Field notes: A pay-it-forward economy


Motorcycles are everywhere here, and the majority of them are business vehicles.  Every medium-size business- grocery stores, pharmacies, schools, McDonald’s- has a delivery guy and courier, a necessity since there’s no postal service.  Add to that the motoconchos that serve as mid-range public transportation and you have probably a third of the vehicles on the roads.

They’re all men, by the way.  The reason they’re all men is that there are gangs entirely funded by motorcycle theft.  It’s as easy as walking up to a motorcyclist at a red light and holding a gun to his head.  Women drive enclosed vehicles or, sometimes, dinky scooters.

It’s not infrequent to find two motorcycles driving quite close to each other.  Since the delivery guys are frequently young men, they engage in exactly the kind of heart-attack-inducing pedestrian-threatening insurance-rate-doubling behavior you might expect, and some that you wouldn’t.  Racing up and down the street doing wheelies? Swerving around little old ladies on their way to church? Launching themselves airborne over speed bumps and potholes? Going Evil Knievel without helmets on the public highway? Check, check, check, por supuesto.  As the kids say, YOLO.

But there’s a fraternity among these chaps.  They’re all colleagues, more or less.  They’ll cruise alongside each other for a chat.  They’ll hold up twenty cars at a green light to shout hello to a guy on the opposite corner.

And sometimes, if one of them is running low on gas or struggling to get up a hill or having trouble getting his motor started, another guy will give him a push.

This works kind of like an inverse V of geese.  Instead of drafting off the front rider, the pusher gets behind him at an angle, his front wheel lined up to the left of the other guy’s rear tire.  Then he sticks out his right foot behind the guy’s passenger footrest and accelerates.

The two drive together like that for a while, locked in perfect formation, until the front motorcycle is up to a good speed.  Then his helper hollers out a goodbye and speeds off.

It’s one instance of a broader kind of generosity that’s built into the culture here.  If I have three bunches of bananas, I’ll give a sack-full to whoever’s passing by, and all the neighbors will eat well.  If I need 100 pesos, you give it as a gift, not a loan.  There’s an understanding of interdependence: I’ll help you out when you need it, knowing that my turn will come around some day.  It’s a kind of pay-it-forward economy, an informal market of favors and goodwill, that ties communities together.