Saturday, September 12, 2015

Bridge Adventures

I'm enjoying my service in the Peace Corps—it has certainly been an adventure! Thankfully, my experiences in West Virginia helped to prepare me for my latest adventure.

Following the devastation left by Tropical Storm Erika, Peace Corps Headquarters in Washington made the decision that the volunteers in Dominica should all consolidate in the capital city of Roseau on Thursday while the remnants of former Tropical Storm Grace passed by our island. By consolidating, they had us all in one place in case the fragile infrastructure (roads, telecommunications, etc.) that Dominica has been trying to rebuild would get damaged by this storm. Personally, I would have preferred to have spent Thursday and Friday at my school getting the library ready to open on Monday, but Headquarters wanted to be extra cautious. So all 14 of us (eight from my class and the six from last year's class) spent Thursday night at a hotel.

We did get some storms overnight as most of what was left of Grace rolled through, but they ultimately did not amount to much, and the sun was shining on Friday morning. By noon, the previous flash flood warning had expired and the decision was made that we didn't need to spend a second night at the hotel. After getting the chance on Thursday and Friday to do some shopping in the capital, as well as the opportunity to bond closer with the other class, we were allowed to go home.

Although I am now living in my own house, I will forever be indebted to my host family with whom I lived for a month after arriving in my village. They are wonderful folks who did a great job getting me acclimated to my new hometown. Thus, I considered it an honor when they asked if I would bring home two fancy cakes from a bakery in the capital for my host-sister's birthday on Saturday. I figured it was the least I could do, given all they have done for me. So in addition to taking a 90-minute bus ride with a small suitcase, I would also be carrying two cake boxes.

By the time I could pick up the cakes and get to the bus stop, the afternoon skies were darkening. The first rain drops started falling just before I boarded the bus. After what Dominicans went through just over two weeks ago, I'm sure I wasn't the only one on the bus who was hoping that the rain would not impact our bus ride home.

One result of the rain was that I got to see dozens of beautiful Dominican waterfalls, similar to those shown in the tourism brochures—unfortunately, these waterfalls were temporarily coming down along the roadway hillside cuts as we drove through. Thankfully, we didn't experience any landslides. Best of all, we made it through all the temporary detours—except for the last one.

A view across the chasm taken when we were stopped yesterday.
The bridge failure below Picard had been remedied by laying big pipes across the river bed, and filling them in with earth and stone to create a bypass road. Unfortunately, by the time our bus arrived, traffic was already backed up as the river was rushing across top of the makeshift roadway. No vehicle was allowed to cross until the water went down and the road could be filled in again.
The river was flowing swiftly, and vehicles could be swept away.
Except there was another way to get across that people were beginning to use. At some point after the original bridge collapsed into the river, a 12-inch wide steel I-beam was laid across the river just upstream from the bridge. This provided a “footbridge” that could be used by those brave enough to walk across, where perhaps alternative transportation options could be used to make your way home.
This picture of the bridge was taken a week ago when the river was calm.
There were a few folks from my village on this bus, and one of them was a young man I had got to know during our local landslide cleanups. He had called his father (whom I had also met), who was going to drive down from Portsmouth to pick him up as well as anybody else if we could cross to the opposite side. Others were already making their way across the river, very carefully and one at a time, so we (the young man, two women, and myself) agreed to join the line for our turn to cross.
That is one of the women from my village crossing the river.
To me, it was a relatively narrow gap to cross, especially after my experience on the catwalk at the New River Gorge bridge. However, the West Virginia experience that gave me the most confidence in accomplishing this small feat was the fact that I had crossed the incredible footbridge at Nelson Rocks. I had conquered my fear of heights on those two bridges, and this strong I-beam was wide enough for both feet, so I decided it was worth the risk. Who knew how long it might take before the bus could get across and get me home? I certainly didn't want to be the only one spending the night sleeping in the van with the driver. Besides, I had birthday cakes to deliver!

I knew I would have to leave my suitcase in the back of the van, but my bus driver was willing to deliver it to my host family's house once the river went down and he could drive across the detour. With that arrangement made, I decided to join my fellow village residents and “go for it.” Soon it was my turn to cross the I-beam, and I had no problems whatsoever—even while carrying the two big cake boxes in front of me! All I had to do was concentrate, just as I had done at Nelson Rocks or the New River Gorge. It was “a piece of cake” (so to speak).

Once on the other side, we jumped into his dad's SUV and enjoyed a boring, uneventful trip back to the village. All of us felt good that we had taken a bit of a chance, but had succeeded. In addition, I was very glad that I had helped with the landslide cleanups in the village, which had allowed me to get to know the young man and his father better. It had enabled me to get home earlier and deliver those precious birthday cakes.

By the way, much to my surprise, my luggage arrived on the van about an hour or so after I got home. Of course, had I chosen not to take a slight risk and wait it out, I probably would have ended up spending the night in the van. It is hard to predict these things, but I'm comfortable with the decision I made. Plus, it gave me one more adventure in the Peace Corps!

I think crossing on the I-beam may have been safer than the previous Sunday, when we had to cross the wobbly rocks of this hastily built dam in order to catch a bus on the other side (prior to the completion of the detour).

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