Bolivian kids and I far from so-called civilization
FOREWORD: (Buenos Aires, Argentina) Many things I wouldn’t change, of course. Traveling without a return ticket, not buying bottled water, having an international ATM card to avoid fees, and using a trailer instead of panniers were all correct decisions. Zero regrets. But there are other major and minor aspects of my bike tour that I’d change if I were to do it all over again—or better said: when I do it again on a different continent:) Below I share twenty pangs of conscience so that aspiring cyclists can learn from my mistakes.
Kids in Puente Canoa, Colombia
1. Spend more time with kids
To play with a children, to see the world through their eyes, to hear their innocence in words, and show them by your big, awkward, blond presence that the world is wider than the route between their school and their home, is happiness, pure and simple. Though I spent a great many evenings in plazas and around my camp stove with little adults, a part of me wishes I’d have shunned the so-called wiser and wrinklier adult race in order to exclusively spend time with the munchkin sages that swarmed my tent each night.
2. Swim more throughout the day
The South American tropics are, hmmm, tropical. And hot. And you sweat gallons briskly coasting across flat land. Luckily, there is a miraculous, moving, living thing called the Amazon basin that covers most of the continent. In Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru I took advantage of this everywhere water to cool off during the day and relax (and even bathe before bed). Rivers, streams, and local swimming holes are all free options. In the other countries, however, I mostly pedaled past the riots of kids laughing and jumping off bridges into pristine waters. Future bike tourists hear me now: there is no rush, the journey is the destination. Swim every chance you get.
3. Track and buy local music/movies
I love music and movies, especially the Latin American variety. I wish I’d have asked more people to recommend their favorite artists, directors, must-hears, must-sees, etc. Bike touring offers the unique opportunity to discover music and movies that you’d never in ten lifetimes discover otherwise. Some of the best regional musicians, for example, only sell physical CDs which are not and probably never will be incorporated into the supposed all-inclusive, know-all internet. Make it a habit to ask people who they listen to and what they watch. Write it down. Don’t be afraid to buy that Tsáchila mix tape or that hypnotic Huayño waltz. You can always ship them home to cut weight.
4. Practice an instrument
Since finding my grandfather’s harmonica in the closet I’ve wanted to learn to play. That was many moons ago. On this trip I pedaled over 6,000 miles with a sexy Lee Oska into which I occasionally blew chaotic air but never a real song. I don’t sell it or give it away because it’s my Sisyphus boulder that reminds me of the absurdity of carrying it but not playing it, of the folly in thinking that going through the motions is enough. With a little practice each day, before bed or during rest breaks, I’d now be able to crank out wicked blues. Shoulda, coulda.
5. Collect addresses to later send postcards
This karmic postcard advice is listed in the ‘Happiness’ section for good reason: you can revive the smile of those special people met along the way with a three-by-five photo, a paragraph, and a stamp. The science behind this phenomena is fuzzy but this much I know: this smile, like the postcard, jumps borders and is teleported back with two-fold intensity, leaving sender and receiver grinning internationally. Please send the love more than I have.
Salad with ceviche in Arequipa, Peru
6. Eat more vegetables, especially green salads
My main fuel was rice and pasta, seasoned with onions and bullion cubes. Inexpensive, yes. Filling, yes. Healthy, no. Green vegetables, besides being cheaper than cheap in all South American countries, offer a surprising energy boost for their low-calorie count, not to mention much needed vitamins, minerals, and natural fibers. It wasn’t until Uruguay that I discovered green salads with oil and balsamic dressing (plus nuts, seeds, or a can of tuna) are perfect no-cook, quick-and-easy meals for bike touring.
7. Stretch during every rest break
This is self-explanatory but worth repeating: stretch during every rest break. Are we clear? Your body will thank you, maybe even love you. I didn’t respect this mantra, and my body hates me to this day.
Children in Pueblonuevo, Colombia
8. Sleep free from day one
Sleeping without paying for lodging is the best way to save money on a bike tour. In Colombia, thanks to misguided media and my own amateurism, I pedaled half the country before exploring people’s natural tendency toward kindess. My recommendation: don’t wait. Learn some basic techniques, trust your intuition, and never pay to sleep. The real world happens outside hotel rooms.
9. Drink less alcohol—or give it up altogether
Forgive me, I may have white lied. Depending on how much you like to “party,” alcohol, not lodging, may be your trip’s greatest expense. I’ve met travelers who pump thousands of dollars each month (!) into the local bar scene, and I too admit to having indulged cachaça-style in the name of “going local.” But this post is not about my past, it’s about your future. My liver and I have grown older, wiser, and we feel less inclined to drink when going out. If you need to be drunk to enjoy the company of those around you, maybe they’re not that enjoyable to begin with, regardless of their nationality or native language. If your budget is limited, if you want sunrises not hangovers, skip the pisco sour and nurse a Coke—nobody will know the difference.
Friend Martha with her Kindle in Montevideo, Uruguay
10. Travel with a Kindle from day one
Books—and the free time to read them—are one of the many joys of travel. Here’s the problem: they’re heavy and specific ones are difficult to find. Here’s the solution: the Kindle 3G. Carry 3,000 books in your handlebar bag. Download free ebooks instantly. Buy from Amazon.com with the push of a button. Upload Wikipedia articles as travel guides. I began my affair with the Kindle in Brazil, but would have read more books, more often if I’d have loved her from the beginning.
11. Buy non-specialty gear locally
Before my U.S. departure I bought a US$40 knife, two synthetic shirts for US$90, and a US$3 spork. A splucking spork! All the above items in Colombia, where I began my bike tour, cost approximately US$30. Don’t be as gullible as I was. A shirt is a shirt is a shirt. Buy clothes, food, and other non-speciality items locally if the world region to which you travel has a lower cost of living. However, remember that certain items—bike gear, camp gear, electronics—may be cheaper and easier to find in your home country.
12. Open a SugarSync account before departure
A growing number of nomadic professionals live and work from the “cloud,” a catchy marketing term given to information stored online. No USB keys. No external hard drives. No worrying about losing mp3 music, travel photos, or all those poems no one reads if your laptop crashes or is stolen. Currently I’m not worry-free and floating blissfully in the “cloud.” If my laptop implodes, so does my mental stability. But I’m transitioning. After researching various cloud providers, I believe SugarSync to be the best overall option. We’ll both get an additional 500MB if you open a free account or 10GB if you begin a paid plan using this link.
Girl teaching me photography near Aguas Calientes, Peru
13. Learn photography before departure
In Colombia I had envisioned taking a photography course with a sexy Latina professor/painter/cyclist who would accompany me on slow strolls through parks, pointing with gentle gestures to the minute details on flowers, her breath fogging my SLR screen as her hands directed my lense into focus, the way the guy teaches the girl billiards from behind in bad 80s movies. This never happened. Instead I lugged my heavy semi-professional over the Andes, snapping photos in automatic, neither fully realizing the machine’s, South America’s, or my own artistic potential during our long jaunt south. Of course, a class is not needed to learn photography. Neither is a sexy Latina. Just play with a camera until it produces pretty pictures—preferably before you leave.
14. Label your digital photos
Write the names of people and places when uploading to SugarSync, Facebook, Flickr, Picassa, or whatever site you choose to store your parallel 2D universe doppelgängers. Label them now—you won’t remember later.
15. Set an audiobook listening schedule
The mind can do various tricks while in the saddle. It can think, long and silently from its hollow room. It can speak, mostly gibberish, but sense can be filtered from the noise if you squint really, really hard. Sometimes it erases itself. Then you’re forced to fall from the clouds to pull it from the bottom of the lake. It can do all these things and more, but sometimes you want it to be productive, you know? On these days I like to educate the mind using audiobooks (my Kindle is hard to read while riding the white line). Audible.com offers one monthly downloadable audiobook for US$7.49/month for the first three months, then US$14.95/thereafter. Bonus: if you cancel after the three-month promo period, they’ll try to convince you to stay by offering a free book credit. If you accept, download a book, then cancel again they’ll offer you US$20 in credit. That’s six audiobooks for US$22.44! Knowledge on clearance. Why did I wait this long to educate my poor, undistracted mind?
16. Use a bike computer/GPS combo to track your route
Not because orientating yourself is impossibly difficult in South America (regular road maps work fine), and not because I recommend traveling with unnecessary and expensive gear (I don’t), but because I’ve become so frustrated trying to manually input my route into Googlemaps that I gave up all together. This lack of a documented route only thickens the foggy aura around my bike tour as the days turn into weeks, months into years, and so on. Now I wish I knew exactly where I had ridden old Surly, and feel a bike computer/GPS combo has not only practical but nostalgic value.
Boys in Chinquinquira, Colombia
17. Learn about blogging before departure
My “About” section was written seven weeks into my travels, in the colonial town of Barichara. It wasn’t until Ecuador that I learned to properly upload photos onto WordPress. What has ended up as the main vein to my former world started as an after-thought, a bike blog because bikers have blogs. I didn’t understand the importance of descriptive headlines, nor did I recognize that millions blog garbage and the only way to shine through is to publish posts I’d enjoy reading. Blogging just to blog was a huge mistake. If I’d have blogged with purpose from the beginning—defining my writing expectations, dedicating myself to a style—then perhaps a book could have been pulled from these electronic pages, or at least a travel memoir of minor renown that could circulate amongst cyclists.
18. Post religiously at least once a week
If you ignore a friend long enough, they’ll return the favor by falling off the earth. Blog readers are no different. If my initial blog incompetence (see above) didn’t kill blooming relationships with potential readers, then my long internet-less vacations, in which I’d disappear and reappear like a magician without the wand-waving foreplay and after-trick gratitude, were the swords through my readers’ casket. In fact, if you’ve been riding our handlebars from Trinidad to Argentina, loyally sweating through South America with us, then we owe you a donation for your perseverance, not the other way around. Treat your fans right, give them a bone at least once a week. Make this rule your religion. Bonus: your writing will improve and, like a novel, a storyline will begin to emerge from your chronological posts.
A motley crew outside Quito, Ecuador
19. Write daily in a private diary
Fits of Alzheimer’s. Amnesic tendencies. Inexplicable concussions. Pre-mature memory loss. My bike tour is all beat-up and forgetful. The name of that Brazilian fireman who proudly gave me a station hat? That mountain on which a Colombian trucker gifted me a block of panela? Those kittens’ names in Santa Cruz? That shaman’s secret recipe in the Ecuadorian Amazon? The list of forgotten fades to perspective points. It pains me that so many details, so many names and places, so many rich and layered memories are smoke in the wind. I wish I’d have kept a diary (paper for easy access) in which I’d have noted daily happenings, just a paragraph or two for posterity.
20. Sell an ebook through the blog
You’re special. Not in a unique snowflake kind of way, but as two eyes that float at an unprecedented world view. Cash that cow! If you have special knowledge—say, how to bike tour on a budget, how to save money for extended world travel, or even just a list of campstove recipes—write an ebook and offer it to your blog readers. It doesn’t matter if it’s been done before—it’s never been done by you. If it offers value to a niche with a need, it will sell. The ebook may not fund your retirement, but every dollar helps when pedaling unemployed into the unknown.
Camping atop abandoned house in Bolivia
21. Photograph sleeping location each night
Half-way though my bike tour I thought it would have been interesting to have photographed every place I slept, from the earthen floors of straw huts to Couchsurfers penthouse apartments to Altiplano campsites under the stars, then create a separate blog tab where all my sleeping spots would be on display, like an art gallery in honor of dream. Steal my idea—and send me a link later.
22. Photograph license plates in every country/state/county/city
While I’m at it, let me give away another good idea: photograph the license plates in each country/state/county/city—depending on how much you love random metallic numbers and letters—, then create yet another blog tab in honor of rust and automotive bureaucracy. Or create a photo collage and frame it on your wall when you’re old and grey and dreamy and all this crazy bike tour business has ended.