April 9, 2010

Adventures in the Honduran Jungle

Thomas Johnson ’11 chronicles a day working on water infrastructure projects near a rural Honduran village

Thomas Johnson ’11 (Allendale, N.J.), who is pursuing a B.S. in chemical engineering and an A.B. with a major in international economics and commerce, chronicled a grueling day spent working in the jungle of the Yoro region of Honduras. Johnson is part of a team from Lafayette’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders that spent spring break mapping out locations for water filtration and distribution systems in El Convento, a rural Honduran village without any modern amenities. Other team members include Emily Clark ’12 (Kendall Park, N.J.), Juan Hernandez ’13 (Vineland, N.J.), Martin Melendro Torres ’11 (Bogota, Colombia), Jon Martin ’11 (Slatersville, R.I.), Greg Troutman ’13 (Columbia, Pa.), Zhou “Zeus” Wu ’11 (New York, N.Y.), and Joshua Smith, assistant professor of mechanical engineering.

* Read more: Making a Big Impact in Honduras

Place: Honduras
Date: March 16, 2010

Journal Entry: 0600 hours
We woke this morning to a rooster at the break of dawn. One of our team members, Zeus, almost ensured us of a chicken dinner when he stormed out of the dorm-sized church we were staying in. But he was eluded by the clever and surprisingly agile bird. It seems dinner will again consist of beans, rice, and Honduran spaghetti.

0800 hours
We ate breakfast with coffee this morning. Breakfast, like dinner last night and breakfast yesterday morning, consisted of rice, beans, and Honduran spaghetti. But this morning is special because of the coffee. The coffee is strong and even the most avid coffee-holics of the group are impressed by the kick of the exotic java.

0830 hours
Due to the soft drizzle coming down, we have come to the conclusion that our dynamic cone penetrometer tests, which measure soil stability, cannot be done today. Emily, the only girl on this expedition, has decided to not use her baseball cap today so as to cleanse her hair “o’naturale.” The men are eager to carry the heavy equipment, mostly to impress poor Emily. Our leader, Professor Josh Smith, grins but shakes his head in disapproval.

0845 hours
We have begun walking up the hill, only to realize that we are more tired than we expected. The road is steep at many points and made of a gravely soil that slips away under our feet. Martin is the only person calm and reserved, as the rest of us pant and swear between our teeth at the treacherous path that seems to reach toward the heavens. He says it’s all about meditation… I’m convinced that he has drank too much of the unfiltered water.

0915 hours
We are now passing the potential tank site for our system and the Honduran workers. Their glistening bodies move methodically, cutting into the hillside. We can do nothing but stand in awe at the power that their wiry frames posses.

0930 hours
We push forward; still our journey is slowly wearing us down. The hot sun beats down on us, slowly cooking the not-so-tanned members a lobster red, and the more lucky ones a deep brown. We have not gotten to our mark yet and almost half our water supply has already been depleted. I fear for Gregorio (Greg’s Honduran name) because he is beginning to look sickly. I don’t know if he will make it…

0945 hours
I was mistaken; poor Greg simply needed to go to the bathroom. After leaving the trail for a minute or two, he comes back with a smile and a bounce in his step. We all laugh and press forward.

0955 hours
We have made it to Spring 2. The sounds of the gurgling water are a relaxing sign that our first long trek is over, and now the technical work must begin. We have arrived to the truly difficult part of our journey. Our Honduran guides, without as much as a hint of weariness, dive deep into the underbrush of the jungle off the path. Emily and Zeus have taken up the positions of expert surveyors and assure us that everything will be fine; the rest of us are not so sure.

? hours
We have lost track of time. Minutes have become hours and hours… longer hours. As we cut through the jungle, our feet slide out from under us every few steps. In an effort to finish faster, we have sent half of the group back on the path to begin cutting in the opposite direction and meet up in the center. The deep underbrush scratches at our faces and thorns poke every inch of our bodies. All of a sudden we are out of the brush. We come upon a part of the hill that has been previously cleared for the pipeline. While we are happy to be out of the jungle, we worry about this new terrain. The hill is at a steep 60 to 70 degree angle and one false step could send any of us tumbling down close to 75 meters. The danger is very real. Greg is the only one who seems to not care as he tempts fate, jumping like a billy goat hopping precariously on the edge of the ravine. The sun is now overhead of us, as time keeps running by. We must pick up the pace or we may not finish our mission today.

? hours
We have run out of food and water. Our mouths are dry and our stomachs rumble. Down here, no one eats lunch, which is something none of us are used to. Jon is turning a very deep red on his face and it is clear that he is in need of immediate hydration. Emily is also beginning to look weary as she sits every time we stop. I myself will not last another half hour without some type of sustenance. We decide as a team that the journey cannot go any farther without water and food. Being the lightest on my feet, I decide to run back for water. The sun is brutal and relentless as I feel myself slow from exhaustion. I am met half way by Professor Smith who is bringing water for us and powerbars. We walk back and are met with praises and hugs.

? hours
We continue mapping; the daylight becomes fainter. Our work cannot go on past 1730 hours for the simple reason that we will not be able to make our way back to the community. If the night is cloudy, we will be swallowed up by complete darkness. We have now reached a new terrain. The loose dirt that we had been walking on has become the gravely soil again that slips even easier under our feet. The danger mounts as we come upon steeper terrain that has us essentially scaling with our hands and feet. Emily uses her rock-climbing skills as an employee of the Kirby Rock Wall back home. Then we hear a rustle in the brush… We take a step back expecting the worst when all of a sudden Martin’s head pops up from the other side of the bush. His face has never looked so good. We have met the other half of our team and rejoice that we are more than half way, and while the skies are still getting darker, we begin to regain hope of finishing the mission on time.

T-2 hours till darkness
Many of us have sustained small wounds, thorns ripping through our clothing and small falls scraping up elbows and knees, and fear again begins to set about finishing on time.Where is Juan? Have we lost him!?! Oh never mind, he has gone ahead and is sitting on a rock making a stone spear… He has been eyeing the cattle for some time now.

T-1 hour till darkness
We have no time to spare. We kick it into overdrive as we move along the last of three paths; the first two lead to dead ends where the trail is simply impassable. We cross a deep ravine that turns out to be the most dangerous part of the journey. Professor Smith, in fact, falls close to 12 meters before coming to a safe stop.

T-.5 hours till darkness
The end is in sight and we begin getting antsy. We have completely run out of all supplies and it is sheer determination that pushes us forward now. We begin to talk about how great bathing in the river will be. Then one of our members shouts out a victorious warrior call. We have made it. The road is in sight at less than 50 meters. We pound out the last of the survey points and collapse on the trail. Our dirt-ridden faces glow as we smile at each other feeling a sense of accomplishment. We pack up all of the equipment and begin to head back toward the community. By the time we get to the river the skies are almost black, and we have to run to get a bath in. Tonight, we all sleep soundly after a long day’s work as the sounds and rhythms of the Honduran jungle soothe us.

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