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Quililon Project Manager Tom Meagher on the challenges faced along with the many rewards!

Quililon Project Manager Tom Meagher on the challenges faced along with the many rewards!

July 14, 2017

We interviewed Tom Meagher, project manager on our recent bridge build in Quililon, Nicaragua, to learn his insights about the trip.

Tom Meagher, project manager, with fellow builders

Tom Meagher, project manager, with fellow builders

What was the most rewarding thing about this trip?
Besides building an engineering marvel (ha!) for the most well deserving of communities and seeing the complete joy it brought to the community…for me, the most rewarding thing was the friendships made on the trip among the CH2M team and also our Bridges to Prosperity colleagues. Despite all the hardships (such as weather and logistic difficulties), the team bonded so well and it was an experience all of us are unlikely to forget.

From a personal point of view, I was happy to push myself outside of my normal comfort zone and achieve such an amazing goal. As a cold weather person, I was worried about the physical and mental challenges of working in hot temperatures and humidity. I also have a chronic back condition and I knew the physical labor would be challenging. But even though I probably had only 2 hours of good sleep in the entire two weeks, I made it. I actually relished the physical labor as opposed to my normal desk job. It was great to feel myself getting stronger each day and my back actually hurt less! This was a huge surprise to me.

Of course as project manager I was delighted we met the build schedule despite Mother Nature’s best attempts to thwart us. It was touch and go for a while (I’m not sure many of the team realized how close it was), with work finishing up in the dark on the night before the inauguration. Of course it was easy when I had such a great team around me.

Tom1What did you learn?
I learned a lot about myself and how I work with other people. It was a tremendous experience to work with the local community and see their ingenuity at work. At times they showed us who the real engineers were and it was a reminder of the basic skills that we in the developed world have lost. So being able to listen to those unexpected experts was a valuable lesson. Second, I learned to always have a spare set of sockets with me–especially half inch. I’m sure I had nightmares about them.

What surprised you about Nicaragua as a country, the el Tuma La Dalia/Quililon community, and the bridge building?
I was surprised by how beautiful the landscape was with its mix of lakes, volcanoes, mountains and forests. Some of wildlife was downright scary (for example, while erecting cables on the tower, we were visited by an enormous flying yellow insect!).

Tom4The community of Quililon was amazing and made us feel so welcome from the outset. They were very engaged in the whole process. Certainly we did our best to engage them, but they really needed no invitation. They came in droves each day to help out, and given the inclement weather and the logistic difficulties in crossing the river, the bridge simply would not have been completed in time without them.

As for the bridge building, the only surprise was the additional work items we had to complete and had not been expecting. But with the community’s help and with good professionals from Bridges to Prosperity, we made it – just about!

Share a memorable a story about your interactions with the community.
Certainly the music in the rain on Sunday morning was a great start to our work day. And we nearly always had the pleasure of a smiling Jose and Jimmy onsite. A real gentleman, Jose arrived nearly every day with sweets or other sugar boosts to keep us going.  Jimmy was a young teenager who worked as hard as anyone on the bridge. We all enjoyed teaching him English and he was very much part of the team.

Operating the chino (a cable car used to transport material over and back across the river) was a great place to chat with locals and swear blindly while pulling heavy loads across the river. At times, it was amazing to see how little language mattered in terms of communication. Everyone just seemed to understand.

What was your biggest challenge you faced during this trip?
Sleeping – it was either the heat, noise of farm animals and dogs barking during theTom3 night, torrential rain during the night or the worry about our schedule given the heavy rain. Apart from that, trying to keep mud out of my sleeping bag and trying to dry things were significant challenges. I failed miserably on both of these items. At some point you just give up and get used to wearing wet clothes 24/7 and accept the mud reminding yourself that some models in Paris pay a fortune to have mud put on their faces. Before the trip I had reminded the team to expect rock concert campsite conditions. We pretty much got it and then some.

How did the bridge build experience make you reflect on your own life?
I realized what can be achieved with very little. We take for granted a lot of basic things in the developed world. And we certainly have lost a lot of our basic skills as humans. Bush skills you could say. Any time we needed a secure knot for anything, we called in a community member! But looking back at the photos of the completed bridge, it is still hard to believe we built it with hand tools and a severe amount of grunt work.

It was also a great experience not to have to deal with email or mobile phones for two entire weeks. It is possible! The world will not collapse! So I think, reflecting on that, It may be time to put away the phone at night and reduce the emailing. It was so much better in the old days when we had to write letters and only the important stuff was written! And no one ever wrote saying “Thank you. Letter received. Or “I am out of the office today but I will reply to your letter on my return.”

Also, given how much I liked the physical work and how great I felt again after the two weeks, I do need to look at the amount of time I spend at my desk either at work or at home and aim for a better balance of physical activity.

Finally, it goes without saying that I will appreciate things more. Life can be so much harder!

Tom5What lessons did you learn that you can apply to your current job/discipline?
I was pleasantly surprised by the way the team pushed themselves outside of their comfort zones. We had an equally balanced team from an age and gender perspective, which was absolutely great. Day 1 I was a little worried when I realized most of the team had no construction experience whatsoever and I had to start assigning tasks based on what I already knew of each individual and their limitations. However, it soon became apparent that this team was not limited in any way and they were up for it. No one was going to be deterred from getting involved in any task. Suddenly, we had people who had been fearful of heights working on top of scaffolding or placing decking on the cross beams out over the river. Within no time I had to re-evaluate all of the team members because everyone was motivated to do whatever needed to be done. My biggest challenge then became rationing the work out to ensure everyone got to do a little of the same task, and this proved difficult because we also had to ensure the local community were engaged in the build as much as possible. This meant that at times some of our team members had to sit around and wait for the next task to commence. But no one ever complained. The team worked so well together and so hard, doing things that were completely new to them but succeeding anyway. So the lesson I took away from the build is never to underestimate the motivated individual. He/she is quite simply limitless.

How would you describe the importance of team work collectively on this job?
Absolute. Teamwork was the be all and end all of working on this project and in the environment we found ourselves in. Learning to work as a team from Day 1 was essential to the successful delivery of the project. But to be honest,  I had no real worries because in our prep work as a team, we already had completed significant work in creating the construction, health and safety, logistics and communication plans. It took a team effort to complete our method statements and then translate them into Spanish for the local community. So I knew the team already felt engaged and was going to work well together when we got to the site, but I just couldn’t have foreseen how well. We all came away from this project not just as colleagues but as friends. I have nothing but respect and admiration for each member of the team and what they achieved both individually and together.

Tom7How did your own personal values and ethos affect the way that you approached the bridge build schedule?
I think it was fair to say that “schedule” was mentioned a few times during the day, but maybe only twice at breakfast and dinner. Such is the concern of a project manager! However, I would like to think I showed a good example in work ethic. I certainly didn’t ask anyone to do something that I wasn’t prepared to do myself and when delays occurred due to weather I think I managed to coax extra effort out of the entire team by setting a good example. The only promise I made to myself was that I wasn’t going to leave an unfinished bridge and nothing really mattered at the end of the day except completing the bridge safely and on time. That was the key objective of our mission.

Discuss the living conditions and how you adapted to them.
Before answering this question I refer back to the last two sentences of my response to the preceding question! Conditions were, how should I put it, basic! The campsite alternated between baking hot (apparently someone’s wine bottles exploded in their tent because of the heat) and swamp with torrential rain. Our first task after erecting the tents was to dig a trench, aka the Quililon Canal (you think the Panama Canal Expansion was impressive?) around the campsite to cope with the river of water that used to arrive after each downpour. Even then, my tent moved downhill somewhat during the 2 weeks, floating on a bed of cattle excrement!

That said, the most difficult thing was the humidity – everything was always damp. It was impossible to dry anything. So once you got used to being wet all the time it was grand.

On the plus side we were lucky to have some great cooks with us and the food was generally great, especially if you like rice and beans. On a couple of occasions we managed to get hold of some fish and a veritable feast was had.

I’m not sure you could say we ever adapted to the conditions. We downed our night-time beer and got through it!

Tom10Describe the working relationships you developed with your colleagues and community.
We went as colleagues and came home as friends. Working with the community was great. They welcomed us and appreciated our efforts in helping them. Apart from throwing a party on our arrival, which we unfortunately could not partake in as we had to set up camp, they assisted in our camp setup and brought us gifts, including a memorable batch of live hens, which we ate that night. We worked closely together with the community, always including a community member or two in each our task teams. And I think they appreciated the fact that we didn’t come to take over their project but, rather, we were there to help and assist them realize their project.

What is your favorite memory of the bridge build?
I have so many and it would be a disservice to the team and the entire experience to single out one favorite memory, but personally I have fond memories of getting a cake for my birthday! Given that we were really out in the sticks, this was a tremendous surprise…so a big shout out to our Logistics Manager Caroline for that. And a good party was had by all. Apparently!

Some simple things were also memorable, like a nice cold swim across the river after a particularly hot and sweaty morning’s work on the “otra lado” to go and get lunch. Easiest way to wash the work clothes too.

Tom9Of course, I enjoyed seeing the faces of the local community each day as they saw the bridge taking shape and finally knowing that after 25 years, they were finally getting their bridge. It was great to see their expectation grow each day. We just knew they were crossing the bridge at night before it was finished!

And will we ever forget the sweet cold taste of a Tona from the ice bucket after a long hard sweaty day of work under a baking sun?

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July 2017

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