I recently returned from a week-long trip with GRID Alternatives' International Program, where my husband (Marvin Hamon, also a solar pro) and I joined a group of ten intrepid travelers to install a 1.38kW PV system. The installation took place in the rural subsistence fishing community of Charco Muerto on the shore of Lake Nicaragua not far from the colonial city of Granada.
Working on a small off-grid system and living in the community not only brought me full-circle to my first solar design and installation projects but engaged my thinking on access to opportunity, as Nicaragua is one of the poorest nations in South America and the world. The people we met in the Charco Muerto community were incredibly kind, patient, and generous. Though I was initially concerned that my rudimentary Spanish language skills would pose a major problem, I found that with a little help and some creative charades, I was able to communicate on a basic level and still pick up a lot.
Unlike solar projects in the US, the pace and style of the project differed significantly. We started to get on "Nica time" a slower, less-concerned-with-exact-time equatorial pace-of-life concept trip leader Carla Estrada introduced to us early in our travels. For micromanage-to-the-minute types, putting away the smartphones and lowering expectations about timeliness and exactitude is a requirement for successful enjoyment of either equatorial or island travel since even in the winter dry season, temperatures exceeded 95 degrees during the mid-day and beg for "siesta." With many hands to work on the system, this afforded groups of us time to relax together and talk with community members while working at a slower pace.
Local families involved in the community's energy committee, the group that would maintain the PV system post-installation the volunteers, hosted us volunteers in their lakefront homes. This led to perhaps the most challenging part of the trip for many volunteers; adjusting to the chickens underfoot, highly sweetened juices and coffee (which we jokingly called "azucar con cafe" - sugar with coffee), the starchy diet (beans, rice, plantain), and the lively night sounds of insects and frogs, waves lapping on the lakeshore, and dogs barking. After a restless first night, I resorted to earplugs, myself.
After working in grid-tied solar for the longer part of my solar career, the impact of the project was still a shocking reminder of how energy intensive households and lifestyles are in developed countries. Where 5kW, 7kW, and 10kW systems can often only put a small dent in the electrical bill of an American homeowner, the impact of a comparably tiny off-grid system in a community with minimal infrastructure was stunning. With just a few lights and outlets, the entire educational infrastructure of the community could expand, including the addition of learning opportunities for the community adults, who we discovered had a significant range in educational levels and reading comprehension.
The solar pros who work with GRID in Nicaragua, Suni Solar, are a three-man team fully capable of installing the system themselves in less than three days, but provided necessary oversight for the volunteer group. Their guidance, patience, and also willingness to learn provided the critical lynchpin between the two cultural communities coming together to achieve the project. See a photoset from the installation.
As an outsider, especially visiting for only a week and lacking significant language comprehension, it's challenging to understand the complexities of cultural attitudes toward community, opportunity, and contentment with life. It's too easy to project conventionally American understandings of a situation onto others who live different lifestyles or paint broad brushstrokes of "noble savages" in subsistence communities. We were visitors in a different place and we all came to accept that there were things that would not make sense or translate.
Perhaps the greatest takeaway from the trip was the understanding that small, volunteered efforts on a human scale make all the difference in opening up opportunity for others, but the recipient of the gift is in charge of integrating it into their cultural context and translating it into a relevant experience on their terms.