Out of Office: Engineers Without Borders Ecuador Debrief

Out of Office: Engineers Without Borders Ecuador Debrief

Julianne Page is back from Ecuador with a newfound appreciation for machetes, the power of letting go, and cocoa pod pulp. Reflecting on her 11-day service trip with Engineers Without Borders, she speaks highly of the people she met, lessons learned, and new (and often tasty) experiences.

“We accomplished just about everything we set out to do,” she says. “We constructed the first of two spring catchment systems — originally we had planned on one, but the community was concerned about its location because they’d been having rockslides. The catchments have moved upstream, one on each of two branches that combine. We also poured the concrete pads for the storage tanks and completed surveying between those and the spring. We’ll use that information to design the pipeline that connects them.”

She and her fellow volunteers kept a running list of lessons learned during these efforts. Skill-wise, Julianne learned to mix concrete by hand, but the bigger lesson was embracing flexibility. “Here in the office, I tend to focus on engineering problems,” she explains. “But in a community project like this, the human factor becomes more real and more important. You have to remind yourself to take a step back. It’s not just my project, I don’t get to dictate every little thing, and our ability to meet the needs of the community is the most important thing. We were also surrounded by people who knew this community better and had different skills and more expertise in certain areas, so it was important to be aware, listen to others’ ideas, and be able to run with it when the plan changes on the fly.”

One of the people Julianne admired and learned from most was Pamela, one of two project manager-engineers from the local NGO, Engineers in Action. “She was 25 years old, but the amount of respect community members had for her was amazing,” she explains. “They referred to her almost exclusively as ‘Ingeniera’ [engineer]. She was managing changes in concrete mix designs, making sure people were doing things right, translating continuously, negotiating with the community during meetings — it was invaluable to have her there.”

There is also a particular community member who now has a special place in Julianne’s heart: Clemente. “He was a small, older man who showed up to work with us almost every single day,” she says. “Clemente always had a machete at his side and his main task was leading the surveying crew through the jungle ravines and sugar cane fields. He knew the terrain, knew all the property lines and owners, and was ready and willing to bushwhack trails, make sure we didn’t get lost, and diffuse situations with upset landowners. On his days off from that, he helped carry 100-pound bags of cement down the mountain to the work site. He showed up every morning with so much energy and was so happy to see us. It was great to have someone so enthusiastic there.”

As can be expected, there were some hiccups. Finding a water source to mix nearly 3 cubic meters of concrete at the storage tank location was a major challenge, and some of the supply orders were short due to translation issues and standard dimensional differences between Ecuador and the U.S. This made for creative construction of a rainwater catchment system (luckily it rained every night) and trips to the local hardware store at the end of every work day. But these minor issues only serve to better prepare the team for when they return. The exciting challenge of the project and some unique local experiences more than made up for any inconveniences.

“We had a lot of fun eating fruit,” Julianne laughs. “People in the area were growing so many varieties we’d never seen before, and we could buy them at the corner market near our hostel in Pacto. My favorite was the cocoa pod, the fruit that cocoa beans for chocolate come from. There’s a stalk in middle with seeds connected and it’s covered in white slime that tastes like Sour Patch Kids.”

Sadly, she was not able to bring any cocoa pods back to the office to share with her colleagues, but she didn’t leave Ecuador empty-handed. Julianne and her fellow volunteers stopped at a craft market in Quito when they first arrived in the country. They purchased alpaca-wool blankets, scarves and other textiles, as well as jewelry and knick-knacks — some as souvenirs for themselves, but mostly as inventory for the silent auction at the Portland Engineers Without Borders’ spring fundraiser, Portland Uncorked. The event is held annually at the Custom House Hall, and all money raised goes toward purchasing construction materials and helping cover the travel costs associated with the chapter’s ongoing projects.

“Although there were a few instances during the trip where tensions ran high, the overall outcome was positive," says Julianne. "The president of the community’s water board said it best at our final meeting before we left: ‘Before, having clean water was just a dream that we had; now it is becoming a reality and we could not be more grateful.’”


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