Summer Take Two in Peru

My last day at FERC on August 9. Because I’d already packed all of my business casual clothing to go home, I had to wear in my EWB Peru T-shirt, which resulted in a nice juxtaposition of the two experiences I had this summer.

After wrapping up my 10-week PICS internship at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) on August 9 (see my previous post about my experience there), I had a quick 36-hour turnaround, filled with frantic packing, before I boarded my flight from Washington, DC, to Lima, Peru. Thus began the second chapter of summer 2019 for me — a four-week trip to Otuzco (a city of about 25,000 people in the highlands of northwestern Peru) to build a potable water delivery system for the rural community called Pusunchás.

It all started back in September of my freshman year. I knew that I wanted to join a service organization on campus whose mission reflected my interests in sustainable community development. After thoroughly exploring the fall activities fair, I found Princeton’s Engineers Without Borders (EWB) chapter, which is part of the national EWB-USA nonprofit and the international EWB network. Similar to Doctors Without Borders (a more well-known initiative), EWB partners engineering students and professionals with developing communities in need of infrastructural improvements (e.g., water supply, electricity sources, clean cook stoves, etc.). Here at Princeton, EWB has projects running in three different countries: Peru, Dominican Republic, and Kenya. Each group has its own culture, reflective of the nature of the communities with which they work, and after researching all three, I decided to join the Peru team (partially because I am very fond of hiking in mountainous terrain, as you can see in the photo below).

A panorama view of the mountains I took one day after our work had ended.

After joining the Peru team in September, I quickly became more involved, co-leading our finance sub-team to successfully raise the $11,000+ for our work abroad this year. Our current project, started in 2015 and based in Pusunchás (which won’t show up on Google Maps but is about a 30 minute drive uphill from Otuzco where we are staying), will deliver drinking water to 121 households by the end of this year. Throughout the school year, we spend time designing the project (this is where our engineering knowledge comes in handy) before seven of the team members (one of them this year being me!) travel to Pusunchás over the summer to oversee the construction of the system. We purposefully schedule the trip for mid-August to allow all of our team members to fit in internships beforehand. Some of the other Princeton students traveling with me worked on campus prior to this trip doing research, for instance, while others worked at engineering firms or even traveled abroad to other countries.

Living in Otuzco has definitely been really eye-opening for me. This is my first time in what could arguably be called a “developing” nation (recognizing how problematic this term is), and I’ve already learned so much just by looking and listening. Stray dogs roam the streets but are never really aggressive (many of them are actually quite cute). Most houses are made out of dirt/adobe bricks, and roofs are adorned with colorful lines of laundry and with livestock coops (guinea pigs, or cuy, are a popular source of protein here, in addition to the ubiquitous chickens/roosters who wake me up way too early). A lot of locals drive these vehicles called mototaxis, which are like three-wheeled motorcycles with colorful carts attached to carry passengers. There aren’t any stop signs, and there is only one traffic light in town that is rarely obeyed. Our group is staying in dormitories at El Centro de Formación de Pastoral Rural, which is an outreach center run by Las Marianistas, a Catholic missionary nonprofit who has been our team’s in-country partner/sponsor for several years now. We are blessed to have hot water in the showers (which is heated by solar tubes on the roof), although we have to hand wash our laundry (I can’t believe my great-grandma did this back in the day, but a funny sustainability side note is that line-dry laundry is making a comeback in the US because of its decreased energy use as compared to conventional dryers — and the Sun is still a highly effective drying tool, as I’ve realized from the many sunburns I’ve gotten despite the layers upon layers of sunscreen I’ve put on).

Our rooftop solar water heater.

Laundry lines on our rooftop deck/laundry area.

Every day (except for Sundays, a much-needed day of rest), we travel from Otuzco to Pusunchás in the pickup truck of our in-country mentor, Julio Avalos, who works for Las Marianistas. Julio is absolutely critical to the success of our project because he knows how to navigate the very, very rough roads of rural Peru like a pro (there have been several times when I’ve wondered whether what we are driving on is a road or just a slab of bedrock). Julio also used to work for Ingenieros Sin Fronteras, the Spanish version of EWB, so he has a lot of important technical knowledge, which has led him to advise other EWB projects in the area, including one run by Temple University. Another crucial component of our work in the community is the Junta Administrative de Servicios Sanitarios (JASS), a group of about 10 Pusunchás residents who oversee the governance of the water delivery system and manage local disputes. While we control the system design, we rely on the JASS to coordinate which residents will work with us on which days to help with construction (pickaxing sheer bedrock is really difficult, as one might imagine, so having the help of locals who work on farms each day and are thus incredibly strong and used to physical labor is super beneficial). The JASS also coordinates our daily lunches, which are provided by a different household each day (typically chicken, rice, and the ubiquitous Peruvian potato… and some lentils/salad/carrots if we get lucky).

Me taking a flow rate measurement at a tapstand at one of the households in Pusunchás. I definitely look a little weird in my hiking/sun protection gear.

If Otuzco is a new urban environment for me, however, Pusunchás is a new rural environment. The community is spread out over dozens of square miles, meaning we are typically hiking several miles each day on steeply sloping terrain (our iPhones have told us that we’ve done 100+ flights of stairs on several days). Houses are made out of adobe bricks and are completely open to the environment (the temperature here is very mild with low humidity and few biting insects, so this isn’t really an issue). Livestock are everywhere and just seem to roam free — chickens, cows, pigs, turkeys, donkeys, horses, and lots of dogs of varying ages (there have been a lot of many cute puppies). Slopes are divided into chacras, or plots of land dedicated to a particular crop (wheat, potatoes, carrots, corn, cabbage, and many others), although there really aren’t fences here; people just seem to know whose chacra is whose.

We’re about halfway into the trip thus far, and already I’ve found it hugely educational. My conversational Spanish (which I picked up in high school classes) has improved significantly through the daily interactions we have with community members. In our spare time, while we haven’t gotten to explore any of the “famous” sites Peru is known for (Machu Picchu is on the other side of the country, for instance, so that will have to wait for another time), we have found a lot to do in Otuzco, eaten several different delicious local dishes (my favorite is lomo saltado, which is a mix of steak with potato slices, onions, and tomatoes in a savory sauce), and spent time cooking together as a group (last Sunday was filled with fresh fruit smoothies, veggie soup, and omelettes, called tortillas here).

What I’ve also found fascinating is how Otuzco/Pusunchás are from a sustainability standpoint. Some practices here are certainly more sustainable than what we do in the U.S. The majority of the food is produced locally. Laundry is done by hand and line-dried, using significantly less energy. 100% of the electricity comes from local hydropower fueled by glacial ice melt, according to Julio. On the other hand, some practices are visibly worse than in the U.S. Garbage disposal is pretty poor here, with trash lining the streets and gullies; plastic bags and packaging are ubiquitous, although the local grocery store does charge a fee for plastic bags (this is the only place that does this, however — local merchants/stalls can get away with not charging). What’s worse is that there doesn’t seem to be too much awareness about the litter problem. Single-use consumerism is progressing as it always has in other countries. The tap water system in Otuzco is also not super clean (we treat it with bleach before we drink it), and while rural areas like Pusunchás have electricity, many of these utilities are provided as a result of local government initiatives that are basically publicity stunts (i.e., building out infrastructure is seen as more of a photo opportunity for the administration instead of a provision of basic necessities). As a result, while Pusunchás had a water system several years ago which was built out by the government, it has since fallen into disrepair, and the government has failed to fix it, which is why we are building our project now. Interestingly enough, during the mayoral election for Otuzco last year (campaign signs are still left painted onto many houses around the city), candidates reached out to our group to see if they could “partner” with us, but this was apparently only their way of trying to use our EWB project to make themselves look good.

Trash piled up in the streets. At times, these heaps would be set on flames and left to burn.

Another controversial theme I’ve been reflecting on during my time here has been one of tokenism. I initially began discussing this a couple of months ago with our cohort’s student advisor and Service Focus graduate, Kate Schassler ’21. What has proven to be problematic with many international humanitarian efforts is that wealthier people from developed nations (typically majority white) have used volunteer projects in developing nations to boost their own appearances/self-worth under the premise that they are helping the “poor, starving peoples of the Third World” (who are often people of color). This results in a toxic (and sometimes racially awkward) relationship in which the beneficiaries of the project are reduced to mere photography subjects.

Going into this EWB trip, I made sure to be particularly aware for any signs of tokenism. Luckily, I’ve found that for the most part, our relationship with Pusunchás is cordial and fairly egalitarian. The community members respect us for our technical engineering knowledge, but we let them (specifically the JASS) handle interpersonal dynamics. All of us on the travel team put forth our best efforts to learn and to speak Spanish, which allows us to communicate pretty fluidly without the need for a translator. Any photos we take of community members are typically requested by them, although this isn’t always the case (the problem with photography is that conventional donors who support EWB are conditioned to see heartstring-tugging photos of community members and their kids receiving clean water, so it’s tough for us to both satisfy American publicity standards for international humanitarian work and to respect the personal boundaries of community members). Some other members of the travel team and I are working to ensure that our summer blog posts on the EWB website and other publicity materials moving forward do not contain overtly tokenistic messaging or photos.

All in all, I’ve been immensely enjoying my time here thus far, have gotten to bond with the six other Princeton students on my travel team, and have loved the time we spend outdoors every day, both working and relaxing. I’m an avid bird-watcher, so I’ve gotten to see many new species in my spare time (many people have asked me what my binoculars are for, though). While my experience in Otuzco/Pusunchás is completely different from the 10 weeks I spent interning at FERC in DC, I think that these two adventures complement each other nicely. Here in Peru, I’m putting my engineering knowledge to use in the field; in DC, I used my engineering knowledge to read and write about energy policy. Moreover, sustainability has been woven through all 14 weeks of my summer, and I’m incredibly excited to discuss what I’ve learned with my fellow Sustainability & Resilience cohort members this coming year. Thank you to the Pace Center and the Service Focus program for helping to fund my journey to Peru.

Part of our travel team tries emoliente, which is a local herbal beverage that tastes like liquefied bubble tea pearls — a great pick-me-up after dinner for cold nights! From left to right: Sydney Hsu ’21, Kristen Ahner ’22, me, Riley Wagner ’20, Josh Umansky Castro ’17 (an EWB Princeton alumnus who is serving as a mentor for us this summer), and Pranav Iyer ’22.

Date posted: August 22, 2019 | | Comments Off on Summer Take Two in Peru | Sustainability & Resilience