Making sense of a census

Wednesday awoke in Montero, Bolivia, and yet nothing moved. The boisterous city that had offered bustling markets, teeming restaurants, and an abundance of little shops the day before was silent, the sunny streets empty of cars and people. 

We had been warned the day before that Etta Projects, our NGO partner in the sanitation project, would be unable to work with us at all, and the hotel staff likewise waggled their fingers at us when we stepped out to see the sunny, deserted plaza outside. 

Our team shuffled around the hotel during the day, reading books, napping, doing homework, and eating idly, and we were eager for the bar to be lifted at 6pm, when people were free to move about. I was surprised to find as we walked through the markets and plazas, that scarcely two dozen people took advantage of the perfect weather and certainly no one was working. The quiet city was still subdued, as if bewildered by the interviews and paperwork that had swept through. 

I asked a number of people about what this census meant for the country, and most responded with a combination of a sigh and a head shake, side to side. A woman explained in a hushed voice that the president was rapidly approaching dictator status, limiting the effectiveness of voting and elbowing out the opposing party. For this, there was considerable tension within the government itself and the severity of the census rules was paralleling that, readying for the election due next year. 

Bolivia is a fairly socialized country, where an expansive federal government delegates funds to the provinces based on population. Within that, the county municipalities are given funds for local development. Municipal permission is critical to all development, and has sometimes been a stumbling block to Etta Projects. 

For example, Etta Projects would like to expand their education and latrine-building programs to a number of communities around the perimeter of Montero, but some development is “reserved,” in a sense, by local piliticians so they can impress their constituents. Before each election, there is considerable infrastructure development, and over the course of the last five years, all of the several communities where Etta works have had water towers, water distribution, and electricity installed. 

This sort of development blows my mind. I think about the sequencing of develoment in Europe, from the Roman aqueducts to John Snow and his cholera-water connection, it makes sense to my reasonably well educated Western-world brain that sanitation and water quality would be an infrastructure priority.

Still, when Engineers Without Borders began their partnership with Etta Projects in Bolivia some five years ago, the communities were using surface water from beside their open pit latrines and suffering for it. Etta Projects has done considerable work with education on the issue, and EWB’s first project was a point-of-use water filtration system that effectively cleaned water to potability standards using local materials. 

But the development that the people had demanded of their politicians was a well for clean water from the aquifer, and then electricity. The latter was used for light, of course, but then a number of homes exhibited televisions where the kids watched shows like Shrek, and I could not help but wonder how sanitation had somehow been leapfrogged. Our team was working on disposal of human excrement, one of the most basic physical necessities, while cell phones were being charged just on the other side of the walls. 

But I digress… the point of the census is simply that Bolivia is changing and trying hard to meet the needs of its people, and I am curious to see in the years ahead how EWB will be changing to accomodate the years ahead. 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Potties of Paisaje

Our first real work day was supposed to be construction, but an unbelievably soggy thunderstorm had flooded our rooms and made soup out of most of the roads we needed to reach La Banda and build bathroom walls.

So instead, we drove out to the first community where Etta Projects had ever built a bathroom. Our guide and fast-friend, Bismark, is a portly, familiar fellow with a distinctive purple mark on one side of his face, a sexy go-getter wife, a mouth full of coca leaves, and a truck that he loves. While the other kids sat in the back of the truck, I sat beside him in the cab as he pointed out sugar cane fields, landfills, soy processing plants, and places where he sneaks away on weekends with friends to drink beer, eat meat, and plain-old sit around.

We had to walk down to the community, about three kilometers on a dirt road, bowing to a few stoic cows and dodging some of the bigger bugs along the way. The community was quiet until Bismark showed up (having driven his truck down a different road during a locked-fence mixup). A singularly elegant woman stepped out of her yard and onto the road and introduced herself as the health promoter – not the president of the community, but a very obviously respected and knowledgeable woman.

She led us from bathroom to bathroom discussing the people, development, problems, and recent design changes. They have had a number of material failures; corrosion of various linings, tube clogging, erosion, leakage, etc. but the structures that we saw had all been repaired and embellished with showers, washrooms, and other features over the last six months.

There were about fourteen to see. One had been been adapted to suit a blind woman and her elderly mother, with shallower steps, a railing to enter, and bright lights strung at the entrance to the bathroom and the shower. Several had been painted bright colors. Two or three had been surrounded by gardens.

In addition to the bathrooms, people showed us casually around their property. There were homes made of adobe, brick, and even one made of reused motorcycle shipping crates. Most of the roofs were thatch, but the bathrooms were covered in aluminum, and we saw a doghouse with ceramic tile (go figure).

In true pied-piper fashion, the number of children leaping into the back of the truck grew at every home – culminating in a giggling pile that gleefully shot photographs in all directions using the cameras that we loaned them. They were adorable, of course, and at meetings a few days later we realized that we were referencing each house in regards to the children or funny activities that went on in each yard.

We returned to town, sunburned and content, in the late afternoon, encouraged by the way that Etta had been recovering from tremendous misguidance, and delighted by enthusiasm of the local people. There were many more bathrooms to see and an awful lot of repairs to be made, but at least in Paisaje, there was hope.

Posted in Being amazed | Tagged , , | Leave a comment


Our first day in-country was kind of a funny one. We made our way off the plane, staggering a bit from nine-hour-flight stiffness and in my case, hoping desperately that the splitting pressure headache that I had developed in the plane would not give me permanent damage, but scared because my hearing through the whole morning, even after landing, was probably twenty percent of what it usually is.
We navigated immigration alright, grateful for their patience, but grumbling because we had all spent $7-15 on passport photos that they never asked us for. The man in front of me said that he has been to more than 75 countries and never paid as much for a visa as the $135 here. My friend Christine laughed, “we are not in the United States anymore” because we each got a couple of winks from the various airport employees.

Mirma, from Etta Projects, was waiting for us on the other side, a round, colorful little woman with a huge smile and a contagious laugh. She led us to a couple of cars and she and Gaston drove us the 50km to Montero. Our hotel is beautiful. There is maze of rooms that weave around sunny plazas where palms, parrots, and bright yellow towels fill the space. There are shady sitting areas that vary from parlor-style to leopard skin wall hangings.

We did not linger long our first time in the hotel, but piled in Gaston’s little car and got deposited at the money exchange just to the side of the center plaza. He left us there, and we all wandered around finding food and a cell phone. There was hearty agreement that we should all be a part of plaza promotion in the United States.

After we were acquainted with the plaza, we were introduced to another of my favorite Latin American traditions as all of the businesses began closing their doors and we were forced to return to our hotel and take a siesta.

A considerable while (and a couple of blog posts) later, we all moseyed through the streets again. We found dinner and then El Mercado, an absurdly crowded street where you could by everything from motorcycles to pastries, assuming of course that you were not run over in the blatantly lawless traffic. We bought a few ounces of coca leaves, a perfectly legal curiosity that seems a lot like chew tobacco and makes your face go numb when you combine it with baking soda.

Still a little unsure about after-dark safety, we headed home pretty early and drank Bolivian wine in one of our hotel’s delightful plazitas. Mirma came to check in on us, bearing mangos she had grabbed from the yard at work, and then stayed for a couple of hours. It will be a goal of mine to become such a good translator that they all like her as much as I do. We stayed up for some time after she left, but then collapsed gratefully into a sultry sleep.

Posted in Being amazed | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

And then to Bolivia

So, I have been a student member of Engineers Without Borders since I came to Michigan Tech – in fact, the fervent activity of the EWB chapter and the Peace Corps Masters International Program were two of the primary reasons that I chose this school. Since then, my private, subjective morality has come to view them both in a different light,  buuuut… my appreciation for the people and interest in the projects involved has not waned a smidge.

In fact, I was invited to travel with the Bolivia team on their assessment trip during Thanksgiving break, and here I am, typing from a Bolivian hotel room during the middle of the night.

Some time ago, a young exchange student named Etta passed away during her time in Bolivia. Her patrons, the local Rotary, approached her parents, trying to come up with some sort of memorial that could capture her zeal and enthusiasm for life. Their creation was Etta Projects, a community-health centered nonprofit that our Michigan Tech EWB has partnered with for the last five years.

The original project was an indoor water quality filtration system, and that dual-bucket, local-material-using project was a social and engineering success that is still in use today. Afterwards, the team worked on a composting “ecological latrine” alternative to their frequently-flooding open pit method. The team is currently on its way to a couple days of construction and a few days of monitoring, hoping to optimize the design and be in on the first steps of whatever the upcoming work might entail.

And so we are doing all of those “traveling things” at present. We spent all day yesterday and last night in cars and on planes, getting where we are going. Our Norwegian foreign exchange student had her paperwork and technology bag stolen, miserably and sadly, and so we were one man down on the count before we even made it through Chicago’s security, but the rest of us have had an easy time of it – spare an unfortunately expensive dinner in Miami’s airport.

There are three boys and two girls on the road, and so far we have had absolutely no personality issues, logistical mishaps, technological debacles, or otherwise dangerous circumstances. We are headed from our cozy hotel out to the world of composting latrine construction tomorrow, and so until I blog again, remember to wash your hands and appreciate indoor plumbing!


Posted in Being amazed, Thinking | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Hard Body Engineering

Our iDesign team is a bit of a funny thing. We fell into our routine on day one, and fell into our roles pretty well by day three.

Each day we would rise around 6:30am with every intention of being ready for breakfast by 7. Each day, we would be just a little bit late, but gratefully eat whatever boiled bananas, lentils, oatmeal, or fry bread a neighbor-lady had prepared for us. All but one of us would drink the “hummingbird coffee,” a watered-down and absurdly-sweetened version of the familiar drink, and then we would bust out for the day.

On our first, we tromped through the soccer field at the center of town, then along the chiva track, then some eight miles to the spring source with the best reputation for year-round flow and clean water. While the mountains of Panama are awash in rivers, the surface water is unfit to drink (especially with their livestock in and around them), and there is a three month dry spell each spring in which most things dry up.

After measuring everything that we could think of about the spring, we began the topographical survey, measuring with a tape between two poles of equal length on which we would hold the Abney levels and read the angular difference (to within 4 degrees of accuracy). (With this information we would later triangulate our ground surface and vertical distances.) We would also take a GPS reading at every survey point and every proposed faucet site.

From Thursday to Sunday we did this from the tail end of breakfast until the rains began at 2pm or so. At each home we would ask how many people lived there (to which we always received a variety of answers), We got caught in the rain once or twice, but the amount of work that could be accomplished squinting through moist lenses and scribbling on damp paper (not to mention the impossible task of drying out clothes in 85% humidity) was scarcely worth it, and we would instead make our way to the village restaurant where a sassy lady with pants (a rarety) would feed us her tasty interpretations of spaghetti, rice, and other wholesome foods. On rainy afternoons we would either work on assembling our water quality, survey, or population data or go wandering through the village, smiling at the kids and asking questions to the womenfolk. After dinner we would make our way back to the municipal building and play cards with our Peace Corps friends until we had to sleep again.

It was fun. There were moments when we wanted to throw our Abney levels down whatever ravine we were struggling with, or when one more corrective comment would have sent me into grumpdom, but we were generally happy. There are moments that stand out amongst the rest: when the kids let us in on a soccer game, when a neighbor’s little boy went streaking around the breakfast shack, when two neighborhood girls stopped by and asked us to sing for them, and show them how we like to dance.

I have mixed feelings about “development work,” and a general distaste for charity, but whatever passed between our team and the Ngobe, the shy smiles, the flowing warmth, the shared vision, and the mutual curiosity, was something rich and interesting. Our team may not be “right” in the imposition of our culture and our values, and the natives might not be “responsible or self actuated” in their invitation to our team, but whatever our reasons or means of coming together, our shared vision is something special, and something that I will hold onto during these next few weeks of intensive design preparation.

Posted in Being amazed | Leave a comment


Last that I wrote, I was crossing Panama to meet up with my engineering team for international senior design. Some weeks later, I am happy to say that our water distribution system is shaping up, and will hopefully be prepared completely in short order. We are pretty swamped with all of the work, but it is nice to think back on the start, and maybe to motivate myself, I will reminisce here:

The four girls on my team spent two weeks in close and happy company. For two full days we stayed close to the other fourteen students in the class – studying the methods of surveying and GPS that we would use in the field, and searching out our project sites on the map with lumps in our throats.

We toured the Panama Canal expansion, where a shrugging, elderly engineer gave an impressive presentation about the intricacies of project planning on that kind of scale. I realized that the Canal is smaller than I had imagined, but with absurdly powerful impacts, both environmentally and socially. We all spent a good bit of time wandering the construction sight with our mouths agape, awed by the enormous cranes and bulldozers at work.

There were a number of features of the canal that I had never realized. Started by the French near the end of the 19th Century, malaria and other disease had scared them off and left a scrappy start to a channel. The Americans swept in, buying the territory (for a pittance) and developing the channel using great numbers of American engineers, hundreds of Panamanian laborers, and technicians and designers from dozens of countries (like Holland, for example, who had considerable experience in waterworks design).

We went out dancing on Monday night – piling like clowns into two taxis while I spoke with great sternness to the two taxi drivers, ensuring that both taxis would end up at the same destination and for the same price. I was the only Spanish speaker beyond a few key phrases, and all of my friends were content calling me the “Spanish Mom” on this trip and the rest of our daytime exploits through Panama City. Each jaunt had its own character – we went to a nightclub and we were the only people there (but danced like crazy anyway), we took a crazy chicken bus across town, looking for the Old City (and wound up just eating sticky buns and hurrying back to the center just in time for our afternoon presentations), we went to the mall to buy pants (and ended up with bug spray and brownies instead).

We split up on day three, the two Western Panama teams shipping out on a bus for eight hours, trying our best to ignore the horrific movies that the bus showed overhead. And looking nervously out our windows at the mountainous and dusty terrain

For my iDesign team, our Peace Corps partners met us at the station in San Felix and gave us a brief orientation. The married couple, Pete and Kelli, guided us around the grocery store, explaining that the menu they had planned would include a number of local foods and a couple of international adaptations of old favorites. We nodded gratefully, and shuffled about the “Chino,” or, “Chinese store” as they call their mini-Walmarts, until our truck came to get us. Erica was also there to greet us, a Peace Corps Master’s International student who had come from Michigan Tech. She explained to us a possible agenda for the course of the week, reminding us that our engineering knowledge was important, and that we should be as observant as possible during our stay.

The “chiva,” a hardy truck with a rack mounted over the bed, soon came to bring us to Hato Pilon, the small community where we would be staying and working to design the aquaduct. After an hour of bumping around in the back of the truck, grinning like fools and gaping at the astounding landscape, we arrived at the crossroads of Hato Pilon. The very shy Ngobe people who were hosting us stared quietly from their yards, watching as we hauled our gear down the first of many, many hillsides and settled into the municipal building where we were surprised to have access to the only toilets and electrical outlets in the whole community of some 350 people.

Ravenous, we pieced together some salsa and ate it with the chips we had bought at the Chino on our way. We planned the next day with our Peace Corps volunteers, but it was seemingly a moment later when they left us alone, staring at each other with mosquito nets, camping spoons, Abney levels, and all sorts of wonder.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Traveling in Panama

I was sad to leave Londres and its unexpected familiarity. In short order I had become a cousin or niece of sorts, and the path to Panama City awaited me within the fog of disparate information that is so pervasive in Central America.

I took the 5:30pm bus from Londres and arrived in Uvita just in time to miss the bus to the next leg of my journey.

When I travel alone, I take on a kind of wandering shuffle and I directed this to a nearby deli where I bought a nutty-sugar bar and asked about a place to stay. It was very dark and quiet, but for the bar nearby, and the bored woman behind the counter took pity on me and called friendly cab, gave him some directions, and sent me off to the house where she herself boarded.

The mother of the house awaited us at the gate, and after assuring me that $5 a night would be fine she led me into a large open playroom in which three of her daughters and a bunch of grandchildren were all gathered around a table cutting the birthday cake of the littlest one. They cut me a piece, and I listened contentedly to their bustle until I was shown my palm-laden upstairs bedroom.

In the morning I met the hostess and one of her granddaughters to go to the beach. The bay there is in the shape of a whale tail and seasonally is host to a number of migrating whales. As we walked along the beach we did not see any of the great, slippery mammals but we did enjoy watching the lighting spring from the distant storm clouds over the great green water and her rocky islands.

I stayed a little longer than they did, admiring the white, blue, and magenta shells and marveling at the great fireworks of tossed sand that covered the ground about each little crab hole. The temperature was perfect and the palm fronds rustled gaily in the light, sultry breeze.

Before too long though, I was back again packed around the table with my host family sipping coffee and eating abundantly and they sweetly wished me all sorts of good fortune as I hauled my pack to the taxi and made my way to the bus stop. The mother had heard that I was short on cash and refused to accept anything more than $5, but I was abashed that I could ever consider myself bad off in comparison with a rural Costa Rican, especially when I had been cared for so well, so I slipped what I could through the window of the room I had been in before I left behind the tiny ocean village.

The day thenceforth was a blur of green plants, rain, crowds of people, and sticky buses. I rode for four hours while the isles and seats around me filled and emptied of the colorful, overloaded locals, many of them peddling juice boxes or dried bananas. Then I hurried and waited at the various stamping stations of the border control and climbed in a nondescript van, destined for David, Costa Rica.

The visa and bus area are deceptively disgusting between Costa Rica and Panama, but I was soon mesmerized again by the lush green countryside, flecked with huts, little stores, and impossibile-to-identify bus stops.

I was a serious space-case by the time I got to David and after visiting an ATM and eating a surprising amount of mysterious-fruit -whose-name-I-do-not-remember-but-was-kind-of-like-pineapple bread, I climbed to the second level of a great bus destined for the capitol.

This timing was particularly stupid on my part, because 8 hours after 4pm means that one will arrive in the largest city in the country at midnight, at which point all taxis are rumored to be run by rapists and all streets to be filled with vandals.

I decided to stay the night in the bus station, ambitiously thinking that I had slept sufficiently on the bus. I spent several hours going waiting room to waiting room studying civil engineering material that I had thoughtfully saved on my laptop. I was alone on a bench when a security guard came and sat by me. We talked for some time about Panama, Costa Rica, and general chit-chat material. I did my best to tactfully guide the conversation away from things like girlfriends, international marriages, long distance relationships and fated love, but Justiliano was a pretty persistent. He explained to me that in five years of working in the bus station he had never had a conversation with a person. When he saw me that night, he was compelled to introduce himself and he assured me that he would wait to marry me for as long as I wanted, if I wanted to complete my civil engineering education.

While I appreciate romantic comedies as much as the next girl, I prefer a more passive role, and so I tried as graciously as I could to assure him that there were many, many, many other women in the world who would be a better target for his affection. I then hid downstairs to continue reading about gravity-fed water distribution systems, which I presently find considerably more functional than long distance romances.

At any rate, dawn broke around 5:30 and I watched the sun rise with a friendly Panamanian woman. I helped her to navigate her mobile internet and in return got to use it enough that I learned my professor had recommended Ciudad del Saber as the place where we would be staying. After a quick glance at the map, I took off in that direction. I arrived without incident, but alas, none of the five security guards that I found could direct me to an office, a receptionist, nay an internet café where I could learn or gain access to anything that would fortify my professor’s very vague instructions.

A kindly lady on a bicycle responded to my pathetic posture and obvious exhaustion and did her best to guide me in the right direction. Even with her help though, the Central American Communication Curse was too strong for us, and she instead fetched her car and took me to her home to rest.

She was a Spanish teacher with a darling accent when she spoke English, and an even more endearing way of caring for me and her recently injured husband. I brushed my teeth and tried to dismantle the grumpiness that had been embarrassingly strong when we first met as she puttered around the house fixing fruit salad and chiding her husband for walking on his stitches when the doctor very clearly told him to take it easy.

The husband was a greying, lean old man who had cut his foot on the back step and was begrudging his injury for preventing him his regular tennis playing. He had been a ship pilot in the Panama Canal every day for some 25 odd years and he could not be stopped for such trivialities.

It was impossible to deny, though, the ineffectiveness of his stitches and so we left for the downtown shortly after my arrival so that they could visit a doctor and I could see the oceanfront. It was lovely, and I was once again amazed at how familiar strangers can become and how lucky I can be as they hauled me around town, pointing out important landmarks and finally taking me to one of their favorite restaurants. As we ate eggplant, steamed vegetables, and pizza they described to me more of the quirks of Panama City and her colorful history, of the Europeans and the natives, of her students and her daughter, and his isolated life in the Americanized Canal Zone (a 5 mile wide stretch that surrounds the canal in which American engineering families enjoy a pocket of English-speaking Western civilization within and apart from the vital Spanish-speaking world outside).

They took me back to their home, and against my will I fell asleep for the next few hours. They woke me around seven just to make sure that I was still alive and I joined her in the kitchen for salad and leftover preparation. Another pleasant meal passed, and then I finally received notice from a girl on my design team that they were in the villas, scarcely a kilometer away. Surely enough, when we found the address of the dormitory where I was to stay, it was exactly the spot where she and I had met that morning.

Since then, all travel with the group has been a breeze, but I still find myself musing about that whole leg of my journey as a bit of a wonder.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment