Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Life at Maya Pedal

The life at Maya Pedal is permeated by the life in Guatemala 
 (A view from the front door of Maya Pedal)

Though the bike shop is filled with norteamericanos with all of their North American sensibilities, Guatemala creeps into our moods, our habits, and our best intentions.   Take recycling.  We love to recycle in North America.  But in Itzapa, there isn’t a regular municipal trash service, much less a recycling program.  So after weeks spent watching a pile of recycling grow in the kitchen, to which I contributed, I decided to ask my colleagues “Does someone pick this up?”  They all scratched their heads.  Nobody knew.   Well as it turns out, nobody picks it up.  And so, after weeks of seeing plastic bottles floating in the town stream, after almost a month spent with the knowledge that Itzapa doesn’t even have a town dump, we decided to throw the recycling away.  Old habits die hard…and good intentions, it seems, die even harder.   
 (Itzapa from the roof at Maya Pedal)

Our life here is simple; while the culture is as profound and beautiful as the traditional Mayan tapestry, the day to day way of being is far cry from the thrills of big city life.  Our space here at Maya Pedal is modest, reflecting the shared life: we have in common a kitchen, bathroom, two bedrooms and one computer. 

(The bano downstairs)
(The kitchen)
(Our beds)
(The Dining Room)
The shop at MayaPedal is perhaps the most vivid reflection of the people who work here and the place where it is located: filled with recycled bike tools from the United States hung on boards that feature the tool’s name alongside a giant bike centerpiece describing parts in both Spanish and English, the shop´s organization belies the educational focus of the community bike people who volunteer here. 

(Metal working tools)
(Bike specific tools)
(Wrenches and spanners)
(The top view of the shop)
 (The shop)
(The showroom)

The Metal bits, pieces of bicimaqunias, and complete bike machines strewn across the shop illustrate the focus of our leader Carlos and his staff.   

But the sensibilities of North American volunteers in a relatively poor Guatemalan bicycle shop are often chafed.  Two young mechanics, Victor and Carlito (Carlito being the son of founder and director, Carlos), do their best to repair bicycles…but without any training, a fifteen year old mechanic is left to make a lot of mistakes.  And if these mistakes aren’t corrected by a thoughtful instructor or lead mechanic, they can continue un-noticed. 

In our bike shops back home, we want bikes to leave the shop in good working order.  But in Guatemala, most folks are content to make small repairs to their bike after they buy it.  To deal with this seeming “problem,” a volunteer serving here has created a bike checklist that she hopes two mechanics will complete before bikes are sold.  Will it work?  Is it necessary?  

With waves of volunteers serving for one month to six weeks, turnover is high while consistency is not.  Systems are designed by a well-intentioned volunteer only to be lost on the next generation (arriving a month later), who lack an understanding of why it was created in the first place and how it works. 

Again, MayaPedal is a reflection of the people who work here and the place where it is located: well intentioned, North American kids hope to create a well-organized community bike shop.   But the reality beckons a greater understanding: a poor Guatemalan village with a unique bike shop gainfully employing a couple of kids while providing bicycle machines for local farmers stands on legs of its own, with goals and local sensibilities of its own.  

Could it be better? Well sure!  Will volunteering in the shop for four weeks with intermediate Spanish make the change you hope to see? 

During my time here, I’ve tried to listen and observe, contributing where possible.  I had a go at the wheel room.  It went from this:

To this:
Will it stay this way? 

In spite of the seemingly dissonant cultures at work in the shop, the life at MayaPedal has it’s own beautiful rhythm.  We wake up, eat breakfast on our own, start work on our projects, cook up eggs and beans and rice to go with the tortillas purchased from down the street for lunch, get back to work for the afternoon, cook a shared meal, read books into the evening and maybe watch a 50 cent DVD movie purchased from down the way; go to bed, wake up, and repeat.  On the weekends, we take trips to very close but seemingly far away lands; lakes and oceans and rivers and streams.  Or water, as it were.  And it’s there that we recharge our batteries to prepare for a week spent sorting innertubes, repairing broke down USA throwaways, and listening to one of our young colleagues use the angle grinder to create perfectly fashioned bike machine parts.  And it´s in these places that our ability to function as a seamless whole, as a community bound by a love for the bike and an interest in this place, as a group that often literally moves as a whole body, begins to show itself.
(On a bus headed to the lake)
(Habitaciones Simples means really cramped and really hot rooms)
(Epic Volcanoes)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

On Bicimaqunias and Community

A country torn apart by more than a decade of civil war, Guatemala is a place of un-precedented beauty, mystery and pain. 

With warnings from friends and strangers alike about the state of Guatemala’s security, I left Guatemala’s capital city as soon as possible.  Arriving at 4:30 a.m. on a Friday morning, I did my best to cram everything I owned into my already overloaded backpack. Shoes, a sleeping bag, a thermarest and a camp pillow dangling precariously from my backpack, I navigated the strangely small Guatemala City airport in search of a cab, 3 bicycle polo mallets in tow.

I hit the ground running with my Spanish.  Negotiating in Spanish the 60 km trip from the airport to MayaPedal was fairly easy, though the sum shall not be repeated here.  In retrospect I’m quite grateful for that ride, though, having now experienced the raw insanity (yet also efficiency) that is the Guatemalan Chicken Bus System.  My driver did manage to hit a dog on the highway out of the city, an event that alarmed me but didn’t seem to phase my driver.  “He’s still walking,” he replied in Spanish. 

Arriving at MayaPedal around 6:30 a.m., a jovial and handlebar moustached volunteer named Ian greeted me with more enthusiasm than befits such an hour.  Eager to make me feel welcome, he put on the kettle (a busted tin pot) and began to show me around. 

MayaPedal, founded in 1996, receives shipments of used bicycle parts from Bikes Not Bombs and the Working Bikes Collective in the United States.  They use the bikes and parts for two purposes: 1) they repair the used bikes and sell them to locals for general use.  2) the build bicycle powered agricultural machines, bicimaqunias, for local farmers (campesinos). 
Bikes Not Bombs had been a guiding light as I founded and ran Revolutions Community Bicycle Shop in Memphis.  I had peripherally followed their international programs through their newsletter updates and websites, though I’ve always retained a certain amount of skepticism about international aid, in particular the distribution of American “stuff” in poor countries with the idea that our stuff might make their lives better. 

But because a central component of my thesis for this year states that the bicycle retains the potential to bring people together into communities with a common passion and focus, MayaPedal—being a volunteer based organization—provides a unique opportunity to test the power of a bicycle based program to bind a small group of people into a collective infused with a purpose.  
Self-motivation is critical at MayaPedal.  Carlos, our leader, engineer, and bicimaqunia mastermind, always has his hands full with the affairs of the business.  The nuts and bolts of MayaPedal, that is the day to day work of organizing parts, repairing bikes, and building the various components of the machines, is left largely to the individual volunteers.  As a small group of norteamericanos, we work together to organize ourselves and the work.  Which means, if the group is less than coherent or marred by a shiftless soul or two, things could get rough. 

Amazingly, the group we’ve got here at MayaPedal works like a well-oiled bicimaqunia.  My own perception of fluidity might be informed, in part, by the arrival of one of my oldest friends.  My old friend Sarah and her boyfriend Nick were waiting outside the door of MayaPedal on my second afternoon here in Itzapa.  Hugs and words of welcome were exchanged and I secretly marveled at life’s ability to bestow grace through a perpetual process of providence. 
And so, almost two weeks into my stay in Guatemala, I’m learning again why History matters. It washes over people and places, the dusty roads and marvelous mountains of Guatemala, leaving it with a sheen of promise covered by a veneer of insecurity.  I’m becoming re-acquainted with the energetic bicycle kids of North America, a group distinguished by their flailing ambition to use the bicycle to improve the quality of life for all people in the Americas.    I’m learning about poverty…and role of the bicycle in the lives of a people who spend most of their day felling their own cooking fuel.   And I’m glancing at my own country, closer now than it has been in more than 9 months, and I’m thinking hard about the changes it is going through; and where the bicycle might take us all.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Greetings from Guatemala

As you´ve no doubt noticed, content on Pedal Power has been lacking over the last couple of weeks.  Far from a lack of material, the problem is a lack of time.  And computer space.  

For the majority of my trip, I´ve had readily available wireless internet access.  Carrying my trusty (and now quite dusty) standard MacBook around the world has meant I have access to internet hotspots.  Wireless internet equals frequent updates.  In my current capacity as a volunteer at MayaPedal, however, there is no wireless internet access.  There is, in fact, only one computer for both business purposes and the personal needs of 7 vounteers.  Internet time is thus at a premium here in Guatemala. 

But take heart!  I hope to upload some posts, composed off line, about the work here at MayaPedal, my final weeks in China, and some exciting plans for the future.  So please stay tuned, gentle reader.  

On another note, thanks for all the support, comments and questions that have been pouring in these last 12 months.  Let´s continue to think and write and work and build infused with a vision for that day when the bicycle is chosen as often as the car.