Saturday, February 24, 2007

People say (or at least one person says) I've got nice eyes.

I got a nice compliment on my eyes today.

Rotaract (corrected spelling) brings gifts for a birthday party at the East Harlem Soup Kitchen every 3 months. That's Spanish Harlem. There are a lot of projects in that 'hood. The Sisters of Mary of Nazereth run the show - Frenchies, but the good kind. So, those of us that can attend bring gifts for 2 kids and we hand them out. It's great fun! The kitchen provides cake and the crafts stuff. We wrap and offer the gifts.

One of the gift buyers was late but people were ready to go home, so we started handing out gifts. Still, the colleague that had called to say he'd arrive late at 1 p was not yet there and it was already later than that. So, I told the little boy, Johnny, the story and it's on his way. And hats off to Johnny, he was really a good kid.

I also took a moment to explain it to his mom, who before I could get a word out said, "You have very beautiful eyes." Naturally, I smiled and said thank you. I told her the situation and she told me not to worry Johnny is very patient.

I went back and bragged to my friends.

Of course, Johnny's mom looked like she'd spent too much of her life as a crack-house ho but at last had found Jesus. Crystal meth had gotten the best of her teeth.

(Then again, she could have just returned from a mission in Africa where her husband, a doctor, died while helping the refugees of Darfur. However, that's not funny.)

Christina joked, "You can be Johnny's dad if you want."

Suddenly, two kids that weren't on our list to buy for came in at the last moment, Maya looked to our reserve cache and said, "We need gifts for a boy age 5 and a girl age 7."

"If you need me to go out for something let me know, 'cause I've got to get flowers for Johnny's mom."

Friday, February 23, 2007

Engineers Without Borders

In January 2007 I spent 12 days in Honduras where our team built a water tank for a small village in the mountains of Honduras – no electricity, no running water, just a plan and a lot of gusto. My shift was the second of 21 days for the entire project, so when I arrived the land was prepared and the form for the base slab was in place. The first attempt to poor concrete went sour trying to get the mix right. Fortunately, they were smart enough to experiment first. There were instructions on the bag but as is the reputation for the underdeveloped world, there was no suggested amount of water. Nulbi, our local construction manager, was familiar with the cement's quality and suggested a few adjustments. A couple of days after arriving, we were pouring concrete – 17 yards using 105 bags of cement, each bag got about 45 shovels of gravel and another 30 of sand. We did get some gas powered mixers from the regional government and a generator. It took 8 hours but it was done as dusk hit and there were a lot of happy faces; we all celebrated with coffee and a cake-like treat similar to corn bread. Nothing sweeter than a job well done!

This was something great about the experience as the project really falls under "Civil Engineering". Before leaving we had a workshop on mixing concrete and the chemical reactions and it's properties at different stages of the process. It was fun to learn about the other discipline. And it was great that I got to be a part of the pouring of the slab and that was that. CE students take a whole semester on concrete. That's the name of the class, "Concrete". Not very macho. In ME, we have "Turbo Machinery", "Aero-thermo Fluids Lab" and "Internal Combustion Engines"; things that make you grunt. They have other classes like "Steel" and "Transportation". I defer again to the way I differentiate between Civil and Mechanical: ME's make bombs, CE's make targets.

While the concrete set I focused on carpentry – making the funnels for the filling grout and a jig for cutting spaces in the cinder blocks to place the rebar. Miguel and I moved 570 blocks in and out of the jig plus cutting them with the diamond blade. We got it down to just over 2 minutes per set of four and finished in a day and a half. I never knew there were so many muscles in my hands but they let me know they were there and that they were hurting! The walls went up, three blocks high per day. And at the end of the day, the reward was a cold shower. Some days it was wonderful.

Our team of young engineers bonded as well. It was great to be dancing bachata and seeing my colleagues doing the same atop the tank walls. A sign of a good crew is the number of inside jokes – we've got plenty. Those of me revolve around the emerald bag around my waist that seemed to have everything. Lots of years of traveling taught me well: crazy glue, shoe goo, med tape (no need for a band-aid, just slap on the med tape), inflatable pillow, small sewing kit, safety pins, hand sanitizer, but the biggest surprise was when I pulled out the Grey Poupon mustard. I like to travel but I don't like to rough it.

The last day when coming down the mountain, I caught up with Nulbi, which was nice as I couldn't find him when I was saying goodbyes. I offered him a ride; we got to talking and we pulled over for a drink to chat some more. He said he had to leave the sight earlier to shed a few tears. Nulbi loves water projects like ours and this was his 7th or so. Every time he finishes and sees the impact on the village, especially on the working life for the women, he feels inspired to do another. He mentioned he got a call for another job the day before. Business is good.

Our team will go back to inspect the final work in April. The locals will put a roof on the tank, shore up the dam at the spring, and lay the piping from the spring to the tank and from the tank to the homes. We will also conduct more tests on the water. From samples so far the spring is quite clean. Just getting the villagers to 100% consumption from the spring (eliminating usage from nearby brooks) should dramatically reduce intestinal and skin diseases. Workshops have been prepared on maintenance, composting, hygiene, etc. I'm also hoping to dance a little bachata with the villagers at the inauguration.

And so as my first blog I chose this one as it represents so much of me and the steps forward during this transitional period in my life.