Building more than bridges in Nicaragua

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By Ethan Gingerich

This summer I spent six weeks in the village of Jucuapa Occidental, Nicaragua building a footbridge with Bridges to Prosperity and researching how different mixing methods affect the strength of concrete used in the bridge. The trip was a wonderful experience and although I learned a lot about construction and concrete, the lessons I learned from the people I met may be what I end up cherishing most.

I learned that laughter can be more powerful than words. While I sometimes lacked the vocabulary to fully explain myself to my host family, I never lacked an opportunity to make them laugh. Whether it was dancing around like a fool after being blindfolded for a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, trying to sing along with the popular songs on the radio, or chasing the roosters when they insisted on crowing just outside our door at five in the morning. Doing things that allowed us to laugh together helped us grow closer together even when I didn’t know what to say.

I learned that the most efficient way isn’t always the best way. Since I had worked construction in the past, I was familiar with many of the steps in the bridge-building process. Usually it was the most efficient use of time and resources if I did a task myself. But I soon found that teaching someone else to do the task served a much greater good, even if it ended up taking more time. The satisfaction of doing it myself couldn’t compare to the look of excitement in a child’s eyes when they realized that they too could hammer the nails or drill the holes or mix the concrete used to complete their bridge.

I learned that it can be just as much fun to be taught as to teach. Our masons taught me how to swing a five gallon bucket full of concrete up on to my shoulder and balance it against my head while climbing a ladder. A man from the village taught me how to carry twice as many bags of cement if I balanced them at the right point on my neck. My host mother taught me how to make delicious tortillas with nothing but corn and water.

I learned a lot from my trip to Nicaragua, including what a special place the people of Jucuapa Occidental will always hold in my heart.

Ethan’s trip abroad was made possible through a Stanley Undergraduate Award for International Research. The award is given annually to outstanding University of Iowa undergraduates for the pursuit of learning activities in international studies that are not available on the UI campus. Learn more.

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