Language diversity and taxis

Public transportation takes many forms in the little Zapotec town where I have been living for the past week. There are buses to carry you to nearby cities and collective taxis that squeeze in 5 passengers at a time, the cost split between them all.

For local public transport there is the bicycle taxi, which has a bicycle back end and a 2-wheel front end with a boxed enclosure for hauling cargo. The cargo box can be re-fitted with a bench seat for passengers. Some have awnings to shade the driver and his fares.

I’ve never seen a bicycle taxi with gears — single-speed and tough pedaling uphill.

Someone got the idea of fitting a motorcycle with a trailer hitch to haul a 2-wheeled cargo/passenger cart behind. These beat the pedal-taxis for speed and are a lot less work for the driver, but the driver and his fares are exposed to the elements.

In the past several weeks, 3-wheeled motor taxis have filled the streets like a swarm of locusts. These yellow taxis (called Tuk-Tuks in other parts of the world) use small but powerful 4-stroke engines and are completely covered by a snap-on, white vinyl top. They purr along efficiently and can reach high speeds for short periods of time, good for crossing major intersections quickly. They even have padded seats!

What will happen to the bicycle taxi drivers? Will they be driven out of business? Will anyone want to be pedaled sedately to their destination when they can catch a motor-taxi and save so much time?

Even in a very traditional place like this, the culture changes. They have DSL now and cell phones and satellite TV. All change has its benefits — that’s why we embrace new ideas, new technologies.

Change creates negative consequences, too. Wednesday was The International Day of the Mother Tongue. Here, as in many parts of the world, minority languages are disappearing as young people have greater contact with the wider world and are enticed to abandon the language and culture of their birth.

Human communities evolve in different ways because of the unique challenges of the historical and geographical conditions they adapt to. Language remembers those lessons, and the loss of languages and cultures mean losing the valuable lessons other societies can teach us.

The loss of languages and cultures leaves humanity poorer.

The motor-taxis are part of that destructive process, so part of me regrets seeing them push the bicycle-taxis aside. And part of me sees change as both inevitable and, at times, beneficial, e.g. health advances that have cured diseases and reduced infant mortality.

Some thoughts on a sunny Mexican Saturday morning.

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  1. This is and has been a big issue here in NZ. The Maori language was in danger of dying out. Now many more young Maori learn to speak it. They have preschools for Maori children where they spaek only in Te reo Maori (the language). It’s a beautiful language and contains cultural concepts that don’t always translate well in English.