If you really want to experience Guatemala, hop on a bicycle. With the wind in your face, you’ll admire dramatic blue skies and towering volcanoes. You’ll pedal through fields of corn and coffee, discovering sprawling outdoor markets full of enchiladas and tamales, bright textiles, and friendly locals. You might even pass a high-school marching band playing salsa tunes. Yet having done all these things myself, I found that an even better way to experience Guatemala is by building bicycles.
I set out for Guatemala in August 2006 for a two-month stint volunteering with the nongovernmental organization Maya Pedal. Since 1997, Maya Pedal has been refurbishing and selling used bicycles as well as designing and building bicycle-powered machines, or bicimáquinas. In a region beset by poverty and pollution, Maya Pedal champions pedal power as a sustainable source of energy, and promotes the machines that use it as tools for rural economic development. With ties to MIT’s D-Lab and a steady stream of used bikes from nonprofit organizations in North America (including Bikes Not Bombs in Boston, Working Bikes in Chicago, and Pedal Energy Development Alternatives in Vancouver), the organization serves communities throughout Guatemala from its modest headquarters in San Andrés Itzapa, a small town in the country’s central highlands.
The bicimáquinas, made almost entirely out of recycled bicycles, are ingenious in their simplicity and efficiency. Bicycle-powered devices such as water pumps, coffee depulpers, washing machines, and blenders have the potential to make a real difference in Guatemalan society. They can boost the economy by helping people complete their agricultural and domestic tasks more efficiently despite limited access to fuel or electricity. The devices are also made from recycled materials and powered by renewable energy–an important benefit in a region plagued by contaminated waterways and both indoor and outdoor air pollution. Bicimáquinas can even aid in processing corn, the most important food staple in Guatemala. Bicycle-powered machines are three to four times as effective per person-hour of effort as hand-crank machines, giving the bicimolino/desgranadora (a bicycle mill and corn dehusker) a big advantage over other human-powered machines currently used to prepare corn for consumption.
My fellow volunteers and I worked with Maya Pedal’s two paid employees, Carlos Marroquin Machan and Johanna Mesa Montuba, both longtime residents of San Andrés Itzapa, to build these machines and more. Our days in the Maya Pedal workshop–cutting, grinding, painting, assembling bicycles–were always punctuated by coffee breaks, bike rides, games of catch with neighborhood children, and conversations with visitors and friends. These interactions gave us the chance to practice speaking Spanish and get to know members of the community, many of whom speak the Mayan Kaqchikel language in addition to Spanish. Like most of Guatemala’s indigenous population, many of them still wear traditional Mayan clothing–and many are poor. Yet despite the problems facing Guatemalans each day, the people I encountered during my stay were among the kindest I have ever met.
Maya Pedal is fortunate to have people like Carlos and Johanna, Edgerton Center instructor Gwyndaf Jones, students from MIT’s D-Lab, and volunteers from around the globe working to design and build bicimáquinas. But the organization also faces some serious challenges. Most of the bicycles that Maya Pedal uses are donated by people in the United States; rising customs fees on donated goods may force the organization to look for other sources of secondhand bikes. Also, to become financially stable and expand, Maya Pedal must find ways–such as partnering with other NGOs–to better advertise its bicimáquinas in a country with few media outlets that reach the rural poor.
As a member of Maya Pedal’s ever-growing family, I hope to stay involved in the project and see it thrive as a sustainable business and a catalyst for improving the economic, social, and environmental situation in Guatemala.