Well kiddies, the important lesson here is that when you finish your project with two days to spare and find yourself in a beautiful, warm-climate country, it’s basically like vacation, and I’ve got a healthy tomato sunburn to prove it.
We have, of course, been unable to keep ourselves from doing some work. Yesterday we went to El Porvenir to put on the rest of the snap links and say a few more goodbyes. At the tank near Luisa’s house, she, Gilberto, and Carlos came out to say hello. They had already replaced the first flush diverter end cap with the bottom of a 2L soda bottle (as Bob had suggested) to keep it from getting lost before the rain arrives in August. We collected water samples from the springbox and the river to compare to last year’s results. We also ventured to the PIPA source for that sample, and to Arada Vieja to check out our old project. It’s still in pretty heavy use, though a stick recently got stuck in one of the pipes and the upper tank is currently empty as a result. No damage occurred, but it takes 20 days to fill and naturally they hadn’t tracked down the stick until they’d used all the water.
In the evening we invited Rubén and his family out to dinner. Mike and the other visiting Epilogos inhabitants came too, with a girl whose college tuition they’ve been sponsoring. Their half of the table spoke English with Bob, but the rest of us spoke Spanish. If you’re wondering, that’s how you can have two different dinner parties at the same table. We gave Rubén an origami bull that I had folded and Bob had painted to hang from the rearview mirror of El Toro. It was an excellent evening that ended in our first encounter with Salvadorian traffic – it took us over an hour to get home, but it didn’t matter because we were bonding with Rubén’s wife and mini-Rubén. At one point we had to stop extremely short. Ryan smashed into me. I took the opportunity to finally (if sarcastically) say the Spanish pickup lines I learned from duolingo.com in real life, which cracked up the Salvadorians pretty hard.
¿Tienes novia? ¿Te dolío cuando te caíste del cielo?
He didn’t respond…telling myself it’s because he was too busy laughing.
One thing I can say is this: if you’ve never driven in some sort of open-top car, such as El Toro or a lesser pickup truck, at night, with a mostly cloudless sky above you, well, let’s just say you really haven’t lived and should probably get on that. Why stargaze lying still when you can stargaze at 50 mph?
Today has been a similar sort of adventure. We got bowled over by aggressive waves at the beach. Rubén said he was going to drop us off but ended up spending the whole day and getting a sunburn himself. He brought us yet another watermelon (better than Mike’s; shh don’t tell). Classic El Salvador moment: he and Ryan were kicking a ball back and forth when along came a healthy-looking golden retriever. You know how golden retrievers sort of hold tennis balls in their mouths and look contented about it? Well, since this is El Salvador, this one was happily walking around with a coconut. However, he can’t have been that contented because he dove right in for the ball, leaving us only the ragged, chewed-on coconut behind. Soccer aborted, we went for lunch.
This evening we checked out the bacteria farm we grew last night in the incubator. It’s going to be a presence/absence test at best, judging by our second consecutive non-negative negative control. Apparently, boiled bottled water contains about 120 general coliforms per 100 mL. Not buying it. Field notes of the day: bring distilled water with you to foreign countries. Rinsing the labware with the sample beforehand and performing the filtrations in order of expected cleanliness really doesn’t cut it. Our most disturbing result, which is prominent enough to consider despite certain experimental error, was the quantity of E. coli in the PIPA water source. I am not pleased. We told the community they would need to chlorinate the water anyway, but perhaps it might need a higher ratio than we thought.
Rubén stopped by one last time to give me back my machete, which he had offered to sharpen. It’s, um, very sharp now. He had asked us to pay him something criminally low for all the above-and-beyond driving work that he’s done for us. We paid him more anyway (yay for budgeting, EWB peeps) and he counted it out into two piles, saying, “You engineers can’t do math right.” We thought he might cry when we told him it was for his excellent service and because El Toro is awesome, and because we absolutely could not have completed the project without him. I also wanted to tell him he’s basically our personal Chuck Norris, but I didn’t know how to get the sentiment across in Spanish, or if Chuck Norris jokes are even a thing here. Apart from there being a lot of hugs, I have to say goodbyes always kind of suck.
Graciela also left us a lovely note. It’s hard to tell sometimes the kind of impact you have on a place. It could be that tomorrow, some gang is going to come through and mow down all the tanks. It could be that all the PIPA trucks break down, or that the mayor breaks his promesas. I don’t know. I can’t believe anything in this country until I see it with my own eyes, which makes it a shame to leave our project finished but untested.
However, there are some things I have seen already: I’ve seen the community bust their asses to work with us, seen some quit drinking for a week and get up early, seen them do tasks ahead of time that we did or did not ask them to do, seen them have patience with language barriers, seen them take notes during the chlorination meeting. Even though there are still feuds and discordances, it would be blind to say that the community has not transformed since we first met everyone in 2009.
Our little project has been a bit of a linchpin in community bonding. Who knows when the last time so many of them worked together was? Furthermore, the road to Luisa’s tank has not been fixed in five years. We were trapped in it on a giant ferretería pickup not even ten days ago, but today it’s practically a Salvadorian highway. The road to Chepe’s may not have been repaired in even longer, but it is now entirely free of brush and ready for root-cutting, which Chepe is all about. I’m confident in saying that even if our rainwater catchment system isn’t perfect, the community members will find a way to make it work. It’s hardly going to go to waste.
The part that boggles my mind is that we did very little of the actual labor. Sure, we spent a lot of time jumping through EWB National’s red tape and applying for grants, but that’s not necessarily what Porvenir needed to improve their water quality and access. They did the cutting, the clearing, the digging, the concrete mixing, the pouring, the rock removing, the sawing, the nailing, and the gluing. They didn’t need us for any of that. What they lacked was money for the materials – but moreover, what they lacked was leadership. The other day, when we arrived in the community and no one was around, Ariel asked Chepe to go find some of the others to help with the concrete.
“They don’t listen to me,” Chepe replied. “They listen to you.”
Now, we’re no magicians. Sure, Ariel has stellar people skills, but it’s not like she knows the community members better than they know each other. The point is, that whole leadership thing? It was a roadblock for Porvenir. And it’s probably a roadblock for many other similar communities with smart, able-bodied residents. It seems to me that a little bit of leadership can go a long way. I hope the effect lingers when we’re gone.
Serious evaluation aside, it’s T minus 8 hours till our departure for the airport. Sleep time. Good night, goodbye, and thank you all for keeping up with us.