Building a Bridge in Nicaragua

building-bridge-nicaragua

Before I start, I need to give a massive shout-out to the amazing people at KUHL for sending me a ton of awesome clothes to help me stay cool, comfortable, and Zika-free while camping in Nicaragua for two weeks! Thank you guys so much!

Since I’m still gathering my thoughts about the majority of my experience in Nicaragua (and by “gathering my thoughts” I mean “trying to stop myself from crying and daydreaming about it nonstop, which is not dramatic at all”), I wanted to start off by talking about the project I traveled there to do. Twelve people from my company traveled to Nicaragua as part of a humanitarian project in conjunction with Bridges to Prosperity (B2P), a non-profit organization that builds footbridges across the world over impassable rivers to provide accessΒ  to healthcare, education and markets. B2P employs local foremen and construction managers and helps teach local citizens construction skills, and working with the locals was one of my favorite parts of the whole process! We were in charge of building a suspension footbridge that spans 190 feet.

If you think I know a lot about bridge construction because I work at an engineering company, think again. While I would say I probably know slightly more about it than your average person, I’m an environmental scientist, so most of my work is done long before construction on the bridges and other projects ever starts. Therefore, one of the biggest sources of anxiety for me leading up to this trip was my belief that I would be the only person on the team who did not know what was going on and that I would need ridiculous amounts of help in order to do anything, and then inevitably they would throw me off the bridge in frustration. This obviously did not occur.

IMG_1039
My coworkers all still like me and no one threw me off the bridge

The bridges for B2P are constructed during the dry season, so when we got to our project it was a little…underwhelming. The water in the river was ankle-deep and didn’t look particularly threatening, but since there is only one road into and out of the village, it clearly needed to be crossed if you wanted to go anywhere. Once they showed us where the average high water mark is during rainy season (which lasts about 4 months a year), the situation made a lot more sense – the river goes over a man’s head by a significant margin! When that happens, kids can’t get to school, farmers can’t get to the market to sell their crops, and there is no access to healthcare or other emergency services. Suddenly, the bridge seemed a lot more important.

IMG_1242
The view looking across the river before we started construction

The early portions of construction started several months before we arrived and involved creating the concrete ramps that led up to the bridge and creating the places for the bridge anchors, in addition to some clearing and grading work. The large blue towers were also on site, but not in place when we arrived. When they told us we were going to be responsible for lifting them, I had absolutely no idea how that was supposed to happen! (Spoiler alert: a very robust pulley system).

IMG_1332
Tightening the bolts on the towers after they were lifted

The first day was mostly spent building the scaffolding and setting up the site for construction. While this isn’t the glamorous part of the job, it was definitely one of the most challenging parts – just physically loading everything into our 4×4 trucks (an absolute necessity in this part of the world) and then unloading them and setting it up was pretty tough. Thankfully, we had plenty of enthusiasm! Lifting the towers was the next major feat, which required a ton of manpower and a rather robust pulley system. We dealt with a ton of rain early on in construction and fell a little bit behind when it came to getting the towers lifted, but we ended up having plenty of time. Seeing the towers go up was the first thing that made us feel like a bridge might actually get constructed after all!

IMG_1301
Tower on the way up!

One unique challenge of construction that I don’t think any of us expected was the communication aspect. Our construction foremen spoke only Spanish, and although we had two native Spanish speakers on our team and I speak decent conversational Spanish, we quickly realized that the construction vocabulary is a whole different ballgame. Even our native speakers were lost when it came to the words for things like “scaffolding” and other tools because they just never use those words in real life! We had to learn pretty fast, and I spent a significant portion of my time on site translating for our team members (or attempting to – sometimes it went better than others)! So if you’re ever thinking about doing a project like this, whether you’re a Spanish speaker or not, I recommend brushing up on your construction vocabulary!

DSCN3213
Me talking with our construction foreman, Ivan. He only spoke Spanish, except for the word “drill,” which he would sometimes say in English and sometimes in Spanish. It confused me every time he said it in English because I wasn’t expecting it!

We woke up with the sun each morning around 5 am, ate breakfast at 6, and generally got rolling to the site around 7. Work lasted until usually 4-5 pm, although sometimes we cut out a little early or worked until much later if we needed to get something specific done. We dealt with rain off and on and downpours always halted construction for safety reasons. While it probably rained every day at some point or another, most of the time, it didn’t last too long and we were able to get back to work relatively quickly.

Although my family and friends teased me before I left about how I could possibly be qualified and/or helpful in the construction process (and that was a big fear of mine leading up to the trip), I actually was able to help out in most aspects of construction. After all, it doesn’t exactly require an in-depth knowledge of construction or engineering to use a drill, tighten a bolt, bend steel (that just requires brute strength, which apparently I do possess), or measure, cut, and carry wood.

DSCN3218
Nailing in fencing for the bridge – significantly harder than it looks! We all dropped about a thousand U-nails in the process.

There was plenty of work to go around, and we had lots of help from the local volunteers, too, who regularly put us to shame with their seemingly inhuman strength and quickness. We often joked that they could have built the bridge quicker without us!

IMG_2613
Some of the local muscle! These guys were out there every day, rain or shine. Here, they are tensioning the cables for the bridge.

I think my favorite local story has to be the time we decided some trees and branches needed to come down because they could potentially fall and destroy the bridge during a storm. We had already seen some trees fall during a bad storm early on in our trip, and we wanted to make sure the area around the bridge was clear. Once the decision was made, one of the locals literally stuck a machete in his back pocket and started climbing this 40-foot tall tree, which was just straight up. There were no branches until the very top. He just pulled himself up using his hands and legs and then perched himself in the tree and started hacking the limbs down! When he was done, he dropped the machete onto the ground and shimmied his way back down, then went and climbed the next tree and did it again! Fascinating fact – half the people there carried machetes around with them at all times, it seemed like.

DSCN1476
He was easily 30 feet up in the air at this point.

As the bridge came together, it was pretty amazing to see. When we arrived there, the site was literally bare except for a concrete ramp leading up to where the bridge would be. But day by day, we started to see it come together. Since I’m not an engineer, it was sometimes tough for me to visualize how it was all going to happen at first. We were doing lots of little tasks to prepare for the big aspects of construction, but for a while, it seemed like it was never going to really look like a bridge. The first moment for me when I started to be able to see what was about to happen was when we started hanging the cross beams for the bridge, which would support the wood planks (decking) that people would walk on. I was lucky enough to be up on the scaffold all day on the day we did this and got to help hang them, which was amazing!

DSCN2032
That’s me up there in the middle! Don’t worry, I’ve got my safety harness on.

Although at first we were just hanging them and they were all bunched up at one end like you see in the photo above, eventually, they started getting pulled out towards the center so that they were in their correct places. Then it really started to look like a bridge!

IMG_2018
View from the top of the scaffolding! Starting to look like a real bridge.

From that point, things really started to pick up! We started to install the decking, and it was pretty amazing to watch the bridge naturally level itself out with the weight of the wood. There was a lot of carrying wood back and forth and bouncing all over the bridge (it is a suspension bridge, after all, so it definitely swings!), but it slowly started to come together.

DSCN3194
These wood planks are heavier than they look and were cut out of the trees by hand.

As each plank was put into place, the weight of the boards leveled out the bridge and it all suddenly was perfect. I had the honor of drilling in the very last boards at the center of the bridge, which was a pretty surreal experience! While I wouldn’t say that I have a future as a construction manager or engineer, it was really rewarding to know that I contributed a lot to the project and could work hard alongside everyone else.

DSCN3211
About to drill in the final piece of decking!

One of my favorite parts of the construction experience was getting to work with all of the little kids who came out to help whenever they weren’t in school. They kids were so excited to do literally anything you asked them, and they were such hard workers!

IMG_1969
Helping measure the wood before it gets cut

The same kids showed up day after day to help, and we became fast friends with them. They loved wearing any gear that we had and always wanted to wear our glasses, hard hats, vests, and gloves. Luckily, there were plenty of extras to go around!

IMG_1967
This is Edgie – is he not the most adorable child you’ve ever seen?

One of the leaders of the village came to the site every day during the months it took to build the bridge, and she kept track of the number of hours worked by each man, woman, and child who helped. At the inauguration party for the bridge, she announced who had worked the most and it was no surprise to us to find out that Kevin, one of the little boys who had constantly been by our sides for two weeks, was the winner! This kid had such a sweet spirit and always wanted to help in any way he could, play sports with us, or just sit around and talk. Such a hard worker and great kid!

IMG_2068
Kevin hard at work at the bridge! Ready to hand us anything we needed.

To celebrate the opening of the bridge, we had a huge party that people from all of the neighboring towns attended. The inauguration was massive and people came from far and wide to attend! There was music (powered by a generator), balloons, lots of speeches, a pinata, dancing, and of course, tons of running back and forth across the bridge.

20160721_174025
Just some of the hundreds and hundreds of people who showed up to the inauguration

This community has been asking for a bridge for more than 15 years because the river is impassable during the rainy season, cutting them off from schools, hospitals, markets, and more. So needless to say, they were pretty excited when the bridge was completed!

IMG_1186
Kevin and Edgie jumping for joy on inauguration morning!
13691020_10104782062135998_330784593387144240_o
Excited to finally be crossing their new bridge!

If you had asked me when we got there, I might have told you it would be impossible that there would be a bridge across that river less than two weeks later. But thanks to the amazing staff of Bridges to Prosperity, the incredible people on our team, and the relentless hard work of our local volunteers, it actually happened!

13775619_10104782101407298_1016143429762849149_n
Isn’t she beautiful?

I can’t say I thought I would ever work on a project like this, but it turned out to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life! I’ve got a ton more to share with you about my trip, so stay tuned!

LEAVE A COMMENT: Have you ever worked on a large-scale humanitarian project like this?

13775619_10104782101407298_1016143429762849149_n13775619_10104782101407298_1016143429762849149_nSave

Save

Save

Save

Save

25 thoughts on “Building a Bridge in Nicaragua

  1. This was an awesome post for so many reasons! What great work you, your team, and the community did!!! There’s a tremendous sense of satisfaction in seeing something get made with your own two hands. It was fascinating learning how a suspension bridge is built. I had always wondered.

    1. Thanks so much, Elle! It really was satisfying to watch the bridge come together, especially once it really “looked” like a bridge. It’s not very often that I get to do stuff like that, so it was a lot of fun!

  2. I am just in awe of you and everyone who made this bridge possible. Maybe it’s because I have been reading mostly negative, hateful, depressing news but THIS! THIS is amazing and makes me feel like our world, and the people in it, are good and can come together to work toward a common goal and get shit done!!! Truly inspiring and just amazing. You are an incredible person Danielle and I hope you realize the impact you have made!

    And yes, that kid is the cutest human on the planet! OMG!

    1. I agree, Allie. I think that was one of my favorite parts about the whole project! We left in the middle of tons of terrorist attacks and all the shootings with police and the public, and it was just awful. It was so nice to be able to disconnect from all of the negativity and depression and just focus on really interacting with people and working together! I was absolutely dreading turning on my WiFi and waited until the last possible day of the trip right before we came home. Thanks so much for the kind words πŸ™‚

  3. That is so amazing! I am so happy for the people of that village in Nicaragua, this was a great read and a truly touching story. Great job to you and your team! I understand how it feels to give back when it seems like you are giving so little, but to the receiver it is a big deal. I participated in a missions trip to Kenya a couple of years back and helped build a well for an orphanage. It was time well spent :-).

    1. THIS is what life is all about. Coming together for the greater good of all mankind. Such a refreshing story to read in the middle of all the political hate. Thank you for sharing. Those kiddos are beautiful! I have never been on s project that large. Hopefully one day I’ll have an opportunity to cross seas and help. I can only imagine how life changing an event like that would be.

      1. Thanks, Jess! It was definitely a much needed break from all of the politics and depressing news, especially what was occurring the two weeks before we left with the police shootings, terrorist attacks, etc. It was nice to be able to just focus on helping each other and connecting with others, for a change.

    2. That sounds like an incredible trip, Clarise! I think honestly sometimes the people who do these types of projects get more out of it than those who are supposed to be on the receiving end. I feel so blessed and fortunate to be able to go, and I’m not the one who technically “benefits” from the bridge! I definitely want to do more work like this in the future.

  4. I love this story. Such a great feeling to be part of a big project like this.

    I have had a similar language story. Living in Miami there are tons of Spanish speakers but I speak French. In my 20s I worked for a financial software company. Every so often I’d end up on the phone helping a French speaker and I immediately realized I didn’t know any financial words and not very many software words. It was kind of hilarious. I flubbed my way through a call or two and then luckily I ended up with a French-Canadian who didn’t actually need to speak French but It was good for me because they helped me make a little translation cheat sheet.

    Can’t wait to see what you do next!

    1. That’s so funny, Amy! It’s strange how many words we never think about needing that are so specific to one certain industry. We had our little cheat sheets by the end of the trip, too, but I’m not sure how often I’ll get to use the word for “scaffolding” in my day to day life πŸ™‚

  5. I am just agog. What an incredible opportunity and trip. You truly made an impact on a community, and for a long, long time they will think of and remember you and your team (and the other way around). How could this not be life changing?!

  6. And now…here I sit at work…at 8am on a Friday with tears in my eyes. This is just absolutely amazing! So awesome that you (& your team) were able to help other humans that were in such need of basic necessities of life (make sense??). Congrats to all of you!

    1. Thanks so much, Aimee! It makes me cry, too. The ability to simply get from place to place is something many of us take for granted, and it was really humbling to make something so basic possible for other people. It was amazing!

  7. I too have tears in my eyes as I read this. I am sooo incredibly proud of you and your accomplishments!! I want to go on the next building of a bridge! You know I love tools πŸ™‚ Great job honey!!!

    1. Hahaha you would have been great at it! Maybe you should volunteer for Habitat for Humanity or something back home.

  8. One of my favourite memories of the last trip to Tanzania was when I did my afternoon run to Suzie’s shack (the closest general “store”) to grab some supplies. My friend and I decided to grab bottles of Coke and sit in the shade on Suzie’s stoop. While we did, we watched a group of five guys put up a telephone poll for a new street lamp completely by hand. Dug the hole, lifted the poll, secured it, scampered up it to add the lamp and hang the cords… all by hand. Also, machetes everywhere. There may have been a round of laughter at the mzungu (white person) who didn’t know how to open a coconut with a machete (while holding the coconut in her hand). πŸ˜€

    1. (I’m a little drunk. Forgot to say…)
      I loved reading about your experience in Nicaragua. Sounds like it was a wonderful time for you both personally and professionally. Will it be possible to do another trip like this in the future?

      1. Isn’t it amazing what people can accomplish and do with so little? I was absolutely blown away by it. I can’t even imagine how quickly and perfectly they could have built that bridge if they had our tools. Unbelievable!

        It might be possible to do another one in the future, but I’m not sure. Our company has committed to doing several more in partnership with the organization, but they probably will not pick the same people since our company is huge and they want to spread the opportunity around.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *