Back home at my parents’ house in sunny Kingston Upon Thames I hear a shrill cry in the distance. What could it be? The collective shout of a thousand frustrated blog readers shouting “BUT WHAT HAPPENED NEXT LANKY CYCLE MAN?” as they frantically smash F5 on their sweat dripped keyboards?
No. It’s foxes having sex.
But the question stands. What did happen next? So to distract myself from the conjugal grunts of these vulpine hellbeasts I’ll regale you with the details of my final weeks in South America.
What happened to the bike?
I got extremely lucky finding a touring bike in Colombia and lady luck was in a good mood once again when it came to selling the thing. But not right away.
Once again I approached the situation optimistically. Surely the Argentine cyclists would be desperate to buy a rare European touring bike, especially given the huge import taxes. Turns out I was right, but only regarding the panniers. A Facebook post instantly had me drowning on offers for my Ortliebs, but there was nay a whiff of interest for the bike. It was too big, too expensive, too niche. Argentina collectively snubbed its nose at “El Chancho” and my limited budget for the remaining weeks suddenly seemed a lot smaller.
Then my reluctant stay at the achingly hip Art House Hostel bore fruit. I was eating breakfast when a long haired German guy came over.
“Man, is that your bike? It’s really cool. Are you selling it?”
Jakob and his friend Jakob, two German friends, were travelling through South America together. Jakob 2 was heading home in a few weeks and Jakob 1 was keen on continuing his trip by bike. The 3 of us spent the afternoon on a free walking tour chatting and they were really cool guys. Jakob was genuinely interested and we agreed on a price. I couldn’t believe my luck. Except of course it was too good to be true.
At this point I was yet to cross over to Uruguay and Jakob wanted the bike now. By the time I returned he would be down in Patagonia and had no intention of returning to Buenos Aires. Shit. I presumed that was that and I’d have to keep searching.
Then later, after the 3 of us moved to a cheaper hostel, Jakob offered an alternative. I could send the bike south by bus through one of the cargo companies at the bus station Restrepo. I was highly sceptical but as it turned out the prices were extremely reasonable by Arge standards. Even so I was wary and assumed this plan would never work out.
3 weeks later I was back from Montevideo and Jakob had transferred me a deposit for half the cost of the bike. This was actually happening. I picked up a bike box, some bubble wrap and having enlisted the help of a homeless man, transported everything through the throngs of Buenos Aires. After an extremely stressful couple of hours, a floor puddled in sweat, and a large tip for my homeless friend, we had successfully squeezed my beloved bike pig into a box.
I’d like to say it was an emotional farewell but I was so bloody hot and exhausted by the end that I barely even registered that this was goodbye. All I felt was relief. I was no longer burdened by my two wheeled friend and could continue my travels bike free. At least he’s gone to a good home. Jakob has re-christened him “El Chancho de Fierro” or The Iron Pig and at the time of writing they’re scaling the hills of the Carretera Austral. The dream lives on.
What happened to me?
The day I rid myself of my steel companion I went to stay with Felix and Babun, a couple I met on warmshowers.org. I arrived late in the evening, a disgusting sweaty mess wearing ripped shorts: a walking armpit. Yet Felix and Babun couldn’t have been kinder. They welcomed me to their dream apartment – a shrine to bicycles, cats and healthy living – and before long we were sharing travel stories over tea and salad.
One afternoon I was showing Felix and Babun some photos of my trip. I passed over one of stickers stuck to a boiler down in Villa O’ Higgins when Felix said “he stayed with us!”. There were tons of stickers on the boiler and I assumed it was just some other random cyclist, when Felix reached over the counter and pulled out one of Philipp’s stickers. The very same Philipp with whom I’d spent six weeks cycling through Bolivia and Peru! In an absurd coincidence he’d also stayed with Felix and Babun a couple of months prior. Buenos Aires has hundreds and hundreds of people offering to host on Warmshowers and we’d ended up at the same place. The two of us were only the third and fourth cyclists Felix and Babun had ever hosted making the coincidence even more remarkable.
10 Days in Silence
It was Philipp who inspired me to do what I did next: a 10 day Vipassana mediation course in the countryside outside of the city. I was meditating intermittently throughout the trip but rarely with any consistency or focus. When Philipp mentioned these 10 day courses I knew it was something I wanted to try, especially after seeing the effects on him when he returned from his in Lima so full of positivity.
So what is a Vipassana meditation course? To sum it up, a lot of people with questionable hairstyles (myself included) meet up in a quiet place to meditate upwards of 8 hours a day and listen to the teachings of Goenke: a Burmese born businessman turned meditation teacher who started these courses back in the 70s in order to spread the Vipassana meditation technique. All payment is voluntary but the rules are strict. There’s no talking, communicating of any kind, exercising, reading, writing, listening to music, technology, sexual activity, eating meat, drinking alcohol, smoking or distractions of any kind. For 10 days all you can do is meditate, sleep, eat, shit, think and walk around the premises. You’re in a self imposed sensory prison.
In short: it’s hard as fuck.
Now I could write an entire blog (or 5) on my experiences at the meditation retreat and maybe one day I will. It was perhaps the most rewarding and profound experience of my life and easily the most difficult. I have an awful lot to say on the matter, but it was also an extremely personal and spiritual journey that I would struggle to do justice in words, especially on this here blog about my cycling hijinks. If you want to know more there are countless blogs of people recounting their Vipassana experiences or you can go direct to the source and check out the official website.
The course served as an excellent way to segue from the wild life on the road to the return to a more quotidian life of routine and responsibility. I can’t think of a better way to top off this most memorable and impactful of years.
Full Circle: Back in Bogota
But my trip wasn’t quite over. Not yet. After a few days of stewing in sweltering Buenos Aires hostels, getting another hair cut, hanging out with new friends and saying goodbye to Felix and Babun, I was back in my old stomping ground of Bogota. There I spent 2 weeks hanging out with old friends, picking up my belongings, nostalging like a maniac (nostalging is not a word but it should be one) going on trips and basking in the fruits of South American big city life one last time.
And so, after 25 months in this gorgeous, infuriating, infatuating, contradictory but most human of all continents I found myself at El Dorado airport catching a flight back home to London. I no longer have any blonde in my hair, my smile is fixed, my personal hygiene no longer offends passing nostrils, and now I suppose I should get on with what everyone calls “real life”. Though somehow I doubt anything will feel as real as the joy, fury, exasperation and kindness I’ve experienced in this last year of travelling on two wheels and giving myself to the road and its people.
Tunes: The Sound of Silence
Reads: The Quarry – Iain Banks, The Catcher in the Rye – J.D Salinger