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Engineers Without Borders, Los Angeles Professional Chapter, Guatemala, 2023

Turning 40 and undeterred by past failures and fragile health, I decided to find meaning one more time and, this time, a deeper connection. This intense feeling of finding oneself brought me to knock on Engineers Without Borders - Los Angeles Professional Chapter (EWB-LA) doors. From there, I witnessed this newfound purpose; I discovered the beauty of unscripted, collaborative narratives, leaving a lasting impact on hearts and inspiring others to embrace life's unwritten chapters. 

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"Hi, I'm Mounika Sammiti, and this is the story of one hell of a kind journey in my eyes."

On the night of December 8th, I had the opportunity to meet Mauricio, the engineer leading our expedition to Guatemala, at the airport for a crucial monitoring and evaluation trip for Engineers Without Borders, Los Angeles Chapter. As we gathered for the journey, my initial impression was overshadowed by the imposing luggage Mauricio was lugging along. It seemed to scream of work-related responsibilities, and a wave of intimidation washed over me.


"My apprehension dissolved when Mauricio smilingly unveiled the mystery behind his hefty baggage."

However, to my surprise, it wasn't filled with technical equipment but heartwarming gifts for the children of Xecotz, the community we were destined to visit. Suddenly, the atmosphere lightened as he shared the thoughtful gestures he had prepared to bring joy to the young ones in the community. The ice between us broke, and the journey ahead promised professional engagement with a touch of humanity and compassion.

Amidst the hustle and bustle of the airport, delays cast a shadow of uncertainty over our group of engineering volunteers. Exhausted from a hectic work day and last-minute packing, we faced flight delays. The anticipation grew as we waited, weary yet hopeful, for our red-eye flight to finally take off.

On the morning of Dec 9th, as we soared above the clouds, the city of Guatemala unfolded beneath me, extending a warm invitation from my window seat. The sense of relief was palpable among us, knowing we were one step closer to our destination.

Upon landing, our diminutive chauffeur, Don Juan, awaited our arrival. Despite his petite stature, he exuded a strength that surpassed ours. Ready to embark on a 7-hour drive to Nebaj, the town closest to Xecotz, Don Juan effortlessly hoisted the heaviest bag onto his shoulder. With a pace faster than a marathoner, he led the way.

Communication barriers arose as Don Juan spoke only in Spanish, leaving me to decipher his words without assistance. Despite the language divide, his actions spoke louder than words, creating a bond that transcended linguistic differences. And so, our journey into the heart of Guatemala began, marked by the promise of the unknown.


"The Nebajians gathered in the central square, visiting their tiny church and listening to a mix of traditional Guatemalan tunes, a preacher, and a hint of Christmas jingles." 

Nebaj, a town with a picturesque town square, had houses stacked on hills like those in San Francisco, surrounded by the misty, Oregon-like weather. However, what made Nebaj truly special was its people, who embodied the working spirit of New Yorkers. The Nebajians gathered in the central square, visiting their tiny church and listening to a mix of traditional Guatemalan tunes, a preacher, and a hint of Christmas jingles in the open air. This small town became a harmonious blend of indigenous cultures, making it a remarkable and unforgettable place.

During our meeting with Diego and his family on Dec 10th, I discovered a resilient and intelligent man who was our contact and long-time partner at Engineers Without Borders Los Angeles chapter. Despite Diego recovering from a leg injury, there was an air of pride and determination about him. Initially, confusion and awkwardness arose due to misunderstandings about future collaborations and the idea of EWB, LA, working with a competitor, thus somewhat stifling the atmosphere. However, the strength of their friendship and mutual trust gracefully surpassed these challenges as they eased out of it with equanimity and open and honest discussion. As we waited in Diego's house, a portrait caught my eye – it depicted him with his family, radiating pride for his roots. When I asked to take his picture, he became a bit self-conscious, but his immediate gesture of grabbing a hat added a commendable touch, highlighting his resilience and pride.


"Engineers Without Borders, Los Angeles team with their trusted friend Diego and his family members Richard and Mike." 

The morning of December 11th was promising as we eagerly awaited Diego's son, Ricardo, to pick us up. The anticipation hung in the air as we waited, and soon enough, Ricardo arrived in his brand-new truck. With a warm smile, Ricardo welcomed us aboard, the sleek exterior of his car gleaming in the morning sun. Little did he know that his shiny vehicle would undergo an unexpected transformation inside out by the end of the day. Our destination was Xecotz's water system, built by EWB LA and hidden away in the heart of nature. It was a trek that promised excitement and challenges—creating a sense of serenity that belied the upcoming adventure. The trek proved to be both thrilling and arduous. Slippery paths and uneven terrain with rain added an element of excitement, but they also brought about some comical slips and falls. Our shoes quickly became caked in mud, and our clothes bore the marks of our escapades. When we reached the water spring box, our group had worn the proud badges of outdoor exploration—muddy shoes, dirt-streaked clothes, gasping for air and water. However, despite recent climate changes, the water spring box brought us smiles when the functioning results were as expected.
I took my own sweaty time to trek back, completely embarrassed for slowing down everyone behind me and, at some point, questioned my sanity and if I could make it back alive. Though surprised, Ricardo and the Water maintenance men were patient and took it all in good humor; perhaps understanding my mess would be a testament to an unforgettable adventure of my life. We left behind the water system, grateful for the day's escapade. However, Ricardo's truck, once spotless, now bore the marks of a journey well-risked—a tale told by the mud and dirt that adorned it.

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"The water springbox built by EWB, LA seemed to applaud our triumph over the challenges of the trail." 

A few hours earlier, the air was filled with purpose as we gathered with the locals, including a group of women who wore their disappointment like a heavy cloak. Their voices echoed their frustration with the seasonal drying of the spring box, a water source that often failed to provide enough for their needs in summer. This scarcity forced them to revert to traditional methods, relying on wells and streams to meet their daily water requirements. As we listened to their tales of struggle and observed the sincerity etched on their faces, it became clear that Xecotz was determined to find a solution, regardless of the cost. The prospect of closing a deal that did not address their pressing issue did not sit well with them. Politeness prevailed as they declined the arrangement, driven by their unwavering commitment to resolving the water scarcity problem that plagued their community during summer.

Amidst their disappointment, there was a glimmer of gratitude that shone through. Their eyes lit up as they acknowledged the efforts of Engineers Without Borders Los Angeles (EWB LA) for installing a reliable spring box that had withstood the test of nature's fury—three hurricanes. The once-disappointed community now turned to us with claps and cheers, a heartfelt acknowledgment of our intervention's positive impact on their lives.  

At that moment, we were not just engineers or outsiders but heroes in their eyes. The applause resonated with a deep appreciation, and we were humbled by the realization that EWB LA's actions had transcended the mere installation of a water system. We had become integral parts of a community's journey towards self-sufficiency.

"Our encounter with the community of Xecotz had become a chapter in a story of collaboration, determination, and transformation. The disappointment voiced earlier had transformed into hope, and we carried with us the echoes of their cheers—a reminder that small acts of kindness and engineering prowess could make heroes out of ordinary individuals.

On December 12th, we returned to Xecotz, and the day belonged to me—a storyteller in the realm of UX research. Though my filmmaking background had seen me as a producer, I found myself wearing a new hat, that of a cameraman. Armed with a camera and a willingness to confront the community's issues, I embarked on a visual storytelling journey.

Gratitude filled my heart for my teammates, who, with their language skills, became my bridges of communication. As a UX researcher, English was my medium, but here in Xecotz, the exchange needed a multilingual dance. My questions flowed in English, were translated to Spanish by my teammates, were relayed to Ricardo, and finally articulated in Ixill, the community's sweet language.

It was a unique experience for someone with limited directorial background. The camera became my canvas for capturing the narratives that unfolded before me. Despite the challenges of linguistic relay, the essence of the stories remained intact. My gratitude extended beyond the lens to the people who helped weave a narrative that transcended barriers, turning my day in Xecotz into a symphony of shared experiences captured through the lens of understanding and empathy.

"Through this lens, I witnessed the community's shyness, struggles, and triumphs that transformed it into a testament to the power of storytelling."

A shout of appreciation towards Ricardo—the unsung hero and bridge connecting us to the community's heart. In the labyrinth of language and cultural nuances, Ricardo exemplified my dear friend's remark, "The world is much smarter and more sophisticated than we think."

With dreams of becoming a structural engineer, Ricardo carried the weight of his father's water dreams for the community.

In the engineering classrooms, Ricardo's prowess shone through. A water project, a manifestation of his dedication, was conquered in a mere 30 minutes, earning him the respect of his peers. Proud of his knowledge learned from work experience, his proficiency in English, however limited, and a taste for Western music, Ricardo emerged as a unique blend of dreams and realities.

Guiding us through the intricate community interactions, Ricardo became more than a translator; he was our local guardian. His dedication to his father's legacy and the community's dreams transformed him into a silent force, polishing our journey. In the end, Ricardo's story became interwoven with the tales of Xecotz, creating a narrative that echoed the power of dreams and the unspoken connections that bind us all. 

"As we navigated the waters of cultural exchange, his presence served as a testament to the profound impact one individual can have on a collective mission."

I found myself conversing with the community's women, seeking to unravel the intricacies of their daily lives through the lens of water. With each question, a narrative unfolded, a vivid picture of these women's challenges and triumphs.

I posed the first set of inquiries regarding access and availability. Their responses revealed the profound impact of the ebb and flow of water availability on their daily lives. Tales of long journeys and barriers to accessing water for household needs echoed in the air, illustrating these women's uphill battles, especially during summers when the shortage became a palpable reality, a silent plea for long-term sustainable solutions due to natural disasters.

As the conversation flowed, the focus shifted to health and well-being. The women shared insights into the intimate connection between water quality and their health. They are proud of being free from waterborne diseases because of the involvement of Organizations like EWB, LA, and Save the Children. However, a collective nod acknowledged the unspoken responsibility to teach their children to maintain the same standards that lingered in their hearts.

In community involvement, the women initially were shy and laughed with a twinkle in their eyes, but later, their voices gained strength. They spoke of their role in water management and access decisions, highlighting the opportunities they sometimes seize to contribute their knowledge and perspectives. The exchange became a celebration of the untapped wisdom within the community, breaking down barriers and paving the way for a more inclusive approach to water-related initiatives and policies. The men echoed the sentiments of the women, expressing a desire for the female voices to lead the narrative. However, in the community dynamics, the women, adorned with a veil of shyness, gently nudge their husbands forward, urging them to be vocal advocates for their shared cause. Through these conversations, the stories of Xecotz's women emerged as threads in the tapestry of a community's strength.


"Their challenges were individual struggles and shared narratives that wove a collective story of force and determination."

As our trek through the rugged terrain of Xecotz unfolded the previous day, I had the privilege of encountering Juan De Leon, the striking figure of the small indigenous community. Known as the water master, his handsomeness seemed to mirror the rugged beauty of the landscape we traversed—a landscape aptly named for its landslide propensity.

Throughout our challenging journey, Juan's personality left an indelible mark. His composure and noble presence were praiseworthy, standing out even in the face of the formidable obstacles presented by the treacherous landslides. Amid this daunting landscape, Juan moved with the ease of a seasoned traveler, navigating the hurdles as if they were mere ripples in the terrain.

Despite the language barrier, I couldn't help but marvel at Juan's silent gestures of care. With a machete in hand, he expertly cleared the way, creating a safe path for our expedition. Sensing the need for balance, he handed me a sturdy stick, a simple yet thoughtful provision that spoke volumes. In that quiet exchange, no words were needed to convey his genuine concern for my well-being.

As we journeyed through the challenging terrain, Juan became more than just the water master; he became a silent guardian, guiding me through the intricate dance of landslides and rocky pathways. His actions spoke of a deeper connection to the land and a profound understanding of the delicate balance required to navigate its challenges.

In the tapestry of Xecotz, Juan's presence added a layer of stability and warmth. His unspoken care, the sweep of his machete, and the simple stick handed over in silent understanding transformed our trek into a shared adventure—a testament to the bonds forged when humanity and nature converge in the face of challenges.

He later extended a warm invitation to his humble home for lunch, where a simple yet heartwarming chicken soup awaited us. As we sat in his modest abode, I couldn't help but observe Juan's keen interest in politics during his break from work. The small room, adorned with a television, mirrored his intensity as he delved into the world beyond the borders of Xecotz.

Amidst the savory aroma of the chicken soup, my gaze wandered to the collection of machetes that adorned Juan's dwelling. Each blade told a silent story of utility and resilience, filling me with a sense of awe for the man who skillfully wielded them.

Over lunch, Juan shared the meaning behind the name 'Xecotz,' weaving a tale that resonated with the very landscape we had traversed earlier. Laughter echoed through the small home as I couldn't help but chuckle at my own clumsy trekking, a shared moment of lightness that connected us.

As Juan's family joined the laughter, a friendly white cat with blue eyes sauntered in, adding a touch of warmth to the gathering. Juan delved into the history behind the color red in their culture, a bloody tale that left me deep in thought. It reminded me of a similar story in my own cultural tapestry, albeit with a different hue—golden leaves turning ordinary due to human greed. The parallel narratives sparked reflections on the universal themes that connect diverse cultures.

We mingled in the heart of Juan's home, laughter, storytelling, and cultural reflections, creating a rich tapestry of shared experiences. The encounter left an unforgettable influence, a mosaic of moments transcending language and cultural boundaries, uniting us in the simple yet profound act of breaking bread and sharing stories.



" I could see in them a quiet revolution carrying the weight of water's impact on their shoulders by being an example to their children."

I found my assumptions challenged by a surprising revelation from Juan's daughter, Juana De Leon.

The day before, Juana had graciously shared her skills in weaving, captivating us with her finesse. As her hands moved rhythmically through the loom, I couldn't help but harbor the preconceived notion that she was deeply entrenched in the textile field.

However, a twist in the narrative unfolded when Juan casually mentioned that Juana had pursued studies in Solar engineering during her time in India, particularly in the vibrant region of Rajasthan. The revelation shattered my assumptions and painted a new portrait of Juana—a woman of diverse talents and aspirations.

The unexpected connection to India, a land so distant from the remote reaches of Xecotz, created a bond between us that transcended cultural differences. The realization that I had underestimated her journey filled me with a sense of humility and a newfound appreciation for the depth of experiences hidden within the quiet corners of this village. We greeted each other with Namaste and acknowledged the gesture with great joy. 

Juana couldn't share much about her time in India because it was during COVID-19. Still, the admiration blossoming in me was a testament to the unexpected human connection. In the heart of Xecotz, I discovered that assumptions could be misleading and that every individual, regardless of their surroundings, held a unique story waiting to be unveiled. The revelation strengthened our bond and affirmed my sense of belonging in this remote corner of the world, where understanding and shared experiences defied preconceptions.

As the time came to bid farewell to the enchanting home of Juan, a subtle tinge of disappointment lingered within me. Despite the shared moments and the surprising revelation of Juana's academic pursuits in Solar engineering in India, a slight letdown crept in when she refrained from engaging in English conversations with us. The unspoken desire to connect through a common language, to bridge the gaps of cultural differences, hung in the air. Yet, as I left Xecotz behind, I carried with me the rich experiences, the laughter, the shared meals, and the moments that transcended language barriers.


"Ultimately, the disappointment was overshadowed by the realization that, sometimes, genuine connections go beyond words, weaving a silent understanding that lingers in the heart."

The dedication of Engineers Without Borders Los Angeles Chapter, personified by Mauricio and Norma, stood as a testament to resilience in the face of unexpected challenges. Contrary to their initial expectations, Mauricio and Norma held steadfast as the community meeting unfolded, suppressing any trace of disappointment that may have welled within. Instead of dwelling on the unforeseen events, they focused on the more significant cause—the community's well-being.

Mauricio, the seasoned figure on the site with a comprehensive understanding of the project's intricacies, bore the weight of leadership with unwavering strength. Amid community concerns and uncertainties, he remained a pillar of patience, listening to the woes expressed.

Norma and I found ourselves influenced by Mauricio's qualities—the quiet soundness, the commitment to the community, and the ability to shield others from the potential onslaught of disappointment. In the face of unexpected turns, Mauricio's leadership steered the project forward and protected the team from the demoralizing effects of setbacks. As we continued our work in Xecotz, Mauricio's dedication became a guiding light, emphasizing that authentic leadership is not just about expertise but about fortitude, adaptability, and an unwavering commitment to the collective good.


"Despite standing alone in his expertise, Mauricio emerged as an undisputed leader, navigating the challenges with a resolve that inspired those around him."

Before I share the incredible work of the Engineers Without Borders Los Angeles team, a quiet force named Norma stood out. Her decision to volunteer for this mission during the Christmas holidays spoke volumes about her commitment to the cause. Despite the delicateness that adorned her, Norma stood tall and robust, trekking through rough terrains with a strength that equaled the men by her side.

Norma's role as a translator became a disguised blessing for me. Amidst the complexities of language and cultural nuances, she translated conversations seamlessly, her dedication shining through without a trace of irritation. It became evident that her efforts went beyond the call of duty, reflecting a kindness and genuine care that endeared her to the community on behalf of EWB LA.

Sharing a cold room during the chilly nights, Norma's commitment reached new heights. Her night coughs were a testament to the challenging conditions, yet she remained undeterred. In a selfless gesture, she ensured that her discomfort didn't disturb her roommate, showcasing a level of consideration that exceeded expectations. As a roommate, Norma, I couldn't ask for a better friend of peace amid the cold and a source of warmth in the shared moments.

In the narrative of this journey, Norma emerged not just as a translator or a team member but as a symbol of solidity, kindness, and unwavering commitment. The cold room may have echoed with coughs, but it also resonated with the silent strength of Norma, making her an invaluable companion on this meaningful expedition.

"Norma showed us the transformative power of empathy and care in making a meaningful impact through actions."

As a UX researcher and storyteller, my immersion into the world of Engineers Mauricio and Norma transformed their technical work into a silent ballet of measurements and assessments synchronized with my interpretations. Amidst the unpredictable terrains of Xecotz, they embarked on a mission to gauge water quality and assess the aftermath of hurricanes that had taken a toll on springboxes, not only their creation but those of others.

The commitment displayed by Mauricio and Norma went beyond the ordinary as they navigated challenging landscapes to reach substantial spring boxes. These structures, not mere footnotes in size, stood as significant feats in themselves. The journey to these remote locations demanded patience, turning their work into an ode to perseverance.

The pivotal moment of joy unfurled when they learned their spring box was unscathed, a testament to their craftsmanship. However, amidst the triumphs, a risk lingered—contemplating the assessment of a cable severely damaged by mudslides. In a decision that reflected their prudence, they chose not to take the risk, a sigh of relief in the face of potential danger.The inconvenient positioning of the spring box opening became a recurring challenge, leading to multiple retakes during their meticulous measurements. Initially annoyed by the repetition, I soon realized it manifested their profound love for their work. The bloopers and cute moments, captured inadvertently, spoke volumes about the genuine passion they harbored.

 "Mauricio and Norma's work unfolded as a story of boundless love they poured into their craft." 

A profound echo resonated in the tranquil valleys of Xecotz, carrying the weight of a teacher's heartfelt message. The source of this resonance was the generosity of Engineers Without Borders (EWB), whose gifts for the children of Xecotz left an indelible mark on the community. The teacher, a guardian of knowledge and wisdom, had played a pivotal role in shaping the minds of the young ones.

Among the myriad lessons taught by this dedicated educator, one stood out in the eyes of the beholder—the imparting of knowledge about the rights of the children of Xecotz. As the teacher passionately shared this crucial aspect of education, a wave of emotion swept me. Tears welled up as I couldn't help but connect the significance of this moment with the haunting history of Xecotz.

A poignant narrative unfolded after delving into the accounts of the civil war and the formation of Xecotz. It was a story of survival, families forced into hiding, and a young boy named Juan de Leon who, at the tender age of 11, found himself navigating the tumultuous currents of that dark period. The community emerged from the shadows, creating a haven amidst the valleys, and Juan de Leon became a symbol of the new world.

In this poignant history, the importance of a teacher who imparts knowledge and instills awareness of rights became magnified. The tears that welled up were not just an emotional response but a recognition of the profound impact such teachings could have on a community that had endured so much.

In the valleys of Xecotz, where echoes carried tales of hardship and hope, a teacher who cared about nurturing awareness of rights became a beacon. It was a testament to the enduring spirit of Xecotz, where education served as a means of empowerment and a bridge connecting a painful past to the promise of a more enlightened future. I'm truly blessed to be a tiny part of their brave journey towards an evolved future. 

"Classroom Poster - International day of Indigenous Women."

On the 15th of December, I journeyed homeward with a tapestry of emotions woven into the fabric of my being. Pride adorned my sleeves, a testament to the decision to embark on this meaningful work. Respect and newfound admiration danced in my mind, a symphony inspired by the Engineers Without Borders mission in our shared world. Yet, my heart bore the weight of deepest gratitude—for Xecotz and the light souls who became my guides through the challenging landscapes, both external and within. Like a challenging landslide, they helped me traverse the terrains of my uncertainties, humbling me with the collective strength of the human spirit and the beauty born from collaboration in the face of adversity. With this awareness, I carried home not just memories but a profound appreciation of my life and our world when people come together in the face of challenges.

"A big Hello and thank you Engineers Without Borders, Mike, and Duyen, and all other teammates from LA Chapter"

In the quiet corner of Xecotz, I had my last conversation with Juan, whose dreams for his children echoed the community's aspirations. Delving into the heart of the matter, I posed a question that held the key to their future—would he, like Diego, wish for his children to venture into water engineering? Juan's response was ambiguous, but the truth unfurled through a different avenue.

Amidst the tapestry of dreams woven by this small town, Juan's daughter emerged as a symbol of determination and the pursuit of a brighter future. Her choice to study solar engineering became a silent testament to the aspirations that danced within the hearts of Xecotz residents—to see the light, quite literally, in the next generation.

As Juan shared the community's long-term goals, the vision of irrigation emerged, a lifeline that promised sustenance and growth. It struck me that while water generates light in a bulb, their dreams extend beyond conventional boundaries. The aim at solar power became the beacon of their collective vision—a symbol of innovation, sustainability, and the unwavering spirit that defined this little town.

In the quiet revelation of Juan's words and his daughter's academic pursuits, I found a story that transcended the limitations of a small town. Xecotz was not merely dreaming of water engineering; it was reaching for the stars with solar power, encapsulating a narrative of ambition, determination, and the boundless possibilities that unfolded when dreams were fueled by the light that emanated from the sun and the hearts of its people.

“Because... The sky is not the limit, it's just the beginning...” 

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