KNOW HOW

I met Juan Ramon (see photos at right) riding his front-wheel drive wheelchair in the town of Granada. He went zipping by in traffic. When I waved, he spun it around and zoomed up to talk to me.

It’s a 5-speed, or 15-speed if he shifts the top chain- wheel by hand. The pedals have been replaced by handles. The back part is a regular wheelchair. The front part attaches just the same way the front caster assembly used to. This hand-pedal wheelchair is a great design solution. Not only does it allow him to get around as fast as a bicycle, but it’s also great exercise. Many handicapped people in the U.S. have trouble getting enough exercise, and suffer higher rates of obesity and cardiovascular disease as a result. Here’s an assortment of the other handmade technologies I saw.

I saw a lo t of different kinds of bicycles modified with welding. There are plenty of rickshaw drivers here and every rickshaw is different. The lid on this bike’s cargo box (pictured above) opens up to display the vendor’s wares. And this bike (at left) uses casters from an office chair for a headset and has foot- operated front brakes.

Used U.S. school buses are the main intercity transport. Getting around the country is a breeze. You just wave, and the bus stops and takes you in that direction for some absurdly low price. They weld up fancy cargo racks on top with ladders and luggage slides. Want to move your furniture or farm produce by bus? No problem. Fancy welding is super abundant in Nicaragua. East bloc countries were generou s with welding equipment and training during the U.S. embargo. I think the tall exhaust stack in the back is required. It improves the air quality and keeps the buses quiet. The similar buses in Guatemala often have no exhaust system at all and sound like machine guns when they go up a steep hill.

I wish the U.S. had such a good, entrepreneurial transportation system. Once you get to town, there is a whole cornucopia of vehicle types to carry you around: trucks with benches and awnings, vans, old city buses from Brazil, etc. In addition to regular, private taxis, they have “collectivo» (shared) taxis that keep picking up more passengers headed the same direction until they’re full, so it’s cheap for everyone.

For about the same price, you can take a horse- drawn taxi — a car that runs on grass! The wheels are shod with strips from truck tires. Parts of the harness are made from strips cut from other parts of the tire. The horse collar is made from pieces of record bent to shape and covered with leather.

If you need an instant wagon or bike trailer, try this: a wagon made with bicycle forks and wheels. Two bolts through the side of the fork hold it to the side of the box.

Wagons like this are the «contractor’s pickup” in Granada, a colonial town on Lake Nicaragua. There’s a lot of restoration work there, fueled by an influx of American retirees.

Here’s a tool that’s used like a blender (below). You put the big end in the drink and spin the handle between your hands. I met Marlene Monje. who mixes beverages with a wooden blender. The Nicaraguans seem to have more types of cold, non-alcoholic drinks than anyone else.

The colonial houses are mostly single-story, with courtyards, tile roofs, massive adobe walls, and very high ceilings. These features combine to make air conditioning unnecessary. They’re really nice houses. In small towns, people leave their front doors open; in bigger towns, they have the grill work closed and the door open. It’s a pleasure to walk down the street in the evening and pass the domestic scenes revealed in each lighted parlor.

You can build such a house from not much more than dirt, grass, and sticks. Many houses have quite a lot of wooden structure embedded in the adobe. This probably enables them to withstand earthquakes better. That’s important in a country with such active geology.

Houses often have a lot of fibrous material, like straw, mixed in the bricks. I saw no signs of decay in the fibers or wooden beams buried in the walls.

This church in Leon (above, right) was destroyed during the fighting to take a prison across the street. They left it this way as a monument, and built a brand new church right next to it. Also, the old pi (below, right) now contains a folklore museum full of stuffed figurines representing characters from folktales.

THINGS OF THE PAST. Churches seem to use plain, adobe bricks without straw, but with cement or brick around the doors and windows. In a building that’s being used, there’s no way to tell what’s in the walls because they’re plastered and painted over. There’s an old convent in Granada that’s been converted to a museum. The restorers left bare patches so you could see what’s inside the wall — the buried beams, patched many times after each attack by marauders or what-have- you. Also in evidence are broken roof tiles, adobe blocks made with straw or horsehair, plain mud bricks, lath, reeds. Over the years they’ve used just about everything to build adobe buildings.

Antique water filter (pictured above). The upper vessel is a thick bowl carved from porous volcanic rock. The water filters through and drips into the lower pot. The whole thing stands about waist high. I saw this at the Moyogalpa Museum. Isla Ometepe. in Lake Nicaragua.

Caltrops in the Gallery of Heroes and Martyrs in Masaya. Here’s a welded version of an ancient weapon. Sandinistas put them on roads to delay army vehicles in the revolution against Somoza.

The Next Whole Earth Catalog has a good section reviewing books about how to build adobe buildings. The catalog is a great way to get a sense of the scope of traditional and “alternative» technologies. It’s 25 years old now. but the good thing about traditional techniques is they never go out of date. The islanders used to bury their dead in these ceramic urns shaped like a pregnant woman’s belly (shown above). The symbol on the large jar is a bat. whose spirit helps the dead see their way. The family that owns the museum has always lived in Moyogalpa. Possibly, they are descended from the people once buried in these jars. Not exactly how-to hobbyist tech.

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