"Finding Rhythms in the Road":
How Mobilities become Livelihoods on Central America's Pan-American Highway
How do roads produce rhythms that pace and give texture to social worlds? How do communities that emerge in the vicinity of transit infrastructure capitalize on how movement is patterned in order to generate livelihoods? This project ethnographically tracks the material and storied life of the Pan-American Highway, specifically a 1,300 kilometer stretch that connects the Panama Canal to the construction site of the future Gran Canal of Nicaragua. On this section of the highway, drivers encounter physical, human, and regulatory roadblocks that impede their speed of travel. These “mobility barriers” train the movements of travelers as they engage with the road; thus creating observable patterns of mobility. While a number of barriers exist, I analyze three that I have found through preliminary research to be some of the most prevalent for highway users because they cause severe disruptions to their travel schedules. These mobility barriers are: deteriorated/unfinished road sections, highway robbery, and international border checkpoints. Each of these requires that travelers adjust their pace of movement through erratic driving, forced stoppages, and waiting, respectively. These paces represent common mobility patterns that occur repetitively on the highway, but with each encounter something new and unforeseen accrues to the experience; creating what Henri Lefebvre refers to as “social rhythms” (Lefebvre 2004). I refer to Lefebvre’s “rhythmanalysis” to demonstrate that the Pan-American Highway organizes the movements of everyday life, but my work will take his theory in a new direction. I am following other anthropologists (Brighenti 2010; Klaeger 2013; Vannini 2012) who are drawing upon Lefebvre’s important work. Specifically, I am using it to discuss how the Pan-American Highway is an agentive force whose materiality shapes how people move and creates opportunities for transactions. My research will focus on these transactions.
I will use ethnography to explain how local communities tap into the social rhythms that mobility barriers create in order to generate livelihoods. They develop methods for drivers to avoid delays and save time; thus commodifying the temporality of travel. Informal road repair crews work to mend sections of the highway that are in disrepair. Truck drivers travel in convoys to protect themselves from instances of highway robbery. Tramitadores assist border crossers with bypassing lengthy customs processes at international border crossings. This complex system of transactions reflects what I will refer to as ‘road rhythms’ and are strongly influenced by the heavy flows of traffic moving along the highway to and from the Panamanian owned Panama Canal. On this section of the Pan-American Highway, a study of ‘road rhythms’ asks how do local communities experience and respond to geopolitics as multinational organizations plan, construct, and regulate movement vis-à-vis transnational infrastructures? Also, how do road users and community members pursue their varied expectations of infrastructure by completing transactions with one another? The current construction of the Gran Canal of Nicaragua by the Chinese operated Hong Kong Nicaragua Development Group marks an important time for this project. The introduction of a new canal threatens to disrupt the social rhythms that allow local communities to generate livelihoods by reformulating political/economic power, reorienting mobility, and reconstituting territorial configurations.
My project examines how ‘road rhythms’ organize daily life for communities that emerge in and around transit infrastructure. I ask how mobility barriers and the local strategies to overcome them express respond to particular histories of the development and globalization of transnational highways and canals in the region; specifically the Pan-American Highway, Panama Canal, and Gran Canal of Nicaragua. The patterned movements of highway travel are a compilation of mobilities from a variety of actors whose experiences of travelling are similar, yet unique. Their experiences train their movements and behavior not only in ways of which they are aware, but in ways that they do not acknowledge as well. I ask: what are these various types of recognized and unrecognized movement and how do they come together to form “road rhythms”? I will use semi-structured interviews and conversations to document the techniques that highway users discuss, but I must also employ participant observation to understand the behaviors that they do not discuss nor recognize. I use ethnography of “road rhythms” to develop a perspective of “territory” as an “act or practice rather than an object or physical space” where multiple agents impose control through the regulation of flows of traffic (Brighenti 2010:53). In this vein, territory is multidimensional, yet it is reflected in the transactions that take place between local communities—who use traffic flows to earn an income—and highway users—who use the highway for travel.
The Panama Canal influences the current structure of ‘road rhythms’ in this region, but the proposed construction of a new and deeper Gran Canal in Nicaragua by the Chinese-owned “Hong Kong Nicaragua Development Group” presents a new moment of reorientation for patterns of mobility in Central America. This megaproject not only promises to enhance Chinese economic and political influence in Central America, but it is already shifting regional orientations of vehicular movement towards the new canal zone. The new infrastructure is also changing the ways that communities along the Pan American Highway utilize its flows of road traffic to generate livelihoods. For instance, at the Panamanian border town of Paso Canoas, there is a visible and seemingly ever growing contingent of local workers who use the steady traffic through the border checkpoint to earn an income. Specifically, tramitadores provide services to border crossers who face long waits with customs documents and are willing to exchange monetary tips for assistance with completing required paperwork, organizing bribes with local customs agents and police, and gaining access to community markets. Since the completion of the Pan-American Highway through Paso Canoas in 1960, the community has experienced a steady growth that is directly linked to the regional importance of goods moving from the Panama Canal into Central America. In this small community of barely a 1,000 residents more than 400,000 people from over 20 different nationalities move through the border checkpoint at Paso Canoas annually (Panama Internal Organization for Migration 2016). Here the mobilities of truck drivers, tourists, and travelers from nearby communities—among many others—intersect, creating the opportunities for community residents, such as the tramitador, to earn a livelihood. The future of these opportunities, however, is uncertain due to possible shifts in traffic flow as a result of the new Gran Canal of Nicaragua. During preliminary research in Paso Canoas, community members expressed to me a mix of concern, doubt, and expectation that the new canal in Nicaragua will affect the amount of traffic passing through the community and, as a result, threaten the prosperity of Paso Canoas.
The proposed research has three primary objectives:
Document how the barriers of deteriorated/unfinished road sections, highway robbery, and international border checkpoints organize the movements of road travelers.
Examine the work routines of informal repair crews, truck drivers, and tramitadores to understand how local communities use the traffic patterns, such as erratic driving, forced stoppages, and long waits, that mobility barriers create to secure livelihoods.
Analyze the histories of mobility barriers and the transactions that orient ‘road rhythms’ on the Pan-American Highway
Taken together, I ask how do observable interruptions to one’s movement characterize everyday movement on the Pan-American Highway and how do local communities use these disruptions to earn income? For those who routinely travel the highway, they anticipate the stoppages and encounters that occur; thus recognizing them as part of the experience of highway travel in this region. For others, interruptions are unexpected and moments where the highway attunes their bodies to its flows. My project contributes to emergent scholarship on mobility and infrastructure by:
Asking how transit infrastructure, not only organizes the social rhythms of surrounding social worlds, but how local communities tap into these rhythms in order to generate livelihoods.
Arguing that transactions that occur around mobility barriers are crucial spaces to investigate the effects of global politics on local movement and road users’/community members’ pursuit of infrastructural expectations as they envision them.