#strangersnomore: Excerpts from Rajat's Bike Tour across Latin America
We welcomed Rajat to be our first guest at Our Slug Life who embraces to be #strangersnomore . We unfolded with a quick Q&A to learn about his recent and first ever Solo Bicycle Tour that too across the borders. The twist isn't that he is known for his crazy personality but, that he pedalled across Latin America never being a cyclist himself. While his journey has been inspiring, Rajat wasn’t just riding he was truly living every moment on his bike, turning strangers to family in a new country.
It's not so common to find cyclists who are enjoying the non-competitive side of it.
Lets find out what Rajat has to say about his endearing journey..
Imagine we met for the first time, how would you introduce yourself to us? Where are you riding currently?
Greetings from Ecuador as I am traveling with a bike-touring setup. I am a person figuring out life as it comes with each experiment tried. You could find me dancing alone in the middle of the Amazon forest, hiking some beautiful mountains and volcanoes, hitchhiking in Mexico all this while I sometimes work a corporate job in the burning Delhi. I have a constant thirst for adventure, which encourages me to set myself on unconventional paths. I like to run, not away from anything, but towards things that are new and challenging, things which are far away from monotony, that inspire me to be kinder and empathise with the less privileged. I am not a city dweller by any means (don't know where I'll end though) and believe that life is to explore and experience firsthand. I appreciate simpler ways of living in a society that thrives with diversity.
Tell us which parts of the world are flagged on your map so far? Is there a milestone which marks the beginning of your journey as a bicycle tourer?
So far, I have been to 7 countries in Central America - Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and 2 countries in South America - Colombia and Ecuador. All on my first bicycle tour! Let’s take a detour so I could tell you of the stone that flipped my life. After quitting my job in August 2017, I took a backpacking trip to Latin America with a plan to hitchhike from Mexico to Argentina. Unfortunately, I had to end my trip after 4 months and join back work in India. With a strong urge to return to Latin America, I was evidently unable to focus for the 2 months that I stretched myself at work so I finally concluded that I must figure out what to do next by quitting once and for all. That was when the idea to cycle instead of backpacking this time struck me. I knew it was possible as I had hosted some bicycle tourers in India in past and was part of a Facebook group where bicycle tourers from across the globe shared their experiences. The thought did feel crazy to me then, not being a cyclist as I did not even have a bicycle in India but, I was excited to try this. “Should be more adventurous than backpacking”, I thought. That's how I bought my first bicycle in India in August of 2018, spoke to a cyclist friend, who gave me a training schedule for 3-4 weeks and in 6 weeks of time, mid-September, I was in Mexico to flag-off my first ever solo bicycle tour across Latin America.
Tell us about Maria and which are the 2 most important things you carry while touring?
The bike I bought in India was a Kona Dew hybrid 2018, good for the purpose of touring. Unfortunately, the logistics company denied to ship my bike directly to Mexico at the last minute and I only had the option to sell this one off in Mumbai and buy another in Mexico. Fortunately, all this was possible in just 2 days. The next week I found the same bike in Mexico but in a bigger size, I haven’t been disappointed so far. The bike is without suspension, has an aluminium body with mechanical disk brakes. I called her María. Her, because, the word for bicycle in Spanish is 'bicicleta' which is feminine. But most important of all, I would not lose my sleeping bag and a stove to cook on my tour.
Have you heard of the term Bikepacking? Any particular reason you chose to keep a pannier setup?
I got to know of the term Bikepacking at the same time when I learnt of Biketouring. By the facts of it, I thought that a Bikepacking setup is possible only for smaller tours lasting some weeks. Adding to which, most photos I saw of people touring on bicycles had the pannier setup. So, I decided to go with the same. But now, 10 months into cycling, I am sure I can do the same tour on a Bikepacking setup and would definitely prefer going lighter the next time. I started with 2 pannier bags of 25 litres each, a dry bag of 20 litres and a 30 L backpack.
As I had zero experience, I kept changing my bike setup almost every month trying new things to learn what suited me the best.
Do you work projects while on tours?
I like to write and apart from journalising my experiences and philosophy, I do love making videos of my travels. When I feel like and I find time, I edit footages and compile them to make some fun videos. Later on my tour, I printed some photos from my travels and turned them into postcards to raise some funds selling them in public parks and touristic locations on my way to sustain my daily expenses.
Would you give any advice to an Indian bicycle tourer who wants to cycle overseas?
Having experienced this genre of travel without a hint of bikes or technical knowledge in general, I can definitely say that this is for anybody and everybody. All you require is basic physical fitness for you to be able to sit on a saddle and pedal around the world. Let me spill the beans to you, according to me, there are just two necessities to start a bicycle tour - “Courage” that comes through willingness and “Time”. If you are wondering 'What about money?', I am going to say, I don't deny the importance of money in traveling but, if you are determined, money is not the thing to stop you from doing it. I have traveled on a $5/day (₹350) budget on an average. That's half of what I used to spend in India. Money can be the means but not the end so, don't let money ever be your excuse. But on the contrary, you have to be prepared to have less comfort. That's the trade off. So all in all, the only thing I could say to bike touring/Bikepacking enthusiasts in India, is, decide where you want to go, figure out the visa requirements, plan your budget, find ways to earn money on the road and go for it.
I learnt that you have been raising funds selling postcards, what a great way to spread your talent Rajat - kudos to you. Is there a tip you’d lend to fellow riders for planning their finances while on the tour?
Yeah, when I realised my savings were at the verge of exhaustion few months ago, I came up with a couple of options in mind. Because of limitations on my visa in most countries, the best option was to find something I could do while moving to different places. I just wanted some money to fulfil my daily expenses. Having met other cyclists who sold stuff on the road, I decided to print some photos of my past and current travels and sell them - It wasn't easy. It wasn’t the part of selling photos which was challenging, that did pretty well once I started, but convincing myself to do so was difficult. It took some time to settle with the idea of doing it and finally actually doing it. While I sold my photographs, I have had some good interactions with so many people and loved to see them smile as I wrote their name in Hindi on the back of the postcards.
There are endless possibilities to sustain your travels while on the road for real. Learning local languages can help in finding a variety of work in many countries, like I learnt Spanish while traveling on this tour. You could even teach English online/offline or Work in hostels/bars/construction sites physically. For the community driven individuals, volunteering in exchange of stay and food at different kinds of places could be found on workaway, helpx and many more. If you are a tech guy, the opportunities are multifold. If not, sell something on the road. The bigger line is - You will always find something to sustain your travels.
Just remember, I started with $2000 (₹1,40,000) when I took off from India. Bought my bike and planned to sustain my travels with this money and figured out most things on the road. In the 10 months that I have been on the saddle, I have saved by camping everywhere possible. Public parks, beaches, parking stations, fire stations, schools, football grounds, abandoned houses, municipal buildings, people's yards, sheds of closed stores/restaurants. Times when I was in big cities I used warmshowers and couchsurfing. While some days I cooked my own food, on other days my only routine expense was food and in most countries I was easily able to keep it under $5 a day by eating on the street or restaurants. I know people traveling in budgets lower than this. Living on a set budget is always possible, never give up.
One lesson you wish you passed on to your younger self who set on the first ever bicycle tour?
I would only say one thing - “Go Bikepacking", haha.
One great moment you lived so far?
My first solo Bikepacking journey has been an eye opener. The cultural shock has been big. I still remember when somebody asked me what was the one thing very different about traveling in Latin America, I replied "Less people". Haha! With the scale and numbers in India, I never knew what it is like to live in small population. Without an irony, the most memorable part of my journey has been the people I’ve shared my time with. These vast experiences with every individual has taught me life is about sharing, giving and caring. The number of people with kindness and generosity will any day outnumber people with fear and hate. Most of us have been led to believe the latter, that is what is wrong with the normal convention. While i have been away doing my thing, it made me forget my identity, it has helped me change the rigid notions around life and myself, it has taught me to be accepting and to break the stereotypes/expectations that limit me. Talking about some great memories/incidents from this tour, there have been multiple times so full of positive and happy emotions that I could not contain myself. On number of occasions, I have been invited by strangers to stay with them in their homes. I have cried numerous times riding my bike through high mountains looking at the beauty all around me and pedalling my way through it. About a particular recent instance, I was cycling the volcano corridor in Ecuador, when I was closer to reaching the Quilotoa Volcano crater, the weather got at its worse. Strong and cold winds with clouds all around and no sun. I did not have leather gloves and the wind froze my fingers. On ascends, the wind had me even though I was really slow with my 50 kgs bike setup. On a descend, there was headwind which could blind me without glasses, my fingers were freezing. I was trying to continue somehow to find a shelter. Passing through a small area, I could see some houses. While on my last possible descend for the day, I decided to just stop at one of the houses and ask to stay there. The first house I went to, was locked and felt like a classroom. The next door was open. I figured out it was an abandoned house. I decided to be there for the night. I quickly removed my gloves, found my beer can stove, put in alcohol and lit it up. That was it, sitting in an abandoned house at 4000 metres in Ecuador, a country on the opposite side of the globe, warming my almost frost bitten fingers in temperatures of 0°C, uncertain about what just happened and what could have, that was my special moment feeling my fingers coming back to life. It felt so unreal to be actually there and living it all. It was a seldom moment when time and space didn't exist for once. I have felt myself just floating there without a thought of the world or self. Thinking of it now, I feel incredible. Another memory that remains stuck with me, is about how we as human beings can connect with each other so easily. I was in Guatemala where I met with an accident just 1 month into my trip. I was staying with a Spanish Warmshowers host who lived with his Guatemalan girlfriend and the house owner. All three of them were exceptional beings. This happened on the 7th day during my stay with them and I was about to leave the next day. But could not as the accident damaged my collar bone and I could barely sleep properly. Recovery was important. After extending my stay for another 3 weeks I had still not recovered but I no more wanted to burden my hosts and thought I must find somewhere else to stay soon, to not cause more trouble. The next morning at breakfast when I made up my mind to move out, Lencho, the owner of the house, says to me, "Rajat, I am telling this in English because I want you to understand everything I am saying”. With warmth in his voice, he goes on to say "You should stay here as long as your recovery takes and don't think about anything else. You are sharing your energy with us and it's a pleasure for us to be here for you. So relax and enjoy your time." I was left speechless. Why, at that very moment, he would tell me those things? What could be the connection? Did he know what I was thinking about? In that desperate moment, I felt so happy to hear those words from a person I had known for just 3 weeks. It was everything I wanted to hear at that time and he fulfilled it. I was overjoyed and could only wonder of the amazing humanity we all have within ourselves but rarely show it because the rules of the world tell us otherwise. I stayed with them for 7 weeks until I was well enough to cycle again.
One thing that's a carry on even when it's an excess baggage while you're own the road?
I prefer to have the luxury of a laptop. On a journey like this, there were times I went on rest mode and watched whatever entertained me while not doing any other thing. At times for some days altogether. On the productive side, carrying it along has been helpful for me to manage my photos and videos and edit them as per convenience. Secondly, it is also comfortable to write directly on the system every time I feel like.