Casimiro grasped the handle of the pipe wrench, playing with it to see how the teeth and clamp worked. A village leader of Quesimpuco, Bolivia, a 200–300 family village located at 13,000 feet in the southern Andes Mountains, Casimiro gladly helped the team of Auburn University engineers in constructing a gravity-fed system of irrigation pipeline that would carry water to crop land even in the drought season when there’s enough dust to choke if the body isn’t used to the conditions.
Josh Passantino, senior and triple major at Auburn University, told of the humbling impact a small community made on his life, leading him to a revelation that he wanted to help others.
With no prior education, Casimiro realized how a commercial tool with silver teeth and an oblong-shaped handle would help the engineers complete one of the various tasks of the day.
“I had never seen it,” Passantino said. “I didn’t know what was going on, and somebody called over to Casimiro and said, ‘Hey, Casimiro, can you help us with this?’”
Communicating with him in Spanish, Passantino relayed his willingness to help the other engineers on the worksite.
“It was just something amazing to know that somebody with no formal training in engineering is able to do all the things that a whole bunch of engineers who are trained from Auburn University couldn’t do by themselves,” Passantino said.
According to Passantino, Casimiro fitted many pieces of the pipes together that day, aligning all the angles correctly, a feat which was difficult for the team.
Sign up for our newsletter
Get The Plainsman straight to your inbox.
For seven days, a group of approximately 15 students, one University engineer and one engineering alumna, hiked 45 minutes through the thin, arid air of the high-altitude atmosphere to the site where the team would be building the irrigation system, according to Bob Karcher, the University adviser of the trip.
Karcher said they wore layers of jackets and shirts upon starting their hike at sunrise. He said the morning air was cool and windy, and throughout the day temperatures would climb to 60 F.
However, Karcher said since Quesimpuco lies close to the equator, the direct rays of sunlight broke a sweat on their foreheads as they worked.
Karcher traveled with Passantino in August 2013 and 2014.
Passantino said his first time going to Bolivia was his freshman year, a trip inspiring him to major in Spanish because he wanted to speak with the locals more.
Add biomedical and chemical engineering, and that makes three majors — a task some college students would consider impossible.
The last day Passantino and the team were there his first trip, he said they decided to test the irrigation system.
Standing 100 feet from the spout of the water tank, Passantino said after the team yelled, “Turn the water on,” and they waited. Next, the sound of rushing water filled the air confirming the system was working. However, Passantino said suddenly everything fell silent.
“So the pressure’s building up, and either the entire pipe system is going to explode, or else the sprinkler’s going to work,” Passantino said. “So we’re all sitting there for, I don’t know, maybe 10 or 20 seconds — just silence. We’re all looking at each other, and then we see water coming out of the sprinkler head because it was working, and we were all so excited.”
Passantino said watching grown men fall to their knees crying from the realization of having crops for revenue and food during the dry months, where previously they had nothing, was the most impactful part of that trip.
“We didn’t just build the system and give it to them,” Passantino said. “We worked with the community, and so this is also their work. It’s not just that we gave them something. They were happy because it was something they did. They built it with their own hands — this system that’s going to help their community.”
As president of Engineers Without Borders USA, Passantino wanted to go to Bolivia through the Auburn chapter, which required paperwork and organization. His first and second year he said they weren’t officially going with the chapter, but now the trip is linked to the organization. In December 2014, Engineers Without Borders became an official chapter at Auburn University, according to Passantino.
“We work with engineering projects, but we work with communities and with nonprofit organizations instead of just giving projects to people, which is a reason why a lot of aid in developing countries fails is because they just give them something, and they aren’t able to maintain it or learn how to fix it,” Passantino said.
His second year helping Quesimpuco, Passantino said he led a team designing a washing machine for the women of the village, who previously hiked 1,000 feet down a mountainside to wash their clothes in close to 32-degree water.
The washing machine had two buckets, one inside another, with holes that would drain the water after PVC pipe churned inside to wash the clothes, according to Passantino.
He said they showed the design to the high schoolers who decided to build their own designs of washing machines so other communities could wash their clothes.
“That was something we were all really excited to hear,” Passantino said. “That our design was already being accepted.”
Karcher said Passantino’s readiness to engage with the local community in Quesimpuco showed his passion for helping others.
Passantino even described himself as the haggler of the group, who would help fellow members speak with locals and negotiate prices in shops.
Karcher said this happened in La Paz, Bolivia, an industrialized city where the group spent one day of the total 10-day trip.
“He knows enough Spanish … and I was in a shop buying some alpaca bags,” Karcher said.
During Passantino’s time in Bolivia, Karcher said Passantino brought all of his knowledge and articulate nature of being a bright student to a focus and passion for helping others.
“I’ve watched him, and I’ve seen these all draw together to this focal point,” Karcher said.
Steve Duke, associate dean of the College of Engineering and former adviser of the Quesimpuco trip, said he noticed Passantino stand out among other students during the welcoming night on Passantino’s first visit to Bolivia.
Duke said the local villagers conducted a march holding sticks with kerosene lanterns mounted on top, flailing their arms around dancing to traditional Quechuan music.
The engineers were asked to march, but Passantino danced with the locals.
“I don’t know if any of our other students did as much as (Passantino),” Duke said.
The hardworking, proud villagers continuously thanked the engineers throughout the trips, according to Karcher, and he said the “artificial rain,” or water shooting off the terraces of the irrigation system, moved the people of Quesimpuco.
“Some were crying, grown men crying because their crops were being watered and cattle could be grazed for a longer period of time,” Karcher said, explaining the emotional impact and true purpose of the trip.
Passantino said he plans to continue working with Engineers Without Borders and wants to help reduce costs for renewable energy, so people like the Bolivians can have the same resources as people in the U.S. — taking his love for engineering and helping others to form a powerful career.
Do you like this story? The Plainsman doesn't accept money from tuition or student fees, and we don't charge a subscription fee. But you can donate to support The Plainsman.Support The Plainsman