Cort Hammond '15

Cort Hammond is a Chemistry-Engineering major from Ravensdale, WA. He used his Johnson Opportunity Grant to work for Engineers Without Borders in Pompoyo, Bolivia. 


At 6:00 in the morning, the first sight from the airport in El Alto is Mt. Illimani-catching the sun before the day has even begun. The sun broke over the mountains and lit La Paz as we descended into the heart of the city. During that first day, there were an unbelievable number of things to take in-my first impression was that the entire city was under construction. As with most large cities, the streets were filled with chaotic traffic and hastening vendors. It was here that we met out Bolivian partner organization: Engineers in Action. But this first glimpse was far from a complete picture of the city; my first meaningful interaction occurred that night as we left for the bus and came across a taxi with a sputtering engine. We offered to push to try to get the engine started, but ended up pushing the car up a hill into the driver's garage. The taxi-driver seemed to signify that Bolivia would accept us.

From La Paz, our Engineers Without Borders (EWB) team journeyed to the small mountain village of Pompoyo, Bolivia to construct a sedimentation basin and water pipeline providing irrigation and drinking water. The town has problems with inadequate access to clean water. Due to contamination from silver mining tailings, the water contains unhealthy levels of zinc, lead, cadmium, and iron. Our EWB team worked alongside Pompoyans throughout all aspects of the project: planning, mixing concrete, laying pipe, and transporting materials.

While facts certainly do not tell the whole story, they tell an important part of it. The water system itself consists of a 4 ft. by 10 ft. sedimentation basin and a 2.5 kilometer pipe. The pipe couplings had to have the ability to withstand high pressures as the pipe dropped over 160 meters from start to finish; considerable time was invested in thoroughly threading and sealing pipe. The pipeline now brings clean water at around 1 gallon/second to a dry area for crops and livestock, and allows for the villagers to water less of their crops and animals with metal-laced water-resulting in safer food. Furthermore, it provides more irrigated land and therefore, a healthier, more attractive alternative to working in the mines. Additionally, a basic health survey was conducted to identify future projects. We identified eye damage, dehydration, malnutrition, and mining-related ailments as the leading causes of health issues. We plan on working to provide sunglasses, Camelbacks, and improved greenhouse-fish farm combinations to allay some of these problems. Sunglasses would protect their eyes from sun damage or from rock chips from working, while Camelbacks would help prevent heat exhaustion and flush toxins out of their bodies. Finally, we continued an economic improvement project by delivering $3,000 that was earned by the village women through the sale of their knitted wares here in Lexington (all profits go to the women's center in Pompoyo). Our team finished the projects that we came to do and, as a result, the physical resources of the village are improved.

I knew in advance of the project that a broad range of skills would help the project run smoothly. In addition to engineering, I was exposed to a variety of sciences and humanities. I can say with confidence, that this experience placed me in situations involving language, geology, botany, health science, mathematics, history, art, and economics. Please humor me as I substantiate this claim.

I began learning Spanish as soon as I decided to go to Bolivia, using the Duolingo online program. With the help of my friends, and other resources, I pieced together a working knowledge of Spanish. Upon getting into the airport in La Paz, I was overwhelmed by the speed and uniqueness of the Bolivian accent. I was barely able to understand. This initial inexperience was gradually replaced with adaptive skill. By the second week, I managed to have a full conversation in Spanish with a townsperson named Adrian. Something that I will always remember from this conversation was Adrian's avowal that he loves playing the piano: Bach, Chopin, and Brahms; however, crestfallen, he told me pianos are difficult to find because there are no Bolivian manufacturers. Music, as in most cultures, is of special significance.

I also wrote down a few Quechua words before embarking. As soon as we reached Pompoyo, I began trying to learn the proper use of these as best I could-first checking pronunciation with a man named Florencio and then expanding my vocabulary while speaking in Spanish (Castillan) to learn a couple more Quechua phrases. By the end, I could pronounce the names of people and ask them how they were doing; important since a number of the villagers don't speak Spanish.

Botany is a hobby of mine, so I was on the lookout for interesting plants. Early on, I found Azorella compacta, a dense mat-forming evergreen that grows to form large boulder-like colonies. I was intrigued by the advanced adaptations of this organism as I continuously seek bioinspiration for future designs as an engineer; A. compacta survives heat, radiation, and drought by using its compact form to retain moisture.

Bolivia is a community-oriented society; people tend work together to support individual success. From meals with the village to working in the high Andean pastures, communal efforts drive success. For this reason, our team had the support and engagement of the entire community so that the miles of trench that needed to be dug were finished on time. The overarching principle of our engineering work was to suggest ideas and guide the design process, while following the methods and requests of the villagers so that the construction would be useful, maintainable, and understandable. In this we were very successful; the village leaders (including the mayor and chiefs) were all present in the work crews, knowing that the water project would benefit everyone in the village both directly and indirectly.

The history of Bolivia was presented in three principal themes: honoring the Quechua and Aymara past, celebrating the triumph of Bolivar, and vilifying the USA's interference. The traditional past is still very much alive in the rural parts of Bolivia with the customary pachamama given with each drink (a libation thanking mother earth). I was fortunate enough to be introduced to a modern perspective on the native past of Bolivia when I asked a Bolivian couple what their favorite book by a Bolivian author is; they pointed me to La Raza de Bronce by Alcides Arguedas. Art was ubiquitous: the textiles, the murals, the museums, the street vendors, and the ruins all evoked strong feelings towards the past by honoring heroes and decrying the injustices of war and corruption.

As we departed La Paz three weeks later on the journey home, I pondered a few things. I considered what kind of an engineer I want to be. I imagined how much more work could be done and how that could be achieved. Finally I assessed how I could prepare myself better for a similar project in the future. My conclusions:  I endeavor to be an engineer at the service of the public-bound by the ideals of supportiveness and humility. For our future projects, my imagination paints the picture of a municipal water filter built by our EWB team for a Guatemalan town of 13,000. And finally, in preparation for further work, I will strive to continue learning Spanish and other languages while sharpening my social awareness.