Mar 25 2012

Reflections

Our flights home were uneventful, and we enjoyed the easiest border crossing that I’ve ever experienced. Before spring quarter sweeps us away, I’m pausing to reflect on the trip and it’s broader impact.

Knowledge transfer is a key element in EWB’s model for development work. It was heartening to see that the municipality is incorporating lessons from our past projects into their current work. For example, they are designing a drainage system for our project site that uses many of the elements that we developed together for our last project. During our 2010 classroom construction project, confusion occurred between the municipality and the community regarding who would be providing labor for the project. This resulted in a labor strike. On our new project, the municipality has improved its internal and external communication processes to ensure that all project partners are “on the same page.” Finally, the municipality has recognized the value of requiring the community to make a significant investment in the project. In Luis Garcia (our last project site), community interest has waned. (They’re maintaining the projects on which we partnered, but they’re not “hungry” for more.) Rather than continuing to improve the infrastructure in Luis Garcia, the municipality recognized the value of moving to a new community (Nueva Suyapa) that was motivated and willing to make a substantial contribution. During our “town hall” meeting in Nueva Supaya, I was impressed to hear the municipality echoing the themes of partnership and shared responsibility for which we’ve advocated. Clearly, knowledge transfer is happening in both technical and project management areas.

We’re also learning from our partnership. While we’ve learned much about local materials and construction techniques, I’d like to focus on “soft skills.” We’re learning the art of hospitality and relationship-building from our Honduras hosts. The municipality has been very good to us on each of our visits to Honduras. This time, they provided lodging at Parque Eco-turistico (a private park a few miles from town). Our wonderful hosts (Felipe, Tania, and their mother) provided a luxurious cabin for our use. They also prepared and served us breakfast and dinner each day. It was the best food I’ve eaten in a very long time! Breakfasts began with a plate of fresh fruit (mango, kiwi, papaya, melon and banana), followed by flat cakes, omelets, or baleadas. We washed it down with fresh-squeezed juice (orange, mandarin, or melon, etc.) Wow – what a way to start each day! Dinners were just as memorable. I’ve lost track of all the wonderful dishes that we enjoyed. Here’s just a sampling: stuffed peppers, casamiento (literally translated “a marriage of rice and beans”), flan, and tres leches (a delectable cake drenched in cream). As much as we enjoyed the food, the conversation was even better. In Honduras, mealtime isn’t just about feeding one’s face. It’s about fellowship with family and friends. Felipe, Tania, and their mother welcomed us as family, and we shared many hours of laughter-filled conversation. The biggest lesson I learned on this trip was the importance of building relationships. Our relationships with the municipality, the community, and the Rotary Club will be essential when we return in September. And, for this lesson, we had wonderful teachers in Felipe and Tania.

–Brian Roth


Mar 25 2012

Copan

With our work essentially completed, we took a day off to explore the country. Our destination was Copan, home to an ancient Mayan civilization. An impressive set of pyramids and other ruins remain. Entrance fees for Hondurans (and those who look like Hondurans) are half as much as entrance fees for tourists. So, Mary paid $7.50, while the rest of us paid $15. (We also discovered that souvenirs cost less for locals than for tourists, so Mary helped us to negotiate the best possible deals.) We hired a guide (who turned out to be useless). It was so hot that our guide moved from one shady spot to another and sat while we explored and took pictures. While exploring the Mayan ruins were the highlight of our day, we had an unexpected opportunity to watch and photograph a small flock of Macaws that live near the ruins.

Our visit to Copan included a seven hour round trip truck ride. The second row of seats in the truck isn’t bad for short trips, but it was downright painful for longer trips. In fact, the bruises on my “sitter” resembled those I receive from sitting in the saddle of my road bike for seven hours. For the next 24 hours, we politely declined most opportunities to sit.

On our return trip, we headed for San Pedro Sula to attend a Rotary Club meeting. We had a short, but productive meeting, in which Rotary Club members agreed to help us with the logistics of finding, purchasing, and delivering materials for our project.

–Brian Roth


Mar 21 2012

Our last full day in Honduras…

Greetings from a hotel lobby in San Pedro Sula. We didn’t make it back to our country cabin tonight because we ran out of day light. The mayor felt that it was unsafe to travel the highway after dark. So, when our Rotary Club meeting ended at 9:30pm, we headed for a nearby hotel. There’s just one small problem: we weren’t prepared to spend the night here. We left our cabin this morning with just a camera and the clothes on our back. Oh well – we’ll be able to retrieve a clean set of clothes in the morning when the roads are safer.

Overall, we had a fun and productive day. We’ll post pictures of Copan tomorrow. Our visit to the Rotary Club tonight enabled us to establish a connection with a key project partner.

–Brian Roth


Mar 20 2012

Some catching up to do…

Hey all! Thank you to all of you that have been following our progress here in Honduras so far. The past five days have been a blur of bouncing around in the back seat of a truck like a kernel of popcorn while driving to and from our build site in Nueva Suyapa. I’m pretty sure there is a permanent imprint of the top of my head in the roof of their truck by now. As if that wasn’t enough to scramble my brain we have had endless meetings with the local engineers, the mayor, construction foreman, president of the construction committee, community members, and all manner of other important officials. Names, Spanish terminology, and the 500% humidity have successfully short-circuited my brain. The best part is, I can’t imagine having more fun!

We arrived here in Honduras after almost 24 hours of flying and layovers (mostly layovers) only to discover that our usual ride wasn’t coming to get us. A couple of the officials from the local Municipality came to pick us up and we were tossed into the glorious, albeit confusing world of translation. Despite my time spent in Argentina learning Spanish, I felt like I had a sign scrolling across my forehead that broadcast to the world my ignorance of language and culture in Honduras. We were whisked away to meet with the Mayor of the local Municipality who accompanied us to our “hotel”. By “hotel” I mean that we were put up in a 5-star cabin located on the grounds of El Parque Ecoturìstico El Ocote. The cabin has its own kitchen and mini living room as well as a front and side porch decorated with hammocks. Life is good.

As I mentioned above we have been very busy. It has been a blast to exercise my Spanish speaking inabilities again and I have even done some translating when Mary gets tired or just wants a good laugh… I love it though! There are many challenges that we have worked through but overall our work has gone according to plan, or better. Through the work of our EWB team at Luis Garcia, a strong relationship has been planted and we are already seeing the benefits.

Part of our plan this year was to translate the agreement into Spanish, both to make it easier on our translator during negotiations and to give the engineers and Municipality something that they could look over themselves. Of course we came up with this idea the night before we were presenting our plan to 100+ members of the 12 surrounding communities along with the Mayor and several officials. To achieve this, Mary and I set about the task of translating the document that Professor Roth had modified from years past. This task kept us up until about 3:30 in the morning. By that point we had each lost our minds and were distracted by the geckos that were chirping in our cabin. I decided to call one of them Gequito, which means “little gecko”. Later, upon having it proof-read by our host, we discovered that our minds had likely been abducted by aliens while writing the later portions of the document. I now know what professors think while reading term papers that students whip out the night before. Let me tell you, it’s not pretty!

We made some corrections and quickly printed off a couple of copies to give to the parties involved. That was on Sunday. To our great surprise, when we walked in to the Municipality on Tuesday to finalize the document, they opened the file we had created and proceeded to use it as the official contract! We were slightly embarrassed by some of the mistakes that we had overlooked in our early morning daze, but it was a great feeling to know that we had contributed to the project.

Most of the hard work is over now. We will be meeting with the Rotary Club here in San Pedro Sula tomorrow night after a quick trip the Mayan ruins in Copàn. You can look them up if you are curious, but I’m sure we will have plenty pictures after scouring the place in a paparazzi-like manner. More on that tomorrow. I am headed to bed! Buenas noches a todos!

Jonathan Schreven


Mar 20 2012

Signing the Convenio

Today was the culmination of our week of work. We met with representatives from the municipality and the twelve communities who are partnering with us on the school project in Nueva Suyapa. Enginero Luis amused all of us with his antics as we signed the convenio. For example, when a cell phone interrupted our meeting, he started to dance while the embarrassed owner of the phone scrambled to silence it. Luis also proudly displayed a picture of a dinosaur on his bulletin board. We didn’t notice anything unusual until he pointed out a tuft of yarn sticking out of its mouth. Last night, the two big soccer teams in Honduras played each other. Maraton (whose mascot is Godzilla) beat Olympia (whose mascot is a Lion). The dinosaur represented Maraton swallowing Olympia – very creative.

Tomorrow we’re celebrating the completion of our work with a trip to Copan to see ancient Mayan ruins. We’ll end the day back in San Pedro Sula where we’ll meet with the Rotary Club. They have agreed to partner on our project, and we hope that they will be willing to help us with the logistical challenge of procuring and delivering construction materials.

–Brian Roth


Mar 19 2012

Happy Father’s Day For All

Mary and Jenny have the special distinction of being honored guests (and the only two women among 200 men) at the municipality’s Father’s Day celebration. We sat right next to the mayor – a position of high honor. (Hondurans know how to treat their guests WELL.) We enjoyed a modern dance shared by youth from the local dance school, and we enjoyed more traditional music provided by the municipality’s marimba ensemble.

After lunch, we headed for Nueva Suyapa with Engineros Jimenez and Mata, two engineers from the Municipality. They had contracted with a soil testing expert to provide soil data. (They’re in the process of designing a septic system for the new school.) We (Jonathan and Brian) took advantage of their work to get soil data for free. While they dug a hole with pick and shovel, we staked out the footprint for the new school. We also collected topographic data (the site isn’t as flat as we had remembered), checked for potential drainage problems (we’re learning from our last project), took pictures of Phase I (a five classroom building already built by the muni), and chatted with Julio Alevar (construction foreman for our upcoming project). While Jonathan and Brian collected data, Mary and Jenny took a tour with Chema (short for Jose Maria), the founder of Nueva Suyapa. As soon as the last bit of data was collected, we scurried to the truck for a fast, bumpy ride back to Villanueva. For our safety, the mayor has given us firm instructions not to be out after dark.

Tomorrow we return to the municipality headquarters in Villanueva to sign a convenio. It’s a formal agreement that spells out the responsibilities of each project partner. We were delighted to learn that we and the municipality have nearly identical expectations. In fact, they’ve been a firm advocate for our needs and expectations. Here’s the short version: the community is providing “unskilled” labor, the municipality is providing “skilled” labor, and we’re providing the design and materials. It’s a strong partnership that leverages the resources and abilities of each team member.

–Brian Roth


Mar 19 2012

I’ll drive them to Copan!

“You can drive them to Nueva Suyapa. I’ll drive them to Copan!” That’s what Luis, the resident jokester at the municipality, said to his colleagues as they divvied up the driving responsibilities for our transportation. Three roads lead to Nueva Suyapa. After taking all three, we’ve concluded that they vie for the title of steepest, bumpiest road in the country. Copan, on the other hand, is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Honduras.

While Luis may prefer Copan, we’re growing attached to Nueva Suyapa. It’s surrounded by beautiful mountains, and it’s home to wonderfully hospitable people. Saturday night, we stayed up until 3:30am writing and translating the convenio and preparing a speech. I chose to share the opening lines of my speech in Spanish, which added to my nervousness. However, when we arrived at the community meeting on the grounds of the old school, a sudden calm washed over me. I felt right at home. The speech was well-received, thanks to Mary’s excellent translation skills. Afterwards, we were invited to the home of the school construction committee president (Froylan Aguilar), who fed us a meal of potato soup, Indian hen, homemade tortillas, and Pepsi. Everything tasted good (though I admit to passing on the hen). Even Pepsi tastes better here in Honduras where it’s made with cane sugar rather than corn syrup.

–Brian Roth


Mar 17 2012

Tomorrow’s a Big Day…

Tomorrow’s a big day, but first a bit about today. A driver from the municipality picked us up at 9am for a ride to Nueva Suyapa. It was a steep, bumpy ride – I’m lucky that I only hit my head on the ceiling of the truck once. Accompanying us on our journey was Engineer Jimenez. He’s a long-time employee of the municipality, and someone we’ve come to respect. We spent 30 minutes exploring the project site, then sat down to negotiate. We were happy to learn that we and the municipality have similar expectations for partner contributions to the project. However, our conversation wasn’t without some adventure. (More on that later.)

Negotiations were interrupted with chicken soup – the specialty of Nueva Suyapa. What’s a vegetarian like me supposed to do with chicken soup? Eat it, of course! But I admit to doing so a bit gingerly. Next, we paid a visit to Luis Garcia to monitor our 2010 construction project and subsequent work on a drainage system. We were generally pleased with the progress, but a few tasks remain. We promised to return in September to view the completed work (hint, hint?!)

Tomorrow is a big day. Representatives from the nine communities surrounding Nueva Suyapa are meeting us for a town hall meeting. Representatives from the municipality, including the mayor, will be joining us. We have two huge tasks: (1) present our plans in a speech to our project partners, and (2) finish negotiating the convenio (project agreement). There’s so much more that we could share, but we’re off to write a speech and draft a convenio.

We have yet to see Chris Padilla (our long-time Honduran collaborator), but we’re being well taken care of by the municipality and our host family. They’ve provided invaluable tips for a successful speech and contract negotiation.

–Brian Roth


Mar 16 2012

Wow!

Waiting for our flight to Honduras

After 24 hours of travel, we arrived to find….no one at the airport to meet us. No worries – we were now on Honduran time. Alvin and Carlos (local elected government officials) arrived a short time later to pick us up. The six of us squeezed into a small pickup truck with our luggage and headed for… Well, we weren’t sure where we were going. We took the scenic route through San Pedro Sula to the mall. After several hours in line, we’d exchanged our dollars for limpiras and picked up a sim card for our phone. After a quick bite to eat at “Power Chicken,” we headed for Villanueva for an official tour and a meet-and-greet.

Wow – Honduran hospitality is amazing! We received a wonderful, warm reception from everyone we met. The municipality is providing lodging and meals for us with a wonderful family. Here are a few pictures of the residence.

–Brian Roth


Mar 15 2012

On our way…