While fear of violence keeps most US tourists out of Mexico and Colombia, the young Austrian couple Andreas Huble and Anita Burgholzer bicycled and tent-camped all the way through these countries (and many others), armed only with friendly smiles. They are happily pedaling still.
I met them as they rested in Copacabana, Bolivia. We chatted about their almost two-year journey-in-progress.
What were your experiences in Mexico and Colombia?
As a rule of thumb we can say that 99% of the people ALL over the world are good! With a little bit of preparation and common sense you will be able to travel in most of the countries which are “oh so dangerous.” We always try to carry our smiles, and even more important to keep our hearts open. Most of the encounters we have are positive.
The people in Mexico (and especially in Colombia) were always very helpful, enthusiastic and hospitable. We did not have any problems regarding safety.
In those countries, most of the criminal activity happens internally, between rival cartels, the police and para-militaries. If you avoid traveling in high-risk areas (locals will tell you where those are), you will most likely be safe. Even in the States, or in Europe, there’s a chance of being robbed at night in the wrong ‘hood.
In Colombia and El Salvador we felt extremely welcome. Very few tourists go there, and locals treated us like family members. In Colombia, we received many invitations into people’s homes, and had a wonderful time. It was just great, far better than we expected.
How did you decide to do this journey?
Traveling and cycling have always been essential parts of our lives. We started saving money – just in case our dream would someday turn into reality.
I (Andreas) read a lot of books from other adventure cyclists and was fascinated by the way they see the world. Traveling by bicycle they are part of the environment, and get a much deeper understanding of a country and its day-to-day culture. These stories, written in a sensible and critical way in the natural voice of the author, created a lot of pictures in my mind. They fed my yearning for someday breaking out of the routine.
How did you prepare for this trip?
In 2008 we made our first “test-trip.” We spent three weeks bicycle camping on the small island of Socotra (Jemen). It was such a wonderful experience that we decided to set off when the time was right.
At the end of 2009 we were no longer happy with our jobs (although now, after seeing how most people live, we have learned not to complain). We knew that we could not wait much longer as we dream of having a family one day. So we set a date (May 5, 2010), and communicated our decision to our families and friends – which was the most important step of the whole journey.
Why was that?
First, we figured out the logistics of what to do with our jobs, flat, etc. before we told anyone. That way when they raised objections, we could explain in detail how we would take care of those situations. Then, the reactions were stunningly good!
It was the most important step because once other people are involved in your plans, it gets more difficult to say, “No, it all has just been a joke.”
The acceptance motivated us a lot. We knew that we were doing the right thing, and that our family and friends support us.
What were your jobs/careers?
I (Anita) worked as a Graphic Designer in a small advertising company. I (Andreas) worked as a purchaser for a company which produces solar panels.
Why do you prefer bicycling, instead of flying or driving?
It is the slowness of our travel that makes it so intense. You are urged to stop in small, remote villages – talk to people with different social backgrounds. Some are bitterly poor, and would give you their last piece of bread. But also many rich people showed us respect and were very hospitable.
What does “slowness” mean to you?
There’s a saying which describes “slowness” perfectly: “The snail can tell you more about the way than the rabbit.”
On your travels, what have you learned about human beings?
The most important thing for ALL human beings is being happy. For most people this means having good relations with their families and/or friends, a harmonic social environment. No matter if we are rich or poor, educated or “simple,” settled down or nomadic – we all have to eat, sleep, love, cry, laugh. We all want to live in peace and harmony.
What countries have you bicycled through?
Austria, our home country – Czech Republic – Poland – Lithuania – Latvia – Estonia – Sweden – Norway – Denmark – Iceland – USA – Mexico – Belize – Guatemala – Honduras – El Salvador – Nicaragua – Costa Rica – Panama – Colombia – Ecuador – Peru – Bolivia.
We will continue our trip to Argentina and Chile. Around February 2012 we want to reach Ushuaia, Patagonia – the southern-most city on the Americas. After that? We’ll see if we still feel wanderlust. Maybe we’ll continue to India and return to Europe overland.
What have you experienced with people in different countries?
Generally speaking you can say that as soon as you enter a new country, the “energy” changes: the environment, nature, the weather and history, praegt – the people, everything.
Eastern Europeans are more reserved. It is not so easy to get in touch with them. But once a conversation is running, it can rapidly turn into deep friendship.
In Iceland we experienced a deep connection with ancient traditions and nature. Young, trendy Reykjavikians wear exactly the same, woolen sweaters as their grandparents wear. Ancestral mythology is still very much a part of everyone’s daily life.
The USA was a completely different world for us. Everybody was talking to us, wanting to know more about our trip. We were fascinated by the easy way of making contact with people there.
In Latin American countries it depends on where you travel. In coastal areas people were mostly very emotional and outgoing. In the Andes, especially in areas with a lot of indígenas, it got a bit more difficult to get in touch with people. But nevertheless, our way of traveling helps us to meet and learn from people who often live a simple life in harsh conditions where there is not much time and space for an easy-going lifestyle. But be warned – once a fiesta starts, the indígenas turn into hedonistic, happy party-people!
What thoughts do you hold in your minds and hearts as you encounter new languages, cultures, people?
In Eastern Europe we mainly talked with our hands and feet. In Northern Europe the majority speak decent English. For more than a year we have only needed Spanish, which [we now speak] on an intermediate level.
Learning the language makes traveling and talking to people much easier.
Regarding cultures and people, with open hearts and no expectations, we have never been disappointed or surprised.
How do you think traveling by bicycle and tent-camping (rather than traveling in an RV) affects the way you perceive and interact with other people?
Our style of traveling lets us understand a little bit better about the conditions in which local people live. Sometimes the homes are very simple adobe huts with straw rooves at altitudes of more than 4.000 meters
In Colombia we saw people living in huts made of trash. When we passed, it was pouring rain and the temperature was below 10 degrees Celsius. The water ran directly through their huts.
We personally would feel a bit bad if we traveled in such areas with a luxurious RV. On the other hand, our camping equipment is very good, allowing us to withstand very harsh conditions. Our gear is quite luxurious and unaffordable for most of the people here.
And many times we need help from exactly these people! In remote areas it is often necessary to ask locals for water, or for a camping spot. The conversations following our requests help us understand and learn from the people. They are happy to have contact with some crazy folks from a far-away country.
These moments make our journey unique for us. We experience and take part in the everyday life that has nothing to do with the “white” picture travel books, and TV shows.
How have your travels affected other people?
Two of our best friends are currently traveling overland from Europe to India. They always mention that if we had not made our dreams come true, they most likely would not have made the decision to travel in this way.
Also, our blog is a big success. For many people it has become essential to read our stories, and vicariously travel with us.
You can read Anita and Andreas’ blog (in German), and see their photos. Maybe you, too, will become inspired to live your dreams.