Video highlights from six years biking around the world

Apologies if you’d been expecting my monthly update and got radio-silence… It was the first time I’ve missed a blog post in the last seven years. My excuse is that I’ve been embroiled in all manner of projects since coming back and the blog had to take a back seat. But I will continue to post here.

Footfall

As I’m winding up this journey I’m getting a touch nostalgic so I thought I’d revisit some experiences from the road. I’m often asked what was the most frightening or dangerous moment during your trip. Probably, it was this one from Peru…

Footfall?

I feel muscles go taut, my whole body as tensioned and thinly tremulous as a tightrope walker inside my sleeping bag. It’s a familiar paralysis. I’m rough camping tonight, and offbeat sounds bring an anxiety that feels primal, that lives in my guts, and even if the sabre tooth tiger is now a policeman, a wandering drunk, or a curious farmer, it can’t be reasoned with, it won’t be allayed.

I stay still, dimly breathing, opening my ears and letting the sounds rush in. I hear the prickle of rain blown into my tent, and the breaths of wind, drawing, billowing the fabric. I think again about how safe spaces mutate into ominous ones when you’re sealed away, blind and sensitive only to its murmurings. I can’t hear footsteps now. Perhaps I never did. A dream maybe, or the fidgeting of trees: the innocent pretence of boughs knocking against one another in the night.

The blue glow of my watch says 3 am. I try to remember where I am. My brain zooms in like I’m moving a cursor on googlemaps : South America, Peru, somewhere in La Sierra. I’m far from a town. That’s right, it was raining. There was a house, silhouetted against a violet sky: aloof, concrete, long-shadowed and as empty as I’d hoped when I peered in through the paneless window. The roof, I saw, jutted out giving me three feet of shelter for my tent and a chance to escape the worst of the rain.

Rough camping is always haunted by stray sounds and grumbling portents, and camping in wild, unpeopled places can feel less adventurous than nights in the edgeland, in the half-light and jumbled shrubs of droning roadsides where car headlights tear strips into the night and streetlights twinkle like stars.

During these nightly detours there’s a feeling of stalking society. I’m awake to the clank and grumble of industry, the pylons that hiss like vipers, the harangue of farm dogs that have fixed my scent. It’s thrillingly outsiderish: the thief at the window. Childishly fun like a game of hide and seek. I worked out that over the last six years I’ve spent around 750 nights seeking out two metres square to make my own campsite. Like twilight, most nights have melted away and escaped from memory, though a few I recall now as glorious victories: the Jordanian cliff top, the Californian sea cave, the middle of a French roundabout, a derelict Ottoman castle. Others I remember as stonking defeats, and these I’ve catalogued under labels which invoke timeworn horror movies – The Night of the Fire Ants, The dawn of the Scorpion under my thermorest, and Midnight of the Flood. And when it doesn’t go wrong, when the footfall is not the axe murdering sociopath you know it must be, you experience a sense of escape that washes away all of that gut-buried fear and seems to make the whole process ecstatically worth it.

Crunch crunch

Shit

Crunch

I’ve been here before too, the moment when all doubt evaporates. The feet – I’m sure now – are pacing out a careful circle. I’m being considered. I’m being surveyed. Someone, perhaps, is coming to a decision about me. The feet turn backwards and move to the other side of my tent, near the door.

Nothing for it now, I’m busted. The footsteps are too close, too precise, for me to have escaped notice. I revive myself in a jolt and sit up, unzip my tent and peer into the shadowy shape of a man whose face I can’t see well until he kneels down and I glimpse his eyes and stop caring about what he looks like because I’m staring at his right hand and the gun clutched within it that rises up and becomes aimed at my head.

The gun is black. It gleams metallically. It looks new. It looks illusory and weird. I see the black hole of the barrel. Something inside me falls and stays falling. I’m not breathing.

Talk

I’m babbling. Spanish comes in a messy flood, words clambering over themselves and pronunciation gone to shit.

‘I’m a tourist, it was raining, I needed somewhere away from the rain. What’s your name? I’m Stephen. What do you want? Please, you don’t need the gun’

‘Fuera’ – Get out. Not angry, not calm. Just instructive. I move. It happens in a flurry, I’ve twisted out from my sleeping bag, my shorts are on, I’m scrabbling to leave my tent. I’m saying ‘fuck’ a lot. And now I’m standing in front of a man with a revolver pointed at my guts. I can see his face now, wet with rain and streaked with mud. His eyes are wide, penetrating, moonlit. I notice that I’m shaking. I notice that he’s shaking too. His gun-hand wavers.

I’m reassured then in a wave. He’s scared. Scared enough to do something rash? I feel myself spiraling again. He angles the gun up a little, I judge the trajectory to meet my chest. My lungs, my heart, my aorta, my trachea, my spinal cord.

‘Get into my house’. There’s a tremble in that voice too.

OK, it’s his house. Think, think. But I’m numb, my mind’s snagged, insensate like my skin, unaffected by the cold and slicking rain.

Who is this? The infamous Ladrones perhaps, one of the bandits I’ve been warned of. There’s a flash of a conversation I had with a biker three weeks ago who’d been shot at, he’d showed me where a bullet had grazed his bicycle frame, it had sounded so fantastical I’d chosen not to believe him. Or maybe he’s one of the Rondas Campesinas, the local vigilantes who patrol rural Peru and fill in for the police, that would be better.

I walk towards the front door of the house, too fast, and he follows shortly behind me, the timbre of the footfall somehow worse than before. I feel the tendons in my neck in tension as I listen for a shot and wait for my back to explode, and blood to soak the front of my chest, movie-style. No shot comes by the time I reach the wooden door which creaks open under my shove.

‘Sit down. Who are you?’

A light comes on. I sit on a wooden chair by a table. I see a small stove in the corner that I must have missed when I peered in the window, but there’s little else to suggest this is anyone’s home.

‘What do you want?’ he says

My mind races to explain the rapidity of his questions, the flustered zip of his eyes, that catch in his voice. But something strange is happening: his fear has stopped precipitating more of my own. I start to wonder if it holds some key to getting out of this.

‘I’m just a tourist, from England. I’m travelling by bicycle. It was raining. I needed somewhere to camp’

He eyes fall away from me, to the side, he scrunches up his dirty face, he seems to be thinking. And with a small backwards lean, the gun falls down to his side.

‘It’s cold tonight’

‘Si señor’

‘Would you like some soup?’

Soup. Right. That would be wonderful. It wasn’t high on my list, but I’ll take it. I nod.

I’m still vigorously nodding as he moves to the stove and fiddles, his back to me. The gun is on the counter now: it’s unheld, it’s beyond an intrepid lunge away, I notice. He turns back to me.

‘Some men came to my home last month. They had guns. They took everything’ he says, explaining my impression that the place was derelict.

‘I bought this for protection. I thought you were one of them’

He smiles for the first time, and I realise I’m doing the same, but in a wildly exaggerated way.

‘Why are you back so late?’ I ask

‘Oro’ he says. Gold.

Of course, the muddy face, and all those holes I’d seen cut into the hillsides. This opportunistic mining is illegal, but local men ignore the rules and make nocturnal forays. Some have died when their holes cave in. They make pennies. The multinationals take it away in trucks.

‘Look what I found’ he walks over to me, digs into his pocket and brings out a wad of tissue paper. Opening it up two nuggets of gold glint in the yellowy dance of the electric light.

‘Wow. How much will you sell them for?’

‘112 soles per gram’; he says with pride. Thirty quid. Probably it’s nothing compared to their worth.

We talk, Vancho and I. He tells me about his family, a wife and three children, a few hundred kilometres away in a poor industrial town on the coast, high in crime and transient, dislocated people. He tells me of how he’s struggling to look after them.

Finally he says ‘Well if you need anything, you can knock. Buenas noches, Señor.’

‘Muchas gracias’ It’s for the soup, for the not killing me, but mostly for not toying with my impression that the world is not the chilling, calculated one of the TV news.

I return to my tent, the rain has stopped and a few stars are out. I fall asleep slowly next to Vancho’s home, listening again to the night. There’s a lulling, reassuring whisper to the wind, and in a few hours the sun will rise.

 
 
Two more blog posts to come: the next on Europe, the last one on thoughts of coming home.A new blog will rise from the ashes from this one.
 
I’ve been very lucky to receive regular donations from the
public over the last three years of this trip since I ran out of money, first through
a crowdfunding campaign and then through the ‘donate/ buy me some noodles’
button on this website. Along with income from travel writing and giving presentations, this has been essential for me to continue. I’m seriously
running on empty in the final weeks of my trip, so if you’ve enjoyed this blog
and would like to make a small contribution so
that I can sneak into a café and buy myself a coffee, or sleep in a hostel to
escape the snow, I would be immensely grateful. Here’s the link…
 

Paradise lost and found

Paradise Found?



A typical decision in my life circa 2009 –
Mr Jones is complaining of abdominal pain, should I rush him to theatre for an appendisectomy?

A typical decision circa 2012 –
If I buy some mayonnaise today, will it last until Tuesday?

For a time escaping the shackles of meaningful decision making was a cosy spin-off to life on the road though eventually it’s becomes nice to have a proper quandary to mull over, and one that doesn’t involve dairy produce. Whilst choosing the right boat and captain for the sea crossing from Colombia to Panama may not be on par with deciding the fate of Mr Jones’ intestinal system, it was not a decision to be taken lightly. An Australian girl I ran into in Lima had a tale of woe which went something like:

Incompetent, drunk captain = irreparably damaged boat = Titanic-like emergency in open ocean = evacuation into a life raft and loss of all possessions.

Rumour had it that El Capitan had sabotaged the crossing for an insurance pay out on the sunken vessel making ‘Disreputable Sea Dogs’ another on my evolving list of ‘Crazy Shit To Worry About’ right below hurricanes, tsunamis, pirates and shark attack. An even more common difficulty on the grapevine was that of boats running out of food mid-crossing, I added this to the top of my mental list, above tsunami, and wondered whether an enforced hunger strike would drive me first to suicide or to mutiny and cannibalism. Just in case I decided that choosing a boat with a chubby captain and tender looking first mate would be a sensible insurance policy.

After a year biking through Africa the name of one craft though steals my attention – The African Queen, a forty foot Catamaran. Tentatively I sign up and arrive early at the harbour, swiftly followed by my fellow sea farers, and after quick meet and greets we head to the supermarket for the much more important booze run. We return to stash our main luggage in the hold and each of us carry a small rucksack for the voyage, mine is 50% beer, 25 % rum and 25% stuff I probably don’t need. Our motley posse includes a lanky Dutchman, a Finnish honeymooning couple, a Swizz couple and a duo of hard drinking Aussie lads. Our captain is Rudy, a veteran sailor in his late 40’s with blond curly neck length locks and bronzed skin who is donning a black bandanna, Oakley’s and surf shorts – my first impression is somewhere between Garth from Wayne’s World and a beach bum with more than a touch of pirate thrown in. He’s quadriligual, although swears only in window-shatteringly loud Italian, and an incredible chef, a fact that comes to light as he serves up our first meal, Octopus Risotto and I make a mental note – always sail with an Italian Captain. The only other member of crew is Rudy’s Colombian totty – a curvaceous, spicy mamacita twenty years his junior who sports inch long bright pink nails, a host of bracelets, Gucci sunglasses (one of around twenty pairs hanging up inside the cabin) and has a penchant for marijuana. She is as ocean savvy as your average agoraphobic. All this makes her in my view simultaneously both the absolute best and absolute worst First Mate for an ocean voyage. Rudy, I’m guessing, senses no such dichotomy.



There’s something reassuring about the Darien Gap, the hunk of wild, indomitable territory that divides Panama and Colombia. In a world where people have driven cars to the North Pole, have jumped to earth from space and have cycled across the surface of frozen lakes, the Darien is still sin careterra and whilst there are rough trails, most consider the region impassible, at least for the rational of mind. It seems that if I did completely abandoned my senses and began an unsupported swim from Colombia to Panama I might have a slightly better time of it than a land crossing across the same frontier. People might even raise a glass and call me brave at my funeral instead of shaking their heads and muttering “What an idiot!”, the only label that could be sensibly ascribed to anyone who takes on the guerrilla-controlled, mosquito-ridden tract of dense jungle frequented only by the ruling drug cartels and the occasional loping jaguar. Unless a local drugs lord has your back, the Darien is the reserve of the careless and the insane. To get around the problem you could fly but for the more inspired there’s a better option – for years chartered yachts have made the crossing, ferrying tourists from Cartagena to the coast of Panama and stopping en route at the San Blas Islands, an autonomous region partly inhabited by the Kuna Indians (foreigners having been kicked off years ago) and, this is true, a place in which until relatively recently the primary unit of currency was the coconut. Which is just brilliant.

We haul up the anchor, set sail and stand out on the deck watching the modern stone henge of Cartagena’s high rise apartments glide by, like the gappy grin of a madman smiling us off. The send off party soon join us, a school of bottle nosed dolphins that slice through the surf and make brief loops into the salty air. Our enthusiasm for sea life though is soon quashed by the choppy ocean which renders most of us landlubbers aboard unable to walk, converse or move much at all. The Dutchman can’t eat fearing a post-prandial spraying of lunch over the ship’s side, back from whence it came. It’s like standing on top of a prone epileptic, which incidentally there is no good reason to do and is not comfortable, safe or fair on the epileptic.

That night we rotate through 90 minute shifts to watch for ships whilst rolling waves strike the boat at tangents as we wobble through the Caribbean propelled by a sail that puffs and whips and drives us at ten knots into the night. A phosphorescent algae lights up the churning wake of the Catamaran like a disco ball – it’s a spooky, surreal time where I hallucinate ghost ships.


Towards dusk on the second day I spot them first – a small grey bump on the horizon and then, like fresh mosquito bites, more and more segue into view. The sun spills it’s shine onto the ocean creating a linear blaze of cherry-red, like a celebrity carpet, the African Queen our limousine. The island we pass first is the anticipated vision of paradise – it appears we’ve been consumed by a computer and are in fact sailing through Windows wallpaper. The San Blas archipelago are so often assigned throw away and cliched labels – idyllic, picture-perfect, breath-taking – but then the islands are cliched by nature representing for many the archetypal tropical paradise. Yes there’s white sand, turquoise waters, palm trees, coconuts, yarda yarda, but I yearn for more than just the postcard imagery. Like friends, lovers, nature and travel itself, it’s the imperfections that can thrill and seduce the most, and so secretly I yearn for a serpent in Eden.

We are not alone here. Our first guest is a turtle breezing through the turquoise and stretching it’s neck to breach the tops of the waves and take the odd gasp of air. Minutes later a manta ray breaks the surface and dives back beneath the gentle ripples whilst a lone pelican inspects us from above, circling and dodging palm fronds. A communal dive and swim to shore ends in a quandary – to admire or to explore? I leave the others gazing longingly into the lustrous sheen of the sun-drenched Caribbean tide and head instead along the shoreline like a castaway exploring a new home. Visually the metaphor works as well.

The Finnish couple have disappeared to a more secluded part of the island, if I was one half of a loved-up couple in paradise I’d be off to do the same, one for the bucket list, despite sand in places you’d rather it wasn’t. As I meander insouciently around the island a host of white conch shells appear, semi-submerged in sand like skulls in a mass grave. I move inwards to explore beyond the limits of this beach and my heart drops – behind the first row of palms resides a huge pile of litter and accompanying swarm of sand flies. They are as out of place as a punk in a yoga class.

We anchor up and sail to another island of the San Blas, it’s the size of a football pitch, the shape of an arrow head and hosts showy tourists on big budgets in expensive huts who are fiercely busy relishing the sloth of island life by doing exactly nada. There are 378 islands in the San Blas and somebody reminds me of the common dictum “one for every day of the year” which sounds to me like a tag line concocted by a tourist agency and makes me think two things – First, somebody can’t count, and second, wow, I wonder if anyone has tried that? The islands vary greatly in size, some precarious mounds of sand with room enough for just a couple of palms, the front line in climate change and centimetres away from extinction. Others, around fifty, are larger and inhabited by the Kuna Indians.

In the evening with settled bellies and surer legs the group bonding can begin, but the sun dashes for cover under cloud and an abrupt tropical storm unleashes it’s fury, so we rush out onto the deck to wash off the salt. “Is Raining!” Screams Rudy “Is Emotional!” and he dances around the African Queen babbling incoherently. Afterwards we sit shivering until someone suggests a cup of tea but is swiftly trumped by a call for rum for which we all assent. Rudy declines the mixer on the grounds that Coca Cola is bad for you.

The days progress – Cuba Libre for breakfast, Yellow Snapper (harpooned) and king crab for lunch, Italian cuisine for dinner with beer aperitifs and rum chasers. “Thanks for the food” we all chirp after another gourmet garlic-heavy delight, but meet Rudy’s retort “no no no. Thanks for the eat. I’m happy when you are happy”. Filling our bellies and the game of endlessly getting tipsy is punctuated by snorkeling and siestas and by now we are all sporting the rosy hue of England’s Away From Home Shirt. Exertion? Well yes, some, but here it’s relative – snapping coconuts, back flips off the deck, the tiresome chore of switching hammocks.

Relishing a tropical storm on deck
For our third night we anchor down and spend the evening on an island amongst a gaggle of ageing American hippies who’s diction is dominated by “heavy” and “far-out”. They’ve been mooching around the San Blas for more than six years, occasionally chartering boats for tourists, and there’s something cheesy and reactionary about them, or perhaps that’s just my instant distrust of those who openly market themselves with romantic tags. “Hey we’re wanderers man” insists one when  I ask where he’s from. “Yeah, we’re, like, nomads pipes up another. They are fine musicians though and keep us entertained with Bob Dylan and the rest, but it still feels like a Beach Boys reunion so we head back to the boat and have our own party which fairly predictably culminates in drunken skinny dipping, which is predictably initiated by the Finns. Rudy wears a huge African mask for most of the night and howls with laughter. The group are completely enamoured by his antics – its not that his jokes are belly-clutchingly, foam-at-the-mouth funny, usually in fact he makes no sense at all, but his reaction to everything is an infectious explosion of histrionics so ridiculous and cheering that you can’t help but join him.

On the last night Rudy announces that the Kuna Indians are having their monthly knee’s up on an island close by. We sail off and soon encounter a very different San Blas, these postcards wouldn’t sell as well. There are hundreds of thatched huts jammed into every inch of bustling land where women wash their children, men load and unload boats and children carry out their chores whilst wooden dug-outs ease through the surrounding sea – people living lives rather than escaping them. The Kuna are tiny in stature, spiritual in nature and the women are attired in traditional dress – a vivid concoction of bracelets and colours that scream and bellow and with a nose ring that completes the ensemble. We take the launch to shore, the scene that greets us is the result of one furious moonshine named chicha fuerte. ‘Totalled’ may not be a proper adjective worthy of the Oxford English dictionary, but its the best one. Sloshed, leathered, blind drunk – they don’t come close. Everybody over the age of 8 and not pregnant is off their head, neck and body. They can’t talk. Many are comatose. Women are being carried by friends whilst screaming and babbling drunk-speak and kids sway like slow motion boxers in the first round, but with a stagger and a bellowed drawl. There’s a religious component to this drunken orgy that I admit I know little about but even so the curious tableau is a touch menacing, a touch sad, a touch hilarious and more than a touch understandable. London at 7pm on any given Friday is much the same, add suits and boozers, though the British can evidently handle their grog better than the Kuna.




On the final day we sail towards the coast of Panama which assaults the sea scape I’ve grown accustomed to and the montaine spine of Central America protrudes like the fins of a fish, the mountain tops though are lost in the ashen smudge of distant rain. Behind us the freckles of the San Blas fade from view as the blue face of the Caribbean winks us a sly goodbye.

Paradise Lost?

Amongst those who know me well, it’s my manifest lack of any sense of direction that is the most illustrious and conspicuous target for mockery. The list of places and spaces I have managed to completely lose my bearings is infinite and tedious so I won’t recount it here, but it includes the hospital I worked in for three years, several supermarkets and department stores, most of London and every campsite and festival I have ever made my temporary home. Things are worse than bad – I once slept rough in a field in Argentina when I tried for hours and failed to find my hostel. When people remark “Don’t worry, it’s impossible to get lost” I sigh, for with that one-liner they have sealed my fate. In my early teens losing my house was a particular favourite pastime and brought much angst to the parents of my friends who drove me around in circles through Oxford and who must have been convinced I was having them on. “How can anyone not remember where they live!” The enduring words of one despairing father. It’s a disability, like colour blindness, club foot and Welsh-ness. A miracle then I have made it this far on my bicycle and were it not for that ingenious convenience of The Map, I would still be negotiating my way through Surrey muttering to myself “Now I’m sure I’ve seen that bridge before. No, wait… was it that bridge?”

So to Panama City, the world’s most losable-in city and me, the world’s most heinous of all lost wanderers who even St Jude can’t save. I set out with a simple mandate – to find a camping shop. And I walked. And I guessed. And I gorped, and I walked some more. And hours slid by, and continents drifted apart. My flip flops pounded the street for so long that erythematous streaks criss-crossed the dorsum of each foot. The oh so familiar feeling of lostness descended as the city segued into a oneness that jeered at my incompetence and repeated it’s garbled song. A trio of Kuna women (the same trio?) gabbing by a corner shop (the same shop?). An old lady sold single cigarettes and there were fat people, lots of them, and lots of MacDonalds too. And lots of fat people queueing up to eat at MacDonalds. Complicated maths, I know.

Then for while my misadventure took a more sinister twist – people thinned out, saucer-eyed men marked me out with an ireful stare and scanned the surrounds (for witnesses?). Toddlers sat in heaps of rubbish whilst drunks shambled by using drain pipes for support and houses became rubble-strewn gutted shells, unlivable in at first glance and then – not quite. A couple of drawn and haggard prostitutes slumped by the door of a brothel, one black eye a piece. The city’s stink was an overpowering layered assault on my nostrils with wafting excrement, fish, something musty, cooking oil and smog all making fleeting passes. Then back into the drama of a busier part where shouting hawkers out-screamed the taxi drivers who out-honked the roar of engines and a cacophony of Latin infused rhythms from Panasonic shops trumped everything. By now if you had traced my journey on a map you would come up with something similar to the creative stylings of a crackhead on an etch-a-sketch.

It’s a little known fact that the ability to give good directions when asked by a stranger in the street is carried by a single gene, located on chromosome 7, and resident in the cell nucleus of around 28% of the population. It is often inherited alongside the ability to find car keys (chromosome 13) and the tendency to wear odd socks (chromosome 8). In Panama though, by some fluke of genomic spread only 0.0000001% of the population possess the gene to give good directions, and he didn’t live in this part of town. Thus my task of getting unlost became even harder. Call it a Colombian hangover, but I was not instantly taken by Panama City, a sprawling competition of smells and sounds and clutter. Getting lost though can give you a fresh perspective and there’s beauty in the dark underbelly and the cogs of any city if you look hard enough. After hours trudging and mooning through her weird maze, she hadn’t won my heart but she somehow made more sense. There was a satisfaction to making the transition from skimming the surface to full body dunk, involuntary though it was, and as I have found many times, having no internal compass can be a blessing in disguise.

Eventually a land mark I recognised for certain this time and soon enough I was back in my hostel. After all that calorie-consuming vagabonding I was tired and hungry so after a quick rest I went out for food. I kid you not, within 15 minutes I was utterly lost once again.

Two weeks of contrast, from the vice-ridden slums of a central American capital to an equally vice-ridden island ‘paradise’. Next up is Costa Rica for New’s Year Eve with my friend Jess who’s coming out to visit me from the UK. And then north once again, always north.

New friends in Panama

South America: Of maths and memories…

Well I thought it would take me nine months, in the end my journey across Latin America by bicycle lasted two weeks over a year. There were a number of excuses I could offer up to explain my tardiness, but mostly it was because I wanted to savour the continent and I fell in love with those rough, high, slow-going back roads that twist and bounce through the Andean wilderness. Last week, as I cruised slowly towards the Colombian coast on the Pan-American highway which spiralled down a shrinking spine of rock, dropping into a steamy abyss, I remembered a friend’s description of my South American end point, Cartagena – “nice, but hot as hell“. She was mistaken. If Satan himself was holed up in Cartagena for a few days he would demand a room with air conditioning and keep his devil-tail dunked in an ice bucket. Cartagena is supernova hot and had me sweating like sumo wrestlers in crotchless leather suits making sweet love in a Turkish sauna, but I was glad to be here all the same.

Mountains have been the theme of the last twelve months of my life, it will be coastline for the next six. As I pulled into the city, my last of this restless, feisty continent, I had a moment of sentimental reflection whilst my eyes surfed the tranquil waters of the Caribbean and I recalled a similar moment in time from more than a year ago when I stared out at the Southern Ocean towards Antarctica but wondered instead what lay in the opposite direction. Between then and now there have been ups and downs, physical, literal ones and the more metaphysical type too. I have been evicted from my tent at gun point late at night in Peru, I cycled stark naked across the world’s largest salt lake in Bolivia, I survived a Colombian road known as The Trampoline of Death, I met a beautiful Australian girl called Polly, I cycled more vertical metres in one week than from sea level to the summit of Mount Everest, I was stabbed in the hand by a drunk, I got lost in the eyes of Colombian girls, I scared myself silly in the aftermath of a volcanic eruption in Chile and I had a flour fight with 25,000 other people in an Argentinian stadium. A rollicking ride. Never plain sailing but despite all the effort, the pain and the fleeting bouts of boredom, loneliness and anxiety, it was worth it.

I’m not entirely sure why I collect useless information about my life on the road, but it has become habit and here are some stats about continent number three…

Time taken – one year and two weeks
Distance cycled in South America – 16,793 km
Proportion cycled on unpaved roads – 31 %
Greatest distance cycled in one day – 182 km (Peruvian coast)
Punctures – 45
Broken spokes – 12
Chains – 2
Brake pads – 6
Gear cables – 8

Tyres – I retired a Schwalbe Dureme after a very impressive 15,500 km, I got through a few Schwalbe Marathon Plus’s and now I have the new Schwalbe Mondials on, more than 3000 km and no punctures yet.

Coldest temp – Minus 15 degrees Celsius (Southern Bolivia)
Top altitude cycled to – Abra Loncopata (5119 metres above sea level), Peru
Toughest climb –  La Esperanza to La Miran Alto, Ecuador (unsealed track which climbs 1675 vertical metres over 20 km, an average gradient of 8%)
Most days without a shower – 10



My favourite photos from South America…




I have read 27 books over the last year. Here they are… amongst my favourites are Skippy Dies, White Teeth, Bad Science, Cloud Atlas, The Fountainhead, The White Tiger and Middlesex.
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Stephen’s south-america book montage

White Teeth
Cloud Atlas
Bad Science
I'm a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After 20 Years Away
The Line of Beauty
Middlesex
The White Tiger
The Fountainhead
Skippy Dies
The God of Small Things
The Mosquito Coast
Absurdistan
Tuesdays with Morrie
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Light
Travel Writing: See the World. Sell the Story
The Help
The Art of Travel
Viva South America!: A Journey Through A Restless Continent
Birdsong: A Novel of Love and War


Stephen Fabes’s favorite books »
Share book reviews and ratings with Stephen, and even join a book club on Goodreads.


In other news – On the 10th I jump aboard a Catamaran bound for the San Blas islands and then Panama. It will be a sprint through Central America so that I keep deadlines in the US and don’t freeze to death come Alaska. There’s lots in the pipeline over the next ten months including…
  • I have written features which are due to be published in Outer Edge, Cycle, Verge and Wild Junket magazines plus an interview in Vagabundo. 
  • I start filming for an exciting documentary called Adventure Challenge next week. 
  • In California I am scheduled to speak in more than twenty events, schools and societies including the Rotary Club of Los Angeles and the California chapter of the Explorer’s Club (dates and details coming soon).
  • This blog will feature my 2012 equipment reviews.
  • I will soon launch a new blog called Riding Off-Route which will cover some of the practical details of touring and detail some of the more adventurous routes in South America.
  • This blog may even find a new format – as a (print-on-demand) book.
Finally as a happy coincidence I rolled into Cartagena on the Colombian Caribbean coast on just over 40,000 km which I have realised is roughly the circumference of the earth at the equator. So in terms of numbers, I suppose I have pedalled once around the planet. And to celebrate that fact I would love to reach another milestone – so far the supporters of Cycling The 6 have raised almost 20,000 pounds for the medical aid charity Merlin. If you can pledge a small amount and help to break the 20,000 pound mark now that I have completed continent number three, it would be fantastic. If you feel moved to donate you can do so on my fundraising page.

Have a great Christmas and New Year