While studying the map in Punta Arenas (Chile) I realized that I had two options in order to reach Ushuaia (Argentina), the final destination of my journey. I could either bike another 440 km through rather unspectacular and windy Pampa or board a ferry to Puerto Williams, a 30-hour trip through a remote archipelago of islands south of Tierra Del Fuego all the way to the southernmost town in the world. From there, I could easily cross the border to Argentina in another small boat. Without any hesitation, I called my bike ride a bike ride and opted for that boat trip.
Those last couple of weeks were another great chapter of my journey (see pictures below). In this last blog post, however, I would like to reflect more on the last eighteen months as a whole.
What can I say? I made it. I made a dream come true. Over the last one and a half years I probably learned more about myself, about what makes me happy, and how to control my mind in physically and mentally challenging situations than ever before in my life.
Many of these things you cannot experience at home or work, or when reading a book. For this reason alone, I can say that my decision to step out of my “normal life” for a while was one of the best I ever made.
The daily routine on a bicycle ranged from simple to overwhelming: You need to organize your food, make sure you carry enough water, find places to sleep in all sorts of environments, cope with various types of Spanish, often defy harsh weather conditions, and make sure you don’t get lost. None of the basic comforts we always take for granted were readily available.
It’s not always easy, but I don’t want anybody to get the impression that I lived ascetically or that it was a permanent struggle. I visited some of the world’s greatest national parks and cities. I exposed myself to new cultures. I spoilt myself with amazing food, And most most importantly, I met absolutely amazing people of whom some are now close friends.
Here are some reflections, learnings, and observations which I would like to share with you:
1) You Need Two Things To Go On A Sabbatical: Balls And Drive
You need BALLS not only to make the decision but also to cope with the stunned faces of people when you announce your decision. But, believe me, it’s not that hard. You will need a few weeks or maybe months to fully make up your mind and to realise that there is an abundance of opportunities, experiences, adventure, and people waiting for you outside of your comfort zone to enrich your life.
If you already have a dream yet you hesitate, ask yourself, what exactly are you afraid of? Is it security? Would the loss of an annual salary really make you go bankrupt? Are you afraid of seeing your mom cry when you reveal your decision to her? FYI, mine did for two days, but she calmed down quickly afterwards. 🙂
I certainly know that not everybody can do a trip like mine at any given time. In fact, I think most people would never get the insane idea to ride a bike for such a long time. Some are simply happy with how their lives go, others have young kids or have set other priorities in life at this stage. Timing definitely matters. But never forget, there’s always a way to make your dreams come true. It doesn’t matter what type of dreams they are. It’s never too late but do not always defer them. You will regret it!
I had colleagues who constantly day-dreamed about all the stuff they would do upon retirement. Then they retired, fell sick, died unexpectedly or were physically too weak to do what they had dreamed of for decades. Seriously, do we just go to work day in and day out to save money for dreams that are still years or decades away while we don’t even know whether we will still be in healthy condition by then? You have to ask yourself that question. You might not wake up tomorrow so don’t put off what you can do today until tomorrow. You might not get the chance.
Another crucial point is that you need to have the DRIVE to make things happen. Great ideas will remain ideas only, if you don’t work hard and make them come true. If there is something you want to do with your life, make the decision and work hard on it. Spending time with yourself is never a bad decision. As I mentioned above, you will be amazed how much you can learn and experience.
2) People Are Incredible
On this trip, I met hundreds of people, and to be honest I cannot remember a single unpleasant situation, apart from a few morons in traffic. Most people were extremely friendly, polite, generous and so eager to help. Some even went out of their way to make you feel as comfortable as possible in their country. Here a few examples:
- An old cafe owner in Alaska returned me the money for my breakfast when he had found out that I was on a eighteen-month cycling trip. He said: “Boy, you need this on your trip.”
- A Canadian gave me an ice cold beer from the trunk of his car at the end of a long hill.
- After a long chat with a bunch of curious long-bearded Harley-Davidson riders in Washington State, they insisted to bless me and my bike before I took off. That one-minute ritual was odd and pleasant at the same time. 🙂
- Several guys wanted to give me a ride on their pickup trucks when they saw me climbing a hill under heavy rain or burning sun.
- Countless people invited me to their homes and were literally disappointed when I told them that my route would not pass their town closely.
- Many people in Argentina and Chile stopped their cars when they saw me resting beside the road and asked whether I was fine, needed any water, or offered me fruits.
- A dozen of times people handed me chocolate or candy through their car window while passing me on the road.
- People spared time for me and were willing to walk, bike or drive detours to just show me their town’s attractions or a better route through a city.
- Some people got so excited honking and leaning out of their windows showing me a thumbs up that I started to worry that they would steer their vehicle into a ditch.
I can only wrap it up this way: There’s a lot of kindness out there. And it was obvious that people meant it genuinely. I wish more people had similar experiences as I did and that the barrier between them and strangers were lower.
3) Most Countries Are Safer Than What People Think
I still remember vividly what people in the U.S. told me when I mentioned my plans to bike through Mexico: “You are suicidal! You will be robbed! You will get killed!”, and so on and so forth. People simply couldn’t believe it. The next question was: “But you will carry a gun, right?” And I said: “No I won’t, but I still have my bear spray (a strong pepper spray from Alaska) to protect myself against mad stray dogs.”—“You are totally nuts. Good luck!” they replied. Of course, they just cared about my safety. That’s fine but it’s not great either when someone undermines your confidence before entering a new country for which you are actually well prepared. In spite of all that, I was still fully determined to follow my original itinerary. I spent thirteen months in Latin America, riding my bike through the remotest deserts and mountains as well as the poorest villages and craziest megacities such as Mexico City, Lima, or Santiago.
Some countries or places may be rated as ‘high-risk’ solely looking at statistics, and most people mistakenly think that in a country like Mexico, it is almost a guarantee that you would get kidnapped or knocked off by a motorcycle assassin., That is NOT true.
I didn’t experience a single incident related to crime. I was never mugged, threatened, robbed, or witnessed anything like that, although I did hear stories from people who had such encounters at gunpoint. But doesn’t that happen in almost every country on a daily basis? If you are at the wrong place at the wrong time, you can lose your belongings or even your life anywhere, even in your home country. And that’s why I would always return to the countries I traveled through, given that there’s no war or any other political instability.
Nevertheless, I can’t deny that I also experienced situations which made me very worried and on alert. But those were neither the potential bear encounters in Alaska nor the Narcos in Mexico but rather the sheer number of insane junkies in San Francisco or Los Angeles talking to themselves, yelling into the sky or starring at you like zombies.
Another really concerning situation was in Northern Chile, when I was crossing a desert and massive headwinds caught me by surprise which eventually led to an extra four hours of cycling in a very arid environment. It is no fun at all to run out of water in the middle of nowhere. Luckily, I was able to stop people in a pick-up truck who were so kind to share some of their water with me. That incident taught me a crucial lesson. The force of nature can be much bigger a threat to your personal safety than people.
What I am saying is that people’s perception of what is risky and what isn’t is completely skewed by media, exaggeration, and lack of knowledge. Most people on this planet are kind, compassionate, hospitable, and extremely welcoming when it comes to strangers visiting their country. But of course, that doesn’t give you a license to be stupid or naive, and some places really require extra sensitivity and for all your senses to be on alert.
If you behave like an ignorant and disrespectful idiot, wear flashy watches or bags, or swing your iPhone around in public, you will for sure attract trouble. Always keep a low profile and pretend confidence. Even if you are totally lost with directions, act as if that particular area was your neighborhood. If you follow such basic rules, you will be fine.
4) Traveling And Vacation Are Not The Same
When you travel on a bicycle, not only is the actual time you spend on the bike quite substantial, there are also plenty of daily errands to be taken care of, such as studying your route, managing your food and water supply, and planning where it’s best to stay overnight. It is basically a full-time “job” that does not leave much time for other things.
On quite a few days, I spent several hours biking under the rain, had to deal with extreme heat and/or humidity, or climbed up a couple thousand vertical meters in the mountains. When I arrived at my destination, I was completely exhausted. As you can imagine, all I wanted to do for the rest of the day was take a shower, eat, drink, and sleep. I didn’t have the slightest energy to do anything else.
There were also days when I stayed at the same place instead of riding my bike to the next town, I chose to go on hikes, visit attractions, meet people or simply relax and read. I also had to specifically dedicate quite a bit of time managing my pictures, and drafting my blog posts.
Another experience was that practicing your Spanish on the road only brings you to a certain level. After a while, you can handle all sorts of daily situations but at the same time, your progress stagnates, unless you really sit down regularly and study with a proper textbook.
To put is simply, there is hardly enough time for all the things you would like to do when traveling on a bike.
5) Riding A Bike Is One Of The Most Economic Ways To Travel
Interestingly, one of the most asked questions I received from people was: “How the hell can you afford taking so much time off? Isn’t that extremely expensive?” And I am sure, among those who never dared to ask me there are still many who are just as curious about this topic. So let me explain it a bit.
Well, there’s probably no cheaper way of travelling than on a bicycle or going hitch-hiking if you combine it with couch-surfing and/or camping. Renting or buying a car/campervan or even using public transport can never be as economic.
Even before this trip, it was clear to me that I would not turn into a permanent vagabond. This trip was simply a long-wanted personal project, after which I intended to return into some sort of a “normal” life again. Other cyclists rather maximize the time traveling until they are broke, whereas I set myself a comfortable budget of around 60 USD/day for a set period of approximately eighteen months.
The cost of living, or let me say traveling, in those countries, I crossed vary a lot. Canada and the U.S., as well as the south of Chile and Argentina, are certainly more expensive than the rural parts of Peru and Bolivia. In some places, I spent as little as 20 USD/day, in others, it was hard to get around with less than 80 USD/day.
Nevertheless, I was able to meet my budget. There was no moment when I actually had to pinch my pennies. I ate whatever I felt like having including countless visits at great restaurants, cafes, and bakeries. And, frankly, that’s also very important. When you travel, food is part of the culture and one of the key ingredients to achieve happiness.
So, adding it all up and including all of my flights, ferry tickets, entrance fees, accommodation, food, spare parts, repairs, and my travel insurance I was able to eat like a king with an average of 1,800 USD/months (excl. the cost of my bike and the gear I already had before I went on this trip).
6) Travelling On Two Wheels Is Special
I have always been a cyclist, but this trip was certainly the longest in my whole life. And it made me realise again why traveling on a bike is just amazing:
- You take routes, that nobody in a motorised vehicle ever gets to see. Only hiking can match the intensity of the experience on a bike. Since you are much slower than on a motorbike or a car, when you bike, you take notice of a lot more details along the way. And still, you move forward fairly quickly.
- You learn to work hard for your success, and you earn it. And that’s what gives you so much satisfaction. I really like this phrase by the ultra-endurance runner David Goggins: Don’t stop when you are tired, stop when you are done. It is amazing when you witness the process of getting in great physical shape and what things your body is capable of as long as you believe in yourself and free your mind of mental constraints.
- You learn how to improvise a lot. No matter how bad things get, don’t panic. Giving up is a bad idea. I remember situations where every bit of noise from my bike made me worry. What if this or that will break? Later after fixing a few mechanical issues you become more relaxed and you no longer have those annoying thought escalations. There’s a solution for almost everything. And if worse comes to worst, so what? Then you ask local people to give you a ride to the nearest town. You won’t die, and you simply can’t carry tools and spare parts for every single eventuality.
- Cycling allows you to eat as much as you like and keeps you healthy. Despite repeated exposure to rain, cold, sun and dehydration, I never fell sick on this trip. Only in the Bolivian Altiplano cold, dust, and dry air made me take some sinusitis medication. Well, it’s not a secret that regular workouts make your life a lot healthier.
7) Manage Expectations And Stay Flexible
Unless you enjoy getting lost or dealing with surprises, you certainly have to do quite a bit of planning every day when going on a longer trip. But one thing I don’t recommend is obsessing on fixing your route. Things often turn out very differently than what you initially expected. Don’t underestimate the weather or the distances. Give yourself plenty of buffer time to add an extra day here and there because you may unexpectedly like a place a lot more than you originally thought. Passion is a feeling and feelings do change. There is always a process of adjustment.
I am also a big advocate of ‘less is more’. In my previous blog, I mentioned that I had met so many people who cramped too many activities into their travel time frame. They seemed to be anything but definitely not happy. You need time, otherwise, a lack of it will constrain and stress your mind, limit your experience and strongly affect your happiness.
Another thing that might happen is that you get saturated with impressions. After having traveled for a several months you realise the similarities between some places. When visiting somewhere new, and it turns out to be similar to a place you visited before, you are less impressed and might even feel a bit of disappointment. Every individual has a different travel history, so in this context, you must also take recommendations with a grain of salt. Another person’s heaven might be your personal hell, and vice-versa.
Expectations can totally make or break a place. Many of the locations, I knew nothing about before getting there, blew my mind. Whereas other sites for which I had high expectations utterly failed to impress me. In other words. don’t bank on paradise. Hardly any places look like what you see on Instagram or Facebook. Many of those pictures were not just taken in perfect weather conditions but often also underwent extreme photoshop treatment. Believe me, high expectations are a recipe for disappointment. Therefore, I can honestly recommend to try the hidden path once in a while and don’t just follow mainstream itineraries.
8) Travel Light
Trust me, the longer you travel, the less you are willing to carry. That applies to cycle touring as well as backpacking or any other trip on which you have to carry your gear on a daily basis. Gravity can be painful. Every single kilogram steals a bit of your freedom and requires more energy. That’s why it is absolutely important to find a balance between the absolute essentials and a bit of comfort you need on a longer trip. That extra bit of comfort depends on the individual. In my case, it was a small laptop, a few extra spare parts and tools, and a pair of hiking boots during the last few months. Apart from the bike specific items, I would travel with almost the same set of gear if I wanted to go traveling without a bicycle.
What’s crucial is that your gear does not only fit the purpose perfectly but also that you feel comfortable in it or with it. Then you will enjoy wearing and using it without feeling any constraints due to the overall minimalist setup.
9) Traveling Alone Is Not Bad At All
Solo travelers aren’t loners. They aren’t pathetic introverts either 🙂 Travelling alone doesn’t mean you are alone all the time. You basically meet people (locals as well as other travelers) everywhere: in guesthouses, in restaurants, on hiking trails, at museums, or as so often on the road in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes you even meet the same people over and over again because essentially travelers browse the web and end up at similar sights, towns, restaurants or hostels.
The advantage of traveling solo is that you can control how much exposure to people you get. If you want solitude, go off the beaten track. But if you need some company don’t be afraid of sharing a room or accepting an invitation to a local family’s home. It’s a small trade-off for the amazing people you meet.
As a solo traveler, you also have so much more contact with local people. I stayed overnight in many small towns and slept in guest houses where foreigners hardly show up. That’s how you get a real insight into how local families live when they share their kitchen and living room with you.
Of course, I had my lonely moments, too. Not really while biking, I felt lonely during the moments when I had the urge to talk to someone in the evening but couldn’t because I was in the middle of nowhere without any cell phone signal. Those situations were rare though. Overall, I enjoyed solo traveling a lot.
10) Happiness is Complex But It Has Little To Do With Money
Instead, it is the product of a bunch of variables. Most people, however, are not aware of them, and rather focus on material assets exclusively. I don’t deny that having a life without financial constraints can be pleasant but one thing is for sure: You can’t buy happiness.
Every individual weighs factor differently, I suppose, but to me the following three became crucial during my trip. These must exist concurrently. And one cannot really compensate the other.
- Health: It’s self-explainatory. But it may have a different meaning to different people. One person just wants to live without sicknesses, while another strives for total physical fitness or strength. During my bike ride, I lost 5 kg of unnecessary fat, strengthened my muscles, endurance and especially my ability to “suffer” and to resist physical and mental irritations, e.g. when I went through rough weather or crossed steep mountains. Even though I was never overweight before, I felt definitely a lot better during and after the trip while being in shape.
- Relationships: For each country I traveled through, I bought a local simcard. Without that, I wouldn’t have had the chance to keep in touch with friends and family that often. As a consequence, I would also have had less of a chance to share my feelings and experiences from the road, and that would have led to real loneliness. Virtual communication, of course, does not replace meeting someone face-to-face or socialising in person but it often makes you smile when traveling alone. Obviously, such relationships are just as crucial when you are not traveling but living a regular life working and having a family.
- Time: For eighteen months, I could fully control my time and was able to do whatever I felt like doing. There was no rush, stress, or any obligation to deliver anything. It was a total luxury. My trip was long but the same phenomenon can also easily be applied to let’s say a regular weekend excursion or an evening you spend doing what you love. It’s a crucial contributor to happiness and I believe that every person should claim it once in a while.
Coming back to material assets one more time. Let me just mention that if I had gone on this trip on a flimsy or inadequate bike, technical issues or physical pain would have been more likely. And that would for sure have reduced my happiness. Therefore, I chose to use a high-quality bicycle, which requires money to purchase it. So money is necessary but it is not sufficient to obtain happiness. And that’s again where the three factors above come to play.
11) A long trip teaches you more than almost anything else in life
Over the last 15 years, I lived in various parts of the world, and still this trip across the Americas shaped my mind more than anything else within a similar timeframe I had done before.
A long trip teaches you about yourself, about life, about new regions and most importantly about what you really need to be happy. For some long-term travelers, this can lead to a heightened perspective appreciating home a lot more. For others, it may mean the beginning of never ending explorations. Long-term travel does change your life.
We all take our lives way too serious. And even worse, some take themselves way too important. What really matters is that you do and enjoy what’s happening around you in the present.
This journey made me very relaxed and took many fears and pressures society imposes on us. In the end, we are responsible for our own destiny, so we also have the right to shape our personal life in a fashion which makes us the happiest. I am not encouraging anybody to break with social conformity entirely, but don’t forget to conduct a self-check every now and then. Ask yourself why you do certain things in your life. Is it because you deliberately choose to because you love it that way or is it because people (family, friends, neighbours, colleagues or the general public) have always done it that way and expect you to do exactly the same?
This post is supposed to compile all those aspects of my trip which I consciously noticed and which I consider as crucial lessons. I am sure there are many more which had an impact on me. Some I may not even be aware of at the moment, and others may only be recognised by other people, those who already knew me from those days before I went on this trip. Nevertheless, I would not want to miss these 18 months. I lived a minimalist life with a bike and only 20 kg of gear, and I experienced some of the happiest moments in my life. It was a hell of a good time.