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.