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Born in the US, raised on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, lived in Italy, the US, and Canada. Lover of language, travel, colour, and the natural world.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Building a water system

Photo courtesy of Stanton Media. May not be used without permission.
 I have been meaning to finish the story of my Dominican Republic expedition for some time now. You can see the first four blog entries describing the purpose of my trip, here, a little background and first experiences of Santo Domingo, here, how organic, fair trade cocoa is grown, harvested and processed, here, and an introduction to the community that we were building the drinking water system in, here.

Our days in La Laguna were long. We were up by 6am, having a quick wash out of a bowl of cold water that we would collect from a barrel that our host family had kindly provided for us. By 6.30 we would wander across the yard to our host mother, Teresa's back porch for breakfast. Breakfast usually consisted of fresh pineapple, some bananas, bread, butter, sometimes some cheese, and a hot cup of freshly made hot chocolate. Teresa made her hot chocolate from cocoa grown on the land just behind her house. There are few things as enjoyable as a hot cup of cocoa made from freshly toasted, ground cocoa beans.

After breakfast, the whole group of volunteers would meet up along the road, in the centre of the village. We would then hike to our work site, which was a couple of miles away. I really enjoyed those early morning walks to the trench -- the freshness of the air; the cows out munching on grass; the sound of birdcall, and some time to think and reflect on where we were, and what an incredible project we were involved in.

Photo courtesy of Stanton Media. May not be used without permission.
Every day different villages would take turns digging with us. Most of them were cocoa farmers, and they were all strong, hard-working men with leathery skin, calloused hands, and arms and legs that were pure muscle. At the start of our project, and to some extent for the duration of it, we came up against the cultural bias against women doing hard manual labour. We were sharing tools with the locals, so there was usually a shortage, which meant that it was quite frequent for us to be working away and all of a sudden have a local worker come over and take our tool right out of our hands, and usher us out of the way.

Photo courtesy of Stanton Media. May not be used without permission.
Photo by Ariana Salvo. May not be used without permission.
 By the end of the project the men had warmed slightly to working alongside women, and our presence out on the work site drew a number of local women out to dig with us, which was inspiring to see. By the last few days, many children had come out to join us also, enthusiastic boys and girls filling in the trench alongside us. It became a truly community-driven project, and it was great to see the community feeling so empowered.

Photo by Ariana Salvo. May not be used without permission.
Photo by Ariana Salvo. May not be used without permission.
Photo by Ariana Salvo. May not be used without permission.
Photo by Ariana Salvo. May not be used without permission.
Laying pipe. By Ariana Salvo. May not be used without permission.
The project had begun long before we arrived in the area. The local farming communities had tapped the spring up on the side of the mountain, and lay pipe from the spring down to the river Nagua, which was where our work began. In all, we lay 11.5km of pipe, which is about 7 miles. The first week we worked entirely by hand, using pick axes to dig down 80cm, and shovels to dig out our trench. Pipe was brought in by truck, and carried up and down the hills on our shoulders to its final resting place in the trench.

Pipe being brought in. Photo by Ariana Salvo. May not be used without permission.
The digging was very hard work, especially given the hot, humid climate. By day three, we were all very sore and tired. We would dig until lunch time, and then take a break to eat the delicious meals of rice and beans, plantain and chicken and salad that our host families would send us. Sometimes they would tuck in an ice-cold Coke or 7-Up, which would make our day. After lunch we would be back in the trench, working until late afternoon. In the early evening, as the sun was starting to sink behind the cocoa trees, we would pack up and head back to La Laguna, our boots feeling like weighted extensions that had attached themselves to the bottom of our legs.

Our film crew and myself enjoying cool drinks after a long day's work.
There was a little bar/shop just on the edge of the village, that sold sickeningly sweet, but icy cold soda pop, and we would usually stop on our way back to our houses to enjoy a cold drink and some social time. After supper we would often re-group at this same bar, that seemed to shift gears after dark when the pool table became the centre of community life, and, if there was power, the boom box would get switched on, cranking out loud Dominican dancing tunes that would bring the locals out of their houses, dressed in their best, to take a spin on the dance floor. Dominicans can dance -- the people have some serious rhythm, and it was great to watch couples spin around the dance floor, hips rocking back and forth to the beat, feet moving expertly, enjoying the beat and human connection so completely.

During the second week of our time in La Laguna, our pick-axes and shovels were joined by two diggers that significantly sped up the process. After they joined us, most of our time was spent filling in, rather than digging, and progress was much faster. Perhaps a bit too fast -- pipe was laid and the trench filled in behind as as we moved rapidly forward, without first checking to see whether the pipes would, in fact, stay together once the water was moving through them, exerting pressure on them. The pipes were plastic, and were glued together at their ends. There were no extra joining pieces to fortify the joints however, and on the last day of the project, when we finally turned the taps on in La Laguna, we could hear water, but we could not see anything. The reason for this, it turned out, was that at least one water pipe had burst, or come separated at the joint. It was a disappointing conclusion to our time in La Laguna, but we were assured that it would be fixed in no time, and the village would have running water within the week.

Joining pipes. Photo by Ariana Salvo. May not be used without permission.
Attaching the pipes. Photo by Ariana Salvo. May not be used without permission.
I had hoped that we would leave La Laguna knowing that our host families' lives were a little bit easier because of access to fresh, clean running water. Unfortunately that did not happen because of the burst pipes. As I write this, it is now over a month since we left the village, and the system is still not working. I realized the other day that this was one reason why I was avoiding writing my next blog entry about our project -- I wanted to be able to say that it was a success -- that we achieved the goal that we went there to accomplish. In a sense we did accomplish a great deal. We established relationships between the cocoa-farming community, and Green and Black's. We made a connection between cocoa producers and cocoa consumers. We put into action the fair-trade values of community development, mutual support and respect. But I have been wondering how the residents of La Laguna are feeling right about now, and how we could have done things differently to make sure that they achieved their goal of having clean, running water in their village this spring and summer. Maybe we could have consulted at greater length with the engineer to make sure that the pipes were sufficiently reinforced at the joints. Perhaps we could have consulted with the local workers and suggested that we wait to fill in the trench until we had turned the taps on in the village, and we knew water was making it through without any major problems. For such a major project, I think at the end our sights may have been a little bit too focused on our desire to see the taps come on before we left, rather than making sure that everything was being done with the utmost care, even if it meant that we had to leave before the project was completed.

Waiting for water. Photo by Ariana Salvo. May not be used without permission.
Discovering a burst water pipe. Photo by Ariana Salvo. May not be used without permission
I have thought a lot about the water system since getting back to the US. When I wash my hands; when I use the toilet and am able to flush; when I am standing under a stream of water in the shower. I think about our host community, and wonder how they are managing with digging up the pipe again, and reinforcing the joints. I also wonder how much longer they are going to have to wait for water. One of the participants gets text messages from her host family on and off. The recurring message is "no hay agua..."

Our work in the Dominican Republic had many positive outcomes, most of which involved the building and strengthening of human relationships. I learned a great deal about cocoa and the fair trade industry that is invaluable to my writing and that I know I will put to good use in my work serving agricultural communities. I just hope that we get a text message from La Laguna soon saying "Hay agua." Those two words would make our trip complete for me.

About a week ago I had a knock on the front door. When I got there, the delivery man was gone, but an enormous box was sitting on my front porch. Green and Black's had mentioned that they were sending me some chocolate, but I did not realize when they said "some" that they were planning on being quite so generous. Needless to say, when I unwrapped the box and saw the quantity of chocolate they had sent me, I was very excited. I also immediately started thinking of ways that I could share my chocolate with family and friends. I took some to share with the youth that I work with in a local youth garden; I shared some with my parents and friends, and even sent one bar to Canada to a friend who was having a craving for some Green and Black's milk chocolate. But since you have now read the whole story, I thought it was only right that I share some with you too, right?

Enjoying chocolate in La Laguna.
If you want to be entered to win some Green and Black's chocolate from the Dominican Republic, leave a comment below this post before midnight Thursday, and I will send one lucky person a delicious cocoa care package. I will announce the winner Friday morning.

Photo courtesy of Stanton Media. May not be used without permission.
Have a great week, and good luck!


  1. You had me with 'chocolate'! Loved the learnings that you mention in your blog. I hope I remember them when I next could apply the wisdom.
    Miss you. Love, Glojean

  2. hey, i don't know what happened but earlier today (before you read my link about chocolate) i posted a comment here! i wrote a lot about how you describe so well your experience in a way that makes the reader really connect with the experience..and how i don't watch reality tv but if there was the kind of program which featured this kind of reality that you depict, i'd be totally interested in it! i also mentioned that i was intending to post before i realized there was an enticement. :)