written by Jordyn Meskan of NDSU's Engineers Without Borders
Three years. Three years of project design and re-design. Three years of fundraising. Three years of planning and project coordination. Three years is the amount of time that passed since I was last in Las Tablitas, Guatemala with my Engineers Without Borders (EWB) chapter.
As a senior Civil Engineering student at North Dakota State University (NDSU), I've been blessed with the opportunity to be an active member of our EWB Chapter since my freshman year. EWB is an organization that partners with communities in developing countries to design and build infrastructure projects. Each chapter works with a community for a series of five projects. This creates a partnership with a community, building trust, friendships, and successes between the EWB chapter and the community. Our partner community is Las Tablitas, a small mountainside village in Guatemala.
The past three years were filled with preparing for our fifth and final project with Las Tablitas: a new community center. Due to the size and scope of this project, our team decided to split it into two phases. Phase I consisted of the demolition of the existing structure at the project site, installation of a water line to bring water to the facility, and digging the cesspool. Phase II consists of the construction of the walls and roof, installation of the solar panels and electrical system, and connecting the plumbing into the sanitation system. The community intends to use the new facility as a place to hold community meetings, where women can go give birth, and a place volunteer medical teams can come in and provide care.
Mid-May I had the opportunity to travel to Las Tablitas for ten days with six of my classmates and one professional mentor to implement Phase I of our project. Nothing could have compared the energy and excitement we had the night before our flight left! With many nights in the lab working well into the wee hours of the morning, countless fundraising phone calls, travel prep meetings, and the stress of school on top our EWB responsibilities, many of us found that there was no time for excitement. In fact, the final weeks leading up to our departure consisted of dead week (also known as the week that all professors choose to have their term projects and final assignments due) and finals week. The Saturday immediately after the finals week was full of commencement festivities of which four of our travel team members graduated (not me, I get to do a partial victory lap). Then on Sunday we waved goodbye to Fargo and headed to Minneapolis to catch our 5:45 AM flight on Monday morning. Basically 2.5+ weeks prior to our departure were so busy we didn't have time to get excited, so all that excitement was funneled into the night before our flight (Mother’s Day), and it was awesome.
Fast forward a few days and we were riding up a bumpy gravel road to the little mountain village that captured my heart three years ago. My excitement riding up to the project site was mixed with a little nervousness and what ifs... What if our project design doesn't work? What if we don't live up to the community's expectations? What if conditions are worse than we thought? What if we weren't properly prepared? These were all running through my head as I bounced in the back seat of the van.
While we’ve learned how to solve problems in class, how to effectively use our resources, and which computers in the computer lab were reliable, our course work didn't exactly teach us how to design a community center on the side of the mountain in Guatemala... and then proceed to oversee the construction of it. We were relying solely on our internship experiences, my memory from the implementation trip I went on three years ago, knowledge of the locals helping with the construction, our translator, and probably the heaviest on our professional mentor. Heck, we owe a lot to our professional mentor. His expertise and experience back home and his numerous visits to Las Tablitas helped guide us through the construction phase.
The week proceeded with lots of digging. And by digging, I mean pickaxing through bedrock. The area we were digging for the cesspool had a thin layer of soil on top, and then solid rock. While this threw a wrench into our plans, the community and our team took it in good stride, adjusted project plans to account for the existing conditions. All in all, I was pleased with the progress we made throughout the trip.
I was incredibly grateful for all the community members that helped with the construction of this part of the project. There were times I was digging part of the trench for the water line or pickaxing at the cesspool pit, and a local would offer to take over for me. Perhaps they were just taking pity on me for the little progress I seemed to be making...or maybe they pitied my poor technique!
One day myself and another team member needed to hike through the brush and partway up the mountainside to document the conditions of the water tank. It was just the two of us, and we were relying on our memories. Turns out our memories didn't do their job, and we took the wrong fork in the trail landing us in a family's back yard. After a little discussion with the mother, she directed us in the general direction of the water tank. As we continued in the general direction, Eduardo, a local man, found us and personally led us to the water tank. Along the way he filled us in with information about how well the tank was functioning and showed us another spring nearby. We were so grateful for his willingness to help. Although we didn't know our exact route to the water tank, my confidence was boosted when we were able to successfully carry a conversation about the tank in Spanish!
During construction, kids were running around all the time playing with us. They were even picking up shovels and pickaxes and jumping in to help. Necessary work breaks were required to play with the kids, chat with them in broken Spanish, and to lather up with sunscreen. If we weren't enjoying time with the kids, we were taking in the views. Seriously, our project site was the prettiest project site I've ever been on. Situated on the side of the mountain, we could look down and see the beautiful blue water of Lago de Izabal and the stunning mountains on the other side.
The project eventually was at a point where our team was getting in the way more than helping, so we had a couple free afternoons of site seeing and getting a good feel for the region. We took an afternoon boat ride from Rio Dulce over to Livingston and the Amatique Bay off the Caribbean Sea. It was so beautiful! Another afternoon went to El Boquerón, which was a canyon in the mountains with a river running through it. A giant canoe brought our team up river a little, then we were free to swim upstream until we reached a beautiful waterfall.
Even with our mini excursions, my favorite day was the Sunday of our trip. It was scheduled as a day of rest. The morning began at Agua Caliente, a hot spring-fed waterfall that merged with another small river. We swam for the morning and jumped off the top of a waterfall, climbed rocks, and hiked to the source of the hot spring. After a quick lunch in nearby El Estor, we road in the back of the pickup up the mountainside to Las Tablitas.
The community gathered for a town meeting with our team at the project site. I was elected by our team to address the community regarding project updates alongside one of the other team members. The meeting served as an opportunity to thank the community for their support, discuss the progress and plans moving forward, and answer any concerns community members had about the project. This was the first time in my life in which my message was translated from English to Spanish to Q'eqchi', a local indigenous language many of the locals speak. It was SO COOL! While I'd like to think my Spanish was decent, there was no way I could have effectively expressed how grateful we were for the community's support and hospitality smoothly in Spanish. But, it was really cool to listen to how it was translated into Spanish, and then again into a language I knew so little about!
To top things off, the afternoon in the village wasn't even over at the conclusion of the meeting. We headed over to the soccer field a little ways down the road, with over 50 kids excitedly jumping in the back of the pick up and running behind to catch up. If you're wondering how many little Guatemalan kids can fit in the back of a pickup, the answer is 23 kids... you know, in case you were trying to do the math in your head.
With the huge group of kids all gathered at the soccer field, the kids lined up in two lines, one full of the boys and one full of the girls. The kids knew they were getting small gifts, but they didn't know what they were. They were so excited with smiles as wide as the soccer field we were on. One by one we passed out new toothbrushes and pencils to the children. Our chapter teamed up with Bogobrush to bring 93 completely biodegradable toothbrushes to Las Tablitas.
Oral hygiene is something that often gets overlooked in developing communities, and Las Tablitas was no exception. There were many kids with rotting teeth, some even under the age of five. Through conversation with our in-country partners, Centro Cristiano Cultural de Guatemala (CCCG), we learned that many these kids were the first generation of this community learning about the importance of brushing their teeth. Their parents and grandparents never brushed their teeth, and so oral hygiene was never practiced. CCCG regularly works in Las Tablitas, and has been working hard to teach the children about oral hygiene. After each kid was stocked with a toothbrush and pencil, everyone circled up and turned their attention to one of our team members and our translators, of whom gave an excellent lesson on how to properly brush their teeth. The kids laughed when the lesson leaders got to the step on spitting out the toothpaste after brushing for a little while. Giggles and laughs proceeded even after the lesson was over, as all the kids took time to practice using their toothbrushes—minus the toothpaste!
We wrapped up the afternoon running around playing soccer, with multiple matches going on at the same time. In true North Dakotan fashion, we taught some of the girls how to swing dance (country swing, of course). Some of the girls enjoyed braiding our hair too! When the time came to leave, it was bittersweet. I felt a feeling of sadness wash over me as we left Las Tablitas for potentially the last time ever. However, I was pleased with the progress we made on the project, the relationships we built with the community members and kids, and the memories we made.
Conducting the community meeting, the smiles on the children's faces after receiving the toothbrushes and pencils, and an afternoon of fun on the field made for the perfect ending to our time in Las Tablitas. The opportunity to work on a real-world project as college students was incredibly rewarding. Taking part in the implementation of the project and meeting the people it affected... that was the icing on the cake. A lot can happen in three years. Three years of working on this project made the return to Las Tablitas worth the wait... and let me tell you, it was so worth the wait.
Engineers Without Borders is an organization that partners with developing communities around the world to design and develop sustainable infrastructure projects. The North Dakota State University chapter is comprised of students of all engineering backgrounds. They have been working with the small mountainside community of Las Tablitas in Guatemala since 2011.
Jordyn Meskan is a senior Civil Engineering student at North Dakota State University. Recently she finished her term as president of the North Dakota State University chapter during the 2017-2018 school year.