I was perched atop a towering sliver of rocky earth looming above a dirt road on one side, and on the other, a crescent moon of concrete slowly closing up. After several monotonous days of chipping away at this shale filled barrier between Corozo’s tank site and the street, my feet could hang off the edge into an astonishing trench ten feet deep. Heavy machinery could have knocked this earthen wall down in less than an hour, but the luxury of comfort has always been elusive here in the campo. I was there every day for three days, listening to the hypnotic melody of pick axes clanging upon the rocks, humbling this stubborn hillside one painful centimeter at a time. One day, we had to endure the philosophical torture of digging by hand, while across the street, a house-sized backhoe harvested truckloads of aggregate for a government project. That giant, toothy mechanical claw would have scooped through our trench like warm butter, but despite our pleas with the operator, we couldn’t get any help. Our picks rang like bells for days, and at the end, I could only marvel at those motivated men who could turn mountains into pebbles with nothing but their own hands.
God, I hoped this was the last batch of concrete. I clicked on my flashlight and shined it into the trench where workers were shuttling bucket after bucket of concrete to the floor slab of the tank. My flashlight could only illuminate a small circle of earth in front of each worker as they walked, shepherding them through that perilous trench that was littered with loose gravel, to the tank floor which was glowing in the dim light of motorcycle headlights. Once you start building the floor slab of a tank, you stay until it’s done or it creates weak spots along the seams of the older and newer concrete. Three hours ago, the work brigade had told me that they were tired and wanted to go home, and I had to persuade them to continue working by telling them that this extra long day of work would count twice for them if they stayed. Even still, this backbreaking work was too painful to watch at 7PM, and the line between supervisor and laborer started to blur as I decided to paint my clothes cement grey.
Making the last mix of concrete for the tank- it was a tad dark.
Saturday, I had 25 workers to help me with the tank prep work, but today, when I truly had use for 25 workers, I only had ten. To make matters worse, only a portion of the sand and gravel I had needed to complete the tank had arrived, after the water committee president had assured me that all of the material that I needed would be delivered beforehand. This muddled situation left me on the phone the entire day, pleading with the project coordinators in El Corozo to fix this travesty of a work day. Sadly, even the two main coordinators, Salvador and Andres, were running errands in Cotui. I was left with a shoddy cell phone signal to try and resolve this gloomy situation, arguing with the delivery men from hardware stores to redeem their broken promises for timely deliveries, by making three emergency deliveries before sundown.
El Corozo has been an idyllic community to work in almost all of the time, but on the most important day of construction- everything that could have gone wrong did. Despite the formidable odds we were up against, we somehow achieved our goals. And after a sincere conversation with the project coordinators in El Corozo, the remaining four days of construction were successful as well. The 70 year old vice-president of the project, Salvador, cancelled all of his commitments for the rest of the week and was with us shoveling concrete the entire week- ensuring that he would be present if there were any more problems. I had promised you a photo of the work brigade standing in front of 16,000 gallons of cool mountain water, but it would have been cruel to ask the brigade to humor me with a staged photo after ten hours of work on Friday, so I only have a photo of me.
I celebrate this achievement with the people of Corozo, but realize that there is plenty of work remaining before people have water in their homes. I hope I will be present when they cut the ribbon to inaugurate this project, but even if I am not, I will at least see this project through into the latest stages of construction. I will play my part, whatever I can do, and the community will have to do the rest.
From all of my talk about Corozo’s project, one might think it is my main project. I live in Dos Palmas, not El Corozo, and as I wave to my neighbors on the way to work in Corozo, I feel angry that they must wait so long to have justice. Why was I born into a relative paradise to what these people have? Why did I deserve these blessings? Why does the world conspire to stretch the faith of these people to the breaking point after depriving them of so much for so long. They should be drinking water from tap stands at their homes, but the intolerable ineptitudes of my project’s main donor have given time for grass to regrow upon old ditches- and time for despair to overtake hope of seeing seeing new ones.
I have been hearing that we would receive our first check “next week” for over a month now. I don’t know when I will get the check to continue work, but I am certain that waiting for the second check to come through would take an additional four months. I expressed my fears to another major donor in my project, the Mormon Church, and was able to get another $5,000 immediately. Coupled with the mythical first check from FOMISAR, this should be enough money to see our project through to completion without having to wait for the money from FOMISAR.
In the meantime, I reflect upon the theatrical entrance of INAPA’s main contractor into Dos Palmas, and see the same dramatics employed in their newest trick, a vanishing act that has reminded INAPA’s greatest proponents in Dos Palmas of the questionability of having faith in government projects. INAPA’s idea of good community engagement and communication is putting up a sign in the community to announce the project’s arrival. After consulting the all-knowing promotional sign, and receiving no definitive answers, I am left with only rumors as to why INAPA’s contractor has not worked in Dos Palmas for over a month.
Word has it that after installing 2,000 meters of pipe in the distribution line, and putting in the floor slab of the tank site, they realized that the water source was too low to reach the storage tank. Raising their water source up means they’d have less water in the dry season. I don’t know what’s happening now, but I am sure that the design changes that INAPA might be making will require more money that was not accounted for in the original budget. Maybe the extra money will be approved, maybe it won’t, maybe INAPA will finish the project, maybe they will leave the pipes in the ground abandoned for five years like they did in Tres Bocas, but in the meantime, town hall meetings have become obsolete as we progress into the future of communication, and stare at a big sign until we can divine INAPA’s intentions. All of those stressful emergency meetings that I had with INAPA and their contractor months ago make this situation even more laughable. What a waste of my time.
With all of the time I have spent playing games with donor institutions, stressing out about INAPA, enduring an unpredictable work schedule full of inconvenient deficiencies and surpluses of work, I could be helping people. I could be helping Deuri.
Deuri is a 13 year old boy in my village who left me utterly dumfounded one night, unsure of whether I truly understand the village where I have lived for the past year and a half. I had wanted to share my passion for the stars with Deuri by trying to explain what a planet was, but when I thought that I had succeeded in conveying the idea, it was clear that I had failed miserably. Deuri thought that planets were just different places on Earth where other human beings lived. I showed him a small book on the solar system that I always keep on my living room table. I asked him to read a little bit after I showed him the pictures, but he told me with an embarrassed smile that he didn’t know how to read. I pressed him, asking him to sound out the first word- “El”, and he was speechless. When I pressed him to see if he knew the name of the letter “E” in spanish, he couldn’t even tell me that. When I quizzed him on all of the letters in the Spanish alphabet, he could only identify around seven. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Deuri has failed third grade three times, and the teachers finally passed him so that he wouldn’t be five years older than all of the other students in his grade, and maybe he would be more motivated with people his own age.
I felt an overpowering desire to help Deuri read, in the little time I have in my unpredictable schedule. We practiced several nights by candle light using plastic tiles from the game Bananograms, and for a few nights, we started making progress. I had thought previously that Deuri might have mental development issues, but after spending a little bit of time with him, I realized that he learns about as fast as any other kid, if not faster. At the end of one particularly successful session, I passed Deuri a pile of 11 tiles that he could keep to practice at home with his father. In an attempt to encourage him, I told him to count how many he had learned so he could feel proud. That same embarrassed smile appeared, “No se contar.” He couldn’t count. I didn’t believe him, and told him to try. “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 10” Deuri is 13, enrolled in the primary school in the village, and can not count to ten. I thought that he might be retarded, but he appears to be as normal as any other kid his age. I immediately began postulating theories as to how something like this could have happened. I see the gaping hole in the fabric of Deuri’s future- but I still don’t understand why its there.
If I taught Deuri to read, it would be worth one thousand of the storage tanks I built in Corozo- but how could I?
After around seven or eight reading sessions with Deuri, he stopped coming to visit, despite the progress we were making. I talked with his father to encourage Deuri to keep visiting me, but nothing has changed. I even promised to give Deuri a broken cell phone of mine so he could listen to music and play a simple game, and all he had to do was read his first book. What more can I do?