Adventurer Laura Bingham cycled 6,500km across South America using only what she has in her panniers to survive on. Laura and her cycling partner Gadiel ‘Cho’ Sanchez Rivera did this to see if there is still compassion in the world and find out if people will help a stranger in need on their journey…
The thing about a cycling expedition i1s that the days of endless pedaling blend in to one. At the start of my journey to cycle across South America with no money, I found it difficult to get in to the routine of constant cycling, camping and learning how to ask people for help. Eventually this became my day to day and so if I ever have a particularly bad one then it really sticks in my mind.
The most impacting and challenging moment I have experienced cycling across South America was on a day when we were travelling through The Andes in Ecuador. Cho [my cycling partner] and I were about four weeks in to our journey and had started to become accustomed to life on the road. We understood how certain days were more difficult than others, however on this day we were really put to the test. We had been pushing our bikes up The Andes for days and because of the altitude, there were constant downfalls of rain which meant the majority of the time our clothes were soaked through to the skin and the cold really bit in to us. Our bikes were incredibly heavy as we were pulling so much weight, which made the climb even harder and with every step we were burning more and more calories by the minute. As the day started to come to a close, I was utterly exhausted, cold, wet and experiencing the most severe and unimaginable hunger pains. All I wanted to do was to crawl in to a hole and pretend I was somewhere else.
The Andes is full of trees and there are very few homes or places to set up camp. We eventually came across a house, the first one for miles, but because I was feeling terribly weak I felt scared to go and ask for any help especially as the last few houses had turned us away. I began to sob uncontrollably. Cho, knocked on the door and asked the woman of the house if we could camp on her garden for the night. The woman looked at me and said no with a shake of her finger so we could clearly understand her. I felt my heart plummet and I wanted to give up, there was nothing we could do. We picked up our bikes and carried on.
The rain was pouring and the clouds had fallen upon the mountains which covered the roads with huge fog and I could barely see my hand in front of my face. I felt worthless. We had no money so we couldn’t buy any food or pay someone to let us sleep on their land and all I could think of was home, but it was the thought of my family and friends that gave me the strength to carry on. After a few hours of walking, we finally came across a patch of grass on the side of the road that was big enough for us to camp on. We set up our tents, Cho started a fire and began to cook some rice we had leftover and I laid down feeling relieved that we had finally stopped. A few moments passed and when I found the power to sit my body up, I was presented with the most breathtaking view. Whilst we had struggled to set up our tents, I was so exhausted that I hadn’t even noticed the rain had stopped and the fog had lifted to reveal the most beautiful sight of the magnificent mountains. The sun was starting to set which created a spectacular array of colours across the horizon and I began to feel happy. The moment made me realise how lucky I was to be there experiencing this spectacular view despite an hour beforehand I had wanted to give up. That’s the difference between being cold and tired and warm and resting, you have the energy to appreciate.
The days that followed were a struggle, but I felt stronger. We continued to push our heavy bikes and trailers and rationed ourselves on the very small amount of rice we had left. After four more days on the road, we arrived at a house where the family welcomed us in with open arms. They lit us a fire, fed us fried guinea pig and let us sleep on their living room floor. My feelings of thankfulness were indescribable and I felt like this family had saved my life, the warm feeling of emotion was completely overwhelming and I will never forget it.
The next day we helped the family with their work: we cooked, cleaned and helped them chop down a tree. I also gave the woman of the family a pair of my gloves as she had been suffering with pains in her fingers due to the constant cold from the rain. Cho and I will always give help back wherever we can, I’ve given away anything I can from shoes to clothes to my hammock and will happily offer labour as a way of thanks.
We have faced times like this before where people have rejected us and turned us away, but in the end someone always comes to the rescue, even if it is a few days later. When people have given us bags of rice we are usually very strict with our portions as we understand that it needs to last us. We’re also incredibly lucky that we have Pure Hydration water filters as then we can use the water from streams or puddles – which there are a lot of!
When we’ve experienced days like this, I’ve found it hard to get up and motivate myself as all I want to do is just to stay in bed. There are the good moments, however and this is what I try to cling on to. This journey wasn’t supposed to be a holiday; it’s an experience and a learning curve and this I’ve always known. Without the tough times you can’t appreciate the good and no matter how difficult or hard it gets, eventually a moment will always come that takes my breath away.
Challenges are a rewarding thing in the end and this journey has been filled with lots of little challenges as well as the actual one. For example, neither Cho nor I are real cyclists, we just know how to ride one and that’s about it! I didn’t know how to change a tyre or understand why my gears weren’t working properly, so that has been a huge learning curve in itself and I don’t think this journey would be the same if I wasn’t cycling. I have met far more people than I would using any other form of transport and my eyes have caught every part of the road and horizon along the way. I did a lot of travelling in my youth, but the majority was done by bus where scenery has passed me by in seconds. On a bike you can take it in and really appreciate how beautiful some sights are.
My journey has definitely gotten easier as time has gone on but I think this is because I have become much stronger mentally and physically. No training can prepare you for constant rejection at times where you are undeniably desperate. I think it’s the lack of options that eat away at me most of the time; the fact that I don’t have the option to buy food or buy anything that I want. I can’t pay for a hotel, I can’t call home whenever I want and speak to my family, this is it – just me, my bike, the road and hope. I’ve learnt that you just need to persevere and go at your own pace, there’s no point pushing myself until there’s nothing left as then I’m more likely to fail. It’s not about reaching the destination after all; it’s about the route I take to get there.