Thursday, January 22, 2015

Coming to a Close

After 17 days,

4500 miles,

a whole  lot of adventures,

and one last sunrise

 it's all coming to a close. It's time to go home.

That's it for now. See you on the other side.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

On To Belize - More Pics

After finishing my walking tour, I quickly repacked and got the van to the airport. Left Panama City with a layover in San Salvador, El Salvador then up to Belize City, Belize. After a bit of unexpected delay boarded a puddle jumper flown by Maya Air. I believe MAYA is an acronym for "May Arrive Yet Anyday". At any rate we got under way, and after two more stops (I swear I thought I was on the Number 4 train in the Bronx) I landed in Placencia where Gail was waiting for me at the airport. I have now been here just shy of a week. We have ziplined through the rainforest, visited the Mayan ruins at Nim Li Punit, toured a cacao plantation where we hand ground our own chocolate (really amazing how great it tastes fresh) and did some awesome snorkeling. Placencia is another one of those end-of-the-line feeling places that Jimmy Buffet sings about, sort of like Isla Colon. Weird animals, vibrant colors and some stuff you just can't quite find word for...


A Walk in the Neighborhood - Panama City. Plenty of Pics

So, after seeing the canal, I headed back for another night at the hostel. My team had gone home and the room I was in had seven beds. One of them was given to a new guest, a young Mexican college student named Joel. Nice enough kid. He went out pretty early and must have stayed out pretty late. I went to sleep and never heard him come in. I got up early Thursday and used the morning to see just a little bit more of my neighborhood near Ancon Hill. I will not bore you with details. If interested see the Wikipedia entry for this feature of the Panama Canal. At the foot of Ancon Hill are the offices of the Panama Canal Administration, which features architecture that harkens back to an earlier era. I've also tossed in some random interesting touristy photos just because I liked them. And yeah, I even managed to get a haircut.
Freshly Clipped!

Water level dropping inside lock.

Lock gates being opened.

Ship now advances out of lock. Note pairs of electric mules.

I included this shot to provide a sense of scale of these vessels. Note the two cement mixer trucks in the center of the hold.

Abandoned Army-Navy YMCA, Ancon Hill, Panama City

No, not Woodstock dude. Panamanian bus

View of Ancon Hill

Admin Building Plaza

Admin Building

View from top steps of Admin Building

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

My Day at the Panama Canal - mostly pics.

Wednesday Morning. After showering, using flush toilets and sleeping on a mattress for the first time in over a week we got up early and got ready. It was time to say our goodbyes. The remainder of the group was heading home - I was staying on. We loaded the van, I joshed and teased each one as they climbed in, I asked Mike to get my big duffel for me then reminded him I wasn't going anywhere. The door closed and they were gone. I was by myself. Sadness and relief. Ruben, the van driver, had agreed to come back at noon to take me on a tour of the canal and locks. I used the morning to take a walk around the neighborhood and do my laundry. In a final burst of irony, the dryer broke while my clothes and sneakers were in it. I had planned on wearing the sneakers as my only other footwear was boots or flipflops, neither of which were suitable for this type of walking. Oh well, by now I was used to wearing the sneakers wet. I placed them in the sun for a few hours and by the time Ruben arrived they were dry enough.

I boarded the van and he and his wife, Elsie, showed me everything I had wanted to see. It was more than I had imagined and more than words can adequately describe. I will let the photos try to do it justice. In order, a few photos of the view from Ancon Hill including the old "Bridge of the Americas" and the new Centennial Bridge then a bunch of shots of the Miraflores Locks. Enjoy.

Monday, January 19, 2015

From Isla Colon to Panama City

We got to Isla Colon and put in at the dock at Lillys Restaurant. Lilly is a real gem, though I have yet to meet her. On previous trips she has allowed the group to decamp at her place and stow their luggage while the walked around town. She is also the purveyor of "Killing Me Man" hot sauce. After a leisurely lunch the others went to walk around town. we had about 2 and 1/2 hours to kill before our flight.Isla Colon is a really neat, shabby town on its own. That real Key West, end-of-the-line groove. Must be some awesome surfing because they place was full of scruffy 20 somethings carrying ntheir boards through town. Also well populated by older American expats. Jimmy Buffet meets Earnest Hemingway type of place. I stayed at Lillys with the gear, plugged into unlimited electricity and bummed the password for the WiFi next door. I won't say how. Trade secret.

The gang eventually returned and we started hauling our bags to the street to get a van. And of course, the deluge commences. Amber and Kyle volunteered to find a van as all we had seen was open back pick up truck taxis - not a good option at the moment. After about 20 minutes, with no letup by the downpour, they returned with a nice big van. We piled in and made the relatively brief trip to the airport. Without much fanfare or hassle, we checked in, checked our luggage and boarded our flight. This time, no stopping in Changuinola. An hour later we were back in Panama City and on our way to the Hostal Almador, once again with a dinner stop at Nikos Cafe. (Just a sort of obscure thought, realize that Panama City is on the Pacific coast and Isla Popa is on the Atlantic. Each time we made this hop we were 'crossing the continent'. On this trip I have crossed the continent 4 times. Just saying).

At Nikos I had the very welcome pleasure of seeing live baseball being played - the Southern League consists of Panama, Nicaragua, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. Perfect timing for an unexpected pleasure.
After dinner, we returned to Almador and settled in for the well deserved showers we had been craving. We joked about choking the drain with mud but nothing of the sort happened. By now we were pretty weary, the excitement had faded and we just wanted to clean up and get some rest on clean sheets. And that' exactly what we did.

Leaving Isla Popa

Having finished work by noon on Monday we were pretty much done. We arranged an evening meeting with Ambrosio, Daniel and Ramon to settle the issues of worker pay, reimbursement for unused wood and the communities donation of collected funds. The others in the group went for a hike; I opted to stay back and start getting organized for my departure. One thing I found a bit overwhelming was the fact of being in constant demand. Since I was wearing multiple hats I had almost no down time for myself and I feared I would become disorganized. This was literally the first time in 8 days I was by myself for more than 5 minutes and I reveled in it. I used part of it to try to get a bit cleaner than I had been during the working days. It was also nice and quiet.

The gang came back, we rehearsed for the meeting and got ready for dinner and our last night on the island. There was quite a bit of tension concerning the meeting as we did not have a great gauge of community sentiment for the project. Would Ambrosio balk at handing over the donation or reimbursing us for the unused wood? Would they really put the filters to use? Tough call.

Perhaps not surprisingly, our concerns were unfounded. The meeting went very well;everyone was jovial and in good spirits. The financial issues resolved themselves as they had been agreed to and we were made to understand that there was goodwill in the community toward us and the community looked forward to future work and our return. Not bad. Dinner was the customary rice and beans and fish. I actually got a body this time. We headed back and settled in for the night. It was quite hot and still and Tom (who had replaced Scott as my roommate) and I talked well into the night.

Tuesday morning came and we met our counterparts at the rancho for the last time. Money changed hands, we admired all of our hard work, took final photos, shook hands, hugged and went our separate ways. All except Ramon, Kyle and Me. In one of the most touching gestures of the entire trip, Ramon asked us to come with him to the back part of the village to meet his mother. We walked toward a back part of the village, stood in front of her porch and Ramon called out to her. She is quite elderly and moved slowly but she eventually emerged to see why her son was pestering her. Ramon simply explained who we were and what we had been doing there. She acknowledged us and we exchanged brief pleasantries. I mean, what do you say in circumstance like this? "How's the weather been?" What do you think about the Yankees chances this year?" Anyways, we said goodbye to her and headed back. I explained to Kyle that this was a pretty big honor and showed how high a regard Ramon held for us - family is amazingly important in their culture. We started gathering up our gear and schlepping it down to the dock to await the boat that would take us back home. We were all ready.

As always, Mike helped me haul my heavy bag - God bless him. Once again, Ramon met us and waited patiently at the dock with us. After what was, without doubt, the longest 30 minutes of our journey, the buzz of the boat motor could be heard on the water, screened from our view by the mangroves. And then, it was there, heading for the dock.

Ramon helped us pile our gear into the bow, the team hopped down into the boat, I gave my friend a last embrace and climbed down to join them. We were going home.

Of course, once we were out on the water, it clouded over and started to pour, just like on the way in. But this time it was different. We covered the gear and bags with sheets of plastic, mainly so the moisture wouldn't increase their weight, but the rain didn't bother us. It wasn't as cold and we weren't exhausted. We had done we had set out today and things were good. It's just that feeling you get. You can see it in our faces.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The People

At the end of the day, a project is not much more than the sum of the people involved. The ones for whom the work was intended and the ones who did the work. In some cases one person was both/ Here are photos of them.

AMBER - aka "Mami Chullo"

ANNA - aka "Miss Vermont"

JESSE - The Guy Who Made It Happen

KYLE - Can Build Anything

MIKE - Maryland Boy and the Next to Lead Project

TOM - Jersey Boy and the Guy Who Got Us There and Back

AMBROSIO - President of Water Project

DANIEL - President of School Project

RAMON - "Go To Guy" Extraordinare

REMILLO - The Quiet One

OLIVER - The Wiseguy

Sunrise in Belize - Have a Groovy Day Everyone - Get Out There and Make a Dream Happen!

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Golden Spike (alternate title, 'The First Shall Be Last')

Those of us who recall their American history know that the transcontinental railroad was completed when the Central Pacific Railroad met up with the Union Pacific Railroad at Promontory Point, Utah on May 10th, 1869 with the ceremonial driving of the golden spike (this, of course, was quickly removed and replaced with a regular iron one). Our Golden Spike was the completion of the 'First Flush' systems on each of the tanks. I'll try to keep this brief. One of the crucial elements that separates our system from rainwater catchment systems currently used on the island is the 'First Flush': When rain falls, the first several minutes wash over he dry surface of the roof picking up any debris that is present on the roof (such as dust, leaves, bird droppings) and delivering into a storage tank (recall the photo of the woman drawing a dipper of water from the drum beneath a downspout). Obviously a serious source of contamination as well as a source of nutrient for any bacteria already there. The First Flush system captures the first few gallons of runoff and diverts it into a separate waste pipe; once that pipe is full incoming water flows through a Y pipe into a side pipe into the main tank, separating the first few gallons of dirty water from the remaining clean water. This is all best illustrated in the photos below.

In the top photo the system is partly in place - one can see the S-bend coming off the roof connecting to the (unfinished limb of the) Y branch then dropping into the vertical drain pipe. At the bottom, there is a 90 degree elbow and the pipe then runs horizontally (with a slight downward slope) for an additional 10 feet (seen best in the bottom photo). All of this length is necessary to create water storage for the 'first flush' effect. Note the homemade ladder in the middle and lower photos.

This is pretty much basic plumbing, but there is one little tricky point here. Clean water from each rain event runs into the main tank. once the first flush storage pipes are full. If the storage pipe remains full (undrained) when the next rain event takes place, the new dirty water will simply spill into the clean tank making the whole thing useless. So what's the point, you ask? Well, there needs to be a mechanism to drain that pipe between each significant rainfall. The simplest would be to have a person open a valve at the lowest point of the pipe, allow the water to empty, then close the valve. This, however, relies upon consistent human effort. Sort of like me hoping my kids feed the cat while I am away (which is, incidentally, the motivating factor in the automated cat food dispense that I am working on with Leah's housemate Mitch). No, this needs to be automated somehow, but that is not as easy as one might think. The simplest method is to drill a hole at the end of the horizontal fallout pipe which allows water to escape, albeit more slowly than it flows in. Sizing this hole is based upon a series of volumetric flow equations well established in hydraulics, but which no one bothered to do prior to implementation. Oops.

Well, one can learn alot from trial-and-error. We first tested the system by drilling a pair of 3/8" holes then pouring about 15 gallons of water down the standpipe (remember folks, no running water here so running those 15 gallons meant hauling 4 buckets up the ladder and tilting them over our heads to pur it into the pipe. You try it.). What we learned was that those two holes drained that pipe like a toilet flushing. Whoosh. Understand that while the pipe absolutely needs to drain between each rain event, if it drains to fast, it will never reach the top of the Y pipe and will never add water into the tank. It's got to drain the pipe but neither too slowly nor too quickly.

So now we have another problem. Our drain pipe now has two huge honking holes in it and we can't just run up to Lowes to buy a new piece. So we caulked the whole and wrapped them with duck tape and rethought our strategy. This time we would start with the smallest bit we had and work up, if need be. We drilled one hole with a 1/16" bit then repeated the fill-it-up test (yes, another 15 gallons up the ladder. This time we got a reasonable modest flow that would slow as the level in the vertical pipe fell.

The last remaining tasks were the installation of the spigots, pouring a pair of small concrete pads under the spigots, and hanging the corrugated zinc sides. And with that, the construction part of this project was finished. Given a 5 working day schedule, we finished in 4 & 1/2 days or 10% ahead of schedule. I believe my crew is entitled to a performance bonus.