• Wat Pho Courtyard

  • Wat Pho Statue

    Wat Pho Statue

  • Mad Dash to the Airport

    My friend Eric sent me a text message the morning of our flight asking where I was.  I had just gotten out of bed and it made me laugh.  He had probably confused 12am with 12pm, thinking our flight left in the afternoon rather than the evening.

    As the more experienced traveler of the two, I realized I would be fielding a lot of these minor issues.  The more you travel, the more experienced you become.  He probably hadn’t even checked the ticket the night before.  To set him straight, I looked up the departure time of our reservation.

    And it was at this point I was reminded of an important traveling lesson.  You should always check your ticket the night before.  Never assume anything.

    I was 80 miles from the airport and my flight was at 12:10pm.  My bags weren’t packed, I wasn’t dressed or showered, and my dirty laundry was sitting in a pile.  I had roughly 2 hours and 40 minutes before the plane took off, but the gate would close an hour before departure and I had at least an hour and a half drive ahead of me.

    No one thought it make it, including myself, until maybe after I passed the Golden Gate Bridge.  Even then I was only giving myself 50/50 odds.

    It was a series of lucky breaks, light traffic and green lights that allowed me to get to Bangkok.  Of course, I need to thank Laine and Nate for meeting me curbside and Eric for taking it all in stride.  But also, importantly, the woman in the black Toyota Matrix at the bottom of Octavia.  I shouldn’t have cut into your lane, I know, but I really appreciate you waving me in.

    On every trip I learn something different- and it’s the generally the bus breakdowns, the communication problems, and the unexpected challenges that make it interesting.  I’ll admit that I was hoping for a smooth and easy trip, but I should know better.  This time, I’ll try not to assume anything.

  • In many rural Guatemalan villages there are no paved roads, underground pipes, or electricity lines- but it’s still possible to find a working blender. It’s not the Black and Decker model, the one with 550 watts of ice crushing power, but in places where tequila is rare, ice nonexistent, and power spotty at best, it’s better than anything else on the market.

    Maya Pedal, a Guatemalan non-profit, began building these bicycle-powered blenders in 2002. It looks like a stationary bicycle with a blender attached above the front tire, but instead of using an electric motor to spin the blade, it uses a rotor attached to the wheel. The quicker someone pedals, the faster the blade goes.

    “We have people coming in all the time to ask about the blenders,” said Johanna Mesa Montuba, who coordinates the shop in San Andres Iztapa and works with communities interested in using bicycle technology. “They are one of the most popular machines.”

    The blenders cost $40 and are built entirely from recycled bicycle parts and used electric blenders. In villages where the majority of the population may live on less than $2 a day, this is a huge expense, but it is essentially an investment.

    “Women buy these machines to start a business. They can take them out to the soccer game, or set them up in the plaza, and sell fresh juice anywhere,” said Montuba. “And if someone doesn’t have all the money up front, they can purchase the machine in installments.”

    Inside the Maya Pedal shop, located about an hour West of Guatemala City, there are piles of bicycle frames stacked against the walls, rims hanging from the rafters, buckets of derailleurs, and walls devoted to wrenches, wire cutters, vice grips, metal saws and welding masks.

    The majority of the raw materials, broken bicycles and used parts, come from Bikes Not Bombs, an international organization that sends shipping containers full of bikes from the United States about once a year. From these raw materials, three employees, and a number of international volunteers manufacture different “bicimaquinas”.

    In addition the bicycle blender, there is a washing machine, a corn mill and degrainer, bike trailers, a coffee depulper, nut shellers, a generator, water pumps, a saw, and a metal sharpener- all powered by human energy and recycled bicycle parts.

    Many of these machines, like the coffee depulper and the nut sheller, were designed specifically for community group composed of mostly indigenous women to help reduce labor intensive tasks. The machines allow them to bring more products to market and put more food on the table.

    “One of our nut shelling machines is used by a women’s cooperative that makes peanut butter near Sololá,” said Montuba. “Shelling the peanuts used to be the most labor intensive part of the process. Now they just load them up in the machine and it takes a quarter of the time.”

    Besides building specific bicycle machines, Maya Pedal also repairs and sells actual bicycles- perhaps the most useful machine of them all. Most people in Guatemala don’t have a car, so a bicycle frees them from the bus schedule and can save a bit of money every day. In terms of energy use, it’s also the most efficient self-powered means of transportation available.

    Using bicycles to solve problems in Guatemala is one ingenuous example of appropriate technology. The machines provide an elegant technological solution with special consideration for the environmental, ethical, cultural and social aspects of the community it is intended for. In the case of Maya Pedal, their machines are cheap and easy to maintain. If it breaks down, parts are readily available and they are easy to repair. The machines create no waste and they provide a way to reduce specific labor intensive tasks. It’s all something to think about the next time you sit down to enjoy a margarita.