Chasing Adventure Through Peru
I wake up, toss restlessly for five minutes before getting out of my sleeping bag, then put some water on the boil for a coffee. A couple of clicks of my camera and a gurgle from the pan. Sunrise captured and coffee ready. Porridge. Pack up. Pedal.
Routine. My spirit cries out against it, yet it’s crept up upon me by stealth. Five months into my cycle ride around the world and I have subconsciously slipped into a routine. My friends back home are fresh from university and entering the world of graduate city jobs – deadlines, long hours, repetition – a world I was desperate to escape from. Yet a common thread connects us beyond the occasional Facebook messages and Skype calls. Routine.
I had been riding along Ruta 3, Peru’s Andean highway – a ribbon of tarmac cutting through South America’s web of rough dirt roads. But the days were repeating themselves. Daily climbs of over 2,000m, beautiful vistas, a wonderful culture with so much to learn from. On paper this looked like the perfect recipe for a fulfilling bike tour. I should have revelled in my experience, yet my journey had somehow been reduced to the simple maths of daily distance, slowly covering each northward kilometre and ticking off each degree of latitude. I wasn’t feeling fulfilled.
Long-distance sport consumed me as a child. Physically pushing myself to go further and faster became my life, and this was becoming an underlying theme to my ride. I relish the prospect of testing my body’s limits. Although I had no deadlines or targets to meet, I often found myself racing along the road, feeling the need to go far and fast yet missing out on the wonders all around me. Too often I would pass the perfect wild camp spot just to squeeze another 20km into the day. I’m not out to break any records, I’m out to see the world – yet my goals stand, ironically, as obstacles to the real adventure, towering higher than the snow-capped mountains that surround me. And all the time the ticking over of my routine. Eat. Cycle. Sleep. Eat. Cycle. Sleep. Although the fundamentals of bike touring wont change – I need to eat, cycle and sleep – I began to realise that I could change how and where I did these things.
I should have revelled in my experience, yet my journey had somehow been reduced to the simple maths of daily distance, slowly covering each northward kilometre and ticking off each degree of latitude. I wasn’t feeling fulfilled.
I gradually realised that the real demon of completing a multi-year journey is not the physical effort – it’s the mental strain. The monotony. Was I able to find the route that would lead to the most rewarding experiences?
The daily ups and downs of the highway matched my emotions – on top of the world one minute before plunging towards the shadowed valley floor the next. The physical effort focused my mind. I’d concentrate on one single thought and explore all of its possibilities until the pedals stop turning, the wheels start spinning and the thrill of a fast descent begins. And on the Andean highway the hours spent pedalling my heavy bicycle uphill allowed plenty of time for thought. I was searching for the purpose of my trip – I knew that it was something to do with new experiences, personal exploration and uncertainty – I knew it lay in adventure. Yet routine, the antithesis of adventure, lurked around every hairpin corner.
Beyond the sheen of social media, the carefully curated photos and videos I shared with family, friends, and interested others, the reality is that the journey had simply become my life. Nothing old and nothing new. I wasn’t living each day to the full. I wasn’t on the ‘trip of a lifetime’ as others often tell me. Rather I was just getting on with living, the same as everybody else, but in my own way.
Like others my age, I often find my gaze firmly fixed on the future. When pedalling up another brutal incline my mind naturally wanders to the question of what lies ahead for me. What will life be like when I reach home? What will I do? What relevance does this trip have for the rest of my life? Often these thoughts of home provide comfort in moments of hardship and act as a spur to drive me on. Yet they also remove me from the moment.
I gradually realised that the real demon of completing a multi-year journey is not the physical effort – it’s the mental strain. The monotony. Was I able to find the route that would lead to the most rewarding experiences? This is the real challenge. There’s little virtue in just mindlessly pedalling and passing through the world. After some time, simply existing amidst spectacular views becomes a little boring.
Something had to change.
I decided to leave the smooth tarmac and reinvigorate my journey. I took to the dirt roads of central Peru, headed to the highest and hardest passes I could find. I pushed, pulled and pedalled my bike over mountain pass after mountain pass, climbing high then riding low, following a network of seldom-used tracks and paths. At last I began to forget the false sense of urgency I’d felt on the road, the self-imposed pressure of reaching a certain country or a certain place by a certain time. Fun, colour and genuine challenge flushed back into my adventure. When the track ended and the path began I kept on moving – hauling my bike and bags up and down hillsides, across rivers and into the adventure I was looking for. Into the real essence of my trip. On the face of it this was a brutal struggle, yet my soul was overjoyed and in many ways it felt easier than the numbing miles on the highway.
On Ruta 3 cars and trucks had thundered past me. Here only the occasional family on horseback crossed from one valley to the next in order to sell their produce. From my foreign perspective they lived a beautifully rugged existence, but perhaps they shared my disdain for routine. Perhaps they too wanted to shake things up a bit. Higher passes, harder tracks, mud, snow, sun and rain – my adventure kept on getting better and better, and all the while the views and altitude battled continuously for my breath. But I was motivated. It was easy. I was having an absolute blast.
However, all good things must come to an end. After two weeks of tackling these mountains I begin to ask myself what comes next. I’m used to this now and have slipped into another routine. I don’t feel scared or nervous or excited any more – I’ve found the comfort in the journey, and the adventure has fallen by the wayside again. What’s next?
Humans are fundamentally hardwired to adapt, to acclimatise ourselves to hardship. It’s part of what makes us so successful – and also what gives us the drive to explore. Although adventure conjures up images of nature and wilderness, its essence is uncertainty, lying somewhere within the unknown and the inexperienced. A paradox of the human spirit is that our innate ability to adapt compromises the true nature of adventure. Excitement all too readily secedes to routine and comfort, to normalcy. The road between adventure and normal life is all too short.
Chasing adventure can be a game without end. Lasting contentment is never to be found – instead only temporary fulfilment and perpetual longing. I stare at the map of my journey and see adventure as that which lies beyond its borders, yet the edges fall away into the distance as I reach them, leaving me to chase after them once more. The prospect of adventure urges me to keep discovering and exploring, to keep feeling inspired. To push my boundaries whilst on a multi-year cycling trip is fundamental to its success. I have to escape the routine and keep true to the values that concocted the trip in the first place. To be able to achieve this is a true talent, and it’s something that I’m still searching for.
At age 22, fresh from graduating from university, Ben set off from the southern tip of South America on his bicycle to begin a ‘Round the World’ ride that will take him through five continents over the next few years. Along the way he’s teaching himself how to film and photograph his adventure – although he’s the first to admit there’s plenty of room for improvement!