How people move around is one of the most vital pieces of information that defines a community. I hadn’t thought about this before until I traveled through Arizona on a publicity excursion for an eye glasses campaign we will hold there on Saturday. Arizona is a small town in the Municipal of Puerto San Jose, a run-down port town since displaced by the larger and more modern Puerto Quetzal (the main pier in San Jose has since fallen into the sea from neglect).
As we drove through Arizona for the first time in our microbus we flagged in the port, I noticed the sleepy town atmosphere, the cross streets little more than a footpath. I was surprised that the several people we flagged on the street for directions did not know where our contact lived, a member of the local Cocode (small-town communal leadership). It turned out that this seemingly small, sleepy town had over 3000 people.
As we drove the streets, we drove block after block asking for directions, and after ten blocks or so Doña Isabela finally called us to tell us where to meet her. The driver dropped us off at the local gristmill and sped off up the coast to drop passengers at the next several towns along his route.
As we waited for Doña Isabel outside the gristmill, I began to notice that everyone who passed by did so on bicycles. When Doña Isabel showed up several minutes later atop her six speed, she apologized that we would have to walk a ways because we didn’t have bikes, explaining that everyone in Arizona grows up riding bikes from the age of about three.
As we walked, we passed and were passed by every size and shape of bicycle, and more notably every condition of repair. The bike Doña Isabela rode was a beachbuggy style with the tall handlebars and the cushy seat, reading Roadmaster across the side. As she walked her bike beside us on our way to meet the other members of the Cocodo at the school, we passed a building with a yard full of hundreds upon hundreds of child-side bikes, with a motorcycle or two strewn periodically throughout. Doña Isabel explained that this was where the students parked their bike while they were at school. It was, a parking lot for bikes.
As we walked and walked the streets of this small town, I began to realize just how huge the impact these bikes had had on the small town of Arizona was. Unlike the rest of the overly congested cities and towns in Guatemala, Arizona had only a handful of houses on each block, with lengthy distances between each house and to get anywhere in hurry, you effectively had to use a bike. The introduction of bikes into this community had actually shifted the concentration and layout of the town, and had effectively cemented them into an essential element of this small town’s culture.
Walking past the school, we were suddenly swarmed by a small army of children riding bicycles home. In this crowd, I saw more ways of riding bikes than I’ve ever seen in my life. There were boys riding bikes with their sisters on the handlebars, older boys with their brothers on their backs, girls with other gilrs riding sidesaddle. One girl on the handlebars even had her younger brother in her lap. There were children in baskets, mothers riding one-handed holding onto their babies riding on the crossbar. There were motorcycles puling half a dozen bikes behind them. There were bikes with horns and bikes with headlights. There was even an ice-cream bike peddling its wears to customers.
This experience prompted me to think about how our societies are shaped and formed by the transportation systems we embrace. Many times have I explained to curious Guatemalans that in America, if you don’t live in New York or Washington DC, or whichever metropolis that particular Guatemalan uses to define America, be it Miami or Greensboro North Carolina, you must drive a car, or get a ride from a friend, because there just aren’t busses, or if there are they don’t go where you want to go.
In Santo Tomas, there is a bus that takes you to Santa Lucia, a town which is in fact closer than the nearest bus stop to my house in the states. Santo Tomas is a town which until ten years ago had no busses, and most families still own no cars. The town is literally built on top of itself, with many families forced into building more costly second floors because their land is in the valuable heart of town and they no longer have land to share with their children. Every day my host father walks up the street to buy the bread, and my host mother later walks Helen to the local elementary school. Every day at 12:30 the students in the Institute (the private, communal middle school) are dismissed and flood down my street on their five minute walk home.
In Arizona, the town was build around bicycles, with bicycles becoming the required means of transport. In America, its cars, in Guatemala City its rundown dangerous urban buses, and in my hometown of Santo Tomas it’s a pair of shoes. Never did I realize how our lifestyles are so dependent on our means of transportation.