Embrace the Experience: Building Bridges in Nicaragua

Back in February, my company announced the opening of applications for an upcoming humanitarian trip to Nicaragua to build a pedestrian bridge for a rural community. I work for a large civil engineering company that partnered with Bridges to Prosperity, a non-profit organization that seeks to improve living conditions in rural communities by building bridges over impassable rivers to ensure continuous connectivity, but we’ll get to that in a second. When I read the email, I heard “free travel” and “paid time off,” and my eyes glazed over, immediately heading off into a daydream.

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As luck would have it, I was selected to be one of the 12 team members who would travel to the tiny village of El Zarzal, Nicaragua to construct a footbridge. El Zarzal is near Matagalpa in north central Nicaragua, but besides knowing where it was located, I had no idea what to expect from the trip. Would I be eaten alive by mosquitos? Would it be a thousand degrees? What if everyone hated me? Would I actually be able to help build the bridge? I am an environmental scientist, after all, and not an engineer. I think I was added to the team in the name of employment diversity.

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Thanks to KÜHL for outfitting me in apparel that withstood rigors of bridge building!

But nonetheless, when we pulled up to our campsite, I knew this trip was going to be special. As much as I love spending time in the outdoors, I haven’t camped very much – only 4 nights in my entire life prior to these two weeks. So as I fumbled through setting up my tent and prayed it wouldn’t rain or be windy, I made a pact with myself: I would soak up every second of the experience and embrace it all as new, different, and wonderful, no matter how good or bad things got.

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Our mission was to build a suspension footbridge over a raging river, or so I thought. When we arrived, I realized that the river wasn’t exactly raging that time of year – which is a good thing, since it would have made construction of the bridge pretty much impossible! We arrived in dry season with the rainy season quickly approaching. Each year, the river becomes impassable during much of the rainy season, cutting off the small village of El Zarzal from the local schools, market, health care, and neighbors.  Although some of the work, like building the concrete approach ramps and removing some of the trees, had already been done, the majority was for us to do. Let’s just say it was a good thing I was not the construction manager, because I had absolutely no idea where to start.

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Our days definitely revolved around construction, as we woke up around 5 am and were on site by 7 am. We usually worked til around 5 with a break for lunch in the middle of the day. In addition to the 12 of us who had traveled from my company, we also had a ton of help from many local volunteers who took the time out of their days. Thank goodness they did! While we handled a lot of the technical aspects of construction, we absolutely could not have built the bridge without their strength and endurance. One local even scaled a 40-foot tree with his bare hands and no equipment and cut down branches with the machete he was carrying in his back pocket!

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The community of El Zarzal had been asking for a bridge over this river for more than 15 years, so they were certainly grateful to Bridges to Prosperity and our team for bringing that dream to life. With that said, I know that they were equally excited just to have us in town. After all, with only a few hundred people in the town, they had never received foreign visitors prior to this project! At the end of each work day, we tried to spend as much time with the locals as possible, whether that meant playing a big soccer game at the local field, tossing a Frisbee around with the kids, learning to make corn tortillas, or being treated to a concert in the village. In keeping with the pact I made with myself, I took part in every single activity and seized the opportunity for every conversation I could find, no matter how tired, hot, or sweaty I was at the end of the day. Let’s just say I spent more than my fair share of time dancing on this trip!

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Although we worked most of the days that we were there, we did get about a day and a half off, which we used to explore the city of Matagalpa, which was about an hour from our site. Matagalpa is not known for its tourist appeal – only 5% of visitors to Nicaragua go there – but we found plenty to keep ourselves entertained. Baseball is the biggest sport in Nicaragua, so we headed to one of the major league games and made our way in for about 50 cents! Once inside, beers were just 70 cents and rum drinks as big as your head were $1.50. I’m only noting the price of alcohol because it may or may not have contributed to my executive decision to run around the bases with all of the local kids after the game was over (to the great amusement of the crowd)! Hey, I had to keep my pact, right?

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We even ended up witnessing an impromptu parade in honor of the anniversary of Matagalpa’s liberation during the revolution, which occurred in 1979. The parade prominently featured flags and floats from the ruling political party, and it seemed to stretch on for miles! Being in Nicaragua during an election year was certainly interesting, because regardless of how you feel about the ruling political party, you can’t help but notice that there are signs, banners, parades, and more everywhere you look. It’s hard to imagine what it would be like if the Republicans or Democrats hosted a parade in the middle of your city, but that’s essentially what this experience was like.

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A trip to Nicaragua wouldn’t be complete without taking in some of the country’s natural beauty, though. In addition to camping in one of the most beautiful parts of the country (and therefore getting to look up at the mountains all the time!), we also got to head to a local waterfall and go swimming in the freezing water. A sign nearby warned us that it was “deep and mysterious,” but we all made it out just fine – if a little cold by the time all was said and done!

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On the last day of our trip, we finally accomplished two things. First, we got to take a hike up one of the nearby mountains at sunrise and look out over the lush fields and rolling hills that spread out in front of us. The 4 am wake-up call hurt, but it was worth it! We wound our way up the mountain with no trail (hiking isn’t exactly a popular pastime where we were camping) and followed the fence and field lines until we got as close to the top as possible. Let’s just say it was quite the view!

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Second, and most importantly, after two weeks of hard work, we were finally able to hold the inauguration party for the bridge and watch the community members walk (and run, and skip!) across it for the first time!

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Hours of music, dancing, food, and fun were had by all. I found myself totally drenched in sweat but unable to stop moving as the music thumped down the dirt road. Just when we thought we couldn’t get any hotter, the rain started to fall and the village started to laugh and cheer – a moment I will never forget as long as I live.

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While the community may have felt like they received the better end of the deal when the bridge was completed, I can truly say that our team won the lottery on this project.

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The people of El Zarzal captured our hearts forever!

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I can’t wait to build another bridge with Bridges to Prosperity someday, whether in Nicaragua or in one of the other 19 countries where they currently work. Just give me a call, guys! I’ve got my hammer ready.

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Danielle Cemprola

Danielle Cemprola is a 50-time marathoner, world traveler, and lover of mountains everywhere. She spends 80% of her money on plane tickets and the remaining portion on race registrations and tacos. Follow her adventures at The T-Rex Runner.