THE PIRATE SHIP
Mexico has its metaphors all mixed up, you might think, as Drakula welcomes you to the Pirate Ship which is some sort of junkyard candyland where boys wander around like lords of the flies, and you’re certain you’ve fallen down the rabbit hole (or at least taken the blue pill). This is CACITA, the Autonomous Centre for the Intercultural Creation of Appropriate Technologies, and it floats on an 8-by-20 meter piece of property in San Pablo Etla, about twenty minutes from Unitierra.
Here, on this tiny parcel of land, you discover that there are bicycle-powered machines, solar ovens, dry compost toilets, humanure and vermicomposting (ways of harvesting organic waste as fertilizer), rainwater catchment systems, small-scale urban agriculture and ecobuilding projects, recycled alternative fuels and even a bit of wind power. Originally conceived in conversations among friends at Unitierra, CACITA is another expression of the commitment to strengthening the autonomous learning capacity of people, communities and neighborhoods to generate their sources of economic and social self-sufficiency.
With its wind-ruffled tarp for shade and its slanted roof and walls assembled from a patchwork of billboards, siding and fractured paneling, the Pirate Ship wields its nickname with pride—and more than just visual integrity. This is a place of constant motion, where a crew of clever men experiment just beyond the margins of conventional life. Rumors spread about captain Drakula, whose real name may be Eric, and you overhear in whispers words like “bodyguard” and “Subcomandante Marcos”—it might be best not to ask any questions.
Chivo, short for “dirty goat,” is brandishing a machete and offering you chunks of coconut that he’s hacked off in an expression of hospitality. At night, he sleeps on sacks of cacao beans stacked five feet high, filling his dreams with solar-roasted chocolate ground by bicycle power and distributed from Oaxaca all the way north to Toronto.
One of the members of this motley crew is Daniel Perera, a Guatemalan who sounds like an American, lives as a Mexican and travels like a nomad. Altogether too handsome for his own good, Daniel is our trans-local protagonist. Trans-local, you ask? Let us explain.
Suppose that there are no universal solutions to global problems—like poverty, hunger or environmental destruction. Suppose that the kind of large-scale systems change that many of us have been yearning for emerges when local actions get connected globally—while preserving their deeply local culture, flavor and form. What if people working at the local level were able to learn from one another, practice together and share their knowledge—freely and fluidly—with communities anywhere? This is the nature of trans-local learning, and it happens when separate, local efforts connect with each other, then grow and transform as people exchange ideas that together give rise to new systems with greater impact and influence.
And so Daniel tells you a story that begins in Guatemala, where he met Carlos Marroquin of Maya Pedal. Carlos and his colleagues conceived of bicimáquinas back in 1997, when they recognized that salvaged bicycles could be reconstituted into human-powered machines that grind corn and cacao, pump water, sharpen metal, blend beverages—and ultimately wash clothing, generate electricity, plow soil and saw wood. Maya Pedal’s intention was to contribute to environmental conservation while supporting local family economies. Its commitment was to give away all its knowledge freely so that many other friends and partners could participate in the evolution and diffusion of the ideas.
Daniel returned to Oaxaca City carrying a few photos and the concept of a bicimolino, a bicycle-powered mill, that could help ease the task of grinding cacao beans that he, Chivo, Drakula and a few others were using to make solar-roasted Oaxacan chocolate. What he did not carry with him was a blueprint—or any design documents at all, for that matter—on how to build the bicimolino. Based on Daniel’s memory, a few rough photos and a spirit of bricolage (a do-it-yourself process of assembling something out of the materials at hand), the trio set about making it up. The early models were clunkers—heavy, slow and not exactly a smooth ride. But over time, through ongoing experimentation and occasional input from Carlos, the bicimáquina designs became increasingly graceful and more complex. The CACITA crew offered their designs to youth in villages and schools, leaving behind the models that the learners built so they could continue to adapt and improve them until bicimáquinas began appearing like scattered seeds among communities throughout Oaxaca and Chiapas.
And beyond. In fact, Daniel has been invited to India to carry the bicimáquina seed even further afield. But before you hear the next part of his story, we’ll travel onward, south to San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, where we’ll encounter a second Unitierra.