I’m home! Or at least, I’m just beginning to transition back into a life in the United States. Truth be told, I’ve been back in the United States since April, when I decided to fly from Colombia to Los Angeles, California. I know how I travel, slowly. And I know enough about Central America and Mexico to understand that my journey would have taken at least another year or two had I continued my trip by bike, taking the time to really get to know it. So I skipped some! What can I say, other adventures await me…
This has made my transition back easier I think, I hope. I was back in North American culture but still continuing the bike touring life style I’d grown accustomed to. In many ways, biking here or there is exactly the same: wake up and eat, take down your tent and get on the bike, bike on and off all day with eating and drinking and enjoying-the-view breaks, tent up again and sleep. In another way, it was very different! Below are some of the things I noticed and have pondered over the last couple of months, and want to share.
(Warning: these are of course my generalizations and there are many exceptions to these comments)
(Warning #2: writing this, it occurs to me that it comes off perhaps a bit negative about the USA. Well, I’m missing South America. But I am really glad to be home. That doesn’t change the fact that coming home, I see so much that can be improved and South America has a lot it can teach us.)
1. The amount of “stuff” cyclists have
American cyclists have next to nothing on their bikes! I was totally impressed, and momentarily felt silly looking at my totally weighed down bike. North Americans not only often have more money to spend on their gear, but more access to camping/biking gear. I heard from several bikers that they would have liked the stove or mat that I had, but it was either impossible to acquire or just prohibitively expensive.
Another thing I realized was that many bikers that I met on my USA ride were doing quick trips, a couple weeks or a few months at most. They were traveling light. In all of the time I biked in South America, I only met one cyclist who was biking for a week, the rest were a year or two, at least! The things one carries when their bike is their whole life can be a whole lot more ‘stuff.’ Not that you actually need all of it, but I know I had a laptop in South America and didn’t want one in the States. I remember the Italian that biked with a spaghetti strainer and the Colombian who biked with his pregnant dog in tow. Lifestyle biking is different than quick trip touring.
I’d say maybe a quarter of my trip in South America was spent sleeping in a fire or police station. Lots of cyclists travel this way. One fire station said they actually hosted a cyclist for six months as he got cozy and needed a break, and the fire men didn’t mind their new companion. For a single woman traveling, it was also the safe and free option. They were instant friends for the night and many times invited me to dinner.
In the states, that just doesn’t seem possible! Liability was often said to be the reason why they couldn’t host us, which made me sad. For an organization that is often volunteer-run or locally funded, it seemed like they could allow a tent in their backyard and a new friend into their world.
3. Invitations into homes
Continuing with the above thought, staying at a stranger’s house is not something we did in the States. Throughout all of South America, many times I found myself getting close to sunset and pulling into the closest house, seeking permission to put up a tent. More often than not, I ended up sharing a bed with a little girl or grandmother after a shared meal.
Truth be told, we never tried to ask to camp in a yard, randomly, in the States. It just didn’t seem right. There are ‘Private Property’ signs in the States that made me feel like any intrusion would be negative.
Besides the USA having a different sense of personal and private space, another difference is that here there is a camping culture that by and large doesn’t exist in South America. The USA has established camp grounds that are scattered about, and are often in great condition. It was harder to ask for a place to camp in a yard when a campsite wasn’t far away.
4. Organized kindness/communities vs random
On the other hand, the United States is the standing king of online communities, such as WarmShowers and CouchSurfing. They both also exist in South America, but often only in cities and still are not as prevalent as in the States. It is a really nice way to travel, going with a goal, knowing you’ll have a safe place and a friendly smile waiting for you. Knowing that is different than having faith that it will work out.
The folks here in the States that hosted us were fantastic, going out of their way to leave out towels and hotel soaps with big meals planned. They were really fantastic.
5. Donkeys walkin’ on their own vs fenced in
This is silly but still a big deal! It caught my attention: the lack of animals in the road. This includes chickens, goats, pigs, cows, sheep, and llamas. In Colombia, I was used to seeing the donkey pack animals returning home with their empty packs, alone! All of the donkeys I saw in the States were safely corralled up in their field ignorance.
Another big difference is that
small agriculture is still a large part of the country side in South America, and a small farm includes their crops AND their animals. To only grow crops OR animals was unheard of, at a small local level. Many times, in our question and answer chats, they would ask me, over and over hoping to clarify, why animals aren’t incorporated into the farms here, and I gave my best answer, often leaving them unsatisfied. I really question(ed) it myself!
6. Road Shoulders
I mention this, not to compare but to show the similarities. People often ask about the roads in South America, often implying that they assumed they were horrible. Well, parts of them were and other parts were just perfect, with big wide roads and significant shoulders. It is the same here in the States. There are good, safe parts and slightly scary, dangerous parts in both worlds. FYI.
7. Food- prices and quality
In every country in South America, regardless of the currency, the price equivalent was $2 for a menu executivo, which more or less translates to “what we wanted to cook today.” This includes a fresh fruit juice and a big soup with lots of veggies and a grain and some meat. It ALSO includes your “dry” plate, which is a carbohydrate (99% of the time it’s rice), a protein and a nominal, fresh salad. All told, $2. It was incredible. It was what my body wanted. OK, I got tired of the repetition of foods (rice), but then I’d switch countries and the menus changed also.
I’m sorry, but come on America! We are known for our lousy food. It was impressive, I’d be in very poor neighborhoods/regions, and the people would say, “We don’t have your money, but WE eat SO well.” And they were right.
I apologize if this is coming off very negative, but the drastic shift of my diet coming back here really caught my attention, and I wanted to share. (Also, I study this stuff. It’s a big issue that we as a country need to continue working with.) The availability in the United States to have a meal prepared with fresh, local produce has a perception of being for the socially elite, and that really, honestly breaks my heart. Our culture has shifted away from putting a priority on starting with fresh produce and meats, but we can shift back (back to the 50’s and earlier) if we collectively choose to prioritize our ingredients and food (which translates to our health). (See, I ended on an up note. ha) (This seems to be the parenthesis blog).
8. Market availability
Because their culture prioritizes using fresh produce, in rural and urban areas alike, there is still a strong corner market culture. The above picture is a beautiful produce market, located in one of the largest “ghetto” communities outside of Bogotá, noted for its high violence and lack of infrastructure. The idea of “food desert” does not exist there. This shop was located two blocks from my friend’s house, and sat next to the butcher and the baker. I was in awe. Again, we can bring this back to the United States. Prioritize our local markets and ask for what you want!
9. Space and population, Existing and Living
OK, let’s do this together. I’m working through this idea still. Something that really shocked me while biking through the United States after South America was the big open expanses without a single human! South America was not like that at all (as stated above). There is a much larger population that still lives with the land, as subsistence farmers and with the tiny, local businesses that support them.
What that means to a biker is that there are always sources to ask for water and there are always places to buy groceries. I think the United States used to be like that. Our farmer population was bigger, and the size of the farms were smaller, so that they were closer together and could support smaller businesses close to them. Biking in the states, we were often far away from water and food supplies in a way I never had to plan for in South America.
What else happens when people populate every type of ecosystem and niche?
I was struck by a sign that we passed when entering Yosemite Park, something along the lines of “help keep this wild.” I know, previous to this trip, that would not have caught my attention. Obviously, support nature, but what does this mean as an action: Keep human impact under control? Keep people out? The Yosemite area was populated with thriving communities for thousands of years, until the early settlers massacred or removed the inhabitants. Now, as an act to support the land, it is set aside and you can visit but not make a home there.
To the right is a beautiful mural I found on a university campus. “El campo sin campesinos existe sin existir” in the mural translates loosely to “the field without farmers exists without existing.”
Think about it.
Humans are not separate from nature, we are as much a part of the web as any other. Talking to people about this, they said that they interact with nature, they are dependent on it. Interdependent. Living from the earth, scattered in the country side, the people are very aware of the changes that are taking place. Humans have an incredible capacity to act as part of the voice of the land we are living with. Without people living in Yosemite, or in the large parts of the country side of the United States as more and more people move to urban centers, who is watching the changes? Who is helping it exist?
Maybe it’s the ol’ “if a tree falls in the forest, who hears it” question. Maybe the answer is, you did, whether you know it or not.
South America also had other challenges it offered me, as a cyclist and as a woman. It also has it’s fare share of environmental and societal woes.
But I miss it!
Turning a corner to have the above scene unfold in front of you just does not happen here in the States. I will go back. But in the meantime, I am glad to be in the United States.