Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Wee Little Puente

We have completed the bridge in Rancheria, Nicaragua as a part of the CH2M Foundation and Bridges to Prosperity partnership.  While I would love to provide daily briefings, there are plenty of blogs to do that.  Instead, I will provide a few highlights of how this trip stood out to me compared to some of my previous B2P adventures.  The following three topics were the differentiators that made this one of my favorite bridge trips of all time. 

  • Incredible people
  • Power of humor
  • Job Satisfaction

When I think back to Rancheria, I will think of faces, not tools.  I will think of names, not towns.  I will think of Hector who walked 1.5 hours to and from the bridge everyday, arriving before the rest of us stumbled over from our ready made breakfast in time for the morning briefing and exercises.   I will think of Darwin, the really good soccer player who was too shy to let me take his picture, but he was there when we needed someone to climb a tree (in soccer cleats) and machete a branch that was in the way of our survey equipment.

I will think of Haydeen, a young girl I met on the second to last day because I thought she had a crush on Mangel (the middle sons in what became our onsite family- more on them later).  As it turned out, she said that Mangel was in her family, so she did not want him to be her novio (boyfriend).  Instead, I gathered that she wanted to talk with us girls.  We were women who were hammering nails and not afraid to climb the scaffolding, and my hunch was that she was going to be like that when she grew up too.  She was shy at first, but on the last day she was pulling us over to dance.

Hanging with Haydeen and Mangel at the bridge site

Our family... I will never forget this family.  Mom - Dona Lorena who cooked for us for two weeks and whose tears caused my tears on the day we left.  Dad - Don Juan who kept the cows out of our campsite every day and who was afraid to take photos, except this one!  Sons - Juan (14), Mangel (10), and Derleen (8) who became the best friends to our entire CH2M group.  I will remember Juan taking us to the deep spot in the river where we had a group bath under the stars.  It was one of my favorite nights, and he just sat there shivering while we all laughed and embraced the awkwardness.  I will remember Mangel because we got 12 headers back and forth playing soccer.  I could see the determination in his face, and he was so incredibly skilled that he was catering to me rather than the other way around.  Mangel is one I have thought about often since my return.  I guarantee if I could have packed him in my bag as I had hoped, he would get a college scholarship for soccer, and I know he would be successful in whatever career he would choose (my guess is journalism).  Instead he will probably follow his brother Juan in taking care of the cattle after middle school because the high school is out of financial reach for this family.

I will remember Derleen meeting us each morning at the bodega listening to our morning briefings.  There was never a time that kid did not have a smile on his face.  What a good reminder when you hear the happiness in his laughter while he played with a cardboard box - the power of a child's imagination.  The ability to have fun significantly offset the lack of any food, clothes, or money in their pockets.

And of course Rebecca, the 4 year old that ran the show, both in her family and our family.  I can't count the times we all did exactly what she said just because of the authority in her 4 year old voice.  When she demanded "Nathan" 10 times in a row, she generally got a response.

Befriending the community was something I was (selfishly) expecting.  That is part of the reason that I love to work with Bridges to Prosperity.  These projects take months, and the in-country staff does a great job connecting with the benefactors of the work, so relationships are established from the beginning.  Generally the communities are comprised of really good people with amazing stories who are uncomfortably shy and skeptical when you show up and who have touched your heart so much you want to pack them in your bags when you leave.   This time with Brandon, Katie, Robyn, Alex, and Leonel was no different.  There was a respect for anyone associated with the B2P organization, and particularly Robyn who had spent months living in the community!  She was a local celebrity on inauguration day!  

But this time, there was an X-factor in that it wasn't just me as the gringo, or a group of loud American teenagers who could be spotted from the highway.  We were 10 professionals from the same company, which meant very little at the time, coming from all over the world.  In hind sight, this made me realize that the CH2M Koolaid about "our people are the differentiator" really has some legitimacy.  I told Tessa, whoever picked the teams did an amazing job!  Every single person on this team had so much to offer, and there was not one person who didn't have a positive benefit on my experience!  I honestly wish there would be a way we could reconvene this group of people at another point in time!
  • Helena - you can't be mad around her because she is always happy and laughing
  • Ksenia - she was the brains behind a lot of the detailed operations, though she was camera shy!
  • Marlon - the tester of the clinica who made the absolute most of every day, be it working or kicking up the legs and talking with Don Juan
  • Tim - who had more electronics, power tools, camping gear, and cooler of beers than any  American Walmart
  • Nathan - the adopted older brother of our family as the kids would say his name at least 20 times per day
  • Mo - my partner in crime on the scaffolding who was the reason that some of the scaffolding fit together
  • Kenny - the most improved Spanish speaker who provided the most laughs from Spanish blunders to dancing to dad jokes
  • Owen - made sure we all stayed safe at all times (despite his broken pinky toe)
  • Javier - the translator who kept everyone moving in one direction on schedule 

Constructing this bridge led to more belly laughs than I have had in years.  This was a result of a group of people living in less than ideal conditions making the absolute most of every day because we knew it wasn't going to last long enough.  From Kenny's chicken dance (which is apparently how the Scots like to move) to Leonel singing "I'm sexy and I know it" to Mo's unexpected piggy backs to Helena's gun show, there was never I time I was longing to be elsewhere.  One of my favorite quotes is "Happiness is never stopping to wonder if you are."  There was no time to stop and wonder how I was feeling between working, eating delicious readily prepared meals, river bathing, drinking local beers, and crashing in the tent for some short nights sleep.  At each one of these activities I was laughing in the present rather than longing for the past or future.  Part of this presence can be attributed to the lack of technology... ah what a relief... but part of it was truly enjoying the camaraderie of everyone around.  There is no need to long for home when you are belly laughing at a song about platypuses!

So I have gone on and on about the people, but this bridge had one other special quality that has left an impression on me.  As a millennial, I am all about instant gratification.  Throughout my 8 year career at CH2M, I have learned that projects take time and money and patience and changes and rework and maybe sometimes they get built.  The model that Bridges to Prosperity and CH2M have built provides one of the most rewarding experiences in one's life within a two week time frame.  There was a lot of work (mostly by other people) building up to this trip and throughout the two weeks we were there.  Having worked on many bridges in those stages, I totally understand the necessary but thankless effort that goes into those underground phases of the bridge.  But for these two weeks, we got to come in, finish her up, share the glory, and celebrate the success!  Whether it was one drop of sweat or 10 gallons of sweat contributed to this bridge, it would be impossible for anyone to see the smiles from the locals and not feel an overwhelming sense of pride.  Each day we watched women, kids, families, motorcycles, horses, and milk trucks pass through the river, often taking off their shoes and rolling up their pants on each side, lucky that is was passible.  Knowing that the pant rolling and the piggy backs are things of the past is a gratifying feeling.  While I had a small part in this overall project, this project had a big imprint on me.  My appreciation for simple things like roads, showers, toilets, schools, books, and toys have deepened.  My appreciation for manual laborers has definitely grown!  And the fact that every time I look at this bridge, I will feel a sense of pride in how I helped change the lives of the 200 people in this community today and many more in the future.  After all, isn't that the reason we all go to work each day?

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

CH2M Foundation Nicaragua

This is the first post in a while, and it appears that my blog has turned into a documentary of my B2P trips.  I guesss that is the beauty of this work.  I am forced to step back and reflect on what I am doing here and in life... with no phone, no internet, no work deadlines to distract.   

I am just about to board the plane, and the 2 things I am most looking forward to are meeting the other team members and disconnecting from all my electronics! The beauty of this technical world is that it has been seamless connecting with these new faces, and that has made me really excited to embark on this adventure with them.  The beauty of heading to rural Nicaragua to build a bridge with the community is that we will have very little social media  to distract us from truly engaging with this community!  So until I am back in service... Begin the digital detox!

Follow us on the CH2M foundation blog as well... Because you are already on the internet!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

El Salvador

As I sit hear watching a special on shamefully addictive reality TV shows, it seems paradoxical to reflect on my amazing adventure exploring the simplicities of human nature and development in Central America. But I will do my best to focus on the minimalism of the under-developed world. There are three common themes that are reappearing on each of my bridge trips: 1) Really Good People, 2) with great risks come great rewards, and 3) no matter where you come from, human nature longs for the same things.
The Duke EWB team that I got to work with was amazing. They were incredibly intelligent- with ingenious ideas of ways to make these bridges better. They were always positive- not a single person complained about a lack of running water or bucket showers. And I think my favorite part of working with this group was the passion and excitement about building, engineering, traveling, school, careers. I don't feel that far from college, but this group was a great reminder of the zest that college gives you. It is that "you can change the world" feeling that you get after a graduation speech all the time!
Working with the Duke team also made for a different experience within the communities. There was no secret that we were a group of Gringos here working on a project. There were plenty of people in the communities who caught wind of this and offerred great opportunities like basketball games against the mayor's team, typical dinner feasts, and touristy trips to waterfalls. Good people offering great experiences. However, it also made for an interesting dynamic at the bridge sites. The interaction with the community members took a lot more initiative. Despite these challenges, we met some incredible people making a lot out of a little and leaving big footprints in their communities.
And to top off the good people theme, there were several other people along the way who all had their own inspirational story. Netta, the program director in El Salvador, has dedicated her life to building these bridges and these relationships and has incredible tact and a convincing smile to do just that. In addition to Netta, there were countless people I crossed paths with, each with their own story of an NGO they are workings with or a reason they were chasing waves in El Salvador. These life stories were not only interesting, but also forced some self reflection on the status of my own routine lifestyle in America.
Secondly, I am learning that the more uncomfortable, more exhausted, and dirtier I get, the more I am going to take away. This trip involved a lot of hard work. This was to be expected as each of the previous bridges also involved a lot of sweating, but this time, there was no one there telling me to stop carrying buckets because I am a girl. However, this increased work load has led me to a new found appreciation for daily maual labor and an appreciation for the quote "you get out of it what you put into it." Each bridge that I have put my deet, sweat, and jeans into holds a place in my heart proportional to the pounds of material that I lugged up and down the hills. The cables count for a good chunk of those pounds.
As with the other bridges in Central America, the people are unbelievably strong- both morally and physically. If you were only taking their appearance, you would think that they would not survive one day of shoveling concrete or carrying wood. But then factor in the lifetime of manual labor and field work, and they still exceed expectations. Two concrete blocks would be enough to put me on my face, and these 80 year old men that are half my height and weight have three blocks on their shoulder without as much as a wince.
Lastly, this trip has taught me that people everywhere have the same basic life needs- and roofs overhead and food in your stomach are very much relative. It seems that everyone, no matter where you are, is in search of a life purpose, people to love, and a legacy to leave. Each person has a story to tell of what they do to make money and survive/ to serve their family/ to serve their community. It doesn't matter if they are 6 years old in El Salvador or 60 years old and dying of AIDS in Zambia. Conversations with people in rural communities show that opportunities are hard to come by, but the look in their eye when discussing their roles in their community is incredible. Some people are AIDS educators, some people are farmers, some are mothers, and some people are political leaders. One of my favorite examples of the consistencies in human nature everywhere was when the mason, after working hard all day on a bridge, turns into a father figure when he sees his daughter's picture and smiles and tells her she is beautiful. The working together, the mutual respect, and the lasting relationships really make the people just as important as the bridges that will last lifetimes.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Zambia 20/20

The two months spent in Zambia crept by some days, but in the end it went incredibly fast. It is sometimes hard to appreciate the experience enough while living it, so I want to reflect on some of my favorite parts of my trip in hindsight. As someone who is a firm believer in giving back to other people- though often I feel like I don't have much to give- this opportunity was a gift to be able to work with Bridges to Prosperity and Zoe to build something that will last a lifetime and truly change the lives of the communities. Just hearing some of the older people talk about times when they have struggled because of nature's barriers made me feel like I was the face they were associating with hope. As an engineer- it doesn't get more real than that. That was a feeling undeserved but unmatched in my lifetime so far. Living in the African culture sometimes felt similar to home and sometimes felt the world apart that it is, but it made the experience. I will never forget standing up and church and the entire congregation shaking my hand. I will never forget watching the soccer games with people in bare feet kicking a flat ball through the weeds with the same competitiveness as the World Cup. I will never forget walking to get cell phone coverage and holding my phone in the air like the good ole days. I will never forget the people who are often hungry and always poor offering me the food that they cooked for dinner. And finally, I will never forget that uneducated does not always mean unintelligent. Zambia, and specifically people like Charles Shamiyoyo and Chileshe and the Headmistress of the Kamnjoma school, will always hold a special place in my heart.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Nyanja Lessons

So, I spent 10 days in the Eastern Province at the Kamnjoma bridge site working on building the bridge towers. This was full immersion living in the bush with no running water- only a hand pump- no electricity- except for the solar panel I was given- and no cell network. It was an amazing learning experience to see how they really live. I even got to go to their church, and see the singing and dancing even though the only word I could understand was Jesus Christo (hopefully some videos to come later). They even had me go up to the front and introduce myself, and then everyone in the church came through and shook my hand with big smiles- incredible!

We made a lot of progress on the bridge, but I think the group I was working with thought that I was too strict because they had never had a female musungu come tell them what to do and make them finish the job each day. Although there was a language barrier, we had a lot of laughs while they were teaching me Nyanja and listening to me try to make the Mwauka Bwanji sound like they sound. I did learn how to say "Let's go!" to get them to keep working- Tiyen was my favorite saying, and if that didn't work I would pull out my camera to take pictures and they would all work a little harder! It was very cool to see how everyone in the community stopped by to see the progress, and most often everyone who came by pitched in and did some shoveling or carrying- even the children who unloaded the cement truck with bags that weighed more than them.

I even got to take two trips on local transport- on the console in the inside which was a priority seat because I was a Musungu working in the community but not exactly comfortable after 4 hours each way. The second trip was on this Honda with a worker at the clinic which only took an hour and half. Much more pleasant, and even felt a little like Colorado.

Despite the shocking number of people who are hungry and poor, there is an amazing peace and happiness in this place. There are people who get along and people who don't, but they always had smiles on their faces and a respectful handshake to say hello. It really put the Western lifestyle that I am used to in perspective. Kids have to make their own toys out of tree branches and old bicycle parts. Adults have to save up money for transport into the city to get spare parts. The soccer ball that I brought gave the kids from several villages hours of entertainment playing both soccer and their version of handball- crazy how a simple ball is something of value there. However, there is no complaining of the way they live. They were more interested in showing me their maiz market and teaching me their language. It was an incredible experience to be working on a project that will impact so many people for many years to come in a place where the entire community went out of their way to make me feel at home.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


This is Africa... a common saying around here. These pictures speak for themselves.


So, last week was spent in the Western Province in the Shamiyoyo village. Valentin (left in the picture) is a Civil Engineer who just graduated from university in Germany and came out here to spend a month volunteering building bridges. We had a lot of good laughs, and it was nice to have another Musungu (white person) to laugh with. For example, we had quite a time when we met the chief. They sit a certain way with their legs folded underneath them, but Valentine and I could not manage to bend our legs that way, so he fell over when sitting down, and both of us looked incredibly awkward during the meeting- to the point the chief told Mr. Shamiyoyo to tell us to sit in the chairs- something even his own guards weren't allowed to do. Another example: we met the Zambia National Guard (ZNS) who helped us transport some materials. The names of the people we met were "Boneface Shamywanga" and Colonel Chembe- pronounced Col-o-nel. Valentine and I had a hard time keeping a straight face when we were introduced. To add to our ZNS experience, we bought them 60L of diesel and watched them poor it in a green tractor. Then we saw them start a red tractor. I asked "Boneface" why they were starting the red tractor, and he responded with "the red tractor is for our harvesting, and the green tractor is meant for towing loads, but the green tractor can not start on its own, so the red tractor has to take it to start." So after watching the red tractor tow the green tractor full of fuel off into the distance disappearing for about 20 minutes, I had my doubts. But the driver and the mechanic carrying his wrenches managed to get it going and deliver the materials with push starting it down hills every time they had to unload.
Mr. and Mrs. Shamiyoyo (right in the picture) and their son, Charles (middle-left) were so great! Charles showed us around the village and taught us a few words like Mwapenduku- the greeting and even showed us the foods that they eat. Charles even took us to the markets and showed us some maiz grinding. They even gave us a huge bag of peanuts and sweet potatoes to take home. I tried some raw casava root- which was very hard to eat- as you can see- because I felt like I was going to break all of my teeth, and I don't think my dad would be too impressed if I returned home toothless.
Even in the first few minutes of being on site, the need for the bridge was obvious. The community members started crossing the river in their canoe- one person at a time. And after about 15 minutes, they decided we should all go to the other side- taking about 20 minutes to drive the car and an additional 20 minutes to get all of the people across in the canoe. The bridge broke ground on construction with much enthusiasm, and they finished the first foundation walls while I was still there. Everyone worked really hard, and there were always extra people around watching or throwing in an extra hand. Even the young girls were able to carry bricks from the village to the river on their head- let me tell you- they are not light!
And a side note- I heart Toyota trucks! Zoe's trusty Tacoma took me all over the country without a hitch while she was on vacation in Italy. I was so nervous about car problems, but I should have trusted those Japanese vehicles- even on the roads filled with potholes and washboards and crazy Zambian truck drivers.