicaragua and Mozambique with the same program.

In Senegal, the Farmer-to-Farmer Program is administered by NCBA/CLUSA (that's the National Cooperative Business Association and Cooperative League of the U.S.A., respectively). My role as an Integrated Pest Management Specialist will be to provide technical training and consulting to millet (a type of cereal) and vegetable growers. I will be updating the blog with my experiences in the third installment of the Farmer-to-Farmer series if you want to read along...

To read more about my first assignment in Mozambique, you can start reading here:

My second assignment in Nicaragua begins here:

To learn more about the Farmer-to-Farmer program, visit the USAID and NCBA/CLUSA websites:

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Whitewater rafting and canyoning in Sort (Spain)

Having sold our beloved car in the States, any time we get into one now seems like a special occasion. We headed further into Catalunya, driving northwest for 3 hours into the Pyrenees. The landscape was beautiful: golden with ripening fields of wheat, zigzagging in shallowly terraced strips, the occasional green vineyard, and dotted with monasteries and ruins. When we ordered a lavish array of tapas in the village of Tremp, the bill including drinks came to only 5 euros per person! It really hit home we weren't in Barcelona any more.

The tiny village of Sort, or "Luck" in Catalan, is famous for the lottery. The lottery, particularly the Christmas drawing, is hugely popular in Spain. In December, lines wrap around the block in the preceding weeks, and everybody plays, usually with colleagues from work (kind of like how nearly everyone in the States fills out a bracket or belongs to an office pool for March Madness). In a somewhat self-fulfilling prophecy, a store where the winning lottery ticket was purchased advertises the hell out of the boon and immediately increases future sales (and of course, the probability of more future wins). With a name like "Luck," many visitors to the mountain village purchase 2 souvenirs: a lottery ticket from the shop La Bruixa d'Or ("The Gold Witch") and a lucky witch doll. Rumor has it that the owners have capitalized so well on the mystique that the shop is only open in the 3 months before Christmas and spend the rest of the time jet-setting in their private yacht.

La Bruixa d'Or was closed so we opted for another kind of gamble - extreme sports! Marking another item off the bucket list, we went rafting on whitewaters of the Rio Noguera Pallaresa. During the beginning practice section on the river, what Rich describes as a "completely expected collision with a rock" sent me overboard into the literally breath-taking chilly waters. After floating downstream aways, I eventually got hauled in again. The dip made me very reluctant to revisit the experience, even during a practice drill for capsizing. Later, a couple of others in our crew also went for unintended swims, but everybody survived. Even when the raft caught some air a few times. The 3 hour trip navigating the Class III+ rapids was definitely invigorating! If only it didn't take us all about 6 hours to warm up again.  

This wasn't such a problem the next day. Clad in only an unflattering getup of helmets, swimsuits, and neoprene socks with sandals, we got plenty warm enough by hiking to the Sant Pere de las Malesas canyon. The first challenge of the day was just getting into our 5 mm wetsuits. A shoehorn wouldn't have gone amiss. We donned diaper-style harnesses, and away we went! Tramping through small pools and sliding down rocks, the physical challenge and fear didn't threaten to overwhelm me as it did when we tried canyoning in Turkey. Maybe this is because I conducted myself honorably in the two rappeling (= abseiling) sections this time. Actually I quite enjoyed the free jump from the waterfall and the "scoot down chicken-winged" section of a funnel. Rich, of course, wished it had been a little more extreme, but he was very grateful we didn't have to hike back in soaked wetsuits.    

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Primavera Sound 2012 in Barcelona (Spain)

We've found the live music scene in Barcelona to be a little disappointing, mainly for the price and somewhat the variety (mostly big headliners). So our strategy has adapted: blow our hard-earned cash on the glorious marathon of shows that is the Primavera Sound Festival.

The bulk of the action takes place for three days at the sprawling seaside complex of Parc Forum. However, there are various venues around and about the city hosting sporadic shows on the bookend days as well as in the preceding weeks. I was bummed to miss The Walkmen, who were playing 5 minutes from our apartment. But the scheduling is not very amenable to us working folk. Shows can start as early as two o'clock in the afternoon and often run until 5 a.m. It requires a variety of energy conservation techniques (e.g. cat naps at home or propped up against a sea wall) and caffeine management.

On the first day of the main event, our old friends Death Cab for Cutie and Franz Ferdinand didn't disappoint. Solid performances for huge audiences... and you can always trust Franz Ferdinand to get the indie kids dancin'. Unfortunately, the newer bands did not live up to my expectations. The xx had a pretty elaborate stage set up, including a giant plexiglass X that slipped its hook so a roadie had to be hoisted like a cheerleader to fix it. With all the smoke machines and lasers, the band seemed to be more interested in style than substance. Or maybe I'm just not emo enough. Japandroids's lo-fi appeal was lost in a wall of noise, and not in an awesome Mogwai-kind of way. To be fair, the giant solar panel structure overhanging the gig might have been working against the acoustics. Far and away one of my favorite performances of the whole festival, Beirut was incredible in its three-horned glory (trumpet, flugelhorn, and trombone). It might be a cheap thrill, but really, can anything else tug on your heartstrings more than a little mournful brass? What more can you expect from a guy with French horn tattoos on his wrists? A little funereal, a little mariachi, a little gypsy, apparently. Hats off to the Jimi Hendrix-like wizardry of the accordion player, too!

On the second day, I Break Horses put on a good show even if the synthy atmospheric stuff felt a tad misplaced on a sunny afternoon. The War on Drugs rocked the Pitchfork stage. They were less Arcade Fire than I expected, but that was fine by me. We stayed to the very last song, which meant arriving late to The Cure extravaganza on the main stage. Clearly, everyone came to Primavera Sound for this show. Even the VIP section on the hill was absolutely packed. Robert Smith still looks like Elizabeth Taylor after a night of heavy drinking, but the band sounded even better than when we saw them in their own Curiosa Festival in the States. It was mostly a hit parade, but hey, if I'm singing along to "Just Like Heaven," too, I'm not gonna complain. Given the distance to the stage, we bowed out early, gambling on checking out the newer band Wavves. It was a mistake. Yes, we got very close to the stage. But their bouncy punk efforts, which might have been plucky and amusing in 16 year olds, just seemed kind of pathetic when they're mid-30's trying to recapture lost youth... and we found out The Cure ended up playing a 4 hour set :(  For surf rock done right, better to turn to The Drums, whose "Obama/Oh mama? I wanna go surfing" song popped with energy. All of their songs were very tight, and the lead singer's gumby-like dancing and strutting really drummed up the crowd's enthusiasm. With the funky fun of The Rapture, a dance party is practically a requirement. I was a little disappointed that the keyboardist didn't ride his keyboards like the last time we saw them (strangely enough, also at the Curiosa Festival), but you've got to give him credit for still being the most enthusiastic cowbell player you'll ever see! 

The third day had a lot of ups and downs. Tall Firs doodled around on a couple of guitars, but their low key set really suffered without a drum kit. The more upbeat Milagres show was a welcome relief, but Beach House's dream pop with the lead singer obscured in the smoke and synth brought us back down again. Chromatics were a better option, but to really liven up the festival, who'd have thought to look to Kings of Convenience as saviors? That's right. The Norwegian duo, whose music harkens back to Simon and Garfunkel, and who have an album called "Quiet is the New Loud," rocked the joint! I was surprised to see them on the main stage, but judging from the masses, we weren't the only ones looking forward to the show. The first half's easy breezy harmonizing with acoustic guitars and relaxed banter was well-suited to the sunny seafront. Then they brought on a rhythm section and the most happy-go-lucky electric guitarist to go all out disco dance party. I knew Erlend Oye moonlights mixing electronica and hanging out with folks like Royksopp, but it's still quite another thing to see the shift in person - from earnest bookishness in big glasses and a baggy cardigan to gangly, swaggering funk frontman. They were having a grand old time (even taking pictures with their own camera on stage), and the crowd were, too. Hands down, the best show of the festival!