The other day as we cycled through the Argentine Lake District in pouring rain, I wasn’t having much fun. The plentiful lakes we passed were nearly hidden in the clouds and I most likely missed many of them altogether. Rather than the vibrant green of the trees and magical blue of the lakes that we should have seen, everything appeared to be some shade of gray. It wasn’t the lovely jewel of Argentina that people come from the four corners of the earth to see.
My fingers were freezing, my toes felt like they would fall off and crash to the ground the second I took off my shoes. It was wet, it was mucky, it was not a whole lot of fun. But even so, when a bus passed by and the passengers opened their windows and stuck their heads out to gawk at us fools pedaling in the elements, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit sorry for them. Yes – for them.
Don’t get me wrong – I was feeling plenty sorry for myself. It wasn’t exactly perfect bike touring conditions. But even so, I was out there in Mother Nature’s world. I was communing with nature, as my father used to say. And them? They sat in a climate controlled world in a glass-enclosed cage. Their windows were fogged up so they missed most of even the pathetic bit we were seeing. They didn’t feel raindrops drip off their noses or see the patterns water makes when a car wheel splashes it out of the mud puddle. Yes – they didn’t even feel that water splashed onto their legs.
I won’t say my mind started thinking of all the reasons I prefer traveling on bikes as we were sloshing through the muck that day – I was too busy focusing on reaching a nice warm dry house to think about much else. But once we reached that house and had showered and put on dry, warm clothes, I did. My mind took off thinking of all the reasons I prefer traveling on bike over bus. And there are a lot of them.
Commune with nature – “When you’re in a bus you don’t really get a chance to see the scenery,” Davy once told me. “It all goes by in a blur and you can’t appreciate it. You’re not in contact with nature in a bus.” He’s learned a lot, that kid.
Spend time in villages – Yes, I know, you can get to villages in buses too. Or can you? It is true that, in third world countries anyway, buses go everywhere. Every tiny village – no matter how small – has bus service and tourists can jump off the bus just like locals.
But then what? You get off the bus in a tiny village with no restaurant or hotel. You walk around an hour or so, then jump on another bus to go back into town. After all, you can get back into town.
For us, it’s different. Although we try to time our daily travels so that we end up in a town with a hotel, there have been times when it hasn’t worked. Maybe we thought there was a hotel, but there wasn’t. Or maybe the hotel was closed. The upshot is that we arrived – on bikes – with no place to stay. Now what?
That’s when magic starts to happen. That’s when people come out of the woodwork to help us out and invite us to their houses or help us find the fire station or allow us to camp in their lawn. That’s when the entire community comes out to welcome us and bring us food and show us what life in the villages is all about. You just don’t get that when you arrive in a bus.
Meet more people – There’s something about the bike that draws people toward us. Bikes have no walls – either literal or figurative. When we pull up to a restaurant or park on our fully loaded bikes, people are curious – and they feel they can ask.
We’ve met people of all walks of life. We’ve met ultra-wealthy and dirt poor. Our boys have played with kids of every color under the rainbow. It’s hard to get that kind of interaction with local people when traveling in a bus – you tend to get off the bus and go straight to a hotel.
See the scenery – The mountains and deserts and canyons… We see them all. I mean – we see them all. As we slowly pound our pedals and inch forward, we see every tree in the jungle, every crashing wave on the beach, and every beetle in the desert. We see the enormous valleys stretching as far as the eye can see when we crest the top of a pass and we see the iguanas and reindeer and vicuñas lining the sides of the roads.
Our eyes don’t miss much – since we have so long to see it. When traveling in a bus, those views race by. Take a nap and miss miles and miles of it. That gorgeous river back there… was there a gorgeous river back there?
On bikes, we have the luxury of taking our time and stopping whenever we feel like it. We can go for a swim in a lovely little stream or climb up to the top of a sand dune. We can see the tops of canyon walls as we pedal through – not only the roof of the bus.
Get immersed in local culture – This goes hand-in-hand with the point above about spending time in the villages. Life in cities is different from life in the villages, and we have the chance to see that firsthand when we stay in the small towns at night.
Very frequently we pull into a town expecting to stay one night. We meet people and they show us around and we end up staying two nights. Then three. It’s hard to pull ourselves away as we enjoy learning about their lives as much as they enjoying teaching us.
Stay active and healthy – It’s hard to get exercise while traveling. Sure, you walk a fair bit and lug a heavy backpack around, but that’s not quite enough. You can sometimes go out running – but where to run? On the bikes, that’s all taken care of. We are outside for hours every day, working hard, and breathing fresh air.
The amazing thing is that we rarely get sick. We’ve now been on the road for 43 months and have pedaled nearly 26,000 miles and I can count our sicknesses on one hand. The boys picked up some kind of stomach bug in Guatemala, and Davy suffered recurring bouts with sickness in Ecuador that we traced back to parasites. I succumbed to pneumonia in northern Argentina. There have been a few instances where John had a serious headache for a day or one of the boys had the sniffles, but mostly, we’ve been healthy the whole time.
I believe our extraordinary healthy streak has to do with being outside and active. Our bodies are more capable of fighting off viruses and we are also exposed to less of them. In a bus, surrounded by all kinds of people with every sickness known to mankind, you have a lot more to fight off.
Overcoming challenges – There’s something empowering about overcoming challenges. Each victory brings additional confidence which helps us hurdle the next challenge that falls in our path. Riding buses doesn’t generally present a lot of challenges.
At the beginning of my bike touring days, I used to quiver in fright at the thought of climbing a hill or dealing with bad weather. Now I know I can overcome most obstacles involved with touring the world on a bike.
Being vulnerable leads to magic – The newspapers and evening newscasts have made us paranoid. We’re terrified of people – who knows who will be the next serial killer? If we ask for help, what might the helper do? Rape us? Kill us? Rob us at gunpoint and then leave us for dead?
We’ve found exactly the opposite. We’ve found that vulnerability brings out the angel side of people. When we’re stranded miles from a hotel in pouring rain or we run out of water or a severe winter storm is approaching – that’s when people reach out to help us in so many ways. They offer us their homes, take us into town to a store, or put us up in hotels.
We had one woman drive around looking for us after hearing that we might, possibly, be in her neighborhood when cold weather was coming. Two Mexican men hauled a whole case of Gatorade out into the desert and hid caches for us in the bushes. A family rescued us from a miserable night in pouring rain when we missed our ferry.
But in a bus? You simply aren’t as vulnerable. You’ve got the bus surrounding you and it’s rare that you would show that level of vulnerability.
Feel the wind in your hair and rain on your nose – With each pedal stroke on our bikes we feel the heat or cold or wind or rain or snow. We are one with Mother Nature while bike touring and experience all she throws at us.
When I lived in Egypt years ago I quickly discovered I should never, ever, go anywhere without a sweater. Even though it was blazing hot in both Alexandria (where we lived) and Cairo (where I loved to visit) I packed a sweater. Always. Why, you might ask? Because the Egyptians keep their buses and trains and museums and restaurants frigid and I was tired of shivering and shaking the whole time I was in them.
On the bikes, we can go many weeks or even months without pulling out our sweaters. And months without taking them off. It all depends on where we are and what time of year it is.
Truly understand geological and geographical patterns – I’ve taught Earth Science to middle school kids. I’ve tried to get them to understand how the tectonic plates slide around on the surface of the earth and collide to form mountain ranges. I’ve made layers of playdough to replicate the layers of rock in the earth and I’ve crunched that Playdough up to demonstrate the massive forces the earth exerts. I’ve done it all, but I’m not sure how much they truly understand.
But as we travel the world on our bikes we see it first hand. We’ve pedaled past twisted mountains where we can see the layers of rock jumbled together. We’ve laboriously climbed up passes and screamed down the other side. We’ve seen towns destroyed by earthquakes.
We’ve also felt the temperature drop as we climbed higher and pulled out sweaters even though it was blazing hot when we left our hotel in a valley that morning. We’ve pedaled through coffee plantations and banana groves and seen orange trees blanket the hillsides – they grow there because the climate is just right in that particular spot. We’ve seen how life varies depending on location – from seaside huts to mountain villages to desert dwellings.
But in a bus? You zip up and down passes without even knowing you’re climbing. You zoom by all those beautiful rock layers. You move from one crop zone to the next so quickly you don’t even realize they are there.
Happen upon celebrations and can stop – One of my biggest frustrations when I used to travel in a bus was zipping past a village festival, and not being able to stop. Perhaps I caught of glimpse of bright festive decorations or heard a snippet of music, but I couldn’t stop and partake in the festivities.
On our bikes, we can stop anywhere, anytime. If we have planned to simply ride past a village but find there is a celebration there, we’ll stay. We’ve had many opportunities to attend festivals simply because we were in a position where we could jump off the bikes and go.
Off the beaten path – We hear a lot about “off the beaten path” travel. Generally, they refer to places that may not be mentioned in major guidebooks geared toward the upscale market, but are still listed in Lonely Planet. How else would bus travelers know to go there?
While bike touring, our lives are off the beaten path. Every couple of days or weeks we’ll pull into a town listed in Lonely Planet, but most of our time is spent in villages no tourist would ever visit. That’s the way we like it.
Every day is an adventure – Yes, we’ve heard this one before. And yes, it is true that every day can be an adventure even while living at home. But there is something about bike touring that encourages adventure. It encourages us to go beyond the norm and seek out little hideaways and back roads. Our bikes encourage us to find adventure.