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Jenny Lundt ’19: An Eco-Exploration in Colombia

By Emily Weaver on March 22, 2019

In January 2019, senior Jenny Lundt travelled to Colombia on a quest to build her knowledge about “earthships.” Using a Benton mini-grant she was able to take a deeper dive into the idea of repurposing our waste. Below she details her journey and shares what she learned along the way.

Winter break of my first year as a Colgate student, I traveled to Central America in search of some sun. Along the adventure, I met a British family who invited me to come visit their family in Southern Belize on an “earthship”, an “off the grid” house and property made entirely of recycled materials. I couldn’t believe that what they were describing could actually be possible… so I did what any person would do, of course I went!

I never could have anticipated how wonderful this “earthship” would be. A family with three children living a fully sustainable life on land next to Lubutuum, old Mayan ruins. I was completely enchanted with them and their lifestyle as it was so unfamiliar to the way I lived.

Earthships are houses that meet three very specific criteria; first, they are built sustainably, using materials indigenous to the location they are building as well as recycled materials. Second, the homes rely on naturally received energy sources and are thus fully off “the grid”. Finally, they are financially viable both to create and sustain.

The “Chaos Oasis”, as it is endearingly referred to, is made out of thousands of bottles, cans, tires, packed trash, and cement. People from all over Belize have collected and brought their recycling to the Atkinsons to be used in construction.

This is the only earthship I had ever seen and I have been surprised how many times I have referenced it in the last few years either in class, dinner parties, or conversations with friends. It piqued my curiosity into learning about other earthship movements around the world. Would every family and every house be as lovely as the Atkinson family’s was? I decided that I wanted to learn more. So I started researching earthships and sustainable housing movements. I found that the Southwest and specifically Taos, New Mexico has many different Earthships. I also found movements emerging from South Africa, Spain, the Netherlands, and Belgium.

However, I found a few blog posts referencing the construction of an earthship in one of the most remote places in the world, the Darien Gap in Colombia. I searched and searched for more information, but I couldn’t find a thorough, comprehensive source anywhere. So I did what any person would do… applied for a Benton Mini Grant to explore this movement in Colombia.

On Jan 5, 2019, I celebrated the new year by flying into Cartagena. The first place I went was not an earthship, per se, but they represent another interesting conversation in eco development, Islote de Santa Cruz, the most densely populated island in the world. A population of an estimated 1,200 inhabit an island no larger than two football fields in the middle of the Caribbean Sea. The 45 families have a population density that is four times greater than that of Manhattan.

  • Solar panels on Islote de Santa Cruz
  • Aerial of the Island Photo credit to National Geographic: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/photography/proof/2017/10/most-crowded-island-santa-cruz-del-islote-photograph-colombia/

Besides fishing and seafood, all other food and supplies must be brought in by boat. There is no natural drinking water and thus bottled water is a treasured commodity. The island’s power is supplied by panels of solar panels visible in the lower left corner of the photo above. I got a brief tour of the island. I was amazed at how life passed here just like normal despite there not being much room for anyone. Things like funerals become difficult with no land. But, the locals are making due just fine!

Only a 5 minute boat ride away are “Casa en el Agua” and “Isla Roots”, two eco-accommodations floating by itself in the middle of the water. Both of them are committed to sustainability and have a number of rules and regulations that keep them eco-friendly. They have dry toilets where you #1 in hole #1 and #2 in hole #2. To flush, you use a cup of sawdust lime mix. Every day, they take the mix to nearby Tintipan island where they have a composting process to produce fertilizer. They also have bucket showers that are only available for limited hours in the evening. In the theme of earthships, they reuse the glass bottles the kitchen and the bar for bricks and decoration. With any tin cans, they collect and send them to the mainland to be sold for recycling. It was a very relaxing and interesting few days spent here learning about sustainable practices and tourism.

  • Credit: https://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g6503207-d7139652-Reviews-Casa_en_el_Agua-Isla_Tintipan_Archipelago_of_San_Bernardo_Cartagena_District_Bolivar_.html

For the next phase of my trip, I took the long journey to Capurgana in the the Choco region in the famous Darien Gap. The Darien Gap is one of the most isolated regions of the world. To get here, I had to take two long bus rides to the Colombian city of Neococli to take the choppiest boat ride of my life to Capurgana. That feeling of pulling into the harbor, two hours later and seeing a little strip of settlement shrouded by dense jungle as far as the eyes could see.

I have always heard and read stories about the natural power of the Darien Gap… It is infamous for being the only break in the Pan-American Highway, the 19,000 long high way that extends from Northern Canada to Southern Argentina. The Gap is a wide expanse of dense rain forest and has been associated in recent years with drug trafficking and paramilitary groups. I have read many stories about this place, but even knowing all these things could not prepare me for how the Darien Gap actually is. The sound of howler monkeys mixed with the lap of the water in the town will forever stay in my memory.

The blog post that I had found telling me about the earthship in this region didn’t have any information about how to get there. When I started asking around, people didn’t know exactly where or what I was talking about. I was pointed to a bunch of different directions.

Interestingly enough, although this has become a new sustainability fad, many local people have been using trash and other recycled materials to build their structures for dozens of years.

My first stop was Casa de Botellas, which I had not previously heard about. The man, by the name of Carlos, has been working for the last 22 years to take trash out of Capurgana and the ocean.

He told me that the way the ocean currents work, a lot of trash from North America ends up washing ashore in this region. And because there is no “dump” as there is no recycling plant, many locals have decided to kill two birds with one stone by using this trash to construct their homes. This home is particularly well known in the town for his work.

  • Casa de Botellas
  • Casa de Botellas
  • Casa de Botellas: he is building the world's longest chain of out of can tabs.
  • Casa de Botellas: Here is a mural he built out of bottle caps modeling a famous pop-culture slogan
  • Casa de Botellas: The path to the garden is paved with old TV screens
  • Casa de Botellas: He has even taken to elaborate projects in an attempt to use trash by creating a large Eiffel Tower sculpture in his backyard.
  • Casa de Botellas: He has comfortable, big chairs out of tires.

There was another eco house a 30 minute walk North of Capurgana along a cliffside. This house built on natural hot springs is called La Coquerita. I had the opportunity to chat with the man who built the structure and he spoke about the importance of true eco tourism. His house is completely made out of driftwood and bottles. They open up their house to tourists and only serve food on reusable plates.

Walking around the town the next few days, I saw many, many structures that used bottles and other trash. Many houses have used this technique.

I was blessed with a visit from my friend Shirin Vetry who is a Fulbright Scholar in Colombia. Since we went to a wild high school together, I invited her on the journey to find the earthship I had read about online. We weren’t really sure where to begin, as the directions online were extremely, extremely vague. So, we started by taking a choppy boat ride 10 minutes to the closest village to the south. There were only around 10 houses here and the space between them grew further and further as we headed more south. We found two people outside who knew what we were talking about as we tried to explain the concept of an earthship in Spanish. They motioned that we just needed to keep heading south and gave vague instructions about passing a farm and chickens and climbing a few hills. So we did. About an hour later, we found ourselves scaling up a very steep muddy path with not a soul within 20 minutes of this. This gave me quite a panic as I had no idea what sort of animals would be awaiting us in this thick we had just lost ourselves in. I was sad to abort the mission, but safety won out in this case. Shirin was a loyal trooper until the very end.

As we were walking back, defeated and muddy, we found a suprise off the beaten path with an inhabitant extremely eager to show us his property. He, again, had used things he had found washed ashore to create this incredible open air structure that could only be called a treehouse. Perched along the water, I could only imagine the peace and serenity he gets from his breezy bedroom atop a tree with a view of the jungle.

We asked him about whether or not he had ever heard of the earthship that supposedly exists near where we were and he said that he heard rumblings of a failed project with a bunch of foreigners with no skills paying absurd amounts of money to do construction work on this house. He says he believes the house collapsed because they were so focused on the experience that they weren’t considering the actual difficulty and high standard necessary to build. I have no idea if this is true or not. A week after leaving, the Colombia earthship finally got back to me saying that they had no wifi while in the jungle and therefore they missed my message asking for an exact location. They also spoke about how hard it is to find without the exact coordinates and a sailor who knows them. I am not sure exactly what the truth is here, but it was certainly interesting to go and explore. If it really does exist, then it is certainly in one of the most rural, inaccessible locations on the entire planet. Pretty cool AND eco friendly!

This eye opening trip has changed the way I have conceptualized waste management. Generally, when we put out our trash, we think of it as out of sight, out of mind. But that is rarely the case and many of the times, our “out of sight” really means just dumping it in another place.  

People might be good about recycling, but that is not enough. The other Rs- reduce and reuse are important to attempt before simply throwing it in a bucket. I urge everyone reading this to figure out how the things in your life can be reused. There are a million uses for almost anything and if you are ever throwing away something, Google if you can reuse it first. Especially if you live in a warm climate, mini earthship projects are completely feasible to accomplish.

With my role in SGA, and the looming carbon neutrality in this year, I have thought a lot about sustainability and the direction our planet is heading if we don’t step up and be kinder to the planet. Seeing the trash washed up on the beautiful shores of Capurgana and Choco that potentially originated from us. Say no to single use plastics wherever possible

Benton Scholars Grant Spotlight: Julian Danetiu ’19

By Brent Fujioka on October 27, 2018

An Archaeological Summer in Southern Italy

By Julian Danetiu, Class of 2019

 Finding summer opportunities as an undergraduate can be one of the most intimidating yet rewarding endeavors undertaken in a college career. It was only while searching for on-campus jobs this past winter that I was offered the chance to interview for a role in the excavation of the Temple of Athena in Paestum, Italy. After weeks of dead-end online applications and phone calls I was fortunate enough to stumble upon an opportunity which would offer unmatched academic and leadership development (as well as some intense physical exercise) at one of the most pristine UNESCO World Heritage sites available! Eager to introduce myself I promptly responded to the invitation and arranged an appointment to meet with the professor in charge to review the responsibilities, duties, and expectations I needed to uphold throughout the project.

This year’s portion of the North Urban Paestum Project primarily sought to investigate the geomorphology of the foundation of the Temple of Athena, which itself lies on an elevated position relative to the rest of the archaeological park; the park also hosts two other temples (Temple of Hera and Temple of Neptune) as well as the ruins of the ancient city. My role in the project would be to lead the documentation and organization of media collected throughout the project’s duration so that our data could be better preserved as well as accessed by others studying the project’s findings in the future. Academically speaking, as an environmental biology major my main interest was in constructing an understanding of the ancient peoples’ relationship with their coastal environment, including how it affected city planning, productivity, and even diets. 

The excavation plots, or “trenches”, of 3 x 2 meters were divided into 6 meter-square sections with finds being catalogued by which square as well as which stratigraphic unit they were recovered from in order to designate depth within each trench. Through this we were able to record a location in 3-dimensional space for finds within each trench, giving us an idea of the time period each object hailed from. Our first trench dealt more with recovering cultural artifacts such as pottery or faunal remains, while the second trench aimed directly at uncovering more about the Temple of Athena’s geomorphology.

Paestum has seen a number of different occupants over the past two millennia, some evidence of which we were able to recover in the form of refuse, ceramics, and sacrificial remains. The most recent visitors, Allied invaders during World War II, landed on the beaches of Paestum and slowly captured ground, pushing Axis forces north-eastwards towards nearby mountain ranges. As part of the Allied invasion several base camps had to be set up as land was taken, including communications and field hospital stations; these were installed next to and even within the temples themselves! From this occupation we were able to recover some minor artifacts such as discarded tin-cans and empty ammunition shells.

Digging deeper we came across an abundance of pottery shards, some with glazes or painted designs giving hints to their original time period and even purpose. Paestum’s earliest settlers, including the Greek colonists, the later Lucanians, and eventual Roman imperialists relied heavily on ceramic containers for storing food or fermenting beverages. We worked closely with the Museum of Paestum, a component of the Parco Archeologico di Paestum itself, which specialized in reconstructing artifacts from recovered fragments. The Museo also had on display a terrific number of finds from past years of excavation, including weapons, tools, sculpted metopes, and even entire intact sections of tomb walls!

In terms of the project’s primary goal, we were ultimately successful in collecting data supporting our directors’ hypotheses that the “artificial mound” underlying the Temple was in fact composed almost entirely of travertine masses. Travertine, a calcareous rock resulting from the gradual deposition of minerals dissolved in local bodies of water, is especially light in weight and brittle due to its nature of formation. We believe that because of these properties ancient architects found it to be the perfect candidate as a “filler” for the artificial mound as it was easy to transport and readily available throughout the surrounding environments. Excavation of trench 2 thus focused on the location of travertine masses used to build the artificial mound, the sizes of these masses, and their orientations when discovered. Ancient planners had most likely ordered masses to be “dumped” into the fill before covered with earth, thus allowing the Temple of Athena to stand on an elevated mound relative to the surrounding city. 

Although some of us were assigned with special tasks, such as media documentation or cataloguing, we each had the privilege of taking part in day labor, all the while learning various archaeological techniques in a very real hands-on environment. Hours were long and arduous, waking to roosters at the crack of dawn and watching the sun climb from one end of the sky to the other as we excavated and sifted through meters of earth every day for six weeks, excluding most — but not all — weekends. After returning to our homestay we’d walk across the road to the local beach and have a chance to enjoy the waters of the Gulf of Salerno before returning for dinner. We worked and lived with students from the Universities of Venice and Bologna, who themselves were as cordial and hardworking as we could ever ask for, learning a great deal about their regions’ local cultures while they heard of ours (we earned the honorable title of “American Barbarians” after exchanging some details, mainly about food preparation). As a member of the dig who had been working with the professors at Colgate since April and was the last to depart from Paestum in mid-August, I could not have imagined a more rewarding way of spending my summer break. Thanks to the generosity of the Benton Scholar program, as well as Colgate University as a whole, many of us were able to take part in a once-in-a-lifetime experience doing something that mattered greatly to the established realm of classical archaeology.


Erin Huiting ’17: Volunteering in Uganda with the Women’s Global Empowerment Fund

By Peter Tschirhart on February 24, 2017

Wall from the GWRC

The following post was contributed by Benton Scholar Erin Huiting ’17. She recently utilized Benton Scholars’ “Mini-Grant” funds to complete a volunteer-based research project in Uganda.

I came across the Denver-based non-profit Women’s Global Empowerment Fund (WGEF) as a young, curious student almost seven years ago. However, I still remember meeting the founder, Karen Sugar, with such clarity – her voice was kind and welcoming, yet overcome with raw despair. She spoke of a 23-year long civil war in northern Uganda that led to millions of internally displaced people (IDP), of which women and children were disproportionately affected. Today, even as a recovering post-conflict region, female education levels have remained extremely low and young girls are not actively encouraged to stay in school. This has left many women illiterate, and as a result, both economically and socially disenfranchised. In response, WGEF partnered with a community-based non-profit Volunteer Action Network to provide women of post-conflict northern Uganda with microcredit loans and social programing. After hearing this story, I became WGEF’s first volunteer. Little did I know this was the beginning of one of the most impactful experiences of my life.

Throughout high school, I found myself at several fundraisers, performances, and collaborations emphasizing WGEF’s work. I remained involved with WGEF as I left for college, and during my senior fall, Karen invited me to accompany herself and WGEF to the northern Gulu District of Uganda. After a long day of travel, I found Karen discussing her work in social justice amongst a group of women. One of which was writing an article for Marie Claire magazine about WGEF’s partnership with Urban Decay Cosmetics’ initiative to empower women, while the other women were apart of Urban Decay’s design and communication team. Given that I had personally witnessed the struggles of WGEF starting-up as a non-profit, meeting these women was a moment of both a joy and relief. Their support would enable WGEF to continue providing resources and information for the women of northern Uganda.

The next morning, I hopped on a ‘boda boda’ (motorbike taxi) and met everyone at WGEF’s opening of the Gulu Women’s Resource Center (GWRC). The center provides women a community meeting space, as well as computer and life skill trainings to facilitate conversations and develop solutions to relevant issues. There was a strong sense of pride and excitement as we watched the center open. The same day, I was introduced to one of WGEF’s clients, Akello Grace. I learned that despite spending more than 15 years in IDP camps, she is now an entrepreneur, community leader, and district council representative fiercely advocating for women’s rights. Grace remains one of the most powerful, selfless individuals I have ever met.

Riding on the boda boda, photo by Arnelle Lozado

Cutting the ribbon to the GWRC

From left: WGEF program associate Okumu Kevin, client Aloyojok Prisca, program associate Arena Monica, founder Karen Sugar, and client Akello Grace

The trip coincided with WGEF’s annual drama festival ‘Kikopo Pa Mon’ (creating a voice for women), where women perform dramas, dance, and song in the local Acholi language. Performances have previously focused on the issues of inequality, education inequity, HIV, and violence. Because these issues are sensitive and difficult to address, this unique opportunity allows women to communicate directly with men and community leaders in a stigma-free space. This year, the women chose the theme “Access to reproductive health care is my right.” While all of the women’s stories left me inspired, I was in awe of the younger girls who performed. Two girls in particular stood out – they were from a nearby primary school and chose to recite a dialogue demanding proper access to sanitation and menstrual care in schools. The audience cheered in support.

Photo by Arnelle Lozado

Photo by Keb Doak

On the flight home, I couldn’t help but smile and be overtaken with gratitude. I had the privilege to meet and listen to so many extraordinary women and girls from the Gulu community, and witness a sisterhood that enables women to find their voices. I am forever grateful for these moments and these women. And although there is much left to be done, I know the women of this region will persist and continue to accomplish great things. This is just the beginning.

Flying over Lake Victoria, Uganda

Jenny Lundt ’19: Chess is Global

By Peter Tschirhart on February 2, 2017

Benton Scholar Jenny Lundt ’19 knows chess. She’s also an experienced traveler. So, during the winter of 2017, she combined her interests into a Benton Mini-Grant project. Her proposal took her to South America, where she “backpacked through Peru with a chess board.” Chess, she discovered, isn’t just a game. It’s a way of bringing people together, facilitating communication across cultural and linguistic barriers. What follows is Jenny’s reflection.

I started like I had done a thousand times before.

The usual things. Clothes, shoes, shampoo, trail mix, portable charger: all find a niche in my backpack after a plethora of experience being hauled around the world. But this time was different. This time, I would be traveling with a chess board.

Throughout the course of my world travels, I have found that chess is global. No matter your race, gender, age, or ability, chess is played. For instance, during a visit to Ukraine last summer, I joined a tournament of old men, simply by motioning. This made me realize how a game about war is also connected to peace.

As a Peace and Conflict major at Colgate, this really interested me and made me want to learn more. So, I applied for a Benton Scholars “Mini Grant” and made chess the purpose of a trip. For three weeks during the winter of 2017, I backpacked through Peru with a chess board, setting it up wherever I was and waiting for an opponent. There was no clear plan, other than  to wait and see if anyone wanted to play.

The experience was everything and more I could have hoped for. A few highlights:

  • A game with an English teacher on the beach of Chancay over ceviche and cold chelas. As we played, he told me how desperately he wants to visit the US some day to live “the American dream.”
  • A game with a Peruvian driver with a knack for jokes who told me my Spanish was some of the best he’s heard in a while (still unsure if that was a joke?).
  • A game with my friend Luke, a true “third culture kid” whose father grew up in Mozambique, his mother in Ireland, and he in Peru. We sat as the sun went down over the beach in southern Lima and laughed about the wonders of our life for giving us this moment.
  • A two hour game with the father of my friend,  played on the balcony of his roof. We hadn’t been able to connect before that moment, but those drawn-out seconds in the open, humid air made us steal small, knowing smiles at each other for the rest of our stay. There was a deep mutual respect for each other after that. We had battled our intelligences out in a grueling match.
  • A game with Antwon, a Frenchman in my hostel room, who was coincidentally traveling with another Frenchman named Antoine. We played on the ground and sipped mate and laughed.
  • When I got horrible altitude sickness in Cusco and was bedridden for 24 hours. The Peruvian man working at the hostel came to check on me, bearing a gift of coca leaves. He looked around for something near me to rest them on, as I was too weak to move so he used my chessboard as a table, resting the leaves delicately on top. He joked, “Wow, chess is giving you life right now.” I was too ill to even explain the irony of his statement.
  • During a long bus ride through the country, I listened to an audio book to occupy the time. A main plot line was the progression of how a father and his son would play chess together to bring them closer together.
  • Traveling through in the darkness in the midst of the tallest mountain range in Peru, on an overnight bus, I was trying a little too hard to stretch out my legs and accidentally kicked the top off the chess game, spilling all 32 pieces all over the sticky bus floor. All of the little children scrambled around me trying to literally pick-up the pieces of the game. Their smiles and shrieks made the 12 hour journey so much easier as any nervousness I had about being on windy roads in the mountains that much easier.
  • Waiting for my flight down to Lima from Cusco (my altitude sickness got too severe) with a Danish couple playing their handcrafted chess board, with pieces representing different figures of Incan history and glory. I picked up the king, probably Atahualpa, and admired the intricate carvings and paintings of him dripping in gold.
  • When the flight attendant at the end of my trip confiscated the board because she thought it was a bottle of pisco, Peruvian brandy, then refused to give it back. It was forever lost to Copa Airlines.
  • Spending 5 nights on busses, my chess board and I experienced a lot. Aman sitting next to me on a bus peed in a Coke bottle. I threw up on myself because I was so ill. Oceans, lagoons, deserts, lakes, mountains, volcanoes, villages, metropolises, ruins. The game board was awkward and inconvenient to carry, but it became an additional limb, as I had to figure out how to schlep the tube around.

I confirmed my theory and came away with experiences that I would never have predicted. Whether it was physically playing the game or the physical proximity that the occurrences lead me to, I can say with complete certainty that this adventure brought me to people and stories I wouldn’t have had otherwise had.