From time to time we intersect with the road more travelled. It always comes as something of a culture shock.
Towns on the beaten tourist track feel tidy and western, with hostels, cafes and souvenir shops, and are nothing like the Central and South America we have been travelling through. We are more used to half finished adobe huts, and ramshackle dusty corner stores. Are we even on the same continent? If we followed the main tourist trail, would we imagine this was representative? In a sea of white faces, neatly dressed tourists, I am suddenly conscious of my own unwashed state and the bedraggled nature of my day-in, day-out clothing.
“Where have you come from? Where are you going?” Hearing the usual questions in English is so strange to me now that it takes me a few seconds to register. Even stranger is hearing myself respond in my native tongue, telling our story with fluent ease and sounding like a half intelligent adult for a change.
Well stocked supermarkets bring mixed feelings; I should be glad of the variety, of finding products I’ve not seen in a long time. Instead I am confused, overwhelmed by choice. Somehow I do better when there’s only a mouldy onion and a couple of squishy tomatoes on offer. I seem to relish the challenge of producing a tasty nutritious meal out of next to nothing. Here, I don’t know where to start. There’s peanut butter, couscous, and more types of chocolate than I can possibly hope to choose between. Exciting novelties…. But I am paralyzed by too much choice, and honestly, we’ve been managing quite well without these luxuries, as does pretty much everyone else in this country….
Overwhelmed by such abundance, I leave empty handed.
Back at the hostel there is more conversation with travellers. I am tired and don’t feel like entertaining the crowd tonight, but despite myself one or two individuals stand out and I am drawn in.
“Wow” says one 22 yr old wistfully, “your travels make mine seem pretty lame”. I am sorry to hear her say this; I’d hate for my adventure to diminish someone else’s feelings about their own. This girl is 22, a female travelling solo in a country where she doesn’t speak the language very well. She is brave. I tell her so. Life is a choose your own adventure story, I say. You pick one, and have it. One adventure isn’t more or less than another, just different. I too first travelled alone at 22, to the middle east, and thought myself brave. It never crossed my mind at that stage to travel down the Americas by bicycle.
Our companions in the hostel pore over Lonely Planet guides and discuss bus timetables. I find myself feeling so, so glad that we never have to worry about such things, and realise again just how different our style of travel is to theirs. They are limited to places public transport can reach; we are completely unlimited. They must wait on departure and arrival times; we leave when we are ready and stop wherever we feel like it. Again, I have no wish to make out that our form of travel is “superior” – it’s just different, and it suits me. I am so grateful for the flexibility and independence we have that I can’t imagine myself ever becoming a bus catching backpacker.
And I can’t help wondering what is in those massive backpacks they all lug around, given that very few seem to have anything I would consider useful, such as camping gear!
From time to time, we run into folk travelling by van or motorbike. Like us, these guys can follow any road they choose and stop anywhere they like. We have had and loved vans, but are happy to now be travelling under our power and with no barrier of glass between us and the world. Motorcyclists seem to feel a great deal of camaraderie with us, and we get huge waves and thumbs up when we pass in the road. Like us, they are outside all day every day, having to deal with every kind of weather and road condition. Unlike us, they can easily put in an extra 100km at the end of a day to get to somewhere they want to be… Or away from somewhere they don’t. I’m pretty sure there’s a motorbike in my future somewhere.
Out to dinner. As in the supermarket, my feelings are mixed. I am grateful for wider variety and higher quality food, yet uncomfortable with the luxury of it. Again there is choice, and a menu in English. We eat pizza, spend more than we normally would, and this too feels odd and wrong. I enjoy the food, but feel guilty over my wealth, and acutely aware of how fortunate I am that even as a no-income cycle tourist living on savings I am able to choose to do this.