Sandboxes, Cement, and Nicaragua

When we are young, we read books about construction equipment. We have toy trucks and sandboxes full of plastic cranes, windmills, pick up trucks, dump trucks, bulldozers. Then we stop talking about these apparati. We may point them out on the street, especially if they’re anomalies, a blue garbage truck, an extremely tall crane, etc. We don’t think about construction equipment on a daily basis, at least I certainly didn’t, until I travelled to Nicaragua this March for an alternate spring break program.

There I worked on two construction sites: one an electricity free construction zone building a school and the other a wood processing plant (it didn’t have walls so factory seems a bit of an overstatement). Never before have I realized how much those machines help. We hear all the time that machines such as the cotton gin, the steamship, the compass changed the world. I could see that in Nicaragua. All the painstaking work was exponentially harder without machines. Machines, mind you, that have been invented and distributed in many parts of the world.

Take cement, a staple of infrastructure, construction, and development. Normally (read: in a developed country), a cement mixer would mix the components of cement and pour the mixture into the mold. In Nicaragua, things were different.

There are three ingredients in cement: sand, small rocks, and water.

Sand: The sand needs to come from elsewhere, in a truck. There was no road leading up to the construction site so the sand was dumped in huge piles by the side of the nearest highway. Then the sand was scooped into wheelbarrows and wheeled across a bridge with missing slots and up an extremely steep hill. This was a task for three people, two wheelbarrows, and intense pep talks. It also went slow and ended with a very satisfying wheelbarrow tip as the sand began to pile up at the construction site. When the pile at the top of the hill eclipsed the pile by the highway, the relief was palpable. In our group of thirteen students, wheelbarrow duty was considered by far the hardest. You needed more breaks, more encouragement, and more grit.

Pebbles: These were the easy part. They came in smaller bags that one of the workers could carry up and were therefore not a source of misery. The pebbles challenge came from the surrounding trees, which dropped burrs into the piles. The burrs were bad for the cement texture and weakened the mixture. We had to sift them out before measuring the rocks.

Water: This one was a doozy. The water came from a tiny stream down a very steep hill (different than the wheelbarrow hill) that had these dug out steps. The steps weren’t super defined and we never felt secure. We had three buckets and had to fill them up and walk up the hill, on a flat part for a little bit, and then through a small wooded area. Then we poured the water, what little had survived the bumpy journey, into a barrel. The barrel needed to be full to cement making to commence. My group and I tried many strategies for water transportation. We did shifts, with one person crouching in the tiny stream that quickly shrunk due to our project, and others acting as runners. I would fill up the bucket, full but not too full, and walk it up the first mini set of stairs. Then the second person walked it up some more stairs, through the flat area and handed it the third person who brought it to the barrel and returned the bucket. We tried to keep at least two buckets in rotation and update each other with the progress, which was extremely slow. It was so hard to do this as a group of over analytical students. We kept thinking there had to be an easier way, a more efficient way. Maybe there would be a level we could fill the buckets to so nothing would spill. Maybe we could rotate the buckets slightly differently. It was very hard for three problem solving overachievers to admit that this wasn’t a problem with a simple solution. It was a systematic one, and our brains couldn’t redirect a creek or build a road or flatten a hill. This water was not necessarily ideal for cement making. It didn’t have trash in it but there were leaves and rocks and dead insects, all of which could hurt the cement texture. We had to poke through and try to sift the buckets of water. Staying dry was the last possible concern. It was also impossible.

the barrel we had to fill and the shovels for mixing

Three components assembled (after several hours of work and a group of ten or so workers), it was time to make the cement. An already poured cement floor was the mixing board. The workers called out the ratio: five buckets of rocks, five buckets of sand, five buckets of water. We then scooped, shoveled, and poured, in a very specific order. The dry ingredients, so to speak, needed to be poured first with well in the middle for the water. The water almost has to be folded in, gradually incorporated without causing it to leak everywhere. We grabbed the shovels and tried our best. The Nicaraguans let us continue unless a major leak sprang. They could, however, shovel about 100% more efficiently than we. Once the cement was adequately mixed, it needed to be transported to the other soon to be room of the school, where it would fill the walls. The wall structure was outlined by metal squares. The metal had been hand bent earlier that day and linked together with wire knots. Yes, we cut the wire and tied it too. We shoveled the cement into the very same buckets that had previously carried water, used a branch to help two people carry the load and walked over to the new room. There, in an almost comical gesture, the man working on the wall at the moment would hoist the bucket full of HOURS of labor over his shoulders without so much as a grimace, and gently pour it into the wall until you could no longer see it. Back you went, to refill the bucket, fill the wall, and start the same thing over again.

The cement helped the form the core of those brick walls. We mixed it on the other side of those pillars (far left, out of frame)

Today, I was walking back from lunch in Brooklyn at my internship when I came across some construction work. The work was small, just replacing some sidewalk planks. There was a small container of cement before the men, undoubtably mixed mechanically, with supplies easily accessible. I couldn’t deal with the dichotomy of that cement and the cement I had seen just months ago. That cement means that it takes over three years to finish building a school, even as groups of American college students arrive almost weekly to help with unskilled tasks. In Nicaragua, as in the US, construction takes skill. What doesn’t take skill, however, is pushing a wheelbarrow up a hill, hauling water from a tiny creek, sifting burrs out of the pile of rocks that’s been waiting in the sun. Machines could change the world in Nicaragua, they really could. Electricity could change the world on that site, so could a fixed bridge, an extended road, a different water source. Is any of this possible in a society where the last time most of us thought about cement was at a sandbox? I sure hope so…

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