I participated in an Engineering Service-Learning course through OSU where we traveled to Honduras over Spring Break 2015 and implemented sustainable engineering solutions for an orphanage.
Montaña de Luz (Mountain of Light), is an orphanage for children with HIV/AIDS. Founded in 2000 as a Hospice, the orphanage has now become a loving home providing hope for these children thanks to the availability of anti-retroviral mediactions. Located an hour and half to the East of Tegucigalpa on top of a mountain overlooking a valley of small towns and sugar cane fields the mountain of light is a refuge for children who desperately need the specialized care, nurturance, healing and love provided to them in this refuge from a world where AIDS is stigmatizing.
Our class had three student teams that worked on different projects. The Water Team installed bio-sand filters at the orphanage and conducted water quality tests in an ongoing effort to bring clean drinking water to MdL. Currently, MdL pays for bottled water which ends up costing them a lot of money every year. The Drip Irrigation Team installed a drip irrigation system which will help to start a vegetable garden to provide MdL with fruits and vegetables. The Electrical Team rebuilt an old backup generator and provided backup emergency power to the kitchen to help preserve food and medicines during power outages.
Over 10 days, I made a lot of new friends, learned so much more about the important things in life, and played a lot of football. This is an experience I will cherish forever, and although no words will be able to communicate its value, I have tried to journal my experience in a ‘few’ paragraphs below. I took me multiple days to write this post, so take your time in reading it.
Four students, a GTA, and a teacher piled into a Yukon XL Uber along with our luggage at the comfortable hour of 3 a.m. and headed to the airport. Upon arrival, we checked in all our equipment bins and waited at our gate. In preparing for the trip, we had been communicating with a long term volunteer at the MdL named Chris. While waiting to board, a couple overheard us and introduced themselves as Chris’s parents! They were headed to Belize via Miami. We connected in Miami and boarded the flight to Honduras. The airport in Tegucigalpa is neslted in the mountains with a short runway. So some passengers were concerned when the captain turned on the PA and informed us that he will be descending rapidly and breaking hard. We arrived safely, picked up our luggage and went through cutoms. Immediately we were greeted with warm weather and Applebee’s and Forever 21 franchises. We met up with Ruth, the service team director who was going to be our guide in Honduras for the next 10 days. The currency exchange took place with a guy standing in the middle of the airport floor with a giant wad of cash in one hand and a calculator in the other.
We boarded a bus with our armed guard and started towards Montaña de Luz. Tegucigalpa was reminiscent of Costa Rica and India. Chaos and development interspersed among each other and everyone living their lives without a care. Traffic carried a similar sentiment. We stopped for dinner at a pizza place that served up some delicious pina coladas and local brews with an exceptional pizza. After dinner, we arrived at Montaña de Luz and were introduced to the kids. After learning everyone’s names and immediately forgetting them, we proceeded to settle into our living quarters and then played soccer for a bit. Over the next 10 days, we came to know these children as our siblings and I will never forget any of their names for the rest of my life. The night ended with gazing at the beautiful stars, playing with the puppy named Sacha and making sure our mosquito nets were secured before dozing off.
Day 2 - March 14
Pie Day! We wanted to wake up early to watch the sunrise but the previous day’s travels had been too tiring. Breakfast was self-served cereal and fresh fruit. We gave Chris, Kristen (the MdL director), and Jorge (the renaissance man of MdL) an overview of our projects and got ready to work. After unpacking our tools, we brought out the two generators from storage and started disassembling them. One of them seemed to be in good condition, while the other had turned into a rat’s nest. We decided on repairing the generator that was in better condition first. We discovered that most of the fuel system pipes and tubes were corroded and some were missing, but we were able to piece together the puzzle and the layout of the entire fuel system. We had brought some polyetheylene tubes with us which luckily turned out to be the correct diameters. So we assembled the fuel system back together.
At this point, we had to wait for diesel fuel to test the generator, so we called it an early day and played soccer with the kids. The Gringos played against the kids, and we lost. Sacha, the dog, was teething, so when I went to pet her, she bit me and drew blood. Later, there was talk of rabies shots, but I was assuaged with the fact that Sacha was up to date on her vet visits. After dinner, the children had prepared a presentation on HIV/AIDS for us. Through interactive presentations and activities, they informed us about the disease, symptoms and current cures. I got to learn a lot more about a disease that is a serious global problem and I had never given it too much thought before. It made me see their situation in a whole new light. At night, I noticed that the toilet paper in the bathroom was labeled “Vaya con Dios” (Go with God). Of course, it was 1-ply.
Day 3 - Free Day
We missed the sunrise again and vowed to wake up even earlier the next day. Today was a free day and we traveled to Parque de Picacho, a huge park overlooking the capital city Tegucigalpa. We went ziplining and then later walked around the park through a hall of mirrors, got some ice cream, took pictures with Big Jesus, and explored the park. Before leaving, we stopped at a street stand to pick up some mango slices sprinkled with red chilli and vinegar! A perfect delicious snack to end the visit to the park.
We ate lunch in a neighborhood called Santa Lucia and I devoured the beef, chicken, and chorizo plate along with some sweet Maracuya juice. We proceeded to Villa de Angeles to do some souvenir shopping and added some magnets, hammocks, cigars, flags, and lots of sweets to our collection. When we returned from our trip, the kids were esctatic to see us. We played some games with them and then proceeded to hang out in the hammocks outside the dining room. This was to become a daily ritual where we unwound at the end of the day and shared a myriad of stories among each other. This particular night involved the discussion of some local MdL ghost tales and planning of pranks. The unfortunate target of our first (and it turns out only) prank was our teacher. While he was in the shower, we took away the mattress from his room and left him the box spring. We were expecting him to come storming out and complaining, but before long, he was deep asleep on the box spring without even noticing and we all retired to our comfortable beds.
We finally caught the sunrise over the mountain and it was absolutely gorgeous! We played with the children and tried to communicate in our broken Spanish before they left for school. The rest of the morning was spent avoiding John, our teacher, for fear of cracking up in front of him and spilling the beans about the whole operation. We felt really bad when he mentioned that he woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t breathe and had to sleep on the floor, but the show must go on. Jorge had gotten us some diesel, so we poured it into the generator and a lot of leaks sprung up. We proceeded to patch them but had to drain the fuel tank a few times, which was a slow, time consuming process. Finally, we attached the battery and fired the baby up. The sweet sweet sound of the engine sputtering to life attracted everyone from the compound and high fives went around. Success!
However, after we turned it off, white smoke came out of the body and we determined that the polyethylene tubes were not capable of withstanding the heat and some of them had melted off. We got extremely lucky again as the generator could have turned into a grenade with the high temperatures and fuel dripping everywhere. We hopped in the van with Jorge and went hunting for other fuel tubes at the local Ferreterías (hardware store). We got extremely lucky yet again and found the exact thing we wanted at the third store. The work day was almost over so we came back and quickly replaced the plastic tubes with the rubber ones and wrapped up for the day. In the evening, we played some games with the children and then, of course, fútbol! After dinner, we went down the street to the teenage boys' house and played some card games with them. During the day, a whole truck load of watermelons had been donated to MdL. From this day on, we ate watermelon with every meal. We finally ended the prank on John as we didn’t want him to sleep on the floor again and went to bed anxious about his plans for revenge.
Happy Saint Patrick’s Day! After breakfast, we started the generator again and fixed final leaks and fuel system problems. We also observed that some of the wires were melted and were drawing current from the battery even when the generator wasn’t on. After replacing the wiring and troubleshooting more electical issues, we put the generator housing back and started on the process of integrating the generator with the kitchen’s electrical grid. We found a suitable place to house the generator and measured the appropriate length of wire needed to reach the kitchen circuit breaker box. The rest of the day involved staying up on ladders and drilling/chiseling holes into walls to get the wire from the generator shed to the kitchen. At the end of the day, we had completed the layout and only needed to connect everything the next day.
After a snack of watermelon slices, we helped the children make Father’s Day cards for all the dads at MdL. Then we played some water balloon toss with the kids. Samuel and I were winning and successfully tossing the ballon from 30 feet away when he just grinned from ear to ear and chucked the balloon at his neighbor. Many a balloon was lost in the ensuing chaos. More fútbol followed. Deri and Omar, two of the older boys came down and played with us. Deri just got selected to the Honduras national team. During our game, he was just stepping around everyone and giggling while he went past us and scored. I stole the ball from him once while defending. So when he shows up in the World Cup some day, I’ll have this to brag about.
Nicole had her eighteenth birthday today, and as a tradition, the birthday boy/girl has to be doused in ridiculous amounts of water. Water War #2 of the day started up and everyone got drenched. It was a lot of fun. Afterwards, we relaxed in the hammocks and planned future trips as a group, Euro 2016 being the popular choice. While we were in the hammocks, the sky turned red. We sprinted to the water tower and observed a distant sugarcane field on fire. The huge blaze literally lit up the night sky and burned out as soon as it had began. The dreams were good and trippy this night.
We finished laying out the wiring and installed the transfer switch in the kitchen. Our generator was rated to power everything in the kitchen but the electric stove, which required too much electrical current. So, we isolated the circuits necessary and then bypassed them through the transfer switch. This way, when the power went out, the generator could be turned on and the transfer switch would allow the kitchen to receive power. When the power came back on, the only step necessary was to turn the transfer switch back to main power and turn off the generator. After all the installations, we tested the system and it was successful! More high fives all around and then we cleaned up the mess we made in the kitchen.
Dinner today was at a former Tia’s house. Tias (Aunts) take care of the children at the orphanage. She let us make our own tortillas and while we were waiting for dinner to cook, her daughter Jennifer serenaded us with some songs she wrote. The acoustic guitar, the beautiful voice, the starry night, and the smell of the cooking dinner just made it a wholesome experience. We thanked our hosts for their hospitality walked back to MdL. The children had gone to bed and it was late, so no fútbol today. We relaxed in the hammocks, chatted for a bit, and called it a night.
With the generator wired in and working, we slept in today and worked on creating documentation for operating the generator and keeping it in good repair. We also investigated repairing the second spare generator, but we did not have enough spare parts and that generator was in a much worse condition. A student from last year’s trip had accompanied us this year because her project had malfunctioned. She was trying to install a wind turbine on top of the water tower. We helped her with the electrical wiring and installation in between hammock breaks. Today was the last work day, so at the end of the day, we gathered everyone from the compound and gave them demoes of our projects. During our demonstration, faces lit up along with kitchen lights that were powered by our repaired generator. The drip irrigation and the water team had also done tremendous work. The drip team had installed a drip irrigation system which would help Chris get started with his vegetable garden. The water team had installed bio-sand filters and run water quality tests in an ongoing effort to bring safe drinking water to the MdL. All of our accomplishments filled us with complete joy and we basked in the sense of a job well done.
It was Crystal’s birthday today, and after singing to her, we got to enjoy some homemade cake. After that we played more fútbol! Maybe it was the excitement of finishing our project, but I ran a lot more today and bashed my head into a tree and into John’s nose and ended up bleeding from both ears. After some clean up and dinner, Chris brought out his Light-Up Frisbee and we played in the dark. It was a whole new experience. We could hardly see anyone and would just throw the frisbee in a general direction and it would be snatched up by a hand out of thin air. After about an hour of frisbee, we got in some hammock time and said our buenas noches.
Day 8 - Beach Day
Today was our second free day, and we were headed to the beach! We woke up at the early hour of 4 a.m. and piled into the bus for a four hour drive to Coyolito, located on the southern tip of Honduras. From Coyolito, we rode a ferry to the volcanic island of Amapala, which had a small, beautiful beach and a population of about 3000 people. This island was in a unique location because you could see El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua from one place! If only I could have just taken a boat over, I could have added those two countries to my list as well. We had the whole beach to ourselves in the beginning, and immediately started throwing around a frisbee and kicking around a fútbol. The beach slowly filled up, and we started up a game with the locals. Initially we divided up the teams with a mix of Gringos and Hondureños. The Hondurans were ridiculously good. Kiko, a kid who was smaller than my leg was much much better than me at football. After about half an hour, we switched up the teams and decided to go Hodnureños vs Gringos. After an intense game, we actually ended up winning 1-0!
Exhausted from the match, we jumped in the water and the food we had ordered earlier showed up. Fresh breaded garlic shrimp with some local brews made an absolutely exquisite meal. The locals had gone out fishing and returned with a boat full of fresh fish and hammerheads. Kiko just jumped into the boat and started gutting the fish with a knife. I want to be that kid when I grow up. Soon, it was time to head back because we had to return to the orphanage before sundown and had a four hour drive back. Back on the mainland, we purchased some coconuts and other drinks. We had brought a few watermelons with us to the beach but didn’t end up eating them. So I gave away one to a grubby kid standing around watching us throw back refreshing drinks. His face lit up like none other, and that moment alone made this trip amazing for me. He sprinted to his family with the watermelon and waved at us until our bus was out of sight.
On the long ride back, we jammed to tunes and reminisced about the amazing week we just had. On the way back, some of us also purchased hammocks from the roadside market. The children were ecstatic and jumped into out arms as soon as we got back to MdL. After dinner and some hammock time, exhausted, we all fell into deep sleeps.
Day 9 - Match Day!
A good hearty breakfast fueled us for our fútbol match against the locals today. Everyone from MdL walked down to Nueva Esperanza for the football tournament. Playing football daily for a whole week had prepared us for this moment, and team Gringos had their positions already figured out. We created a formation and stuck to it. The older MdL boys along with the guards made up the Honduran team. The eight on eight match went on for an hour and we held our own for the first half, only letting in one goal and having numerous shots on goal. In the past years, the Gringos had been beaten by upwards of 8-0, and the Honduran team was very surprised at our performance.
For the second half, we mixed in some local Hondureños and played just as hard to end the match with a Honduran win at 4-3. All in all, it was probably the best football match I’ve played in. After some refreshments and more watermelon, the women’s team went on the field and they played until both teams scored a goal. After cleaning up and saying goodbyes to the locals, we all walked back to MdL and visited numerous Pulperías (local shops) on the way to grab snack and drinks. Upon getting back, we found out that the power had gone out. Electrical Team to the Rescue! We started up the generator and lunch was saved! After lunch, I went along with Ruth to the gas station to get bags of ice and while I was there, I also indulged in some ice cream and strawberry milkshakes. We put the ice bags in the freezer that was on, thanks to the generator, and afterwards Ruth took a few of us around the town to give us a little tour. We visited the cemetery where some of the MdL children were buried. Ruth told us that every year they have a ceremony where they ask Kevin to say a few words. Kevin has been at MdL from day one and he is the only one who has known everyone who came to MdL, and everyone who went.
When we returned to MdL, it was time to make homemade ice cream with the children. The Electrical Team saved the activity, because the ice was still frozen! We set up an assembly line and made our own ice cream. After mixing milk, sugar, and vanilla in a ziploc bag and placing it in a larger ziploc bag with ice, a spoon of salt was added. After much shaking of the bags, and some science, the children were happily munching away at their ice cream with satisfied grins. They also took the chance to grab fistfuls of ice and put them in the back of our shirts. Then we set up the chairs in a circle and everyone at MdL signed our shirts with their names and heartfelt messages. After dinner, we spent more time with the children. We were out in the front playing some fútbol and Ruth brought out a bag of ring lights. All of a sudden, six year old Erick ran around the compound yelling “Luzes, Luzes, Luzes” (“Lights, Lights, Lights”), informing everyone of this brand new development. It was the cutest thing I have ever seen. We all put on the ring lights and had a dance party in the field. After that, we played freeze tag and it was the best night of the whole week. Just running around the place without a care in the world and enjoying life was the best thing ever. We did our final reflection in the Chapel and then relaxed in the hammocks, trying to come up with excuses to never leave this amazing place.
The next day, we had breakfast and joined the children for their morning prayers. After that, we said our goodbyes. Lots of hugging and crying was involved. The trip back to Tegucigalpa and then Houston and then Columbus was uneventful, and another 10 amazing days in paradise had come to an end.