Thursday, 18 October 2012

Burning Legs and Burning Out

I found them on the road in Ecuador - the cutest children in South America.
Then I stole her hat, which just looks better on me.

Smouldering in Ecuador

Yesterday was the 330th day I have spent riding my trusty steed Belinda through South America. In fact I have been cycling through the continent for so long now that from a distance, and in a certain light, the pattern of veins on my calves has developed a creepy likeness to Che Guevara's face. But of course there's long, and there's too long, the latter gives way to a kind of stubborn sloth that mires all of your experiences. Craning your neck by more than 45 degrees to admire a venerated and heavenly panorama is preceded by a short internal debate about whether it's going to be worth all the effort and potential neck fatigue. It's The Law of Diminishing Returns or "Travel Burnout", which I think is the most fitting moniker to describe this slow rot. In Cuenca, after a DVD binge that lasted until daybreak and the only mildly unsettling realisation that I had paid no notice of the celebrated and reportedly charming colonial architecture the city is most proud of, I wondered if I was, at the very least, smouldering. In a desperate attempt to regain some notion of familiarity in a life that brings daily change and obliges constant adjustment, my days off now in cities are spent almost exclusively in The Triangle - one point represents my hostel, another is a place with fast Internet and the third is an establishment that sells greasy and generous portions of chicken. That's just how I roll.

In contrast I have become ever more thrill seeking when planning routes on my bicycle - my 'working week', if you will. Put it this way - if this blog stops abruptly and CNN begin broadcasting news about a British tourist abducted by FARC whilst attempting to unicycle the Darian Gap with just a knapsack and flip flops, or if the BBC report that a shark savaged corpse has washed up on the coast of Panama after a tourist attempted an unsupported swim from Colombia to Florida - don't be overly surprised.

So on the way to Quito I spent some time contemplating Burnout and how to avoid it without air tickets home - in case you are wondering how to tell you have reached Travel Burnout, here are some common features of the condition -
  • The 'Great Things To Do in...' section of any guide book fills you with a profound joylessness and the urge to never seek advice ever again. For anything. Conversely just the prospect of watching a DVD instills in you a level of ecstasy roughly equal to witnessing the birth of your first child.
  • There is a high likelihood you are harbouring several undiagnosed parasitic infections. Following a period of unease, this is now something you are actually quite proud of.
  • When listening to stories recounted by travellers you meet in hostels you always interrupt early on by yawning, resting your feet on the nearest surface, lighting a rolled up cigarette and issuing the words "Well, when I was in Turkmenistan..."
    You often then spin a grizzly but mostly fictional tale which ends with...
    "And then we had to burn his arms off!" You let people buy you beers for the duration of the evening
  • You wear clothes inside out to get a few more days out of them. And then the right way round again. And then inside out. And then the right way round. Basically - you never wash your clothes (except when you jump fully clothed into lakes which you have decided counts).
  • Your sexual encounters involve backpackers who are increasingly hairy, Belgian and who sleep under tarps.
  • You have called up your travel insurance company to enquire as to whether your policy specifically covers accidental loss (or sale of) a kidney.
  • A graph of miles traveled (x) verses beers consumed (y) is an exponential curve. Whilst plotting this graph you should have been in a museum. God you're bored.
  • You have amassed an extensive collection of photos of signposts of rude and silly sounding place names. Never once has this seemed a puerile pursuit.
  • To reduce the weight of your luggage you have
    • Cut the handle off your toothbrush, and trimmed the bristles
    • Removed the fabric of your boxer shorts which goes between your legs creating a boxer shorts-skirt
    • Removed all potentially life saving medication from your medical kit (but have since replaced with extra shoelaces and herbal tea).
  • You have had to deny knowledge of the whereabouts of seven Israeli backpackers in room 11 in an Argentinian police investigation
  • You have developed an overwhelming desire to wedgy all British Gap Year student in 'happy pants'
  • 'Happy Pants'
  • You use the phrase "you know that money you owe me..." whenever you speak to old friends on Skype who have never lent you money but used to smoke a lot of weed. It has become a lucrative source of income.
  • You substitute showers for what you mentally refer to as 'a dirt scrape'.
  • You have given up all hope of remembering people's names and now refer to them by their home towns which are easier to remember. Boston owes you $50 you'll never see again and Stockholms keep breaking your heart.
  • You regularly scratch plans to visit historic sights or national parks to philosophise with hostel owners, tour guides, the homeless and cheap rum
  • You often wonder whether you had a birthday last month
  • Occasionally you have an entourage of worshipful disciples like in Forest Gump
  • You have personally encountered several travellers who have since appeared on the TV documentary series 'Banged Up Abroad'
  • You have perfected the ability to kill mosquitoes between your thumb and index finger whilst drunk, juggling and asleep
  • On at least one occasion after too much rum you have passed out and later came to at a diametrically opposed point on the earth's surface.

The Mission to Quito

The thick navy blue snake weaving a vertical path through Ecuador on my map filled me with dread - I hate the Pan-American Highway, and it hates me. It promises all sorts of unpleasantness - traffic, unrelenting noise, toxic fumes, dirt, drudgery and suicidal ideation. But it's like that job on your to do list that lingers and loiters for months before you get round to it, and if I want to actually make it to Mexico and Alaska, I need to spend some time on the nasty blue snake. The Pan-Am is simply the quickest way to get through the continent and without time spent (or wasted) on these irksome arteries I would outstay VISAs and in all likelihood roll into Alaska some time in December, lose some digits and then swiftly die of exposure.

So my plan - one more adventure and then Pan-Am it (a useful verb, to be said whilst beating yourself in the head) to Quito. From Cuenca I climbed to over 4000 metres once again through the bleak beauty of the Cajas National Park and then plummeted, quite literally, to the steamy climes of a mere hundred metres above sea level. The lowlands which flank Ecuador's Western shores are vast and pancake flat, and are smothered in Coffee and Banana plantations - two of Ecuador's primary economies (alongside oil and tourism). What followed on my route back to the Pan-Am is what I have come to call an Ecuadorian Special. I climbed almost two thousand vertical metres over a distressingly measly 20 km - and yes, that's an average gradient just short of 10 %. To put that in perspective that's a climb with a steeper average gradient, and more vertical metres climbed, and at a higher altitude than any stage ever raced in the Tour de France. Add to this troubling set of statistics the fact that the climb is on an unpaved surface and is pedalled not on a bike but on a sort of human powered tank which weighs 20 kg and carries 40 kg of gear and you will begin to understand the pain involved. And Lance Armstrong needed performance enhancing drugs? The wimp.

Here's an interview I did in laughable Spanglish for the local TV news in Ecuador. Enjoy...

Quito was a good chance to catch up with friends and family via that dazzling and ubiquitous webtool - Skype. It has transformed how we keep others updated about our foreign escapades, it relaxes anxious loved ones, it makes life easier, and I'm all for it - but there is a downside. Conversations that before would have taken place in a private telephone booth, or indeed not at all, now occur with a large and often reluctant audience. Internet Cafes throughout the world are choc-a-bloc with Skype-ers and everyone in earshot is forced to listen to an inquisition concerning the results of Aunt Meryl's biopsy, or the tribulations of a 17 hour bus ride, or the graphic details of Rob's latest stool after that "bloody empanada!". And then there are the forlorn and hapless nineteen year olds calling home to request more money from parents, presumably so that they can invest in dreadlocks, beads and dramatic trousers. But in Quito the conversation next to me took the biscuit.

In Ecuador we have the tearful American girl, and somewhere in the States, and also on her computer screen, the boyfriend. The conversation was a blubber-rich and melodramatic whinge about how she had started her period during a long bus journey and didn't have any tampons. And after he did what must have been a fairly decent job of consolation and empathy their exchange descended into cheesy pillow talk packed with "I just want to hold you in my arms" (wait, I have to dry heave), "I want to feel your heartbeat next to mine" (please let this be over soon) and then a playful bout of

"You hang up!" 
"No you!" 
"No you hang up!" 
"No you!"

Sensibly, during this tragic ending, I fought the urge to bind her to the desk with the mouse cord and spank her with the keyboard as her shocked boyfriend watched on the webcam. Maybe then he'd hang up.

In Quito I was reunited with Tom and James - a lively pair of British cyclists also heading north but now stuck in Quito who had passed me further south. Tom spectacularly stacked it in Ecuador and injured his knee in equally astounding fashion - he's been stuck for over a month now after requiring skin grafts in two operations. I was stuck in Quito too, waiting for bank cards to arrive in the post. My kindly bank - The RBS (which stands for Reliably Bent and Shady) - had been in the midst of a take-over by another bank, Santander. The deal eventually fell through but not before RBS decided suddenly, and with no forewarning, to cancel millions of customers debit cards, no mind that those abroad would be in big trouble once they realised that their cards were now nothing more than plastic mementos for RBS.

The upshot of all this was a mild crisis when arriving into a small Ecuadorian town with no access to money, no actual money, no food, no place to stay, no friends to help me and no means of paying for a phone call to the bank to find out what was happening and call them Bastards. So I presented myself to the police station and explained - I had no back up, I realised, after previously working through my emergency stash of dollars. Eventually I found a trusting Brit, noted down his account details, emailed my very understanding mum, asked her to transfer money and then paid her back online - a total farce, in other words. But it did further strengthen a belief that has blossomed during this trip - that the world really is packed full of people who will help you out. On four separate occasions over the last card-less month I have found people to take money out for me, even though my pitch for help sounds like I'm a practiced confidence trickster on the blag. For all those generous and understanding souls - thank you.


Once my cards arrive (please God let it be tomorrrow) I'm out of here and I can't think of a single border I have been more excited about crossing (and there have been more than forty so far) than the next one into Colombia. The mere mention of the country causes southbound backpackers to get dreamy eyed and sentimental. Colombia you see, is everyone's favourite, and for all the best reasons, namely - The convivial people, the jawdroppingly beautiful women, the lush and dramatic landscape, the women, the scrumptious food, the women, the music and the dancing, the women and the women. Yep, I'm really looking forward to Colombia. It's just a shame my boundless enthusiasm doesn't match my ability to Salsa.

On a final note my photographs of the Salar de Uyuni won third prize in the Insight Guides / Independent travel photography competition and for which I won a shiny new camera. For the Brits amongst my readers - the images should be published in next Sunday's Independent (Oct 28th) if you want to check them out.


  1. Your spanish is impressive;) greetings from Dublin bud;)! Jack

  2. Haha, Steve your Travel Burnout symptoms are greatly described and really true. I was just sitting in Rome the last couple of days after some cycling and mainly occupied with hanging around in the hostel, internet surfing and watching soccer in the pubs - no sightseeing in this probably beautiful city.
    I especially like your kilometer / beer graph. Great!

    safe travels!

  3. I managed to wake up my housemates by laughing at your description of 'Travel Burnout'.

  4. Great blog Steve. Related to your hilarious Travel Burnouts; especially the one about catching mosquitoes whist drunk or asleep between thumb & finger! Enjoy Columbia. All the best, Howard & all the team from incognito anti-mosquito

  5. Random observation Steve but your saddle height looks too low in the film clip you posted. No problems with the knees?

  6. Haha. The children in the picture are so adorable. They are like the cutest couple ever. :)
    camping, turkey hunting, elk hunting

  7. really amazing picture and i like the childrens looked so cutes