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.

 

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FAQ: Graduation, Across the Pond, and Beyond

Congratulations to the 150th graduating class of Cornell! Which answers the first question: did I graduate? Yes, thank goodness! Although it still feels pretty surreal. I graduated, along with many of my wonderful friends this past weekend. The weekend was very different from what I expected it to be (isn’t it always?) but exciting and memorable nonetheless. I could definitely write a novel on that alone, but as I haven’t even processed it all myself, if I do, it will be later. Right now I’m just doing what I’ve been doing for the past four years: putting one foot in front of the other, despite whatever my level of feeling overwhelmed may be. And, understandably, what those next steps look like garners many questions, so, as per tradition, to keep the growing circle of people I’ve promised to keep updated actually updated I’m answering the most common questions I’ve received in the last few months:

What are your plans after graduation?

In March I accepted a job offer from Hayes Higgins Partnership, a small engineering firm in Dublin, Ireland. They work on many different types of projects, of which I’ll have some say on which I work, but I’ll most likely get to work on residential projects, schools, and renovations for several Dublin Zoo exhibits, which is a highly unique opportunity. It’s exactly what I wanted: a small firm, a structural engineering position, working on various interesting projects, and close to family (it ended up being extended family, but family nonetheless).

How did you find the job?

Google! Seriously. By the time March came around I’d had several interviews for positions within the U.S., but nothing came of any of them. There was one that I really fell in love with at Arup in Houston, but the position technically required a master’s degree (they decided to put my application in for it anyway because they were interested) so understandably the job went to someone probably a little more experienced. I had also applied to the Peace Corps, going so far as to enduring the intense and surprisingly strict hour and 45-minute interview (which was way more intense than I had expected). It wasn’t until a few days later that I finally acknowledged (what I think I had known for a while but didn’t want to accept) that it wasn’t going to help me grow in the way that I’d hoped, and that being in that position for two years wouldn’t really make me happy.

So it was actually out of sheer frustration that this one day I decided to Google search “civil engineering firms in Dublin, Ireland” and contacted the first three that I found located in the center of town. None of them were advertising open positions or anything, but I sent my resume and cover letter, along with a short explanation in the email saying that I’m American with Irish citizenship, graduating from Cornell, and interested in working with them as a structural engineer.

I got one response and it was from Donal Higgins, co-founder of Hayes Higgins Partnership I was guessing, merely an hour after I sent it. He said my resume and cover letter seemed to be missing from the email. The first email I had sent bounced back, so I sent another one and must have forgotten to reattach the files, so I apologized and sent them along. A few hours later he emailed me back again, at this point it was 2 AM Irish time, saying that my resume and cover letter “made for an interesting read,” which was a very odd response, but at the same time a positive one. After more email exchanges and approval from the senior management team, we scheduled a “brief chat” for the coming Friday. It happened to be Good Friday and I was visiting my friend Patrick in Ohio for Easter (shout out Patrick, even though this isn’t a podcast) so at 9 AM EST I found an empty room in the dorm to wait for a call from Dublin. Long story short, the “brief chat” ended up being 40 minutes long and he offered me the job on the spot.

Did you have to get a work visa?

Nope! I automatically have Irish citizenship because my mom was born (and raised) in Ireland. I finally got my Irish passport this past October (after trying to apply for it while I was in Spain, but to no avail because Spanish bureaucracy might just be worse than American). If I didn’t have citizenship I probably wouldn’t have even applied because the chances of getting hired if you also need a work visa are incredibly slim. Plus, after struggling to get even a student visa for Spain, I really didn’t want to go through that again.

How do you feel about being so far away?

Technically being within driving distance of my family in Florida was nearly at the top of the list of what I wanted in a job (hence the being close to family part mentioned earlier), but I figured if I didn’t end up within driving distance, then I might as well make the leap and work abroad. And I knew in that case I’d still be close to family, just not my immediate family. I think this confuses other people, but to me there’s not much difference having to fly back and forth between Cornell and Florida, and between Ireland and Florida. For me, the difference between driving and flying is significantly greater than the difference between flying for 3 hours and flying for 8 or 9 hours. The bane of my existence (apart from problem sets) for the past four years has been fitting my entire life into a couple of suitcases that cannot exceed 50 lbs., so really not much will change in that respect.

Plus, living in Santander for 10 months prepared me for living abroad long-term, and the Ithaca weather prepared me for the Irish weather, so I’m all set.

How long do you want to stay there?

I could tell you, but I’m pretty sure once I give it a concrete number, God will simply laugh and throw all my own plans to the wind (as He very well should, as I’ve learned). Right now I want to say 2 years minimum, because 1 year doesn’t seem like very long to be at a particular job, and my contract doesn’t have a time limit. After that I can reassess and decide how to continue from there. I do hope to return to the U.S. eventually, and yes, I still have hopes and dreams to live some place where it’s consistently warm and my nose hairs don’t freeze to inform me that it’s below 10 degrees.

Are you traveling to Swaziland this summer with Bridges to Prosperity?

Actually no. For the entire Fall Semester I don’t think there was ever a plan for anyone who traveled to Bolivia to travel again besides our Project Manager Nathalie (because PM is required to travel and she’s amazing and talented so she’s probably the best person to lead the team anyway), because we want as many new members as possible to have the opportunity. It was only at the beginning of Spring semester that this plan changed slightly and we decided it would be better to have at least one other relatively experienced student to be in country for the first two weeks to relieve some of the responsibility of the PM and Professional Mentor. Since Bethany and I, the co-leads of the engineering subteam, were the two options. My previous project team, Engineers Without Borders (EWB) also needed one more person who had already traveled to Calcha to travel again for the last monitoring trip (see next question), and again, Bethany and I were the two options. So one of us needed to travel to one and the other needed to travel to the other. The way dates and availability worked out, I ended up on the Calcha trip and Bethany ended up on the Swaziland trip. We both would’ve loved to do both if we could, returning to our friends in Calcha and making new ones in Swaziland, but of course that’s not possible, so we’re both super excited. Really I think the only downside is that we won’t get to travel with each other. If you’d like to stay updated on one or both projects/teams, check out our (their?) websites: B2P and EWB.

Are you going home for the summer?

Mmmmmm sort of? I graduated on Sunday (!!), I’m flew back to Florida along with my family yesterday, and tomorrow I leave to go back to Calcha, Bolivia for a week (June 1st-7th). You may recall that Calcha is the community with whom EWB-Cornell built a suspended pedestrian bridge in 2016 and a concrete irrigation channel in 2017, so we’re returning one last time for a final round monitoring and evaluation of the projects, and official closeout of the (I believe) 6-year program we’ve maintained with the community. I’m incredibly excited to visit the people, the bridge, the stray dogs, and the beautiful mountains at least one more time! What’s also really cool is that I’ll get to be there for my birthday (June 4th). This will actually be my first birthday not at home, because despite the fact that I spend most of my time away from home, somehow I’ve always ended up being home on that day.

After that I’ll be home for a week, and then I head out again to West Virginia to be a sojourner at Nazareth Farm. It’s an intentional living community that does volunteer home repair for the local community members. (if you want to make a donation, check them out here, they do awesome work!). I will be there for four weeks (June 16th-July 14th), and my friend Victoria is marrying her lovely fiancé, Dan, in Connecticut on July 21st, so between WV and CT I’ll be staying in NYC for a few days with my aunt. After the wedding I’m going back home to Florida for a solid month to, figure out how to fit my life into approximately two suitcases, go to some last doctors appointments and all those fun adult responsibilities, and spend time with friends and family. I’ll depart for Ireland sometime in mid-August to give myself time to settle in before I start in September. So it’ll be fairly equal parts craziness and relaxation, which is a much higher ratio of relaxation than I normally get, so I’m totally happy with it.

Thank you so much to everyone who has supported me through this craziness that has been Cornell. I have many thoughts on my last four years, graduating, and all the wonderful people I’ve met along the way, so I hope to find a way to properly say thank you, but for now I at least wanted to let you know what I’ll be up to in the immediate future. I definitely plan to revive the blog, especially because I’ll be off doing who knows what pretty soon. I will do my best to keep in touch throughout the summer and beyond, so if you’d like to contact me and you’re not sure how (since my address, phone number, etc. will all be changing soon) Facebook messenger is (surprisingly) the best bet regardless of where I’ll happen to be.

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Like the balloon says, this is only the beginning (ft. two of my amazing friends, Michaela and Victoria <3)

Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam!

 

Bridge Building, Baby Goats, and Bolivian UNO

“So. What did you guys…do…exactly?”

Excellent question! To give you an idea of each day’s shenanigans (the struggles, the triumphs, the siestas), here’s an overview of a typical work day:

7:00 AM My first alarm goes off.I’m already awake but still too tired and cold to get out of my cozy sleeping bag. No one else’s alarm has gone off yet but Nathalie, the earliest bird I’ve ever met, is already up and off doing something.

7:15 AM My second alarm goes off and so begins the most difficult 15 seconds of my entire day: unzipping my nice warm sleeping bag, wiggling out of my blankets, and attempting not to fall off my top bunk while getting down.

7:25 AM I walk in the dining room where Nathalie, Joe, and Anna are already waiting for breakfast. Most of us used this time to catch up on journaling, filling out daily forms, and going over anything necessary for the day. Everyone else trickles in by the time the cooks put breakfast on the table (except Mario. Mario is always exceptionally late).

8:00 AM In the beginning breakfast was supposed to be at 7:30, but the cooks would always wait until the whole team was sitting at the table before bringing it out, which was normally closer to 8, so that became the new breakfast time. We would have either oatmeal, rice soup, or apple quinoa soup; scrambled eggs, goat cheese, or hard boiled eggs; bananas or oranges, and bread with jam and margarine were a staple at every meal.

8:30 AM First mobilization of the day! As soon as everyone gathers any required tools from the tool room and congregates outside (trying to soak up the sunlight because it was so cold) we all walk over to the bridge site together.

8:35 AM Pre-work chat. Basically it’s so cold at this point that no one is particularly motivated to start working so we talk with the masons about the plan for the day and the community members assigned to work for the day check in with the masons.

9:00 AM Tasks are assigned, tools and materials are gathered, and we start work. Many common tasks (depending on what stage we’re on in the construction process) include picking/digging excavations, mixing concrete, wheelbarrowing materials, cutting and painting rebar, cutting wood, and torque wrenching allllll the lag screws.

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10:30 AM Mid-morning siesta. In other words, the 20 minutes during which if you attempt to do anything productive you’ll be bombarded with “¡descansa, descansa!” (“rest, rest!”) from the community members nestled between giant piles of dirt in the shade.

12:30 PM Lunch time! A typical lunch, the largest meal of the day, consists of soup (normally vegetable, my favorite), rice, and some sort of meat or stew with vegetables and lots of potatoes. My favorite days, however, were pasta days, served with meat and sauce and sometime, on my favorite favorite days, shredded goat cheese.

1:10 PM Siesta time! Some people nap the whole time but I like to sit in the sun and read. The only problem was that it would get really hot in the sun but it was also too cold in the shade. It was a struggle.

2:00 PM Second mobilization of the day, courtesy of Nathalie. Back to the worksite!

6:00 PM* The end of the work day and post-work chat. As soon as the sun sets behind the mountains around 5:30 it gets really cold and really dark. Really fast. There were several days throughout the trip when we would work a little later, and even adding just 15-20 minutes more meant walking back to El Alfar almost needing a headlamp to get there.

*The exception to this is Fridays when we would end around 5:15, eat dinner at 6:00, and attend the weekly community meeting at 7:00.

7:00 PM Dinner time generally consists of rice with some sort of meat or stew, kind of like lunch. A group favorite was rice, a fried egg, and fried plantains. After dinner many nights we would sit around and chat, play card games, and occasionally all 8 of us would squeeze into two beds in the girl’s room (much warmer that way) and play games like contact and mafia. Eventually we would all drift off to our own beds, some of us journaled each night, and most of us would read before going to bed.

10:30 PM Ricardo’s (our in-country project manager) prescribed bed time. Although sometimes we went to sleep as early as 9 PM or as late as 1 AM (which will not sound late at all to college students, but after doing manual labor for 7-8 hours and having to get up at 7 AM each day, that’s pretty late, so hush).

For Funsies…

As you can imagine 8 weeks is a long time (nearly an entire summer in fact), so we definitely had to keep ourselves entertained. What did we do to avoid death by boredom you ask?

  • Bolivian UNO – As I’ve dubbed it, our collective favorite card game. So you start with regular UNO, but then make it Korean** UNO (rules 1-3), which Sam introduced to us, and then add Anna’s game “spin the pig, tell me the truth…” (rule 4). Essentially you play UNO as usual with just a few added rules:
    1. You can “bent knee” a card at any time, meaning if someone plays a card and you have the exact same card (i.e. same number and color) then you can play your card and say “bent knee,” and the round continues with whoever is after you (skipping whoever is between you and whoever played the original card). If it’s your turn anyway and you bent knee the current card, you may also play an additional card
    2. While the cards being played are red, you can’t speak or make any verbal noise. If you do, you draw one card for each time you make a sound. (If you have to say “uno” just hold up one finger so everyone knows)
    3. If any 8 is played, everyone puts their hand on the deck and the last person to do so draws one card.
    4. Any time a draw 4 wild card is played, whoever played the card spins a small pink plastic pig*** and whoever the pig points to is asked a question (any question) that he/she must answer fully and truthfully
  • Werewolf (essentially Mafia except with werewolves, masons, minions, etc. and only one “night”)
  • Contact – We even played in Spanish near the end of the trip!
  • President/Scum
  • Storytime with Sam! – Normally involving certain little ducklings and chocolate bunnies
  • Yoga – We attempted one day after work during the first week when everyone was sore, instructed by yours truly
  • Pre-dinner Abs – Most of the girls decided to build some muscle sometimes before dinner, because ya know it’s not like we were doing manual labor for 7-8 hours a day

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  • Soccer/Basketball – every Sunday around 5 PM we would walk to the cancha and play a pick-up game with whoever happened to be there
  • Walks/Hikes – Sometimes before dinner we would walk to the tiendita in town, we went hiking a few times, up mountains and once we attempted a mountain ridge that was pretty much all shale (imagine climbing up a very steep slope of rainbow sprinkles…traction = 0%)
  • Iron Chef, Bolivian edition – Since we didn’t typically have desserts or sweet things, we decided to have a competition where we all made a dessert or drink using only ingredients we could find in the local market. We ended up with everything from mimosas to cheesecake to spiced wine to tres leches cake.
  • Fiestas – We became facebook famous in the region when we were asked to perform the traditional dance in Calcha’s festival, and then Vitichi asked us to do the same for their festival. We were basically local celebrities.
  • Fooooood – On occasion, the incredibly generous community members would make food for us, including a goat BBQ for lunch on the worksite and Buñuelos with cinnamon milk before a weekly community meeting.
  • Hang outs with community members – were invited to tea at Gustavo’s and Delfina’s, and we often received spontaneous invitations to parties whenever we walked somewhere at night
  • Vitichi – There was a market every Sunday and we even saw a parade once! We also stayed in a hostal for a night, just to take a much needed break during our last weeks of construction.
  • Baby Goats!! –  David invited us to go with him to a family’s rural home to see all their goats (while he collected their poop to use for manure)
  • Other Miscellaneous Shenanigans of the sort

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**It may or may not actually be Korean. Sam simply told us that his family hosted a Korean exchange student once and he/she introduced them to the modified version.
***We didn’t have a bottle so we used a small pink plastic pig that we got from a Bolivian (packing-peanut-ey) snack bag

 

The Dream Team

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.

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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.

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Piled in the car for several hours from Sucre airport to Calcha (the first of many many group selfies)
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Literally piled

 

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.

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SAAAAAAAAAAAAAAMMM! Mere hours from departing/abandoning us

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 (jonathan.mabuni@gmail.com) and I’ll try to respond as soon as I can.Thank you to all who have responded so far!”