Lessons from Abroad: Learning Simplicity and Boundless Gratitude

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Cycling touring is no easy business, and it certainly isn’t for everyone. It can be rough, dirty, dangerous and exhausting. This type of travel is not for the faint of heart, but for the few who dare to challenge a country (or a continent) on bicycle the rewards are endless: embracing simplicity and experiencing true solititude in the most beautiful corners of the earth without the presence of a single other human (aside from your amazing cycling companion)…. Gaining a deep understanding of your own physical strength and a simultaneous humility knowing it’s okay to push your loaded bicycle up a hill when you’ve hit your limit (not as easy at it sounds!). And most importantly a genuine appreciation for the simpliest daily rituals – a hot shower, a delicious meal, lights after dark. These little things become precious.

This entry is about a few of the lessons I have learned about myself and the world on this crazy adventure through thousands of miles across South America…

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Home sweet home. A vagabond’s life for me and my honey.

1. Most of the Things I Considered “Normal” are actually Luxuries.
I’ve never been a person that falls prey to some of the silly, superfluous things America has to offer – I tend to skip the moving sidewalks, I try to prioritize necessity over desire and have always chosen to skip the consumer madness of Black Friday. I was a pretty simple chick to begin with.

But bicycle touring South America has taken my appreciation of the little things to the next level. When you’re out camping in the wilderness, with no stores and certainly no Starbucks within a thousand mile radius of you, you learn to love the simple morning act of a black cup of coffee. Sometimes you fetch water from a stream, boil on the campstove and toss some instant coffee in the bottom of your dented camp cup and have a beautiful, peaceful, quiet cup of morning joe. That’s it. None of that extra-hot, extra-foam, 1/8th of a spenda soy latte nonsense that exists in our culture. I now feel fortunate to have milk in my coffee (sugar is a separate luxury unto itself).

Next normalcy-gone-luxury is clean laundry. The reality is stream washing your clothes just doesn’t leave that fresh, downy scent you’re used to at home. And if it’s cold and you might have to put something back on that is damp, we generally just say forget it. Clean laundry is a luxury. Probably for most people in the world, looking lovely and smelling like a sheet of fabric softener is pretty low on the priority list… Same goes for cycle tourists. Be grateful for those crispy, clean socks mah friends!

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Tent Selfie! A make-up free, unshowered happy camper!

2. Giving up Cosmetics and Re-Defining Personal Hygiene
As a chick on the road, you have to re-define what you consider necessary to “survive.” Like most girls, at home I have a least three different types of shampoo and conditioner, and an even greater number of soaps, body washes, face creams….you name it. And this is coming from a girl who can barely curl her own hair.

Visualize this: One stick of mascara (that I have used less than 15 times for lack of a desire to remove mascara without makeup remover), one stick of deodorant, a travel sized hair brush, a travel sized shampoo (doubles as bodywash) and two cheapo, disposable razors that have lasted FOUR MONTHS. The end. But you know what I realized? None of the material girly things I’m used to having at home could have improved my life experience traveling here. My life is no better with access to more beauty products. I can be perfectly content with a clean face at the end of the day and no makeup for months on end. How you look is not what makes you. I date and travel alongside a guy who agrees and still likes me when I’m a bit grimy; an indication of a true gentleman and the kind of guy you want around.

3. I am now a professional at showering without hot water.
A common reality is that the hostel you were looking forward to after five days of cycling without a shower advertised that they had “Agua Caliente!” – hot water – only for you to have stripped your dirty cycling clothes in the bathroom and be unpleasantly surprised by a stream of frigid water…that isn’t getting any warmer. Guess what? You’re too dirty to care. I can wash my hair and “necessities” in record time, in frigid water, with less than three ounces of shampoo to my name and come out feeling REFRESHED. Seriously. Nothing feels better than clean hair and ditching your cycling stench. I can also get myself clean with exactly one pot of warm water (luxury) – and yes, it’s the same pot we use for cooking. If you had proposed this to me before leaving I would have giggled at the impossiblity. But anything is possible!

My lesson from this is to reconsider your 20-30 minute showers. Sure, it’s nice sometimes, but water is a commodity that humans are quickly ruining and using up so much faster than our poor environment can handle. If you think you can’t pull of what your normal routine is in 15 minutes (or way, way less) – I am here to show you that you absolutely can! Save that agua!

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Some of the weird stuff we eat while cycling – for your viewing pleasure, Instant-Mashed-Potato-Hot-Dog with Ketchup. If it sounds gross, you haven’t cycled far enough. Best when eaten riverside after several hours on the grind. (Guest appearance: The Man Beard).

4. FOOD! 
I remember debating with my boyfriend an endless number of times on where we should go get food while living in California. In America, this has NOTHING to do with what is actually available and only with what “sounds good.” Start cycle touring and you are instantly in love with all food. Your appreciation of a hot meal is hard to express. We live on pasta, rice, veggies (when we’re lucky), oatmeal, cookies and instant soups. We even eat bizarre combinations of things, our favorite being “Pasta Sandwiches.” I guess it’s like a meatball sandwich sans-meatballs? Carbs on carbs…a cyclists favorite! In short, debating over which restaurant you want to go to and then having a WHOLE MENU to choose from is a true luxury.

During our travels we spent 11 days trapped in a cabin without enough food (See Border Crossing Blog for fully explanation of that debacle). We had to ration and for the first time in my life I was actually hungry, without a solution to my hunger within arms reach. My gratitude for food is completely different. I took that luxury so for granted at home and of all my experiences so far on this trip, this has been my most valued lesson I have learned. I can even say that my brain has possibly processed my deprivation – my whole life I have been a person that strongly dislikes raw tomatoes and even more hated than that, cucumbers. Now, I can eat both and actually kind of enjoy them. Weird how traveling can change you, eh?

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This hill was over a mile long, and followed by five more just like it. Gnarly day of hill climbs, to say the least. Those specks are our two French bike touring friends!

5. My Own Physical Strength
I was genuinely nervous about the hill climbs I knew I would encounter before we arrived in South America. I knew that none of the training I had done would even compare to the challenges that lie ahead and had no idea what to expect, and more importantly whether or not I was strong enough to hang.

What I learned is that perseverence and determination can overcome what physical strength you lack. Beyond that, you have no idea the limitations of your own body unless you push them. I have hit my wall here in South America on several occasions – I have been exhausted, tired of pushing the bike up endless hills, hungry, cold and sore all at the same time. I’ve even shed some tears when I hit this point, shouted my fair share of expletives and needed a pick-me-up from the ever patient boyfriend. BUT, I SURVIVED! I made it up those hills, I made it to my bowl of pasta every night, to my comfy sleeping bag and I pushed through the tiredness (literally).

Life is like a hill climb. The more you suffer, the more you overcome the doubts you have in yourself, the more you persevere beyond all odds the better the payout. The climb never lasts forever, and the harder you work the sweeter that blissful coast downhill will be.

This is just a peek into the vast expanse of lessons that can be learned from traveling. If people tell you your trip is “crazy,” you’re doing it right. Keep your chin up. The things you learn about yourself can never be replaced and you truly have no idea what’s in store for you until you’ve made it to the other side.

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Is it all worth it? Hell yeah, it is.

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