Roads, Busses, & Schooling

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A school I visited in Zambia.

Reading this week:

  • The Good Shepherd by C.S. Forester

I was supposed to be in Kenya this week for a school project, but COVID-19 put a damper on those plans. So in search of content I wanted to share some thoughts on a sort of pet notion of mine: the effect of school busses on education.

I am more or less obsessed with the notion that the key to all development is building good roads. This of course comes from my experiences in Zambia, where the village I lived in, while only 12km away from Mbala, was connected to the town only via an absolutely terrible dirt road that took a 4×4 a hour to travel down. That, combined with the education I saw in Zambia, got me thinking about busses.

I think busses are a little-sung hero of public education (not entirely; there appears to be a globe-spanning school bus industry that does its best to trumpet its advantages). I didn’t have to think about them much until I had to think about the implications of living without them. In Zambia I don’t think I saw any school busses. I would see a bus for the nursing school driving around, and one time I wound up on a bus that was almost entirely chartered by a girl’s boarding school that was sending a chunk of students back to Mbala, but as far as I know there aren’t any examples of dedicated public transportation for schools. The upswing of that is that kids have to walk to school. That by itself is good and fine; kids should of course be expected to walk to school uphill both ways in the snow. But what it means is that you wind up having schools every 5-10km or so, so that kids are able to walk to school in under an hour (people at a fairly brisk pace walk about 5km an hour). An hour walk doesn’t sound too bad, until you do it every day both ways in the hot African sun without shoes.

The upswing of having schools every 5-10km is that they have to be small. If the country has so many teachers, and those teachers are going to be split up among so many schools, then the more schools you have the fewer each school gets. One school near me had only one teacher who was teaching, or at least trying to teach, 150 students. So this, I think, is one of the big advantages of busses: they let you consolidate schools. That would allow you to pool resources in a lot of better ways. Teachers could specialize in just one subject or just one grade, which I think could improve teaching. These schools I am talking about are mostly primary schools, which covered grades 1-7. Back in my elementary school, we had one teacher that taught most every subject which I think is normal, but we were able to have a dedicated art teacher and a dedicated computer lab. In Zambia computers are part of the school curriculum, but there is no way these tiny schools would have the resources to maintain a computer. In a more consolidated school, I think you could  manage to have something like that. You might even be able to have a dedicated administrative staff, which would be a boon. In the school with the lone teacher, whenever he needed to talk to the school district office he had to go into town which cost a whole day of instruction.

School busses would also provide a lot more school access. It is sustainable, if less than ideal, to have a whole bunch of primary schools spread around rural areas. But for secondary schools, the curriculum there requires dedicated science teachers and the like. So by necessity (and, unfortunately, demand), there were a far smaller number of secondary schools. The closest secondary school to my village was in Mbala, which like I said is 12km away. This was generally a 2.5-3 hour walk, which is more or less impossible to do every single day if you’re a high school student. The upswing is that secondary schools in Zambia tended to be boarding schools, though if you lived near enough you could of course just be a day student. But boarding schools were necessarily more expensive, and so out of reach of the vast majority of students. If there were school busses that could take students to school, far more students would have access to education.

I tried to find articles and research that could help me determine the exact effects that school busses had on education. I couldn’t find a whole lot that was specifically about busses (I did come across this article, which I think explains my own academic success), so I tried to find research about school size. Turns out there are a lot of articles in that vein, mostly it seems tied to the small schools movement. The general theme in these articles is that smaller schools provide more access to teachers and community, which is good and excellent. An interesting insight in this article is that larger schools are favored by governments because they tend to be cheaper to run. In the context of Zambia, the education system is already pretty dismal due to a lack of budget, so I think that if larger schools are cheaper this could be a major advantage, despite a potential reduction in community, if it means that more students have access to education at all. One newspaper article from 1988 was in line with my thinking, pointing to research that said students in bigger high schools did better because they got to enroll in the more specialized and advanced classes that those schools were able to support.

I would like to see more research on the exact impacts that bussing can have on student’s education, especially with regards to access to education and the effect on schooling. That might be another arrow in the quiver of arguments for why roads are so awesome, because it would be hard or impossible to have busses without an adequate road network. Of course, it might be out of reach anyways; not only would you have to build a whole road network, but according to one article bussing in the United States costs about $500 per pupil per year. In Zambia in 2018, the government was able to allocate about $200 per pupil total for education. There is lots and lots of work to do to make sure every kid can get a quality education.

Boston

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Reading this week:

  • The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin
  • The Dark Forest by Liu Cixin

This past weekend (with the usual caveats of time) I went up to Boston with my friend Mike. Mike had been wanting to take a trip up to Boston since last semester and we just never got around to it until now. So we went!

It was a two-day overnight trip. We drove up the morning of Saturday and the first place we went was to the JFK Presidential Museum & Library. That was pretty neat! Frankly there was very little chance I wasn’t going to like the place. JFK started the Peace Corps! There were swords on display! And JFK liked to sail! President Carter and I both graduated from the Naval Academy and served in submarines, and so when I was in the Peace Corps I very purposefully grew peanuts just go rack up another similarity. At the JFK museum I learned that he sailed in the McMillan Cup. Me too! Or at least I remember helping out. It’s been a minute and I would have payed more attention if I had realized. Here’s another true fact though: I once went sailing with Ted Kennedy. So there ya go.

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I also want to note that they had on display a dress from Kennedy’s campaign. I found this neat because I kinda like the idea of people wearing clothing with my name written on it. Maybe this can be another thing JFK and I will have in common in the future. That and a collection of scrimshaw. A boy can dream.

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After the JFK museum Mike and I went to the Sam Adams Brewery to have a look around. This was pretty neat and was worth the price, which was free. I’ve been on more than one brewery tour in my day and I was worried that this would just be us looking at tanks, as is the case with most brewery tours. The above picture is us looking at those tanks. But it was also more! They had a whole bit on ingredients where we got to like, eat some of them, and then afterwards there was a whole beer tasting bit. So yeah, pretty darn alright!

After the brewery tour we finally checked into the hotel and then ventured over to the North End to wander around. We didn’t really mean to but wound up following the Freedom Trail around. I guess large chunks of Boston are on the Freedom Trail so it is hard to avoid. We had dinner at a somewhat overpriced Italian place and then got a drink at a bar. Based on signs I read in bars and restaurants while in Boston, Paul Revere frequented a LOT of different taverns.

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The next day I was hoping to get back by mid-afternoon but we spent the morning wandering around and looking at stuff. We climbed all the way up to the top of the Bunker Hill memorial. That was pretty neat! I had been in the area before but had somehow never made it up the thing. The view is good! I was excited to see a Roro out one window and then the USS Constitution out another window, so that is an excellent set of windows! We stopped by the museum which was informative before wandering down to the Constitution.

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I’ve never been to Boston without visiting the Constitution. Mike originally didn’t want to go because I had already been and he was worried about me not being entertained but tell you what man it is such a great ship. Every time I go I run around looking at lines and rigging and stuff and then cannons and then portholes and looking at the Midshipman pantry (when I was a Midshipman and on the boat I was like “hey that is my pantry). The signs weren’t up this trip so I told Mike everything I could remember about the thing. So fantastic. Much great. Love visiting the ship is the point here.

But yeah with that our Boston trip was over. Pretty nice town!

Guatemala Part VII: Guatemala City

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Pretty kitty!

When I checked into the hotel in Coban I thought travelling to Antigua the next day was going to be simple. I thought I was going to get on a shuttle that would show up in the morning and I would get to Antigua in the early afternoon and everything would be great. This did not happen.

When I got a shuttle ticket the dude at the front counter told me to be ready for the shuttle by 1030, so I was down in the lobby at 1020 having spent the morning reading the news. I waited around because the shuttle might be there as late as 1100, I was warned. At like 1105 it hadn’t come so the dude was calling and at 1115 he led me out front where I was picked up… by a pickup truck. Apparently, we were going to go meet the shuttle elsewhere. He drove me around Coban where I was somewhat disappointed to discover a McDonald’s. Then I was more disappointed to discover we were going to the McDonald’s. I had figured out that this shuttle was coming from elsewhere and so was stopping at McDonald’s for lunch. This was all very disappointing to me. I should have gotten lunch but I didn’t come to Guatemala to eat McDonald’s. The bus showed up and I couldn’t really get on right away because everyone left the bus and I didn’t know what seats were free. It was supposed to be a 15-minute stop (it showed at 1135) but it turned into more like half an hour. I was annoyed because I knew I was going to be hungry, I was next to a McDonald’s, and I thought this shuttle would be fine because I thought it was leaving at 1030, not noon.

Eventually I got on the bus when some other people got on, selecting a seat that appeared empty. It wasn’t. The girl who had been sitting in the seat got on, but didn’t tell me, and instead wandered around confused for a bit until someone else told me. I knew it was her seat at this point but I didn’t care. But then I got up (why should she actually be able to claim it?) and we futzed figuring out where to put me until I wound up… in the jump seat right next to the girl. I was annoyed by the whole thing man but we were on our way. I regret taking the shuttle. There was the thing where it was late but mostly, I don’t like being around the other tourists. I hate saying this, because every tourist complains about tourists and if you’re going to go do touristy things then by definition anywhere you go there are tourists because you are there. But what I don’t understand about this brand of tourist is why they wear shorts. You never see the Guatemalans wearing shorts. Why do they feel the need to? It’s hot? Grow up, it’s not that hot, and if it is too hot for you don’t come to the country. I don’t like how they act and I don’t like how they dress and I don’t like being with them. But on we rode.

Some notes: I saw a field of cabbage. There were several fields of trestles growing I don’t know what. One I saw fully covered in some sort of vines, but on a lot more I saw plastic on the ground or plastic spread across the poles fully or just like plastic strips. The first part of the drive was very foggy. I didn’t get a good look out of the windows because I was in the aisle and also it was foggy. I suspect the driver didn’t get a good look either but I chose to ignore that. We passed a place that was called (in Spanish) “The cabin of the two cheeses and more.” At one point the bus pulled over and it appeared the driver was buying flowers (we were in front of a flower stand) but it seems he was picking up a bag. I would have preferred the flowers. Eventually, it started to clear up more as we gained altitude. The entire drive it seemed was uphill, passing into country that was more dominated by pines than palms. Long stretches of it reminded me of crossing the mountains in Washington, where you’re in a valley that follows a stream with small bridges crossing it. I was getting a headache from not eating but later on we stopped at a convenience store where I got some twinkies so that helped. Some people also got off which opened up some seats, so I got a real chair. I was annoyed to discover that the woman next to me was sprawled out on two seats where I had the seat behind the wheelwell and therefore had no leg room. She also had hung, I believe, her bra off the back of the seat in front of her (off the handle thing) and I think also her underwear/shorts? See what I’m saying about these tourists?

It was about this point that I decided not to take the bus all the way to Antigua. It would be too late for me to see anything. So when we stopped in Guatemala City, I got off and caught a taxi. I really need to learn Spanish because telling the taxi driver where I wanted to go was hard. It was mostly me showing him my phone which was not the best option in a moving car. But at least I was free of the bus. From the taxi I noted that there were dudes selling random stuff at intersections, so I guess some things are just universal. I also saw little McDonald’s signs everywhere, advertising I think like UberEats or whatever. Like little Golden Arches sitting on top of street lights. But the taxi driver who was very nice and helpful got me to the hotel and I got a room. I set out for dinner only to discover that my hotel was next to yet another McDonald’s. I think my new rule for travel will be to not go to countries with McDonald’s in them. They just throw me off man. I don’t like them. But I found a place called a “Pasteleria,” which lead me to believe they would have like, linguini. This was not true, it was a pastry place that was also a cafe, where I had a just fine burrito thing and then went back to the hotel where I took a shower and turned in.

On my full day in Guatemala City, I went to a whole lot of museums. After breakfast I set straight out. I walked to the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Couple of points. First off, the crosswalks work differently. Back home they tell you to stop walking before the light turns. Here it is green for walk right up to the second the cars get a green, so I nearly got run over. The walk was largely about me noticing American food chains. Today I passed Taco bell and Dunkin Donuts. Last night there was Hardees and TGI Friday’s. At the zoo there is a Dominoes. Uber Eats was everywhere! I don’t like it. I also saw a dude on an electric scooter, but that’s unrelated.

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I made it to the museum at like 0920. It was supposed to open at 0900, but when I found the door the security guard had me wait a few more minutes. I finally got in at 0930. It is not a well-trafficked museum, but it is pretty fantastic. Very modern, very well done, and packed with artifacts. It was cool wandering around. They had the bones of one of the rulers of Tikal just tucked away in a corner and that’s crazy. After wandering through and I next decided to go to the zoo. The zoo was also fantastic. Super well done. Tons of animals. Frankly it felt a bit silly because the first part is “Africa Land” and well, I’ve seen a number of these animals in real life. Real life is a dumb thing to say. In the wild. But I enjoyed seeing the Spanish names of these guys, and they had jaguars and I wanted to see those while in Guatemala. So that was fantastic. I had lunch at the hotdog place at the zoo, where you could order a “Gringo Hot Dog.” It was indeed how I would normally eat a hot dog, but I had the “Mexicano” instead. Then it was across the street to the Artisan Market. I was looking for the touristy kitcsh but they didn’t have the kitsch I was looking for so I left without buying anything.

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The mortal remains of the legendary Jasaw Chan K’awiil, 18th ruler in the dynastic line of succession at Tikal.

Since I was close, I went to the Natural History Museum that was next to the Archaeology museum. It was pretty bad. That’s not fair, it was just basic natural history stuff (and an elephant and giraffe skeleton) so I didn’t spend any time in there. I decided to flag down a taxi and go across town to the other natural history museum, the USC one or something. I arrived and in some rapid-fire Spanish I believe what the lady said was that the museum was closed but the botanical gardens were open and hey it was free so I looked at the gardens. They were very lovely.

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Botanical gardens.

From there I still had time for museums so I walked to the Museo Ixchel & Popol Vuh. Or at least tried to. It’s on the campus of a college and I wandered in trying to go where maps.me took me and it took me into the dorms of Galileo college. Which are nice! I asked a security guard about it, saying “museo,” or so I thought, and he lead me on a winding route up to what I think was a media lab, where I met some more nice people, who finally understood I was saying “museo” (I can’t imagine what I was really saying), and then the security guard lead me to the right place. Those museums were nice but I was going through them a bit perfunctorily. I am not actually that interested in textiles, though they had several looms and it occurred to me I don’t actually know how to operate one. After I got home I ordered a Guatemalan backstrap loom off of etsy.

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Textiles!

Then I popped over to Popol Vuh which is full of artifacts. So that was neat. Learned about the Dresden Codex and stuff. Um yeah. At this point I was tired and my foot was hurting me so I hobbled back to the hotel where I chilled for a bit, looking forward to my flight home the next day. And then, defeated by other food options, I gave in and went to McDonald’s.

Guatemala Part VI: Aguateca

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I was worried about making it to Sayache, so I woke up at like 0630 and got my stuff together and left the hotel at like 0700. I found a Tuk-Tuk and told him I was going to Sayache and so he sped me off to the bus station and found me the right bus. I pretty much stepped off the tuk-tuk, stepped onto the bus, and off we went. We patrolled the town slightly for more riders, stopping at the market for a while, but so far, I had been impressed with Guatemalan busses by how little they stay waiting for passengers. They’ll go with less than a full bus confident they’ll pick up people along the way. The conductors in Guatemala and in Zambia could otherwise be close brothers, however. The ride out the side and yell in the same way, and today I even got a “yes boss.” So that reminded me of Zambia.

In the market I saw some stuff, including a whole stack of saddles on the back of a truck that were to stock up some store for sale. I also in Sayache saw some like, home-made saddles (I think) out of I think cow-hide. So it is a whole thing. I wrote down in my notebook that the minibus was squeezing through the market, and there was not a lot of clearance for sure. I saw a guy in a “USS Enterprise CVN-65” hat so I thought that was neat. I saw an absolutely gigantic bull on the back of a pickup truck in one of those cages they have on the back of the trucks, with its horns sticking out the top. I bothered to look today too and I saw street food vendors cooking over both gas and wood but no charcoal. I wonder why? Some other things I noted to note was that I haven’t been stared at, which, I dunno, I’m a little hurt. I also haven’t seen any dumbphones, just smartphones. Un-Zambia-like.

Eventually we set off in earnest and I was rewarded by the sight of a full-on cowboy. Like riding on the back of a horse (I think he was the first horserider I saw) with a cowboy hat and overshirt flapping in the breeze. Magnificent. Later on one of the bus passengers had a “Wrangler” shirt (it said Wrangler), and based on his hat and boots I believe he actually wrangled so that was cool. I also saw a cow being hog-tied with a dude on a horse next to it, so this is legit cattle country. Eventually and without trouble we got to Sayache. The bus dropped us off and for lack of better ideas I took the ferry across the river to the town proper. I said I might show up at like 1000 and I actually arrived at 0900 so my plan was to find some breakfast. As I stopped off the boat however I heard a “Patrick?” and there was Don Pedro. He was ready to put me on a boat but I mentioned breakfast so he led me over to a street food kinda stand where in a bit of a daze I ordered roast chicken for breakfast. That chicken was absolutely phenomenal. I awkwardly ate (I don’t really know what to do with the tortillas) and asked for some bottles of water and I was loaded up into a boat. Don Pedro wasn’t coming but handed me off to “mi capitan.” I never got his name but he was very nice.

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We were in a small metal boat with a canopy and comfortable-ish seats. The ride to the site was pretty awesome. We went fast down the river but it was still about an hour and a half of riding. I saw all sorts of stuff on the river. There were homesteads and cattle farms. There were places where they obviously loaded cattle onto barges and that I wish I could have seen, a cattle barge. At one point a pack of dogs came running when they heard the boat and I thought that was cute. We waved to all sorts of people and there was a good chunk of river traffic. It mostly seemed to be people collecting firewood; I saw more than one boat being loaded. On the way back there was a little caravan of two canoes, the front one with a motor and towing the second one, both loaded down totally and with an old dude up front and two kids steering (one on the motor and another with a paddle in the rear one). I enjoyed speeding down the river and capitan was not bashful about taking turns. It got really fun towards the end when the river narrowed. In the meantime, we went through that big lake and that was cool. It is edged with these jungle-covered hills so it really looked like you were coming up on some sort of I dunno unexplored realm. There were tons of birds all along the path too. More than once a bird launched and then we wound up chasing it down the river as it twisted and turned around the bends. There was a small blue heron thing I took care to note. I also saw muscovy ducks.

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Path to Aguateca.

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When you arrive at Agauteca you dock in this small lagoon at the end of a narrower and narrower river. You pull up to the riverbank and then scramble up to the entrance. They had clearly planned a much bigger site as there is a partially-completed but abandoned visitor’s center that is fairly large with signs all over the place. There were dudes that worked there but they mostly just said hi and capitan had me sign in (there were three French guys there the day before, and it looks like it gets about a person a day; I had the place to myself) and he guided me through the place. First you walk along the bottom of some tall cliffs. There were tons and tons of mosquitos so I didn’t like to stop for long. At the end of the cliffs there is a viewpoint that gives you majestic views of the river you just came down and the plains beyond. Then you circle back around and walk through a ravine. The ravine splits the site and over it is a natural bridge and an artificial bridge. Scrambling down the thing was actually sorta harrowing but I made it up and down. Capitan knew where people liked to take pictures and asked for my camera to take a picture of me at every spot. Then we scrambled back up out of the ravine and viewed the site proper. I don’t know how much is or isn’t uncovered of the place, but the temples there are rather smaller than the other ones I have seen, but it seems more intimate as you visit more of the residential palaces and things. We walked through and saw all sorts of stuff and replica stelae and some real stelae still laying where they fell. I think the whole tour was about an hour and a half and I was glad to be done with the mosquitoes. So back on the boat and another great time zooming down the river.

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Not every picture he took was good.

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He also insisted on this one. Why do I pose like this?

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This is the only intact, man-made stone bridge known in the Mayan world.

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Me & Capitan.

We arrived back at Sayache and I paid capitan and retrieved my backpack and then I went to go search for some lunch. I walked around looking for something that looked like a restaurant and found nothing. Embarrassed, I went to a fried chicken place and had some chicken and fries and then found a bus for Coban by wandering around saying “Coban.” Getting to Coban was to be a bit of an adventure. Things I saw along the way were a massive palm oil planation, so that was neat, and then the sight of us approaching the mountains, with their tops clouded in mist.

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Coban.

Unfortunately disaster struck. As we were stopping to pick up a guy the engine stalled. They tried to start it and tried to roll downhill to start it but eventually ran out of hill and we were out of the bus as they worked on the engine. Another bus came though and the conductor loaded us all on that and so off we were again. We got to the hills and I noted how sharp and steep they were. Like vertical limestone dunes or something. I settled in to read, but I should have paid more attention. There is a fork in the road and I wasn’t thinking or listening to the guy and some people got out but I stayed on the bus and we went to the wrong way down the fork (or at least away from Coban). I said “por Coban?” to the conductor and he said some stuff and what wound up happening is I rode to the next down and got off there. The conductor said some stuff and I was confused but eventually it turned out that he was pointing to an empty spot saying that the bus for Coban would come but it wasn’t there yet. I figured this out talking to tuk-tuk drivers and another bus driver. Eventually a bus came and I got on and we left pretty quick. The next part of the ride took a while thought I don’t know how long it normally would have taken. The windows in the van were pretty tinted, and as night fell it started to mist and this was a whole like, mood, as we went into the cloud-shrouded jungle mountains. It kinda started to rain actually too and the van didn’t have effective windshield wipers as we navigated steep turns and hills with no streetlights and I pretended not to notice. At some point the van stopped by the side of the road (it seemed to me) and we all got out. Turns out we were in Coban. I think I left Sayache at like 1400 and got to Coban at 1900 or so. I got a taxi to take me to the hotel where a flustered seeming dude checked me in. I had high hopes when I saw there was a 1030 shuttle to Antigua.