January 27th and the following days...
(It took us a while to write this entry because we had to ask ourselves what we should be exposing in a blog and what we should keep to ourselves, in order to keep from putting people involved in any danger. Most names have therefore been changed in this text.)
Once upon a time there was an organization, Maya Pedal, that had been created by a small group of local and international bike-lovers. One of them, Carlos Marroquin, along with a couple of people from Vancouver, started building machines made from bike parts in order to respond to a need in the community, many of whom still lived without electricity.
Over the years, Maya Pedal saw volunteers from all over the world walk through its doors in order to learn, share, invent, and enjoy knowledge about these ingenious and unique machines. But when good ideas come, so do opportunists. A few people joined the organization with the intention to make a profit from this great idea. Tensions arrose between the orginial founders and members who felt the organization was not being used to its full economic potential. Since these former members wanted the organization to keep its original social mandate, the team split up (somewhat...forcefully). Carlos Marroquin openned up his own bicimaquinas school. Mario Juarez took over Maya Pedal as director.
Despite the radical internal changes, and what seemed to us and other volunteers like a pretty obvious change of vocation, Maya Pedal kept its website and facebook page the same, with videos of its former local, former projects, and interviews with Carlos, who no longer works for them. This would be fine if they had modified the information about their mandate on the site, but that was not done either. A show is put on, fooling many people into coming to volunteer for an organization that used to be respected.
On a warm, sunny December afternoon, two young women showed up at a large, black metal gate. Excited to have made their organization one of their stops in their volunteering adventure, they settled into the room they would be occupying for the next month. At that time, they didn't expect to regret having made the full month's payment in one shot. Four dollars a day isn't much, but they were travelling on a tight budget and for a half=finished house in town without tourists, it turned out to seem like more than enough. There were no other volunteers when they arrived and no one working in the shop, but they told themselves this must be due to the holidays. They would find out that actually, Emmanuel was the only person working on bicimaquinas at all at Maya Pedal.
That night, they met Emmanuel's family, a family of six, who had been living in two rooms of this locale for six months. Since they were sharing dinners with the family every night, Alicia and Lidia quickly became close with the family. These two volunteers' caring and generous nature brought the family to expose their insatisfaction with their life and their inability to find money for food on most days.
This town isn't the family's home town. Back in their home town, they were having big problems with some of Ignacio's (Emmanuel's father's) family. They decided to move to Itzapa six months ago because they had a bad family conflict in their home town. They had met Mario through religious affiliations (if I understood correctly) and when they told him that they needed to move, he offered them to come work for him and to house them temporarily while they were saving money to move into a new home. This seemed like a perfect solution, so they did as he suggested. They moved into the Maya Pedal building, and took two of the four rooms for their family. The other two rooms were for the volunteers. When they moved to this building, its construction was even less advanced then it was when we arrived. There were no doors on any of the rooms. There was no stove, no cutlery, etc.
When they arrived, Mario told Emmanuel and his dad that they could work for him in the bike shop and fixing up the house. He hired their 14 year old daughter to clean his house, and Ana to do laundry for his mother. This all sounded ok. Despite the mediocre living conditions and sharing their personal space with volunteers, they looked at this as a temporary situation. Yet, six months later, they were still living there. Why?
Mario was only paying Emmanuel once in a while. Ignacio had given up on working in the bike shop because there wasn't enough work and he was now working for Mario's mom doing heavy construction for half the price he would have been paid at another construction job. Ana was given laundry to do sporadically...You get the idea. Basically, they were barely making enough to feed their family. They were definitely not making enough to save money or even to send their children to school. They also had to work on the construction of the house for free on their days off to compensate for the fact that Mario was letting them live in this (half-finished) building for free.
We saw this very clearly one day when Ignacio was very sick from a bad flu. In order to rest at home for one day, he decided to make the difficult choice to renouce a day of pay. I was there most of that day. Mario told him to keep working on the building and to install the front door. Ignacio was not paid for that day's work and he went to work the next day just as sick.
Since the family didn't want to live there anymore, Alicia and Lidia told them that they needed to tell Mario that they wanted to leave. They were there when Ana and Ignacio sat down with Mario to announce this to him, he went on an hour-long rant about how, if they left, they would be worst off and they'd regret their decision. (Basically manipulating them to stay).
What we found...ironic about the idea that Mario was supposebly "helping" them by letting them stay in this half-finished house for free, is that in the end he was getting the bigger end of the stick. He doesn't have to hire security to keep the place safe at night; he doesn't have to hire a maid to clean the kitchen or the sheets when the volunteers leave because he asks Ana to do that (without buying her any soap to do it with); he doesn't have to hire people to build the office/bike shop/volunteer housing building.
Lidia and Alicia talked for a long time, giving us concrete examples and alot more information which we verified with many other people later. At this point we're having a hard time swallowing our lunch. A question hangs heavily over my head. Are we really going to make a documentary that indirectly promotes an organization like this? Should we try to stay neutral? Should we expose the truth?
San Andres Itzapas best resaurant !
When we part ways to get back to the organization headquarters, we become aware of the feeling of discouragement that is weighing on us. Maya Pedal was the last stop on our documentary adventure. It has such a great reputation worldwide that we couldn't wait to get here. How could this organization, known for being a lively, dynamic place where volunteers could come learn how to make bicimaquinas (that would later be sold at an affordable price to community members), have changed so much??? We would find out bits of information about this later.
While walking back to the organization, I'm starting to dread interviewing this Mario we now knew so much about. We managed to convince ourselves to stay positive and just focus on the bike-machines themselves instead of on the organization.
We lasted two days in that building. The first night I was so cold that I immediately caught a bad flu (no wonder Emannuel's whole family was sick). When we were there everything just felt wrong. The family whinced everytime Mario called one of their names...and he did that alot. Our impression was that Emannuel was his assistant because he would have to stop doing whatever he was doing as soon as Mario asked him to. This could go from going to his house to go take his trash out, to calling them late at night when he gets home from a meeting to park his car.
Our second night we went to the room that Lidia and Alicia had just left (they went to sleep in a hotel) and grabbed two blankets from their room because the two blankets we had weren't enough. Since I was sick, I spent about three hours lying in that bed staring at the ceiling. At some point, I saw something crawl over the blanket but didn't have time to see what it was. Alicia later told us that their bed had been infested with bed bugs...
The third night we move into the tiny hotel that Alicia and Lidia are also staying in. We get to know each other a little better since we all go eat dinner with the family every night at the Maya Pedal space. We find out that Alicia and Lidia didn't really learn how to make a bicimaquina. They tried but since Emmanuel learned through trial and error only six months ago, they didn't really have anyone to teach them. Since their expertise is in education, they offered to make an evaluation manual for people who buy the bicimaquinas from Maya Pedal. This tool would help Mario know if the machines are actually responding to the needs of the community. This did not interest Mario at all. Their opinion was that the only thing that interests him is making money with these machines. This is fine, if that's what you tell people you're doing.
After a month, Alicia and Lidia told Mario they were not ok with what he's doing. He's using the Maya Pedal name to get free labour from volunteers without even making sure they learn how to make bicimaquinas. He's also using the family knowing fully well that they're not happy and barely making enough money to eat. They left Maya Pedal with a bitter taste in their mouth but we realize that throughout that month they had done alot for the family: a call out to all their contacts in Spain to collect enough money for the family to pay the first three months of rent in a new house and to send their kids to school for six months; giving empowerment workshops in the evenings to the kids of the family; teaching the family how to make natural shampoo, toothpaste, lotion, etc. so that they could find another source of income.
Carlos and the students at Bicitec
Today, Carlos, the former Maya Pedal tech, has his own bicimaquina school, Bicitec. He recieves students from all over the world regularly and is still a partner of Bikes Not Bombs, who'd been working with Maya Pedal before. He organizes a two month course that costs a pretty penny (around 1400$) for foreigners, in order to make it accessible (and eventually free) for the local population. Throughout this course you learn how to make a many models of bicimaquinas well enough to be able to reproduce them when you get back home. With the money, he pays for his time and for the bike containers that come from Bikes not bombs (it costs around 10,000$ in TAXES to receive a container of used bikes from the US to Guatemala).
Mario, on his end, decided to take over Maya Pedal and transform it into what he had wanted it to be for a long time, a lucrative company. He asks Emannuel to work hard to make many times the same model of bicilicuadora in oder to sell them for a heavy price (something like 1600 Quetzales, around 200 dollars). They do have a cheaper version but they don't make them often. When farmers come because they need a machine (a corn shelling machine or a water pumping machine) most of the time Emmanuel is too busy making the fancy machines that they're going to sell abroad to make any machines for anyone in the community who needs it. When people used to come to Maya Pedal because they needed to make a machine, it used to be made for them by employees and volunteers because that was Maya Pedal's mission, to empower local population with bicimaquinas.
So this is what Maya Pedal has become. Maybe other volunteers have had more positive experiences but the more we talk to people who knew Maya Pedal before (former volunteers, former employees, people of the community, etc) the more we see that this organization is no longer more than an empty shell with a name that used to mean something powerful, something really anchored in the needs of the community.
The Maya Pedal bicilicuadoras that will be sold in Spain...
It's important to know that there's alot of information that I cannot include here in order to keep from putting people in danger, but if you want to hear more...
After a rollercoaster week of disappointment with Maya Pedal and happy moments with the family in the evenings, we decide to run away to Antigua for a break and to let my body recover. Before our departure, we go meet Carlos Marroquin, to confirm that he's interested in participating in our documentary. We can already tell from a three minute interaction with him that he's a frank and amiable man. Our next stay in Itzapa a week later will be very different.