Adventures of Cycling Central America

5 Months Creating Lifetime Memories

January 2016 Bismarck, ND Greyhound Bus Station
L-James R-Robert departing Bismarck, ND bus station January 2016

Robert and James, two twenty-something North Dakota (ND) males bicycling through Central America. One returns after four months, leaving the other to end his 3200+ mile journey 37 days later in Costa Rica. Along the way, they sleep in mango groves, the Mexican desert, on a dry river bed and the front yard of a drunken Dutchman’s property. They hike into a blizzard on a 17,000 foot mountain. Wild cats in El Salvador destroy the tent. They eat Chapulines-salted and dried grasshoppers.  Robert spends two days alone sweating out sickness in a dodgy, non-air-conditioned Honduran hotel room. His bike gets 7 flat tires. Yet, the abundant generosity and kindness of the Central American people sticks forever.

Day before James left Guatemala. Summit of Acatenango, 13,005 ft, with the Volcan de Fuego erupting behind us.
Day before James left Guatemala. Summit of Acatenango, 13,005 ft, with the Volcan de Fuego erupting in background.

Would you see this movie? Does the plotline pique your interest? It does mine. Except this isn’t yet a movie. It’s the true story of Robert Deringer and James Sigl, 2005 Bismarck High School graduates, intrigued enough by human power travel to embark on this life-changing journey.

 

 

In a Question and Answer session, Robert, a Minneapolis, Minnesota (MN) based arborist, shares his trip experience.

Trip Preparation

Q: Are you adventurous by nature?

A: I’ve participated in my fair share of 6, 12, 24 hour and even multiple day adventure races involving navigation, biking, trail running, a water element (kayak or canoe) and mystery challenges. I enjoy surrounding myself with people pushing their physical limits.

Having shared that, this was my first real big bike tour. I rode from St. Paul, MN to Lacrosse, Wisconsin with a friend once. I’ve only bicycled 100 miles in a day three times in my life, none on this Central American trip.

Q: Would you have done this trip alone?

A: Before going, I would’ve been hesitant. Not from a safety standpoint, but the joy of having a shared experience with someone is one of the strongest unifiers we have in this world. Today, I would say “yes” because the trip was truly that amazing.

Q: Did you ever question your decision?

A: I never questioned taking the trip, but I was questioning how life was going to move on without me while gone. What would change? I turned down a job to go. I moved out of my apartment and purchased a bike. So, I was committed.

Q: What was your greatest fear before leaving ND?

A: Will the deep love my girlfriend and I share endure? The fear was unnecessary. We grew stronger. She found tons of new passions in my absence and it made hearing her voice and seeing her in person that much sweeter.

aloneQ: What type of bike did you ride?

A: A Surly Long Haul Trucker made 5 miles from my house in Bloomington, MN with waterproof paniers. It treated me so well; the thing is nearly bomb-proof. I should’ve done more research on tires; the final 870 miles were much easier on Schwalbe Marathon Plus Tires.

Q: How did you train physically?

A: We didn’t train at all. The body is an amazing thing. I saw firsthand how adaptable both the body and mind are. Almost every blog we read before going said not to train, “Your legs will show up eventually.”

boyQ: How did you prepare financially?

A: We estimated monthly expenses to be $300-$500, living frugally by cooking our own meals and camping most of the time. Turns out things were less expensive. Near the end, we were eating out two meals daily because the food was good and cheap. Plus, we got to interact with locals. We didn’t take odd jobs. Instead, we had a pact to help when needed. For instance, we offered water to a stranger for his stranded vehicle’s radiator. I gave a kid a pair of biking gloves after seeing his calloused hands. I also helped raise a rafter for a Nicaraguan family with whom I stayed.

Q: How did you prepare mentally and emotionally?

A: I made a conscious decision to succeed on this journey by slowing down, relaxing, and letting the world come to me. With that mindset I didn’t need to prepare much mentally. Emotionally was a whole different story. It was stressful and sad during the final days before leaving. My apartment kept getting emptier. I also realized I wouldn’t see my girlfriend until her summer visit. I leaned on her, family and friends to help me move and keep my possessions until I returned.

Route Map
Route Map

Q: What sort of advance planning did you do?

A: Preparing the bike, picking out essentials and getting the life I was leaving behind in order were the most crucial elements of planning. After boarding the bus from Bismarck to Tucson, Arizona in January, very few decisions required much thought. Things were simple. I chose a quality person to travel with, had a great bike and mapped out the first few days. My advice for others is that the road will look quite different from what you imagine. You’ll start to meet a huge cast of characters who will soon alter the course of your entire journey.

The Trip

Q: Talk about housing.

A: We knew hotel stays were limited to days we were sick, super tired or needed a shower or morale booster. Early on the best housing was free in the Mexican desert. Looking for a place to camp was one of the wildest parts of the trip.

Central American people are laid back, accommodating and, quite frankly, unfazed. If it was clear who the land owner was, we’d seek permission. If not, we’d camp and leave the place as we found it. A few times the land owner would show up, hang out with us, offer food or coffee and carry on. Most everyone thought what we were doing was cool. We were conscious about not using, or abusing, resources.

We did our best to help out with a chore in exchange. In El Salvador, I made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for a host’s child. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a child’s eyes that big since.

Of course, in larger cities we used Couch Surfing or another form of radical and reciprocal hospitality for touring cyclists called Warm Showers.

Q: What did you miss most?

A: My girlfriend, but we could talk and text most days, making it easier. I also missed having a kitchen. We cooked great meals out in the bush with convenience store food, a camp stove and some ingenuity. For instance, I used the back of a Mexican license plate, found on the roadside, as a cutting board. As fun as the challenge of cooking was, it was a driving factor in getting a cabin for a month in Guatemala. It had a kitchen with a small fridge and some counter space, making it feel like Heaven.

Q: What scared you most on the journey?

A: Enjoying the road and never coming back. We met plenty of people who fell in love with a place, made it their home and never looked back. Another fear that didn’t come true for me.

Q: Describe your most memorable day.

A: After leaving the Pacific Coast city of Mazatlán, we rode up (Mexico has mountains.) for almost 90 days. In just one day, all of that elevation came back as we dropped 7000 feet. I’ve never felt so alive on a bicycle before. James, who was ahead of me, had a cold beer waiting for me at a small store that was hugging the road to the deep valley below.

Normally, I’d have been accepting of the gift. However, earlier that month an ATM ate my debit card. I was near penniless. Yet, we sat there celebrating the downhill by drinking two Tecate beers-30 to 40% of our current net worth.

That night we ate two boxes of cereal at the bottom of the hill because there was no ATM in the town or even restaurants open when we arrived.We went to bed emotionally full by the day’s happenings, but hungry.

Q: Describe a site you will always remember.

Cascada Chiflon
Cascada Chiflon

A: I will remember all the sights as I looked outside my tent door thinking, “How on earth did I get here? I’ll never be here again in my lifetime.” One particular stand-out place is Cascada El Chiflon both because of the beauty and the date we visited. It coincided with Prince’s death on April 21, 2016. As a Minneapolis resident and Prince fan, I received numerous messages as James and I started our ascent to the waterfalls. All of the flowers we saw on the hike were purple, so it appeared Prince was everywhere. As a Minnesotan, one will always remember where he was when Prince died.

Lessons Learned

Q: What did you learn about the people of the world?

A: People aren’t “out to get you.” And, nothing brings people together like a good meal. We’d seen State Department travel warnings for the region and had an awareness of crimes reported. But overall, most people are good.

Q: What was the #1 lesson you learned about yourself?

A: Clearly that I rush things too much. The best days were when we took it slow and made time to sit on storefront benches and observe the community.

Q: What have you learned you can live without?

A: The arrogance and consumption of first world countries. I not only survived but flourished 5 months riding a non-motorized vehicle with 4 attached bags. Stuff is just stuff. Sometimes stuff gets in the way of real living.

Back in the USA

Q: Why did you come back?

bicycleA: The beauty of travel is the opportunities it affords you. When you are no longer gracious for that opportunity, it’s time to call it quits. When I crossed the 3106-mile mark and a few days after leaving Ometepe Island in Nicaragua, I biked an entire day without taking in my surroundings. I was just focused on getting to Costa Rica. Then, I knew my gratitude toward the road was slipping away. I returned to the USA one week later.

Q: Describe the transition back to American culture.

A: It was harder than I ever imagined. Deplaning in Baltimore, Maryland I spoke to gate agents in Spanish until they looked at me strangely. Everything seemed so new and shiny. Gone was the grit and broken-in feel of my surroundings just 24 hours ago. I spent a week looking for toilet paper disposals because in Central America one throws it in a can next to the toilet, not in it. I’m still delighting in drinking water from a tap. It’s a luxury I’ll never take for granted.

My girlfriend knew I’d struggle with the transition. She picked me up in a friend’s rickety 1997 rusted-out Dodge pick-up. I love her to death for that move!

Loss of complete autonomy of my life is the biggest hurdle I’m overcoming. I had 100% control of my schedule on the trip. Everything I did was to keep the bike moving forward.

Advice to Others

Q: Can you share some words of wisdom for others planning a similar trek?

A: Sure, I’ll list them:

  1. Be gracious.
  2. Never barter. You can afford it. (See #1.)
  3. Know the pleasantries in the country’s language. Knowing 10-20 words will go a long way. I was only moderately fluent in Spanish.
  4. Rainy season is no joke. 2pm is dry. 3pm will be pouring.
  5. Preparation is helpful, but not necessary. We saw people biking across Mexico with discount store backpacks zip tied to $200 bikes.
  6. You don’t need a lot of money.
  7. People are amazing and innovative
  8. All is possible, yet reminding yourself of that is the hardest part.

familyReflecting back on his trip, Robert would like to thank his parents for taking him on family trips and exposing him to what life was like for Americans living outside North Dakota. “Once I got a taste of that, there was no looking back.”

While he cherishes the experiences and memories of his adventure, Robert’s favorite place to be today is alongside his girlfriend in their cramped kitchen. No words are needed while floating around one another in the tight spaces while creating a vegetarian meal. His Central American adventures changed him and his approach to life. He’s eager, receptive and empathetic and he’d tell his younger self to relax and take some time for self-care.

What did you learn about travel and yourself from reading about Robert’s adventure?

Would you have the courage to bike across foreign countries? Comment below.

©Copyright. September 2016. Linda Leier Thomason

All Rights Reserved.

 

 

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