SAN GIL, Colombia- I watched a bicycler ride through Zipolite, Mexico with a sweet set up — a nice touring bike, store bought panniers, a pro style “third wheel” trailer, topped off with a nice big wicker sun hat upon his head. I chatted with him later on in a restaurant. His name was Jason Mcanuff, from England, and he was bicycling from San Francisco to Patagonia.
This was over nine months ago.
Tonight, as I was walking through the central plaza of San Gil, Colombia, I walked by a couple of bicycle travelers with ragged, beat, rigged up, tied on, and taped fixed gear. I was checking out their beat up bicycles and began admiring their patch worked gear hauling systems when . . .
“You were in Mexico,” one of them spoke.
“I saw you in Zipolite,” he continued.
I looked at the traveler who was addressing me, though did not recognize him. He was speaking Spanish. I thought of all the dark skinned vagabonds with poofy, afro like hair that I met in Mexico, but could not place him.
“We met in a restaurant,” he aided my memory.
I then peaked over at the trailer that extended out from the rear of his bike, and I remembered that poshly set up bicyclist that I met in Mexico all those months before. It was Jason, he had made it to Colombia.
Jason’s clothes were by now ragged, his skin layered with dirt, his hair was wild, his bicycle was beat, busted up, and dirty — parts were even taped together — and the gear hauling trailer that I once admired in Mexico was now bent up and rickety. The clean and crisp bicycle tourer with posh gear had given way to a wild man vagabond over the past nine months of riding through Latin America.
What the hell happened to you? I beheld an awesome transformation before me.
“I didn’t recognize you at first, I think your hair is bigger now or something,” I spoke, tripping over words in my search to express my surprise over the metamorphosis that occurred.
“It was the road,” he explained.
In opposition to his ragged outward appearance, Jason was still smiling, his eyes were still bright, he still seemed to be thoroughly enjoying his journey a year and a half into it as he stood at its halfway point. Jason then told me what had happened since the last time we met.
Afer leaving Zipolite after a relatively short stay, Jason took off across Mexico and unsuccessfully tried to enter Belize.
“The guard at the border didn’t like my face or something,” he spoke, “and said that I couldn’t cross without paying him $500.” He then made a joke about the irony of being denied entry to Belize with a British passport.
So Jason returned to Mexico and took a boat to Belize, and was permitted entry with an issue. It only took him a few days to ride across the country. Then he rode quickly through Guatemala and ended up in Honduras, where he was stopped outside of San Pedro Sula by a couple of police officers, one of which boasted an extremely short stature.
“As soon as I saw that the guy was a midget I knew I was in for trouble,” Jason recounted with a laugh.
The midget cop inspected his passport and helpfully notified Jason that he interpreted it to be invalid for travel in Honduras. To make it valid again, all Jason would have to do was pay a fine on the spot — a bribe to a corrupt cop. While the midget tried to intimidate Jason into greasing his palm the other tried to add to the effect by seizing a hold of Jason’s machete and swinging it in his face. Jason wrote the following about this encounter on his blog:
I gave him the don’t screw with me eyes, and acted like yea this happens to me all the time, and he ended up saying to the other guy, “This guy has got some balls,” and let me go. I could tell they were corrupt as it gets, and I was lucky. I think the fact that I was seriously covered in mud helped out. I had just ridden a dirt road in crazy rain, and had the ‘gettin wild, getting crazy, born to do this, don’t give a damn’ look. -Biking it in Honduras
Jason then rode through Nicaragua, climbed some volcanoes, then took a volunteer job teaching English in a school in Costa Rica for a couple of months, living next to the “second cleanest river in Latin America.” Panama was next in line as Jason biked down through Central America, and from there he picked up a $50 cargo boat to Colombia. He then entered the country proper in a speed boat. “I arrived in Colombia in style,” he proclaimed. But the price of this fancy means of locomotion cost Jason the handlebars of his bike. The bouncing of the speed boat in the waves snapped the left hand grip completely off — damage which I could readily observe was fixed with layers of tape.
Jason then spent a month or so camping out on the beaches of Colombia’s Caribbean coast. During this time he met up with a traveling juggler from Cali who was also tramping on a bicycle. His name is Carlos, and had long dreads, ragged pants, and a crisp white, brand new button down shirt that someone in San Gil had just given to him on the fly because the shirt he was wearing was completely tattered.
“His last shirt was completely brown,” Jason explained with a laugh.
Carlos spoke good English, smiled alot — was one of those spiritually intoxicated young travelers that you meet every so often in Latin America who juggle at intersections and sleep in the streets as part of a self-designed “spiritual journey.”
“People see me and they think I’m a bum. But I live this way by choice for spiritual reasons,” he explained.
If Jason’s bicycle set up was beat, then Carlos’ was a complete jalopy. He told me that he just took his dad’s old bike and started riding north one day. Carlos then turned on some music from a little portable thumb drive amplifier, and began a juggling in the park, His show attracted an ever increasing crowd of kids in the plaza as I continued talking with Jason.
The two were an interesting duo: Jason being a black guy from England and Carlos a white dude from Cali — an point of apparent confusion for many of the Colombians that they’ve meet en route. But confusion was not the only thing following these two travelers, as mishap seemed to be on their tail as well.
Along the way south from the Caribbean coast, the two were harassed by a cop as they camped on the sly in a park one night. “This is a peaceful town, and I want to keep it that way,” Carlos later recited the cop’s John Wayne attitude. On another night, Jason was shaken down and taken to a police station where he was promptly robbed. Later on, Jason’s bicycle was run over by a truck on the highway — though somehow remained in working order — while Carlos’ bike blew out its rear derailleur earlier in the day.
These travelers were limping as they wheeled their bikes into that plaza in San Gil — but they both seemed free of worry, and recited their hardships with humor. They seemed unfazed about their plight, their lack of money, the bicycle gear that was falling to pieces before them, and acted as though everything that had happened to them was the hard traveling they set out to experience.
“Where are you going to sleep tonight?” I asked Jason.
“I don’t know, we will probably just camp out somewhere.”
Both guys were smiling, relaxed, living the proverbial life of the vagabond. They traveled with very little money, Carlos earns whatever he can by juggling at stop lights and in parks and Jason authors a blog and published a book about his travels. Neither seemed to harbor any doubt that they would make it to Argentina, and both were weaving a tale that would be remembered, retold, learned from — they were earning their travels.
On earning travels
Conflict is a necessary part of any fictional story, and I must say that to some degree of conflict, challenge, or struggle are necessary parts of travel as well. The root word of travel is travail, and there is some benefit that comes from facing challenges while moving through the world which makes the occupation worth doing. In point, overcoming challenges make you stronger, wiser, and more apt to face whatever comes next on the path. The value of travel is found in what you learn — where you go and what you see are only fringe benefits when compare to this.
You will never read a good travel narrative where the author moved from place to place around the world unimpeded, without much struggle, without being challenged — there is simply no story in this type of travel. But this is an inevitable risk of modern travel. In the first chapter of Colin Thubron’s Silk Road book he stated that prior to his journey he was not afraid that something bad may happen to him but that nothing would happen — meaning that he would travel from western China to Europe without being overtly challenged, without an adventure, without a story. It is my impression that this is why so many travelers go home from long duration backpacking trips feeling a touch daunted and slightly embitter towards travel: they went out looking for adventure and all they got was leisure, they set off to learn and explore but ended up just consuming endless quantities of goods and services.
I can guarantee that Jason is not going to face this paradox. He is traveling raw, real, without much of any money, sleeping in the bush, riding a busted up bicycle, living on his book sales and blog adverts. If you go out to travel the world on a bicycle without thousands of dollars, pair up with a Colombian juggler on a spiritual quest, avoiding hostels and restaurants, living on secluded beaches you are going to have a story to tell, lessons to learn from, experiences to sort out — the trials and errors that make up a journey, a life. Travels must be earned.
It is one thing to travel for sensual pleasure, it is another to take the hard road with intention, to face conflict head on, to opt for self-sufficiency over paying out out for services, to rely on your own wits to get you through each day, to have experiences like few other travelers have. If you following the Lonely Planet you get what you pay for — so have fun — if you hop on a bicycle and ride like Jason or walk across continents like Francis Tapon you may just strike at the deeper essence of travel. Only very rarely have I ever met bicycle travelers who are not over-moneyied wankers on sporting trips, very rarely have I met other travelers who use the bicycle as a medium to explore places more deeply, to have unique experiences, and to, in point, to travel in the truest sense of the world. When I find these two elements combined in a single person — a bicyclist who is also a traveler — I know that I’ve met someone who is truly grasping their world in the raw, someone who is earning their travels.
Visit Jason’s website at Bikingit.com or purchase his book.