Cycling South: Over and Out

At the close of his trek across South America, Ben Bateman is looking for the life lesson of his travel experience.

Sam and I crest our final climb early in the afternoon. At 10,000 feet the sky is a bright blue, now patched with bleached-white clouds. After four months of deserts and jungles, flats and fights, we’re a short glide from Quito, Ecuador, where we’ll catch a flight home.

We pause at the top of the pass to eat animal crackers and oranges. Our breaks to chat and snack have become so regular that “20k?” — the distance between breaks and therefore our parting question — has become a mantra. Staring at the 10,000 kilometers behind us, I imagine the trail of fruit we’ve left behind, a line of mango pits and banana peels stretching across the continent. We’re a misguided Hansel and Gretel if there ever were, though headed toward what witch I couldn’t say.

The road behind me demands explanation, some cathartic statement to codify its lessons. I have nothing. I expected this trip to change my life. It has, but I can’t articulate how. It’s a question I’m willing to leave for later; for now, I’m just ready to go home.

Life on the bike is irreconcilably different from the life that came before. I can remember most days with unparalleled clarity. Each one brings new characters and towns in a rush of unrelenting novelty. Even our routines — stopping for lunch or setting up camp — vary wildly from day to day. With this level of detail, and without a mental shorthand to catalogue it as “just another Wednesday”, each day stretches beyond its bracket, seems to fill a week in memory. After months of this, it seems as if my life has been spent on bike. It’s even more distinct because no aspects of my previous life cross over. I left my friends, hobbies, and jobs behind, and from here that past belongs to a different person. I remember names and faces, dates, and places, but I can’t place myself in it. If I can’t say how this trip has changed me because I can’t recall who I was before.

We finish the crackers, mount our bikes, and ride towards Quito.

Our estimates, as usual, are off. Only 20k to Quito, certainly, but it’s a peculiar city. Nestled in a narrow Andean valley, the city — as a fourth grader might put it — is hot-dog shaped. There are obvious benefits to this: a set of street cars running the length of the city get you close to everything, and it’s hard to get too lost. We soon realize that our destination, Parque de la Carolina, is on the far side of the city.

It takes two hours to navigate the labyrinthine roads. When we reach the park, we find a circus of street vendors and screaming children. We didn’t expect fanfare, but this is particularly anticlimactic. We wheel our bikes to an open bench, grab cups of fruit and cream from a stand nearby, and watch families enjoying their Sunday at the park. It comes together then, makes sense that we’ve ended out trip as we lived it: dirty, spandexed, and ignored.

Me and Sam in Plaza de la Independencia in Quito. We're holding a shirt from Hostel Ushuai, which we carried for 6,000 miles.

We find a hostel, clean up, and set about finding food. The hostel owner, an aggressively friendly man in a blue-and-white track suit, points us to the sushi restaurant next door. The restaurant is empty but for two girls in their early twenties. My ears perk when I hear them speaking English. After months of stumbling through my broken Spanish in a quixotic attempt to charm, this seems like a stroke of grand luck, a final chance at a traveling tryst. A quick glance at Sam confirms his shared enthusiasm.

As I fumble with my chopsticks, wondering if I can open a conversation with “so we just biked here from the Southern tip of South America” without sounding like an ass (hint: I can’t), Sam clears his throat, smiles, and loudly asks, “Where are you guys from?”

The girls turn to us, and their faces quickly shift from surprise to disappointment. “Canada,” one replies. “We’re here for school.” We press the issue, but they don’t see the charm of scruffy, fish-guzzling man. They’re exuberant when, after a scant minute, their friends arrive, sit down, and form a wall of disinterested women. Sam and I turn back to our sushi, thwarted. We pay as soon as possible. Sam leaves to wander Quito in the rain while I retired to the hotel room to feel bad about myself.

We wake up early to meet a stranger in the park. His name is Axel. We found him through, a couch surfing analog for touring cyclists, and he’s offered to let us camp on his patio until we leave on Wednesday. We’re only in the park for a few minutes before he pulls up on his bike. He’s in his early thirties, with a shaved head and a rakish goatee. We exchange enthusiastic handshakes, talk about our trip for a few minutes, and mount our bikes to follow him home.

As soon as we’re in the gate, we’re introduced to Andrea, Axel’s girlfriend and owner of the apartment. We soon find that Axel himself is a visiting cyclist, though one infinitely more skilled at the traveler’s tryst than we. He met Andrea on the road three months ago, the two fell madly love, and he’s been living here since. We also meet Jeanie, one of Andrea’s friends, who’s sleeping on the couch while her divorce goes through. Sven arrives the next day, which means there will be six people staying in this one-room apartment.

It’s magical. Andrea and Axel are incredibly kind, and their obvious excitement of each other is infectious. Between our sojourns into the city for bike-sized boxes, we enjoy home-cooked Ecuadorian meals, impromptu lessons on Spanish grammar, and a going away party. After three fantastic days, it’s finally time to leave.

It’s almost 2:45 in the morning. I’m lying awake on the floor, listening to the rain, when my watch alarm goes off. Our flight leaves at seven, and we need to be at the airport by three; our taxi will be here in a few minutes. Sam and I try to move quietly, but our rustling soon wakes the sleepers. We’re rushing to get out in time, dragging and re-taping boxes (they’re more tape than cardboard now), juggling snacks, all the while saying goodbye to all of our new friends.

It’s the most difficult to say goodbye is to Sven, our traveling companion of three weeks. Though we little context for each other off the bike, we’ve a shared a strange and transformative experience, and I’m struck again with the need to say something grandiose. This is where the story should hit a dramatic high note, where the flurry of experience is distilled into meaning.

Of course it doesn’t happen. In our fumble to leave the apartment Sam drops a bottle of chocolate milk, and we spend out last minutes with Sven picking glass off the floor. When we hug goodbye we trade goofy grins, not words of wisdom. It’s a reminder that real adventures don’t wrap up a character arc with a tidy emotional catharsis. They just end.

Sam and I climb into the taxi, wave a final goodbye, and drive into the empty streets. We’re home 24 hours later.

Sven, me, Sam, and Axel

Ben Bateman is an editor at The Bygone Bureau. He grew up on a mountain in the middle of Nowhere, CA, and his eerily encyclopedic knowledge of nowhere and mountains stultifies critics and other animals. You can email him, follow him on Twitter, and read the rest of his work here.