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|