Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Report from Honduras

Spoke with Ryan on the phone this afternoon. He has enrolled in a language school that meets weekdays in La Ceiba. He is living with a new family associated with the school and feels very welcome there. He sounds happy. This weekend he is taking a boat over to the Cochinos Islands, a cluster of islands off the north coast that are smaller and closer and more rustic than Roatan. He's going with a friend from the language school and sounded like he was looking forward to the adventure.

He said the mood in Honduras is peaceful, and that the desire for peace is the overwhelming public opinion. He referred me to a good article by the Miami Herald that describes the legal issues involved, and has commentary by the leading Honduran military lawyer. In short, it says that they did break the letter of the law in the sense that they denied Zelaya due process, but that the circumstances justified the actions to the extent that there will be "justification and cause for acquittal that will protect us."

One more bit of news about Honduras: I was contacted by a reporter from the Waco Tribune-Herald about it. Apparently, some folks from Waco are having a bit of trouble getting out of the country, and he wanted to know if Ryan was too. This morning, there was the story on the front page. Here's a link to the online version.

It seems that Zelaya may to return to Honduras this weekend. It quiet the international community he did return but was arrested and tried for his crimes. That might take away any argument his side may have claiming foul-play, but, unfortunately, it may result in some people getting killed if violence ensues. Why don't you call Secratary Clinton and tell her this is a bad idea:

State Department Comment Line: 202-647-6575

Monday, June 29, 2009

Honduras' Actions Legal and in Defense of Democracy

This is the best article I have read concerning what is going on in Honduras: The Wall Street Journal, Honduras Defends its Democracy. It explains, quite clearly, that the action taken to remove Mr. Zelaya from office was within the bounds of their laws. The action taken last Sunday by Honduras was not a coup, but was a legal police action done to protect, not attack, Honduran democracy!

So why is Hilary Clinton pressuring Honduras to restore their ousted president, "Mel" Zelaya, along side Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez, and Daniel Ortega?! This is outrageous! The Obama administration should apologize to the people and government of Honduras for jumping to conclusions and taking their lead from Chávez. But it seems they are more interested in kissing up with Latin American dictators and socialists.

[The US should help support, not attack, Honduran efforts to uphold democracy. Get it? The pipe is like democracy...]

OK. Deep breath. The M just came in and we chatted a while. She sensed that I was stirred up and asked me about the source of it. As I paused in a moment of self-reflection, investigating the source of my own emotions, I realized my agitation was coming from what is going on in Honduras. I am feeling defensive of my brothers and friends there. Even though the Honduran folks who run in my circles have no direct influence on these events, I still feel a certain defensiveness for the country as a whole. They are being bullied. And to make matters worse, one of the biggest bullies is my own government! Hillary and Obama embarrass me as an American. That's how I feel: embarrassed and defensive.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Breaking News from Honduras

"All well, in jutiapa on way to ceiba. Will see how things go. Dont' have any battery on my phone so will have to call you later. Ryan"

This was the text message response I got on my phone a few minutes ago. I saw the news of the coup after church with my family on the TV at Jason's Deli. I immediately texted Ryan and Sergio to contact me as soon as possible. I know they were returning from Pueblo Nuevo where they had been working on the electrical grid there. They have been there since Wednesday. For all I knew, they may not even be aware yet.

Here is the story as I understand it:
Leftist president "Mel" Zelaya was awakened by gunfire in his home this morning as the Honduran Army took him and put him on a plane to Costa Rica, kicking him out of the country. Zelaya is a controversial president and had been seeking a referendum to change the constitution to allow him to run for another term of office. His term is up in January 2010.

The Honduran supreme court ruled the referendum illegal, and the top military commander, General Vasquez, told President Zelaya that he would not support this referendum. So Wednesday, Zelaya said he would fire Vasquez. It would seem that Vasquez did not accept this...

What does this mean for our friends in Honduras and for our work there? Does Ryan need to leave the country right now? He planned to be there another month. What long-term effects might this have on us? Will the sources of funding we are seeking decide that Honduras is too unstable and pull the plug on us? Please share your thoughts.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Entrepreneurial Fun in the Sun

Are you kidding me with this heat? Is this Al Gore's fault? Every day for the last seven days it has been over 100 degrees here in central Texas. Take a look at the map below. See the place that's about to burst into flames? That's my house.
To help the kids (and the grass) deal with the heat, I considered a moment from my own past. When I was a kid I decided to go buy some PVC pipe and build my own fountains in the back yard. So the other day I packed the boys in the van (with the new AC!) and we went to Home Depot to buy some pipes. To the untrained eye, they look like plumbing supply, but to those who have been enlightened, they are art supplies!

Here is the sculpture we call "The Scorpion". We build the pipes into the configuration that we imagine, then hook up the water hose and it becomes a fountain! The boys, especially Jono, played with it for hours. He rebuilt it over and over again like Legos crossed with a water gun. David and I brainstormed about how to start a business selling kits of PVC, including our special secret modifications, to other kids in the neighborhood. Entrepreneurs in training!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The M Turns 40

This week the wife of my youth turned 40 and she celebrated by doing something she has wanted to do for a few years: get her nose pierced. Her friend Leslie and I took her to our normal tattoo parlor (!) and twenty minutes later she was walking out - a bit more hip, though troubled by the unshakable feeling of having an expensive metal booger.

X marks the spot.
Leslie, a.k.a. Lala, was there for sympathetic hand holding and third earring hole of her own. They tried to get me to pierce my ears, but I chickened out. It wasn't the pain I feared, but the absence of peer group support, that gave me cold feet.

We all like it! It's very much her style and looks cute and trendy. As for me, I'm gettin' a Harley.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Sergio's Woes

Sergio, our Honduran taxi driver, electrician, translator, and amateur philosopher, had an accident with another taxi in La Ceiba. Everyone is fine, but his car is pretty smashed. He could not locate his registration after the accident, which meant he got locked up in jail for half a day or so. Sheesh.

Ryan is with him now at the police station. Soon they will get his car assessed to see if it is repairable. I don't know if he has insurance or not, but I know he makes his living with that taxi, and he was going to pay it off within a few months. I'm sure this is a very stressful time for him.

Please pray for his peace, that his car can be repaired economically, and for provision for his family. He has a wife and two kindergarten-age kids. He doesn't know I am posting this, but if you would like to help him repair his taxi and/or put food on his table, send me an email. I can help you help him. Maybe this is a time for the global church to support one of its own.

This is a photo of Sergio helping us install electric lights in the church in Pueblo Nuevo in 2007.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Town Meetings

The first week we were in Honduras, we had a "town meeting" in both the villages where we are working. They were informational meetings with just a hint of drama. Let me explain.

This is the outside view of the church in Danta Uno where we held our meeting. Our electricity provided the lights, which I love to see. We had about 30 people in attendance.

This photo is from the other village, Pueblo Nuevo, where we met at the school instead. I think there were even more people at this meeting, though I did not attend it. If you look carefully, you can see the kids standing outside the screen "windows" trying to see what all the crazy gringos are doing.

Here is the drama part: as the people came in, there were no electric lights being used. There were only two kerosene-burning "candils" that gave off only a little light, and were slowly filling the school with fumes and smoke.

Then, after everyone arrived, they began the meeting by turning on a single light bulb, which dramatically outshone the two candils. Yea for electricity. Then we began to describe how they might get electricity in their homes and how much it was going to cost.

Sergio and Ryan explained how the light bulbs and current limiters worked, and the pricing options.

I like this photo because it shows how brightly everyone is lit. None of these pictures was taken with a flash. Also, in this shot you can see the fan we put out in the middle of the isle to blow on people. This is what they call "marketing".

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Futbol Night at Adolfo's House

I spent a lot of time talking to Ryan on the phone today. He was in Danta Uno doing some work, and I was coordinating a three-way call with the manufacturer of some of our equipment (the inverter). We got everything more or less working, but then we decided to try one more experiment and... we blew up the dump load controller, again. Woops.

As a result, Ryan spent the afternoon removing it so he could take it into La Ceiba for repair (hopefully). But he lost track of time and missed the last bus back to La Ceiba! He walked out to the road and back, which is a respectable distance, especially with a blown up dump load controller in his backpack. He is staying the night with Adolfo, the operator of the Danta Uno Pulpería, a small general store.
This is Adolfo's house, and the Pulperia illuminated by our electricity in the evening. When Ryan arrived the power was on and Adolfo and his family were watching their TV. There is only one channel they can receive out there. Tonight was soccer night, and Honduras was playing El Salvador! This, in and of itself, would have been exciting enough, but then people from other houses started coming over to watch the game. (How did they know it was going to be on?) He and I have been texting all evening about it. At one point there were nine people there, including Adolfo's baby. It sounded like a lot of fun to me. Honduras won, 1-0. Gooooooaaaaaaaall!

When I think about bringing the capability to watch television to people in rural villages, I have to cringe a little. I feel like I am, potentially, opening a door to a toxic culture that could pollute or poison them, in a way. As a conscientious company, we plan to address this potential problem through some proactive teaching coordinated with the church, but I still have concerns about the materialism and sensuality that these people could be exposed to, even if only the rich can afford a television.

But tonight I heard a different story. Tonight I heard about a community coming together around their team, to enjoy some fellowship, some camaraderie, some rivalry. Tonight there was an oasis of entertainment in a life heavy on hard work and difficulty. I'm glad Ryan missed his bus.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Shakin' Bacon

May 28, 2:24 AM
I am awakened by noise and the shaking of my bed. My first thought is my hotel room is on the bumpy road to the village. Then in sudden awareness, I said to my roomies, "Guys, I think we're having an earthquake." I was not so much warning them as I was wanting to make sure they didn't miss the action. It would be a shame to sleep through it. Heck, it was my first earthquake ever.

In perhaps five more seconds it was over. The power went out for a second or two, then the hotel's generator kicked in and the power was back. I got up and went outside to check on everything and everyone. First I went to the cabin we affectionately called "the ladies room". All five (by that time, only four) of our girls stayed in Cabin 1. They had a private bedroom and a kitchenette and living area, not to mention the best AC in the entire hotel, so we had a lot of meetings there. ("We'll meet in five minutes in the ladies room. Chuckle chuckle.") I stood quietly outside their door listening for talking and looking for lights, but it was quiet and dark, so I assumed they slept through it. (I found out later they were awake and sleepless for hours afterward!)

I met the hotel owners, Helen and her husband, in the open air restaurant, and soon Ryan and a couple of the guys came out with us. Ryan's room was on the second floor, above the restaurant, and they had felt it swaying. I went to the beach, but it was quiet. That's when I had my first thought about tsunamis. Our rooms were within shouting distance of the water.

There didn't seem to be any damage to anyone or anything at the hotel, not even broken dishes or pictures fallen off the walls, so I went back to sleep. In the back of my mind, as I dozed, I formed a vague emergency plan to evacuate the students to higher ground should there be signs of a tsunami, like... a tsunami.

In the morning I called The M to have her check the news to find out where the epicenter was, and how strong it was. It was north of Roatan, approximately 69 miles NNE of us with a magnitude of 7.1! No wonder we felt it! In a burst of cleverness, I called Becky, the head of University Missions and told her what happened and that we were all OK. I figured she might be getting some calls from worried parents. But my cleverness was used up for the morning, and I forgot to call my own mother, who heard about it on the news and was quite worried - until she called Becky's people herself. Sorry Mom!

There was an actual tsunami warning (I didn't even know they issued tsunami warnings!) the next day, but it was cancelled by mid morning. Teresa, one of our team who had to leave early, kept me informed via text messaging from the US as she watched CNN.

Curiously, we found that while folks from the city, such as Sergio and ourselves, were very excited about the "tiera moto" the next day, when we got to the village the people were rather indifferent. I imagine they thought "I built my houses, if it falls down, I'll fix it" only in Spanish. They don't care when the power goes out... wait, there is no power.

Later we found out that there was a lot of damage in the city San Pedro Sula, even though it was farther from the epicenter. Chalk it up to differences in soil or something. I don't know, ask someone who remembers geophysics. A bridge was destroyed in a town west of La Ceiba called El Progresso. I guess they won't be progresso-ing at quite the same pace now. The bridge is made of two parts, an old one (which collapsed) and a new part made by the Japanese government which, curiously, builds a lot of bridges in Honduras for reasons unknown to me.

Since the big one, there have been lots of little aftershocks and tremors. I don't really know what the difference is between an aftershock and a tremor, despite that graduate-level course in geophysics I had to take. Perhaps an aftershock is what happens when you're working on the power lines after they turn the power back on. Then a tremor happens as you realize your close encouter with death. Hypothetically speaking.

Anyway, earthquakes with magnitude greater than 4.5 are recorded on the US Geological Survey's website, and I have been watching them. There have been several subsequent earthquakes, and there was another large one yesterday off the coast near La Ceiba. There have also been several in the vicinity of the villages where we work.

I did a little reading about earthquakes on Wikipedia (SOAK) not because I couldn't remember my geophysics class, but because... because... ok, I couldn't remember. I did recall that an earthquake with magnitude 7.0 has ten times the vibrational amplitude as one with a 6.0. But what I found really interesting was the energy released by earthquakes!

An earthquake with magnitude 7.1 releases the energy of 50 million tons of TNT!! That is on par with the largest nuclear weapon ever tested! It was almost double the energy of 1989 San Fransisco earthquake, the Loma Prieta. There are only about 18 earthquakes, annually, that fall into the 7.0-7.9 range, over the whole world! Who would want to sleep through that?

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Random Interactions with the Locals

This little guy had to crawl up on my hood to wash my windows at the gas station. He didn't do a very good job, but I cut him some slack because I imagined the hood was rather warm!

This is Blaine with Mr. Gomez, Sergio, and Adolfo (clockwise from 3 PM). Mr. Gomez and Adolfo are tasked with promoting the use of electricity in the villages for income-earning activities. They are entrepreneurs in their own right. Mr. Gomez has a fish farm and Adolfo has a general store. Sergio was there to learn about business principles and translate.

This is my favorite lady in Danta Uno. She is one of the oldest around, and she knows my name. She has lots of flowers in her yard, including bougainvilleas. She has the high cheek bones of the Mayan blood line, and I like to imagine that she is exotic like that.

I caught this one of Liz with the school girls. She was asking them about their classes and their studies and encouraging them to work hard in school. I imagine that a Spanish-speaking, female college student is a bit of a role model for them.

Boys of Summer

Summer has arrived. School is out and my sons are loving it. We bought some new books at Books-A-Million yesterday, and we are all enjoying them. Today Jono got the pogo stick out of the garage and jumped around in the sprinklers in the back yard. He had on cut offs and no shirt. If that's not summer, I don't know what is.

I wish the quality of this photo was better, but i took it with my phone in low light, so I guess I should be glad it came out at all.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Be The Burger

Central Texas never seemed so cool in June before. I was out today in my car without air conditioning, and it was in the lower 90's, and I thought it was nuthin'. Bring it on. My last two weeks in May were spent in Honduras. It seemed hotter than normal this year, which could be because I usually go in the June-August time frame, after the rains have started. This year it only rained one day during the two weeks we were there. This made the roads easier, but the heat was way up.

In fact, it reminded me of my trips to Venus. OK, not really. When I put on sunscreen, it smoked. OK, not really. But in truth, I lost 13 pounds in 14 days, and I think I sweat it off. You know how hamburgers on the grill get smaller after the fat melts off? That was me. Well done.

In the picture below you can see that my shirt was soaked and sticking to me like I had been in the rain or something. I think I drank over 4 liters of water that day.

The day I took this picture I was walking around the village, Pueblo Nuevo, with a map we created. The map showed where all the power lines are supposed to go, but the map didn't have all the roads and foot paths shown on it. So I was walking around sketching the roads and foot paths when these two boys, Darwin and Jami (pronounced Hi-me) joined me. They started chatting to me in Spanish, seemingly unaware of my inability to speak much of it. Surprisingly, I could understand much of what they said.

Perhaps it is because their vocabulary is simpler than the adults', or perhaps they speak slower and clearer, but I could follow these boys pretty well. We had deep, meaningful discussions about how old they were and how many brothers and sisters they had. I would ask them who lives in that house, or which path do we take to get to that house. They were so glad to help me - I think it made them feel important.

Isn't this just like all of us? God is doing the work, but we get to follow him around and take part. It makes us feel important, but it's really him doing the work. Except I don't know if God sweats.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

More Quakes in Honduras

I got a text from Ryan that he and Sergio are in Pueblo Nuevo spending the night. There have been more earthquakes today, so I went to the USGS website and started investigating. They are very close to the villages; the closest one is less than 11 miles away from Danta Uno. It was a 5.0 that occurred this Tuesday. There was a 4.3 and a 4.8 today, also nearby! More news as it shakes out...
Sergio said his family did not feel it in La Ceiba.

Whitewater on the Rio Cangrejal (Crab River)

Our friends at the Jungle River Lodge did not disappoint this year. They began their rafting experience with a 30 foot jump off a rock into the river! Nine of our team had a fine time on a world-famous whitewater rafting river. They said the experience created significant team bonding, which made me wish I had done it with them.
Left to right is Eduardo, Matt, Brian Diana, Juan, Liz, Lisa, David, and Aimie. Ryan, Teresa and I opted out and ran errands. A little boring by comparison, but they needed to be done.

Here is the view from 13 miles up. My errands, obviously, were at high altitude.
The squiggly line in the middle is the Rio Cangrejal!

A Man Named Melvin

Melvin is deaf and lives in a world where it is extra hard to have such a disability. However, he seems genuinely happy, as evidenced by his wide and enthusiastic smile and frequent laughter.

He lives with his wife and four daughters in Danta Uno, Honduras. We visited them during the day where the mother shared with us her concerns that Melvin has a difficult time getting work because of his deafness. Ironically, Melvin was working for us at the time and was amazing the students with his strength and endurance. He was outlasting the meat-eating college students who were, themselves, working very hard. (They moved about 20,000 pounds of rocks in two weeks.)

Melvin worked intelligently too, and contributed several good ideas to the construction of the water intake system of the pico hydroelectric generator. For those that did not speak Spanish, Melvin was actually easier to communicate with than the other village men, because he was used to communicating with hand signals. He was soon everybody's favorite.

Blaine brought a few little toys to give away to the youngest children. Melvin's youngest daughter was cautious in her approach to this gringo grande, perhaps a bit scary because he is taller than anyone else in the village, but the lure of plasticy shiny things overcame her fears. In that way we are all alike, I suppose.

Do you see the edge of her smile?! I caught it just as she put on her little bracelet. Please feel free to lavishly praise my skills as a photographer.

Later in the week, we revisited Melvin's family (and several visiting friends) under the light of our electricity. It was deeply rewarding to be in his home at night when the lights were on. Only a year ago this room would have been illuminated by kerosene-burning "candils" that belch soot and give only a fraction of the light for a similar costs to our electricity.

Times like these enable me to "not grow weary in doing good", despite the days of unbelievable heat and humidity, despite 20,000 pounds of rocks, or days of frustration when nothing works right, or having six flat tires on two vehicles in two weeks. This gringo grande feels satisfied. I, like Melvin, am happy.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Of Hammocks and Fluid Mechanics

"It's an act of worship for me. I have been given a specific skill set for engineering work and while I'm not the type of person who can get up in front of a church group and play music, I can sit behind a desk and do calculations. Hopefully, I can bring glory to God that way."
-Ryan McGhee 2007

The first day or two after arriving at the Villa Helen's hotel, we had some design work and calculations to perform. Lisa, Eduardo, and Teresa were fresh out of a class called Fluid Mechanics, which studies the flow of fluids like water and air. They enthusiastically tackled a pipe flow calculation and were somewhat excited to break out their calculators! Engineers!

I don't know what Eduardo is frowning about here. Maybe he was reviewing the week's plans and saw that he was scheduled for food poisoning one day. Or maybe it was the slow Internet.

Ryan and Diana working on a budget tracking system. We blasted through over $20,000 in two weeks. Any undocumented purchases come out of my pocket, so I recruited Diana to be our team accountant. She kept track of everything and gave me real-time reports on how much money we had spent and on what things. This was wonderfully helpful and allowed me to focus more on other aspects of the project.

Liz and Juan were the only Electrical Engineers besides myself. Everyone else was Mechanical Engineering (except Diana who is Biomedical). So Juan and Liz spent a lot of time designing the electrical distribution grid we are deploying in Pueblo Nuevo. They had to make sure we used enough cable to make sure each home had adequate voltage, but do so with while minimizing the costs and lengths of the cables. This type of balancing act between competing, limited resources, is a typical engineering task.

David was watching and learning in this picture, but often, Juan and Liz were working together by themselves. We started calling them Juan and Two. Get it?

Galaxy Wave

The adventure began fifteen days ago: Sunday, May 17th. My team of 10 engineering students flew from Houston to the island of Roatan, Honduras. We expected the unexpected, were preconditioned to be flexible with plans and schedules, but were still surprised when the Roatan earthquake hit 11 days later! But I am getting ahead of myself. That's another post.

Arriving in Roatan, we took the ferry known as the Galaxy Wave for the two-hour trip across the Caribbean to the coastal city of La Ceiba, Honduras. Our mission: to launch a new village-level electricity company in a remote rural village, and to repair a pico hydroelectric system installed last year in another village.

This is the discount ferry, Reina Rusto. We went ahead and splurged on the Galaxy Wave instead, on account of it having air conditioning and life boats, in that order.

Dramamine was available free of charge but the ride was pretty smooth and no one got sea sick... at least on the journey in. On the journey out we had rougher seas and several queasy engineers.

The Caribbean is blue and beautiful here. In the distance is the island of Roatan slowly sinking over the horizon.

Lisa came back for a second trip, a veteran from last year with an unshakably good attitude. Here she is enjoying the sea breezes and trying to stay cool in the intense Central American sun. The air conditioned seats filled up before she could get one, so she had to ride on deck.

Two weeks later on the return voyage, however, Lisa did not fare well in the rough seas. I was talking to a friend when Diana came to tell me Lisa was feeling bad. I jumped up to check on her, and when I first saw her she was a pale green color, almost like in cartoons, and was obviously feeling terrible. We went outside and got her a 7up, but the drink and sea breezes were not enough, and she lost her breakfast. Poor thing. I tried to help her by keeping her hair out of it and saying encouraging things. She was a trooper, actually. I would have been crying and/or fainting for sure. The wind sent her breakfast flying and we were both kind of messy by the time she was finished. But I could tell she felt better just from her countenance. I was almost as relieved as she was.

Having your student throw up on you might not sound like a normal part of being a professor, and maybe it isn't. But to tell you the truth, I didn't mind at all. The whole event evoked strong paternal emotions in me, and I felt like I was with one of my own children. I would have done just about anything for her at that time. I love my job.