Broken Ground

The day of my imagined terrors came, but the sun rose once more. When the hour came to climb the hills with tools and pipes slung over sore shoulders, I was not alone as I had feared. And at noontime when 19 well deserving stomachs began to rumble, the food appeared rather than a mutinous gang of rice deprived Dominicans with sharpened metal. Today, we would break ground on the aqueduct. I had envisioned the moment in my head many times. Wearing my legendary white, wide-brimmed Tiley Hat, I would send goosebumps down many spines with some sort of inspirational speech on the summit of that massive hill with the gold mine on the horizon. Then I would clutch a pick axe and launch it into the virgin earth as my Tuesday work brigade raised their fists and cheered triumphantly.

The actual affair had very little pomp. I don’t even think half of our brigade had made it to the top of the hill before Arjao casually tossed the end of his pick into the ground to begin searching for the buried pipes of a five year old, failed government initiative. To make matters worse, my sense of compassion had overcome my viscous Napoleon Complex, meaning that Arjao had not only seized this glorious moment from me, but he did so in style, under the commanding shadow of my Tiley Hat. The hat would serve as a substitute for a sizable portion of skull that his in-laws had taken from him during the divorce. Seeing as Arjao is the president of my water committee in Tres Bocas, I saw it as a worthy investment to gift him one of my extra hats to prevent the skull-less section of his brain from cooking, but I made sure that this hat was smaller than my Tiley Hat. Instead of an inspirational speech, I just called Kati to announce “I’m on a #@#$ing mountain and I’m building a #@#$ing aqueduct!!!!”

Ground breaking felt much the same as high school, when you finally ask the girl you’ve had a secret crush on out on a date. You’ve built the moment up in your mind so much that its almost insurmountable. Everything must be right. You practice your one pathetic line a million times in front of a mirror (this was not my High School experience… cough), changing the word order and intonation. When should you do it? You want to catch her alone… The longer you wait, the more anxiety that floods your mind. What if she says no? Assuming you get the lucky date, you want to make sure everything goes perfectly, make sure the car has gas, get a haircut, study your google maps because you don’t want to make a wrong turn…

The vast majority of the 11 months that I have spent in this country have been spent wondering when I would possess enough technical competency and organization to do my job. I’ve spent the past three months wondering if my neighbors would ever choose their work brigade days and sign their user-agreements, and if that actually meant that they would come to work when we started. I’ve spent the past two weeks wondering how and when all of the supplies I needed to begin construction would appear. I’ve spent the past couple of hours wondering if I will be in over my head next week directing the construction of a sedimentation tank. The confidence that is driving me forward right now does not flow from knowing answers to these questions, but rather from a trust that things must work out because this story ends with water flowing in the taps. You don’t undertake a great journey when you are ready, you do so when it is time to travel. I needed to grow, so I began my journey.

After two weeks of construction, I can finally breathe. Rather than suffocating from uncertainty and doubt, I feel an overwhelming sense of confidence now. Interestingly enough, I know I would be a liar to say that this confidence stems from trusting myself. Instead I will say that this confidence comes from my newfound appreciation for the importance of delegation.

Here was the monster in the back of my mind. How can I keep track of worker attendance across 200 families to maintain sweat equity? How can I fill a truck of workers at 7AM when they show up an hour late to every community meeting we have? How can I be sure that my brigade of 19 men an hour away from their homes gets enough food and water, when they need it? How can I move 10 cubic meters of aggregate and 200 blocks a mile up a mountain? The answer is surprisingly simple to all of these questions. Search out peoples strengths and delegate. It is tiring to discuss the answers to these many questions with each person you put in charge of something. Instead, I find that I move much more efficiently by trusting that the person in charge will find their own solution. And of course we have failed from time to time, but to expect anything else would just be a vain delusion.

After two weeks of construction, we have 530 meters of pipes buried across an unforgiving terrain far from home. We have had laborers from 115 different households stain their jeans red with clay over the course of 8 days of ditch digging. We have fed every last one of those 115 men, made sure they have water, and provided transportation for over half of them. These are successes that I need to remind myself of so that they I do not forget to celebrate… because there are only 12,000 more meters to go! This is why the Peace Corps commitment is 27 months- because it took me almost a year to get to this point, and I have barely started.

Needless to say, these past two weeks have been extremely tough on me. There were some days when I was up in the mountains when I felt as if I couldn’t speak Spanish. I can think of at least two particularly brutal hills that my heart rate will consistently reach 190 by the time I reach the summit. After slipping ten million times in that god awful red clay, after sweating your shirt out again and again, and waking up five days in a row at 6:30AM to do this shit, you can barely keep your eyes open. People you can normally understand seem like they’re speaking Chinese, and you feel frustrated and stupid as they repeat themselves three times. How many years before you are truly comfortable with this language. This is why most days I barely touched the pick axe.

With such a crazy day running from one end of the trench to the other, it is easy to forget to drink the three liters of water you need to stay hydrated. I was almost certainly dehydrated, felt weak, nauseous, and then was just unhappy to have to taste my lunch a second and third time. I struggled to walk from exhaustion for the rest of the day, and spend the next two days with diarrhea and indigestion. My Wikipedia diagnosis was Giardia from the mountain streams and a lack of trust in my carbon filter water bottle. I don’t know what it was but the symptoms soon passed and a few days later the doctor said not to worry about it.

There has been more dialogue about the backhoe with the representatives from the gold mine. They seem very sincere in their desire to help us. They promised publicly in a community meeting that they would donate a minimum of 50,000 pesos, but that they would apply for 100,000 pesos so that we could finish the most difficult part of the trenches, the Dos Palmas Storage Tank Line, which is a three kilometer stretch of pipe far from home between the two communities.

The gold mine is not the only one trying to help out. Mariela was able to get three engineers from INAPA, the Dominican Government’s water resource institution, to visit my site so they could give their recommendations. They presented me with their design from 5 years ago and we discussed the differences. It appears that we both came to the same conclusion regarding the best way to get Dos Palmas water. The INAPA project that fell through five years ago had originally intended to give water to Dos Palmas, Tres Bocas, and 100 other houses down the road in El Maricao. We poured over their old design, which I found to be extremely helpful. I still stand by my decision to not extend the aqueduct further to El Maricao because it would reduce the quality of the system. I do not want Tres Bocas to have water on Mondays, Dos Palmas on Tuesdays, Maricao on Wednesdays… etc. There is not enough water to support all of these communities needs with my aqueduct.

The best news of the week is that the engineering students from the University of Virginia had their project officially approved, meaning that I will have five students coming to my site next summer with $15,000 ready to work on a water project up the road in El Corroso. By means of a very helpful professor, Prof. Bob Swap (also voted the state of Virginia’s top professor for 2012), I was able to round up the team and funding. Our goal is to build a storage tank and fill it with water from two mountain streams.

What’s my job in all this? I am trying to round up the troops in Peace Corps to prepare everything for this team’s arrival. I have many useful leads that I hope will prove fruitful. The students will need a place to stay, guides that can help them navigate the culture and language, and enough data before their arrival to make a good design. Maybe it was reckless of me to take on this added responsibility, but as I said before, this story will have a happy ending not because I will it to, but because myself, five engineering students from UVA, and 250 families in El Corroso will it to. Now all I need to do is prepare and delegate. Adrenaline and passion will get me through it, I hope.


One response to “Broken Ground

  1. I’m so impressed with your capabilities, Daniel. You leave me thinking of some others in your family and mine… and the attitudes/logic that prevailed within them as well. Keep on envisioning the end result. Keep on getting there. Keep encouraging the leaders you supervise. And keep drinking good water. Soon others will too! xoxo I love and miss you… Lois

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