Archive for September, 2010


A couple weeks ago I received a phone call from a Pakistan RPCV (1962-64), who I had met once before, asking if Kristi and I would like to visit him in Marcala, La Paz.  Fred comes down to Honduras many times a year to work with Marcala and it’s aldeas on various development projects, mostly water related.  He is a member of the International Rural Water Association (IRWA) which is the same as the Rural Water Associations as we know them in the U.S.  We gladly accepted his invitation to stay in his rented house there, but were not exactly sure what we were going to be doing.  We arrived Sunday afternoon and were treated to beers and a fantastic dinner at a local restaurant, joined by 3 other PCVs in Marcala, an Italian development worker, and a local artist named Melvin (more on him in a later post).

The next day, after a somewhat interrupted night of sleep (dogs and block factory located 5 feet from window) we took a trip to see Marcala’s potable water plant.  The plant, designed by Cornell University, is gravity driven and includes a grit chamber, chemical flocculation and flocculation tanks, settling tanks, and chlorination.  Currently, they use aluminum sulfate as the flocculant, but there is talk of switching to polyaluminum chloride which is more effective (as well as more expensive and less available).  The technology is relatively simple and quite effective, but there have been a mountain of issues all related to maintenance.  Here are a few photos of the plant:

Fred and I outside the plant

Grit Chamber

Tanks were the flocculent solution is stored

Flocculant dose controller, adjust for turbidity by changing the position of the tubes

Flocculation Tanks

Settling Tanks (drawn down for cleaning)

Chlorine drip feeder

Pretty wife and Fred leaving the plant

An operator must be present at the plant at all times in order to adjust the dosage of alum depending on the turbidity of the raw (untreated) water.  The operator is also expected to perform daily cleaning of the settling tanks as well as cleaning the other tanks monthly or bimonthly.  This simple maintenance is often not done, though we can’t figure out why, greatly reducing the quality of water that is piped down to Marcala.  Kristi and I helped Fred by translating to the operators why this maintenance is important and must be done.  They listened and hopefully will improve as a result.  I was pleasantly surprised with their ability to properly adjust the alum dosage as well as teach me how to perform this task.

While the plant isn’t perfect, it is a success and every trip Fred makes physical improvements and operational improvements.  A second plant, to double the capacity, is slated to start construction in January after construction of an underground storage tank is completed.  The new tank and plant addition are being funded by an Italian development group with an office in Marcala.

Fred wanted me to learn about the plant so that I may be able to help with a similar plant in the department of Santa Bárbara which will be designed by a Cornell graduate that now works with an NGO called Agua Para El Pueblo (APP) based in Teguc.  Due to lack of financing, APP may or may not be starting this project anytime soon.  With knowledge of this simple technology, I’ll keep my eyes open for other opportunities in my region where a plant could be installed; however, I would look for a smaller town where an even simpler version of the plant could be implemented.  I think simplification, like elimination of the settling tanks (which have to be cleaned daily and are the most complicated element to construct), could decrease some of the maintenance issues we observed in Marcala.  Omitting the settling tanks will decrease the level of treatment but could be a viable option depending on the quality of the raw water.

Fred and IRWA also work with a Honduran NGO called Agua y Desarrollo de la Comunidad (ADEC).  They are based in Marcala and also have an office in Copan Ruinas.  This organization has a Circuit Rider program where trained water technicians travel around their regions to support and help small water system operators just like the Rural Water Associations do in the U.S.

Kristi and I feel that our region would benefit greatly from an organization like ADEC and its Circuit Rider program; therefore, we pitched a pilot project for a couple communities near Trinidad to the director of ADEC.  The pilot project would include using some of their technology and methodology in our communities and having Kristi and I serve as the Circuit Riders.  If the effort is successful, ADEC may hire a couple of Honduran Circuit Riders to continue the projects and start new projects in Santa Bárbara.

The technology we plan on implementing is called the Combined Treatment Unit (CTU).  The CTU is two tanks: in the first tank a flocculant, aluminum sulfate, is added to the raw water and mixed encouraging the sediment to coagulate settle to the bottom.  Then the water is passed to the second tank where disinfection is achieved with chlorine.  This water will be available everyone in the community for drinking and cooking; however, they will have to come get the water and carry it back to their houses.  Here are some pics of the system.

Combined Treatment Unit

Flocculant mixer inside the first tank

Circuit Rider checking for proper chlorination

Kristi and I will train several community members how to operate and maintain the CTUs and then come back several times every month to check on them until the end of our service.  Because the water is not delivered to each home, it is possible that the people will not take advantage of the clean drinking water because of the inconvenience of having to come get the water.  We plan to battle this with an intensive education effort which constitutes the second part of the pilot project.  We will be providing trainings on a variety of water and health related topics including the reasons/benefits of clean water, hygiene, dental health, proper water storage, nutrition, etc. which would coincide with our visits to check on the CTUs.

The two communities we have in mind for this project are each less than 40 families.  I have visited these communities several times and they have shown substantial interest in improving the access to clean drinking water.  Currently, neither community has a water system and relies on hoses from various sources to get untreated water to their homes.  If the communities embrace the CTUs I plan on pursuing further funding to install permanent potable water systems to bring clean water to each home.

The CTUs will be owned by ADEC and therefore if they are not properly maintained or are not being utilized by the community, ADEC will have the option to relocate the CTUs to another community.  Fred was so excited by our interest that he’s already begun fund-raising so that we can get started!  A big thanks to Fred for hosting us and introducing us to ADEC.  We’ll keep you updated on the progress as things get rolling in the coming months.


Read Full Post »

Quick Update

We’ve been out of town for a bit meeting with NGOs in another part of Honduras trying to bring their support and funds to our region. We’ll get a full blog up (or two or three) next week describing our efforts!

Read Full Post »

The Big Reveal

Remember when I showed you my budding crochet project?  Admittedly I took a week off here and there but the project is finally finished!  As you can see it is something that will be thoroughly used from now until forever.

My masterpiece

So the blender dress wasn’t exactly my idea – but my friend/crochet profesora decided after my amazing doily that I was capable of advancing into the realm of appliance clothes.  The crochet possibilities are a bit limited here due to the lack of need for scarves, hats, mittens, and blankets.  So the ladies have to cover up whatever there is in the house like blenders, tables, toilets, etc.

We are currently torn as to what will be my next project.  I have, however, drawn the line at toilet clothes…that’s just too far.

Read Full Post »

HIV/AIDS education and prevention is one of the two major initiatives of the Health project in Peace Corps Honduras (PCHN), the other being Maternal Health/Child Survival.  During pre-service training all volunteers across all six PCHN projects receive and then facilitate (with high school students) the basic HIV charla.

The charla is four hours and covers worldwide statistics, forms of transmission and prevention, stages of the virus and the effects on the immune system, and the beloved “put a condom on a banana” demonstration.  The four hours whiz by thanks to ‘dinámicas’ and interactive activities.  A dinámica is basically a fun and/or silly way to break the ice and get the crowd loosened up for the charla.  The most basic are along the lines of ‘say your name and your favorite fruit’ and one of the silliest is a mixture of group dancing and singing and is borderline inappropriate (aka – high school students love it).

As I mentioned early on, working with the Red Cross volunteers in our town was one of the first goals I had in site.  The volunteers (‘socorristas’) were some of our first friends in town thanks to David’s participation in their weekly soccer games.  After a few weeks of getting to know the guys I met with the group to discuss the idea of doing charlas in the schools, starting with the HIV charla.  This approach is known in PC lingo as a Training of Trainers (TOT): I train the trainers then they deliver the charla.  Many volunteers jump right in and give tons of HIV charlas directly to the students but I really wanted to attempt the TOT method first because it has potential to be the most sustainable.  Of course that all hinges on the availability, motivation, and follow through of the trainers which can be hard to come by in a group of volunteers (Honduran or otherwise).

Anyways, for this TOT I decided to trim down the activities to cover the most effective and interactive ones.  I took care of the logistics and materials prep and David jumped on board to help facilitate the charla.  In true Honduran fashion the date was changed three times, mostly with little notice, until we settled on the final date.  To discourage any further last minute date changes we met with the director of the volunteers the week of the charla to discuss the agenda and I also made flyers and posted them around the Red Cross.

The Saturday afternoon of the charla we loaded up our materials and the dozens of oatmeal raisin cookies I made and headed to the Red Cross, not entirely sure if anyone would even show up.  Honduran time (hora hondureña) was in full effect, meaning we didn’t actually begin until about 45 minutes after the start time, but better late than never!  Eight young men ranging in ages from 13-24 showed up and we were pleasantly surprised by their HIV knowledge and their active participation throughout the charla.

Here is a list and brief description of the activities we covered:

Dinámica – “Pelea de Gallos (rooster fight)”, two participants have a number taped on their back and with their hands behind their backs must view and shout out the number on their opponent’s back, the result is a lot of head bobbing, weaving, shuffling, etc.  Very entertaining and really gets the crowd going.

HIV Vocabulary – participants are given a term and must find the correct definition (which are taped on the walls around the room)

Learning the vocab

“Mito y Dato (myth & fact)” – participants are divided into two teams, after each HIV statement is read the team must decide whether it is myth or fact (and hold up the appropriate card).  Ex. “You can tell a person who has HIV just by looking at them.” (Myth), “Urinating after intercourse prevents transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections” (Myth), etc.

“Sí da, No da” – pictures depicting various behaviors (hugging, kissing, getting bit by a mosquito, having intercourse) are distributed and participants must decide if it is a form of transmission (sí da) or not (no da).  Don’t worry, the pictures are cartoons and in many cases are good conversation starters.

Charlita – the only ‘sit and listen’ part, a handful of posters with facts and information are covered with time for questions

“Paso a Paso (step by step)” – the steps to properly putting on a condom are distributed at random throughout the participants.  Without talking participants must put themselves in the correct order.  Once the order is complete, participants use a banana to follow the steps of correct condom use.

Arranging ourselves in order

Here comes the banana!

This step is called "make sure it looks like a little sombrero"

*Side story: You have probably heard that Latinos are big fans of using nicknames.  If you’re kinda pudgy you definitely run the risk of being called Gordo.  The light skinned boy in town is called Chele (pale) and of course we are the Gringos.  Our all time favorite is the boy pictured above left who is known to everyone in town as Obama.  Can you see why?

And of course the final activity is the snack.  No Honduran event is complete without a snack – at the least sweet bread and coffee, at the most something resembling lunch like fried beef tacos with salsa (yum).  Our snack was homemade oatmeal raisin cookies which were a big hit.

Snack time

The end result was a successful charla and a fun, educational time with some friends.  At this point the TOT is a 50% success as we still need to present the charla in the high school.  I will keep you updated on our progress; hopefully we will have completed at least one charla before the school year ends in mid-November.

Maybe surprisingly, my favorite part of the charla is the condom demonstration.  We all know that condoms can save lives if you know how to use them correctly but (just like in the US) most Honduran parents aren’t showing their kids how to use one.  There are a few places in town where anyone can get free condoms so we might as well make sure they know how to use them.

To compliment the condom spree, I also have plans to start a teen girls’ group with a focus on abstinence.  This effort was seriously delayed by the month long teacher strike we just endured but this project will be ongoing, hopefully with several groups, in the next two years.

Overall, I really like the PC approach to the teen sex issue because it: addresses self-esteem first, teaches decision making skills, promotes abstinence, develops communication skills, and equips teens with the knowledge/skills to protect themselves, while staying away from misleading or vague information and scare tactics.  Now that’s a novel idea!

Read Full Post »

OK.  It’s time for another technical blog that may have the ability to bring you to tears of boredom.  If boredom strikes, just check out the pictures and skip to the last paragraph which is an anecdote that sums up a lot of what goes on in Honduran politics and public works.

As it is sometimes in the U.S., stormwater management in many parts of Honduras is an afterthought.  In fact, in the relatively short time that we have been here, we’ve seen bridges washed away, roads washed out or left impassible due to landslides, water and sewer systems destroyed by landslides and/or floods, and entire communities wasted by flooding.

These events are caused by a combination of (1) outside, uncontrollable factors such as a tropical storm and (2) existing vulnerabilities like unsafely engineered slopes, undersized stormwater pipes, and an increase in impermeable (paved) surfaces; the former, usually a result of human actions.  Back home, we have in place a strict set of regulations applied to land development in order to control stormwater which do not exist or are not enforced here in Honduras.  The results are the events mentioned above (floods, landslides, etc.).

In Trinidad, I was asked to assist the municipality and a local group of engineers with the correction of an existing stormwater system that is threatening to cause a landslide which would destroy a road and possibly two or three homes.  This rainy season has been severe, therefore, not much time was wasted in designing and implementing this fix.

The existing stormwater was being directed out of two 12-inch pipes underneath a dirt road.  With nothing to slow the flow of stormwater at the outlet of these pipes, the earth adjacent to the road had been completely eroded away and the erosion was encroaching upon the road itself.  The natural slope next to the road was greater than 45º but with heavy vegetation.  Due to the mismanaged stormwater, the slope was gone, leaving several vertical dirt walls (no vegetation) that cascaded down to the river below.

Existing conditions at pipes' exit

Looking down the eroded channel from the concrete headwall

I came in as construction was beginning to help with surveying needs, but was also able to pitch in on some in-the-field changes that were necessary as the budget ran dry towards the end.  The engineers gave me their rough design which I used to stakeout the locations of the rock retaining walls and the concrete canal.  Overlooked in the design was the fact that the rock bed that was to receive the stormwater from the new channel would be impossible due to the existing steep grade.

Furthermore, the direction of the channel, which was determined by the existing pipes, would’ve only caused the same problem, only further downstream.  When this was realized in the field, we scrapped the rock bed (rip-rap pad) for a rock/concrete channel to redirect the water into an existing, natural channel that leads to the river.  This natural channel now needs to be reinforced with some large rocks, but the budget has been spent.  Despite my concerns, the municipality has decided to wait to reinforce the natural channel, although I would not be surprised if nothing is done until a new erosion problem presents itself.

Here are a few more pictures of the project as it was under construction and as it stands today.

Staking out for the retaining walls

Finished product

Finished product (alt. view)

View from road, post-construction

Looking down the new channel, post-construction

A funny story that relates to so many things we have witnessed here in Honduras…

The engineer in charge of this project was explaining to me about how unfortunate it is that, here in Honduras, prevention and mitigation are rarely practiced and that usually something bad has to happen before the government will make a move to fix it.  As he is explaining this “wait for the problem to occur then fix it” mentality, we are watching a half-dozen workers move rocks down into the pit to construct the retaining walls.  Suddenly, a relatively small rock dislodges above the workers and tumbles down into the pit striking one of the workers on his helmetless head.  Luckily, there was no major damage, but a larger rock, which there was plenty of, would’ve decapitated him.  After it was realized he was ok, the workers requested that we toss them their helmets down.  The engineer just looks at me, raises his eyebrows, and shrugs.

Read Full Post »

The Bus Poem

For what I wait

Is not Ideal

A lumbering mass

Of stench and steel

Aboard this highway ship

At the Mercy of her

Diesel engine and her crew

We set off to our destination

Not the way the crow flew

In my face, trash Smacking

On my feet, vomit Splashing

Did that Man-Bear-Pig

Just Sniff my hair?

Fumes of burnt fuel and oil

Fill the air then suddenly

Fart Daggers of fried chicken

And stale beer slash at my nostrils

“Maximum Capacity”, just words

That if multiplied by three

Would explain why this

Woman just Smashed her

Honduran ass on me

No sooner than Hell froze over

And pigs flew, here we are

Halfway there, waiting for another

Ready to start anew

Read Full Post »


A few random photos of animals in our pueblo and our kitten (by request of my Dad).

Are the Lee's home? (Cows on our stoop)

Lizard on palm next to our porch

Cows about to interrupt my survey

Rooster is lucky that fence is there, or maybe the other way around

Computer nerd

Long day of biting her parents and aerial attacks of their hands and feet makes Kitty tired


Read Full Post »