I don’t remember how I heard about Maya Pedal in Guatemala back in 2008. Maybe someone came into the bike shop that my sister Erin owned that I occasionally worked at and mentioned having been there, or maybe I read about it in a bicycling magazine. But when I looked up their website, I was enthralled by the concept of this special place.
Maya Pedal is a workshop that not only fixed up old bikes to sell inexpensively in the community, but they made pedal powered machines to help the indigenous population, offering them sustainable solutions to their everyday work. On their website was pictured a bicycle blender, and a pedal powered machine that stripped corn off the cob. It was amazing. After showing the website to Erin, we decided that we would spend our winter break that year, all two weeks of it before Christmas, working on bikes.
When Erin and I flew to Guatemala, we first stayed overnight in Guatemala City before taking the bus to San Andes Itzapa the next morning, a few hours West. The bus was an old school bus, colorful, painted brightly, and extremely crowded. The other passengers loaded their bags high on top of the bus before getting in, the bus driver tying their luggage together with twine. Erin and I had packed lightly for our trip – only one book bag each, nothing that we couldn’t hold in our laps securely while we sat, gazing out on the window, dust in our faces, as we passed banana farm after banana farm, making our way out of the city.
Arriving in San Andres Itzapa
When we arrived in San Andres Itzapa, we were dropped off near the center of town, a small plaza that where we could most see most of what the community had to offer by spinning in a circle – a church, and a school, and few shops, and some women selling food out of carts on the stone streets. The first person I saw, I asked where Maya Pedal was. The man pointed up a steep hill directly in front of us and told us we would see it about half way up, on the right.
We steadily started climbing, and arrived a few minutes later to two metal doors, with a sign for Maya Pedal directly to the right, the words spelled out made from old bike parts that had been cut with an angle grinder. We knocked, and a few seconds later, a man opened a smaller door within the two larger ones. He introduced himself as Carlos. He was Guatemalan, a little shorter than us, looked to be in his early 40s, with tan skin. He was dressed casually in work clothes, with grease stains running up and down the pant legs, typical to a bike or auto mechanic.
He smiled at us warmly and motioned for us to duck as we walked through the small door. We entered the building, and as our eyes adjusted from the bright outdoor sun to the indoors. After chatting for a few minutes, he showed us around Maya Pedal. The front room was the workshop, which was large, and open, and well organized. It was impressive. Two bike stands were centered in the middle of the floor, both with bikes hanging, and tools lined the walls, where peg boards had been painted with outlines of where each individual tool belonged to assure that they didn’t go missing. To the left was a bicycle-powered well, where a bucket hung down about 8 feet to a water source. Welding tools sat closer to the front of the workspace.
A tour of Maya Pedal
We walked to the back of the room, where a doorway led us to a small living area with couch and a few bookshelves, and an office. Beyond that was the kitchen, with a large table, and plenty of space for cooking, and a refrigerator. Back out in the workspace, Carlos led us up the stairs to the second floor, where the hallway was lined with bikes on either side – ones that been recently repaired by volunteers and were waiting to be sold to the community to keep Maya Pedal running. On either side of the hallway were separate women and men’s rooms had bunk beds.
We continued up, following Carlos to the third floor, which opened up to the roof. It was partially covered by a tin lean-to, where a stack of tires and wheels stood taller than Erin and I, and 20 feet wide. The rest of the roof was uncovered and housed many more bikes, all donated, waiting to be worked on – my eyes widened as I looked around, excited about how much work there was for us to do. I walked over to the edge, where a partition wall separated the roof of Maya Pedal with its neighbors, and saw a stunning view of the mountains, green, and covered with trees, the clouds hanging low in the distance in the early evening. I turned around to follow Erin and Carlos back downstairs, feeling so lucky that we would get to work on bikes in this beautiful country.
Erin and I spent the next few days at Maya Pedal without any other volunteers working on bikes. We worked nonstop, other than every once in a while taking a break to play with neighborhood children who would come by, or in between bikes we finished tuning up we would try out the pedal powered machines in the shop, seeing how fast we could pedal to get the blender or see how quickly we could get the bucket in the well up and down from the water. With each bike we fixed and stored away on the second floor with the other working bikes, I gained more energy – it was so fun to be so productive, and I loved being able to use real skills that I had learned to do something for other people.
Carlos would come in and out throughout the day and talk about the machines and show us how to use the ones we didn’t understand as well, like the cornhusker, since it was something neither Erin and I had ever husked corn before. He was the real engineer, the full-time employee of Maya Pedal, and he had been working with the organization for a while and was great at working on the bicycle machines. Although a small NGO, since 1997, Carlos worked hard at Maya Pedal to support a few of the 30,000 residents of San Andres Itzapa, who live in the 30 square miles that made up the town.
What was most impressive and fun about volunteering at Maya Pedal was realize how much it really helped the community. Many of the people in the community were rural farmers who grow wheat, corn, beans, avocado, beets, radishes, carrots, and coffee and live on only a few dollars a day. When Maya Pedal introduced their bike machines, the bicimáquinas, the first being a pedal powered machine to mill grain, it sped up a usually slow process that is done by hand to something that could produce grain at a rate of three pounds per minute. Over the years, Carlos and other Maya Pedal engineers have developed washing machines, nut shellers, and water pumps. What an amazing organization!
If you are interested in getting involved with Maya Pedal, please visit their website: http://www.mayapedal.org
– Shelley Callahan