Wednesday, August 27, 2014


Hello everyone! :)

So we have finally returned to New Jersey from what I deem to have been a productive and successful trip to Nueva Santa Catarina Ixtahuacan. Unfortunately I did not have the opportunity to blog while on the trip, so I have decided to write a post now and reflect on my experience.

This having been my second visit to the community, I came into it with certain assumptions. We spoke about this a lot as a team: assumptions. Oh how dangerous they can be. One of the biggest assumptions I made was that we were extremely prepared for anything and everything... not the case. As I am sure you've read from past posts from my fellow travel team members, we initially came to the community expecting to tackle technical issues related to the gravity pipeline, when in reality it seems the biggest issues stem from the distribution system. While it is extremely unsettling that the community still is not receiving 24 hour access to water, and even more unsettling that we were unable to find the root of the problem, I still came out of the experience having called the trip successful. You may be reading this, mildly fearful that in one year I will be a graduated Civil and Environmental Engineering student who just regarded an unsolved water distribution problem a success... but let me explain.

One of our first evenings in Antigua, as we all sat around at dinner, Dave asked us our expectations for the trip. I really had to think hard about it... what were my expectations? What was I personally looking to get out of it? What was everyone else personally looking to get out of it? After hearing everyone else's expectations, mostly about the gravity pipeline and the community as a whole, I realized I was taking the question out of context and answered similarly. While those are of course genuine and appropriate responses, I sit here now and reexamine that question: what were my and everyone else's personal expectations? This reexamining brings me back to my first trip in January of 2013, where I first became involved with the project. Having been very interested in water resources, hydrology, hydraulics, and all things involving water since high school... of course this project fascinated me from the get go. However, I can honestly say I wasn't moved by the project as I am now. Sure, the idea of helping a community with a water project sounded extremely rewarding and interesting, but I was definitely not giving up Friday nights to work on reports like I do now ;)

So what was it about that first trip that grabbed me? What was I first thinking about when Dave asked us about expectations? What made this past trip successful in my eyes? It was the entire experience. Everything. The culture, the community, the project, the mentors, the project team, the stomach bugs, the dogs barking all night long, men yelling "queso" starting at 5am... literally everything. This project has the ability to change the way you think about everything. From an engineering standpoint I have learned so much. How a complex problem can become even more complex in a matter of seconds, how important collaboration is, how necessary it is to examine and reexamine everything, how to ask the right questions... it really prepares you for everything. More than that, you are learning to embrace an entirely new culture. One of the biggest lessons I learned from working on this project is that culture and customs are something that you need to respect fully and completely. You cannot prepare yourself for travel by assuming that the community will want to adhere to your professional/experienced opinion. That is something I really learned from Sandy and Dave... of course they both have tons of professional experience, but I think something they do beautifully is respect the community's culture and customs above their professional opinions. Educating is key, but really at the end of the day it is up to the community. We also have the rare opportunity to live with a family in the community while traveling. We eat what they eat, share a bathroom, and are invited to partake in their spiritual tuk (I hope I spelled that right) experience. It really allows you to feel apart of their family and their culture. Some of the days were spent walking around the community, administering surveys to collect more information about their water use, amount of water they're receiving, quality of water, knowledge of the project, etc. While we do get some important information about the project, you really get so much more. I cannot tell you how many amazing conversations I have had with the residents of NSCI, about their aspirations of traveling to the USA, what they do with their livelihood, their gratitude for the project we are assisting them with... you really get to connect with them and their stories. It is beyond emotional, and you just become so attached to the community. It becomes so much more then a water supply project. I, as well as the rest of the travel team, are completely dedicated on a personal level to working with the community to help tackle water misuse, repair sections of the gravity pipeline, analyze the distribution system, and see that water meters get installed.

For future travel teams, I implore you to ask yourselves what your expectations are... really ask yourself. And if you are fortunate enough to travel again, re-ask yourself. Allow yourself the opportunity to grow through each experience. While I am sad that this probably will have been my last trip to Guatemala, I am so excited to see new members have the opportunity to travel and experience what we all have. Make your own expectations, assume nothing, ask a ton of questions, and embrace as much as you can. You will grow so much as a person if you allow yourself the opportunity to do that. This has been one of the greatest experiences of my entire life. I know I have grown so much as a person in the last 2 years of working with this project. I am excited to finish up my senior year as project lead, and look forward to seeing the young members of the project grow into future leaders of this project, and have wonderful experiences working on this project as I have.

A bit dim, but the only picture I have of this year's travel team, along with Fransisco Angel, head of the Water Committee

Monday, August 25, 2014

Rounding Off the Trip

Well, I guess Jeff never wrote his report (he claims he just never got around to submitting it), so I’ll start back on Wednesday. My Wednesday experience was a little different than everyone else’s. Something the team ate from the previous day hadn’t really agreed with any of us, and I was the worst off with an insane fever on top of nausea and stomach problems and spent the entire day essentially in bed. Thankfully, the rest of the team was able to trudge on without me. J

Wednesday was the day of our infamous experiment in NSCI. I think Shaili told you a little about it in the last post, but to recap, everyone in the community currently receives their water on a turn based system. During a family’s turn, they will just leave their taps completely open, and collect as much water as they can as it flows to their house for four hours. We had a hypothesis that if families weren’t hoarding water, everyone would receive enough, so we convinced the entire community to have faith in us for a day and only try using their taps when they needed water. Our results were a little alarming. When the fontaneros were ready to start the experiment by opening all the valves, the tank with water for the community was overflowing. In about 4.5 hours, the tank was empty. There was no way the 735 families in the community could have used that much water that quickly. And then, even weirder, the tank wouldn’t fill up at all again, not even overnight, when families shouldn’t be using any water at all. Do you know where the water could be going?

A family storing water in their sink

Dave running tests to measure the volume of water in the tank on Wednesday

Also on Wednesday, Nicole, Jeff, and Shaili went to present to a class of kids again. The students were adorable and receptive to learning about water, though they got a little crazy when the candy came out.

Children from the school participating in the drawing activity
Wednesday night, the group decided we could all use a warm shower and hearty meal considering how sick most of us felt. So we hopped on a Chicken Bus and headed to Xela. A chicken bus is the local cheap transportation for a lot of commuters in Guatemala. It’s hard to describe what riding it is like. I would compare it to riding a Rutgers bus just after a big lecture is let out. As soon as we all stepped on, the bus started moving, even before the door was closed! The workers of the bus are kind of crazy. They manage to weave through people and collect money while the bus is moving. If any of their passengers have a big bag, they will take it from them and climb up the back of the bus to tie it on the roof while the bus is going as fast as it can down the curvy roads on the side of the mountain. We surprisingly made it to Xela alive, and trekked across the city to our small hostel called Black Cat Inn.

The Hostel was well worth the journey. We were able to take the nicest showers of our entire trip there, which helped all of us feel a little better. That night, we had dinner with our new engineer, Carlos, at a nearby Italian restaurant. Italian food in Guatemala may sound a little unappetizing, but other than a couple of bugs, the food was delicious. The team left the dinner really excited to see what our future relationship with Carlos will be like.

Thursday morning in Xela we were greeted by a delicious huge breakfast. Especially of note was the French Toast that they fry. Absolutely delicious! We all decided we weren’t daring enough to take a Chicken Bus back to NSCI, so after buying some water from a local grocery store, we rented a van from a nice couple to drive us back.

Thursday in NSCI proved to be extremely interesting. As per usual, we split up into groups. Sandy, Dave, Nicole, Jeff, and I went to check the tank again, even though the fontaneros told us it was still empty. We also walked around to several different neighborhoods to see if they were currently receiving water. Unfortunately, it seemed only one neighborhood was, at extremely high pressure. The fontaneros asked if they could go back to the turn-based system now, as people were starting to worry about the lack of water, and we gave them the go ahead. Martin, Shivangi, and Shaili went to the schools to do a scheduled presentation for younger students. Unfortunately, there was a misunderstanding with the principal, and the children weren’t available to present to. Martin was able to think quickly on his feet, and got the children in the school yard to pay attention to an improvised presentation by bribing them with candy.

Martin presents to children in the school yard

Thursday evening we finally got to meet the Mayor. He was a nice man who seemed receptive to our presentation about our goals for the week and what we had done thus far. What stood out was the way he thanked us at the end of the meeting. He expressed a sentiment about how nice it was for the women in the group to leave their families to come to the community. His statement is just one of the many small ways you see the difference in culture between where we live and NSCI, where almost every female around our age is expected to cook, clean, and raise kids as their main job.

Presentation to the Municipality

Thursday night was by far my favorite. The community held a cultural festival for us! It started out a little scary, with some rogue fireworks that the Water Committee had purchased for us. Most of the night was filled with performances by students in the community of various ages, including traditional dances, modern dances, an Enrique Iglesia singing performance, and beautiful poetry about nature. The Water Committee also presented the team with gifts: a beautifully embroidered cloth thanking EWB, shirts for all the girls, and jackets for all the boys. The night ended with freshly made warm tomales and local sweet rice milk drink.

Children from a local school performing a traditional dance for us

Nicole receives a gift of an embroidered banner from the head of the Water Committee, Angel

Friday, the team got back to work. Sandy, Dave, and Martin went to hike the pump stations, and the rest of us split up to try to get as many surveys delivered as possible. Again, language ended up being a huge barrier in delivering a lot of surveys as some people only spoke Quiche, but the team was able to get a total of 88 done for the night! Friday night, we were planning to meet one last time with the water committee, but word didn’t quite get out as unfortunately Water Angel, the head of the committee, wasn’t feeling so well. An hour or so after planned, six members of the water committee did show up to the municipality, and we were able to present to them. After heading back, and having dinner, we started packing to prepare to leave for Panajachel the next morning.

Testing the pumps
Before leaving Saturday morning, we had one final meeting with some of House Angel’s friends who were leaders in the community. Most of them had been on past water committees. We gave them the same presentation as we had given the water committee the previous night, and then said our grateful good byes to Angel’s family before heading to the van. Right before we left, we found out one of Angel’s sons, Stephen, actually wants to go to Rutgers! I think we now all have a secret agenda to try to make it happen.
One boat, two tuk-tuks later and we arrived at Hotel Mikaso, where I am currently writing this blog. This place is right on the lake, which is absolutely gorgeous. Definitely a great background to write a ton of post-travel reports! This morning we even went on a horse-back tour through a coffee plantation! Unfortunately, Jeff didn’t enjoy the horse experience too well, but he finished off the tour on one of the guide’s bikes.  It’s crazy to think that in two days we’ll be heading back to the states!

The travel team during the coffee tour in San Pedro

Thursday, August 21, 2014

First few days at NSCI

Hola amigos! It has been a long few days in Guatemala. On our second day in Antigua, we spent some time exploring the area and hiked up to the "Cerro de la Cruz" (basically a hill that has a large and prominent cross on the top of it) that had a beautiful view of Antigua and one of the volcanoes in the area. 
Sandy, Jeff, Shivangi, Shaili, Martin, Neha, and Nicole at the top of the "Cristo" in Antigua, Guatemala.
It was actually a very short hike up, but since it was pretty steep and we were about 5,000 feet above sea level, it was much tougher to get up there than it normally would’ve been in the states. We were all pretty out of breath by the time we got to the top. Most of us realized that this was only going to get worse with all the hiking we were going to do in NSCI, which is 10,000 feet above sea level. Later, we visited a few markets and gathered groceries and supplies for Angel’s family and our stay in NSCI. We ended our day with a really nice dinner at La Pena, a place that past travel teams have visited. During dinner, we discussed what everyone’s expectations are for the trip once we got into NSCI, and the responses were very interesting to listen to, especially since I now know a few things that we expected have been completely different from what’s happened.

On Sunday, before leaving Antigua for NSCI, we met with Phillip Wilson (CEO of EcoFiltro) again, along with the rest of his family, and Chris Schultz from CDM Smith for a really awesome breakfast at a cute Bistro. I really love some of the food we’ve had in Antigua – especially the fruit! The fruit has never tasted so sweet.  Afterwards we said goodbye to our quaint little hostel and to Leopoldo, and made a 4 hour drive to NSCI. Once we arrived in NSCI, we were greeted by Angel and his family (our host family) and they so generously offered us to stay in their main house, while they took the guest house for the week. We were all so thrown by their generosity – I mean, they gave up their whole home for us! They are very honestly some of the kindest people I have ever met, and I am so grateful for everything they’re doing and have done for us in the past. After showing us around their home, we cleaned up and prepared for the meeting with the Water Committee. 

Municipal Building in NSCI

We had a lot of expectations for this meeting going in – we thought that we would be following an agenda we made with discussion points to the T but once we got there and everyone got talking, we totally forgot about our agenda and the Water Committee spent a lot of time explaining to us what they believed the problem was with the water system. They cited a few things, but focused particularly on a poorly built distribution system into each individual home and breaks and leaks in the gravity pipeline due to high pressures. The meeting was very interactive and I was surprised by how much interest these folks had in their water system! I did not expect that level of interest, but it was so great to see them taking ownership of the project and really giving their ideas for fixes and working with us to try and come up with a game plan for the next week. 

Members of the Water Committee pointing out areas of NSCI with water problems on the map.
On Monday, we all got up really early in the morning to begin walking as much of the gravity pipeline as possible with the members of the Water Committee. Let me tell you: this was TOUGH. First of all, NSCI is at an altitude of about 10,000 feet. Walking a normal distance here sometimes feels like you’ve RAN it because you’re so out of breath by the end. Second of all, the hike was a lot of steep uphills and downhills and NO trails.  Combine the two, and you’ll realize that climbing up those steep hills really took a monumental effort since the air was just so thin and we had a hard time taking in enough oxygen. I can’t say I’ve ever had to exert such mental and physical endurance in my life up until this point. However, the hike was BEAUTIFUL and we also learned a lot about the pipeline which definitely made it worth it.

The view while hiking through cornfields along the gravity pipeline.
We took GPS coordinates at any areas where the Water Committee indicated there had been a previous break, leak, or where we saw there was a new break or leak. We ended the hike after walking the length of about half of the gravity pipeline. Later that day, we had a town hall meeting in which the head of the water committee, Angel, addressed everyone on the issues with the distribution system, and set up an interesting test for Wednesday. People here usually hoard and store their water instead of using the taps only when needed, which may have been contributing to the issue of the community not getting enough water, so we decided to run a test one day to see if the head tank still runs dry when people only use water as needed – it was a little tough to get people on board, but they agreed in the end. I'll let everyone know how it went in the next post!

Attendees of the Town Hall Meeting in NSCI
Yesterday, the team split up, and half of the team went to finish walking the remaining half of the gravity pipeline and collecting data points on that. Our half of the team went to the school first thing in the morning and presented to kids aged 9-13 on the water cycle. The kids were a little rowdy, and the presentations went a little more roughly than we'd have liked, but we learned a lot and in the end I think they did too! The kids were really cute too. 

Education presentations to schoolchildren in NSCI
Later in the day, we went around to some shops and distributed surveys about the residents' opinions of the water system. We found that a lot of times the survey was too difficult for the residents to answer, since they primarily speak Quiche and generally only know conversational Spanish - this is something we definitely need to remember in the future when we make any material for them in Spanish! In the evening, we had Rosa, a representative from EcoFiltro, who handles the programs in the nearby communities, come and make a presentation to the Water Committee about the filters and we were happy to see that the WC seemed intrigued by the concept and exchanged contact information with her. Overall, a really eye-opening and successful few days! We're pretty tired, but still excited for our last two days in the community. I think Jeff is doing a blog post that has more about what we did today (8/20) so I'll let him get to that :) Adios and buenas noches!

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Arriving in Antigua & EcoFiltro

Hola everyone! SO WE HAVE ARRIVED! After waking up at 3 in the morning (or not sleeping at all) and trekking through crazy airport security with water-testing equipment, the EWB-Rutgers Guatemala team is finally comfily snuggled into our hostel in Antigua, the second biggest city in Guatemala. The hostel is really nice, and even has a cute Golden Retriever dog running around named Leopoldo! HE IS SO SO SO CUTE. We all fell in love with him.

After battling the confusing jargon of local ATMs and purchasing some local bagel sandwiches, we headed to the biggest event of our day, a meeting at EcoFiltro, located just outside of Antigua’s city center. EcoFiltro is a maker of innovative filters with a huge base here in Guatemala, that they are slowly expanding to the rest of the world. Their goal? To reach one million rural Guatemalan homes with their product (keyword: rural!). We were greeted by the CEO of the company, Phillip Wilson, in what turned out to be a beautiful open area, lined with clay sculptures from local artisans, that was EcoFiltro’s “factory”.

EcoFiltro's Factory in Antigua, Guatemala
EcoFiltro’s business has become so successful for several brilliant reasons. First off, the product they sell has been developed to suit the culture of the communities for which it is targeted. Cultures in this area traditionally use clay pots for water storage as it keeps the water cool and tasting fresh. By using local clay to build their filters, EcoFiltro has been successful at implementing these filters into households due the fact that the communities already accept clay pots as a means of water storage.

Cross-sectional view of the clay filters, showing the carbon lining in the middle.
Secondly, the company doesn’t fundraise to donate filters. Instead, they split the company in two. One side of the company is for-profit. It builds beautiful painted ceramic filters and sells them to richer urban homes as a functional and decorative piece. 

Beautifully decorated ceramic filters made for urban communities.
The second side uses this profit to build the filters for the rural communities in Guatemala. These filters are implanted into a plastic bucket to collect the water, as opposed to the ceramic containers used for the urban filters mentioned above. The company actually loses money on these filters - something that we were all very surprised to find out. They don't give the filters out for free however, just sell them at a very affordable price for the rural households. 

Plastic filter being used in a local hostel in Antigua, Guatemala.
The third reason this company is so successful: selflessness. Philip told us that his goal for this year is to simply break even between the money made by the urban filters and the money lost by the rural filters. And did I mention that the factory was gorgeous?
Clay used to make the filters.

Workers compressing the clay into a pot shape.

Racks of filters drying before the firing process.
We ended the day with an extremely indecisive dinner choice. After trying and deciding against several restaurants, we ended up at this hole-in-the-wall restaurant called Saberico. The ambiance at the restaurant was of a paradise, with dim lighting, comfortable eclectic seating underneath the trees, a table made out of a rustic door, and the sounds of calming music and birds chirping. After we got back to the hostel, everyone was exhausted and fell asleep fairly quickly. I'd say that day one was a success. It was definitely an exciting and inspiring start to this trip! Next time we post, it'll likely be after spending a few days in NSCI. We'll let you know how that goes!