Gringo on a trusty bicycle

2014-01-03 00:00

HE started with a mere five words of Spanish and by the end of his 14-month trip in South America, Pietermaritzburg traveller Richard Conyng­ham had a good grip of conversational Spanish. This “gringo” travelled throughout the South American continent, on a trusty bicycle.

From Teotihuacan, the pre-Aztec ruins in the north-east of Mexico City, he travelled through 15 countries and ended his trip in Ushuaia, the most southern city on Earth, on the island of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina.

It took him 14 months to visit every country and during the trip he missed his family and the taste of Marmite.

Richard (29), the son of former Witness editor John Conyngham, was bitten by the cycling bug while doing a cycling trip to raise funds for a charity five years earlier. He decided while working abroad in London to save up for the travel experience of a lifetime.

Conyngham began his trip in Mexico with a friend, but his buddy departed after a while, leaving him to complete the trip solo. He explained, “Travelling by bicycle is a much richer experience. You get to interact with people much more and you hear, smell and exercise while on the road. It is also much cheaper and I wanted to experience the opposite of what I had been experiencing in London, which was very commuter-oriented with buses, trains and tubes.

“I hated the feeling that in cities we become so isolated from each other and we just exist in a weird space where we are all together yet we know nothing about each other and nobody cares.”

Conyngham started out intending to live cheap and stayed in rough motels or youth hostels, but as the trip wore on and his funds depleted he found himself often camping rough, and relying on the hospitality of strangers.

“I was often amazed at how generous and open people were. They opened their homes and were willing to share what they had, even when they barely had enough for themselves.

“Obviously, I was a curiosity to them, and they wanted to know where I was from and what I was doing. But in almost all countries the people were very friendly and helpful.”

He also made an effort to stay off the major tourist routes and stay on the country roads, seeking out the rural experiences and off-the-beaten-track places.

“It was safer as a cyclist to be off the main roads but I also wanted a truly authentic experience, and I found that at many major tourist attractions there was a blandness and uniformity that detracted from the beauty and culture of the place. I saw many beautiful things that would never have been written in a guide book.”

Even in the so-called “drug cartel” countries, he says he felt safe and in Columbia, the cocaine capital of the world, he said the locals were very friendly.

“... It was almost as if they were trying to overcome their reputation. Some gave me weapons — like machetes — and told me to be careful.”

Conyngham said he was vaguely aware that there was a drug trade but said that the characters were just ordinary people. “You might see a guy that looks a bit gangster-ish but he is probably someone’s husband, and he is not likely to act psycho on you just because you are a tourist.” Tourism is on the rise in Columbia and the locals are desperate to make a good impression.

“At the end I looked like a tramp, and in some ways that is not good, but in another way it was a very freeing experience to let go of what people expect from you in a social context. I noticed in Argentina the teenagers were looking at their clothes, they were very aware of what other people thought of them and it reminded me of South Africa, and how we are a little self-obsessed. I felt very free from that.”

Keeping in touch with his family through the Internet was how he let them know he was still on his mission. On one occasion he sent his sister a disgusting picture of a worm that he had squeezed out of his skin.

“It was pretty gross,” he admitted, laughing. “But I was relieved when she Googled it and told me it was a common blowfly, and I wasn’t going to get a hideous disease.” The rest of the family joined him in El Calafateto in late November to celebrate his accomplishment, after he finished his journey by reaching the southern-most point of South America.

Conyngham says that the experience taught him to be self-reliant and to trust humans more. “I think most people respond in a good way when you need them. Obviously, I had an enormous amount of time to think and the one thing I realised is that people spend a lot of time trying to be happy, when it is actually very easy. Happiness can be found in immersing yourself in the simple things of life.”

Communicating along the way

GRAPPLING with the language became an interesting issue for Conyngham. In Spanish, people would ask: “De donde vienes?” which means, where do you come from? Conyngham would never know the right response. If he said South Africa they would be incredulous, as if he had ridden across the ocean. If he said the name of the last town, they would not believe him as he clearly was not local. It was always a tricky one.

Sometimes he would just laugh and say, “... the moon” and they would think it was a joke. Often they would not believe he was from South Africa because he was white.

Dinner with a human trafficker

AT one point in Honduras a man stopped his car and waited for Cony­ngham to draw close. He said, “I saw he had a gun on his hip and I was a bit nervous but I acted nonchalant.

“He had been in the U.S. for a few years and wanted to speak English. We chatted and he invited me to join him for a party when I reached the next village.

“He gave me his number and then he wrote his name in Spanish which means — Horse Killer. I asked him why he was called Horse Killer and he said it was a nickname because he often shot stray horses. His real name was Tony.”

The same guy confessed to Conyngham that he was a Coyote — a name for a human trafficker. He arrived to fetch Conyngham for a birthday party out in a rural area. Conyngham was now having second thoughts and began to think perhaps he was being extremely foolish.

He said, “Here I was with a stranger who had been jailed in the USA for smuggling humans. He kills horses for fun and now we are heading out in the dark in the middle of nowhere. I thought I might end up with a bullet in my head,” said Conyngham.

But it turned out that they went to a small birthday party and Conyngham was the curiosity for the evening.

“We had a delightful evening with a humble Indian family and Tony explained to me that his job as a human trafficker was to unite families that had been separated. Smuggling families over the border to the USA was a way to reunite families divided by politics and economics.”

Remedy for a sore knee

AT one point his trip was interrupted by a nagging knee injury and he was advised by a fellow traveller, a French doctor, to rest the knee for two months. This was a big irritation for Conyngham, who did not want to waste time resting.

He chose to travel to Venezuela by bus when he heard of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez’s death. Like Mandela, Chavez’s body lay in state for the public to view.

Conyngham recalls the atmosphere was festive and thousands of patriotic people came to celebrate Chavez’s life in a very jubilant way. “The people were all dressed in the party colours and they were all dancing and singing and it had a very upbeat feeling, not like a funeral at all.”

He went to Equador to stay on someone’s couch while his knee recovered. Conyngham said, “Couch surfing is a new way of travel exchange, which is a way of repaying hospitality when travelling. I landed up in this incredible place. It was a hacienda [farm] run by the son of a local football legend. It was stunning and in return for accommodation I had to contribute creatively by cooking or helping. It was amazing!”

Conyngham’s host decided to help him sort out his injured knee, which was preventing him from travelling and exploring. His host decided the best bet would be to get him a donkey. The donkey would carry his bags and Conyngham would be able to walk.

They advertised in the local village for a donkey but got no responses, they went to a village market and did not see any, and as a last resort they drove into the countryside to find a donkey. They found four donkeys but the owners were not keen to part with them. The fifth donkey was bought for a negotiated fee and that is how Conyngham ended up with Remedios (Remedy), known fondly as Reme, who was to be his companion for the next few weeks.

Walking did not strain his knee and Reme the donkey carried his bags but they could only travel 25 kilometres a day, which was a little frustrating for Conyngham who could easily cycle 125 kilometres a day on a bicycle.

At one point his donkey became lame due to a strained tendon and he was far from the next village.

As fate would have it, two couples with a camper van arrived and stopped. Both couples could speak some English and they were delighted to meet the KZN gringo and his donkey. It was decided that the donkey would have to be put inside the camper van and taken to the next village.

The three men had to lift and push the distressed donkey into the camper and drive to the next town where she received some attention from the local vet. Two of the camper van travellers were so enthralled with Conyngham’s nomadic life that they walked with him for two days before returning to their more comfortable trip with their friends. He was also invited to tour the area with them while Reme rested her lame leg.

“This spontaneous generosity of strangers was always so uplifting.”

Reme was retired when Conyngham’s knee was recovered and he went to fetch his bicycle.

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