Candid Thoughts

Country/Day: Guatemala/28

Bikes Fixed: 37

Bikes/Day Avg: 1.32

So, I have some mixed news. Or more, it’s something that I would like to have a candid discussion about with my supporters.

I’ll just start off hot: I have been considering volunteering my time elsewhere while in Guatemala.

 

The short: While Maya Pedal (the organization I was originally going to volunteer for) was a non-profit NGO, BiciTec (started by Carlos when he left Maya Pedal a few months ago) is a for-profit privately owned business.

Now, I didn’t know this when I came. I was under the impression (but to be fair to Carlos, never asked nor was directly told) that BiciTec operated under the same rules as Maya Pedal. So I was excited to come volunteer and, as they say, “make a difference.”

Because of the split with Maya Pedal, there was a period when Carlos did not have any volunteers – in fact, I am his first. I was under the impression (again to his credit, without asking or being told) that BiciTec was being run only by Carlos. However, BiciTec is being run largely by Carlos’s sons, Carlos Jr. and Antonio.

First of all, I think this is great. Just a few months after splitting with his former employer, Carlos has a bike shop up and running and completely self-sufficient? That is seriously impressive. I am genuinely happy for BiciTec, for Carlos, and for his family.

However…

I am of the opinion that BiciTec should not be accepting volunteers. My feeling is that it accepts them in the same way Wal-Mart or Target might accept volunteers: “You want to work for free? Okay! We can sure find something for you to do…”

To distinguish, here are my interpretations of the terms “work for free” and “volunteer:”

“Working for free:”

–        There is a job that needs to be done

–        There is money to pay someone to do it

–        Someone is getting paid that money to do it

–        By volunteering (doing that job for free), you allow that person to get paid to sit on their ass

 

“Volunteering:”

–        There is a job that needs to be done

–        There isn’t money to pay anyone to do it

–        Nobody is doing it

–        The only way it will ever get done is if you volunteer to do it

 

Now obviously I’ve been fixing bikes. I’m not lying about the count above (and hey, more than one a day – not bad). But frankly, Carlos Jr. and Antonio could handle the shop by themselves. Frequently Carlos Sr. spends more than half the day out on a household errand.

Again, I think this is fantastic for BiciTec. If I were Carlos Sr. I would be very proud of my sons and happy that I had built a business that runs itself. But I would not feel the need to take volunteers.

Indeed, sometimes there are so many people in the shop, it is difficult to work. There are only two “real” bike stands. There’s a third jerry-rigged version that can sit on the floor, but requires constant attention to keep from tipping over. When Carlos Jr., myself, and Antonio all work at the same time, someone has to use the jerry-rig. When Carlos Sr. and the three of us work at the same time – well, we can’t. At the shop where I worked in the States, we had at most two mechanics on the floor at a time. With Carlos Sr., Carlos Jr., and Antonio all on duty, BiciTec already tops this, and in a much smaller space to boot.

I have sometimes been told not to work. Multiple times now, I have come in and grabbed a bike, only to have Carlos come up and say, “We aren’t fixing bikes today. We have to sell some first. Otherwise, there won’t be enough room in the shop.”

Again: AWESOME. I wish that in the shop I worked at in the States my boss periodically told me, “Don’t do anything today.” But I didn’t buy a $700 plane ticket to spend three months of my life sitting on my ass.

Now the logical question is: What else is there to do? To start this off, I asked Carlos, “What is the most helpful thing I can do for you right now?”

“Fix bicycles.”

“I feel like Carlos Jr. and Antonio are more than capable of handling that right now.”

“Is there another project you’d like to do?”

These are the three projects I came up with, and what happened to them:

–        Making a poster-size drawing of a bike with all the parts labeled in English and in Spanish. Carlos let me work on this for a day before saying, “Oh, I forgot, we already have one of those in a box somewhere.”

–        Organizing all the extra wheels by size so they are easier to find. This was sidelined because Carlos doesn’t mind the extra time it takes to find wheels.

–        Building a cabinet to store all the extra spokes in. I drew up blueprints and calculated how much wood would be needed last week. Carlos has not yet bought the wood.

 

Basically, even with extracurricular activity, I feel like my efforts would be better used elsewhere.

Remember, this is a for-profit business, so Carlos is making money off of my work, which Carlos Jr. and Antonio would do if I wasn’t there.

This doesn’t really matter by itself, but when next to everything else, I find it a teensy bit relevant: I eat lunch at Carlos’s house and am required to pay for it. I pay 133% the cost of a meal at the average restaurant, and about 400% what I’d pay if I made it myself. I understand Carlos’s need to cover his costs, but it seems like he could cut his volunteers a bit of a break (I suggested paying the restaurant cost and Carlos said merely, “You don’t have to eat here if you don’t want to”).

If I did volunteer somewhere else, it would likely have nothing to do with bicycles. This is sad, but to be fair, volunteer opportunities abroad that deal primarily with bicycles are not very common. Instead, it is likely I would work on an organic farm. Here’s a description of one I found:

 

I am the father of two daughters, living all together next to the Petén Itza lake. My farm project has two locations: one is my house with a large garden where I have a plant nursery and 600m away I have 3,5 acres of land where I wish to expand all the experiments I have done in the past seven years. My farm project has many objectives: the primary one is to prove that we can develop and administer an ecosystem as a way of sustainable life that does not deplete the environment. The second is that, in addition to this, developing one´s spirit is the way to achieve a happy and fulfilling life. I recycled all kinds of organic materials in sometimes unusual ways. The ornamental plant nursery adds an element of beauty to the already peaceful village. In the community, I am working to develop in the young generation a sense of appreciation and respect for nature that begins with a trash separation and recycling program. I need help in finishing the dormitories for volunteers as well as the kitchen/dining area, the main house at the 3,5 acres land, as well as land clearing, animal pens and watering system. Lots of work… earthworm farming, composting, biogas fabrication, ornamental plant reproduction, cheese making, food preservation ways, animal processing, rope skills, survival skills and more you can expect to learn while you volunteer. The program asks for 30 hours per week that you can work in 3 to 5 days to allow you to visit nearby places like Tikal, Yaxcha, El Mirador and many others.

 

It seems to me like as far as long-term economic improvement, job creation, and sustainability go, that’s about as good as it gets. It’s like volunteering at a bike shop… except instead of bikes it’s dirt, worms, and weeds.

Plus, I might get to make cheese, which is a life goal of mine. And I don’t know what biogas fabrication entails, but that should probably be a life goal, too.

FYI, this is through a program called WWOOF – World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. The idea is that volunteers pay a small administrative fee (for Guatemala, the fee is $4) and are given access to a list of organic farms in that country. Farms must be willing to provide room and board in exchange for full-time labor (or here, 30 hours per week, though I would probably work some 40-hour weeks). WWOOF has been on my to-do list since I first heard of it in high school.

How do my supporters feel about this? Am I turning my back on BiciTec? After all that fundraising where I promised to repair bicycles, would I be betraying those ideals by doing other work instead? I promised to be open and honest about everything that happens related to this project. Now I’m asking for your opinion in return. Please, comment below!

5 thoughts on “Candid Thoughts

  1. diane says:

    time to fly the coop Kyle. When you have to pay for your lunch and you’re volunteering? Hello? Yes, by all means make haste to the organic farm. Sound like they would appreciate you and you would learn a ton which I am interested in learning from you.

  2. Bob Iverson says:

    Kyle, The most important thing is that you feel you are contributing to something you believe in. Working for free as you describe it is to be taken advantage of. You have the opportunity before you have to work for a living to do something of value, to follow your heart and do something where your volunteering of your time leaves you feeling fulfilled, not taken advantage of. You are there to grow yourself and help with a situation you find value in. The farm could be interesting but be prepared and check it out in every way you can so it is what you want to spend your time doing. It could be long days and some hard work but there is value in that too. If you need help getting information on what your interested in we will help you from here. Let us know what you’d like done.
    Bob

  3. Leonard Adelson says:

    I think you have adequately honored your goal to fix bikes and should be comfortable with alternative volunteer service if you do not find donating you time to a for profit business rewarding.

  4. Jenna says:

    I have heard great things about WWOOF and have thought it is something you should do since I first heard about it! I think that if you are not feeling that your work at BiciTech is in line with why you are on this worldly adventure and you think something like WWOOF might be a more valuable use of your volunteering time/skills, then go for it! Keep us posted on what you decide to do (I’m sure you will 😉 )

  5. Marilyn says:

    I think that you are doing a great job figuring this out. Although the literal definition of “volunteer” is working without pay, I think that the commitment you made to your contributors is that you are also contributing towards helping needy families whose standard of living would be significantly improved by having a bicycle. It doesn’t seem like that is true in your situation in Guatemala.

    I would want to know whether your working on the WWOOF farm that you describe would benefit only the farmer who farms it or others as well. If he is selling the crops for his own profit, this may not be much different that the situation with Carlos, although it would be a wonderful experience to learn organic farming and to make cheese and you would at least have something to do.

    As a contributor, whether or not it is WWOOF, I would like you to find something to do that benefits the local people who are in need and is not just someone using you to make money for themselves.

    Good luck figuring this out. I support whatever decision you make.

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