Cycling hungryFrom The Field
Laura Bingham cycled from the east coast of Ecuador to Buenos Aires,through the Amazon and over the Andes, without taking any money. Laura’s challenge was designed to highlight the plight of so many people in the world who don’t readily have food available and to support a charity called Operation South America. Sidetracked caught up with her on her return
Where are you right now, and how do you feel after your challenge?
I am currently at home in the middle of England’s countryside. I’m so happy to be back on English soil and at home where I can get a cup of tea at my whim! I feel so proud that I have achieved what I originally set out to do and didn’t let anything sway me enough to bring me home. I stayed true to my word. But now I’m very motivated and determined to help people who are a lot less fortunate than I am and perhaps don’t have any money. I have always wanted to help, but now having lived and experienced these circumstances, it’s a much stronger feeling than when I started.
Why did you decide to do this challenge? How did the idea come about?
I decided to do this challenge after I sailed the Atlantic in 2014 where I realised more of what I was capable of. I loved the reaction I got from people when I returned home, they were surprised at what I had just done and it spurred me on to do something else.
I began to think of other challenges I could do. I have a bucket list of 87 things I would like to achieve in my life; it has a real mix on there. For example, I would like to have a perfectly organised wardrobe one day and I’d like to build a chessboard – the list goes on! But one of the points on my list was to cycle across a country. At first I thought that maybe I would cycle around the world, but then I thought about how much I wanted to experience different places and cultures and cycling around the world would just become a race. It’s never about the race, it’s about the journey.
I decided on South America for several reasons; I had previously lived there so I had a good knowledge of the Spanish language and also I loved the people, I was intrigued to learn more about their way of life.
I wanted to support an amazing charity I had found called Operation South America. They are a fantastic organisation who work to feed young people and give them a place to sleep. With the idea of completing this challenge without any money, the charity and expedition came hand in hand I felt they were the perfect charity to support.
Were there moments when you thought you couldn’t go on?
There were several moments, I struggled on numerous days. I was determined to stay positive although it’s easier said than done, especially when you’re low on energy. I found myself listening to motivational audios, particularly a channel called ‘Motivational Madness’ on You Tube. Having someone shout in to my ear telling me ‘you can do this’ really helped! Sometimes just having that voice and support there is all you need, it gives you the fight to carry on. Support is key.
It’s also important to understand pain, to live without pain is impossible. We’re all going to experience it and some point in our lives, it’s just whether you want it to be a momentary feeling of physical pain, or the pain of regret. For me, the fear of pain from regret will always outweigh any fear of momentary pain.
Did finding food become an obsession?
Collecting food certainly became an obsession and so did watching people eat – I became like an animal on the streets! Food was precious to me and I constantly felt the need to save it. I remember when one of my cycling partners, Ness, started eating the ‘good tuna’ one day and I even questioned her on it. I had carried it for so long; it was one of the nice things I was saving for when I really needed it. Looking back now I laugh, but at the time the ‘good tuna’ was like gold to me and I even finished with one tin left! I also had some cake that my fiancé’s sister made for me before I left and I carried it with me for the entire trip and ate it the day before I finished. I was so desperate not to waste it.
When I was in Ecuador where I began, I had a collection of nice food but I was determined to wait until I was undeniably desperate before I ate it. I suppose I was always waiting for something worse to happen.
What did you hope to achieve? What was the key aim?
The thing I set out to achieve was to show how difficult it is to live without money and also prove how kind people can be if you need it. To be able to share this with people, I needed to understand it for myself. I know it’s not the same for me as I had the knowledge that I would eventually be coming back to money, whatever I felt must only be a tenth of what they feel. But by doing this adventure, I have a better understanding of what some people actually have to go through. I’m glad I understand this now. Now that I really understand I feel like I can really help.
What were the biggest challenges?
The biggest challenge I faced was lack of energy, especially travelling through the Andes. Those incredibly steep dirt roads of nothing but pure mud which I had to push my bike up were exhausting. Pushing or cycling your bike along a flat road isn’t very difficult; it doesn’t take up a lot of energy and especially when you get in to the flow of it. But when you’re travelling uphill, you burn off so much more energy and calories so I would get hungry very quickly. It became a real test of mental determination over strength.
Over time I also developed a huge fear of rejection, especially in Ecuador. There were so many occasions where people turned me down and didn’t want to help me that I soon became terrified of asking for it. I became afraid of the word no. It took months for me to get over this fear and that was only down to the people who were caring and kind to me. They made me feel stronger and it gave my confidence back.
What surprised you most during your journey?
How much a smile really means. When people smiled at me and were genuinely happy to see me, it made me feel so much better. I thought that it would be food or items that people would kindly give to me that would have the biggest impact on my day but it wasn’t, if people were happy it made me happy. It’s infectious.
I think people forget to be kind sometimes or forget that people have kindness in them. I was shocked at how many times I didn’t even need to ask for help. Someone would just see me at the side of the road and off their own back, stop and offer me food. Offering your help to someone doesn’t take much, but it rewards you with a wonderful feeling. Smile at the next stranger you see/meet and see if they smile back, I guarantee you it will make your day.
What was the most important thing you learnt?
You don’t know what someone else is going through. You don’t know what’s happening in their lives, they could be having a terrible day or maybe they’ve recently lost someone close to them. Be respectful. Be kind.
What was the most useful piece of kit?
This has got to be my Rab Down Jacket. Before I left, I thought about what I could use as a pillow as realistically it wasn’t practical for me to take one with me. Originally I took a pillow case and I planned on stuffing my clothes inside it to create a pillow, but my Rab Down Jacket was just so incredibly soft and warm that I didn’t need a pillow! It kept me warm at a 5,000m altitude in the Andes but didn’t overheat me on the slightly warmer days either. It can squeeze in to a compact bag and is very easy to carry around with me.
To someone hoping to embark on their own expedition, what advice would you offer?
Listen to your gut. If something doesn’t feel right or safe then don’t disregard those feelings, trust yourself. Be safe: lock your tent from the inside, safety in numbers and be wise as it’s not worth taking the risks. No matter how dangerous your expedition may be, you can always make sure you’re safe.
Finally, if you could go back in time and tell yourself something as you were setting off what would it be?
Pack light! I’d tell myself when I packed my things to unpack it all, and then pack half of it. Only take the things that you absolutely can’t live without as that’s all you’ll need. I started my cycle with a trailer and put all my belongings in it – unnecessary belongings as it turned out. It stayed with me for about two months before I ditched it. Pulling an extra 50 kilos was a waste of my energy and slowed me down. Once I got rid of it, it was so much better!