In many parts of Latin America, happiness is not a concept that can be attached to money or financial solvency. Residents of the ghettos in places like Sao Paulo, Mexico City and Panama City have never had much disposable income; they must find happiness and wellbeing in activities as simple as family lunch on Sunday, a neighborhood football or a wild Friday night party at the local pub.
A lack of resources makes people creative, forces them to take ownership of their environment and to squeeze the most from the minimum. Their best tool is ingenuity, which is indispensable to imagining and creating necessary objects and means of survival. In turn, these handmade objects become the new “luxuries” of the neighborhood.
DIY radios, pimped cellphones and above all, customized bikes. These are the apples of their owners' eyes, and sometimes receive more love and attention than wives or children. They are called priti baiks, built over years with a outrageous passion. In the slums of Panama City, young men take old bicycles and retrofit them into loud and bombastic hotties. Unable to afford a car, much less to customize it and take the brown girl of their dreams on a ride, they decorate their bikes with ribbons, pieces of plastic, mirrors, loud speakers, sound-systems, neon lights and even with LEDs. The girls, in response, no longer seem to care that the vehicle have four wheels, but rather that it have several horns.
The name priti baik is not just a mockery or a Caribbean-Spanglish appropriation of the English, “pretty bike”. Priti is Panamian teen slang for anything colorful, witty, catchy and crazy.
The basic enchule customization is about horn-power. Noisier means manlier, which means higher in the hierarchy. Priti are statements of masculinity. To achieve more volume, these cyclists -who use their baiks for daily transportation- buy two or three truck horns. The horns are connected through a series of hoses to a small pipette filled with carbon dioxide, which is plugged into another device mounted on the handlebars.
When honked, the ensemble produces so much power that those with the biggest CO2 tanks can actually make the ground tremble.
Another indispensable feature of the priti baiks is a good music system. Anything from a single portable radio to a full sound system with a buffer and several speakers will work. Once that's in place, the imagination can run wild with lights, mirrors or pieces of plastic between the wheel spokes, in the frame, or as flaps on which riders write expressions like, “mero style” or “the new fashion” with decorative motifs: skulls, Jamaican flags, Looney Tunes characters.
The priti baik honk has broad connotations. It can be gentle, a friendly acknowledgement of another priti baik. An prolonged honk is an unmistakable insult, except when it serves as a tool of seduction- priti baik riders may compliment an attractive woman walking along the sidewalk with a long fiuu fiuuuuuuuu. But no matter who is listening, the real purpose of the priti baik horns is always to say, “Make way; here comes the Man. Girls, look no further; here is your daddy.”
Photos: José Castrellón