Consumerism, Energy Systems, Markets & Outlets, Society, Village Development — by Albert Bates January 11, 2012
Even in backward mining communities, as late as the sixteenth century more than half the recorded days were holidays; while for Europe as a whole, the total number of holidays, including Sunday, came to 189, a number even greater than those enjoyed by Imperial Rome. Nothing more clearly indicates a surplus of food and human energy, if not material goods. Modern labor-saving devices have as yet done no better. — Lewis Mumford, Myth of the Machine : Technics and Human Development, 1967.
In rural México, the number of holidays competes with the number of work days to see which will find more space on the calendar. Not that the people don’t work, mind you, just that they like to keep hours at any given task as brief as possible, to maintain perspective. As in most agricultural regions of the world, diversity and entrepreneurship is engrained. When times are especially tight, this instinct goes into overdrive.
I have been wintering in a small Mayan fishing village that is part of a natural reserve, and like most villages in México it is laid out on a New England-style town grid. There were no ancient Roman master planners or 1950s city engineers that surveyed these grids. Nearly all were spontaneous extensions from a single spine road that sent off perpendicular ribs at regular intervals, and those sent off cross-lanes at approximately the same intervals — usually 6 or 8 homes on a side — that created the matrix. Grids like these, as the Egyptians, Greeks, Chinese and Romans understood, enhance the interactions amongst people and encourage a free flow of products, services and information.
Living on one such street, all of them unpaved, I have noticed a discernable uptick in the number and variety of pushcarts. Here they are called “tricyclos.” In other places — Denmark or Holland, for instance — modern pushcarts are “cargo cycles.” They can take different forms but the most common is what is known in the bike world as tadpole or front-load trike — 2 wheels in front and 1 wheel in the back. These are ideal for food vendors or pedi-cabs which require frequent interactions with the scene on the street.
A world leader in trike evolution is Christiania, the 800-member urban ecovillage in Copenhagen. Their company, Christianabikes, began in 1976 as a small cottage industry to support the alternative community. Today Christianabikes is transnational in reach and constantly improving its designs. For long-hauls, it has low-slung cargo bikes. For vendors like those in Mexico, it has a simple tadpole design that can be customized to meet virtually any use. What we see in Mexico are mostly Chinese-made clones of Christiania’s original design, or Mexican fabrications of the Chinese fabrications tacked together in local welding shops. Creations like these, which date back a century or more, should be acknowledged to be ‘open source’ by now.
Danish cargo trike
What struck me is that I cannot recall a time in the past decade in which I have been observing these vendors when I had seen more of these cycles than I do now. Call it a sign of the times, but every few hours another passes by the front of my house, shouting out what he or she is selling. In the morning it’s newspapers and fresh, hand-made tortillas. Around lunchtime is it fresh garden vegetables, epizote, bread and other kinds of unprepared food. There might be a tricycle for fruits and juices, another for tomatoes, onions and peppers, another for potatoes, beans and rice. By late afternoon they may pass by with fresh sweetbreads, steaming hot tamales, or corn on the cob.
A man with his tricycle and grinding stone offers to sharpen machetes, knives, scissors, shovels, or any other sharp object. A man with a blender (12V but it could as easily be pedal-powered) makes cups of shaved ice with sweet corn or coconut.
Pedal mill and pump
You can buy a tricycle brand-new, assembled, already painted in taxi colors of orange and white, and be ready to take a fare straight from hardware store to wherever they are going. The price of a new Chinese-built trike is 3200 pesos, about US$230 at today’s rates. The board that goes across the bars for a seat was salvaged from the trash at no cost, but perhaps some cushioned fabric is sewn over to help you through the potholes. Typically a fare pays 20 pesos ($1.43) for up to a 10-block ride.
I asked a tortilla vendor who plies a regular daily afternoon route how much he sells in an average day. “100 kilos” is what he said. His corn tortillas sell for a 3-peso mark-up over the tortilla factory (and there are three of them within a 5-block radius). So if he sells 100 kg, he makes 300 pesos per day, enough to pay for the tricycle in just under 11 days. Perhaps his wife has a masa roller and automated oven at home and he makes his own tortillas and the margin is even better.
Roaming crepe factory
Stopping by the largest of the tortilla factories in town — a one-room addition to a family home, which now employs three women from outside the family to turn corn meal masa into machine-stamped tortillas — I inquired how many tortillas they make in a typical day. “Ocho o nueve,” she said, meaning eight or nine metric tons — 8000 to 9000 kilos — and remember, this is just one of three within a short distance, and many people prefer to make their own at home. The entrepreneurial drive explores for available niches and fills them. Many of these factories supply restaurants and grocery stores. Retail home sales pass through bulk buyers at the tortilleria, like my local trike man, who do just fine with the small margin people are willing to pay for the convenience of not walking around the corner.
1940 Dutch Tardis delivery vehicle
I noticed that my man sometimes gets lucky and lands a really big sale, however. Maybe someone is throwing a big party (and this happens often) and needs 20 kg. Or a tendajón finds itself short on a holiday weekend and buys 50 kg. His route is pretty small, just a few blocks, but if his son could run his trike in the mornings, or a second trike in the afternoon when he is making his rounds, perhaps he could extend his family’s range and double their earnings. Then again, as I’ve seen, he’s not interested in that, preferring to live quite adequately on 300 pesos per day ($21.50) in a town where the average unskilled worker makes even less than that. Or perhaps he has another job already and is just enlarging the family’s income by putting in a few extra hours while schmoozing with his neighbors.
For me, I’d rather save 3 pesos and ride my bike a couple blocks to the tortilleria, but that’s mainly because, being a writer, I need excuses to force myself out of my chair. As times have become tougher for average people, I’ve also noticed more homes along my bike route opening their front rooms to make tendejóns or comida economias. A comida economica provides a home-cooked meal with table service, giving the buyer a plate of whatever the family is making that day. A tendejón is an informal home store. It might have home-grown pigs, chickens or eggs for sale, or garden produce. It shares the same root word, “tender” (to have), as the more formal store or mini-mart (tienda), but whether for legal reasons or just wanting to keep it more neighborly, a tendejón is an unpredictable collection of wares in someone’s living room, next to their fluorescent blinking statute of the Virgin of Guadelupe.
Between the tendejón and the tienda lie the more formal abarrotes, or package stores, which usually sell cold beer, insect repellant and junk food. These are usually under a residence or in an adjoining building to the family’s principal dwelling. There are one or more abarrotes, tendejóns and tiendas on nearly every block.
Tricyclos are a common sight in much of Yucatán Peninsula, as they are in Asia, Africa, South America and other parts of the two-thirds world. In the United States you mention a tricycle and people think of Monty Python or Laugh-In. In the global south they are multifunctional and ubiquitous. You see them as fishermen’s friends, beach-roving gear-buckets for surfers, portable crepe parlors, bellhop cabin service, and the poor man’s moving van.
Low-tech Magazine, an on-line compendium, describes many novel uses for pedal power, from archival scans of circa 1892 Sears Catalog pages to modern recumbent cargo quads. Corn grinding, water pumping and sewer-system cleaning are all potentially portable, pedal-powered services. These are niches that will likely be explored in the South far sooner than when people in the North finally decide to come down off of their high horses and get a third wheel.
Albert Bates is author of The Financial Collapse Survival Guide and Cookbook and 14 other books on energy, environment and history, including Climate in Crisis (1990) and The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook (2006). A former environmental and civil rights lawyer, he has argued before the U.S. Supreme Court and written a number of legislative acts. A co-founder and past president of the Global Ecovillage Network, he is presently GEN’s representative to the UN climate talks. When not inventing fuel wringers for algae or pyrolizing cookstoves, he teaches permaculture, village design and natural building and is a special advisor for Gaia University. He wrote the chapter on agriculture for State of the World 2010. His latest book is The Biochar Solution: Carbon Farming and Climate Change (New Society 2010). This essay initially appeared on Club Orlov.Comments (2)