Author: Jesse Cohen
Jesse is the New John Henry
| March 22, 2013 | 1:17 pm | El Salvador | Comments closed

There was no getting up at the butt crack of dawn today, though the roosters did their screechiest. Around eight we ate breakfast and then began work on the hinged lid for the spring box in El Porvenir. We figured the best method would be to build it first, where we have tools and power, and then bring it over to affix it to the box.

We began by building the PVC pipe frame, which was a challenge because we had to match the curve at the front of the spring box. If you’ve ever tried to bend PVC to your will, you know that it has a tendency to jump out right before the glue kicks. This took a few tries. Also, interestingly enough, the PVC glue here is different and does not include a purple primer. It’s just one little tube. No one else cares about that detail, I am sure. But too bad, you read this far anyway. Nyah nyah.

We let the frame dry for a while. Ariel and Paige worked on our monitoring report to send to national (woot getting on it!). Jesse, Bob and I drilled holes through the metal pieces for the hinge bolts to go through. There may or may not be new holes in the plastic table – but hey, it’s an inferior table anyway. As Ariel can tell you, its legs just magically fall off.

We bolted the hinges and metal pieces to the frame in a sort of tin lamina sandwich: two tin slices of bread on each side of the PVC filling. Then we shot some machine screws along the frame on both sides. It looked very professional, if we do say so ourselves. Mike showed up as we were finishing with his hands full of Pollo Campero. Pollo Campero is the El Salvadorian equivalent to – or should I say ≥ to – Kentucky Fried Chicken. It comes with spicy salsa and ketchup and is muy delicioso. See, aren’t I picking up this language? It also comes with flan. Jesse nearly fell for it when I said it was terrible and he shouldn’t eat his. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so aggressively cleaning the bottom of my cup with a spoon.

I have to say that the most important lesson we learned in Porvenir on Wednesday was that you have to think things out way ahead of time if you’re going to need electricity. That’s something we’re not used to in the States. Hell, I even leave the house not knowing where I’m going, figuring if I get lost, I can just call someone. But in Porvenir, you’ve really got to plan for electricity. We had charged the drill battery during lunch for about an hour, which wasn’t full but it was as much as we could get before our scheduled meeting with the community. So off we went, lid and drill and all.

Ariel and Paige went to lead the meeting while the rest of us went down to the spring box to install the lid. We shouted victory when we discovered that our estimated lid shape perfectly fit the front curve of the box. I am not exaggerating. It was perfect and snug. We began to drill the first hole in the concrete for the hinges.

However, our victory was short lived. After about half an hour of drilling, we had almost completely worn down the drill battery and we were only halfway through the first hole. Meanwhile, while Bob had been drilling, I had been hammering down the front edges of the lid so that they wouldn’t be sharp. Unfortunately the leverage resulting from the hammering was enough to pop out three of the nearest machine screws. We were not in good shape.

I decided to call the driver to take me back so I could charge the drill. Ariel explained to him what was going on and I communicated with him in my incredibly bad Spanish on the way back to SJV. Bob had recommended charging it for 20 minutes, since any more would mean we’d be working past dark. While I was back, I went over to Mike and Susie’s to rummage through the quadruple-coffin-sized box of “things volunteer groups leave here” and was able to uncover another drill with some charge, another battery for our drill, and two chargers and batteries for yet another drill. It seems that these things never appear before you need them most…

I plugged everything in that I could, wishing that I’d found them and charged them all the night before. After the meeting was well over, the driver and I headed back to the spring box, my arms full of drills and batteries. Upon our return we discovered that in the hour and a half it had taken for transit and charge time, Jesse had singlehandedly finished the first hole. How, you ask? By hammering the masonry drill bit into the concrete lid over and over with the most miniscule hammer ever. I am not kidding.  And if you ever read the story of John Henry as a child, you will know that he was quite tired of it.

We started drilling another hole. The drill died. We got another drill. It died. We got the last drill, and guess what! It died too. I began to hammer a hole for a bolt in the other hinge using a real-sized hammer, which I’d run into in the magic coffin toolbox. It was slow going. It was also getting dark.

Soon we saw Ariel and Paige coming down the hill, with what seemed to be half the community behind them. They were coming to see the lid, and Don Chepe was bringing tin snips to trim the edges. The men swarmed around and saw our dilemmas and picked up our tools. They began where we’d left off, though with much stronger muscles built on a hard life. However, things looked bleak – it felt like a humongous failure, and we’d had such high hopes.

As the daylight was winding away one guy named Felipe said he thought it would be better if we took out the frame and welded the metal pieces together. He and the other guys began to measure the dimensions of the hole. They began to chat about how they would build it, and who would hang on to which pieces so no one could make off with them all until it was made. They wrote down their measurements. To put it bleakly, they were restarting our entire process for building the lid.

While at first we were disappointed that our lid had not succeeded, we realized something important – this work was never about us doing something for them. That kind of work is unsustainable. It’s the kind of work that draws criticisms for all volunteer trips like ours – people have no sense of ownership of gifts like that, if it breaks no one has the materials to fix it, etc. So while we weren’t proud of our failed lid, we knew that this was in many ways better: instead of building something for them, we had inspired several community members to get involved and work together on making something for themselves. We had brought the need for a lid to their attention, and we had presented a design idea. We did not succeed in implementing our design. But we presented the tools and reasons they needed to resolve the problem without us.

And in the long run, isn’t that the goal?

~ Grace

“Fix it With Your IR Degree”
| March 20, 2013 | 12:52 am | El Salvador | Comments closed

Said the Jesse to the Ariel

When she picked up the table

And off its legs fell.


Ariel was bewildered

She stood there in the grass

Calmly put them back on

While we offered her sass.


That’s a poem. Engineers can write too. Well, some of us.


Speaking of poetic words, I realized last night that the phrase “up working until the first rooster crow” is really not that impressive, seeing as the roosters here begin crowing at midnight.  They crow in shifts – midnight, dawn, eight-ish, and noon. Whether the same roosters crow during each shift is unclear, but there are equal numbers of crowers at each shift, all equally confused about what time it is.

Anyway, we got up at a time that most college kids on spring break would consider criminally early. And in fact, someone probably should have handcuffed us to the truck on the way to Arada Vieja this morning to keep us from falling out. That said, riding on top of a moving vehicle up and down wild hills is pretty fun. I feel a lot less sympathy for Mitt Romney’s dog now.  I bet he liked it.

We arrived in Arada Vieja around eight a.m. and found the villagers already up and ready to fix the slow sand filters. As it turned out, only one of the three was even remotely dirty – it had a growth of some variety of algae. A man named Ricardo showed up and seemed to know all about slow sand filter maintenance, so we let him take charge and direct people. They cleaned the smaller tank that the filters lead to with chlorine – women and children helped carry the water over from the spigot, which was still directly connected to the big tank. I helped carry water too – on my head. I can’t tell you how much it was because they kept saying it was “treinta botellas” – thirty bottles – but it was unclear what, exactly, one bottle’s size is. Meanwhile, the men fetched long logs (I’m fairly certain they were just casually felling some trees) to use for the roof.

I met my first in-person scorpion today; it was loaded up with ten or so babies and prepared to sting one of the kids. Jesse kept him from climbing up on top the tank next to it as he had been planning. The kid climbed up farther away and after Jesse had taken a picture of it, proceeded to stomp on the entire clan with his Spiderman crocs. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this, but crocs are really big here. They’re the perfect El Salvador shoe – they empty of dust quickly, they’re light, dry fast, offer decent foot protection, and they’re cheap.  So if any of you Longshore people are reading this, just know – El Salvadorians would be well-equipped renters.

Around 11:30 Ricardo left for work. He told us that he was going to organize a meeting to make a schedule for cleaning the slow sand filters, which is the best we could ask for given our short time here. The villagers intend to construct the roof on Thursday, so unfortunately we will not be able to see it before we leave.

We came home to eat lunch and plan out the construction for the lid we want to build for the springbox in El Porvenir. After much debate, we decided on the materials we needed and went to the ferretería, where they lent us some tin snips to cut the sheet metal and where we bought some thin PVC for the frame. They didn’t have galvanized anything so we called our driver back to take us to La Puerta en La Libertad. There we found everything we needed to build the lid – machine screws, bolts, nuts, and hinges, all galvanizada.

On the way home, we banged on the roof of the pickup cab to stop for some coconuts. We drank them on the way home and got the most “GRINGO!!” catcalls since we’ve been here. As we were chopping them apart at Mike and Susie’s, Jesse and I taught Victor (Salvador) and his friend how to play Jenga. Victor lost the first game, but quickly bested Jesse in the second game.

Our most interesting data of the evening was the coliforms from the Arada Vieja water. Jesse had, for some mind-blowingly unobvious reason, insisted that we take water samples both at the spring source and at the spigot half a kilometer away. This bizarre request to test the same source twice turned an interesting result – the spigot water, which at the time was NOT going through any sort of filter, was much cleaner than the same water at the source. We wonder if the black piping, which bakes in the sun, gets so hot that it kills off the bacteria on the way to the spigot. Also, the boiled water sample came out with just one coliform. Finally, negative really means negative. Ish.

I am sunburnt, tired, and covered in dirt and sweat. I haven’t showered in a while (It’s not my fault – the water keeps cutting out! Why have the others showered, you ask? Because they didn’t have to write three blog posts in a row).

I think I want to do this job my whole life.






Monday, ¿Mande?
| March 19, 2013 | 11:51 pm | El Salvador | Comments closed

Yeah, I’m clever. Actually Paige says mande is a regional phrase that isn’t really used here; it’s more of an Ecuador thing. I’m not changing the title.


Well, I was super grumpy about our non-negative negative control (see Posto del Blogo Numero Tres) so in the morning I boiled some more Agua Cristal and incubated that. Our driver was late, which was a turn of good luck because Mike walked in and said “So the mayor will meet with you now.” We went to meet him and told him about our connection with Porvenir, and how we were wondering if he could connect the PIPA trucks to the village and deliver them government water.  He was straight with us and said it his primary concern is the villages with decent populations, but that if we built the tank, he could send a truck that way once a week with ten cubic meters of water. This is substantial; perhaps it is the closest we have been to a real solution for Porvenir. Knock on wood.

Then it was off to Arada Vieja to investigate the slow sand filters and hydraulic ram pump that Tufts EWB had implemented there back in 2007. After all, this is a monitoring trip.

Arada Vieja is a village that, compared to El Porvenir, has its coliform-bearers together. We found that the pump and tanks were still working – the president of the community gave us a little hiking tour – but the slow sand filters had been neglected  and were currently being bypassed. When we talked to the community members, they said that the water was okay without it, but that they would like to fix the filters if we thought it would make the quality better.  We arranged to come back on Tuesday to help clean and to build a roof for the filters, since the old one blew off  in a monsoon and the sun deteriorates them.

We next went back to El Porvenir, where Ariel and I held a women’s meeting. Paige, Bob, and Jesse ran the kid’s meeting and played games with them. Paige says she’s never met such well-behaved children and marveled at getting all her crayons back, especially since the rule was “one crayon at a time.” At the women’s meeting, we got the real deal on what people want for the spring box. We told them what the mayor had said and prompted them for ideas of where to put the 10 m­3 tank, or where to put two or three smaller tanks. Since the community is very spread out, it makes more sense for the truck to make multiple stops to dispense portions of the allotted water.  They seemed very interested in this proposal.

We also handed out toothbrushes and toothpaste to the women; each took several for their children. Luisa, a very old woman who lives by herself, was left out – but when Ariel asked, someone gave up one of her toothbrushes for her. It was a beautiful moment to see someone who has so little hand her gift to somebody else.

After our stop in Porvenir, we went to the hardware store to get corrugated tin for the roof in Arada Vieja. After much digging, Jesse and I found a handsome drill in Mike’s giant box of “things volunteer groups leave here” and one tiny masonry bit, for which we found a more robust replacement at the ferretería. After a delicious soup prepared by Anna, we tested our new samples for nitrates and phosphates. Ariel and I counted the coliforms from the day before (we had stopped the growth by refrigerating the petri dishes). The winner for the cleanest water source was the Guadelupe source, a town that had government-delivered water. The filtered sample from the Rio Muyapa was the runner up – ahead of the springbox by miles in general coliforms, but only slightly in E. coli. Grossly enough, the bottled Agua Cristal totted up to 450 coliform colonies in 125 mLs. But no E. coli, thankfully.

Ariel and I were a little fried from counting zillions of dots, so we decided to go out for ice cream. Out in the square the festival for San Jose was stilllll going on. That night there was quite the accomplished singer up in front of the crowd. We stopped to watch as we licked our ice cream and discovered that it was the mayor. We wonder what this man cannot do.


In other news, Bob says we have very smart cows in this country. Jesse thinks every cow we pass by is a goat. Un cabra gigante indeed!  Ariel can’t work the shower because it has a small pipe coming out of the showerhead that steals all the water. I put my finger on the end of it and took a lovely shower, but not before calling her an idiot and leading her and Paige into a trap where I sprayed them with water.  Work hard, play hard.



Posto del Blogo Numero Tres
| March 19, 2013 | 10:46 pm | El Salvador | Comments closed

As you can see, my Spanish has vastly improved.  Oh man apparently I have to write about the past three days because the rest of this lot needs to do “homework.” Bet you a pupusa Jesse is just on Facebook. I already won a pupusa bet today because Ariel thought lobsters have eight legs, but they have ten. Wikipedia says the claws count. Boom. I expect payment, Ariel.  Learn your crustaceans.


Oh right, real information. Let’s start with Sunday. We returned to El Porvenir to finish what we’d started on Saturday. Los ingenieros (me, Jesse, and Bob) finished up surveying the riverbed and found that it would indeed be possible to run a pipeline up to the meeting tree solely powered by gravity. Meanwhile Paige and Ariel went to the houses they’d missed the day before for their own brand of surveying, which involves lots of health questions and interpreting thick, mumbly accents.  After lunch, the villagers Miguel and Don Chepe emptied and cleaned the springbox. We began to measure the height of the water to figure out the flow rate, which was a two-hour process. While we waited, Domingo’s friend Benancio came down the hill and shirked his usual thick, mumbly accent to sing for us quite beautifully.  Meanwhile other people came to ruin our data (read: collect water as they rightfully should) so we had to do a bit of compensation calculation.


In the evening we did some serious chemistry – look out, here comes the technical information! We popped the samples from Saturday out of the incubator and took a look at the coliforms (icky bacteria in poop). Most disturbingly, we found that our negative control – bottled Agua Cristal – had quite the number of red dots. I can’t tell you how many yet because we didn’t count them until Monday. This is called building suspense. I can tell you that it didn’t have any E. coli, which show up as blue dots, but it’s important to realize that just because water is in a bottle does not mean it’s clean. Then again, it hasn’t killed us so far.


By far the most potable looking sample was the Rio Muyapa one that had gone through a brand-new ceramic filter we have here. This makes it sound as though ceramic filters would make it possible to drink the river water, but unfortunately ceramic filters do not account for some things we aren’t capable of testing for, such as viruses. We also noted that Orbellina’s filtered water, which came from Tomas’s well and had been through a 3-year-old ceramic filter, did not have a significant decrease in red dots but it did seem to have banished all of the E. coli. So the conclusion is that ceramic filters make a decent difference in the water quality, though they deteriorate over time.


We also began the nitrate and phosphate testing on Sunday night. Once again, I found that the worst offender was our own bottled water – at least for phosphate, at 10 ppm. Concerned, I did the test four times. I even bought a new bottle for the fourth test, to no avail. The phosphate results seemed consistent for the rest of the tests so we have concluded that something else in the bottled water set off the indicator. In case you’re curious, the springbox and Orbellina’s filtered water won the contest at 0 phosphates. Jesse’s not saying what happened with the nitrates yet. I think he’s grumpy that he had to deal with the cadmium.


But really, we’ve all been getting along pretty well. Each of us brings a unique and useful set of skills wherever we go. And we all bring a fair amount of sass. My new favorite Spanish phrase (which I found in my handy dandy phrasebook) is “¿Puede empaquetarmelo como regalo, porfavor?” which we use frequently when being handed items. If you’re too lazy to look it up, it means “Can you giftwrap that for me, please?”


That’s all I gotta say about that. Go read Monday! You know you want to. And no, I’m not giftwrapping it. That’s a waste of paper.









Meetings, Mangoes, and Massive fireworks!
| March 17, 2013 | 1:36 am | El Salvador | Comments closed

Today began with dusty ride in the back of a pickup truck to Porvenir, We had a community meeting scheduled for 9, so of course it started around 10:30. Paige and Ariel talked, Grace understood, and Jesse took pictures! We expressed to the community that we can’t promise anything, especially because we’ve been working there for a long time without coming up with an ideal solution, but that we’re going to try our hardest and are hopeful.

With a few community members, we visited the three main water sources in the community. The first was Domingo’s spring box, which has been the focus of our work to date in El Porvenir, and the source most people used. March is the height of the dry season here, and the river by the spring is much lower than it’s been in January. We’re going to be taking lots more data there through the week. Next, we visited Tomás’ well, which has significantly more water than Domingo’s spring box, and is full of bees. One of the community members bravely took a water sample for us. Next, we walked a couple kilometers up the road to a well we had never visited before, owned by a man who doesn’t live in the community. This well served as the main source of water right after the earthquake a few years ago, but is not a little far out of the way for community members. The community members shook mangoes out of a tree and peeled them for us. Yummy!

In the afternoon, we divided and conquered. Ariel and Paige went house-to-house surveying people about their health and water usage. We learned that Salvadoreños are very friendly people, and also some old men think they don’t have to open their mouths when they talk, rendering them utterly unintelligible. Bob, Grace, and Jesse took water samples and surveying data along the river. In Grace’s words, “It was hot. The cows are nice.”

After maybe the best showers of our lives, we went out to Mike’s administrative assistant Graciela’s family’s restaurant. Pupusas galore! And for the record, Ariel ate way more than Jesse.  We then went to the town center, where there was celebration for the Fiesta San José with a big wooden structure that had spinny fireworks on it. While the liberal arts students among us oogled at their beauty, the engineers analyzed the metals necessary to create the different colored flames. Afterward, it was back to work getting our water samples in the incubator and discussing the survey results. We’ve got another full day ahead of us tomorrow, entonces buenas noches todos!

~ Travel Team

Exhaustion, Surprises, and Wonderful People
| March 16, 2013 | 11:49 pm | El Salvador | 1 Comment

To say that our team was exhausted by the late afternoon is a bit of an understatement. The college sleep schedule doesn’t particularly go hand in hand with 2:30 a.m. wake-ups and 5:45 a.m. flights. All-nighters the week before Spring Break however, are common occurrences. So whether it be pure adrenaline or mental toughness, we made it with all of our equipment to the airport in good time.

We’ve traveled with a good bit of equipment this year. A Hach Portable Incubator, 2100P Turbidimeter, Phosphate, and Nitrate Test kits were among some of the supplies. We’ve brought these down with the intention of testing the water quality at various locations in the community of El Porvenir. It’s one of the main prerogatives of the trip along with gauging the communities interest in POUs and monitoring our past implementations. So it was very important that the equipment made it from Boston to San Salvador. We’re only here for 6 days so United losing our luggage would have been detrimental to the trip. In addition, we haven’t always had great success with checked bags. We made the decision in the airport to risk bringing the turbidimeter, phosphate, and nitrate test kits through security. Each of these kits contains samples of liquids, albeit less than three ounces in size. Nonetheless, it would have been a hassle to explain the purpose of these samples, that they weren’t hazardous but critically important to the service work that we plan on doing. Clearly, I was pretty anxious walking through security with a bag of chemicals. But by some godforsaken miracle, not a single member of our travel team was pulled aside and asked questions. Surprise #1.

The total travel time ended up being about 10 hours. Sleeping on planes isn’t quite deep sleep, but we took what we could get. Mike Jenkins, of Epilogos Charities, met us at the airport and we crammed into his comfy SUV. We then had the wonderful privilege to be taken for lunch at a beautiful restaurant in La Libertad that overlooks the beach. Mike is very concerned with our health, but was confident that the seafood here was fresh. It may have been our only opportunity for fresh seafood for the trip and it was well worth it. Surprise #2.

Later in the afternoon, Mike drove us through some back roads to San Jose Villanueva (our place of lodging), where we stopped by to visit another volunteer group working on building a home for a family in need. It was very inspiring to see a family so pleased with the volunteers and so thankful for the opportunity they had been granted. Our travel team would love to see the same faces on the members of El Porvenir after a successful project implementation! Surprise #3

Further down the road we had the incredible opportunity to pass the oldest women in El Salvador. According to Mike, at 112 she still carries 3 logs of firewood a day. When asked how she was doing, she replied “Well, my knees are bothering me a bit”, after standing from sitting with her knees bent. Quite an incredible human being to say the least. Surprise #4

After arriving home and taking a two hour power nap, the team had dinner cooked by the wonderful house cook Ana. Tortillas, rice, and chicken were on the menu tonight. This weekend is the festival of Saint Joseph (the patron saint of San Jose Villanueva), so we went to watch a concert (the 5th place winner of Mexican Idol sang) and some loud fireworks. We had a soul-searching meeting exploring goals and strategies for this trip, and headed off to well-needed sleep.  Hasta Mañana!