FOREWORD: The following questions were sent to me by a reporter for my hometown’s local newspaper, The Wayne Herald. These are the unedited, raw responses to what the people want to know. Inevitably my ramblings will be cut short due to newspaper space constraints, but as always the loyal MB&S fans get it straight from the source, first, with a high caloric content and minimal BS. Please let know if you think anything should be added before this goes to print.
First, could you give us an update on the areas you have traveled?
I’m in southern Peru at the moment. Since June 2009 I’ve traveled Trinidad & Tobago, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, and Peru. A month was spent in the Amazonian jungle, which seems like a whole different world with its own customs and languages. Overall, I’ve cycled over 2,200 miles—about a third of my proposed trip. I have yet to visit Bolivia, Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina. By the time I arrive to Buenos Aires, Argentina I’ll have pedaled an estimated 6,500 miles.
Have you had any language issues?
The official language of all the South American countries traveled so far is Spanish. Thanks to many years of study I’m now fluent in the language. No issues there. Ironically, the biggest communication breakdowns happened in English-speaking Trinidad & Tobago. The island was a British colony and now speaks an English similar to Jamaica’s. The accent is thick, the Caribbean slang like a secret code. At times I couldn’t understand the taxi drivers and they couldn’t understand me. In Peru I’ve stayed with families whose grandparents only speak an indigenous language called Quechua. More than once I found myself around wood-burning stoves trying to tell the cook in a mix of sign language and Spanish that the soup was delicious. Brazil’s official language is Portuguese, with over 192 million speakers. I’m studying now and am excited to practice once I arrive.
What is the best or strangest food you’ve eaten?
I miss the food in Trinidad & Tobago the most. The many years of Indian, British, Caribbean, and Middle Eastern immigrant influence has created a Caribbean fusion that can only be found on the island. A typical beach meal is a “Bake and Shark”—a fried bread sandwich with spicy sauces and grilled shark. It’s usually eaten in a BBQ atmosphere with lots of beer and music. Another favorite was the “Bus Up Shut”—a doughy flour tortilla filled with curried vegetables and meat then wrapped like a burrito. With a medicine man in the Amazon jungle I drank chicha—a fermented drink made from cassava root that is served in a large communal bowl. I finished it, but more because I didn’t want to offend his wife than because I liked its taste. The strangest food I’ve eaten was guinea pig (cuy) in Peru. It’s baked, then served whole, head, feet, and all.
What are the most common/unusual questions asked by those you meet?
I was on a bus in Venezuela when I heard the news of Michael Jackson’s death. The radio stations played his music non-stop that day. It was a very big deal. Now kids in every country ask if I like his music or if I met him when he was alive. Also, since family is very important in Latin America people begin conversations by asking if I have any siblings or a family. They are always surprised that I have only one brother and no wife, but laugh in agreement when I explain that perhaps a wife wouldn’t have let me bike South America. Of course, I’m always asked too why I’d want to bike South America in the first place. It’s pretty universal that people think I’m crazy for doing this.
Why are you biking South America, anyway?
How are you surviving the trip financially? For example, where do you sleep, eat, and do laundry?
The key to long-term travel—assuming you don’t have endless amounts of money like myself—is to minimize expenses. My bike is my vehicle; I have no transportation costs. My money only goes toward food, lodging, and entertainment. To minimize lodging costs I camp whenever and wherever possible, sleep in fire stations and police departments, and contact members of Couchsurfing.com for free accommodation in big cities. To minimize food costs, I cook the majority of my meals on a camp stove. When I do eat out I ask taxi drivers for recommendations—they always know cheap places with quality food. To minimize laundry costs, I do laundry in Couchsurfers’ homes or hand wash clothes in the sink. On average I’ve spent about US $15 per day.
We are in the middle of the worst winter in 30 years. Have you experienced any weather problems in South America?
Wind. Sun. Flurries. Fog. Rain. I’ve experienced everything but an all-out blizzard. The weather is varied in South America, with climates ranging from sea level tropics to snow-capped peaks. Once a tropical rainstorm overtook my French cyclist friend and I while biking out of the Peruvian jungle. Though the rain was cold, the weather was warm, so we continued even though it felt like riding through a car wash. Suddenly lightning hit a tree just a hundred yards ahead, causing a large branch to fall onto the asphalt. We took it as a sign to stop for lunch. It was then that my friend told me he felt an electric shock in his handlebars. That was the closest I’ve come to a dangerous weather situation. Here in Peru the daily rain is making it difficult to continue. I’m waiting for better weather before I cycle to Bolivia.
What do you do if the weather is bad?
In the Andes mountains rain is the only element that concerns me. Hypothermia is dangerously real at 12,000+ feet elevation; staying dry can be the difference between life and death. When it rains I slip into my rain jacket and search for shelter. When no shelter is available, I lash a plastic tarp to my bike, then sit underneath it while wishing for sun. I learned this trick from the indigenous women who work the potato fields. On rainy days you can look up and see colorful dots of plastic tarp scattering the mountainside, each with a crouched woman below who observes the rain with a timeless indifference.
On average, how many miles do you travel each day?
The mountains determine my mileage. I’ve embraced the what-goes-up-must-come-down philosophy as a way to deal with the most difficult days. It’s amazing what you can endure when you know tomorrow will be better. Sometimes I’ll climb all day only to realize I traveled just 30 miles. Other days I’ll coast 50 miles downhill before lunch. My longest day so far was in central Colombia. For some insane reason I decided to pedal 100 miles, not knowing the last three miles before my destination was a steep vertical climb that would have made Lance Armstrong think twice. Dogs were taking breaks walking up it. That night I arrived to a cheap hotel, but barely. I’d guess I average about 50 miles a day.
Have you met any memorable people along the way?
I’ve met so many good people along the way that it’d be impossible to tell all the stories here. Here are some of the more memorable ones: I stayed with a German couple who biked South America with their dog, milked a Colombian man’s dairy cows, drank with a Greek who now lives in Texas, went on vacation with a special American girl, was adopted by an Ecuadorian family for a month, camped in the jungle with Spaniards, cycled two months with a French man who sailed across the Atlantic, cooked my mom’s lasagna for a Peruvian family who in turn shared their family recipes, was nursed back to health by an Australian completing a PhD on indigenous folk dances, ate cheese with a woman who swore she met Jesus, hitchhiked with French guy who speaks six languages, sang around campfires with Chilean pre-med students, spent my birthday with a Chilean girl who speaks English like an American, and went to the desert with an American who I now consider a friend.
Has anyone offered to join you on the trip?
I’ve met over 20 long-distance cyclists in South America, but many of them were heading north while I was going south. In Quito, Ecuador I met a French cyclist with whom I traveled for two months. In Peru he decided to return to France, taking the long way home by biking through Spain. Later, in Santiago, Chile I met an American man who wanted to buy a bike and cycle with me to Brazil. I declined, explaining that practicing Spanish, then later Portuguese in Brazil, was important to me. Inevitably we would have spoken English and lost a great opportunity to improve our language skills.
Any last words?
Yes. Don’t forget you too can travel. I’ve learned the world is much smaller than we think and people are much kinder than television leads us to believe. When the weather improves, ride a bike. You can get anywhere in Wayne in 15 minutes. If you’re interested in long-distance biking, make a day trip to Wakefield or a weekend trip to Ponca State Park. It’s great exercise and much more fun than going to the gym.