My Story: Bridges to Prosperity (Part I)

August 31, 2016

By: Danielle Cemprola (Environmental Specialist at Michael Baker International; in photo above on right), who served as logistics coordinator during the trip

NOTE: This post is Part I of II about Danielle's experience with Michael Baker's trip to Nicaragua with Bridges to Prosperity. Look for Part II in the next month, as well as stories from other crew members, videos and photos of the trip, and more. 

Since I'm still gathering my thoughts about the majority of my experience in Nicaragua (and by "gathering my thoughts" I mean "trying to stop myself from crying and daydreaming about it nonstop, which is not dramatic at all"), I wanted to start off by talking about the project I traveled there to do. Twelve people from my company traveled to Nicaragua as part of a humanitarian project in conjunction with Bridges to Prosperity (B2P), a non-profit organization that builds footbridges across the world over impassable rivers to provide access to healthcare, education and markets. B2P employs local foremen and construction managers and helps teach local citizens construction skills, and working with the locals was one of my favorite parts of the whole process! We were in charge of building a suspension footbridge that spans 190 feet.
 
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Here’s the team before a long day of construction.
If you think I know a lot about bridge construction because I work at an engineering company, think again. While I would say I probably know slightly more about it than your average person, I'm an environmental scientist, so most of my work is done long before construction on the bridges and other projects ever starts. Therefore, one of the biggest sources of anxiety for me leading up to this trip was my belief that I would be the only person on the team who did not know what was going on and that I would need ridiculous amounts of help in order to do anything, and then inevitably they would throw me off the bridge in frustration. This obviously did not occur.

The bridges for B2P are constructed during the dry season, so when we got to our project it was a little...underwhelming. The water in the river was ankle-deep and didn't look particularly threatening, but since there is only one road into and out of the village, it clearly needed to be crossed if you wanted to go anywhere. Once they showed us where the average high water mark is during rainy season (which lasts about 4 months a year), the situation made a lot more sense - the river goes over a man's head by a significant margin! When that happens, kids can't get to school, farmers can't get to the market to sell their crops, and there is no access to healthcare or other emergency services. Suddenly, the bridge seemed a lot more important.
 
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The view looking across the river before we started construction.

The early portions of construction started several months before we arrived and involved creating the concrete ramps that led up to the bridge and creating the places for the bridge anchors, in addition to some clearing and grading work. The large blue towers were also on site, but not in place when we arrived. When they told us we were going to be responsible for lifting them, I had absolutely no idea how that was supposed to happen! (Spoiler alert: a very robust pulley system).
 
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Tightening the bolts on the towers after they were lifted.
The first day was mostly spent building the scaffolding and setting up the site for construction. While this isn't the glamorous part of the job, it was definitely one of the most challenging parts - just physically loading everything into our 4x4 trucks (an absolute necessity in this part of the world) and then unloading them and setting it up was pretty tough. Thankfully, we had plenty of enthusiasm! Lifting the towers was the next major feat, which required a ton of manpower and a rather robust pulley system. We dealt with a ton of rain early on in construction and fell a little bit behind when it came to getting the towers lifted, but we ended up having plenty of time. Seeing the towers go up was the first thing that made us feel like a bridge might actually get constructed after all!
 
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Tower on the way up!