This past summer, along with 7 other students from Cornell’s Engineers Without Borders team, I traveled to Calcha, Bolivia for 8 weeks. We built a suspended (hanging) pedestrian bridge that gives the community easier and safer access to their farmland across the Vitichi River. This bridge is vital because during the rainy season (approximately Oct.-Apr.) the river swells to the point where it’s nearly uncrossable and the villagers are unable to reach their crops; their only viable source of food and income. In addition to constructing the bridge we performed further assessment tests and are in the process of designing and implementing a water filtration and storage system that will provide reliable long-term access to clean water during the dry season. EWB-Cornell and our professional mentors partner with Calcha to make these projects a reality to revitalize the community and save it from possible abandonment.
I’ve been home for about 3 days now. I’ve taken more showers than I used to take in a week, my skin has reverted from dry reptilian back to its normal mammalian, my hair is back to happy and curly because it no longer has to be strangled in two braids anymore, my arms and face seem to be a different race than the rest of me, my fingernails are now white instead of black, I don’t wake up with ice cold feet anymore, and I think I’ve finally shed even the most embedded layers of dust and cable grease.Thank goodness.
But now I don’t get to doodle with the kids anymore when the weekly meetings get boring, I can’t walk to the soccer field to find someone to play with us, no one tells me it’s time to “mobilize” twice a day every day, I don’t get to smile and nod when a sweet old lady tries to talk to me thinking that I speak Quechua, I can’t walk down the street saying “buen día” to everyone because I know them all by name, I don’t get to play 7 rounds of UNO in one night, or discuss the drama happening among the local dog population, or listen to a bedtime story about 3 ducklings and a chocolate bunny, or spend 10 minutes trying to find some unknown tool/material because the mason asked me for “el chiquito” (which could mean literally anything), and on top of all that, I’m missing my team.
The most important thing I learned this summer is that engineering isn’t actually about engineering; it’s about the people you’re working with and for. Focusing on the “with,” I don’t think you could’ve found another set of 8 personalities that were more divergent than ours, but we were unbelievably lucky that our team meshed together so perfectly. By the end I felt like I had 7 siblings with whom I got to work, play, and travel with every day. That said, let me introduce (as one of our mentors Sam appropriately dubbed us) the “team of the millennium”:
Anna: The baby of the team (a rising sophomore) and one of our two beloved Colombians. I actually ended up spending 24 hours at her house with her parents in Miami when I got stuck there because I missed the flight to La Paz by 2 minutes (not my fault, that is another story entirely). She is funny, genuine, and a real sweetheart. She was also our health and safety officer (basically the band-aid police) so I hit her up quite often.
Bethany: A saving grace when it came to being impartial and patient, keeping calm in frustrating situations, and volunteering when clearly no one else wanted to. She’s very compassionate and always concerned about the well-being of others. Bethany was also Susan’s trusty water project assistant.
Joe: He hates spoons and saliva. That’s really all you need to know (kidding, haha sorry Joe ;)). He is the Go Pro master, Quality Control extrodinaire (aka cement bag counter), and most importantly, the margarine king. Oh and he also never wears sunscreen so his face and arms are actually a different race than the rest of him.
Jon: The only real adult on our team (Class of 2016, congrats!) because he has a real adult job* in Nicaragua in the fall. Jon is the quietest, calmest, zen-est, and least-likely-to-have-murderous-tendencies-towards-you-if-you-vomit-all-over-his-stuff-est. He’s a hard worker, slow and steady and persistent, and has a huge heart. (*Jon has to raise money to be able to work at his non-profit in Nicaragua so if you’re interested in financially supporting him in his endeavors to help others, please see his message at the bottom of this post)
Mario: The best of the best when it comes to immune systems (probably from living in Colombia for half his life), our de facto team translator and community representative, and my personal insanity prevention person when we waited two hours in the Church for the Catholic mass to start. Mario is known for going into town on official business and getting sucked into parties, so he’s now bros with all the community members. ALL of them. He also probably took more showers over the two months than the rest of us put together.
Nathalie: The bridge team leader who spent the most sleepless nights doing calculations, writing banal bureaucratic reports, and prepping for travel. She’s the most upbeat, sunshiney, morning person of the team, always ready to mobilize us right on time. She also has a superior immune system, being one of the only ones to remain vomit free (since ’93! haha) for the duration of the trip. Nathalie’s main task was to constantly make sure that the rest of us didn’t mess everything up. Hahahahahaha…but seriously. I wish I were joking.
Susan: The mastermind behind every logistic of the trip and our water sanitation and distribution project expert (the other project our team is also working on). She is the most dog friendly, strong willed, and bravest team member in the sense that she knew almost zero spanish before the trip. Despite the two of us being very different people, we bonded over a surprising number of commonalities, especially not understanding why it appears to be physically impossible for most young males to take off a sweatshirt without consequently pulling off their entire shirt. STAHP. PLEASE.
Sam: There were only 8 students, but really our team was 9 because we would’ve been so lost without our mentor Samuel along with his old and wizened 24 years of life experience, his gnomie socks, and snazzy get-well-soon pants. While we had three different mentors at different points in the trip, Sam was there for the most difficult part of construction, he was there for the longest period of time (one month), and he balanced being our friend and being our mentor so perfectly. He was all smiles and sunshine, all 5 feet and 6 inches of him, all the time.
I couldn’t have asked for a more amazing team, and I must say, *cue British accent* ’twas even better than summering in the Hamptons.
A message from Jon: “I’m raising money for my internship in Nicaragua this fall to cover transportation and living expenses. If you’re interested in financially contributing, you can go to http://emiworld.org/donate.php and click either Create Account or Make One-Time Donation. On the donation page under “Select Category” pick “Interns (Select name below)” and pick “Mabuni, Jonathan – 3215″ to ensure the donation gets credited to my account. E-check is recommended to avoid credit card fees. If you’ve got any questions or want to receive updates, you can shoot me a fb message or email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I’ll try to respond as soon as I can.Thank you to all who have responded so far!”