The rain poured on us as we were taking the last road to San Andreas Itzapa, just an hour bike-ride from Antigua. It was risky to ride on the deeply ravined road. So we dismounted and joined the farmers and their loaded mules, for a trek down the muddy trail.
A month before, we had emailed Maya Pedal, an organization specialized in building pedal-powered machines, about volunteering. The reply message stated that they were are not accepting volunteers. We figured we could at least drop by at the famous international NGO. As we arrived at the doors of Maya Pedal, fancying what wonders were behind them… drats!.. they were closed…
The neighbors knew what we were looking for. Usually, there are “a lot of gringoes” at Maya Pedal. Since no one was home, they gave us directions to the landlord. After hours of killing time eating shucos and waiting for the rain to die down, we rang the doorbell of Cezar.
There is an unmistakable good-vibe radiated by Cezar. Tho I hardly understood Spanish, I construed from his warm smile, we were invited to stay. Indeed, Cezar gave us the keys and an invite to stay for an infinite period of time. With sincerity, Cezar said “Maya Pedal, is your home too. Maya pedal, here, is everyone’s.”
The shop is a touring cyclist dream. It’s a 3 story warehouse with large kitchen and rooms; decorated with mayan-meets-bike art; a room of wheels; another of all spare parts; a bike powered smoothie blender; and a entire 3rd floor of bicycles, bicycles, and really nice bicycles! Monday, 9 am, the shop doors were open by Yeyri and Rey, the daughter and son of Cezar. We got right to work, preparing bicycles for sale. Over the weeks we came to know and love, the family of Maya Pedal.
Yeyri, the secretary, familiarized us with the shop orientation. She also was accommodating to our health and appetite like brining us fresh ears of corn from the farm.
Rey, the only mechanic, guided us on how to fix bikes. Rey too, learned a little from Paul’s know how on bicycles. He’s enthusiastic to work the tools, listen to his morning jams, and make jokes at my expense.
Allen, the older brother is hardly at the shop because he works days at the family farm. One morning, we went with him to the farm to milk the cows.
The mother, Isabel, loves to cook and she’ loved to feed us- even when we were not hungry! She too, participates in Maya Pedal by organizing the committee meetings and leads some of the discussions.
And then, there is Cezar, the father and original member of Maya Pedal for 17 years. He was a nurse for many years and still aids the neighbors health. He is active in raising support to the San Andreas Itzapa fireman station, and on weekends, he’s working at the farm. He speaks thoughtfully and never is there a sense agitation from him, even in the toughest situations.
Days later, I understood a bit more, when the board of directors meeting was held. The Junta (women who have community-sustaining projects), the family, and Carlos, were called for a meeting about Carlos’s resignation. At the end of the meeting, it was final that Carlos would step down from all Maya Pedal participation to deal with personal matters.
There was concern over Maya Pedal’s future. Their engineer had left. The partnership of Cezar and Carlos may had split forever. The remaining team were not sure what will be next, for they no longer had a welder. It was brought to our understanding then, that Yeyri and Rey picked up the full time jobs just days before we arrived. Usually, the volunteers who came from outside Guatemala, like the States and Europe, were in charge of office management. Yeyri, who solely speaks Spanish, was left in charge of office administration that had been set to English communication. Paul’s savvy computer expertise and bilingual abilities were called to untangle a few knots on the communication lines.
Additionally, we were weakened by stomach parasites (we blame the shucos..) for the entire week. I was distracted by my self consciousness of lacking ability to communicate in Spanish and skills to serve at the bike shop. Some days, I just felt useless.
Other days felt really good. The family’s perseverance and nurturing attention kept all the spirits up at Maya Pedal. They brought us hot food to eat and plant medicines to alleviate the illness. When I expressed the difficulty I had to communicate, the kids reached our further to me, to make me feel like I was understood.
By the second week, things were looking up. A new and excited welder, Julio, began the following Monday. Julio and Rey were assigned to build a hand powered bike-wheelchair. It was custom fit for a local to provide him mobility at the tenth of the price of a wheelchair. In the office, Yeyri and Paul teamed up to organized emails and the volunteers’ schedule for the next month. Meanwhile, I was improving my skills of bicycle repair and communicating in Spanish.
After dinners, Paul and I gathered gear pieces and stayed up until the late hours building and tweaking our bikes. I had a personal project, to build a bike to replace the road bike (named Appa) that I was riding. The road bike was great because it rolls fast and it’s light. However, the skinny tires were not designed, nor suitable, to handle the dirt roads in South America. My friends advised me to get a mountain bike for two benefits: one that can fit 26 inch tires could be replaced because they can be found anywhere in the world; and a steel frame, because if the bike ever cracks, it can be welded anywhere. At Maya Pedal, I was welcomed to search for recycled parts.
The search was exciting to dig amongst a massive collection of specialized bikes and vintage gems. I picked a simple steel frame with most of the desirable gears fixed. After it was complete, I found that during the test ride, it was small for my frame. It was dismantled, and the search continued. The second attempt began with a naked grey frame. After a week of late nights in the shop, the grey nameless bike was born! The smile I had could reflect how much that bike was worth. To built a machine that can take me anywhere in the world, knowing how to repair it, to know it- is freedom. I said goodbye to my Appa bike, that took me across countries like the US back in 2010, and all the way from the US to Guatemala. I gave the bike to Rey. I like that I know who will be riding this bike, and it’s the best thing I could gift to Rey for all his effort on helping me build my bike.
“Thank you for the month, and the forever extended welcome, Maya Pedal.” It has been the first time, in quite a long time, that we felt at home. We arrived during a transitional phase, difficult it was, the timing couldn’t have been any better. We are in awe of what they do and their earnest intentions to help others. Mind you that this Guatemalan family, also juggles school, field work, house work and, quite a few other affairs. Maya Pedal is the collective of hundreds of volunteers from all over the world, like ourselves, who all are passionate for bikes and sensible-eco-concious-technologies. It was an honor to be there.
Keep it pedaling. Steady as we roll.