Questioning My Impact in El Ojochal, Honduras

In January 2014, I joined a 13 member water brigade from my college and traveled to El Ojochal, Honduras for a week.

We dug ditches besides the community members, observed how to engineer and install a water distribution system, educated children about hygiene, and learned about the impact of access to clean, safe, potable drinking water.

It was an eye-opening experience… for both good and bad reasons.

I elaborate on the bad at the end.

Here is an excerpt from my journal on the second day of the trip on 7 January 2014. As an introduction, we learned about the water system, met the community, and explored the port city of San Lorenzo.


The Second Day

Hannah woke us up at 6 AM this morning because she forgot to set the clock back 1 hour. I can’t imagine we were too happy with this haha. Breakfast was at 7:30 AM — eggs and string beans, guacamole, cereal and milk, guava juice, and something else.

Took a long trip to El Ojochal — take a left down a rickety stone road and the village is located in the woods.

We got to ride in the back of a pick-up truck to the location of the water well. An engineer came to inspect how much horsepower would be necessary for the water system that was being built.

The idea is to pump the water up to a 10,000 gallon tank and gravity will deliver the water to the homes. Using sensors, the tank will know when to refill and the community will get water 3 times a week. Since they found a location with more water than anticipated, the 60 houses in El Ojochal will have enough water for 100 houses. The hope is that the system will last for 20+ years with proper maintenance. Chlorine tablets will be used for purification.

We climbed up a steep and soil-y route to the top of the hill, where the old and new tank that is currently being built is located.

On top of an old water tank.

A beautiful view could be seen from the top of the old tank, overlooking the water and valleys and hills.

View from on top of the water tank.

Because there were no clearly defined path or built-in steps, it was slippery coming down the steep hill and it was amazing to watch everyone carry all of the materials to the top of the tank, including brick, long planks of wood, and cement. They are totally pros at scampering up the hill, because the soil was so loose it was impossible to stay in one place for too long or else you would slip back down.

I was out of breath. I am totally out of shape haha.

Community members building their new water storage tank. One afternoon, we were able to help mix the cement!

We climbed back down and visited homes. They have hammocks for beds.

We met one boy, Fernando, 3 years old, who thought my friend, Mary Joy, was pretty. He was adorable.

They showed us around their home as well their kids’ graduation pictures and diplomas.

Everyone was so happy and so thankful to see us. Armando and Jimmy (our guides) said we are their heroes. They were so thankful we are coming to build something essential for life… water. Something we take for granted. They were so grateful.

We played soccer with Francisco, Bryan, Hector, and Junior in a dirt field. That was fun.

Lunch was… well first of all let me just say, they had lactose free lunch! As someone who is lactose intolerant, this was great news. It completely made my day. It was a plastic plate with layers of tortilla, tortilla, egg, guacamole, fried plantains, and rice. It definitely required a fork but since I only had my hand, half of my lunch was donated to nature. We had cold Gatorade, fruit punch and grape juice. Cold Gatorade is delicious, but warm Gatorade is way too sweet and sugary.

Next, we went to San Lorenzo port, passed watermelon and wheat and corn farms, and took a boat to… an island?

Turns out, San Lorenzo was not an island, just a beautiful port city established by the Spaniards in 1522 on the Pacific Coast.

We rode in the back of a truck again, visited some touristy places, saw a Catholic church. Many of the houses had AC, tiles on the porches, and cement walkways.

We finally arrived on the other side of the island on a black sand beach. The water was like bath water. Within the first few minutes, I was stung by a jellyfish! The sand was not soft, rather hard with large rocks. But it was so relaxing, bobbing up and down in the water. I got a nice tan and went in the water in my shorts and sports bra.

After a long truck drive, boat ride, and bus ride home, we ate dinner — rice, fried/sautéed vegetables, watermelon juice, squash soup, salty peanut fish. Delicious!

Hurried back to shower because I was feeling grimy and dry. Took a cold shower, which felt pretty nice after a sweaty and moist day. Ate a chocolate banana with sprinkles. Yummmm!

Worked on the Hygiene project, and finally relaxed.

Time to sleep. Good night.


Looking back on the trip as a whole…

We were here for a great cause.

And I learned a ton. We all did.

Everyone was so kind and motivated to build something that would change their lives for the better. When I was digging ditches alongside the community members, I tried my best to emulate their steady and consistent work ethic too.

Every few feet, we would have to work together to dig out gigantic rocks that were in our pathway.

And progress was made.

Building the roof to the water tank.

The people were wonderful and very silly 😛

But throughout the trip, despite the…

  • community interactions
  • daily reflections
  • educational presentations
  • controversial discussions
  • physical volunteer work
  • fun activities…

I didn’t feel like I deserved to be there.

I understood this was a learning experience, but what were my accreditations? Who was I to spend all this money to come here? As a freshman in college, I knew nothing! Zero. Zip. Zilch. 100% zero knowledge about international development, community development, engineering systems, building complex relationships, etc.

I felt guilty.

Although our guide shared great thought-provoking information, I would have preferred to taken a class first (like the study abroad class in Costa Rica two years later). I wanted (and needed) to learn the proper terminology… adopt a healthy mindset… and hone in on a partnership-type approach that wasn’t intrusive or disrespectful. This is not to say that this one was, just that there was no way for me to evaluate what was good or bad.

I felt helpless.

I felt emotionally and academically unprepared.

Also, despite what everyone was saying, in my mind the experience was only designed to last a week. Who or what was holding us accountable? What were going to do when we got home? It didn’t feel sustainable. And you should not feel crappy when you are helping / serving / volunteering / voluntouring / etc.

I felt confused.

I felt ashamed.

You know when you don’t know what you don’t know?

All of the guilt and confusion I felt left me wanting to learn more about this very complex and fragile world of international community development.

This was a unique learning experience with both good and bad components, and it left me wanting to learn more more more…

Children of El Ojochal waving goodbye to all the volunteers.

Originally published at tayzau.com on July 25, 2017.