Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Bro' Hike

When I was back home daydreaming about being a Peace Corps volunteer my thoughts tended toward exotic cultural experiences, a new world, new language, new people, new everything. And there has certainly been plenty of that. But what never occurred to me was the friendships I would develop with fellow volunteers from the good old U.S.A., and the tremendous importance these new frienships would have in keeping us all going.
With that in mind, this is just a short photo-post of a great little vacation I took with five of my best buddies in Peace Corps,Derek, Austin, Dan & Dan, Jon and yours truly.

We started from Austin´s house, a two hour boat ride up the River Manante in the village Calante, and followed a rough cut track west towards the nearest paved road. Everyone was a little vague about how far it was and how long it might take, but we were in no hurry. This was the kind of thing we came here for.The road took us through beautiful backcountry of the Comarca Ngäbe-Bugle, the semi-autonomous region of western Panama. After a long first day of hiking we were lucky enough to stumble onto a half-finished house that provided shelter for a rainy night, and enough rest for us to hike on the next day to the first village where we could catch a chiva, a pickup truck rigged out for passengers, and ride the rest of the way out to the highway.I just have a few minutes to get this posted before catching the boat for home, so I´ll leave it at that. But if you´d like to read a little more, you can check out Austin´s blog,

for posts on the hike and Peace Corps life with the Ngäbes in general. His blog is full of spot-on insights and wry humor. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Water Works 2

I took this picture of these happy little kids who had been watching us repair the pipes in their baño, the little bathing area beside their house. Obviously, you won't be seeing this kind of style in those Modern Kitchen and Bath books at the home center, but they're basically functional, and about on par with the fit and finish of the rest of the house. People back home are always curious about what kind of work I´m doing, so I'm posting a few photos of one rather fun aspect of my work on the community´s aqueduct, thermoforming.
Our drinking water comes from this little dam on a stream up in the hills above town.
The water comes down to the houses strictly by gravity flow through a line of two inch PVC pipe. The tubes are old and a lot of them were never buried as they should have been to protect them, so on a regular basis everyone´s faucets go dry. That's usually because a cow has stepped on a pipe and broken it, or sometimes an old pipe joint has just come unglued or was never glued in the first place. Whatever it is, once we hike (or maybe paddle) up and find the problem, we have to cut out a damaged section of pipe and glue a new section in its place. You would think the only way to do that would be to buy two unions and glue the new pipe in between them, but that would require having a plumbing supply store accessible, and cash to buy parts, neither of which is the case here. The campo alternative is thermaforming. You can do a crude version of that by just holding the end of a piece of pipe over a fire until it gets soft enough to slip it over the end of another pipe to form a bell. These traditional fire-formed bells usually don´t fit very well, so they tend to leak or come completely apart eventually.
During training we learned an improved thermaforming method from a volunteer who had worked on water wells in Ghana. This guy is a magician with PVC, cutting and melting and reforming pipe to fabricate things like this check valve for a homemade water pump. I´ve been teaching aqueduct operators in my area some basic thermaforming to make pipe unions. We heat up a can of cooking oil to around 375 degrees on a stove or fire, and dunk the pipe in the oil to soften it up before using a special homemade mold to form the bells on the ends of the pipe. The resulting empate looks and works like something straight from the factory.
We´ve been using another technique to make flow reducers for the half-inch lines that go to individual homes. You start with a short section of pipe and make a cut lengthwise from top to bottom with a hacksaw. When you hold this split piece of pipe in a can of hot oil for a minute or so it gets soft enough for you to unroll it and press it flat between two boards. When it cools down and gets hard again you have a nice flat sheet of PVC plastic.
You can use a hole saw chucked into a hand drill to cut out holes... ...and end up with little discs that have a hole in the center.
If you've cut these little discs the right size, they'll fit snugly up against the shoulder of the fitting so that when you glue the next piece of pipe into it the disc is locked into place and serves to reduce the flow to a faucet. Reducing flow might sound counterproductive since the whole idea is to get water to people, but given the topography of our area we tend to wind up with homes in one part of the system that have high pressure and gush loads of water, while people on other sections of the pipeline (like my house) open their taps and just hear the sound of air sucking into the pipes. So we've been strategically installing these flow reducers on different branches of the aqueduct to assure that more people get a share of the water. And the result of water reaching more houses? Well, more happy kids obviously.
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