Drop by drop: processing events at home and soil samples

The world feels a little bit flipped upside-down. Another month has passed, but I no longer feel sure or assured of anything happening back in the USA.

As I was titrating samples to measure organic matter content in the soils lab at the agricultural university these past few weeks, I wondered if I was proud to tell people I was from the USA. I wondered if being in El Salvador prevents me from being the most involved I can be to protect my friends and family that might see some changes with the coming administration. Or does it limit me in standing up for the social and environmental injustices at Standing Rock? And then a few donations and some calls to congresspeople later, it still feels like a drop in the ocean when reading article after article about atrocities at DAPL or a climate-change denier as a proposed appointee. So right now, I don’t know if I’m proud, but I will continue to do anything and everything from a few countries south of the border.

But I haven’t been sulking the days away– for the past month I have been working in the lab in the National School of Agriculture to learn their methods of quantifying nutrients like calcium and potassium, as well as how much organic matter is in soils. The team that works in the lab has degrees in pharmacology or agricultural sciences. They process at least 40 samples a day, which, when you work with limited automated equipment, is impressive. Still, the lack of experience is not the problem in this lab, it’s the negligence to protocol and to question processes they don’t understand.

My first day in the lab, I saw someone heat up her lunch in the microwave next to the atomic adsorption spectrophometer (photo above), where lab techs measure sodium, potassium, and phosphorous. The woman than took her lunch into the lab, and ate her noodles at a lab bench. The AA machine, by the way, was also lit with a Bunsen burner flint, by hand, which is a testy business in itself. However, the lack of consistency in concentrations quantified by the machine among replicate samples was also worrisome. The samples were pipetted into 5mL segments via mouth-pipetting— a technique highly discouraged (both in labs I have worked in and other labs in El Salvador) because of the risk of inhaling chemicals or contaminating the sample, made necessary by the lack of a simple pipette bulb. While taking notes on methodology in lab, someone brought me a coconut, yes, a whole coconut, to drink in lab (photo above right). While I quickly ran out of the lab with my coconut (admittedly, delicious), my coconut-deliverer was standing in the middle of the lab, peeling and eating an orange. In the afternoon, a few women came by with panecitos y pan dulces in case anyone needed a treat for a coffee break. Another lab tech brushed her teeth in a lab sink. These observations continued throughout the week. The reaction to process organic matter is normally conducted in a fume hood, because there are toxic fumes, and yet for convenience I saw a lab tech begin to start the reactions out in the open before I pleaded with him to move the bulky burette stand inside the hood.

Also I found Asbestos! Just to put the cherry on top of illustrating the observations in lab.

Three months have flown by. I’m off to design some experiments involving liming and nutrient levels with coffee people at CENTA (national agricultural center and location of soils lab) soon. I’ve realized that the best way to reach people here is to physically show up and sit down to a meeting. Bit by bit, working through to figure out how to get things done and to put plans into action. Hopefully, drops make a splash.


Toes in the water

Sorry, I had to begin with another picture of the beach from a nearby cliff. The waves are supposed to be huge this weekend, meaning I’m too much a ‘fraidy-pants and inexperienced surfer to try that out. So while I’ll be toes-in-the-water only this weekend, surfing has been absolutely fun for me– a translation in water sports.


So after surfing for 3 days last weekend, I spent Sunday with two of the loveliest people climbing the Volcano Santa Ana. It was a 4+ hour round trip experience, and we went with a group. Maybe 100+ people climbed the volcano, and we were accompanied by guides and policemen. At the top, someone had a marriage proposal waiting for their partner as we overlooked the crater lake below, bubbling and fuming sulfur. It was a beautiful walk up, with red and yellow vesicular rocks crunching under our feet after tromping through the densely forested hillside. The views of coffee farms and the neighboring volcano Izalco were astounding.

By the end, we were pretty zonked, and piggy-back rides were 100% necessary.

I have also done some work, contrary to what these blog posts might otherwise indicate. I did some writing for the Coffeelands blog that CRS runs. I’ve also been working with a team to formulate baseline indicators of soil health and fertility. My role has been to take the soil chemistry data (500+ samples from coffee, corn and bean, and some cacao farms! a dream!) and think about it in different ways. My academic Spanish language skills are growing as I attempt to translate analyses of soil chemistry data into easy to understand terminology. I’ve been helping with correlations between different nutrients and am hoping to bring in some socio-economic data soon. It’s exciting stuff to have free reign over the data!!!

Next week, I’ll be going to the field (el campo) to see some coffee farms and begin to understand management practices. I’m learning a lot about agriculture already, like the 4R System for administering nutrients. It’s been exciting to see that despite knowing some things about soil chemistry, my practical application is lacking, and I have a lot of room to grow here.

It’s fascinating how Fulbright allows me to live here in El Salvador in a way that is excessive to most Salvadorians. My sense of self-preservation, after being told numerous times to not take the buses or go out after dark, has grown drastically. I’m much less risky, but I’m allowed that ability to be stupidly safe– I taxi anywhere that’s not within a few blocks of my house (luckily, the pool and the office fit that bill!). I often look out the window of a comfy cab to see the old school busses that serve as public transit packed with people, hanging out the doors and window during rush hour. I’m afforded a different level of being.

Notable also, is the way I interact with news from the States here. Things seem more distant but also more acute, and I’m still figuring out how to best take in those injustices that right now are headlines in newspapers and links on Facebook.

Welp beach again tomorrow (oy! can you even believe it!) and another week zoomed along!

Leaving only salted chocolate chip cookies behind

Thursday early morning I’ll hop on a plane to Atlanta, wander through the airport to connect with my flight to El Salvador, where I’ll be for the next 10 months.

I’m leaving my sister some cookies to get her through the first few days of my absence…

These next 10 months are a result of a Fulbright research grant to study soil chemistry on coffee farms. I’ll be working with an organization called Blue Harvest to do some soil analyses that I have become familiar with through research at Smith. The adjustment will be steep, but I’m looking forward to the challenge. It has always been that in these times of discomfort that I’ve grown the most, so while I recognize the present anxiety in the imminent travel, I know that the long-term benefits outweigh any trepidations.


As I frantically pack last-minute items, I’ll also be enjoying my last day in Chicago summer. Tomatoes will be my primary food group, picked off the vine, and juice dripping down my chin.Mostly sweet, slightly acidic, tasting like sunshine and keeping me grounded for one more day.