Ch, ch, ch, ch, Changes…
The changes are wrung as Laura Bingham continues her biking odyssey
Column by Laura Bingham
The past month has seen quite a few changes on my expedition. Firstly Cho and I went separate ways. Why? Well what makes a man a perfect companion for Ed Stafford for two and a half years doesn’t necessarily make him perfect for me. South America is saturated with machismo and I felt I wasn’t getting the support I needed from Cho. As neither of us were particularity enjoying the expedition as it was I thought it would be better to separate on perfectly amicable terms and see how the trip would develop if I went solo.
Since the age of 18 I have done a lot of travelling by myself. Learning from new cultures and surrounding myself with fresh ideas and concepts has allowed me to grow in a way that would have been impossible if I’d stayed in little Winchester. But as much as I’ve travelled, this has been my first proper expedition and cycling alone through a continent renowned for its misogamy was a daunting task to say the least. After a week of descending the Pacific coast on my own I ended up finding out the hard way that cycling as a lone female through South America wasn’t the best idea. My defences now on far higher alert, I have decided that I want to finish the journey with a number of companions. Both safer and more fun, these companions will range from my fiancé, who will be tag-teamed by a fellow adventurer, Ness Knight, will in turn be swapped out eventually by my sister. A fluid series of cycling buddies that I can reply on to watch my back.
Ed, my fiancé, has been here for three weeks now. Having someone cycle with you that speaks the same language has been such a game changer. Having someone come in that I love and have a great relationship to boot with has made a world of a difference. My mood has been so much brighter, instead of getting through the days, it’s been a real joy to chat and talk the miles away. I’m conscious that there is a risk of sounding slightly non-inclusive here, but the honest truth is that when you are knackered, and you haven’t the energy to put a tent up or cook a meal, not having to speak in a second language is a luxury! I always would make the effort to speak Spanish, but a rest from long unrelenting days of partial understanding of conversations has been most welcome.
So to those of you who are thinking about doing a cycling tour or an off the beaten track adventure, choose your companion wisely. I’m slightly sad to acknowledge it but, if you’re female, I would suggest making sure you take a companion because the road travelled alone comes with a whole swarm of risks and dangers.
My second change was the decision not to touch money at all. Up until now I’d been accepting money if people had offered it to me. Some folks had wanted to give a dollar or two and one lovely couple in Villcabamba even gave me $50! This eventually built up to a balance of nearly $100 which I used to fix Cho’s bike after his crash. But knowing that I had that buffer was almost too comforting. I felt like the very essence, the fear, of travelling with nothing had been removed, so, when I set off from the Pacific coast once more, I pledged that I would cycle from Pacific coast to Atlantic coast without touching a single note or coin. If people offered me money, I would politely turn it down. Occasionally I now see the odd coin on the floor and just have to smile, breathe, and cycle on regardless.
Ed and I set off from the coast to ascend 4500m of altitude into the Andes for my third and final crossing of the vast, now familiar, range. But as I reached around 3,000m something strange started happening – my hard-earned fitness seemed to vanish. It was as if the last three months of cycling had never happened – I was gasping for breath and having to stop every other second to find out where the hell my breath had gone and see if I actually had any lungs left in my body. At around 4,000m I just wanted to lie down on the side of the road and sleep. I felt fine but my eyes wouldn’t stay open: it was like I’d just done a 24-hour plane journey then gone straight into an all-night party – I was in a zombie world of delirium. With 1.5 litres of water left and no knowledge of where the next town or water point would be, there was no option for me to sleep on the side of the road, our water stock wouldn’t allow it. I had to keep cycling. Apathy is a very prominent symptom of altitude sickness, which can be a very serious thing. The first signs are like a hangover but it’s not only bad for one’s physical but also mental health. It took huge reserves of will-power to keep going when all I wanted to do was give up. On reflection I know that it’s normal to get some sort of effects from the altitude, and to take it seriously, but at the time I thought I was just being weak-minded!
Having crested 4500m we began to descend and Oh My God what a feeling! The sharp wind tore at my chapped lips, the fresh air encircled my entire body, and the kilometre markers just ticked away with no effort. Frustratingly I always have a little voice inside my head piping up telling me, ‘You’re just going to have to go up again” but I ignore this negativity and enjoy the thrill of the descent. So down we went – getting ever closer to the world’s largest fresh water lake – Titicaca – which also foretold the rapid approach of Bolivia.
If you approach Lake Titicaca, like I did, from the side of Peru, get ready to be massively underwhelmed. “Is that it?” I asked Ed with a distinctly unimpressed look on my face. But bear with it. The small side bay that houses the city of Puno is not the entire Lake, and once that complete view finally does open up it’s like the Gods have divided the mountains and nestled a magical inland sea in their midst. The turquoises I have only ever seen before off tropical islands and the fertility of the soils mean that farming is abundant and that the surrounding land appears like a verifiable utopia of crops, animals and smiling locals. Peruvians in general are nice – but none have been as happy and cheery as the folk of Lake Titicaca. One kind lady flagged us down and insisted that we come and join her eat baked potatoes that she’d just cooked in the ground under the soil. We’d never met her before, and she hadn’t a clue what we were doing, but she just saw us and decided that she wanted to give us a meal.
Who needs money for fancy hotels overlooking the water when you have freshly baked, steaming spuds and a home-made cheesy sauce to dip them in? All with the backdrop of the magically abundant lake and the sound of the waves breaking comfortingly on the shore.
With Ecuador and now Peru behind me – I have only three countries left to cycle before my journey is over. Bolivia first, then Paraguay where I will work with the orphaned girls being looked after by “Operation South America”, and finally the Argentine pampas and Buenos Aires. I can almost smell the steak already.