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.

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