Saturday, May 28, 2011

Mixed Emotions

Tomorrow is our last day in Honduras, and I have mixed emotions about it. In the last two weeks, we have accomplished much, and even finished our goals ahead of schedule. I have eaten lots of refried beans and plantains, and drank more than a few good cups of coffee.  I have enjoyed driving here, and listening to the students gasp at the Honduran driving styles and laugh out loud as they are tossed out of their seats on the bumpy roads.  Our team has bonded and drawn closer to each other and to God as we shared our life stories, prayed for each other, and worshiped with both our songs and designs. I don't want to "break up the party" by going home. I remember feeling this way at the end of summer camp as a kid. The extra-ordinary must again yield to the ordinary.  It's time to awaken from the dream. Can I press snooze?  And yet, at the same time, I miss my family. I miss reliable power and water, and I miss my own bed.  I even miss my dog.  So in another sense, I am ready to go.

I find that it is often the case that significant things (projects, relationships, or experiences) come with bitter sweetness.  Any married person will tell you that. Any parent will too. There is no perfect job or vacation.  But there are Good ones.  The genuine love for an imperfect family, or even a job, can be eternal and righteous anyway. On this trip to Honduras, I have gained the satisfaction of making our projects work; of keeping all the students alive and happy, in that order; of (perhaps just a little) inspiring them to think differently about how us nerdy engineers can do something of cosmic importance to build the very Kingdom of God; and I have made new friendships and strengthened others with half a dozen extremely talented students half my age and twice my IQ.

And yet, I find that it hurts a little. I know it will never be the same for this particular group. Even in reunions, it can never quite be recaptured. The life and community we have shared is like the sparkly stuff of fireworks: beautiful, yes, but short-lived. It is not insignificant, but it is ephemeral.


When I first started coming to Honduras, I would experience a very specific emotion at least once each trip.  I would find myself feeling like a pretender.  I would ask myself "What were you thinking? Who are you kidding to think you should even be here?"  I haven't felt that way in the last couple of years.  But instead a new tormenter has come. I have been feeling like a bad father and husband. Perhaps I have too much fun on these trips, and it seems wrong to ask my family to function without me while I go "play" for a while. It's hard on me when I know my family needs me, and there is nothing I can do about it because I am so far away.  At any rate, I can't seem to shake these darker emotions just under the surface when I am here.

Perhaps these are the "sufferings" in which we get to partake?  Paul said we get to share in the sufferings of Christ. Can't there be another way?  The tensions of family separation, of financial strain, of the heat and humidity and bugs and electricity blackouts and water shortages, and even the bitter sweet emotions of the end of a special trip - perhaps these are my share of His sufferings for now.  This knowledge helps it not to hurt so much.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Hermanos Y Hermanas

I find it remarkable that from time to time I meet brothers and sisters that I never knew I had.  Today was one of those days.  The Promise Home orphanage in Honduras where we have been working this week is also the meeting place of a new church in the community.  If the church has a name, I never quite got what it was.  Maybe it doesn't even have a name.  When I'm in Honduras I get used to not always knowing what's going on around me.  Who am I kiddng? I never know what's going on around me.

We went to both the morning and evening church services today.  There isn't a middle-of-the-afternoon service because the hymnals tend to burst into flames on account of it being so freakin' hot.  Of course, I'm kidding, they are way too poor to be able to afford hymnals.

The pastor was an intelligent, passionate, and kind man about my age. I liked him immediately.  Despite the language barrier between us, I felt that we were kindred spirits.  He was patient with me when I spoke, and reworded his own sentences when I couldn't understand something he said.  With him, he brought his wife, six of seven children, and a guitar which he played beautifully.

(the pastor warming up before the service)

As is the custom, I was invited to address the congregation.  I spoke without a translator (gulp) and told them (I think) that I taught in Texas, and that these others were my students, and that we had come to work on projects for Promise Home such as "hot water" and "electricity".  Then I told them that since we all had the same Father, that we were family.  They liked that part and said "amen" and other words I didn't know.  Perhaps they were just glad I was going to stop talking.

We sang some songs with melodies I recognized.  Soon we were singing the same songs in Spanish and English simultaneously.  It was another moment of connection despite the language barrier between us.  It was as if we were two prisoners, ears pressed to the cell wall, tapping out messages of hope with our crude implements; we established a significant relational link and the very thing that kept us apart had became a conduit for celebrating our unity.

(Aimie, the pastor, and his wife continued the connection after church. Aimie's voice often makes me cry, but I thought this time was particularly poignant.  After shooting this video I went off by myself to wipe my eyes and catch my breath.)

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Packing for Honduras

It's the eleventh hour, literally, and I am nearly ready for our trip to Honduras.  The day or two before one of my trips is always the hardest part for me.  It's hard to leave my wife and boys.  I'm even going to miss the cat I recently dropped $500 to repair at the vet.  That's like, 9,500 Honduran Lempiras.  It sounds even more expensive that way. Good old Henry the cat.  I thought about taking him with me, or perhaps Maggie the Cocker Spaniel.  But she would bark at people on the plane...

"Sir, you're going to need to control your animal.  This barking is unacceptable and in violation of TSA regulations."

"Sorry, she just has to go to the bathroom.  Can we open the door and let her out for a minute?"

"Sir, we're at an altitude of thirty thousand feet."

"If I could just hold her rear end out the door..."

Right now, tumbling in the drier, are the lightweight quick-dry clothes that I always take with me. They can get wet (from rain, rivers, and sweat) and dry overnight.  My routine is to wear them right into the shower, wash them with a bar of soap, hang them up on a bungee clothes line. They're ready to wear by morning.

On the kitchen counter are the following items, in no particular order:

1) knee high rubber boots, size 13
2) two tool bags with hand tools, a soldering iron, a volt meter, and a laser tachometer
3) a bottle of Benadryl for allergic reactions
4) doses of both Imodium and ex-lax: the ones and zeros of engineering trips abroad.  I can't pack them next to each other because they would cancel each other out, leaving only empty containers and the fear of untreatable gastrointestinal distress.
4) the following books: "When Helping Hurts", and "Solar Engineering of Thermal Processes"
5) several thermocouples and a temperature-measuring data logger with a USB connector (check it out)
6) a very worn out baseball cap that has accompanied me on ever trip I have taken since 2006

After I got back from Kenya in 2006, I refused to put my ball cap in the laundry; how could I wash Africa down the drain?  A few years later, however, working in the heat and humidity of Honduras, my sweat soaked through the cap and mixed with this Kenyan souvenir. The muddy stain was gross, so I abandoned sentimentality in favor of hygiene.

By now, it is nearly midnight. I have procrastinated packing another hour by writing this blog post.  I'm thinking about going to Wal-mart to buy some sunscreen and travel snacks.  I'm too excited to sleep.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

New Project in Honduras

In five days I leave for Honduras again.  Six engineering students and I will be at the Promise Home orphanage working on infrastructure projects.  This year we will be doing some electrical wiring for security lights as well as designing and testing a solar hot water heater.  They need a lot of hot water. An outrageous amount.

As part of their plan to be financially self-sustaining before they start taking in orphans, they have constructed several large concrete tanks in which to raise tilapia (the fish) to sell.  And it seems that the tilapia don't like cold water.  They grow much more slowly in cooler water.

"Hey mister, turn up the heat already. I'm freezin' in here!"

In fact, they grow about 10% slower for every 2 degrees F cooler than the optimal temperature, which is about 82 F.  And since this supposed to be is a money-making gig, not just an over sized aquarium, slow growing fish translates to less money.

Every day, they add fresh water to the tanks.  This water comes from a local river and has a temperature about 10 F below what the fish like.  So we are trying to help them slightly warm the temperature of this fresh water.  Sound easy?

The hard part is they need to warm 60,000 gallons a day!  That's the equivalent of an Olympic sized swimming pool every day and a half!

So we got together and started brainstorming about how to do this. We tossed around ideas like using a small fusion reactor, or buying 2000 hot water heaters from Home Depot and packing them in our luggage.  Nothing seemed practical.

But in Honduras they have an abundance of sunshine and humidity.  We can't use the humidity, but I think we can build a prototype solar hot water heater like one that might be used to heat a swimming pool.  But we can't build it all at once. Our plan is to build a prototype unit that can be replicated, perhaps many times, in order to get it big enough to heat the 60,000 gallons needed per day.

That's the goal. We have two weeks to do it.  More tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

This Chaos Production

Anxious, I lie awake
Tsunamis of troubles
My glacier is melting
On burst housing bubbles

I am quite powerless
Forced out of indifference
By what news men show me
Ads tell me my preference

Our oceans are plastic
Unnoticed malaria
Clean water in shortage
Islamic mania

Our systems are fallen
Erected by broken
Billionaires in Hummers
And junkies crack smokin'

My own heart divided
To eat snakes or salmon?
Do hungers control me
In spiritual famine?

Sweet Jesus have mercy!
This chaos production
Let your Kingdom come soon
Undo the destruction!

a poem by the Middle Aged Fat Guy