Archive for January, 2008

Reentering the Atmosphere

Monday, January 21st, 2008

Two months ago we returned to the United States after our travels. Today we are back in Seattle, Washington – adjusting back to “normal” life and getting settled. Every day our trip seems more and more distant and honestly, it wasn’t that hard to adapt back to life in the good ol’ USA. That’s one thing that surprised us about our trip. When we set out, we left things open ended and we both wondered whether or not the trip was going to be some sort of drastic, life-altering event. It wasn’t. We came back as the same two people who left.

Sure, there were some things we learned along the way. There were big things, like seeing so much poverty and realizing just how lucky we are. Experiencing the friendliness and generosity of people all over the world changed our perspective too. And there were little things, like realizing just how popular television and Coca Cola are. No matter how destitute the place we were traveling through felt, we could always find those two things.

But America is our home, so while we definitely noticed the giant cars, giant malls, and giant people here when we returned, it wasn’t like either of us was about to have a nervous breakdown from the shock. On the other hand, we are definitely glad we gave ourselves some time before returning to work. After a year of zero responsibilities, it was good to add the stresses of normal life back slowly instead of all at once.

Before we embarked, we worried a lot. (Well, at least I did.) But once we were on the road, we never felt threatened by people the entire time. Dogs and monkeys were much scarier than the local people. Really, the hardest thing about this trip was deciding to go. Once we had made that decision, everything else was easy.

We never really got bored on the trip either. Some days you would wake up, start riding, and by 10am be thinking, “What the hell am I doing?” But something interesting would always happen or we’d see something beautiful and get excited about the place we were traveling through again. We did get a little worn down though. At four months into the trip, we were both thinking we could travel for two or three years easily. But then at 7 months we both started to feel like one year was the right amount of time for us. We knew we had made the right decision at the end because flying home sounded much more appealing that flying to South America and continuing on.

We get asked what our favorite place was quite a bit and its so hard to choose one place. Laos was probably the best cycling destination. It has everything a bicycle tourist could want: nice roads, low traffic, beautiful mountain scenery, good food, interesting and exotic culture, and low costs. Every single country was interesting though and we’re glad we visited each and every one of them.

Total cost: $39,205.97. Would we do it again? Hell, yes. Is there anything we would do differently. Probably. Here’s a list of little things (mostly gear related) that we wish we would have known beforehand.

Don’t fly so much. Do a point-to-point route. When planning this trip we wanted to cycle in as many parts of the world as possible. We thought we’d spend a month or two in one region, then fly to a totally new place. If we were to plan this trip over again we’d just fly to one continent and spend the whole year cycling there. Singapore to Istanbul sounds really appealing. Flying with bikes really does suck that much. Flying was a huge cost for us and on top of that most airlines have ridiculous fees for bicycles.

Consider a Recumbent. Before we purchased our bikes, I suggested that Sarah should think about a recumbent and she actually got mad at me. It was like I had suggested she should wear a permanent retainer. However, once we started traveling we saw a lot of people touring on recumbents and they looked more and more appealing. Comfortable. Perfect position for sightseeing. What’s not to love?

Bring a Laptop. We loved having our 10.6″ laptop. We used it for viewing our photos, writing journal entries, watching movies, and listening to podcasts. It was a great source of entertainment and was well worth the weight penalty. If we were going back to Europe, we would really look into cellphone broadband. Internet cafes are so expensive there that a cellphone solution might be cheaper. In the developing world, internet cafes were cheap but uploading pictures over the slow connection was a pain. Uploading video (even of YouTube quality) was just unbearable.

Bring a waterproof handlebar bag. My Jandd bag was labeled as “stormproof.” We’re still not sure what that is supposed to mean, but no matter how you look at it the bag was a huge disappointment. Sarah’s bag came with a “rain cover” that didn’t keep out any rain at all. What a joke! We carried our maps, money, passports, and camera in the handlebar bags. It was obviously important to keep that stuff dry, so we were reduced to packing it all up in a big plastic bag inside the handlebar bag and fumbling around every time we tried to buy something or take a picture in the rain.

Bring padded cycling underwear rather than spandex cycling shorts or mountain bike shorts. The cycling underwear is easy to wash out in the sink and dries overnight. You can wear them under any type of shorts or pants in hot or cold weather. I only brought mountain bike shorts which are more difficult to wash out in a sink, take too long to dry, and are useless in cold weather. Sarah bought Loeffler cycling underwear in Germany after riding without any sort of padding for 6 months and loved them.

World Mapping Project and Rough Guide maps were the best maps to buy before we entered a country. In Europe, the best thing to do was stop at the first gas station we saw and buy a detailed atlas for about $10.

Don’t bother with a front light on your bicycle. Instead, bring a strong headlamp which is really useful for all the typical camping uses and can also be strapped around your handlebar bag as a makeshift headlight for situations like tunnels.

Bring brightly colored panniers rather than all black. Sure, our black panniers don’t show dirt but you stop caring about the beauty of your panniers really quickly. We’d rather have bright red or yellow ones to increase our visibility on the road.

There is no such thing as gears that are too small. If we were to do it again we’d go out of our way to get the smallest gears possible. Good for your knees and good for climbs that last all day long.

Don’t bring waterbottles. Just buy a couple bottles of Coke and re-use those bottles over and over again until they get gross. Then you can recycle them and start over.

If you’re even considering it, bring an altimeter. You are always going to be wondering just how big that last climb was, how high you are right now, and how many meters you did in a full day of ‘undulating hills’ in New Zealand. We love having the ability to quantify what we just climbed.

Bring one decent outfit. You will undoubtedly meet people that will invite into their home our out to dinner. It is worthwhile to have decent clothes to wear to these things because it feels very disrespectful and rude to show up in nasty cycling clothes that are about to fall apart.

Make your own mini-phrase book if you are passing through many countries in a short period of time. It is not worth it to buy a phrase book for each country, and they usually contains tons of words and phrases you’ll never use. In places like Cambodia where our attempts to pronounce words were usually met with blank stares, we’d try to use our phrasebooks by pointing out relevant words rather than saying them. Usually people couldn’t read the words because they text in most phrasebooks is so small. If I were doing it again I’d just spend an hour or so making my own cheat sheet. There are only a few things you really need to know to get by. Basically everything else is just easier to communicate with charades. If you get a flat tire or something, you don’t really need to know the sentence for “I have a flat tire. I need a new tube to fix it. Can you please help me find a bicycle shop nearby?” In fact, even if you had your phrasebook sitting right in your handlebar bag you’d realize that it quickly becomes ridiculous to look up the sentence and then laboriously read it out to your audience. They’ll just laugh and have no clue what you just said. It’s much more efficient and effective to point to your flat tire. 99% of people are going to understand that you need to fix it and will help you if they can.