Last year, on a visit to Oaxaca, I had the delightful experience of passing by a row of autorickshaws parked on the way to Monte Alban. Autorickshaws are as much a symbol of urban India as anything else, and being so far from home, it brought a little joy tempered with surrealism to see them stand there so nonchalantly, looking like they belonged. I thought nothing of it then, assuming that they would remain some quirk of Oaxaca. Much later, I ran into a guy who knew the guy who imported those autoricksaws, and the story was simple. Guy goes to India, impressed by the autos and seeing their potential imports a few. I even recognized the autos, they were all made by the company Bajaj, known more in India for their motorbikes and scooters. An old Bajaj ad that used to run on state TV is now part of the cultural consciousness of my generation and others.
There’s a bajaj store in Xalapa, as part of their new strategy to go where no other people are going, especially the Latin American market.
But in the Yucatan, Autos kept popping up everywhere. The yucatan peninsula is as flat as Xalapa is not, and this greatly facilitates the use of two wheelers and autos. Some of these autos were painted in such familiar colours, and combined with the general indianness of the landscape, it was adding extremely odd touches to the already fantastic landscapes. You’ve already got secret sinkholes with mysterious shafts of sunlight, visible and invisible pyramids, the incredible blue of the sea, and hectares of henequen armies. Now add to this the FrankenMoto.
Here’s a operational definition: a frankenmoto is an autorickshaw substitute, where a two wheeler (scooter, motorcycle) has been converted into a three wheeled vehicle by the addition of a cart in order to ferry passengers and goods. Though there were a few autos plying the roads of the Yucatan, they seemed to vastly outnumbered by the franken motos. It is easy to see the evolution of the frankenmotos. They probably started off as additions of carts to bicycles. I saw a variety of these as well. Carts turned into cycle-rickshaws, either to carry goods or with seats and an awning to carry passengers. And then the revolution: convert a scooter or motorbike by affixing a cart in front. These frankenmoto taxis are called mototaxis locally, but not entirely accurately, since Bajaj is now marketing Autos as mototaxis. FrankenMotos fits the bill, since they are usually cannibalized from the body parts of other vehicles. There was a bewildering variety of these vehicles, and it’s not hard to imagine the whole industry operating at the level of the tinkerer. Man buys bike, wants to turn it into a taxi, takes it to a local village mechanic, who then rudely welds a cart to he front, and some cushions and awning, since the heat is a serious consideration in the Yucatan, and he’s done. Bajaj will have to market their autos very cleverly in order to beat the low cost do it yourself approach.
I can’t imagine autos taking off in a place like Xalapa, where the roads are very steep, but on the other hand, the narrow streets and the increasing traffic load of cars (apparently there more cars per person in Xalapa than in any other city in Mexico) could increase their viability. But a flat place like the yucatan is ideal, and the spread of these autos could be a prime example of a different globalization, a ‘third world’ alliance of sorts.