David Papp's ('19) adventurous journey in South America

Hey guys,

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My name is David Papp and I'm writing this from Bolivia. Just two days ago I finally ditched my bike after stripping it of valuable parts. I disregarded my golden rule: do not make important decisions when hungry, tired, sad, or ill. In this case I was the latter. I fell violently ill when I got hit by a hailstorm 4900m high in the Bolivian altiplano and also picked up some stomach infection that gave me awful diarrhea. So I finally overcame the stubborn voices in my head that said "I must bike every centimeter" and hitchhiked to the nearest town. I'm now backpacking for another 2 weeks with this ridiculously bulky duffel bag. I wish I was returning home sooner because I find it hard to appreciate backpacking after bike touring - it feels too easy and your wealthy tourist status really stands out. It probably also has to do with the huge drop in my dopamine levels.

If you're wondering why I embarked on this trip by bike, you're not alone. The best explanation is from Candide: "I should like to know which is worse: to be ravished a hundred times by pirates, and have a buttock cut off, and run the gauntlet of the Bulgarians, and be flogged and hanged in an auto-da-fe, and be dissected, and have to row in a galley -- in short, to undergo all the miseries we have each of us suffered -- or simply to sit here and do nothing?'" (I found this quote in Alaistair Humphrey's book about cycling around the world and it has really stuck with me). I suppose I was simply seeking to see how far I can go and to prove something to my bored self. I spent the prior semester at UMass Amherst, which was great fun but unfulfilling knowing that it's so temporarily. Anyways, it's funny what strange goals you can associate your ego with.

My trip started in Patagonia with my overloaded bike. Turns out I was heading the wrong way. I was whipped by 100kmph wind gusts for 9 days, knocking me off the bike several times and almost breaking my tent. It's very depressing when you have to pedal downhill. There were times when I was doing 5 kmph and a cyclist coming from the other direction would fly past me at 40 kmph. My friend from high school (also on a gap year) originally planned to bike the first 5 days with me but after just a day of cursing, he quit, so we took a bus to the famous Torres Del Paine national park for several days of hiking. Afterwards I took a bus back to where we left off on the bike and continued on by myself. I cried, questioned why I set out everyday, and fantasized about college food. Pasta with rice was not doing good for my morale, but I like to travel dirt cheap -- the Spartan way.

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It's so windy, trees grow sideways

Next up was the famous Carretera Austral, a 1270km road through Chilean snow capped mountains, glaciers, and forests. It was beautiful, but often hard to enjoy the scenery due to the pressure to keep moving. By now at least my legs were efficient and my butt used to the saddle. It rained an absurd amount because I was there during the rainy month so naturally I got soaked on the majority of days. At least I didn't have to do laundry.

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Glacial lakes in the background

Afterwards I took a bus up to Santiago where I intended to get a yellow fever shot, which is legally required for entry into Bolivia. However, I was too lazy to go to a doctor so I figured I'd take my chances. I then crossed over the Andes to Mendoza, which is an average city famous for its wine. On the 3rd day of crossing I fell sick from drinking unfiltered water. According to the road signs I had only 45 kilometers left - 3 hours of riding, so I figured I could make it even sick. However, when the next sign said 85 kilometers I broke down in despair. It was one of my lowest moments and I fell into such apathy at that point that I drank an old half finished bottle of Fanta I found along the roadside. The sugar high was the only thing that kept me from giving up. It's amazing how much one's mood depends on sugar -- sometimes after eating a pack of Oreos I had to remind myself that if I feel sad in 3 hours it's due to the sugar crash.

I lounged around in Mendoza for a week with my old high school friend again. As a break from my usual diet of pasta, lentils, and peanut butter, we treated ourselves to an all you can eat buffet. We were so intent on eating as much as possible that we actually fell asleep on the table until we could eat more.

This much needed break resparked my passion for biking so we headed up to the Atacama desert in chile, the world's second driest desert. We biked together for two days, hid from cops after they interrogated us for wild camping, and enjoyed the beautiful stars. After two days however I wanted to keep biking to Bolivia while my friend wanted to take a jeep to the famous Salar de Uyuni.

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17-HeadedToBolivia.JPG Headed into Bolivia without my yellow fever shot

So the next day I climbed to the Bolivian border at 4600m. For 5 days I'd sleep at this altitude and have headaches the entire time, but the landscape was stunning. Alpacas with bows in their hair cheered me up, but generally I was fairly miserable at the altitude. I'd have to stop every 30 seconds on steep roads to catch my breath, and the road was so bumpy that my already aching head kept bouncing against my skull. My determination was waning daily, and falling ill was the final straw. So after hitchhiking in a jeep to uyuni, I did a final day-trip with my friend to the famous salt flats. As a reward we both got blistering sunburns from the high albedo of the flats.

20-Salar.JPGMandatory jumping picture in Salar de Uyuni

In retrospect, its odd and insignificant details that stuck in my memory. Taking selfies with alpacas, camping 5 meters from the road, chewing coca with miners, eating a cake given to me by Belgian cyclists, failed spear fishing attempts, and being chased by vicious dogs. I did get lonely at times but never badly. My biggest enemies were apathy and fatigue. After a long day of biking in pouring rain, I would often skip safety precautions such as hiding from the road, filtering water, or cooking my pasta fully. Also, after several days of not talking to anyone (my Spanish is awful, I constantly felt foolish), I found that my thoughts would get circular and mundane. I mainly pondered about food, philosophy, and imaginary conversations with friends -- in that order. Did I discover myself or find a truth to life? Obviously not. I learned a few things however: I only favor novelty and a change of settings for short periods, I value the daily routine of cooking, lifting, classes, and socializing that I initially set out to escape, I like to share experiences, and ultimately I'll never be able to bike around the world like I had always dreamed.

Would I do it again if i had the chance? No way. If I knew how hard some parts would be I wouldn't have set out. I suspected this in advance so I actively avoided any research. It's simply better not to know how many mountain passes you'll have to cross and how many days it's going to continuously rain for. For the same reason I'll gladly avoid asking Olin students about their workload. However, the great thing about the brain is its selective amnesia. I tend to remember only the good parts, so I wouldn't be surprised if four years from now my wanderlust will kick in again and I head to Africa for another bike trip. Until then I'm happy that the Spartan days are over.

Rereading this, I realize I made bike touring sound like hell, but I'd still refuse to travel any other way! If you are interested in doing something similar in the US this summer hmu.

Some stats:

  • Total distance: 3050 kilometers
  • Duration: 85 days (about 55 spent biking)
  • Longest day: 150 kilometers, Argentina
  • Shortest day: 25 kilometers, Bolivia
  • Highest speed: 73 kmph, Chile
  • Longest uphill: 55km, Chile
  • Highest altitude: 4944m, Bolivia
  • Strongest wind: 120 kmph, Chile
  • Longest without a bed: 35 days
  • Weight lost: 17lbs (not a good thing)
  • Heaviest bike: ~100lbs, 12 liters of water and 8 days of food
  • Most elevation gain in a day: 2300m, Bolivia
  • Longest time hanging onto an 18 wheeler: 20 minutes

Thanks for reading, hope to see everyone soon!

David

Posted in: Gap Year Blogs