The only thing we planned before leaving Florida was to participate in a clean water project through an organization called Free the Children. Three of Ben’s friends were down here working on the project and we were lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to volunteer with them.
The project took place in an indigenous community high in the Andes Mountains, called Gulaghuayco, where about 400 people have been living without running water. Two years ago everyone had running water to their homes from a mountain spring a few hundred feet higher in the Andes, but when the government built a road nearby it crushed some of their water pipes. Within a day they lost access to clean water and from then on were forced to walk one hour to an unsanitary stream for water. For two years the government promised to fix the pipes, but never fulfilled their promise. As a result, these people drank less water, were unable to keep clean and their children developed skin issues because of the bacteria in the stream. Over the past year, Ben and his friends raised 90% of the funds needed to build a new water system for Gulaghuayco and were fortunate enough to participate in the project first-hand.
It took 3 days of digging, laying pipe, and managing a few mishaps along the way, but we successfully filtered water from the springs to a holding tank and finally to a water taps outside their homes. As soon as the valve from the holding tank to the community was opened, we all rushed down the hill to test out the first tap, hopeful that it would work. We all gathered outside one of the community member’s home as she turned on her tap. Clear, clean water came bursting out and everyone began clapping and celebrating together. It was such an awesome moment!
Another highlight for me was getting to know some of the girls my age in the community. We mostly talked along the trench in between digging the trench. Sometimes I had a translator and other times my butchered Spanish was the only thing that kept the conversation going.
Everything about these 3 days was completely new to us. I’d never seen a way of life that so sharply contrasted mine. When I first arrived, I didn’t understand how Gulaghuayco functioned exactly, but we left having a much better understanding and respect for the community.
These are by far the hardest working people Ben and I have ever encountered. They spend their lives almost completely outside. And during the winter months that means farming, cooking, washing their clothes, showering and everything else involved in daily life, on a hillside in the cold, windy weather. They are so exposed most the children have wind-burn on their faces. They face more obstacles than most in the country. And through all of it they never seem upset, they don’t complain, and are always smiling and joking around with one another. The past few days were so meaningful and we feel so lucky to have been a part of this.
The 3 days are described in detail below…
On the first day we arrived in Gulaghuayco at 9am to about 200 community members both male and female ready to work. Everyone seemed so excited. First we went to the water source, which were a few springs that had been tapped on a hillside. On the drive up to the water source, I saw a deep trench about 1.2 miles that these people build in only 4 days. Which is incredible. At the water source the engineer and his team started getting the pipes assembled and the rest of us started the last bit of digging. The president of the Gulaghuayco was working the hardest on digging the trench. Everyone in the community seemed to know their role and with little dialogue between them, everyone assimilated into the project effortlessly.
I stood around for about 10 minutes, not really sure what to do. When it dawned on me that no one was going to hold my hand and walk me through, this I grabbed a shovel, jumped into the trench and started digging. After about an hour the altitude was really starting to hit me. We were 11,000 feet above sea level, way farther up than I’d ever been before. About an hour later, I found myself at the beginning of the digging line with a few young Gulaghuaycan girls. At a break one of the struck up a conversation with in Spanish and after seeing my willingness to converse with her, 4 or 5 others quickly came to sit next to me. They wanted to know my name, my age, where I was from, was I married, and what my home was like. My spanish is still horrible and some of them only spoke Quechua, so conversation was slow and simple. They had all intimidated me a little when I first arrived, but after that I felt so comfortable around them.
After lunch I really needed a break so I went with Ian to the community school to help the women prepare a meal for all of us tonight. I peeled beans “avas” until my hands were raw. Everyone came back from the digging not long after. They had made so much progress on laying the pipes but were going to finish tomorrow. The main course for the evening was “qui” which I quickly found out is guinea pig. I watched as three women held up sweet, adorable white guinea pigs, cracked the neck, removed the eyes and removed the fur…with their bare hands. At dinner about 40-50 community members gathered in the dining hall of the school. The qui, lava beans, corn and potatoes were served in giant bowls on a table in the middle on the room. After the president of the community said a blessing everyone dug in, all eating out of the same bowls. I tried a little piece of qui Ben grabbed. I was able to get the bite down but it didn’t leave me wanting another bite.
As I looked around at what was a standard meal for many people living in the Andes, I understood why they are malnourished. Mainly consisting of empty carbs like beans and potatoes and occasionally a little qui, there is little nutritional value on a daily basis. The food was gone in minutes. After playing with the kids and thanking Maria, the cook we left for our hostel in Alausi.
The next day our objective was the lay the pipes through a deep, wide valley. Kelli (from Free the Children) and I found ourselves talking to a few Gulaghuaycan girls along the trench. Ian, the head of Free the Children in Ecuador, translated for the conversation. I asked the average age they marry and one of the girls said 18. They would marry someone in their community or nearby community after a brief 2 week to one month courtship. They will start having babies soon after. They all expressed surprise when we told them some women don’t marry until their 30s or 40s. When we told them we liked their bright clothing they asked if we wanted to take some with us as a gift. We said yes, of course and I immediately tried to think of what I could give them. Their clothes are colorful, and I figured they would probably hate the mostly dark colored wardrobe I packed down here.
A mishap in the pipe laying process occurred at the bottom of the valley. It started raining which caused water from a nearby spring to flood the trench. Muddy water came pouring down the valley like a waterfall. The well shaped trench suddenly became a thick, shapeless mud-luge. This happened at a time when it was bitterly cold and raining, but not one person seemed upset. Everyone kept joking and making light of the situation. With no other choice but to re-dig the mud out, a few people grabbed shovels including Ben.
It took about an hour, but after the mud was removed from the trench, it was back to glueing and laying the pipe. When the last pipe was laid into a holding tank at the top of the valley. A few people went to the back to the spring to turn on the tap and the rest of us stood on the holding tank to wait for water to show up. We all waited anxiously, staring into the tank, wondering if the pipes would hold and the water would come.
It was starting to get dark. And after hearing for a couple problems with a burst pipe, Ben, John and I decided to walk to the van while there was a little bit of light left. After about an hour we heard their celebrations. We listened in the dark as the the community celebrated their tank filling with water after two years. The true test would be if the tank continued to fill and it once the valve from the tank to their homes would work.
The next morning we arrived at 8am. The community members had already fixed a few more problems with the pipes and when we hiked to the tank, it was about half full. Most of the community gathered around to watch the Project Leader open the valve from the holding tank to the community. Then we all rushed down to the village to test out the first tap. We all stood outside one woman’s home as she opened the tap. Clear, clean water came bursting out. The president of the community thanked us for everything and we hugged and shook hands with everyone.
We tested out a few more taps, but not all were working. Some taps were clogged from dis-use and others needed new pipes, but the hard work done. They would no longer have to walk an hour to the dirty stream. After experiencing how hard these people work, I’m sure they will have everyone’s taps working within a few weeks.