Grace on Pace

Learning the Ropes

Monday January 8 – It was a busy morning of one on one Spanish lesson with Jackie, our landlord from downstairs.  For three hours I wrote and spoke more Spanish than a semester at URI.  Rasa spent the morning making phone calls to MAMUCA and La Ceiba Rotary Club.  MAMUCA represents the five municipalities in the country and is a major player in our project here in La Ceiba.  They have received grant money from the Swiss and Canadians to install filters in the same area and have agreed to share a workshop with us.  From what I gather, the organization is unorganized, lazy, corrupt, and very powerful.  However, they happen to hold a list of communities that have been pre-approved by Rotary International and written into the grant.  Digging deeper into the problems of obtaining the list, certain ulterior motives of the organization arise.  With banners flying high for their charitable work, the organization has managed to sneak by with lackluster accountability, high turnover in staff, minimal correspondence, long vacations, and stagnant production.  Frustrated with MAMUCA, we went out for lunch to a local buffet restaurant here in La Ceiba.  I couldn’t pass up the cow tongue, but everyone else found the will.  While in town, we picked up some supplies to make templates for painting rotary logos on the water filters.  We also made a quick stop at the local airline to confirm reservations for an American Rotary Club tour group visiting the project.  This will be a busy month for the project, because many donors have made time to visit during the installation process.

I was glad to return to the house after an eventful afternoon, but Rasa soon received a phone call about the truck for our project. We headed over to Dr. Gustavo’s to go over the inspection report the rotary had requested before purchasing the vehicle.  At the meeting, a multitude of people had gathered to witness the long awaited exchange of the check and keys to the truck.  At the meeting, more news of MAMUCA came to us via Fernando, the La Ceiba Rotary president.  According to him, there have been rumors about a frozen bank account and the potential for an audit conducted by the Swiss.  After the meeting, I was elected to drive the new truck back to our house before we headed to dinner with Maria and Enelida.  Let’s just say it was not easy J.  Dinner was a great chance to introduce Enelida to her new boss, Maria, and begin to help transfer responsibility to the Honduran managers.

The day was filled with many good and bad parts of international development.  Access to pure water is a huge problem in Honduras, brought on by a complexity of issues.  I feel naive for thinking it could be solved simply by providing filters to rural communities.  Money, power, and respect will forever be the combatants to the insurance of decent quality of life enjoyed by all.  It becomes more and more apparent the project is not only about providing communities with clean water, but also working to combat the very problems that created the crisis in the first place.

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Tuesday January 9 – Today was Jennilou’s turn for her Spanish lesson, and she met Jackie on the patio in the morning.  I worked on my homework from the day before, while Robert & Rasa laid out the templates for painting the filters.  In the early afternoon, we headed out to the filter workshop to check in on production and introduce the new templates for painting.  When we arrived at the taller, workshop, production was completely ceased to more mix-ups with funding.  It was very hard to decipher the confusion, but it seems hard for the builders to grasp the concept of being paid per filter.  Even a seemingly simple task in a developing country can sometimes be extremely hard to get across.  In this case, nobody knows how much money, time, or resources it takes to build filters in Honduras.  Our job is to help them through the process, essentially teaching them how to run a business.  In the most ideal situation, the workers would produce the filters and be paid per filter for their work.  In order for this to happen, the business would need capital to build the first few filters, using their profit to buy more materials.  All of which seems impossible after being here.  Instead, we have opted to pay periodically as they finish each phase of the process.  An unforeseen problem with this approach is turning out to be this payment option.  The check’s we have been giving them contain a certain amount of money for their labor.  In short, it is very hard to get this point across because they know they are being paid for a completed filter, but they have not finished any yet.  Our first check was spent entirely on materials and the workers had no money for food.  Then we tried to explain to them that some of the money was for labor.  So this time, they divided the check up amongst the workers, leaving no money for materials.  According to them, they paid each worker 100 Lempira, About 5 dollars for every day they worked.  This is a fair price for labor, but we are trying to show them that they cannot hire as many people as they want and expect to make much money.  The only way to prove this to them is to pay them per filter and allow them to split their profits.  In conclusion, our efforts have essentially failed this time around, because the workers went ahead and paid themselves per hour for the days they worked.  For us, the dilemma becomes trying to explain to them that the next check will not contain any money for labor, because they have already paid their share of this check.  Confused yet?  With heads spinning with confusion and regret, we decide to move onto our next task and try to find a way to deal with the taller later in the week.

With the filter construction behind us we drove east to the MAMUCA headquarters to decipher our problems with the list of communities we need to deliver filters to.  Bearing in mind, this whole experience was in Spanish I will try to explain what has happened.  According to MAMUCA, they have split the list of communities in half.  However, this whole time we thought we held the master list, because when we called them they told us that the first community on their list was the same as ours.  In reality the community only shares the same name and it is actually in a different municipality.  With this behind us, we began investigating where the communities on our list actually were.  To do this, MAMUCA provided a local citizen to help us.  The entire time he spent laughing, sighing, and groaning at how remote these areas were.  Without a map or directions the list is only words to Robert, Rasa, Jennilou, and I.  Eventually, he helped us pick out a village that needed 74 filters with realistic accessibility.  This was a relief, because the grant entails a quota of 600 installations by May, leaving us with roughly 100 per month.  As for the other villages, we will need to continue brainstorming on ways to reach them efficiently.  The entire experience taught me a lot about the culture of Honduras.  The people here are very face-to-face and it is virtually impossible to get things done by phone.  People here do not put as much emphasis on meetings and schedules, making it perfectly normal for them to drop everything and do the most important thing at that time.

Grateful of the help we received at MAMUCA, we headed back to our house for a quick break before the weekly Rotary meeting here in LA Ceiba.  Rotary La Ceiba is the recipient of the grant allocated to the project we are working on.  Pure Water for the World helps to manage these funds by distributing them and training local Hondurans to eventually take over.  Every week, Robert and Rasa attend a meeting updating the Rotarians on the status of the project.  This is also a time for them to ask for the money they need for different parts of the project.  The experience was semi-formal, giving everyone a chance to voice questions and concerns.

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Wednesday January 10 – My second Spanish lesson with our neighbor Jackie started the day for me.  The three-hour lesson’s go by very fast, but are extremely draining.  In normal classes you can daydream, however in this case the one-on-one direction is constantly challenging.  Following my lesson, Robert and Rasa gave Jennilou and I our first task.  Our mission was to obtain the test results from a sand sample they had dropped off a month ago.  The catch was that the laboratory was owned and operated by Dole, the premiere industry in the entire country.  As we entered the compound secured by tall fences and barbwire, I felt a little uneasiness about the situation.  Everyone seemed nervous to see us.  American fruit companies have held a huge amount of power in this part of the world and in Honduras alone, Chiquita and Dole own nearly as much land as the Honduran government.  I am not sure if they thought we were there in an authoritative role, but a very secretive type of feeling surrounded the entire complex.  Jennilou did a great job getting our intentions across and soon we were led into the laboratory to get our results.  In side the lab, dozens of scientists were buzzing around in their state of the art facility.  Labor is very cheap in Honduras, all the way up through the ranks and fruit’s long history has led way to cutting edge research in this part of the world.  Many of the doctors were glad to speak to us in English and share some of their projects with us.  Our simple task had blossomed into an unexpected treat.  However it seems nothing here is without problems.  As it turns out, sand is very hard to test as a stand-alone subject.  To make the process easier, water is added to the particles and then allowed to absorb their characteristics.  Laboratory technicians are then able to use a mass spectrometer to analyze the sample.  However, the results we were after had not been started because the lab was not sure why we had mixed the sand and water together and/or what we wanted to test for.  After a speaking with Robert about the origin of this sample, I learned of a connection between the rotary and Dole.  A lady in the club had told him that she could get a good price on the test for our sand source because she new a doctor at the laboratory.  In short, the type of test we wanted was never transferred to the lab and the water is currently too old to ensure accuracy.  Fortunately, the lab was very happy to help with our project and gave us some whirl-paks and jars to get new samples.

Meanwhile, Robert and Rasa worked on preparing slides for our health education and information sessions with the community leaders.  The slides were then brought to a print shop, where they were transferred onto a large flip chart.  Next, the pair met Enelida at her house for an interview with a possible health coordinator for the project.  The meeting went well, and Kayla will be joining us for our first information session and socialization.  Our final meeting for the day was back at Dr. Gustavo’s office to talk about funding issues with the grant.  For dinner, the four of us decided to treat ourselves to an American meal at none other than Applebee’s neighborhood grill.  After we ate, it was back to work making templates for filter logos.  The four us sat at our make shift dinner table cutting plastic sheets of laminate into stencils for spray painting.  This has grown to be one of my favorite times of the day.  Robert and Rasa have so much top offer in experience and it has been a joy to get to know them.

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Thursday January 11 – Our morning started with a trip out to our first community receiving filters.  Robert, Rasa, Jennilou, Enelida, Kayla, and I all piled into the truck and headed up into the mountains on a treacherous road through a river valley.  The drive was amazing, but it was hard to enjoy as we passed through such hardship.  When we finally arrived at the school and children ran to greet us.  Hoping out of the truck, I could tell something was wrong.  As Rob popped the hood, steam bellowed from the engine.  The long trip had taken its toll on out 1997 Toyota Pick-up.  Soon over a hundred people had gathered and excitement flowed through the town as more and more people came to see what was happening.  We found some water and filled the radiator back up and decide we better take it to a garage when we get back to town.  Soon we were able to single out the community leaders and we made our way to the local schoolhouse to introduce the filter project.  The meeting serves as a means to spark interest in such a huge undertaking for the community.  With out the support and interest of the community, the project will quickly fade away and the filters will not be used properly.  Enelida and Kayla lectured for a short time on why we were there and how the project would help them.  The community members then had a chance to ask questions before a vote was taken on whether or not carry through with the job.  After the excitement had died down, we gathered up the patrenadas, community leaders, and dealt with some of the finer details.  First we help declare a contact person to help coordinate the delivery and installation.  We also found a person to help with questions and follow up.  Finally and most importantly, we discussed a fair price for the filters.  Ownership is a huge step in making the effort worthwhile and sustainable.  If the people are willing to pay for the filters then they are more likely to use them properly and consistently.  While Rasa, Jennilou, and Kayla continued with the round table discussion, Robert and I ventured off to find their water source.  We filled two whirl packs in different locations.  By testing their current water contaminants, we will have a better hold on how well the filters will work.  Soon it was time to leave, and we all piled back into the truck.  Luckily the trip was mostly down hill, giving our truck a much-needed break.  On the way to the garage we made a quick stop at the department of health to test the water.  They were very helpful and agreed to perform the tests free of charge.  However, just as it seemed the day seemed to be going well, adversity arrived.  The truck had had enough.  With a hill up ahead, Jennilou took the wheel and the rest of us started pushing.  What a sight it must have been J.  At the top, Rob took the wheel and we watched as he glided down the hill.  At top speed he threw the truck into a gear and turned the key.  Walla!! We were off again to the garage.  At the service station, we found a local mechanic to leave the car with before splitting up.  Robert and Rasa headed out to make all of their meetings and appointments, while Jennilou and I grabbed a bite to eat at Wendy’s.  After lunch we started our second mission navigating our way through town to find the office store.  Jennilou did a great job explaining what we needed and soon we had enough materials to finish making the rest of the templates.  On our way home we found a local barberia where I got a much-needed haircut for only $2.50.

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Friday January 12 – I started the day with a short Spanish lesson with Jackie out on our patio.  The six of us hopped back in the truck and went to several hardware stores to pick up supplies.  With paint and a new dolly we hit the road for the taller.  Rob, Rasa, Enelida and Kayla talked with Armando and the other workers about accounting for their expenses.  Jennilou and I got to work on quality control, checking each filter for leaks.   Working hard to conserve water, we displaced the water from every good filter to the next in line.  After we cleaned the filters we checked the piping for clogs.  We then used our new trucko, dolly, to move each filter into the yard.  Armando painted the very first filter that turned out to be an exciting moment.  Still there were many filters that did not pass our inspection that have to be repaired.  After lunch Jennilou and I decided to head back to the taller to try and prepare the filters needed for the community on Monday.  We didn’t quite get the fifteen we wanted but finished an impressive twelve before it started to rain.  Despite finishing our work at the taller our job wasn’t done.  We flagged down a bus heading towards Trujillo and we asked to get dropped off at La Ceiba.  Happy a day in Honduras without a problem we began to doze on our two-hour bus ride home.  Without realizing I even fell asleep I woke up wondering where the hell I was.  After rushing to the front of the bus I tried to convince the bus driver to let us off.  Two minutes after my request Jennilou and I were on the side of the road staring at my GPS.  Good thing for my Dad’s Christmas gift.  A couple hours later we were home and eating mega baleadas, a local Honduran burrito / quesadilla over a one foot in diameter.  Today was a good chance to experience the hard work put forth by the workers at the taller.  The sand filters weigh over three hundred pounds each, making for quite a hard days work.  It was also gratifying to finally have something physical to show for at the end of the day.

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Saturday January 13, 2007 – By 9:00 AM, we were out the door and heading to the hardware store to pick up some supplies for our day at the taller.  When we arrived the workers were laboring on sheet metal covers and diffusers for the last few filters on the work shop floor.  The four of us jumped right to work trying to get as many filters out into the yard ready for painting.  Jennilou and Rasa filled filters with water and checked them for leaks, making any blemishes with chalk.  Robert and I used our new dolly to then sort the good from the bad.  The plumbing for the good filters were then checked for clogging by blowing air threw them.  The filters were then rinsed with a few buckets of water and wheeled out into the yard.  The bad filters where moved aside, where Rob showed the workers had to repair them.  Although many of the filters passed the leakage test, many did not.  For the most advanced filter factories managed by Pure Water, the error rate is around seven percent.  In the start-up process for every this rate is always much higher.  To ease this issue, workers start by making larger filters with thicker walls.  In our case, the factory made about half small and half large.  The advantage of the smaller filters, are their weight.  At the end of the workday, we found error rates of around 20 % for the larger filters and 60 % for the smaller.  I felt bad that there were so many leaks, but I think it will be a good learning experience for the crew.  With a bunch a filters in the yard and the crew working hard repairing the rest, the four of us hit the road.  On the way, we decided to pursue a sign pointing toward the ocean with a huge manatee on it.  After 17 km of turkeys, cows, pigs, goats, ducks, and horses we arrived at the end of the road.  Two young boys sat guarding four dug out canoes at the headwaters of an enormous swamp.  Rasa and Robert began asking about the swamp and if the sign was true.  Suddenly off in the distance, I could see a school bus heading our way.  The two boys jumped up and readied the boats.  Before the bus could clamber to a stop, men where jumping out the back with carrying bags filled with supplies.  The men lived on the other side of the huge swamp and had just finished their supply run.  What perfect timing.  Rasa didn’t wait long negotiating with one of the men on a price to take us out in to the vast marshland.  Shortly, he had agreed to meet us at the landing at 8:00 AM for the price of 200 Lempira (10 Dollars).  We shook hands and parted ways…


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Jeff Grace

I’d like to hope that when I leave this earth, my family and friends believe something about me giving as fully as I could. To the people I love and to the areas of culture that excited me to build things. Then a lot of dancing, loud music and talking about what an idiot I made of myself during that process.

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