Geotechnical engineer Kurt Heckendorf recently returned from a six-month trip to Brasilia, the capitol of Brazil, where he lived and worked alongside the local population.
Heckendorf was in Brasilia as part of an international agreement the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has in this nation intended to foster a strong relationship between the two countries. The Corps part of this agreement involves working with Brazilian Engineers to mentor and transfer knowledge to them Specifically, Heckendorf worked for the company CODEVASF, which is in charge of development within the São Francisco and Parnaíba river valleys for agricultural, navigation and social purposes.
Although it was Heckendorf’s role to provide technical mentoring to CODEVASF, he said, the experience was just as much a learning opportunity for him as it was for the Brazilians. “The team that I worked with down there made this one of the best experiences of my life,” he said. He and his wife, Roshell, got to learn the Brazilian culture, have new experiences, both personally and professionally, and make new friends. “They took us into their country, into their homes and into their families,” he said.
The CODEVASF/Corps program in Brazil is intended to last three years and to complete 12 projects, four a year. Ultimately, the goal is to ensure the Brazilians have enough expertise to complete these types of projects on their own without Corps assistance. Heckendorf applied to be a part of this program through the Mobile District and was selected to be there during the second part of the first year. While there, he worked on bank erosion and navigation issues.
Where he saw that CODEVASF needed the most assistance was with planning, he said. “Had the previous consultants/designers hired by CODEVASF spent more time looking at the purpose of its projects, they might have had better suited projects on their own.” The Brazilian engineers were presented the Corps’ six step planning process, and they loved that, he said. The team also talked to the people who lived where the projects were intended to go, which provided great insight into local conditions.
For his part, he said one of his biggest challenges was communicating, although he was surprised by how many technical words in Portuguese were similar to what they are in English. Another challenge, he said, included driving, due to traffic and occasional flooding. “You still have to worry about horse and buggies there,” he added. Yet another challenge, he said, included obtaining IT (information technology) support, since it had to officially be requested through channels.
Outside of work, Heckendorf said he tried to experience as much of the culture and the country as he was able. He spent a lot of time with his Brazilian co-workers outside of duty hours, and both his wife and his father were able to join him for parts of his stay to get to experience what he was getting to experience – his wife stayed with him for the last three months of his trip and his father visited him for 1o days. “If you go there, try everything,” he advised. “It’s worth it!”
Heckendorf said he will definitely be going back. “Leaving was bittersweet,” he explained. “It was very hard to leave. They became so much like family!”