Category: El Salvador
Work Hard, Play Hard
| January 14, 2014 | 12:31 am | El Salvador | Comments closed

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 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.


$2 Haircuts
| January 12, 2014 | 2:18 am | El Salvador | Comments closed

Post by Ryan Durigan

This morning, that lovely alarm clock chirp sounded even more annoying than usual—if that’s possible. 6:15 and it was time to get up. With the long drive to Usulután ahead of us, we headed over to breakfast at 6:45, promptly seeing an unfamiliar van sitting in front of our house. Only then did it dawn on us that we wouldn’t be travelling in El Toro today, the first time in 8 days. Due to the length of the trip (somewhere between an hour and a half and 4 hours, depending on who we asked), Mike convinced us to travel in a closed car with tinted windows for safety, as gringos are easy crime targets.  Guillermo, the new driver, only added to the unfamiliarity by being there 45 minutes early.

As it turned out, it took about 2 hours to get from SJV to el Carmen, including a quick stop in San Salvador to pick up Kenia, the Cristosal representative who would be showing us around the community. She and Ariel Spanished on about important things while the rest of us sat in the back spotting cows, awarding a point to whomever saw it first. The game came to an end as we pulled up to the El Carmen community center. The community members of El Carmen made a great first impression—as we walked down a Porvenir-like path, following Kenia, we saw at least 15 people mixing concrete and working together to repair their road, without the leadership of an outside organization. We quickly learned that this community was quite a bit better-off than El Porvenir, featuring electricity in all the houses and, on top of that, a water distribution system from an enormous tank.

After checking out the giant spring box and the ram pump that fed the water distribution system, we headed uphill to take a closer look at the tank. Unfortunately, we had forgotten a cinta, but Grace wasn’t fazed. To estimate the tank diameter, she simply climbed a 12-foot built-in ladder and walked across the roof—10 paces long. In total, we estimated that the tank held about 150 cubic meters.  Grace, still on top of the tank, opened some hatches and decided that the tank was about two thirds full. We took a few water samples and headed back to our van. Back in the van, we discussed the feasibility of taking on this project. We’ll have to discuss it with the whole group before we make any decisions.

Good news! Ariel received a phone call from the ferretería in La Puerta, and the snap links were in! We stopped by to pick them up on the way back. Once there, Grace also nudged Ariel to inquire about a sheath for her newly acquired (albeit quite dull) machete—but ferreterías don’t sell them, so the search continues. Finally, we made it back to SJV a tad before 3pm (or two, I really don’t know because my phone is still in Eastern time and I forget whether I took that into account or not). The girls decided to be girly for a while (yup, even Grace) and went over to the hair salon. Like 4 hours later, after Bob and I had finished doing everything we could think of except starving, they finally showed up, Ariel and Grace with new fancy haircuts, and all with painted nails. (Well, actually Grace drew the line here, and didn’t get hers painted.) They told us that they had met Rubén’s wife, whose sister happens to be the hairdresser. Apparently, for two haircuts and three manicures, the total came out to $13—not bad.

Somewhere in those 4 hours, there was a knock on the door. I, expecting only the girls, inquired, “who’s there?” When I heard “I’m looking for Ariela”, I quickly opened the door to Ana’s familiar voice. After discussing Ariel’s whereabouts, I told Ana we’d be over for dinner and said goodbye. Only after shutting the door did I realize that the whole conversation had transpired in English. Now of course, this isn’t weird for me—except that I didn’t know Ana spoke English.

Turns out she teaches English lessons….

Ariel, craving pupusas, finally came through on her pupusa debt to Grace. On the way to dinner, we grabbed a few at the pupusería next door and brought them to Mike’s. We ate quickly as it was almost time for the Patriots game, for which Steve had bought wings and such. After they finished eating, the girls snuck away, blaming it on water samples or something so they could go watch a romcom. Bob, Mike, Seth, Kathy, Steve and I stayed to watch the game on the projector Steve brought to donate to a local school later this week.

We got the snap links, checked out the new community, and watched the Patriots win—I’d say this was a successful day.



Is It Real Enough Yet?
| January 10, 2014 | 11:25 pm | El Salvador | 1 Comment

Four months ago, our tank design for Porvenir looked like this:

Site Plan 3D Rendering 001

It’s pretty incredible when something that was just in our minds, or just on paper, starts to take form in real life. We’ve been asking ourselves each step of the way – is it real yet? That this idea we had back in September is solid and three-dimensional now? Every day the answer was no. We wouldn’t believe it until it was all done. In fact, Ariel and I still claim it’s not real until the PIPA delivers the water and the community remembers to chlorinate it. But today, I guess the answer is kind of a yes. There it is, in real life, blending right into the background scenery:

The Finished System


We finished everything around 11am, except for the some of the chains because we don’t have any more snap links. We had scheduled a meeting for 2:30 to discuss chlorination and who would get the keys. Naturally we told everyone the meeting was at 2. Unfortunately, Erynne wasn’t in on that sleight of mouth and told them the actual time (oof freshman move), so between that and finishing early we ended up lying around and playing soccer with the kids for several hours while we waited for people to show up. Freshman moves aren’t all bad.

Catherine and Erynne also collected more data points from the GPS. They just finished entering all 83 of them into our Excel sheet. Listening to their progress on the bunk bed across from me assures me that it is thrilling work. That was sarcasm.

We had a camp for the kids during the meeting. Erynne and Ryan taught them to play agua, agua, jabón (our version of duck duck goose) and Viene La PIPA, a variant of Viene El Capitán. They put glitter on the kids’ hands before that one to demonstrate how germs spread.

Mike and crew showed up for the meeting too. Graciela brought a ribbon to cut.

After that official-sounding business was taken care of, it was time for soda and galletas. Earlier this morning, Ariel and I bought a giant piñata of the Angry Bird variety. It was bright pink and turned out to be very robust. I’ve never seen a piñata last longer than ten minutes, and I’ve also never seen such aggressive hits, despite the fact that some of the kids had never seen one before. It was definitely the most popular party participant.

I made up with Luis Antonio for hitting me in the head and handed him his very own cinta (measuring tape). I forgot to mention that he came up with a name for Ariel yesterday – la gringita. He gave Catherine so many hugs goodbye that the community decided she was his new girlfriend. I hugged Luisa and she was almost in tears. I can’t pretend I understood exactly what she said, but it was something about being old and what a pain in the ass it used to be to go down to the river. I hope that our implementation really is the answer to that problem. But until I hear that the PIPA truck came (and later, that the rainwater catchment system works), it’s not real enough for me. All I could say was good luck.

Bob had a much better line, which he got Ariel to translate for him: “At the university, they teach us to work with our heads. But being with you guys in Porvenir has taught us to work with our hearts.” Daww.

On our way home we stopped at a couple of ferreterías to see if they had any snap links. Neither of them did, but at the second one I encountered a personal success of the day – I finally managed to obtain a machete. Price: $4. You’re welcome, Mom.

Tomorrow – because why not keep moving – we go to Usulután to check out a new community that has asked us to help with a water project. Long drive. Getting up early. Night night.


Voy a Bloguear
| January 10, 2014 | 12:55 am | El Salvador | Comments closed

Well I haven’t made a post title in head-shakingly bad Spanglish yet this trip, so here it is. I woke up today feeling great – almost as if a rock thrown by a kid sitting in my lap hadn’t somehow hit me in the head – and was having a lovely morning, at which point Ryan beaned me in the forehead with a twelve foot cuartón (local slang for 2 by 4). So, back to square one: me duele la cabeza. Okay, not really anymore; I just want to give him a hard time.

Today was exciting in that there were no dead animal discoveries (so far). And guess what else: we did an impressive amount of work! I’m pretty sure we constructed and assembled all the roof pieces for the third tank in about two and a half hours. Domingo’s three-day-old calf was tied up nearby and kept entangling Mama Vaca in the leash, which provided half time entertainment before we took off for Luisa’s to begin installing the plumbing.

My biggest concern that had been keeping me up at night (er, besides bug bites) was that it would be impossible to nail the gutter in between the already assembled roof pieces. I was right. It was difficult. But, we found that if we wedged a short piece of cuartón into the gutter – which is a piece of PVC cut lengthwise – there was enough space to swing the hammer into the wood. Being the smallest human around, Catherine did the honors and managed not to fall through the lamina roof. I’m hoping that says more about the roof’s structural integrity than about her tininess.

The best moment of the day was 86-year-old Luisa’s face when she saw that we’d installed the faucet on the tank. It will still be empty until the truck comes. She was thrilled. She put her cantarro underneath the spout, turned the valve that held back nothing, and said, “Careful! It might overflow!” Mike says this is common Luisa humor. She once invited him into her house and said “Would you like some caviar?” Before he could process that he’d heard correctly, she said, “Oh, but wait a minute, I have to turn on the air conditioning.”

We also finished the piping at the tank near Chepe’s house. The gutter slot was a bit slimmer on this one, which we had previously seen as an advantage. However, it soon became apparent that the slot wasn’t wide enough to allow hammer access. D’oh. After Catherine and Erynne had struggled for some time, Chepe appeared from the trees as he does and climbed up on the roof and made it work. Seems the roof can hold two people.

Catherine and Erynne also managed to get about a page and a half worth of GPS points for our GIS map, pending. Later, Ariel and Catherine found an actual map at Don Fermín’s house. The mayor had called and said that the maquina would not be able to go up the insane hill to Chepe’s tank, because it was technically private land. Talk about a punch in the gut. So, after seeking out the map from the blind and defensive Fermín (who could still read the map better than they could) they proved that the hill road was, in fact, drawn with the same kind of line as the roads the maquina had already covered. Ariel called the mayor.

Sass ensued. Unfortunately, Ariel’s fiery Spanish was to no avail – the mayor admitted he had been wrong, but still said that the maquina couldn’t come back because it was already committed to other projects. It would cost more money than putting extra hose on the PIPA truck (not that he’d pay for that, either). So…machete time? Really it’s just about getting out a few stair-like roots. And redistributing the earth to make a smoother incline. The mayor did say he would send a small tractor when the roads were finished, which is presumably at the end of January, because then the PIPAs will be reemployed to deliver clean water rather than dirty water for roads. But once again, we’re thinking about the mayor “mostly cumpliendo promesas.” We shall see what the community thinks tomorrow. In any case, the mayor hasn’t restricted the PIPA from going there, so that’s better than nothing.

Voy a dormir, because everyone else has. Hasta mañana!


Pablo, El Clavador!
| January 8, 2014 | 10:59 pm | El Salvador | Comments closed

Post by Catherine Madden

Today was a good day. After last nights’ group pow-wow about team dynamics, working together and not letting the community members shove rocks in the holes until the poles were set the day was looking good!

We woke up to the ever so lovely sound of Grace’s watch beeping (this time I spared the “Party in the USA” by Miley Cyrus to avoid a morning pillow fight by Grace). After breakfast Ariel, Grace and I went to the ferretería (hardware store) about 2 blocks from our house to buy 2 extra sheets of lamina for the roofs, the sealant and a few other bits and bobs that we needed like nails. We met the cats that were apparently kittens last time we were here (who knew, cats grow?!) and proved the real definition of YOLO by touching the cat even though it may have had fleas! #yolo! Rubén showed up and we clarified that we did in fact name his car “El Toro” and not him; although I guess you could say he is a Toro in some senses of the word!

News here travels fast; today this was discovered in multiple ways. One, Rubén knew that the road to the community had been repaired and so we could now go the shorter way. Number two will show up later in this post! This is where the “Duck tours: El Salvador” begins. We were on the lovely new highway to the community and came upon a river in which El Toro simply passed through, thus converting the car into a boat. Aka “Welcome to El Porvenir Duck Tour please fasten your seatbelt!” jk we don’t have those. Anyway on the way to the community we encountered the PIPA truck for the first time in the community! (Cue much excitement from everyone!) This was a good sign because it means a) It can enter the community b) the driver has the guts to climb up the sides of the road in the big truck to get out of our way and so is more likely to be willing to go up the scary hill to don Chepe’s house! YAY! After passing the PIPA truck and the big machine truck which according to Ryan “Looks like Wall-E with the headlights, wait no looks like that scary robot in that movie with the big red robot”… I have no idea what he is talking about, but it’s scary, we made it to the roofing which was still standing. This was an incredible feat considering the ridiculous winds that we experienced last night! Erynne and I then dropped everyone and the materials off and made our way to the big hardware store to buy sealant since we couldn’t find it before!

The hardware store was as exciting as ever but only took a few minutes. The real excitement came when, on the way back, Ruben decided to stop to get Erynne and me “cocos helados” from the side of the road. This was the most touristy (word just tried to correct that to touristiest) thing that we have done yet! We sat in the back of ‘El Toro’ sipping on coconut water straight from our whole coconuts while flying at 30+ mph down the roads of El Salvador. It was awesome. The next new experience was trying the coco meat. This was the insides of the coconut. Our new theory is that this is somewhat like celery in that it expends more energy to eat in that you gain from eating it. Healthy people I give you the next big thing! (She says as she eats lifesavers and is slowly running out and afraid of the end because no more sugar will be the death of me). Anyway, moving on from my sugar addiction, we returned to the community to find the scary machine robot in our way and so had to walk down the road carrying the paint and the coconuts. Needless to say Erynne seemed rather embarrassed to be holding the coconuts but that’s the freshman initiation that she deserves. I had my bag peed on, Ariel’s got pooped on and Erynne has to carry the coconuts. Somehow this seems unfair. Oh well, we still have 6 days!

We were taking bets on how much of the roof would be built in the hour in which we were away from the site in El Porvenir. Turns out they had fully put the roof up and were contemplating the gutter sizing to fit in the hole in the roof. Skipping a bunch of theories and other problems that we encountered the first site was finished! Woot woot! At this point the police showed up. No, it wasn’t because we did anything terribly wrong or that they were searching for the missing cat killer, it was that Mike had asked them to come and check on us and make sure that everything was going well. Needless to say they were extremely useful. They carried all of our materials from the first site up to the site by Don Chepe’s house an even gave bob his second or third ride in the back of a police car. Sounds a little sketchy to me but apparently he was just “chatting” with officers in the past. We can believe that for now.

The next site was built in a flash! It is so much better now that the community members have seen one of the roofs so that everyone knows what the end goal is instead of just us. We got some help from Louis Antonio as usual who insisted on always holding “La cinta” (tape measure) when no-one was using it! So far we don’t have names in his mind but I am “muchacha” and Grace is target practice (he may or may not have chucked a giant rock at her head…hence why I’m writing today). Thankfully this site didn’t require ten million re-digs of holes for the poles so that didn’t take too long and we made the gap between the two parts of the roof a little smaller so that we wouldn’t have to stretch the gutter as far and there wouldn’t be any gaps. Just before we left another group of police officers showed up which involved more running around and the instant disappearing of the two kids who were climbing a nearby tree and using spitball guns with small rocks in them to try and hit us while we worked, they had bad aim though which I guess is somewhat of a relief. So now one quick clarification of the title of this post, Pablo today was the day’s best “Clavador.” This means that he was hammering in nails left right and center. He even admitted today that if anyone wanted their own tank that he could come and help them nail the structure together. It seems that we have developed a new profession. Finally we were done with this roof for the day and Rubén was on his way to pick us up.

Eager to continue working and get the final roof up we explained to the community members how to check that the holes were at the proper distances apart so that when we arrived in the morning we could get to work on building the roof straight away instead of worrying about the hole sizes. I keep forgetting things and then remembering as we go along so another exciting part of today was the feeling of being famous as we put our handprints in the concrete that we set at the bottom of the posts. It was awesome and now we will be here forever! Can’t wait for it to dry.

Right now I am listening to the magnificent sound of the electric drill which we miraculously found in Mike and Susie’s house as Bob, Ryan, Grace and Erynne drill holes in the gutter so that it’s easier to nail for tomorrow. We didn’t find any rats in toilets today so that’s good news, and hopefully Grace doesn’t have shingles but then again anything is possible. I don’t think that sentence should have had such a positive tone to it, to clarify, Grace has mysterious bug bites but they seem to be expanding each day and so hopefully its nothing and we are all just paranoid!

That’s all from me folks! Stay tuned for the last roof and hopefully some gutter action tomorrow! We have taken to using cows as landmarks, that’s when you know you’re truly integrated in El Salvador!



Nothing Quite Like a Dead Rat in the Toilet
| January 7, 2014 | 11:55 pm | El Salvador | 2 Comments

The ancient Egyptians had the well-known custom of burying their dead pharaohs alongside their wives* and servants, as well as furniture and food for a comfortable afterlife. Now that we’ve found a dead rat, we can really send off the trashcan cat in Alexandrian style. Or we could, if Bob hadn’t removed the rat from the toilet with a post-hole digger and deposited it in the garden. We wonder if the rat explains why that toilet’s been broken – maybe it got stuck in the plumbing and finally floated to the surface. Anyway, it kinda smells in there, which has limited our shower quantity to one. I smell slightly less than rat residue, so I’m waiting on my turn.

Our day began quietly, or as quiet as driving up the rocky road into the village can be. It was eerie because we encountered barely anyone on the road, and Chepe did not make his usual appearance from the trees ahead of us. I was a little concerned that maybe the community had copped out on us, as they had with Duke’s bridge project. We wouldn’t be able to do the day’s work alone.

We drove up the ridiculous hill to Chepe’s to get one of the tanks to bring to the site by Luisa’s house. We managed to tie it down on its side to the rails of El Toro like a miniature PIPA truck. As we were working on that, we heard a machete thwack in the bushes. Luis Antonio appeared, accompanied by his grandmother. She was singlehandedly clearing the path to the concrete slab we’d poured. She told us that others had cleared the other side of the path, and in fact, all the trees that had been there were gone. What had once been a one-foot-at-a-time trail with face-whipping branches was now the width of a generous one-lane road. Well then. I am beginning to believe that the PIPA truck could, in fact, make it to Chepe’s tank site.

Catherine and I took the sneaky back path to Luisa’s while everyone else went with El Toro in case it got stuck in the trees. The tank made it about 10 feet tall. There was still no sign of anyone else, but as Catherine and I walked down the path, we began to hear voices and more thwacking. At least eight guys were nonchalantly felling the trees that had overgrown the road to Luisa’s – the same fingertrap trees that had snared the ferretería truck just three days ago. Maybe it’s time I got myself a machete for my own daily life, I thought. What was more impressive than the tree cutting was that they were chatting and ragging on each other. Hardly normal behavior in a community that doesn’t get along.

Apart from that though, today was a Murphy’s Law kind of day. We had to readjust the post holes at Luisa’s a half dozen times. The lamina wasn’t the same width as the roof sides. Why? It was 3 x 1. It should have fit. 3 x 1 what, you ask? 3 yards by 1 vara. Seriously, who DOES that? Once again, screw varas. We needed to actually cut some pieces of lamina to make up the difference. Nothing was level. The rubber band for the post level had vanished. The PVC was kind of flimsier than we expected. We decided last-minute that we needed to paint the posts with a protective coat, so we’d have to delay putting them up another day. The nails we bought were crappy and way too soft. Community members were getting grumpy and impatient for some sort of result. And let’s face it, so were we. As each mechanical mishap stacked up, our communication skills got worse and worse.

But you know what? We survived the day, and it wasn’t like we did nothing. Chepe produced a gallon of wood sealant, and they painted all of the wood at one site. It dried in time to start assembling. He also sharpened up some snips for the lamina, though later we discovered that our battery-powered drill made a straighter cut. Catherine’s sillybandz sufficed to affix the post level. Bob pointed out that flimsiness wouldn’t be so bad in the PVC, since we needed to shape it to our will anyway. Most amusingly, Chepe and Gilberto got into a competition to see who could hammer the wonky nails the straightest.

In all, we completed two of the roofs, lamina and angle braces and all, though we haven’t elevated them to the posts yet. We lined up the holes at one site and put up the posts and cross braces (the wind will test those tonight). In fact, I’d say we accomplished quite a bit. Hopefully morale will be better tomorrow.

In other news, I learned an interesting construction tip today. If you were ever going to attach corrugated tin lamina to wood, you’d probably expect that you would put the nails in the little valleys. That’s what I thought, because the nails would force the lamina to abut the wood. However, the community members were unanimous in saying that the nails should go in the tops of the corrugation mountains, because the valleys collect water, which would cause the nails to rust faster. Boom. You just learned something.

Also, other good news. The maquina came today and fixed the short route to Porvenir, so it will take half as long to get there now. It even cut away the fallen tree. Promesas cumpliendo-ed. Best wishes to our readers from home. Check your toilets.

– Grace

*There were also female Pharaohs who probably didn’t have wives.

As If Metric vs. Imperial Wasn’t Enough
| January 6, 2014 | 10:44 pm | El Salvador | Comments closed

Bug bites galore. I have no idea when that happened but grr they’re itchy. Blogging to distract myself.

By the way, a rooster just crowed. I mentioned last year (see “Fix it With Your IR Degree”) that Salvadorian roosters have no idea what time it is. It’s currently 6:15…p.m. There it goes again. Is this a universal rooster thing? Maybe it’ll wear itself out so it won’t have to crow at two in the morning.

Today was a glorious and successful day – we are finally caught up to our original schedule, despite our wild mishaps. It started off with finding a dead cat in the trash outside. We dropped by the village this morning so Catherine, Ryan, and Erynne could start working on the holes for the roof posts. We were pleased to discover that in a fit of proactivity, the community members had poured the third concrete slab at Domingo’s place. It appeared as though they had poured it on top of loose dirt (not stones) and, of course, we still had the eyebolts so they weren’t in the slab. But hey, they did it, which is actually more important than it being done right. It’ll probably work just fine anyway.

Bob, Ariel, and I took off for the ferretería in La Puerta. We decided to tackle the wood order first. We needed 72 pieces of various lengths, though we went easy on ourselves by making them all the same cross-section. For those of you who are curious – aka, just me – the wood pieces are proper 2 x 4s, as in, they actually measure 2 inches by 4 inches. They’re unfinished, but we could hardly expect to get pressure treated wood here. We had the option of getting conocaste instead of pine, but it would have cost six times as much.

Next began the challenge of figuring out how to most economically order the pieces of wood (they agreed to do all the cutting). This was made more difficult by the rapidly changing parameters of the problem. We began by measuring in feet, but Ariel then pointed out that everything would be priced per meter. When I had completed all the conversions, it became apparent that the ferretería guys preferred measuring in yards. So I started dividing by three as I told the guy the measurements. Then I began asking what lengths the boards came in to figure out the best divisions, at which point the guy told me the boards were “Cuatro varas.”

“Ariel, what’s a vara?”

“Ummmmm…a yard?”

“Pretty sure that’s yardas.”

“Cuántos metros?” said Ariel, still stuck on the whole metric thing.

“Cuatro varas.”

So ensued a ridiculous Abbot & Costello-style conversation in which every question was answered with a different unit. Meanwhile, Bob and I measured the boards in feet again, and discovered that there were two available lengths. When we had figured out how we wanted to cut them all, Ariel had been Spanishing again and informed us that there were actually four lengths, so we redid our calculations once more. I asked one of the ferretería guys to show me a vara on the measuring tape. From what I gathered, one vara is equal to about 32 inches.

A different guy helped us with the chain and PVC lengths that we needed, and he turned out to be much more useful. He even said he had a guy who could cut PVC lengthwise! We gave him a few sketches and my explicit wood calculation table – which I did in Spanish, by myself. Be proud. Yes it was mostly numbers. Hush.

There were a few more unit hazards but I think we managed to get everything clearly across. We’ll find out tomorrow – they should be delivering the materials to the community tonight. In case anyone is curious, a little bird named Wikipedia told me that a vara is an old-school Spanish unit equal to approximately 33 inches, but actually varies from place to place. It’s used in Texas too, for land deeds, but in Texas it’s defined as exactly 33 1/3 inches, because Texas defines things. Vara literally translates to “stick.” As far as I’m concerned, that’s exactly what they are – sticks stuck in the machine of ferretería communication progress. Screw varas.

About three hours later, we found Rubén yawning on a chair nearby, having befriended the parking director. We gave him a bottle of water and he fired up El Toro for the ride back to Porvenir. Catherine, Erynne, and Ryan had finished the holes at Domingo’s and were almost done with the ones at Luisa’s – with, of course, the help of a bunch of community members. They seemed to be doing all right, though Catherine for some reason found it upsetting that a dog had peed on her bag. Now she can match Ariel, whose backpack encountered cow poop yesterday. The three of them had also had to face off a few cows, apparently. One of them had just been born last night. Cannot believe those things can stand when they’re only a day old.

The most amusing contributor to the construction was a boy of three named Luis Antonio, whose hobbies included playing with the measuring tape. He and Catherine did some hardcore bonding. They measured approximately one trillion distinct dimensions of the sand pile, his hand, my hand, his height (42 inches! He’s growing properly!), his wingspan, and more practically, the depths of all the holes. Luis Antonio would pull the tape and Catherine would read out the measurement. They tried doing it the other way around, but we found that if Luis Antonio read the tape, the answer was always “Cinco!”

We completed the holes at the third site without a hitch. Luis Antonio’s mom, a skinny and gorgeous woman, is a million times stronger than me. We traded off digging one hole with a spear. Digging with spears is not that bad, but she made it look so easy.

The singing in the church nearby has begun again for the evening. Mike calls the woman “Our Lady of Tone Deaf.” Must mean it’s almost time for dinner.

Okay, now I’ve been fed. In the afternoon we went to meet with the mayor of San Jose Villanueva, the municipality to which Porvenir belongs. As we drove through the community with Rubén, more and more community members hopped on El Toro. They had really cleaned up. They smelled nice and were wearing clean clothes. Chepe even had two dress shoes to go with his two teeth. I was pleased that Luis Antonio’s mom and Orbellina both came – youth and female representation! Yay!

When we’d gotten about a hundred people into the truck bed (read: twelve), we made our way into SJV. At Mike & Susie’s we cleaned our faces and hands, said goodbye to Rubén, and walked over to the mayor’s.  He met with us relatively on time (even for US standards) and told us that the PIPA trucks are currently employed in carrying dirty water to fix the roads (yay!) but not clean water for people to drink until the end of January (boo). I hope you enjoyed my emotional cues there. It also turns out that the trucks can carry 12 cubic meters of water, not just 10, so it’s a good thing we ordered tanks with room for excess. The mayor also said that he could send “la maquina” to fix the roads by Thursday. Looking forward to seeing if he lives up to his motto on that one – it’s cumpliendo promesas. Ariel says it’s more like “mostly cumpliendo promesas…”

For dinner at Mike’s we were joined by the president of Adesco, whom we met the other night for pupusas. He brought us intriguing fruits – mamay, mandarinas verdes, and zapotes.

“Cómo se come?” asked Catherine.

“Con la boca,” said el presidente, laughing.

In other news, thanks to el presidente’s stellar memory, Mike has finally figured out that Ryan’s name is not actually Brian.

“So Mike,” said Catherine, “Are dead cats commonly put in the street trashcans?”

“Well…yeah. Why, did someone try to sell you one? That’s something they do.”

Anyway, Our Lady of Tone Deaf has ceased singing, which means we can finally have movie night. Buenas noches a todos!


Next Year We’re Having Travel Team Workouts
| January 5, 2014 | 10:56 pm | El Salvador | Comments closed

Post by Erynne Van Zee

Day Three presented the challenge of filling the ollos (holes) we dug yesterday with cement. In the U.S., you might go to Home Depot, buy a few bags of concrete mix, and add water…just like Betty Crocker. But in El Salvador, it’s a bit more complex. Gravel and sand gets delivered by large trucks that barely fit on the dirt roads here (see Grace’s post from yesterday), and cement bags weigh upwards of 100 pounds. But mainly, when you’re working in a pueblo where the closest major water source is down a very steep hill, how do you lug at least 75 gallons of water back in a timely manner?

Rubén met us in San Jose Villanueva at 8:30 with El Toro loaded with a large water tank and hose, much to our surprise (and relief). Last night, we had been thinking about how to best get water up to each site, and basically reached the conclusion that we would be doing a lot of lugging. But luckily, Rubén’s tank meant we could fill up at the river with a bucket brigade and then proceed uphill to Porvenir.

Fitness Challenge 1: Filling Ruben’s tank

When we reached the bridge crossing the river into El Porvenir, we all hopped out and unloaded the 10 buckets from Mike’s house, most of which were cemented together. Ariel and I hiked uphill to round up the troops (Miguel and Don Chepe, plus a few buckets), but by the time we started back downhill, the rest of the crew had already filled more than half the tank, plenty for the day’s “workout”. Catherine had already spilled three tons of it on her shirt.

Fitness Challenge 2: Moving 50 palas worth of sand

One would hope a few engineering students would be able to make a sand and gravel brigade no problem, but a bucket of gravel is definitely heavier than I anticipated. We ferried buckets of sand, gravel, and water from the truck 100 meters up to the site of the tank as Don Chepe shoveled and Rubén poured. After a few runs, Catherine and I casually started slipping the buckets away from the gravel piles when only half full – still heavy, but much more manageable. Every day, I am so impressed by the strength of our El Salvadorian colleagues who can haul two bags of cement uphill on their heads and carry full buckets of gravel without even pausing to catch their breath. And so as Catherine, Ariel, and I paused to catch our breath, Ariel suggested: “Next year, travel team workouts!” Maybe we’ll be somewhat up to par next year…

Fitness Challenge 3: Mixing concrete

To mix the concrete, we built a volcano of sand, gravel, and cement in the hole and began pouring buckets of water into the middle. Thorough mixing involves shoveling the dry ingredients from the sides of the volcano into the middle. And the more water that is added, the heavier it gets. Bob, Catherine, Grace and I started as mixers, but were quickly replaced by Don Chepe, Jose, and Carlos, who wait patiently at the edges until we pause to catch our breaths and then motion for us to hand over the shovels. Their skill and strength makes mixing concrete look easy as they rapidly shovel the dry into the wet, mix well, and plop the concrete into the corners of the form, without resting. First slab: an hour and a half (river to finish); the second, an hour.

We still have one slab to go and three roofs to build. Ryan and Grace fit in pretty well with the heavy lifting. But next year, EWB is going to the gym.

– Erynne

Home Depot Wouldn’t Do This
| January 4, 2014 | 11:31 pm | El Salvador | 1 Comment

There are a lot of things Home Depot wouldn’t do, I’m sure, but we definitely covered most bases today in getting our materials. We started off the morning by going to the large ferretería in La Puerta. It only took about an hour and a half to order all the things we needed. Adjusting for El Salvador time, that’d be basically 20 minutes in the US, so we were moving pretty fast.  I also successfully managed to describe an eyebolt in Spanish, by which I mean it took me about six attempts. The ferretería workers promised to deliver the gravel, sand, cement, and wire mesh for the concrete in the afternoon. We took the wood and nails for the forms and drove to El Porvenir.

Bob, Ryan, and I got out of the truck at the middle site, in between Don Chepe’s house and Miguel’s house. Ryan and I carried the wood up the hill to the hole we’d outlined yesterday. Meanwhile, Ariel, Catherine, and Erynne kept going to the other two sites to deliver the materials. As I was just wondering whether Miguel had put the shovels and pickaxes in his house, we saw him hop on the back of the pickup and join them. And thus began the story of Grace and Ryan and Miguel’s dogs.

It was easy enough to see where the tools were from the outside of Miguel’s cactus fence, but the thing about Miguel’s fence is that approximately five loud, large dogs live behind it. Let’s be clear about something – in El Salvador, dogs aren’t pets. Dogs maintain a strict quid pro quo relationship with their owners involving an exchange of food for guarding. And actually, the fence didn’t really contain the dogs as much as it defined the boundary that thou shalt not pass – they could easily just walk outside. Ryan and I approached the fence.

“Sit!” I said to the nearest dog. It looked at me and barked more.

“Siéntate,” said Ryan, from ten feet behind me. I raised an eyebrow at him.


“What? They don’t speak English!” he replied.

Well great. As it turned out, however, the dogs did speak the universal language of rock. I picked one up. I didn’t even have to throw it. All of them backed into the shade and stopped barking. I cautiously stepped inside the fence, trying not to accidentally make eye contact and set them off.  I walked past them and grabbed the two pickaxes and two shovels, and so our construction began. Shortly we were joined by Chepe and other community members to help.

When we’d completed two of the holes and two forms for the concrete, we took a lunch break and waited for the truck to deliver the concrete materials. Around 3:00 the truck still hadn’t come – no surprise, as it was running on El Salvador Standard Time – so we walked over to the third site at Domingo’s house. Domingo wasn’t home and we still hadn’t spoken to him about digging in his front yard since last March. We went down to the springbox because Catherine, Ryan and Erynne had never seen it. The lid was open (go figure) and a bit bent. It looked as if someone had stolen four of the machine screws, but maybe they just fell out.  The water looked very turbid. We’ll be doing some coliform tests soon.

Back at Domingo’s, while we were debating what to do with our remaining hours, the truck from the ferretería finally arrived.  The truck attempted to back in through the gate (Domingo had finally come home). When it wouldn’t fit through, three of the community members simply uprooted one of the sapling fence posts, and thus began the chain of events in which Home Depot simply wouldn’t take part. We measured out a third of the materials in shovelfuls – 50 shovels of gravel and 100 of sand, four bags of cement, and one of the wire mesh screens. When those were off the truck, everyone climbed onto the bed with the remaining rocks and sand.

To get to the next site, we’d have to take the left fork past the conocaste, which led to a questionable road.  By questionable, I mean that it wouldn’t be a road in the US. The “good” roads here consist of two concrete tracks for your tires. They’re very minimal.

“He’s going for it,” said Catherine. Just…going for it. We did all right at first – it was a bit bumpy, but not impassable. Then the trees around the road started condensing and leaning in. The truck stopped, caught in the branches like a giant finger in a giant Chinese fingertrap (or traponovio). Off to the left side of the truck was a casual drop which I knew would eventually tumble you into the river if you fell. Well then. This would be interesting. Have I mentioned that this wasn’t exactly a small truck?

The ferretería guys and some of the villagers hopped off and began hacking at the branches with their machetes. Bob got out to advise; Ariel got out to translate. The truck began to move forward again. And then stopped again. Started. Stopped.

We made an odd procession: Ariel and Bob walked in the lead, followed by about five machete wielders (Chepe randomly appeared at one point, no idea how he snuck in) walking backwards and hacking a path for the truck; next came the cab, with the rest of us and Miguel peeking over it – alternately trying to see and ducking to protect our faces – and lastly, Tomás and another community member sat chatting on the gravel in the back like nothing unusual was happening.

Freeing the Truck

In fits and starts we finally made it to the site near Luisa’s house and began offloading another third of the materials. The same question plagued all of our minds… If this truck could barely make it through, how will the even larger PIPA truck even get to the tanks? The community members did not seem to share our concerns, just as they seemed to think that the PIPA can go up the hill by Chepe’s house. After the woodland tunneling, we’re beginning to believe them. Life, physics, and feasibility have different limits here, or so we’ve discovered.

We didn’t have to do quite as much clearing on the way back to the conocaste, though turning the truck around was an interesting endeavor that even the Porvenir men laughed at.

“Remember,” said Ryan, as we backed into a K-turn down a steep hill, “if it starts to flip over, jump to the SIDE of the truck.”


It didn’t flip over, but Catherine still curled up in a ball for the entire trip back to the conocaste so she wouldn’t see the precarious edge.  Don’t worry, there’s a picture.

If you can believe it, the most challenging material delivery was yet to come. The third site was Chepe’s, with the infamous hill. The truck driver took one look at it and said nope. Again, we wondered about the PIPA…Someone suggested backing the truck up the slope as far as it could go. The driver agreed to try and got about three feet up before the wheels lost traction. One of the community members began shoveling the gravel onto the side of the hill.

Before he’d thrown two shovelfuls, Rubén showed up to meet us in his little red pickup. For reasons yet to be explained, the red pickup will henceforth be referred to as El Toro. Rubén suggested shoveling the gravel and sand into El Toro instead, because El Toro could make it up the hill. The ferretería guys complied enthusiastically and backed their truck next to El Toro. This was about the time that Bob said to Ariel,

“Gee, Home Depot wouldn’t do this!”

Ariel laughed.

“Why are you laughing?” asked one of the community members. Ariel explained in Spanish what Bob had said. None of them understood why it was funny. This was, apparently, quite normal.

Entonces, El Toro made it up the hill with everything in it (I swear one of his tires left the ground by at least two feet), and we shoveled it off with the help of Chepe and Miguel and called it a day.

Miguel’s dogs were stunned to silence.

That’s all for today, except that Ariel would like everyone to know that she suggested the title of this post.

Hasta luego!


Sprouts for Erynne
| January 3, 2014 | 11:30 pm | El Salvador | Comments closed

It’s a little difficult to write a blog post while Bob insists on telling excellent stories of his adventures in various countries, but I’m going to give it a shot. As far as our own adventure is going, we made it to El Salvador! Except for Catherine, because screw passport expiration dates. No, her passport hasn’t actually expired. It expires in April. Apparently that’s not good enough.  Not sure if that’s a Brit thing or an El Salvador thing, but she should be getting here in a couple hours.

Without Jesse to rag on, Mike has quite taken to mocking Erynne with stereotypes re: Oregon. He’d probably say she started it by claiming vegetarianism. Yesterday evening we went to the supermarket to get supplies for breakfast and lunch. Ariel asked Mike what he already had…

“Peanut butter?”

“Tons of peanut butter.”


“Bottles and bottles.”

About six similarly answered questions later…

“So why are we here again?” said Ariel.

“I thought we were here to get sprouts,” said Mike.


“You know, for Erynne.”

We got cookies and fruit.  And disinfectant for the fruit. Also, we got some proper harina de maiz – and we’re not gonna forget it this time, Jesse – so we can make actual pupusas when we get back. Get excited, EWB.

It amazes me that despite this being my second time in El Salvador, I’m still constantly surprised by the things that I see. Today I saw a kid casually chomping on a lime, biting into it like an apple. This was after the morning meeting and about a four-hour decision on where to build the foundations for the three water tanks. We were pleased to find that the tanks had actually been delivered to the community already, and more pleased to discover how actively the members participated in the meeting. Even the women spoke up, which was actually my biggest surprise of the day. Salvadoreños are usually shy, and Salvadoreñas more so. Maybe they’re getting used to us.

My Spanish vocab word of the day is carretilla (wheelbarrow). We had the foresight to bring one to carry our tools. On our way to the community today, we discovered that the roads had suffered severely since last March. We hung onto the pickup’s side bars to keep from falling out as we got stuck in hole after hole. I don’t mean potholes here. Some of them might’ve been up to my waist if I’d stood in them. Our driver, Rubén, navigated them expertly but announced defeat when we encountered a tree across the road. Even lying on its side, it still was probably ten feet tall, with a split trunk and many branches all over the place. We carried the tools and the carretilla through the branches and climbed over the limbs ourselves, and walked the rest of the way to the canocaste (meeting tree). About halfway through our meeting with the community, Rubén’s red truck showed up – from the direction whence we’d come.

“Did he…move that tree by himself?” I said. Nope. He’d cut through the brush and had driven around it. Welcome to El Salvador.

We spent the majority of the morning touring the spots that the community suggested for the tanks. Of course, everyone wanted a tank in their front yard. It was a morning of diplomacy lessons, but eventually we settled on the three locations for the tanks: one in Domingo’s yard, one near Louisa’s house (the oldest woman in the village) and one by Don Chepe’s. Chepe’s location we think is a bit precarious for the PIPA truck to access, but the villagers seem to think that the hill will be passable. We haven’t come up with a reason why they’d want a tank where they can’t get water, so thus far we’re inclined to believe them. In a show of goodwill, the community also compromised to have 1 cubic meter of water delivered to an already existing tank so that that group of houses wouldn’t get shafted on water proximity.

We took a lunch break on the roots of the conocaste and munched on our sandwiches. Some of the men agreed to meet us in an hour to start digging holes for the tank foundations. While we were eating, a man with a horse walked by and asked if we were the ones who brought the tanks. Word gets out around here, I guess. We apparently had a very amusing conversation, most of which I kind of maybe understood a little bit. His horse seemed very intent on leaving without him and kept walking down the road. It vanished into the brush. The man didn’t seem concerned.  A few minutes later the horse reappeared, having been chastised by a grumpy neighbor for eating his corn. Before departing the man advised us to try los naranjas verdes, which hung on a tree nearby. The phrase “green oranges” is somewhat more confusing in English, but it did explain why I thought that kid had been happily chewing on a lime.

Accomplishments of the day: one hole finished, and another hole cleared and ready for digging. Not to mention the agreements about where to put them, which is probably the real hard work.

Ariel is grumpy because she has to finish editing her scholarship essays (you can only edit them for so long, Ariel!) and wants her computer back. And she wants me to proofread for her, which I can’t understand because she still won’t let me live down submitting our 525 Implementation Report with “524” as the header on every page. In any case, time to go – I’ll just leave you with one more story.

At dinner, Mike was excited about having obtained some non-clone bananas (aka, nothing you’ll ever eat from the supermarket at home). I think those are breakfast.

“But that’s not the best surprise,” said Mike, and tossed Erynne a bag of sprouts.


– Grace