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,

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