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


  • 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.

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

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 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 ( and I’ll try to respond as soon as I can.Thank you to all who have responded so far!”