Bolivia: Same Schedule, Different Day

It’s 3 am and I’m awake. Again. But rather than navigating a bustling airport, I’m now lying in a small room with little protection from the rooster crowing. Exhaustion to the rescue; I’m not awake for long.

Our first full day in Llapallapani sets the stage for our stay. The stories vary each day, though we follow the same schedule:

During the dry season, this pedestrian bridge is used to cross the deepest flowing section of the river. The community fords the river for vehicles and farms the sections of riverbed where the water has receded.

During the dry season, this pedestrian bridge is used to cross the deepest flowing section of the river. The community fords the river for vehicles and farms the sections of riverbed where the water has receded.

Each day, Dog (yes, that's his name) hung out at the site waiting for his person to return from school across the river.

Each day, Dog (yes, that’s his name) hung out at the site waiting for his person to return from school across the river.

Ishmael's house, which sat across from

Ishmael’s house, which sat across from “the office.” Most of the homes in the village had metal doors, which we were told lent a feeling of security to the occupants. Behind Ishmael’s door sat cerveza and singani for sale.

3:00 am Rooster awakes. Cock-a-doodling commences and repeats every 30 minutes.
6:30 am Alarm beeps. I hit snooze and lay in my sleeping bag another 5 minutes before facing the day.
7:00 am Team assembles in the office and boils water for pour-over coffee (+ coca leaves).
7:30 am Pan delivered for breakfast, which we supplement with food we picked up at the grocer in La Paz. The community member then chooses ingredients from our stores to feed us throughout the day (if Adam and Neil are out, this exchange involves much pointing and gesturing). We go over the day’s work plan as we eat.
8:00 am Walk down to site. Right at the little pigs, right at the big cactus, through the abandoned chapel’s courtyard, right at the large pile of soil (fertilizer?), past the big pig. Get to work.
11:00 am Break for eggs sandwiches delivered to site. Supplement with coca leaves when needed. Back to work.
1:00 pm Break for lunch delivered to site (though one day we eat at a community member’s home). Soup, potatoes, rice and/or pasta. One day we got a rooster heart in the soup—not “our” rooster, though, as he happily reminds us the next morning—Kenny confirms it tastes like chicken. More coca. Back to work.
7:00 pm Sun sets. Wrap-up work for the day (a couple times we work through dark using vehicle headlights), clean-up work site, and store tools in the bodega to prevent theft. As our stay progresses, this lapses into leaving tools in the truck bed.
7:30 pm Dinner delivered to the office. Soup, potatoes, rice and/or pasta (twice we convince the community members to take the lentils from our stores. Yum).
8:00 pm Recap day. Plan for next day. Cerveza and singani (Ishmael’s homebrew). Stories from Neil. Laughter.
10:00 pm Bed. I contort myself up the stairs and pass out.

Different days, same schedule. There’s never a dull moment and always something needing to be done. The task and companions are fulfilling.

Sometimes I’m engrossed in the moment and forget where I am. Wait, Kirsten, look where you are. What’s around you. The impact of your actions. This reality that feels so unreal.

Deep breath (at least as deep of a breath as the altitude allows). Notice the mountains and their colors bleeding bright. Notice the varied vegetation—cultivated and wild—that’s evolved in this climate. Notice the way an engineered vision is coming to life right before your eyes. From your hands. Notice how alive you are in this moment.

If I only learn one thing being here in Llapallapani, let it be the ability to just be. Here. Now. No nagging feeling that I have to do something else. This is my task at this instant. No emails, texts, phone calls needing response. I couldn’t even reply if I wanted to. Remember to enjoy this. It will draw to a close sooner than you realize. This is how content feels.

Note: More photos of the journey can be found here.

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Bolivia: Settling into Llapallapani

“¡No! Más a la izquierda!” shouts a woman as we pull our vehicles to a stop overlooking the Luribay River valley. Mairi is a staff engineer for B2P and has been on site for a couple months overseeing bridge construction activities. After arriving we have just over a day to gather as much knowledge as possible about the current status of the bridge before Mairi and two remaining members from Team 1 hand over the reins. Whoa.

The towers erected and some main cables hung. Blue and white for Club Bolivar (the community favorite and on the Llapallapani side) and black and yellow for The Strongest (also Kiewit's colors).

The towers erected and some main cables hung. Blue and white for Club Bolivar (the community favorite and on the Llapallapani side) and black and yellow for The Strongest (also Kiewit’s colors).

Team 2 is six strong and like Team 1 split between employees of Kiewit Construction (the project’s corporate partner and sponsor) and Parsons Brinckerhoff. Our project manager, Tom, has been on site through Team 1’s work and will stay with Team 2 throughout our time working on the bridge (the continuity he provides is reassuring).

It’s a Saturday, so help from community members varies. They have been working on site preparations since starting construction of the pedestals and ramps last November; we’ll get a few helping hands on weekends, but upwards of 20-30 people during the week.

Our party exits the main one-lane road along the river, winding down to the riverbed where the Luribay side tower shines against the dusty landscape. We call it the Tiger Tower, though the yellow and black striping is more of a bumble bee. Give the tiger majesty, though—a more fitting association with the mountains towering above.

The tiger has fleas crawling down it. More specifically, Mark and Chris from Team 1 are climbing down the scaffolding to greet us. Where do I sign up for that job? I do like to climb things.

A quick tour around the site and we learn we’re behind schedule. Scaffolding delivered without a list of parts—let alone instructions—and erecting 2-ton steels towers without heavy equipment will do that (I still haven’t quite figured out how Team 1 raised towers using only peoplepower and an occasional loader and backhoe). Team 2 will get to hang the main cables after all, which means more time to climb scaffolding. Bring. It. On.

Team 1 and 2 together have four weeks to complete a bridge that normally would call for at least six weeks to finish.  Barriers—technical, physical, and social—are bound to factor in throughout the project. They already have. But for now, our focus is on settling into what will become our home for the next two weeks. And it’s welcome: I still haven’t completely shaken the throbbing that’s replaced my brain since landing in La Paz.

The path between "the office" and the bridge. Tom, Adam, Jolene, Kenny, and Jazz (one of our consistent canine companions).

The path between “the office” and the bridge. Tom, Adam, Jolene, Kenny, and Jazz (one of our consistent canine companions).

Llapallapani is nestled up and along the mountainside. We’ll be staying up the mountain about a 10-minute drive from the bridge. It’s the last ride I take up to “the office” until the end of our stay—I end up preferring the walk back, which peels off the road and meanders up the mountainside. Past big pig, left at the large pile of soil (fertilizer?), through the abandoned chapel’s courtyard, left at the big cactus, left at the little pigs.

Various community members band together to house and feed us during our stay. “The office” is a one-room community center that serves as our team’s morning and evening meeting place in addition to the sleeping quarters for the four men on our team. Here, we gather each morning to boil water for coffee (a necessity), discuss the day’s work plan, and wait for breakfast delivery—a piece of pan for each of us.

The other woman on the team and I share a comfortable room across the dirt road in Freddie’s house. Our room is accessible via steep, uneven stairs through a hole cut in the second-floor concrete that requires a not-insignificant amount of body-contouring to get through. I note I must go to the bathroom right before bed to avoid risking a spinal injuring in the middle of the night. I am a giant here.

Ditching our gear in the room, we return to the office to hear what’s in store over the next two weeks. I feel like I’m back in undergrad at a 6 AM basketball practice trying to keep my eyes open while our coach is lecturing us (at least here we don’t have wind sprints, burpees, or other instruments of torture character building). My body has yet to forget its lack of sleep the past two nights: best be getting to bed. Tomorrow is an important day—the last before Mairi, Chris, and Mark leave.

But first I sneak outside to catch the sunset. It’s breathtaking here, in all senses of the word. Welcome home.

Sunset in the river valley.

Sunset in the river valley.

Note: More photos of the journey can be found here.

Bolivia: First Impressions

After two sleepless nights flying across as many continents, I find myself in a world both foreign and familiar. It’s 3am. The air at 4,061 meters (13,323 feet) is notably lacking. Welcome to La Paz.

English is almost entirely absent here, and I’m immediately regretting not spending more evenings on Duolingo, reading Bolivian newspapers, and listening to Spanish music. Attenuating ears and a tired brain interspersing unfamiliar words with high school French aren’t helping.

Adam speaks enough Spanish to get us use of a shopkeeper’s telephone to track down the Airport Shuttle we had reserved. It’s not there, and it’s not on the way. Great.

Already, the combined effects of exhaustion, hunger, and altitude (oxygen shots for sale litter the airport lobby area) are creeping into my head and stomach and all I really want is to be somewhere where curling up in a ball is acceptable behavior.

My advice if you find yourself en route to the highest elevation airport in the world? Full, nutritious meals throughout travel, resisting the urge to binge watch all the blockbuster movies you missed in theater because they’re now at your fingertips during an 8+ hour flight, and investing in an Ostrich Pillow. Address exhaustion and hunger and the body has a fighting chance against the effects of high altitude (re: soroche).

The airport is bustling despite the early hour. It’s obvious Adam and I are not locals. Though countless drivers ask us if we need a taxi, we hesitate while discussing how much one ought to cost. At this point, I can’t think straight anyway.

We’re rescued by a pair of Koreans who approach us with “compartir taxi” written on a smartphone screen. Brilliant. The young woman teaches Korean at a local university and negotiates a taxi ride for the four of us for 80 bs (about $12). Though the 20 minute ride smelled of gasoline and did not include seat belts (a component we soon learn is commonly absent from vehicles here), the ride also included a backseat tour of La Paz narrated by a Korean teacher who speaks enough English and Spanish to communicate with both us and the driver.

I’m reminded of how my single language status is quite stereotypically “American.” Addressing this shortcoming just moved up several notches on my to-do list.

We split the cab ride and thank the two Koreans for their help getting us to our hotel. Kindness knows no barriers; this much is familiar.

Early arrivals and departures must be an everyday occurrence at this hotel. We camp out in the lobby (Adam kicking off his shoes and curling up on the sofa while a continental breakfast is visited by early hotel patrons) until it’s a reasonable enough hour to phone our group lead in his room.

A shower, nap, and some food a while later get me to a state in which I can at least travel. The flying is finished, but we still have a long journey ahead in rental cars through various roadside towns. The anarchic traffic here is complete with minibuses stopping when and where they please. Our escape from the chaos leads us down a steep one-way 60+ switchback mountainside dirt road to a community called Llapallapani.

Just a few of the conutless switchbacks down to the River Luribay valley where Llapallapani resides. It was too steep to capture much of the roadway.

Just a few of the conutless switchbacks down to the River Luribay valley where Llapallapani resides. It was too steep to capture much of the roadway.

What brought us to this isolated village in what’s considered the least developed country in South America? The answer goes back about a year and a half to when a co-worker—as Adam and I both work for the same engineering firm—forwarded us an email about a pedestrian bridge. The bridge was being designed for a remote village in Bolivia by a team of Kiewit and Parsons Brinckerhoff employees working through Bridges to Prosperity (B2P). Construction would be lead by the same two firms. Team applications were open.

As the urban La Paz and El Alto faded into our rearview mirrors, we were soon to find out just why the Llapallapani bridge is the most technically-challenging bridge B2P has undertaken to date out of its hundreds of pedestrian bridges worldwide.

Note: More photos of the journey can be found here.