Columbia Falls cyclist brings bikes to Central America

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Dave Renfrow is pictured outside his home in Columbia Falls with one of the Maya Pedal bikes and a collection of photos from countries like Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala. Renfrow volunteers with Maya Pedal, a non-governmental organization that gives new life to old bicycles. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

“Central America was just on my list of places I wanted to bike to,” Dave Renfrow said.

But as the 66-year-old Columbia Falls retiree prepared for his 2013 cycling trip to the region, he found a cause to support

“I was reading bike journals,” he said, “[and] Maya Pedal popped up a couple times, so I went to the site, and I was intrigued by what they’re doing, so I started to correspond with Mario.”

“Mario” was Mario Juarez, a resident of San Andrés Itzapa, Guatemala. Maya Pedal, the organization that he leads and Renfrow works with, converts used bicycles into machines that pump water, crush corncobs, grind coffee beans, wash clothes and even make tiles — all with pedal power.

These “bicimaquinas,” or “bicycle machines,” were introduced by Canadian volunteers in the 1990s, to ease the manual labor that supports many local families. Children in the area, Renfrow said, are “sitting at home doing farm labor by hand, cobbing corn or grinding corn, and they’re not making it to school.”

And when that meager existence proves too difficult, he said, “their choices are pretty grim: Go to Guatemala City, which is a high-crime area ... or cross Mexico,” seeking work there or in the United States.

By improving conditions at home, labor-saving technology can give potential migrants reason to stay. But that’s no easy task in areas without electricity, good roads or trained technicians.

ASSESSING THIS challenge in Africa, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization observed that “agricultural mechanization in the 21st century should be environmentally compatible, economically viable, affordable, adapted to local conditions and ... climate-smart.”

Renfrow said the bicimaquinas can meet these needs. “It’s appropriate technology,” he said, demonstrating a pedal-powered blender in his driveway. “There’s bicycle pumps that are pumping water, that have been in operation for 15 years. Even a 12-year-old kid knows how to fix a chain.”

He’s seen the program in action on four separate trips to San Andrés Itzapa. When a bicycle arrives at Maya Pedal, local employees and international volunteers sort the parts and produce requested machines “on demand.”

He said the average price runs around $200. “They generally wish for people to purchase all or part,” of the machines,”but [they] also donate a number of machines based upon ability to pay.”

And area families find the investment worthwhile. Renfrow said the organization produces about eight bicycles per month.

“People are really proud to say, ‘gee, I bought my bike, I’m grinding my corn, I’m getting my kids into school, I’m buying a house ... just because of a bike machine,’” he said.

RENFROW CONCEDES that he’s “not a skilled bike mechanic,” but said that Juarez has always found ways for him to help around the shop. He gave him a new mission on his most recent trip there last March.

“I asked Mario, ‘What can I do?’ And he said, ‘We need a container-load of bikes.’ And I said, ‘OK,’ And then I thought, ‘Holy cow, how am I gonna do that?’

“If I spent a week in Portland [seeking donations] I could probably get a container-load of bikes ... But I really think it’s important that Western Montana has its opportunity too,” he said.

He added that Montanans have made the most of that opportunity since he started seeking donations, with bike shops and groups as diverse as the Libby Rotary Club, the Whitefish Police Department and Missoula’s Local Indigenous Native Co-Op all donating bikes.

Now, Renfrow has the opposite problem as the one he started with. “It’s going to be a challenge to pack all the bikes we have onto a 45-foot [shipping] container, but that’s a good challenge.”

He expects the bikes to arrive in San Andrés Itzapa by Christmas. Around the same time, he’ll be pedaling in for another visit.

Thousands of miles — and vast cultural, political and economic differences — separate Northwest Montana from his destination.

But in his work with Maya Pedal, he says he’s seen threads of understanding connect the two regions.

“In a complex world, with immigration issues, trade issues and tax issues,” donors are grasping a simple concept: “‘Gee, I love my old bike, I’d hate to throw it in a landfill, I’m gonna get it to a family.’”

Glacier Cyclery in Whitefish and Over the Mountain Bike Shop in Columbia Falls will be collecting bikes for Maya Pedal until Oct. 16. More information about the organization can be found at http://www.mayapedal.org.

Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at preilly@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4407.

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