In the 8 months I spent on the road in South America, I learned something every single day. Culture, history, geography, politics, language, mechanics, riding technique, problem solving, and survival were all part of the informal education curriculum. Honestly, all of the knowledge gained in those 8 months could fill a book. But we’re not here to read a book.
Instead, here are my 3 most important takeaways from my 11,000 miles of riding through South America:
1. Back Yourself
I was a nervous bundle of energy before setting off to ride 11,000+ miles through South America. My number one concern was that I would die on my bike in the first week. Dramatic? Maybe. A real possibility? Without question.
Other than a little 50cc scooter I had at college, I had only ridden a motorcycle twice – once around a parking lot on my brothers sport bike and the other time at my motorcycle safety and licensing course. That’s about a day and a half of riding experience. Total! None of which was done on the road (only in parking lots) and none of it done in the chaos of South American traffic.
This was to be a trial by fire, while being thrown to the wolves.
But I reminded myself that countless people, of varying skill levels, had successfully ridden through South America on their motorcycles. I was not the first, nor would I be the last. Not to mention, South Americans learn to ride motorcycles in South America.
The beauty of backing yourself, is that when you make it through each new challenge, you not only gain a skill but you gain confidence to navigate the next obstacle. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that makes you bolder, more confident, and wiser.
But, you have to back yourself to start. Otherwise you’ll never get going.
2. The Road Provides
The road is equally forgiving as it is unforgiving. In its physical form, it feels like a lifeless, unconscious piece of matter that is simply there for us to speed over. Which it is.
But it’s more than that.
There’s a chaotic swirl of life that courses through and around the road.
Acting like veins and arteries pumping nutrients and energy, these pathways are a conduit for people to propel themselves into situations they would never have thought to find themselves in. Usually good, occasionally less so.
The road seems to have a sense for what you need, even before you do.
Perhaps it’s meeting a particular person that can help you, finding an unknown path, or receiving a particular part or item that you never thought you’d get…The Road Provides.
In South America, there were countless examples of the road providing. But here are some of the most memorable:
Free Night in a Lakeside Cabin: While in southern Colombia looking for a lakeside music festival, the group of 3 that I was part of stopped to ask directions from a local man. After learning that we were travelers in need of a place to sleep, he quickly offered his basic lakeside cabin to us. Not only did he refuse payment but the cabin turned out to be next door to the property with the festival. Needless to say, we had a great night.
Siphoning Gas in Chile: On the verge of running out of gas in Tierra del Fuego, I was facing a 100km hitch-hike to get fuel. At best it would’ve taken me half a day just to get a ride, get gas, and return. Before giving in to hitch-hiking, I rode up into the tiny town and found a man working on his car. I politely asked him if he knew where I could get fuel and after a brief moment of thinking, a light bulb went off. He told me to follow him to an overgrown lot with several rusting old trucks in it. He tapped each external tank before giving me a wry smile. In went a garden hose and before I knew it, he was siphoning gas for me. The kindly man refused payment other than agreeing to pose for a photo. He saved my ass that day and I will never forget him.
3. People Are Good & Will Help
Before departing for South America, my cynicism of society, my general patience with people, and my faith in humanity, were at an all-time low.
Fast forward to the end of my adventure and my outlook was completely different. What changed, you ask?
Well, it’s hard to be mad at the world when you get your ass saved multiple times by people who have almost nothing. When others go out of their way to help you, it’s impossible not to be humbled. It’s impossible not to be grateful.
When you are at your most vulnerable, it’s the people that recognize your plight and work to help you, that will reignite your faith in humanity.
Here are just two of multiple moments that changed my outlook on people:
Less than a month into my journey, I was searching for a remote hostel in the jungle and mountains of northern Colombia. Riding with a friend on the back, we were quickly in over our heads, got lost, and ended up on washed out roads we should never have been on.
Attempting to head up a steep hill, I lost control in the sand and laid the bike down, breaking my friends ankle.
With darkness creeping in, no clue of where we were, and the jungle coming to life, we were doing our best not to panic. Just then, a local man came up the hill in his beat up 4×4. He picked up my friend and told us to follow him to his house. The man fed us, gave us his bed, and the next morning made some phone calls to figure out where we had to go. We went from potentially sleeping on the road in the jungle to a delicious fresh meal, comfy bed, and ultimately reaching our intended destination…all through the kindness of a complete stranger.
While in Ecuador, I nearly got trapped between mudslides in the jungle. The 3 other riders and myself were in a dangerous situation and were seriously doubting our ability to make it out.
We were severely dehydrated, had no water, had almost no food, the road was washing away around us, and we had not idea where we were.
Luckily, in the darkness, we found an old mountain man who lived in a shack on the side of the mountain. He gave us water and then the next day came down the road to our campsite and offered to guide us through the treacherous mudslides to come.
We ended up spending two days battling through mud and the elements. But we eventually made it out. The mountain man saved our asses. He didn’t have to. But he did and we are forever grateful to him.
We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
Travel opens you to the world. If you’re paying attention, it will educate you in ways that few other mediums can.
T.S. Eliot’s remarks illuminate the paradoxical relationship between travel and home. That is, to know home, you need to go out, explore, and learn. Only then will the nature of home reveal itself.
My 8 months riding 11,000 miles through South America taught me an incredible amount. It was a crash course in multiple subjects and I was tested everyday. But when I distill down the most important learnings from my time on the road, I am left with three timeless and important lessons:
- Back yourself
- The road provides
- People are good & will help
Now it’s your turn. Put yourself out there and see what lessons present themselves.