Building a Bridge in 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 access  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_1039-1024x683-1-2 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_1242-1024x768-1-2 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_1332-1024x768-1-2 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_1301-1024x768-1-2 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!

dscn3213-1024x768-1-2 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.

dscn3218-1024x768-1-2 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_2613-1024x768-1-2 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.

dscn1476-1024x768-1-2 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!

dscn2032-1024x768-1-2 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_2018-768x1024-1-2 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.

dscn3194-1024x768-1-2 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.

dscn3211-1024x768-1-2 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_1969-1024x768-1-2 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_1967-768x1024-1-2 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_2068-768x1024-1-2 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_174025-1024x576-1-2 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_1186-1024x683-1-2 Kevin and Edgie jumping for joy on inauguration morning! 13691020_10104782062135998_330784593387144240_o-1024x768-1-2 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-1-2 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?