Saturday, February 19, 2011

A New Perspective

It has been a couple weeks since I returned, but I am finally getting around to writing about my translating experience (or to be grammatically correct, my interpretation experience).

I was first approached several months ago about my interest, if any, in helping to interpret for a member of the Virginia Medical Center Brigade. While the guy I would help would be a member of the brigade, the work would not be interpreting for doctors treating patients. The brigade has been coming to Honduras, to the city and aldeas of Comayagua specifically, for 10 years or so. A few years ago, in an effort to become more sustainable, they started training ‘Community Health Workers’ who could work in local clinics throughout the year when the doctors were not there. While training the Community Health Workers, they realized that many of the communities they were working with did not have clean, easily accessible water. Because clean water, and the education to properly use it, is perhaps the best preventative medicine they could give, the brigade decided to build water systems for these people. The guy they put in charge of overseeing these water projects, Dan, is a retired real estate developer, and because he doesn’t speak much Spanish, he has always had Peace Corps volunteers accompany him on his trips to help. The current volunteer that he has been working with finishes his service in May, so he was looking for new help, and another volunteer and I responded.

Dan flew into Tegucigalpa on a Monday, so three of us PCV’s met him at the Peace Corps office. He wanted to quickly meet Emily, our new Peace Corps Honduras directora, before going to review the current status of the as-built plans of the water system at the engineering office. At this point, I was just along for the ride, learning what I could about the system. Once those meeting were finished, we were off to Comayagua. It was already night, but after the 2 hour drive, we still had another meeting at our hotel to review the blueprints for an orphanage that the brigade wants to build in La Paz, a nearby city. We met with the architect over dinner at the hotel, and got to bed relatively early.

In order to fit everything in, we got started early the next day. We went to the current orphanage (in an old falling apart school building) to meet with the nun who runs it. We wanted to show her the plans before we met with the mayor and city council to give them an update on our progress. After those meetings, the plan was actually completely changed, so we will see how the architect redesigns it next time. The orphans were very cute. We got there right as they were waking up, and the first thing they all did when they came out of their bedrooms was come and give each of us a hug.

Comayagua is actually one of the bigger cities in Honduras, so obviously we weren’t going to stay there to help with water projects. We had to go up about an hour and a half into the mountains, about an hour past where the last bus reaches. We were going to be camping up there for 4 nights, so once we had stocked up on food for the week, we set off. Our camp site turned out to be near the top of the mountain in a clearing that serves as a typical Honduran aldea center. There was a soccer field, a school, a church, and the new clinic that the brigade was having built. It was actually quite a dense ‘downtown’ for a community like this. We set up our tents, and reviewed the plan for the week while waiting for church to end so the woman who had agreed to cook for us could make dinner.

Campsite at the top of the mountain

One of the ways to try to get the community to take ownership of a water system is to get them as involved as possible. The community typically provides sand, rocks, wood. They do all the unqualified labor including digging ditches for the tubes, and chopping and carrying equipment for the topographer. Being a machismo society, those are all typically male jobs. The women usually provide food. I always get lunch made and brought to me when I survey, and here, while we bought the food, we were having all our meals cooked for us.

Ready to help

The next three days were spent inspecting various parts of the water system. We walked along the along the line, making sure everything was in order, noting when there were small things that still needed to be added or changed. We also had to count the pipe anchor in places where the pipe couldn’t be buried. This was to make sure that the Brigade was paying for the actual number of anchors that were built. Because all my work thus far has been on theoretical water systems that may or may not be built during my service, it was very interesting to get a chance to see a currently functioning water system. Plus, inspecting it with people who have done this before gave me insight into what to look for in current systems. I have tried to inspect one system before, but I didn’t really know what to look for. Now, I have a much better idea what can go wrong, and where to look.

Lonely water tank

Riding up the mountain...can you say fresa

Counting the anchors

Taking a break from the hike

In addition to the inspection, we also met with the junta de agua, the local water board. This system is actually quite a large rural water system, serving 8 different communities. Because of this, each community has their own water board for their section of the system, which together forms the general water board for the entire system. Serving so many communities, there are bound to be differences of opinions, which we experienced during the meeting. It was our first real test of interpreting, trying to keep up with the argument while translating simultaneously. In the middle of the meeting, the general water board president said he was resigning, and walked out. After the meeting, we went down to his house to talk to him. He felt no one appreciated him, and that he was receiving all the blame for everything. We told him to take some time to think about his decision, and by the next day when we were leaving, he had decided not to resign. Of course, that brought up some other complications. After the resignation, we had effectively put the VP in charge, and no one was sure if it was possible for the president to renounce his resignation. It turns out that a verbal resignation doesn’t mean much, and since he didn’t sign anything, he had not officially resigned, and remained the president, so everything turned out fine.

We had been camping for 4 days, not only subject to the local politics of rural Honduras, but also the local microclimates. Our camp site was high enough in the mountains to be in the clouds, and after the first nice clear day, we had essentially been in at best a misty rain the whole time with actual rain at night. We were wet and ready to head down to the valley. Because of the rain, the roads had become impassable, but luckily we had parked the trucks a little way down, below the scary muddy cliff hugging roads. Once we safely made it down, we got cleaned up for a nice dinner to celebrate the week.

Dan and his pack mule, Selvin (Selvin carried his backpack the whole week)

We camped above this lower edge of the clouds

We stayed in Comayagua one extra day in order to meet with a community that the brigade had built a water system for 2 years ago. We wanted to visit and make sure everything was still going smoothly for them. As it turns out, the water board was at the end of their term so we were able to experience the election of the new board. Of course, nothing much changed; all the current members were reelected, with the community just electing people to the positions that were missing. Everyone there seemed very competent, and it gave me hope to see a community with such a well functioning water system, they were even properly chlorinating! Que bien!

It was a tiring week, but I learned a lot, met some new people, and am looking forward to accompanying Dan on his next trip down here.

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