In Sidetracked Volume Eight, Laura Bingham describes the early stages of her 7,000km bikepacking adventure through South America with no money, whilst hauling her bike up the hills in the Ecuadorian Andes. Here, the story continues from later in the expedition.
My eyes close, stomach cramping with hunger – no dinner tonight. The rain is pouring so I can’t make a fire to cook the small amount of rice I have left. In my tent, I lay on my roll mat in my sleeping bag, on the side of the road, trying to get to sleep. The hunger absorbs my mind. I toss and I turn but the hunger envelopes me. Thankfully I’m so exhausted that sleep comes before long. My mind can’t even muster up a dream to give me hope. I awake. No rain! But the joy is short-lived. Everything around me is soaked so it’s once again impossible to make a fire. My stomach growls with pain, protesting, but there is no food so I ignore its groans. Hours and hours pass pushing my bike uphill, having to stop for breath every 40m. The energy just isn’t there – without fuel, physical exertion is impossible. Six hours done, 20km done, our incredibly slow progress hits me like a knife in an already gaping wound. As the water drips off my face and the feeling vacates my fingers, I approach a house exhausted and wet once again.
I don’t want to fail, but I feel like I’m giving up. Giving up is not who I am, not what I’m known for. I’m Laura. Hard-working, determined, enthusiastic, happy-go-lucky Laura. I’m 23 and I need to do this not only because I said I would, but because I want to. We’re in Ecuador and I’m cycling across the continent of South America and I’m doing it without a penny. I want to see if it’s humanly possible; can you cycle 7,000km with no money and rely on the kindness of fellow people to help you by? But I’m also doing this because South America is filled with homeless children who experience the hell I’m going through right now on a daily basis. There’s a charity in South America that looks after young girls in this situation, Operation South America, and I want to help. But to be able to truly help, I need to understand. Here I am, the first month in. Weeks of anxiety, pain, upset and hunger. I think I’m beginning to understand.
It’s 3.00pm. I ask the owner of the house if we can camp in their garden or if they have any stale bread they could spare for us. No. Simple and straight. It’s their choice and if their answer is no then I have to respect that. I have lost all feeling in my fingers and toes. It’s cold and wet and I’m at the point where my soul feels numb, like there is no point in crying, no point in anything.
We’re currently travelling through the Ecuadorian Andes, me and Cho, my cycling partner. The few houses that we find are very sparsely built. The people are not used to strangers; they do not like them, and they don’t want to help. We’re struggling to power on. It has taken us a long time to travel a short distance, and with every step and every push we are getting slower and slower. Food is now a distant memory – perhaps a couple of days since we had any? I haven’t the energy to even think about when the last time was.
It’s cold and wet and I’m at the point where my soul feels numb, like there is no point in crying, no point in anything.
I pull off my thin gloves and examine my hands – are they my hands? These ghostly white and wrinkled things? I try to straighten them but they won’t move, as if they aren’t even connected to my body.
Cho and I see two girls walking into their house and we call after them and ask for help. I plead with what little strength I have left. They tell us to wait until their mother returns home – she’s at the market selling guinea pigs. So we wait. Seconds go by, then minutes, and after a while we think maybe they have just left us out here and that we should move on. It’s getting late and we need to find somewhere to stay and get warm. I am starting to lose faith – what if she comes back and turns us away? What if they lied and are just waiting for us to leave? I begin to panic and torment myself trying to decide what to do. I look down at my hands and try to move my fingers. They won’t move. A tear wells up in my eye and I began to pray. Please. Tears bubble and slide down my face until they land on my gloves, watery marks unnoticeable against the soaked material.
There’s a lot more self-growth on the harder road. That’s something I’ve slowly come to learn. The times I’ve felt that I’ve truly grown as a person have always been when I truly had to dig deep for strength. Each time I have been forced to examine who I am and what I am made of. In the moment it can seem like the darkness will never end and it’s inconceivable to be joyful about tomorrow. But to come out the other side with a new-found strength and knowledge that you can endure almost anything… I love that feeling, it empowers me.
A flicker of movement out of my peripheral vision. One of the girls comes out of the house! She tells us to come in and wait until their parents return home. We follow her to their worship room to wait. The feeling of warmth and the relief just to be inside are overwhelming. I pull off my thin gloves and examine my hands – are they my hands? These ghostly white and wrinkled things? I try to straighten them but they won’t move, as if they aren’t even connected to my body. I stand for a moment, waiting for my body to dry before peeling off my drenched clothes and replacing them with warm and dry ones. I tell myself I’ll be OK, it will be OK. But I begin to lose faith again. What if they tell us to leave? What if we have to go back out there? My stomach twists.
Two figures walk through the gate and into the house. They’re back. Surely they won’t tell us to leave, not when it’s getting so dark outside? I dig deep, pull out my biggest smile and introduce Cho and myself. They had to see I meant no harm.
Yes. I will never forget the moment she said it. Yes.
I let go of my breath with relief. She had no idea what this meant to us.
Their house was different. As we walked in, straight ahead there was a worship room with a kitchen above it. Their bedrooms were in a separate house on the right with an outhouse bathroom. She offered us the worship room to sleep in and told us to rest. After a short while, I went up to the kitchen to ask if I could cook the rice we had but she insisted she’d cook for us. She then ushered me down the stairs into a room on the right with a roaring fire and stacks of firewood. I stared at the dancing flames and felt my body begin to thaw in the welcome heat. I felt safe at last – I could breathe.
I offered my help, eager to do something for them in return for their generosity. We ended up helping the family with their chores the following day and stayed the next evening too.
Over the course of those 36 hours, I felt like I was at home with my own family. I felt happy, loved and safe. You can’t take these things for granted. We forget how lucky we are, we forget what a smile from another human being can do. We forget how lucky we are to be safe.
Laura Bingham is an English adventurer. In 2016 she set off to cross an entire continent without any money – completely human-powered, raising both money and awareness for Operation South America, a charity that looks after homeless or abused girls and young women in Paraguay.