Interview: Adam Newman
Photos: Hugo Asef
It’s safe to say Laura Bingham isn’t afraid to try something new. In 2014, as a young adventurer from the U.K. with no knowledge of sailing, she talked her way onto a 38 foot trimaran and sailed across the Atlantic with two blokes and a cat named Cuba. Earlier this year she gathered up some supplies and hopped aboard a bike to embark on another long journey with a curious twist.
In 166 days she cycled from the Pacific coast of South America in Ecuador southeast to Buenos Aires on the Atlantic coast, 4,300 miles in all with a rotating cast of friends and family aboard a second bike. She did it without bringing any money, and solely relying on her wits and the kindness of strangers. The trip wasn’t just a vacation though. In all she raised about $1,500 for Operation South America, a charity in Paraguay that, among other projects, houses up to 20 young girls who have been victims of extreme poverty and abuse.
Here she tells the story of her adventure in her own words from our interview:
So many people cycle South America [I thought] how do I make it different? And then I came up with the idea to do it without any money. Once I told people I was doing it without money I couldn’t go back on it. I didn’t spend any money from Ecuador to Lima in Peru. I was collecting bits of money which we then had to use to fix the bike. But after Lima I didn’t touch money once, until I arrived in Buenos Aires.
I tend to not do anything and then suddenly go into it. I just jump into the deep end and then put myself in a position where I can’t turn back. I didn’t really do that much cycling beforehand because I was a bit scared that it would frighten me into not doing this trip… Why waste time learning how to do something when you can put yourself into a position where it’s sink or swim? And that’s what I’ve learned, that if you put yourself in that position, where you sink or swim, people have incredible swimming abilities. If you put yourself in a position where you can’t turn back, you’re going to succeed, whether you like it or not.
[The hardest part] was just not having the ability to buy what you wanted when you wanted it. And generally peo- ple would still give you things, which is so sweet and so lovely but you still don’t get that choice of which one you wanted. And I found it quite upsetting when I got home and I got that choice again. I cried a lot in supermarkets, and I kept picking things up and crying and I struggled a bit with shops when I came home because I found it very confusing to be able to pick things up and just have them.
At the start I took way too much weight. I took four panniers and a trailer which was the biggest mistake of my life. I did research about which one to take, and whether I was going to take both, and no one really addressed how shit it is when you take all of it. Had I had the right fuel for a lot of the [ride] I think it would have taken me a lot less time. There were some days when you’d be pushing a bike up a hill for seven days and you’ve had a stale roll in the morning, a stale roll for lunch, and in the afternoon it just becomes inconceivable to start pushing any more. The energy just isn’t there to use.
I like the idea of using a new mode of transport each time and seeing a new community. Because everything I do has a whole community surrounding it, and I absolutely adore that… It’s absolutely the most beautiful thing to be able to enter these different communities and get a taste for what that life is about… And I’m just a bit greedy because I want to be a part of all of them.In South America people throw loads of food out of the car window and occasionally there’s biscuits and food in there. And I think one of the most important things about cycling around South America is that you keep a very keen eye on the side of the roads because I found so much food. I found a box with 24 cans of tuna in it. That was basically my entire protein source for the trip.
In Ecuador I was just starving all the time because I didn’t have any food, so I lost a lot of weight, but then I got to Peru and people started feeding me a lot more and being kind and giving me food. I was just shoving anything and everything in my face, I would not stop eat- ing. As I got to Paraguay and Argentina people were really, really kind and almost gave me too much food. And because I had an abundance of food around me again I realized I could say no to food and I would be OK because I would probably find food later.
People sort of rotated in and out of the expedition, so the second [bike] got hit by a minivan first, got snapped in two places and bent to the point that we had to get a crowbar to straighten it up again. We were hitting it with a hammer trying to straighten it up, which was crazy. And then we welded it back together when we got to Lima. It also got hit in Bolivia. My fiancé got sideswiped by a truck, but it still managed to finish. After being snapped and bent and welded back together it still cycled across the Andes two more times.