On Wednesday morning, we traveled from Marcala to Gracias. La Esperanza, or Hope, is a small town between Marcala and Gracias where we stopped for a quick break and stretch. Stepping out of the vans and into town was immediately awe-inspiring. The main square in La Esperanza is paved with stones and has 100 foot trees surrounded by seating, flowers, and people chatting. At the very center of the square, there is a tall tree with a huge base, decorated with a dollhouse scale representation of the town. Street signs are made out of mosaics. Colorful murals of local animals and community members cover the walls. Small memorial artworks for Berta Cáceres, an environmental activist murdered last year for her work, are dotted around town. In a small café, local artwork and newspaper clippings cover the walls and the tables are decorated with mosaics. Steady breeze and a view of the second tallest mountain in Honduras grace the town.
We made our way to a small religious shrine carved in the side of a hill on the edge of town. The shrine, at the end of a road, is about 30 feet above street level and required walking up many steps. The steps, too, were carved out of stone. Heavy use and thousands of feet have left the steps irregular, with great depressions and slopes. Some steps are completely smoothed from use and weathering, leaving slick, unclimbable rock. Navigating upwards, we made the steps a bit smoother, too. Above the shrine on the hill, small foot trails wind about and brought us higher above the town and into more wind. And standing up on the hill, looking over La Esperanza, hearing the rustling trees, breathing the air in deeply, I was overcome.
I am still not sure what I was overcome by, but it was some magical combination of peace, contentment, excitement, awe, happiness, and more. Finding magic in nature is nothing new for me, but there was something about that moment that was different from others.
I was in Hope, standing on a hill of Hope.
And that is not something that I do very often.
As a person in general, I often regulate my hopes and expectations to avoid disappointment. As a student of engineering in particular, I know that hope is not enough for the work that I do. I cannot hope that I prepared my samples correctly; I have to study, prepare, calculate, analyze, and then know that I did it right. I cannot hope that the sedimentation tank that I designed has the correct dimensions for the desired flow rate; again, I have to study, prepare, calculate, analyze, and then know that I did it right. And if I did not do it right, I have to go back to find and correct my mistake again and again. If I want small towns, villages, and cities to have clean drinking water and sustainable wastewater treatment, I can’t just sit here and hope that it be so. With those pressures, I find myself avoiding hope.
So why did my brief time in La Esperanza feel so good, why is it sticking with me, why was I so overcome? I think it’s because during this trip with AguaClara, I feel like I have been reintroduced to Hope. Like standoffish children, we’ve been forcibly put into the same room, sniffed each other, made tentative eye contact, shook hands, gave reserved smiles, and then decided that we’re alright. We might as well be friends. But how did that happen? How can I reconcile hope with engineering and the rest of my life?
Ah, I don’t really know, but I think it has something to do with the way that environmental engineering and AguaClara are. What I am learning is that the place for engineering is in between hope and reality. Engineering does not exclude hope, and vice versa. Engineering is the details, the MathCAD, the problem sets, the fluids, the biology, the chemistry, the physics, and everything else that is needed to plan, build, operate and manage. That work is what allows us to actually treat water and decrease the amount of water-borne illnesses, or treat wastewater, or provide renewable energy, or, or, or. Kike, a foreman with Agua Para el Pueblo, eloquently put, “to know well, there’s work and to do well, there’s work.” To do anything, there’s work. Work is the grinding, slow process of researching, prototyping, design reviewing that we learn and practice as engineers. It is the work that is sometimes fruitless and only produces something that “should work” instead of the sought after “did work.” It is the work that sometimes produces the fruitful “did work” but maybe “could work better.” It is the work that requires continuous learning and changing and improving, and sometimes breaking concrete to make something better. So work is good and great, and I think that I already knew that.
But I also know that work is hard a lot of times, and it’s really tiring other times, and can sometimes feel like a battle with me on the frontlines. It is me versus the concept, me versus the assignment, me versus the test. And that fight gets old quickly and then it just feels like a fight, and not meaningful work. Without a greater perspective and inspiration, the fight can be given up. So work is good and great, and I definitely already know that, but I am learning that work and engineering is not enough.
Because there wouldn’t ever be and can’t ever be engineering without hope. Hope is the fuel for work. We hope for clean water, safer families, more equitable societies, environmental protection and stewardship, justice. Engineering is necessitated by the hope for better, because that is just what engineering is: a piece of the path to better. After La Esperanza, we went to Gracias, or Thanks. In Gracias, the city is planning to build a 120 L/s drinking water treatment plant with Agua Para el Pueblo and AguaClara. In Gracias, thanks to both hope and work, a water treatment plant will be built for the betterment of everyone.
There are so many parts of this trip that I will remember. Walking into the first plant in Cuatro Comunidades was peaceful and inspiring. Seeing large flocs in the flocculator disappear by the top of the sedimentation tank was beautiful. Working on the 1 L/s plant assembly and then learning that it was delivering 0 NTU water after only a few days was exhilarating. Staying with a family in Las Vegas and sharing the universal language of love was emotional. Belly-laughing without restraint with my teammates after a long day of work was liberating. Seeing the mountains jutting towards the sky with narrow ridges, the fog lifting from the valleys, hammocks slung under even the smallest piece of shade, clothes hung out to dry in backyards of concrete homes, cows and horses tied to ropes that are attached to nothing, coffee farms and drying beans, red earthed stoneware, gardens overflowing with wildflowers, was breathtaking.
These moments will become the well from which I draw strength to fuel the hard work, early mornings, and late nights. Because now, I feel like I have hope with me. With AguaClara, Honduras, my teammates, my professors, my friends, my studies, my nature, I will work to keep hope with me.
Hope is engineering.
Engineering is love.
Hope is love (and I am loving hope).