Gary, The Wheelchair, and Other Revelations

Country/Day: Guatemala/34

Bikes Fixed: 38

Bikes/Day Avg: 1.12

Bicimaquinas Built: 0.5 + 0.5

So, just a few days away from my bikes-per-day average falling below one, which will be rather tragic after finishing off India so strong. To BiciTec’s credit, Carlos picked up one of my ideas, and it seems like this one might actually happen (hence the extra half of a bicimaquina; but despite having built half of two different bicimaquinas, I still haven’t finish one entirely).


I want to start out by talking about Gary, and then, well, we’ll go in the order the title of this post specifies.


– – –


So who is this mysterious Gary person? It’s not my mom’s ex-boyfriend, I’ll tell you that. No, this Gary is the director (sort of) of a non-profit called Avivara. Avivara is a Washington-State-Registered 501(c)(3) (so if you’re looking for a place to put your next donation, there’s one option…) but most of their function is in Guatemala. They believe, in short, that “education is the pathway out of poverty.” Their purpose is, among other things, to assist in the education and upbringing of the next generation of Guatemalans. As far as volunteering goes, they help volunteers find a place to stay and a school to teach at. Most volunteers teach English.


I met Gary last Saturday in Antigua. I’ll forgo the description of Antigua for now as I plan on visiting again later and will do a more purposeful post about it then. For now, suffice it to say it’s a very touristy town – almost as many gringos as Guatemalans, and the prices made me weep.


Anyways, I wasn’t quite sure what sort of meeting this would be. I knew I wanted to learn a bit more about Avivara, and a bit more about Gary. Namely, I wanted to know if I would be happy volunteering there, and I wanted to be sure they had their stuff in order. I already had an inkling of the answer to these questions given my research on their website, but will always give preference to personal meetings – especially given the ordeal I’m still suffering with BiciTec.


I’m sure there’s some saying about how the first five seconds of a meeting tell you how it will go. If that’s the case, then I knew right away I’d be volunteering for Avivara. Gary is about my height; has a friendly, burly build; rosy cheeks with hidden smiles; jovial eyes; and a handsome yet nonchalant haircut. After shaking hands, the first thing he says to me is, “I’ve had a long day. Want to grab a beer?”


We head to a nearby restaurant and order a liter. In the first ten minutes we’ve established a good fit, and we spend the next two hours or so sharing stories and joking around. I have to admit, I was immensely curious about someone who would rather spend the latter part of his life running a non-profit in Guatemala than retiring in Hawaii. I was not let down.


Gary has an incredible philosophy about life and teaching. He was a teacher for many years before becoming a principle. After many years at that, he and his wife realized they weren’t quite satisfied with their lives, so they came to Guatemala to volunteer on year-long sabbaticals. After eight months in Guatemala, they decided not to leave.


Among other pontifications (many humorous, many riddled with philosophical anecdotes), Gary wraps up his life and philosophy with this: “Do what you love, and the rest will follow.”


– – –


So Carlos participates largely in the community – obviously, the bicimaquinas don’t necessitate themselves. He’s currently working with a group of students that wanted to build a pedal-powered wheelchair, and as part of my “there are no bikes to fix, what else can I do?” attitude, I was participating lightly – at first.


As the project progressed I become more and more involved. Carlos knows I like to design things, even if I haven’t had the opportunity to make many of them come to life while here in Itzapa. We got to talking, and there came to be a lot of logistical issues with a pedal-powered wheelchair. With the pedals directly in front, how does the user get in and out of the wheelchair? With only one crank, the wheels would always rotate simultaneously – how does one steer? In addition, transferring power from head-height to underneath the chair would require a lot of gears, chains, and infrastructure. This would be expensive and complex; complexity usually means it won’t work as well as expected and will require frequent maintenance and adjustment.


Alternatively, I suggest a lever-powered wheelchair. Two separated levers (instead of two pedals connected to one crank) would allow the user to control each wheel separately, making turning the chair very easy. Instead of having pedals a set distance away from the center of the crank, levers allow the user to choose what leverage they want: Grab them higher up for more leverage but slower movement, grab them lower down for less leverage but faster movement. Because the levers connect to their cranks by the user’s ankles, the system needs only one set of chains and cogs to run. This makes it less complicated, less expensive, and not as heavy. Once I had Carlos convinced, he had me do a technical drawing (I never took a class, but I taught myself in my spare time). Once I showed the students the technical drawing and explained my reasons, they were in.


So Carlos basically gave us all the parts we needed and put me in charge. Yesterday and today was spent ordering students around getting the parts ready, and towards the end of the day today, we started welding.


I’ll post the plans when I get back to the states, but I can post a photo of our progress thus far:


The end product, of course, will be much more exciting.


Anyways, I want to talk about more about how I felt about this, because it will lead me into my next topic.


First off, it was obviously nice to have a purpose again. The whole “being involved” thing took place in small amounts over a few weeks or so, up until the past two days spent managing the students. This was the usual: Feeling like I was doing Carlos’s job for him. I enjoyed the work in and of itself, and indeed, felt like I was contributing, but still had the same mixed feelings I explained two posts ago. I also worked with the skepticism I had developed that nothing would come of this, since all the other projects I had proposed tanked for one reason or another.


To be frank, working with the students has been almost solely exhausting. Not in the way that would make you say, “I bet.” Not in the way that I was exhausted after student teaching two summers ago, which was one of the best experiences of my life. On the contrary, I quite enjoy teaching, and being a teacher is on my agenda at some point in my life. I also enjoy (and am experienced at) managerial work, and it was great to juggle the workers and the non-workers, to see students excel at what they were good at and to help them otherwise, to motivate the less motivated, etc. Experience-wise, I was very much at home managing a group of 10 students working on a project we all thought was awesome.


No, I felt – and get ready, because I’m about to get a little philosophical – I felt as if my soul was tired. I discovered working with BiciTec has been incredibly draining for me. Here was something regular Kyle would enjoy and come home and call his friends about, something he would find fulfilling and like he was doing what he was supposed to be doing with his life, like he was “making a difference:” encouraging students to excel; completing a creative, tangible, meaningful project. At the end of the day though, I really just felt more tired. Aside from the people involved, I’m not just enjoying myself. I don’t know if BiciTec has changed my outlook on volunteer work (I hope not), but I know I am hardly passionate about it anymore.


– – –


Which is why option (1) is Avivara, and option (2) is returning to the States.


Gary had said to me, “Do what you love, and the rest will follow.” I know I love working on bikes. There’s no way that in one month BiciTec has erased all positive feelings I get from being a bike mechanic or being a teacher. But as of right now, there aren’t very many left. I worry that if I dive into teaching without rekindling that fire, without resting and recuperating, I will find myself resentful and angry. I worry that any lack of passion, however temporary, will be unhealthy for me and my future students.


I know that volunteering isn’t always supposed to be fun, energizing, exciting, enjoyable, or all those other positive adjectives out there. But I feel like at the end of it you shouldn’t feel like a worse person, either. You shouldn’t give time away to something that takes away parts of who you are, and especially not one that extricates what you’re passionate about. I think at the end of it there should at least be a sense of satisfaction – even if not, “Yea, I did all that work,” then, “Yea, I made it through.” If these feelings continue, I can’t say “making it through” would be at all satisfying, sort of like “making it through” another week with unkempt housemates, a kleptomanic best friend, or an abusive spouse.


To be clear, these feelings are entirely separate from Avivara. That is, they are about the situation. I just wrote a page on how great Gary was so I hope nobody misinterprets and thinks I am saying working with Avivara would generate this sort of resentment. On the contrary, I mean to be talking about volunteering in general, anywhere, for me only, right now. In fact, what I find especially revealing is that despite my positive feelings about Avivara, I still feel as if moving forward would be unhealthy.


So, what, then? What does going home solve?


As you know, I’m not fixing many bikes anymore. I would like to do so when in Zambia, starting August 23rd, and I would like to do so without feeling the need to expunge my negative feelings in philosophical blog posts. I am considering that the best way to do this would be to rest and recharge until I leave for Zambia. If I continue to volunteer in Guatemala, and I feel worse at the end of it than I do now, the nine days at home won’t be enough to rest and recharge. If I go home now, my bet is I’d be rearing to go again when the time comes.


As an aside, I wouldn’t be sitting on my bum while at home. I would either volunteer at the Grease Pit, or find a temporary position, or both. Also, the remaining money for Guatemala would be returned to those who donated it – otherwise you’re just paying my rent, and that’s not the point of the project, nor would I be okay with it.


So anyways, nothing is set in stone yet, and I want to finish this wheelchair, because that’s at least something I can be proud of making it through… hopefully. Likely by my next post I will have made a decision. In the mean time, input is appreciated.

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