It wasn’t only Erin and Belén who took the trip to Paraguay late last year; joining in on the adventure were newcomers Tom and Melody. Tom played the role of mechanic, ensuring the beneficiaries were all set up and knew what to do if problems did arise, while Melody worked as a photographer the whole trip, providing PBL fantastic photos for future! We sat down with them to talk car troubles, Paraguayan summers, and questionable directions.
Project Bike Love: So this was your first trip with PBL, how was it? Was it anything like what you expected or completely different?
Tom Place: Decided on a whim talking with Erin three weeks before to book a ticket and go as the mechanic. This trip was AMAZING! The experiences are just not anything I would get through any other avenue in life. I could talk for hours about all the different ways it was amazing, but suffice to say I will be doing it again, 100%.
Melody McClain: The trip was both a fun time and hard work. We had a lot of moments of joy and laughter, tears, and love. I am pretty strong willed and I was determined to not have any expectations when I went. I thought an open mind with minimal planning would be the best way to just let the experiences come as they may and let them not be colored too much by my own worldview.
PBL: And what were your first impressions of Paraguay?
TP: The biggest impression was left by the people and how happy and stable their families were. The capital city is like many other big cities really, not dissimilar to those in the States. The communities we delivered bikes in were altogether different despite being relatively close to the capital, because the roads quickly disappear and become Jeep tracks at best, causing them to feel even more isolated. It was here that we got to meet the families and see their homes, the conditions they live in, and the challenges they face daily. This is where I was most impacted and impressed by how joyful the majority of the people are, how stable and close their families are to each other. It’s humbling seeing this and comparing it to how unhappy so many are in the States that have so much more comfort. They are an amazing people in Paraguay.
MM: When I first arrived in Paraguay it was very early morning and I was pretty tired. Well, we got a flat tire just as we entered the highway so my first experience was experiencing rush hour traffic from the side of a road where everyone was honking, yelling, trying to merge around us with not your normal U.S. way of solving that issue available. The highway is used by everything, pedestrians, bikes, motorbikes, horse and carts (rarely now), three wheel motorbike trucks all weaving around each other using every inch of space, shoulders, dirt, grass, anything goes! Some Good Samaritans arrived to help at some point and we got the spare on and to Belen's family home at last.
PBL: Could you take me through a "normal" day of bike deliveries on the trip?
TP: Well we only had two this trip due to the flooding in the Chaco, but they start with us arriving at some central gathering place in each community, spending a few minutes getting everything ready while meeting with the local volunteers, then we dive in almost immediately to the delivery process. Meanwhile, I am scrambling around like a crazy person trying to get all the bikes tuned up and ready to roll so that they will actually last long-term since we want to make sure we give them the best tool possible. Given the summer weather in December, that means lots and lots of sweating. We were scrambling a bit this time, but at one site I had time to show some of the beneficiaries how to replace tubes if they get a flat tire, a critical skill to keep them going.
MM: On bike delivery day, we got up, cobbled together some breakfast from the family's offerings or what we brought, grabbed gear, slathered on sunscreen and bug spray, filled up water bottles and such and piled into a car. Directions were somewhat minimal and relied on memories and descriptions like, turn left at the bug tree, or right at the woman selling chickens, which we all had some good laughs over. We would arrive and meet up with the local partners and get to work prepping the bikes, removing the tape, plastic wrap and protective coverings from shipping and Tom would handle setting the bikes up mechanically. I would start getting shots and help out in between. Belen had cards for each beneficiary and would call each one one at a time to read the card to them, translate if needed, hear their story, and many of them brought letters or pictures the kids drew for us, to share. Hugs, tears, love and then fit a helmet and try out the bike! The excitement for each one, the anticipation and joy was amazing!
PBL: The locals, what were they like? Did you feel welcomed by the communities you visited?
TP: The locals were amazingly happy. In the US we have it pretty easy relative to most here, people in these communities don’t have much, they are isolated, they have to work extremely hard, yet all of the families are stable and happy. They are so excited to share their lives with you, show how they live, have their kids play with you, it’s unbelievably welcoming. I’m in awe of these people.
MM: The locals were very welcoming! Shy at first but quick to warm up, open up, laugh at my terrible Spanish, communicate with us however we could. They were all eager to share, show us around, pose for the camera, laugh with us and each other. I think they will remember it how we do, as an amazing day when something new happened, someone from another land cared enough about them to give them an opportunity to change their course.
PBL: Finally, do you have a favorite or stand our moment from the trip?
TP: I loved when Ninfa, an athletic beneficiary in Villeta took the lead and said she would be the mechanic for the community and learn how to repair bikes for all of them, she was so excited about it, she was bad ass! I loved when the kids just came up and held our hands, walked around with us, played with us. It’s an experience that is loaded front to back with stories and happiness, so thankful I got wrapped up in this!
MM: One of my favorite moments was at the community center opening when we started to unwrap the bikes, and a group of kids about 10-12 years old joined us to help out. They were so eager and seriously wanting to help get the job done rather than keep playing with their friends. They had pride in doing a good job in their work, and were careful about the unwrapping, and even cleaned up the debris from the tape, cardboard, and plastic that was strewn about to keep their community clean. It was hot, super muggy, and definitely not easy work, but together we got it done quickly and got to move to the fun stuff faster!