2006 Mexico Mission Diary
Ed Wilkes found me on Sunday and said, "I hear you know about computers. We brought 17 computers that have been donated to the mission. Do you think you can take a look at them, maybe get them set up? Jair wants some of them in the preschool, and a couple in the clinic."
I was excited. This year, I got to do something I knew how to do well! Monday morning, Jim and Sanille brought eight computers with monitors, keyboards, and mice into the common area in the preschool. I had them stack everything and I commandeered a table and chair (kid-sized, as you can see at right) and started testing them one by one. The computers, all Compaqs, were pretty old. They used Pentium II processors running at 350 or 400 MHz and had 99 MB of RAM. Windows 98 and Office 97 were installed on them. As I tested, I found several dead mice, which is never surprising. What was surprising was that all eight computers worked. They were in great shape. All I needed to do was run software to check the disk for errors, defragment the disks (which optmizes the way the files are arranged on the disk), and clean up the desktop icons and the Start menu.
Abner, who works for the mission and is essentially the foreman on our projects, came by and asked if it would be possible to install Microsoft Encarta on these computers. He explained that the elementary school used Encarta and they hoped to give the preschoolers a leg up. He produced the CDs and I tried installing the youth version of Encarta on the computer I was testing at the moment. The installer was in Spanish, but I understood it pretty well because installers are pretty standard and many of the technical terms were analogs to their English equivalent; for example, "computer" is "la computadora" in Spanish. Right away, the installer said that Encarta wouldn't run on Windows 98, but it let me install it anyway. It took almost an hour for the install to finish (because the computer was old and slow), but Encarta did run. Unfortunately, even the youth version involved a great deal of reading and wasn't going to be useful for the preschoolers, who can't read yet. Abner was disappointed, but said to continue testing the computers anyway, because they would try to find software suitable for the students.
At first, Abner wanted me to set up the computers on the round table in the photo and a couple of rectangular tables, spreading the tables across the common area. Then he got the bright idea to have Jim, a cabinetmaker, build a custom desk that would hold all eight computers and conserve space. Jim grabbed Sanille, took measurements, worked up a design, and got to work building. At left, Jim and Sanille cut plywood for the desk. They're doing it on top of a picnic table. While the mission has a fair amount of equipment, there are times when you still need to improvise.
Abner gave me some insight into how the mission had always run on faith — projects would get started, but resources (people, money) would run out and so the project would just wait. They built the clinic that way, he said -- they didn't even have a doctor lined up when they started building. He said that this wasn't unusual in Mexican culture -- buildings would be started and stand unfinished for months or years because the project ran out of money, and everybody accepts it as normal. I became afraid that these computers might sit here for months or years waiting on someone to find preschool educational software for it. I called my dad in South Bend and asked him to search for some. He came up empty, so I decided to search when I got home. (I found some and had it sent to the mission.) Abner said that in Mexico, software like that isn't such a priority. Few schools have much in the way of computers. The nearby elementary school has one computer for the entire school. No other preschools in town have any computers, he said; these eight would put them far ahead of the rest.
After I tested all of the computers for the preschool, I moved on to test and place two computers in the clinic. Even though the clinic building had existed for some time, a doctor had only recently started coming, and then only every other day for a few hours. I'm not sure why I didn't take any photos of the clinic, but it's a lovely building, probably the nicest one on the mission compound. It's not finished inside, but it's done enough that there are two exam rooms and three rooms outfitted for dentistry. All of the equipment is donated and a bit dated, but it's far better than nothing. At 30 pesos, about 3 dollars, for an office visit, it's also reasonably within reach of all but the most impoverished residents in the area.
After I had set up the computers in the clinic, Abner asked me to test the remaining computers so they'd be ready if they ever needed them. The remaining equipment had been stacked in a storage garage in the dormitory's first floor. I found an old sewing-machine table and a bent metal chair and set up shop in there, as the photo at left shows. The computer's disk is defragmenting. Abner told me later that the teachers thought I was playing video games while I was defragmenting disks on the preschool's computers! There's nothing to do but wait while the disks defragment, which took anywhere from 10 minutes to two hours, depending on the computer.
So testing the computers gave me plenty of time to sit quietly, to pray, and to listen to the world around me. In the preschool, I heard the children. In the garage, I heard people talking as they walked by. In the clinic, I heard absolute silence. It all reminded me that there's plenty of joy in life around me, that even a hurt child's crying is a joyful sound simply because there's life in it.
When I finished testing these components, I had found one bad monitor, one computer with a broken CD-ROM drive, one computer that had an old version of Linux installed on it instead of Windows, and a bunch of dead mice. I also found a quiet spring of joy in my heart for the first time in many years.
As I worked, Jim and Sanille finished the desk for the preschool. They wired the desk for electricity, so that the computers could be plugged into the desk and the desk into the wall. It was a pretty slick way to avoid having extension cords running everywhere.
At left is the desk placed in the preschool. Abner couldn't wait to see what a computer looked like on it, and set one up on it. I suppose that was the way to test the wiring!
The photos don't show it well, but the desk is light green and the laminate top salmon, brown, and black. They don't go together at all! Sanille and I hoped that once the computers were all set up on it, nobody would ever notice how the laminate and the paint don't go together. Abner said not to worry about it; Mexicans like sharp contrasts in color, and nobody may give this one a second thought.
In the left photo below, Sanille is touching up the paint while I set up the computers. We were trying to stump each other by singing obscure 1970s pop hits to see if the other could sing along. I can't believe it, but she stumped me with an old Raspberries tune that I didn't recognize until she sang the chorus! I tried stumping her with two seriously obscure tunes, "Sweet City Woman" by the Stampeders and "Motorcycle Mama" by Sailcat, but no luck. On the bus ride home, I tried to stump her with Hurricane Smith's "Oh Babe, What Would You Say," and she is now the third person on the planet, including myself, who I know has ever heard of that one-hit wonder. This woman knows her 1970s AM radio hits! The right photo below shows the finished desk with all the computers set up on it.
This work was very satisfying because I was giving from my own trade, contributing in an area where I know my stuff. I left confident that I had done a good job for the people who would be using the computers. Even though the computers are old, I was able to pronounce them good and reliable, and make them ready for whatever tasks they had for them.