Bittersweet Birthday

June 9th, 2018

It’s been a very bittersweet birthday.

It’s the first birthday I’ve spent away from home, which is actually quite impressive considering I’ve had 22 of them and I’m very rarely home anymore. Even last year, when I thought would be the first time away, I ended up taking my 3 final exams in the first two days of the month-long exam period because I had to get back to the U.S. to start my internship, so I arrived home 6 hours before my 21st birthday. The amusing part was that after 10 months of being over the legal drinking age, I was underage again for a mere 6 hours.

This year I left for Bolivia about 48 hours after getting home from graduation. We left on May 31st and arrived back home on June 7th, so I spent my birthday (June 4th) in the Andes mountains in a little village called Calcha. We had a private meeting with the Mayor of Vitichi, met with several community members to gather information about the effects and use of the bridge, and played a rousing game of Bolivian UNO. The team even made me a little birthday card at breakfast and surprised me with a chocolate cake at lunch, brought all the way from La Paz without my knowing, and sang happy birthday.


On the day we were to fly from La Paz to Santa Cruz to Miami (and then to Orlando for me), we got stuck in Santa Cruz for several hours due to something malfunctioning on the plane. Knowing I probably wasn’t going to make my connection, and possibly not any connection that night, I called my dad using whatsapp and the unpredictable airport wifi to ask if someone could come pick me up in Miami and just make the long drive home. The answer was “no” because, as I wasn’t supposed to find out until I got home, my dad had to drive my mom to the Orlando airport that night so she could fly to Ireland to be with my grandad. I knew that he had come down with pneumonia the previous week and had been doing fairly well initially but apparently a few days prior, on my birthday, everything started going downhill really fast.

He passed away early this morning; my mom and her three older brothers next to him.

He was kind but firm, quick-witted, had a great sense of humor, and was incredibly humble. I never knew about most of his interesting stories until I visited him several times while studying in Spain and whenever we had a cup of tea or dinner together I started simply asking questions. I learned that he had visited and experienced the strangeness of East Berlin during the cold war, was allergic to whiskey, and couldn’t understand some of the really thick Irish accents (I think from Kerry?) despite being a native.

One of my favorite memories was when I visited in March 2017. I flew up from Santander for the weekend, just because. On Friday we were planning what to make for dinner and I explained to him that I wasn’t supposed to eat meat because it was a Friday during Lent. (He was the stereotypical friendly “yer grand” tea-drinking-five-times-a-day elderly Irishman in pretty much every way except in that he was not Catholic). Of course, the traditional Irish diet does not cater well to eating vegetarian, so every option he had contained meat. We ended up ordering pizza (and by “we” I mean “I” because he had never done it before, and I had to ask the guy to repeat everything because I couldn’t understand his accent over the phone) with onions, peppers, mushrooms, oregano, and who knows what else on a thin crust. He ended up liking it much more than he expected. Several months later my uncle messaged me asking what it was I had ordered on the pizza that one time because my grandad wanted to order it again, exactly the same way. So apparently I inadvertently got him hooked on pizza.

Here are a few excerpts from the eulogy that my uncle wrote, of things that I didn’t really know (or at least the details were very fuzzy) until now:

“At the end of his time in school he wanted to study medicine at TCD and sat the matriculation exam which he passed, unfortunately the family circumstances were such that he could not take up the place, so he set his sights on becoming and Accountant and joined the Great Northern Railway.”

“Growing up in Dundalk [he] attended Dundalk Grammar School in the 1930s playing both hockey and badminton for the School. He used to reminisce about cycling 15 miles to Carrickmacross after school to play a match and then cycle back afterwards.”

“He was elected to the Olympic Council where he was Vice president for 8 years, and to the Sports Council. He was at 3 Olympic games, firstly as a swimming judge in Montreal, and as the team manager for the entire Irish team in Los Angeles in 1984 and Seoul in 1988…Dad retired from all his sports positions in 1988, but in 2015 when he was 91, Swim Ireland presented him with a Hall of Fame Award…”

But I do know that he loved apple pie and American bacon, that even at 94 he played sudoku every day, and that despite living in times of great religious and political tensions in Ireland, when all four of his children married Catholics and countless other parents would’ve been furious and unaccepting, he disregarded judgement from others and without hesitation welcomed his childrens’ spouses as family.


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When I returned home from Bolivia, the plan had been to properly celebrate my birthday. We ordered a Publix cake and planned to go out to dinner; the usual for birthdays in my family. But now my mom isn’t here. She was boarding her plane as my plane landed. The task of combing through all the messages and emails that have piled up over the last week, including all the ones wishing me happy birthday and asking about Bolivia now just seems daunting.

My grandad was supposed to have his hip replaced at the end of June so he could walk farther and more easily like he used to, which feels like not very long ago. I was going to move in with him in August before starting my job in Dublin in September. I was going to be there to cook for him, help him with daily tasks, and keep him company. My uncle who lives nearby has always come over four days a week to take him out to Howth Harbor, go grocery shopping, and simply spend time with him, but it was going to be a huge help and great comfort also having someone there every day. I was going to live with him at least for the first several months, and then find a place of my own at some undetermined point. My granddad, uncle, and I were going to go to England for a weekend in August to attend my cousin’s Memorial Golf Tournament. My parents were going to come visit in November to surprise him for his 95th birthday, something they were planning even before I got the job and planned to move there. I found it amusing that he would be living at my house in Florida for a couple months a year, while I’d still be living in his house, trading places practically. After having the opportunity to visit several times during my time abroad, I was excited to hear more of his interesting stories from his life, drink tea together, eat sweet potato fries (excuse me, chips), go for walks in Howth and pick up some fresh fish, make rhubarb jam, rhubarb compote, rhubarb everything, etc.

But now it’s going to be an empty house. It’ll just be my uncle and I going to the golf tournament. My parents won’t be visiting in November. I’ll have to find my own place to live sooner than I thought. I’ll still move into the house for a bit, because selling it takes time and I’ll be helping sort things out and maintain it. It’s just that the house will be much quieter and lonelier. I’m still ecstatic to move there, but Dublin has lost a truly amazing Irishman.


Bolivia Take 2

May 31st – June 7th 2018

I returned to Calcha, Bolivia for a few days to close out the program between EWB Cornell and Calcha. Since I’ve never explained fully and mainly focused on the bridge aspect (because that’s the project I was most involved in), this is an overview of the entire set of projects within the 5-year program agreement.

During the summer of 2014, a few students from Engineers Without Borders Cornell (EWB) traveled to the Andean village of Calcha to inspect an existing spring box (which provides water storage and distribution) and test the water quality. The spring box wasn’t functional due to either being broken or not completely installed, so the team planned to do some research during the academic year in order to get it up and running when they returned the following summer. The water test came back relatively clean; the only thing the team could do to further improve the quality was provide them with chlorine tablets, but that didn’t require any type of engineering and the community didn’t show much interest in that idea either. However, while the team was visiting they spoke with individual households, and several community members expressed the need to cross the river when the water rose during the rainy season. The team decided that during the coming academic year they would do a feasibility assessment and, when they returned the following summer, they would potentially do some land surveying. Our team was new and this was their first project, so they didn’t have much experience, let alone in bridge building. The community would also have to show significant interest and commitment as well if the project were to happen.

In the summer of 2015 some team members returned, surveyed the river profile at a few potential locations for the bridge, gathered as many details as possible about the spring box, and spoke with the community again. A couple months later, at the start of the school year, I joined the team. Leadership told us we’d be building a pedestrian bridge in Bolivia partnering with (meaning using the design method and professional guidance of) another similar nonprofit called Bridges to Prosperity (B2P).

As some of you may already know, two years ago during the summer of 2016 I traveled to Calcha for two months with seven other students from our EWB team. We worked with the community members for seven weeks to construct a pedestrian bridge across the Vitichi River, which becomes impassable several times during most rainy seasons, making it difficult and even dangerous to cross, cutting off access to farmland (many families’ main source of income), schools, and hospitals. Between the summers of 2015 and 2016, the government had finally come in and fixed the spring box, so with the water project, again, there wasn’t a lot we could do, so all efforts ended up being focused on the bridge.

During the summer of 2017, a team of four EWB students went to Calcha to reinforce an existing irrigation canal with concrete and to provide an instruction manual and some materials to create gabions to protect both the bridge and the nearby spring box from erosion.

At the beginning of June, marking 5 years of collaboration, and therefore the close of the 5-year program agreement, three of us from the team and a professional mentor traveled to Calcha one last time. It was the final monitoring trip for the various projects, for evaluating the overall impact on the community, and closing out of the program.

I remember leaving Calcha two years ago, not knowing when I’d be back, if ever. I was thinking that the chances were I’d probably never be back, considering how far away it is and how logistically difficult it is to get there (refer to our trip home later on in this post). So having the opportunity to return was wonderful, and a bit strange, because, as Joe put it “it felt like I’d never left,” and it seemed that most things were they way they had been when we left. The bridge decking was a little more weathered and most of the children were a little (or a lot) taller, but other than that, not much seemed to have changed. Everyone we ran into asked us what we we’d been up to and where were Nati and Beti and Mario and Anna, etc. (some of those are nicknames the people gave them), so we gave the best rundown as we could of what everyone is off doing now, most of us already graduated. This time we didn’t have any electricity where we were staying (only the last day when it was finally fixed). Unfortunately only two out of five of us brought any type of illuminating device, so we survived primarily off of my and another person’s headlamps and flashlights for three days.

The trip there went pretty smoothly, especially because I took an earlier flight to Miami, which was delayed anyway but I still arrived with plenty of time to spare before the flight to La Paz.

We inspected the bridge and canal for continued structural stability and measured the canal (which consisted of climbing over large piles of earth and balancing between the steep sides of the canal, with each of us getting wet feet at one point or another), including the full length and that of the newly implemented section. We didn’t see any new gabions, and the existing gabions were leaning drastically, practically falling into the river. We measured the erosion along the river that occurred in the past year, and it turned out to be small, but not negligible. This only increased our concern about the lack of new gabions.

We had a meeting with the community, much like the weekly bridge meetings we had during construction, to explain to the community what we were doing and that we wouldn’t be back again, as a team at least. The community also explained that they hadn’t put in the gabions because the local government had said they would send a truck to collect stones from the river, but it never came, and they asked us to go to the Mayor and advocate for them. At the end, all the community members present came up to shake each of our hands, which they did before we left last time, which is a significant sign of gratitude and friendship. I got to see Evelyn as well, now nearly thirteen and much taller, even if for only about 15 minutes.

The following day happened to be my birthday and at breakfast everyone surprised me with a pocket-sized masterpiece of a birthday card, made with an index card and crayons. It was fantastic. We then drove the 45 minutes to Vitichi, the capital of the region where the government offices are, to see the mayor. We chatted with him briefly (he remembered us from last time; the banner of us in traditional clothing at a local festival still hangs on his office wall), thanked him for his support these last couple of years, and asked him to continue supporting the community after the close of the projects.

At lunch that day the team also surprised me with a chocolate cake (that was apparently brought frozen all the way from La Paz) and a candle that one of the cooks hand carved into geometric shapes and sang happy birthday. Cake is really hard to come by in Bolivia and I wasn’t expecting it at all so it made a great birthday. My only regret is that I was so excited about the cake that I never thought to take a picture of it.

The last day-and-a-half we were in Calcha, we went around knocking on people’s doors and chatting with them. This is not unusual in Bolivian society, to show up at someone’s house unannounced for a visita. We would ask about their perception of the bridge and how the construction went, how often they used it if at all, whether they had land on the other side, and any estimations of how many other people seemed to use it during the rainy season. And of course each visita meant that we were given (not offered, given) various food and drink, including buñuelos (fried dough), sangani (clear wine-like liquor that you drink like a shot), soda, soup, stew, rice, and potatoes. We ended up telling the cooks that they didn’t need to make lunch for us because we ended up having to eat so much food, as it’s considered very rude to refuse food and drinks offered to you at someone’s house.

The trip home was when things got bumpy. We left at 5 AM and drove for 12 hours from Calcha to La Paz (which is NOT a capital of Bolivia, we learned; Sucre is in fact the one and only capital). There we stayed at a hotel overnight, got up at 3:30 AM to drive to the airport, and were scheduled to take off at 6:30 AM. The plan was to fly for an hour to Santa Cruz, the largest city in Bolivia, get off the plane for an hour, re-board the same plane with new people, and fly for six hours to Miami where we would each make our own connections to various parts of the U.S.

What actually happened:

When we were going through the second security check while boarding the plane, I was randomly selected for additional security screening. When they wiped a strip on the inside of my suitcase to test for explosives, it tested positive. Twice. The inspector was very amicable and spoke English, and he searched my bag. He first asked if I’d been to Uyuni (where the salt flats are) and I said yes, I’d been there and taken the same suitcase but that was two years ago. He called over another inspector. This one asked if I had been around any fireworks. Nope. He asked if I took heart medication. No. They asked where I’d been and I said La Paz and Vitichi (the region Calcha is in) and they both looked confused and said they didn’t know where Vitichi was. After a few more questions about what I was doing there they let me go, thank goodness.

We were sitting on the tarmac and delayed for about an hour before we flew the one hour to Santa Cruz. We got off the plane and rushed to get some food and drinks (especially because we weren’t allowed to bring any water on the plane), but when we were supposed to board again, they announced that we were delayed and would be told more in 20 minutes. We were told this repeatedly until about an hour later they said that there were mechanical issues with the plane (and this was literally the only American Airlines plane in Bolivia, so there was no back-up). They ended up giving us lunch vouchers while we waited for several hours. Around noon, 3 hours delayed, we all knew that we would miss our connections in Miami so we attempted to rebook them, which was a huge difficulty in itself. I was the only one that didn’t receive an email giving me the option to rebook my flight so I was pretty stuck.

I wasn’t sure if I was even going to make the latest flight to Orlando that was scheduled to leave Miami at 9:45 PM, so I decided to call my parents (whatsapp via the sketchy airport wifi) to ask if someone could just make the 3-4 hour trek down to Miami to pick me up.

My dad on the other end told me that he wouldn’t be able to pick me up from Miami. They had been waiting to tell me when I got home that my granddad was in the hospital and not doing well so he was going to drive my mom to the Orlando airport that night. I had known he was in the hospital, but before I left he’d been doing better, but apparently a few days prior, on my birthday, he started going downhill. So not only I was stuck in Bolivia with the potential to get stuck in Miami, but I was losing my granddad, rather unexpectedly.

Thankfully, about an hour later they suddenly announced that we were going to board the plane. As I was standing in line waiting for the additional security check, a really kind airline employee at the front desk saw that I was crying, and I’m guessing she thought I was crying over a missed connection or something because she asked if there was anything she could do to help. I asked if she could put me on the later flight to Orlando because there was a chance we would make it and I wasn’t able to rebook. She came back a few minutes later with a new boarding pass.

I found out when we boarded that the flight was actually 7 hours, instead of 6 like I thought, I resigned myself to staying in Miami overnight because there was no way I was going to make the connection still. I started and finished Marley & Me on the plane, crying my way through the end (it was such a beautiful book). As soon as we landed I called my mom, who was still waiting for her delayed flight to Dublin. As we walked to customs and immigration, we all got alerts saying that all our flights had been delayed by about an hour so there was still a chance we could make them. We walked as fast as we could and thankfully I had decided not to check my bag, so as soon as we made it through immigration I checked the departure board and started heading to the gate. I had to go through security again, but there were very few people since it was 10:30 at night. The gate happened to be the first one after security and I got there just as they started boarding. It was once I was on the plane and I checked my phone that I found a voicemail that I hadn’t gotten in Bolivia because I couldn’t receive calls or texts. It was a call from American Airlines to let me rebook my flight. Thanks American.

We landed in Orlando and I checked my mom’s delayed flight to see if she’d still be there, because maybe I’d be able to stop by her gate to say goodbye, but they were boarding just as we landed. I met my dad and we got home at about 2 AM.

Although the end of the trip was rather rough, it was so so lovely to see all the community members again. I hope to one day visit Calcha again as an individual and to make many more visitas.