Author Archives: bensweatervest

The Story of Two Drinks


Recently, while traveling through Guayaquil, I purchased two delicious, Ecuadorian produced drinks. One was a delicious tomatillo juice, and the other was a Rockstar energy drink. Now, I know what you are asking… How on earth is the Rockstar energy drink Ecuadorian? As it turns out, dear reader, there is a bottling plant in Guayaquil, which is just an hour and a half boat ride from the island where we are currently staying. Seeing as this drink is not available worldwide, and this is in fact the first time we have encountered it since we embarked, I have been drinking quite a bit of my favorite energy drink.

On this fateful day, I purchased more than a dozen (they don’t have it on our island), put them in my backpack, and began walking to the pier where I would catch a boat back to our island. On the way, I walked through a naval base, and was stopped by a couple of seamen who were on break. As it turns out, they love Rockstar, and it was their favorite drink. Seeing as I had so many, I offered them both one, and we talked for some time about what they do. As one was a medic, we also talked about what it is like to become a doctor in Ecuador verses in the United States. After some time, during which they were extremely kind as I spoke in broken Spanish, they escorted me off the base and thanked me for the drinks. This was an extremely wonderful interaction I had with local people that was facilitated by my favorite drink.

My favorite drink

My favorite drink

The interaction I had from the tomatillo juice was of a different type.

Both me and Conor had breakfast with a glass of tomatillo juice. Tomatillo juice is made from red tomatillo (rather than yellow tomatillo which Americans are more familiar with), and is rather like a mix of tomato and strawberry juice. We had confirmed with the owner of the restaurant that the juice was made with purified water before we ordered it.

He lied.

For two days after our trip to Guayaquil, the major interaction Conor and I had was with the toilet, as we suffered through two days of vomiting, diarrhea, cramps, and constant nausea. While I already noted the importance of purified water, this gave me first hand experience with the problem.


And now, after my experiences with these two Ecuadorian drinks, I am very hesitant to drink any more tomatillo juice, even from other restaurants, but am more than happy to get a caffeine boost from my Rockstars.

Clean Water by the Numbers

Water is one of the most, if not the most, important molecules for all life as we know it.
Water makes up about 65% of the mass of a human cell, and about 98.73% of the molecules in the human cell.
Water makes up more than 70% of the earth’s surface.
And water played a vital role in the formation of life on earth, both as the media for the primordial soup, and as the nursery and hunting grounds for all life for eons before it began to move to land.

But now, water is endangering the life it should sustain. Potable water is a rarity in many developing countries. Unclean water can cause severe illness and death. According to the World Health Organization, waterborne illnesses cause over 1.8 million deaths a year.


Dirty water on the side of a road of the island

Dirty water on the side of a road of the island

In Ecuador, 21.9% of households do not have access to clean drinking water. In rural areas, the percentage is significantly higher, like here on Isla Puná.

In Puná, Ecuador’s 2nd largest island, children and adults stream to the understaffed hospital with diarrhea, vomiting, and rashes and sores on their skin. These are the symptoms of the infections that dirty water has given them. They will be given antibiotics, and told that they need to drink purified water, but soon, sometimes within weeks, they will be sick again.

The problem is as simple as it is difficult. Clean drinking water will save their health, but at $1 for a 3.5 liter bottle, it is too expensive for the ill to afford. Bottled, purified water is just out of reach for these people. Many try, and purchase well-water from purveyors, but this water is often still dangerous.


One of the island`s dirty water sources

One of the island`s dirty water sources

When determining if water is safe, we look at several factors. Here in Puná, the factor to look at is the “Colony Forming Units”level or how many clumps of bacteria that can form new colonies are in a volume of water. These colonies could grow in the soil, on fur, or inside the gut of a child, making that child ill. The well-water sold here in Puná has been measured at 1000 CFUs per ml, 2-4 times what is considered safe in the USA. It is not a guarantee that one will get sick from drinking this water; due to the lack of quality control, some batches are safer than others. But we know that innumerable healthy people have gotten sick from this water, and they will continue to get sick from this water.

That’s all about to change.

Due to the hard work and ingenuity of Water Ecuador, a local of Punáwho once sold unclean water will begin selling Azul Pura. This water will be sold at $1.50 for a poma, or 5 gallon jug. This brand was developed by Water Ecuador, and it symbolizes a commitment to the highest quality purified water at an affordable price.

The water sold under the Azul Pura brand has multiple redundant purification and filtration steps to provide the highest quality water. Water is filtered two times through sediment filters and again through an activated carbon filter. After one pass through a water softener, the water’s dissolved magnesium and calcium (Mg2+ and Ca2+) is replaced with sodium or potassium ions (Na+ and K+), making it more palatable. Thanks to the UV purification, light waves at 254nm blast apart the DNA of microorganisms in the water, removing dangers from bacteria and viruses. These are in addition to the reverse osmosis system, which by taking advantage a peculiar thermodynamic principle, removes all particles larger than 0.1 nm. This water truly is Pure Blue.

The truly remarkable part of Azul Pura is not the excellently designed water purification system, but rather that that way the brand expands. The owners of the systems are always locals of the area the system is serving. They also operate the system, and sell the water, and reap all of the profits. All Water Ecuador does is design the system, help in implementation, and assist with upkeep of the system. They also heavily subsidize the system so that locals can afford this expensive equipment, but that is beside the point. Azul Pura is water for the people of an area, purified and sold by people of that area, sourced from that area, and the profits stay in that area. The work Water Ecuador does is not to come in and save a people, nor to reap profits off the impoverished, but rather to help locals help themselves get rid of a serious public health hazard, unclean drinking water. And THAT, is 100% awesome.

The new wall for the Azul Pura building

The new wall for the Azul Pura building

Step 4


While traveling abroad, and teaching, and working, and just existing in a drastically different environment and culture, I occasionally run into little problems where I have no idea what is going on.

This type of problem occurs when ordering food, but it is seldom important, as the food is usually delicious.
This type of problem occurs when using local transit, but is usually remediable by an extra trip or two on a bus.
And, this type of problem occurs when teaching. Sometimes it is a little thing, like not knowing what kids mean by a “short call” (using the bathroom, but very quickly). Sometimes it is a big thing (like kids not knowing I mean by a “quiz” and not telling me until they complain about the poor grades).

And sometimes, this type of problem is just bamboozling.


I do not know how to do step 4….


Weights and Measures


A friend of mine told me how brave I was for writing about something as sensitive as my own obesity. I disagree….

For me, talking about my weight when I was large was easy. It is easy for me to poke fun at myself and show vulnerability through jokes about something I’m shamed about.

Now we get to the hard stuff. Now I am putting on my brave….

When I left for this trip, I was wearing a 42/44 inch waist. Now, I can squeeze into a 34 inch waist, and the 36 inch shorts that I am wearing right now are a bit loose.

Now, before you ask, there is no magical weight loss plant that I found. I did find a protist that helped, but that was malaria, so I wouldn’t recommend it. And it wasn’t solely malaria-pounds that I lost. Through the hiking, and carrying, and walking, and exploring, and working, I have lost a bit of fat, and gained a bit of muscle. And my physical stamina is the best it has been in a long time.

Right now, I’m in the best shape I’ve been in in a long time, if not my life, and yet I am so much more sensitive about it than I have ever been. Now that I have something to be invested in, I am invested in it. And that scares me.

I am scared that my weight will be something that I obsess over. I already have an unhealthy relationship with food, and “eat when you are hungry” simply does not work for me. Previously, I was heavy, due to my love of cooking, and eating, but the alternative is so much scarier. Now that I have begun to celebrate lost inches, I am fearful that I might develop an eating disorder when left to my own devices as a busy academic back in the states. Until then, I am focusing on not focusing on it, and refuse to give my mind footholds to climb on to an obsession. For example,I don’t weigh myself, for fear that I will begin to count the ounces of gain or loss. But I know myself. I know I obsess over things. Sometimes I give my obsessions too much control, and sometimes I lose sight. And I am scared that I might fall into a bad place, where my weight and appearance take up more of my mind than I care to give it.

I am so scared…

And I am sensitive. In the USA, it wasn’t hard to find clothes that fit. I sometimes had to be satisfied with a smaller selection than my more slender compatriots, but I generally didn’t have to look hard. When we were in Ghana, I looked, and searched, and investigated, and I couldn’t find a pair of pants that were larger than 34s. And that crushed me. My companions were mostly supportive, and helped me, and helped me look through markets and stores, but it was still difficult.

And one desperate night, fresh with frustration at my inability to clothe myself, I made a joke about how in a country rife with malnutrition, poverty, and extreme hunger, how could I expect them to carry clothes that could fit my lardy-self. And a Westerner who was nearby was vocally upset.

=How could I say something that is so shamming to skinny people? Not everyone who is skinny is impoverished=

And I broke down. Normally, I would bite back, explaining that that is not what I said. That there are skinny people everywhere, regardless of economic status. I might bring up how I’m not talking about skinny clothes, just the lack of large clothes. I might even be empathic and charitable, and agree that skinny shaming is a serious issue in western society, then state why I need to vent about things. I would likely explain why the shortage of nutritious food is certainly a factor in the lack of obesity in developing countries. Instead, I just broke down. Two of my traveling partners could see how upset I was, and gave me comforting hugs, and held me up as I choked back tears.

And the utter joy I had when we were in the Dominican Republic, just days after that desperate night, when I found a selection of clothes in my size, and sizes larger, at several thrift shops and other retailers. I am not sure if I have ever had that much joy in finding clothes.

I don’t know how I feel about this. About all of this…
I have new sensitivities.
I have new concerns.
And in a few months, I will have to get a brand new wardrobe.

But right now. At this exact moment, I am so happy.

And on the 26th of December, 2013, I looked in the mirror at myself with my shirt off, and I wasn’t ashamed of what I saw. I think maybe for the first time, I was happy with my body. I was proud. I was proud of the progress I had made toward my goal, and excited that I would be making more.

This is new territory for me. And I am eager to explore it.


Turning malaria into a positive thing: fundraising time!

So, I’m currently ill, and am not able to due much, but I am doing this:

So, it’s time for our Ghana Fundraiser. But, as I am typing this, I am fighting malaria…

Not in the humanitarian, handing out mosquito nets and medicine way, but in the malaria is in my blood way…. In the sweating and headaches and taking 15 pills a day way…

And so, I’m asking for your help. Even with me currently fighting this infection, the work of the Pathfinders Project and our current partner AFAWI, the Alliance For African Women Initiate, is still going strong. But to continue, we need your help.

Please consider supporting our cause. I am prepared to offer the following bonuses, in my malarial state,to incentivize your donation.

For just $10, I will give you a shout out on facebook /twitter.

For $25, I will send you information on avoiding HIV/AIDS (one of the other blood borne illnesses prevalent in this area), the very same information I have given to hundreds of at risk children here in Africa.

For $50 I will send you an explanation of how a little parasite is able to give me (and millions others every year) all of this malaria suffering.

For $75, I will write you a poem. Any topic, and any rhyme scheme or other way that you want me to write you a poem, you got it.

For $100, I will draw a cartoon explaining a biologic phenomenon just for you.

For $150, I will write a blog post about you, and how much your generosity means to me.

If you have any other suggestions of things you would like me to do, please message me at Ben (at)>

Make sure to check it out, and donate at

The Z/Zed discrepancy

(This post was written as we were in our 3rd week in Cambodia)

For the last few weeks, we have been in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and working with the Bridge Of Life School. We are teaching English to the students of this school, who speak Khmer (the language of Cambodia). There are two classes of students (each about 25 students), one working on conversational English, and the other on the basics, such as English letters. We have been working mostly with the students learning English letters, and it is proving a challenging environment for me.

Now, I became a certified (in the state of Minnesota) tutor my sophomore year of college, and I have a huge amount of experience in the area. But, I tutor mostly college level science (biology, chemistry, and physics), with some ACT prep and math thrown in there, but nothing like working with children this young. It seems like the average age of students learning English letters is ~7, and I haven’t tutored someone that young since I was that age myself. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that I haven’t tutored English before, much less English to speakers of other languages.

When I am teaching English to these students, I have to speak slowly and carefully, making sure to pronounce things as clearly as possible, so as to not teach them poor pronunciation. Not to mention all of the differences between their English and what I learned. Due to Cambodia’s history (originally a colony), they say Z as “zed”, not “zee” as I am used to…. And the first time a student looked at me with confusion when I said our 26th letter, I had no idea what I did wrong. I first thought that the student didn’t know the letter….

But then as I realized the problem, I had a minor freak-out….

I had already taught several children that that letter is Z(ee). I wondered how many children I had ruined…. Language is cumulative, and habits stick around. Could this incorrect information stick with this child? Could it spread? Would my volunteering, no matter how well intentioned, actually make the child’s education less effective?

Would this child be worse of because of me?

So…… Yea….

I am looking forward to teaching science instead….. Besides the fact that I know how science works, and I have experience in science education, it is something that doesn’t scare me.

Science education is already so strongly based on cultivation of concepts. The things you learn in elementary school are not correct. They are simply in the right direction. And every few years, you learn the things you though are not really the way things work…. And then a few years later you learn that again….. And again… And again….

And so it is not simply about learning facts, or concepts…. Science education is about learning to flow and understand, and to make sense of things that don’t make sense….

And I am good at that. I like that….

But not this “Zee/Zed” crap.

25 Minutes

A 5 liter bottle for the house,
A 1.5 liter bottle for me.
Another 1. 5 liter bottle for Conor.
And another for Wendy.
Wendy and Michelle have “reusable” water bottles, so 700ml each for those.

That is roughly the amount of water we, the Pathfinders Pack, drink a day. And so that is the amount of purified drinking water we need to produce per day.

A total of 10.9 liters….. Plus drips and spills and mis-measures, so closer to 12 liters….

12 liters per day must be purified.

We use a SteriPEN provided to us by Michelle. This remarkable gadget uses UV to purify water, dismembering the DNA of the would-be pathogens with its 254 nm shine. The SteriPEN has 2 settings, one for 500 milliliters, and one for 1 liter. Our processing time sped up after I made a 1 liter “beaker” using an old 1.5 liter bottle, a 300mL bottle, a pocket knife, and math reminiscent of 3rd grade.

The SteriPEN takes 90 seconds for a 1 liter batch, and so purification for our 12 liters takes 18 minutes of pure UV light-show. 18 minutes of 90 second batches separated by pouring out the purified water into a more suitable container, and pouring in water from a jerrycan.

It works out to about 25 minutes to purify all the drinking water for a day.

Michelle and I do the bulk of the water purification, and so we will spend that 25 minutes chatting…. Or arguing….

More than once, I have been unable to sleep and will spend that 25 minutes in the middle of the night, listening to Skeptically Speaking, or jamming out to music to the light of the SteriPEN.

I may spend those 25 minutes reading wikipedia articles, or pursuing through lab reports or microbiology textbooks on my ipad.

And sometimes I will just spend those 25 minutes in silence, reflecting on the day, or myself, or my path…. And thinking…. Contemplating….. Dreaming….

25 minutes to keep us drinking purified water. 25 minutes to prevent the local bacteria from colonizing our guts.

25 minutes to prevent hours over the squat toilet.

A necessary 25 minutes…

Confessions of a Fat Guy in Cambodia

(This post was written as we were leaving Cambodia)


If you read Conor’s recent post, you may have noticed something.

I dare say I played the omnivore better than Michelle and Wendy, who had trouble adjusting to how the number of bones seemed to increase with each passing meal.

Now, I am not in this list, because I have no trouble eating off bones (the meat is usually the most flavorful there). I am likely the most adventurous eater on this trip, which is a point of pride for me. I will try pretty much any type of food at least once and, even if it was disgusting, more than once if I think it merits another chance. I do this because I want to experience the new tastes and textures and methods and ideas that these cultures have on food. I want to understand the concept of these new cuisines.

I am definitely a foodie, and a love that. I have cooked through the good parts of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I have eaten raw fish prepared in the style of several different cultures. I have Flambéed more times than I can remember. I have enjoyed bugs, and heart, and fruits that taste like onion. And I have tolerated liver (seriously, filter organs are gross).

And I have never really said no to a new type of food.

And I have enjoyed the vast majority of what I have tried.

And I like that. I love that part of my identity.


But I have also had an unhealthy relationship with food for a long time.

I have also been fat for the majority of my life.

I have had a terrible body image for longer than I understood what that meant.

And my body has definitely detrimental effect on my self-esteem.

And Cambodia is not made for people of my size…..

Now, I should mention that since I no longer spend 16 hours a day studying/working/in lab, I have had a much healthier lifestyle. I now move and hike and do lots of things that I didn’t in my sedimentary student/employee lifestyle. And so I have already lost a significant amount of weight, and I hypothesize that by the time I am back in the states, I may be fit.

But I’m still a big guy…

And so I have had to sit in chairs made for children and mostly squat to not break the chair. I squished into chairs and seats and took up more than my share of the Tuk Tuk. And I have been in hammocks with deteriorating wood that I was sure would break….

And sometimes they did… (Michelle has pictures if you want to see)

And it is just because the Cambodians are (mostly) a small people and so they don’t build things for western sized people. And especially for fat westerners (like me).

And so things like that take my already tenuous self-esteem and causes havoc.

The best way I can explain this is if I was on a rope bridge and the rope began to fray and break…. Because it can’t support me…. Because I’m fat…

So, yeah…. Hopefully our next location (Kasese, Uganda) will be easier on this….

In short, I hope Uganda has fat people…

Counting in khmer


Here in Cambodia, the official language is Khmer. Now Khmer is a very interesting language definitely worth a bit of research (Here is the Wikipedia page to start you off). It is also a difficult language for many to learn, as it has a different type of alphabet than most western languages use. It uses an alphasyllabary writing system, so…. difficult.

្ឈ chhô cʰɔ
្ញ nhô ɲɔ
្ដ ɗɑ
្ឋ thâ tʰɑ
្ឌ ɗɔ
្ឍ thô tʰɔ
្ថ thâ tʰɑ

Here are 10 of the 35 Khmer Consonants

And, since we are only in Cambodia for about a month, I didn’t expect to learn much of the language. So, while I know “thank you”, “how much is this”, and a few other strategic phrases, I cant speak it to save my life.

Luckily though, a large percentage of Cambodians (especially people who interact with westerners) speak at least some English.

At least enough to help us order fruit

Numbers, however, I wanted to learn. Generally, numbers are a lot easier for me to learn, as it is a constant pattern, and predictable, and easy.

And Khmer numbers were interesting to use…

So, the modern Khmer Number system is biquinary, meaning it uses both base 5 and base 10. So, when counting, you count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 5+1, 5+2, 5+3, 5+4, 10.

Value Khmer prounciantion
0 sūny
1 muay
2 bīr
4 puan
5 prâṃ
6 prâṃ muay
7 prâṃ bīr
8 prâṃ pī
9 prâṃ puan
10 ១០ ṭáp
11 ១១ ṭáp muay
20 ២០ mbhai

Now, not only did I enjoy learning about this new number system, the students enjoyed leading me and the other pathfinders in counting, all the way up to 100 (muay ray).

I miss them

Modern Embassies

The PathfindersProject trip is a long one…..
This trip is a year long, in 8 countries, and with more than 10 service location. So a lot of planning went into the trip…..



One of the official emails we received.

That being said, things change, and success favors the prepared and the flexible, so one of the precautions we took was to register our trip with the US Embassies in the countries we are going to.

This means that (since we live in the technology age) we get email updates from the Embassies whenever there is a concern, with information about the concern, including suggested safety precautions.

Now, this is a wonderful service provided by our government, and I feel it is very appropriately done.

That being said, they provide more services, such as apps for your smart phone (makes sense), a facebook page to like (seems a little silly) or even following them on twitter


The Official Twitter page

Now it’s not that I don’t think these services should exist (I’m sure lots of people gain from it, with almost no cost to upkeep) but I just think it is absurd that you can follow your embassy on twitter….

Oh the world we live in… It is beginning to make me feel like a crotchety old man.