Saturday, December 16, 2006

Update: A return to Ecuador

The semester is winding to a close... its been a different sort of semester, maybe more real and down to earth now that the glossy sheen on all the opportunities and crazy things happening at MIT has faded and I start to realize hugeness of complexity and challenge involved in efforts to make real change in the world. I am continually inspired by stories and people around me, and ever seeking to find my place in these groups, changes and movements that I believe in.

As most of you know I spent last summer in Ecuador, working on a potable water system in the small indigenous community of Santa Ana in the rain-forest region of Ecuador... As we worked to build a dam, teach technical and administrative skills to the water board and operators, and spread hygiene and health awareness in a world where boiling water is a multi-hour endeavor of wood hauling and fire-tending I realized in a really personal way the paradoxes of "international development" I learned that good will, energy, enthusiasm and effort are not all-powerful, but at the same time that coupled with patience and a truly open mind, they can still do something extremely worthwhile. If you are interested in reading more about our work in Ecuador, you can check out:

The water is now flowing to the homes in Santa Ana, and along with Froylan, I am going back to Ecuador for the month of January to continue our work with community empowerment around their water system. This time we are hoping to work with the operators and water board that we have already taught and help them develop their skills and put together a program for them to do water hygiene and health workshops and well as technical training in other communities. One of the most striking things I felt while I was there was the oppressiveness of the paradigm of indigenous people asking for help and outsiders giving...a paradigm perpetuated both by indigenous communities and by well meaning governments, NGOs, and individuals such as our selves. We don't presume to be able to change this attitude in a month, but we would like to lay the foundation for a much more powerful type of capacity building than simply teaching them to run their water system -- teaching them that within their communities they have so much knowledge and power to share with one another.

For that reason, we are going to be working with an association of 33 indigenous communities that Santa Ana is a part of. The "Comuna San Jacinto" is based out of Puyo, the small city that is about 1.5 hours outside of Santa Ana, and works to attain legal land ownership recognition for the communities and facilitate some limited health and education sorts of programs in the communities.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

here in Quito

HI all,
I´m here in Quito, our flight leaves at 10pm tonight. You´d think we´d be hanging around with plenty of time to chat... instead we´re doing our utmost in this last time we have to leave the best archive of the water project that we can, and also working with Francisco, Esteban and Corinne to re-vamp the Ecuador Volunteer program in Santa Ana...creating forms, rewriting the webpage, writing up information for volunteers in Santa Ana etc.
This summer has been incredible in so many ways... i´ve soaked up a little bit of perspective on everything from the petroleum industry, logging, pesticides in agriculture, to some gritty details of water systems, the mess of beaurocracy in develpment projects, and the beauty of a day in the community of Santa Ana.
I´ll be writing up some more formal summaries and reflections as closure on the project for the Public Service Center that I´ll pass along to you all. I know I´ve gotten really short in these e-mails, my apoliogies for that. I´ve got lots of stories and photos to share...hopefully i´ll be able to put it together a bit on the plane.
Much love to all,

Friday, August 18, 2006

Tungurahua -- we're safe and sound

Hello all,
I don´t know if the news of the volcano eruption reached the news for any of you, but I wanted to say first of all that we´re safe and sound here in puyo along with the majority of the community.
Yesterday was a pretty crazy day. Another one of those days where I woke up 24 hours ago with a completely reality context than what I have now.
We attempted to build the wall yesterday.... despite our fears that few community members would come we had a good turnout and were all set to build, except froy returned empty handed from his quest for cement... all the stores had sold out and hadn´t gotten their new shipments because of the eruption of Tungurahua the night before took out the road between here and the cement factory.
We passed a normal afternoon and then firefighters and national guard trucks started coming with messages of increasing posibility of alarm.. Basically kilometers upstream from us the lava entered the Pastaza river and dammed it off in 3 places... causing the water level to rise 200 meters... crazy....
they are apparently going to try to break the dams with dynamite so that they dont break all at once and cause a huge flood of water downstream. Santa Ana is almost 100meters above the pastaza, and a good 100ish kilometers downstream, so the chances of anything happening to the community are miniscule.... It was a really surreal experience last night at the farewell party for some other volunteers, listening to the eclectic music they play around here, looking around at the half-lit faces of these people that I have come to know so well, knowing that a tremendous flood is within the realm of posibility. I think it made me really understand this latin american culture froy tries to explain to me... that this life is crazy, so many things to be worried about in our project, the village just might flood, the volunteers are leaving as volunteers always do, and the only natural thing to do is eat some heart of palm toasted up in a banana leaf, dance to old mexican reggaton, and gaze up at the stars.
Then, at 11pm or so, the national guard came again with a huge truck and this time a good half the community (including us) decided to go with into Puyo, just in case. It was a crazy experience, that 2 hour ride to puyo in the back of this huge truck, literally the refugee evacuation sort of truck... pitch black except for the ocaisional volunteer´s flashlight... women and kids and blankets all piled up along the walls and a few in the middle of the truck. Me with 6 year old sacha asleep in my lap, half leaning on froy, and the little girl that the man on my other side was holding also half resting on my arm... I felt just a little bit of the raw warmth and unity of humanity that people must experience in real war, flood, refugee situations. They´ve got set up here a really nice sort of temporary shelter thing, with individual matresses, blankets, and 3 meals a day. We don´t think we´ll be here long, another night at the most.
As for our project... that´ll be another update...
Much love. Miss you all and ww´ll be very careful and take care of ourselves here.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

quick hi

Hello all,
We´re plugging away here, with lots to do and the days we have left dwindling. We had a bit of confusion with the materials being dilivered at the wrong place, etc, putting us a bit behind in our construction, but after all that´s the part that the community really knows better than us how to do it, we´re just putting in a bit of organizational impetus to get it done. Hopefully the materials will come monday/tuesday and away we´ll go.
We have our operator candidates, and are going to start training them today when i get back with materials printed. The contractor is coming tuesday and claims the system will function when he leaves... from what we know, this is possible though i´m not quite convinced. There are about 8 other volunteers here right now, and i´ts pretty fun to see other people´s projects and how they are getting along.
Much love to all,

Tuesday, August 8, 2006

things are looking up

A quick quick word to you all saying that things are looking bright and wonderful...

Two days ago froy went with a few members of the water board to the president of the community´s house (an hour walk from main Santa Ana) to try to convince him that the community really needs to select and pay an operator, not have a rotational community system as he wants because based on our experience when only half of the beneficiarias come to the meetings, we don´t really think t´hey´ll walk 2 kilometers to go clean the captation in the river, etc... The president isn´t married, doesn´t have kids, and for that has his mind much more in the past than the future, and didn´t budge in his view. Then he said he didn´t have time to come the next day to the meeting of all beneficiaries...

So yesterday we had a wonderful meeting with the community. I didn´t actually attend much of the meeting because I was running around to people´s houses and up to a trail building project about a kilometer away trying to get the majority of beneficiaries to come to the meeting. I did : ) and they agreed to a salary of $60 a month for the operator and $20 a month for the treasurer (effectively almost tripling their tariff to about $5 a month per family (depending on use... $.63 per meter cubed) but assuring a successful system). Wahoo...

Other great news is that we have 4 new volunteers from spain (we had been told they were americas and were thrilled they are 4 college students from spain because they can SPEAK SPANISH, and they are here for 2 weeks working on sub projects of ours. I went with the secretary and president of the water board and one of these able, intelligent, hard working new volunteers Ana to the municipality where we cleared up our questions about the administrative end of things, so Ana and Ines are set to set up a simple system of accounting, book keeping, etc for the water board. The other two will be helping us continue our health and higiene habit campaign.

In other news... the other day the family hen was searching for a new place to lay some eggs and found ... our bed.... it was quite the funny incident, and later, a woman in the village said that it indicates that we´re going to have kids... hehe... we are ¨married¨here after all to avoid confusion or unwanted offers...

much love to all,

Thursday, August 3, 2006

quick hi from Quito

Ah the rain... just when we´ve got our provisional dam build we get two days of rain and the river grows a meter... crazy stuff. But that´s the way of the rainforest. A week of sun and it´ll be dry again and we´ll be on our way.
We continue to be happy, healthy, and working hard. So much to share and no time, but i´ll try to get something better out next week.
Love to all,

weekly update plus

It is so hard to sit down and sumarize what we have done and learned each week... it is so much more than fits in these words and my time in front of the computer...
Last sunday we had an extended and extremely fruitful meeting with the community water board in which we planned to work every sunday to set weekly goals and work plans, and then have a meeting with the entire community every monday. We also went through the mothly costs of running their water system in order to revise their budget and the monthly tarriff that the families will have to pay for water. It came out to about 4 dollars a month per family, which they at first said was way too much, that families wouldn´t pay that. We talked around it from other directions, how if just once in that month you have to take your kid to a doctor in puyo because he drank contaminated water it costs more than 5 dollars, how much would you pay for 500 liters of pure and clean water, etc, and they (the water board) realized that it was actually within reason, and prepared themselves to present the budget to the community the next day. We also taught the water board members how to serve as facilitators for the activities we had planned for the meeting the next day.
Monday meeting: many fewer families came this time than last time, which was a disappointment. Even the president of the community didn´t show... we had great sucess with our two group activities and a game at the end (they were remarkable in how much they had absorbed the material and knew the answers), but ran into problems with the more administrative decisions we wanted to make--form work groups to work on the dam project, select candidates for operator, and see what the community thought about the budget etc--because we didn´t have a majority of the families.
Tuesday: it rained like crazy... we were all ready with a good group of people to divide into two group`s, one working on the extension of the distribucion line out to the farthest houses (not part of our work, but part of the community´s responsibilty to the contractor to help in the construction) and the other group to fix up the temporary dam and start excavating the foundation if it was dry enough. INstead we spent the day on the technical manual, and also Froy went into town to get the ball rolling on the production of a booklet we want to produce with excerpts from where there is no doctor.
Wednesday: it continued raining, but lighter, so we went up to the river with a group of people from the community and discovered that the river had risen about a meter, maybe 10 times the flow of water from the day before... it is the rainforest after all, these rivers grown and shrink an incredible amount on a daily and weekly basis. Our temporary dam actually held admirably well, except one hole due to the force of the water. We created an addition to the dam, and cleared out a good path for the water to drain out from where we are going to construct once the sun starts to shine and the water level drops. In the afternoon we sat down with a few key members of the comunity, including the president, who told us that the community had decided back 3 years ago that the community couldn´t afford to pay an operator and that the operation of the system was to be done by the community water board.

Monday, July 24, 2006

pizza in Santa Ana

Hey all,
Were moving right along in our new objectives, with a newly elected water board in the community. The secretary Melida told us in our first meeting how sorry they all felt that they hadn´t gotten together the new water board sooner to take more advantage of our time in the community, and how happy she was that we kept after things and kept talking to people, working with kids in school, etc. She became interested because her oldest son came home and was telling her about our bacteria results and that the water from the source they drink is contaminated and they needed to boil it. Her comments just about made the trip for me... whatever happens we are doing some good.
The community is in the midst of the 3 day party to celebrat their 44th anniversary (3 days of chicha, dancing, drumming, and food). We´re now in the process of working with the contractor and the municipalitý´s social liason to hammer out a manual of administration and all the associated forms, and a manual of operation and maintenance of their system. Definitely interesting and challenging. Right after the party we´re going to round up the community and start the physical construction in the dam, and train the important people in how to manage their respective tasks (and of teach the working sof everything, technical and social, the 6 member water board and a few other interested community members to have a good body of people who really understand their system). A couple of days ago we had another community meeting to talk about the related issues of health and higiene that complement a potable water system to improve the health of the community. Only this time, with the help of another volunteer in thec ommunity, we had a very well planned meeting with activities, cards, etc, and incentives. We visited every house to give a personal invitation the day before, and almost every family came : )
I just love, love, the community and the atmosphere - imagine a community of handmade wooden houses, some with corrugated metal roofs and some with palm frond roofs, gathered around a large plaza/ soccer field, overlooking a broad and rocky river, with layers of hilly rainforest fading back to mountains and clouds. Its breathtaking. And the atmosphere... . Its a different attitude of work and organization... much more ¨traquilidad¨ and waiting to see what happens, which is hard for my american demand for solutions, plans, timetables and results, but also really relaxing once you get into it. The trick is to rally the organization and drive that they definitely do have, and work in their terms.
Lots of fun stories to share, but I´ll close with one. Our family asked us a couple of times if we knew how to cook pizza. We said sure, but who knows how it will turn out when the only source of heat to cook with is a fire. (Think about it most american kitches have have an oven, 4 burners on the stove, a toaster, and a microwave... thats 7 places to heat things up). Actually, it turned out rather delicious... We made some dough with water, salt, and flour (they don´t really use yeast around here), rolled it out with a nalgene bottle, and then fried it on the lid of a pot with some vegetable oil. We flipped it over, and on the toasted side put precooked sauce complete with tomatoes, meat, and vegetables, and then some shredded mozerella cheese (the flavor is something else here, i´m not a huge fan, but at least its cheese for my wisconsin blood). Back on the fire it went, covered with another lid of a pot, and once the cheese melted, off again. And wonder of all wonders, it tasted delicious--not all that far off from real pizza--and our family loved it.
Ciao for now,

Thursday, July 13, 2006

quick hello

I´ve got to be super quick... too much to do in our day in town : )
Froy and I have had many adventures since the last update, most with beaurocracy, communication, and organisation of development projects like this water project. We have pretty much uncovered the past and present of the situation, and putting together a new plan for the future. In short, the water project (though the world bank, a quito office, a municipal office, and a contractor) DOES include a slow sand filter already. No one in the community knew because the communication and involvement is so bad. The project is rather delayed so they are all cutting corners, and they have neither the money nor the time to do the community education component of the project (absolutely essential so that someone will clean the catchment, adjust the valves, run the pump, etc) nor are they going to fix the dam in the river that is in the process of breaking. Our new plan is to do these two things... the community capacitating to ensure that there is a large body of people in the community who understand how the whole water system works, how to run it, and how to fix problems, and also work with them to do some cement construction up in the river to improve the dam and catchment.
Other adventures abound--bathing in any of the plethera of rivers of different sizes in the community, learning some of the traditional ceramics, stories of cousins eaten by anocondas and relatives crippled for life by a boa and an insect whose venom is so poisonous that you will die within the hour ... and the only folk remedy is that you have to make love with someone... if you look at the snapfish photo album I sent out in another e-mail, its the yellowish insect floating around in a plastic bottle... Esteban, the man we are living with, grabbed it off a light and preserved it in paint thinner.
overall, life is beautiful and froy and i are really happy, and learning more every day.

Saturday, July 1, 2006

6 days into the summer in Santa Ana

Hey all,
Just a quick hello from Ecuador. Aside from a cold that Í´m recovering from and a sore back from hauling and sifting sand, I am extremely content -- I love the style and pace of life here. After rising with the sun with the morning, eating some tea and a breakfast of rice and bananas, or fried potatoes and eggs, with the family, working until the mid afternoon when we eat our major meal around 3 or 4 pm, and then working some more, bathing and washing clothes in the river, chatting with the grandpas and playing with the kids, we are so ready to sleep after the evening tea and snack at around 8:30pm.. a little different from MIT, but really nice.
going to the riverAs today is saturday, it was six days ago since we arrived in Santa Ana, and a lot has happened. Santa Ana is a gorgeous, friendly, fascinating community and people have been extremely welcoming and interested in our project. We are staying with a family that lives right on the main town center field with soccer goals, a volleyball net, and a communual meeting place. This is extremely convenient because we easily run into a lot of different people - kids going to and from school, grandmas and grandpas sitting around in the shade with grandchildren, women carrying vegetables in from their community garden, men learning to carve birds out of balsa wood from the resident artist, etc. Some of the most rewarding time has been spent just sitting and talking with these people, about their life, their culture, and of course, water. Froy is especially equipped for this sort of informal support-building, as people are always eager to hear about food, life, family in Mexico, only one or two steps removed from their lives in Santa Ana, as opposed to life at MIT which is an easy ten steps removed...
I mentioned in my last e-mail that we did some bacteria testing of the water... we have found that more than the information it gave us, these little filter papers make an amazingly valuable visual aid for conversations with people about their water. They are all really interested in knowing how safe their water is, and know that some of their diseases come from unsafe water. Everyone knows that the Pastaza is contaminated and although they bathe and wash clothes in the river noone has ever admitted to drinking the water straight from the river. What was surprising to us, was that the community sources of water which appeared to us as well to be clear, clean water, were actually far more contaminated than the Pastaza. In retrospect this makes a lot of sense given all the human and animal activity, latrines, chicken coops etc, and that the water must run very shallow beneath the earth to surface so frequently as it does. The level of contamination in the school rainwater system was also surprising, and one of the topics in our upcoming community meeting will be what to do about that system-- clean, well maintained rain water systems are generally relatively safe, but never free of contamination. Options include a throrough cleaning and inspection of the system to try to improve it, sending kids to school with boiled water in bottles, boiling the water at the school, etc.
The river Santander is percieved to be very clean, and it is, relative to the pastaza, but our results mean that it is essential that this water is treated before distribution and consumption, especially by children. Its rather amazing to sit around in the evening with whoever happens to be hanging around the balsa wood carving shop, or drinking tea in someone´s kitchen, and show them their different sources of water. We always save the boiled water for last - two examples of filter papers stained blue with bacteria food and some sooty marks of tweezers, but not even a single point of red or blue bacteria. The women suck in air and show it to their mother or friend sitting next to them. Doing the testing, we were actually berating ourselves a bit that we didn´t have sterile water as required to do a control at the beginning and end of the processing, and we used water from my water bottle instead (that had been boiled that morning) as the best we had -- actually it has turned out to be the best teaching tool we have. Its rather powerful for them to see the bacteria from their own water options, and then see the difference that boiling the water makes.
After a couple of days of sorting and sifting sand and gravel we have now constructed our prototype slow sand filter which is sitting in the town meeting place, and one of our daily duties is to feed it more rain water or source water. Maturation of the filter should take about a week or so, after which point we will test water before and after to see how the filter is doing.
Tomorrow, Sunday, at 9 am we have organized a community wide Agua Junta - water meeting, sending out invitations through children in school, and we will also be announcing it once again today when we return from Puyo because all the women will be gathered to make Chicha - the local alcoholic beverage made from yucca root - cooked and then chewed by the women of the community to add the bacteria to ferment the yucca... Add water, and you´ve got the milky, chuncky, slightly sweet beverage with a wide range of alcoholic content depending on its age. One of these times we´d like to snag a sample, to test if the alcohol content is enough to kill all the bacteria in the water they use to make it...
Last night we met with one of the presidents of the community, an amazing leader and craftswoman, to get her suggestions on our activities and agenda for the agua junta. We will have open meetings like this every sunday, both to continue the discussion of water safety and hygiene habits for good heath, as well as plan the next week of construction on the filter.
Until next saturday. Much love to you all and hope you all are having a wonderful summer,

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

First hello from Santa Ana

Hello all,
Although I do not have too much time, I wanted to write to you with an update from Ecuador.
In a word, things have been rather amazing so far. Its so amazing to be traveling, but also working on something extremely meaningful. Corinne Duhalde, an anthropologies, the project coordinator for Ecuador Volunteer´s program in Santa Ana, is amazing. We got to spend two nights at her house in Quito...gleaning so much valuable information and perspective on the community, its formal and informal leaders, the four different indigenous nationalities who live together in Santa Ana, and a lot of the greater context of indigenous organizations, etc, and also just staying up late into the night talking about culture, politics, ´¨development¨ and what it means for countries like ecuador and indigenous communities.
We then took a bus to Puyo from Quito... a very active bus ride with people constantly getting on and off.. once a pair of men got on and the first one started with ¨¨I have the secret to all your problem...a cure for cancer, a love potion for you to find your true love, an elixer for you to have children--or not to have children¨¨ he went on like that, all the while making this elaborate tree with newspaper. He passed out his magic chocolates, and by the end of the half an hour everyone on the bus (us included) thought he was the funniest comedian ever and bought a few of his was pretty crazy.
Santa Ana is an absolutely gorgeous little community, the main center is built up high over the big and powerful pastaza river, a tributary of the amazon. Houses are semi open to the outside because the climate is so beautiful -- 70s and 80s during the day and 50s and 60s at night -- and nowhere near as humid as I anticipated. There is an artist named chibolo who sits on the main square under a little shelter and carves birds out of balsa wood. When the clouds clear you can see this huge volcano Sangai protruding high into the distant sky. At night the stars are absolutely unbelievable-- some of the classic northern constellations but also new ones, since we are on the equator. The children are so beautiful, tender, and alive in their work and play.
We are staying with a family of five -- the husband Esteban is one of the main organizers behind the water system in Santa Ana, and his wife Latisia is equally active and concerned about clean water, especialy for her two one-year-old twins Samira and Shirle (and her six-year old sacha). We went on a tour yesterday of the water system, and took samples from all the various places where people get water. We processed them yesterday (basically filtering all the water through a filter paper so the bacteria is caught there, and now we are letting the bacteria grow overnight. This afternoon we should have a much better idea of the state of contamination of the different water sources. The river that they have chosen to pipe water in from, the Santandelo, is much, much cleaner than the pastaza ( 0.96 NTU insead of 14.6 which is the turbidity reading of the pastaza), of course this says nothing about its potability, that we will know this afternoon.
Much love to you all. I will write again in another week or so, though it might be a bit more.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

hi from Puyo

My apologies that this update is going to be rather short... Our bus to santa ana leaves in 30 minutes and we have a couple purchases to make as well.
Briefly, we have done a lot of planning and discussing with Corinne and she is an amazing person, and has really helped us work on how to apply our ideas to THIS community. We have bought a sample quantity of HTH chlorine powder and found out prices for buying it in bulk in Quito. Today we made a really nice chart-plan that I will send to you all when I have a bit more time. We now in Puyo and will take the bus to Santa Ana today. Tomorrow there is the weekly meeting with the president, etc of the community, which we will attend and present ourselves, and plan for a separate weekly meeting time for us to dialog with the community about their water system, learn from them, teach about hygiene, and plan how to implement the slow sand filter, etc. We are also planning on working with kids through the school. There already exists a water comittee in Santa Ana, and Esteban, one of its members is aparently extremely capable, intelligent, and an effective leader. We will hopefully meet him today and he can give us lots of direction on how to proceed.
We´ll be in touch again when we come back to Puyo, about one week from now.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

off to Ecuador

Hello all,

Please let me know if you don't want to receive updates like this from me...

For those of you who don't know, I leave for Ecuador tomorrow for a 10
week trip. I'm going to be living in the tiny community of Santa Ana,
in the Amazonian region, and working with the people there (along with
one other student, Froy, from MIT) on a water treatment system. We
have an advisor here at MIT who has been helping us learn how to build
a slow sand filter - a pretty amazing, simple system that uses sand
and gravel to filter water, removing organic matter, turbidity, and if
it is operated correctly up to 99.99% of bacteria, etc. That is the
ultimate dream goal... we've got a lot in the way of community
immersion, understanding, and work to go before we can decide that
that is the right solution and that we have the means to do it.

I'm so excited about this trip...about living for 10 weeks in a
community of 60 families in the Amazon Rainforest, about putting some
basic science (water testing) to use in a meaningful way, about the
challenge of a real engineering project that if everything comes
together could make a real difference in people's lives, and probably
most of all about all that I will learn about people, culture, the
rainforest, water, science, engineering and myself.

As always, I love to hear from you all so send me an e-mail if you get
a chance : ) I'll probably have internet access about once a week, and
I'll be sending out updates like this one every week or two.

in peace,