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.

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