Thoughts from the last few weeks

I’ve had a lot of time to think, and wanted to put down some of the stuff I came up with in the last few weeks. Here’s a rather disorganized ramble of stuff.

Guatemaltan Engineering

Guatemalan engineering is remarkably similar to Senegalese engineering. I think this stems from a basic prinicple at work in poor places, which is do it just well enough to get the job done, and cheaply as the job will tolerate. This is a common reaction sharp humans have all over the world, but in less developed economies, the handicraft of the clever engineers is somehow more on display.

When I say “engineers” here, I mean, “the people that make a place work”. They don’t need formal training, just the gut instinct for building new things and fixing old ones. In both Senegal and Guatemala, I have seen things that were clearly carefully designed by a highly trained professional. But much more often what you see is a small repetoir of repeated techniques using common materials.

For instance, Guatemalan electrical wiring is not exactly up to code. But it works reliably. Usually, the insulated wires are all exposed and you can see how it works. Connections are twisted and taped. There’s a small selection of wall-mountable switches, plugs, and light sockets at the ferreteria. (No, you don’t get ferrets there. It’s a hardware store.) They put them together into simple circuits that get the job done. An entire marketplace of stalls popped up on the beach for Semana Santa overnight. Several had music playing and cold beers. Turns out someone had run a line 200 meters or so down the hill from the nearest house and hacked together a little power network down there for the weekend. The next day, another place popped up further down the beach playing music. It had tapped into the same line running down the hill. They probably did it live, for all I know. The simplest thing that works, which in this case was an ad-hoc power distribution system for the weekend.

I suppose they have fires from time to time from this less than perfect electrical engineering. But their houses are made of concrete, and there are constantly little fires by the side of the road to burn trash and leaves, so a little fire from the ad-hoc beach power network probably wouldn’t be a big problem. Again, it’s the simplest thing that works: it works for them to have a small risk of fire, because it lets them use cheap parts and unskilled labor.

What interests me here is the union of economics and engineering. Rural Guatemalans (and the Senegalese, and probably every other poor group of people in the world) have a keen sense of what works well enough and what’s worth paying for to make it work well enough. This is a sense I’m going to need to develop as I work more in poorer regions.

One place I saw a union of traditional (north american) heavy industry and local engineering was in the sawmill where mi padre works. He showed me the saw, the planer, the kiln, and the furnace for the kiln. It all looked just like the equipment I remember seeing in Roseburg area mills while growing up. Unfortunately, it was dark when I was there, so I couldn’t examine it closely enough to confirm my suspicions that it was imported from decomissioned mills in the US. It was really fun talking with Audali in Spanish about the mill, since I have some knowldge of the lumber industry in Oregon.

As a parting note, today I took a shower under a just-in-time water heater showerhead. It was interesting wondering when the typically installed Guatemalan wires leading to the showerhead would end up in the stream of lukewarm water, thereby electrocuting me to death!

Water Distribution in San Andrés

My Spanish lessons included several different types of teaching, but my favorite (though at times the most trying) was simply talking in Spanish with my teacher. At the beginning, the teacher prompted it from time to time by asking carefully crafter questions he knew the answer to and knew I had enough words to answer. Very clever, as it increased my confidence and comfort with the language. This was the benefit of starting with a teacher with 10 years of experience, I bet! Later, the conversations were more free ranging, and I could drive them towards things I wanted to learn about.

One day I decided to learn how the water and the economics of water worked in San Andrés worked. I had learned from Eric Brewer that poor people typically pay much more for comodities than rich people do. I wanted to gather data on that phenonomen in San Andrés for Eric, and for my own curiosity.

As I mentioned before, there are two water systems in San Andrés: the tap water and the bottled water that the water man delivers. The tap water is untreated lake water. It is pumped from an inlet a bit to the west of the town into a tank at the top of the hill, and the system is gravity fed from there. It costs Q20 (USD $2.60) a month, and it is unmetered. It is provided by the city government (which may or may not be different from the county government… I forgot to ask). The tap water always appears clean, i.e. it never has any sediment or bad smells. I don’t know what it tastes like, because do one in the family drinks it. My teacher says that it is usually pretty safe to drink, especially by people accostomed to the local bacteria. The lake is quite big, and the wind tends to mix it around a bit. The amount of people living around it is very small by American standards of population density, so the amount of contamination is pretty low. Even though people aren’t supposed to, they wash clothes and bodies in the lake sometimes, which contaminates the lake. The biggest problem is after a rainstorm, when trash and animal waste from the streets washes into the lake. Then the tap water is a bit more peligroso.

The good news about contamination is that I never saw anywhere where there was untreated sewage flowing into the lake. In Senegal, there was a creek flowing into the bay where we anchored the boat which was black and smelled like it was untreated sewage. We didn’t swim off the back of the boat like we did in the Canaries sometimes! In San Andrés, they seem to use septic tanks to handle sewage. I spared my teacher the trauma of getting into the waste system during our lessons!

The people of San Jose next door used to get their water from a well, but it started smelling bad recently. Now they get their water from the lake too. However, their intake is much closer to the swimming area that would be allowed in the US. It has fencing, but no signs explining why people need to stay away. During the Semana Santa weekend, there were so many people at the beach that they overflowed into the fenced area, and were swimming all around the water intake. It would be interesting to ask the doctor in San Jose about the increase in sickness last week.

The bottled water man comes from Santa Elena (15 km away) every day with his truck of full of water in 6 gallon bottles with black and yellow seals on the lids. Each one costs about Q6 (USD $0.80). Lubia bought about 6 bottles a week for her family of 10 or so. So you can see that drinking water is a huge expense compared to tap water!

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