Will Brumleve reports for the Ford County record:
EIEC lineman helps bring power to Bolivian villages
SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — For three weeks, Terry Riggins was constantly pestered by bugs as he endured 12-hour workdays in 90-degree heat in the mountains of Bolivia.
After work, he would try his best to sleep in what he jokingly referred to as a “resort” — with no hot water “half the time” in his room and with few of the other luxuries he had come to take for granted back at his home in Lake Iroquois.
His diet during his stay in the west-central South American country consisted of eggs in the morning, rice for lunch and dinner, along with either beef, chicken or pork. The cows in Bolivia roam free, however, so “they’d never seen a piece of grain, so it was like eating a boot,” Riggins said.
The 54-year-old Riggins would have had it no other way, though. The lineman for Paxton-based Eastern Illini Electric Cooperative (EIEC) recalls his first trip to South America as an eye-opening opportunity — one he is thankful he did not pass up.
“I want every young lineman to go,” said Riggins, who has been working for EIEC for 17 years.
Riggins was among a group of 12 linemen from nine Illinois electric cooperatives who recently spent three weeks bringing electricity to four central Bolivian villages. During their stay in Bolivia, the linemen constructed nearly 30 kilometers of power lines and installed 21 transformers as they built a power-distribution system to bring power to 62 households, two schools and a facility for handicapped individuals.
Riggins called the experience “life-changing,” not just for himself but for the people in the rural Bolivian villages who had never had electricity in their homes or schools before.
“I’m telling you, it’s a life-changing experience when you can see the help that these people are going to have,” said Riggins. “I hope it does good for all of them. I know the village people and everyone there, it’s going to change their lives forever.”
The linemen’s trip to Bolivia was sponsored by the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives (AIEC) and managed and coordinated by NRECA International, an affiliate of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) that has been working in developing countries since 1962.
Riggins said the AIEC has asked EIEC for its linemen to help with such projects for the past three or four years. Riggins was initially asked to go to Bolivia last year, but the AIEC had yet to obtain its required permit, so the trip was postponed until this spring.
Getting to work
Riggins left the U.S. on March 12, joining other linemen on a flight to the city of Santa Cruz in eastern Bolivia. There, they met up with linemen from the Cooperativa Rural de Electrificación (CRE), a Bolivian electric cooperative, who would help the AIEC linemen complete the tasks that lied ahead.
“As soon as we got there, we got shown the project, and then the next day it was straight to work,” Riggins said. “It was such tough terrain the first day that none of us thought we’d ever get it done. But we got it all done.”
The CRE workers had limited equipment — one bucket truck, to be exact — while the AIEC linemen had none.
“All we brought was some hand tools, hard hats and some work boots,” Riggins said.
Working conditions in the mountainous region — at an elevation of 6,000 feet — were not ideal, either, Riggins said. The heat and bugs were difficult to bear, Riggins said, with some linemen opting to wear protective bee suits. Dangerous slopes and the threat of falling rocks also presented issues, Riggins said.
“It was just jungley,” Riggins said. “And the mountains are just huge. And they’re all dead rock, so it’s constantly having avalanches and stuff. You could end up with a boulder through your (hotel) room. … And every curve (in the road around the mountains) has four or five crosses with shrines on them where (vehicles) went off the mountain. … It’s a deadly place to even be working alongside the road.”
Of course, the work was a challenge in itself.
“We were pulling miles of wire and hanging transformers that weigh 300 pounds,” Riggins said. “And (the CRE workers) don’t have bucket trucks, so they did it off of ladders.”
Thankfully, Riggins said, the 100-plus concrete poles on which the transformers were hung had already been installed by hand prior to the linemen arriving. But the poles were not in the most accessible locations, Riggins noted.
“You’d think they’d take the poles and build them alongside the road, but they didn’t,” Riggins said, noting some polls were located on the slopes of mountains instead.
For the aging Riggins, the work took a toll on his body. He recalled one instance in which he had to use a rope to climb back up some 6,000 feet of mountain slope after arriving at the bottom of the mountain.
“When I got to the top, I collapsed. That was the end of the day. I couldn’t go anymore. I was done,” Riggins said. “I’m 54, and I’m probably to the end of my age to be able to do that — that’s just how tough it was. I mean, that’s really a young man’s game.”
Time to celebrate
Once the work was completed, a celebration was held March 30 at the Lajas School, one of the two schools for which power was provided. The celebration was attended by the workers, village leaders, the mayor of Samaipata and several CRE board members.
“All the people came down,” Riggins said.
During the celebration, schoolchildren presented the linemen with letters they had written, thanking them for their help.
“They were just so excited that now they could do their studies with light instead of having to use a candle or whatever else they had,” Riggins said.
Riggins noted that the villages in the area of Bolivia where he was working were not what most Americans would consider a town.
“When we talk about towns, anywhere we built a line, I wouldn’t even call it a town. It’d be like going out in the middle of just nowhere and there are some houses scattered along, and then there’s a school, an orphanage and another little school,” Riggins said. “And when I say they’re little schools, I mean they’re little schools.”
Riggins will never forget the level of poverty he witnessed while there.
“Until you go there and see how them people are living …,” Riggins said, his voice trailing off. “I wish our poor could be there for a little while to see what poor is.”
Riggins said one instance, in particular, reminded him of how things were over there.
“There was a 96-year-old gentleman who came walking out by the school while we were building a line, and he came to talk to us and said he just wanted to make sure that we didn’t forget about his little house down at the bottom (of the hill). He said his family left him, nobody looks after him or takes care of him, and he just wanted to have a light (in his home). He was just so excited that somebody was there, and he wanted to make sure nobody forgot him.
“When I tell you about bringing lights to a home, it’s a light bulb,” Riggins added. “It’s not that they’re going to have now a refrigerator and a stove, that kind of thing.
“And you’ve got to realize these places don’t even have windows, and they don’t have running hot water.”
A volunteer who runs the facility for handicapped individuals literally feeds the facility’s residents “with what little stuff she can get” out of her garden, Riggins added.
Things starting to look up
Things are starting to look up for these rural villages, though. Riggins said that CRE has indicated that it would install a hot water system for the facility serving handicapped individuals, for example, meaning the facility will soon have both lights and hot water.
“That’s got to be huge,” Riggins said. “I take two showers a day, so I can’t even imagine not having hot water.”
Riggins said that after the work was done, he had the opportunity to take a tour of Santa Cruz, go on a hike to a waterfall and visit some ancient ruins.
But that was about the extent of his free time in Bolivia.
“There wasn’t no free time,” Riggins said. “It was eat, sleep and get this power line done until it was over with.”
Back home again
Riggins returned to the U.S. on April 2. Since arriving at his Iroquois County home, Riggins said he has been able to remain in contact with some of the CRE workers through social media. Due to language barriers, he had been unable to communicate effectively with the Bolivian workers while in South America, but now he can.
“I was told before I went (on the trip) that we probably wouldn’t make any friends (due to the language barrier),” Riggins said. “But, believe it or not, all of the (CRE) linemen are on Facebook, so now I’m friends with all of them. This way, I can at least translate what they’re saying to me and they can translate what I’m saying to them, so that’s kind of neat.”
From my days I first knew and worked with NRECA, it certainly is refreshing to see there are still good people that helps with Bolivian development!