Cycling in Paddington Bear’s Footsteps
The adventurer, Laura Bingham, looks back at the highs and lows of her South American cycling odyssey
Article by Rupert Watkins
Cycling the length of South America sounds like a tough ask. Doing it sans money sounds like a quick visit to the looney bin may have to be booked. However, chatting with the outgoing Laura Bingham upon her return from this particular endeavour, her sense of both determination and fun shines through. Having fallen in love with the South American culture during a four month stint teaching English abroad in Mexico, she was determined to try something different that would take her back to this part of the world.
An inveterate traveller, Laura has lived and worked in South Africa, Greece, Florida and Belgium, doing everything from bar work to schooling polo ponies and show jumpers. She is quite honest in admitting her love of travel and the increasing suspicion that she could make it a career came from a desire to escape various family issues, “my motivation has come from bad things…. I didn’t want to become the sort of person I would have become if I stayed in England.”
In the run up to her departure, Laura realised the physical training did not have to be overdone, “your body will get fitter as you go on.” What she focused on was mental resilience. She concentrated on ensuring that she did not berate herself being naturally phlegmatic, “you change what you can, do not destroy yourself over what you can’t.” Given her peripatetic life, packing up her life before heading off came very naturally. Her family and friends knew, “it is something I do. I can’t change.”
Once out in South America, Laura ran the full gamut of emotions. Physically the biggest challenge was the Andes, as the weather on the occasion was atrocious with mud on some of the mountain roads and passes. For the first part of her expedition she was cycling with a South American Cho, and Laura quickly found mentally that the toughest part became the lack of opportunity to speak English in her downtime. Even though she is reasonably fluent in Spanish, the inability to crack a joke or make a flyaway comment without having to consciously translate it became an ongoing emotional drain. In the second half of the trip, she cycled with a variety of people, including her sister and fiancée which meant less strain as the banter and jokes flowed that little bit better, “I was also cycling with people I loved.”
Given she relied on the kindness of strangers for everything from shelter to food, Laura was acutely sensitive to the atmosphere around her. All the countries she went through were different. Ecuador was the worse country by far. The people were very cold and suspicious towards strangers – especially up in the Andes – and Laura found she, “felt lonely and insecure” and left that particular leg, “traumatised.” There was an overwhelming feeling in the country that they didn’t want or need foreign tourists or travellers. Bolivia and Peru were far more open and generous and by the time she hit Paraguay and Argentina, for the first time she felt she could say no to offers of food – confident that there would be offers at her next stop.
Laura saw a huge difference between Argentina and the remainder of the continent. Peru and Bolivia were routinely filthy as she cycled through them; she found that parts of Peru –especially around Lima – fervently believed they were more of a first world country (it is still formally classified by many as a developing nation) than the widespread poverty gave credence to. In Argentina a much greater level of wealth was apparent; people cycled for recreation and she saw more sport being played – people had time to do more than merely survive. Moving through the country in the aftermath of the removal of Kirchner and installation of Macri as President, Laura was aware of the political tumult but on meeting people found they all had great faith in their overarching political system and government. Yet many people did not seem to know the issues confronting their governments – many followed the (still biased) press of neighbouring countries as well as the BBC in an attempt to find out what was really happening.
Throughout her cycling odyssey, Laura noticed almost regardless of the state of the property, people had somehow acquired a satellite dish, “it was frequently bizarre, there would be no running water to a mud hut but there was the means to have TV.”
Such an ambitious and challenging expedition invariably begets the question, “have you changed?” Given her extensive travelling Laura does not believe her fundamental approach to travel and adventure has been altered at all. She has always been very conscious of wasting things and certainly her early struggles and rejection in the north of the continent have clearly affected that. She admits to finding some supermarkets upon her return to the UK overwhelming as well as having an initial euphoric glee in having the opportunity to be wasteful. Certain memories have indelibly stuck in her head: seeing three men in Peru dragging a dead python off the road and just dumping it; one of her cycling partners (and fiancée) Ed and herself unknowingly playing with a Black Widow spider; and throughout the trip, the sheer abundance of wildlife at every turn. That said, the memory of seeing dead horses and dogs everywhere throughout the continent is not quite as nice an abiding thought.
Looking to the future, Laura would love to return to Paraguay. She is fascinated by the Mennonite community, a body of originally central European ancestry who moved to the country via Canada. They have been living in the country for over 80 years but their settlements still have a very Germanic feel. Laura found them to be among the kindest of the communities she passed through and stayed with them extensively as she cycled through Paraguay. Now she is back in the UK, she hopes that the Discovery channel commission a documentary on her expedition whilst she is keen to write a book on her experiences, “Though in some ways I find that idea more daunting than the trip itself!” She has been signed by Caroline Rose motivational speaking, talking on overcoming fear. Further expeditions are in the pipeline though her latest one has had to be postponed so details are still under wraps.
Throughout chatting with her, Laura’s sense of fun and innate optimism shines through. Though she confesses to a couple of touch and go moments, she steadfastly believes, “your body can do anything – I was not going to lose face be giving in.” Given she is not yet 25, Riddle imagines this is not the last we will hear of Laura Bingham.