Wait, are you guys biking or not?
Not any more! As of March 2011, we are bike-less. It’s true we set out to bike around the world, and we are kind of sad that we won’t finish that trip, but at the same time, things change, that’s life, and we have our new project which we think is way cooler. What’s that? Well, we’re traveling from NY to Rio by public transportation, meeting and filming as many grassroots environmental organizations as we can. The idea is to learn for ourselves and to show others just what ordinary people can do to save the planet. Beyond just changing light bulbs – real changes, the kind of changes we desperately need. There are some real problems in the world today – climate change, peak oil, social inequality – and it’s going to take all hands on deck to overcome them. We hope that now our trip is part of the solutions to those problems, it’s our way to do our part.
Why are you going from NY to Rio?
We’re leaving from NY because that’s where Dave is from, and we’re going to Rio with the plan of arriving for the Rio+20 Earth Summit, to be held in June 2012. The Rio summit, or the “Green Economy” summit as it’s been dubbed, is the next major global environmental conference, and is itself a sort of commemoration of the first major global environmental conference – the Rio Summit of 1992 where the term “Sustainable Development” first came to be used. That summit was also the birth of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – the international agreement that is responsible for Kyoto and Copenhagen and all the other attempts at controlling climate change. The conference in 2012 comes just as so many of the world’s ecosystems are at a breaking point, and with global inequality growing by the day and a much-awaited report from the International Panel on Climate Change set to come out the following year.
All this means it is a huge opportunity for the world to take action – maybe even the last opportunity before those fragile ecosystems start breaking down. We hope to be there to participate in the conference in any way we can – marching in the streets, volunteering with civil society groups, etc. – and to try to use our site to let people know what happens, to give the perspective of two ordinary people on the events.
We hope you’ll follow along as we head down, and maybe we’ll even see you in Rio?
So, for the bike part, did you guys buy new bikes and stuff?
Yes, we bought new bikes, and lots of other new equipment. We spent a lot of time talking to people more knowledgeable than ourselves (www.lamaisonduvelo.be for example) and visiting as many different stores as possible before actually purchasing anything, and yet even then the whole experience left us feeling kind of sad and dirty. We’re just not shoppers at heart. But yes, preparing the equipment was a major part of our preparations for the trip, and feel free to check out our equipment section and to get in touch if you have any specific questions on specific bits of gear we brought with us.
But you must have been in really great shape, right?
When we left? Not so much! To prepare, we both joined a gym and took some spinning classes and tried to ride our bikes as much as possible on weekends. Dave had the good fortune to work out and play with the greatest ultimate frisbee team in the universe, and that helped a lot too. Then just before departure we scheduled four weeks of visiting family – that way we were sure to spend as much time as possible sitting on our butts and eating, and so no matter what we may have done before to get in shape, we were both pretty well out of it by the time of our departure…
How many guns are you bringing?
None, but thanks for asking – we find that question pretty funny.
How are you crossing the oceans?
Since part of our goal was to minimize the environmental impact of our travels, we would love to just rent a cabin on a cargo ship – but unfortunately that tends to be significantly more expensive than traveling by plane. So yeah, in the end, we fly. The reality is that the world isn’t set up for a truly ecological lifestyle, something all of us have to reconcile ourselves with in our own ways. And yes, we’ve heard all the other ideas (Pump your tires up so they’ll float! Get going really fast! Bike around the boat the whole trip!).
How far did you bike every day?
This is kind of a tricky question – I guess the short answer is: it depends. We set out on the trip hoping to average about 100km a day. In Uganda though, we came to realize that was just too much. It’s impossible to wake up in the morning, not knowing what the roads ahead are like, what the wind will be like, what the hills will be like, or what the passing villages will be like and yet to fix a destination. So instead, we settled on 5 to 6 hours a day in the saddle. If we feel good, we go for 6, if not, 5, either way we wake up and know how long we have to bike, and we avoid that interminable day of eight hours just because we think we “have to get” somewhere. We don’t have to get anywhere. You’re not the boss of us…
Since deciding to do 5 to 6 hours a day, we tended to average 80km a day, and bike around 5 hours a day. Our longest day was 136km, our shortest 12km. Our fastest day was 22km/h (ahh tailwinds…), our slowest 7.9 (ahh Uganda…).
Where did you sleep at night?
We had a tent with us and sleeping bags and we tried to camp most nights. In some countries (Namibia, Botswana, Zambia) you can just stop and camp wherever, while in others (Uganda, Rwanda, South Africa) it’s not so simple. We also are members of a few hospitality sites like Couch Surfing and Warm Showers, and we used those whenever possible. All of this is a great way to keep costs down and to meet new people.
How far will the whole trip be?
As far as it needs to be – and not one kilometer more or less! How far will that be? Well, we covered 12,300km by bike, and now we’re on the buses down to Rio. We do daydream about continuing on to Asia to keep visiting cool projects and maybe to dust off the ol’ bikes again, but it’s hard to see how we could fund such a trip.
What was a typical bike day like?
This is kind of a tricky question since we found that “typical” days were kind of hard to come by when cycling. What a day was like depended so much on outside circumstances – the quality of the road, the strength and direction of the wind, the hills – even just how far we biked the day before or plan to bike the next day. In Tanzania, where the sun was strongest, we woke up super early to bike as much as possible before the sun got up; in Namibia we slept in since it was so cold in the mornings biking was pretty brutal.
If we had to say though, how about this: we woke up at 5:30 and tried to be on the road with breakfast in our bellies by 7:30. This way, we got to cycle during the coolest part of the day, and should anything unforeseen come up (technical troubles, detours, what have you), we still had the whole day ahead of us to take care of it and get to our destination.
We would try to take a mid-morning break, either for tea (or coffee if we were lucky) or just to eat some fruit we’d bought along the way. Then lunch came around 1:00, though we could push it back later if we were making good time. We tried not to take lunch before we’d done at least 2.5 or 3 hours or so. Dave needs food pretty often while biking, so we’re limited in how late we can push lunch – this was the part of the day when he would take to sneaking cookies from his handlebar bag.
And then the afternoon was pretty much like the morning. We would take a mid-afternoon break and then bike on to our final destination where we either asked around for a place to plant our tent or checked into a cheap hotel before eating, updating our journal, reading some, and then passing out at the ungodly hour of 9:00 pm.
What do you do for malaria?
Okay, first things first: we are not doctors. What follows is all our personal experience, and it may be useful, it may be useless: please consult a specialist in tropical medicine before traveling in a malarial zone! They know more about all of this than we do, many of them have literally spent decades studying diseases like malaria, they are not called “specialists” for nothing. In fact, best is to consult several specialists. We find that every doctor we discuss malaria with has a somewhat different response, so the more you talk to the better – once you have all their advice you can come to your own conclusions.
But as for our personal experience, there is no easy answer to the malaria issue. Most Africans we meet in malarial zones have had malaria, some have it every year, and though they are often very blasé about it, it is a serious illness. Local Europeans and whites advised us to just take our chances, and then if we get it, to treat it. This is not the plan we set out with. Instead, we had started with a bag full of doxyciclin, an antibiotic that is also a malaria prophylaxis. We took it every day for about six months before Dave started developing all kinds of horrible stomach problems. He had been taking it at night without water, which is a bad idea and all his fault. This resulted in a burned esophagus which made eating and drinking horribly painful – not a good problem to have when cycling.
At the same time though, we learned then that it is strongly discouraged to take doxy for more than 4 months, and that in the UK they will not give you a prescription for more than 3. The advice of the doctor in Zambia was clear: stop the doxy. So, since we were on the edge of a non-malarial zone and since it was winter and so the risk was actually quite low, we did, and the stomach problems went away.
At that point, we replaced it with just hardcore prevention: as soon as we stopped at the end of the day we put on pants, long-sleeved bug-proof shirts, hats, and a heap of bugspray. We significantly reduced mosquito bites this way, though you can never totally stop them.
Another change we made mid-trip was that we started carrying malaria self-test kits. These are available anywhere in the world probably, and they let you find out if you have the parasite with a quick prick of the finger. This is a good idea, since in most rural areas, even if there is medical care, it is most likely incompetent with regards to diagnosing malaria. This way you can test yourself, and if you test positive, treat yourself (we have a treatment of malarone each for if we ever get sick).
When we re-entered a maliarial zone, heading north into Mozambique, we went back on the doxy. It wasn’t an easy choice, but we figured it wouldn’t be for more than 3 months and so was worth the risk of side-effects: the rainy season in Mozambique is also known as the malaria season. In Malawi, Dave started getting more stomach problems and was advised to switch to Malarone for the last few days in Africa. We did this, but we did it wrong – we were advised subsequently by a tropical medicine speicalist that if you switch to Malarone while in a malarial zone, you have to take it for 1 month upon your return home or it isn’t effective. We didn’t do that. And incidentally, the stomach problems where schistosomiasis, not a side-effect from the doxy.
In the end, we didn’t get malaria. We attribute this to the prophylaxis. No matter what local people and non-doctors will tell you, the prophylaxis works. Is it 100% effective? No, but nothing is. It is 99% effective though, and that is as good as it gets. We met a doctor in Uganda who told us that in his 30 years there, he had seen 1 person infected with malaria while taking prophylaxis. He had also seen hundreds of people mis-diagnosed with malaria while taking prophylaxis, however. This is where the self-test kits come in: they are far more reliable than the average under-trained and over-worked African health worker.
If we had to do it again, we would still take the doxy, and we would carry self-test kits with us to confirm any diagnosis of malaria that we got in a small village. The reality is that biking in Africa, you assume a certain risk. Malaria comes with the territory, and no pills or prevention can change that. If you aren’t willing to get malaria, don’t travel in malarial zones!
How do you pay for it?
Well, for starters, we consider this question a little indelicate… but that has never stopped people from asking, so maybe that’s just us. We usually respond to this question in the following way:
We’ve been planning this trip for years and we’ve been saving for this trip for years – it’s true it’s not something you can just decide to do overnight.
We don’t smoke, we don’t have a car, we don’t have a mortgage, we don’t go out to bars every night, we shop at second hand stores (for clothes, books, furniture, everything…). It’s amazing sometimes how much money you can save with a little bit of effort.
Biking is the cheapest way to travel. We have a tent with us and a camping stove as well, and we hope to keep our budget down to ten Euros a day per person.
Now that said, since we have given up the bikes, things have gotten a bit more expensive. We use sites like couchsurfing.org to save some money, but still buses and food can be pricey. We doubt we’ll be able to continue traveling past Rio, unless someone suddenly decides to give us money. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?
If you want to know more, there is an excellent discussion of how to finance a bike trip on the World Biking website. On the level of details there is little we can add to that, and we even use that for much of our own planning.
Are you crazy?
Like a fox!
There are far too many aspects of this question to just respond simply. Let’s try to break it down maybe…
Why filming environmental organizations?
Because let’s face it, these are some interesting times we’re living in! Species are becoming extinct at a rate unprecedented in the history of the planet, desertification and deforestation threaten ever more of the Earth’s surface, the global food system is on the verge of collapse and governments everywhere are buying up land and preparing for wars over water – all of this part and parcel to the greatest problem of them all: climate change. It’s enough to send you to a shrink’s office begging for prozac!
But you know what? For all that negative, there is a world of positive out there that we never hear about. For each of those challenges there are a million people who are working to push things in a more positive direction and a million more who would like to push if only they knew how. We know because we’re among them!
And so that is why we’re filming environmental organizations – to show ourselves and the world just how many great things are happening, and hopefully to inspire some people to start taking action themselves.
Why by bike?
Because we like biking! It is far and away the best way to travel – once you go bike, you never go back. Riding on a bike, the world passes much more slowly than in a car or bus or motorcycle, and suddenly the little details of the landscape or culture which you might have totally missed if traveling with another mode of transportation come out and become important. This is to say nothing of the extra contacts you get with people (since regrettably it’s still not every day that we see cyclists with five bags on their bikes rolling along), the sense of accomplishment at the end of each day, the pleasure of spending all your time out of doors getting physical exercise, and the simple, basic, tout bête pleasure of coasting downhill on a bicycle – it’s as fun now as it was when we were kids.
We are grateful every day that the lovely people at Mundu Bicyclette encouraged us to take our first long bike trip – and we hope you’ll go out and give it a try soon. Once you go bike, you never go back…
Why so many farms?
Because we hope to start a farm somewhere when we finish our trip. We hope to find land and like-minded people and then to grow our own food, produce our own energy, and to try to return to the earth a small fraction of the benefits we have already taken from it in our lives. In essence, we hope to live along the three principles of permaculture: Take care of the earth; Take care of people; Distribute the surplus. And so we hope to learn as much as possible about how to do it during our trip.
Why this route?
The route we show on the map is obviously subject to change as the trip develops – it’s almost impossible to plan a trip like this from a distance; you have to really be there on the ground and in contact with people to know what is possible and what is not and what is worth doing and what is not. The overall route though was decided upon after many years of debate and discussion. We wanted very much to leave from Brussels by bike and never leave the surface of the Earth during our whole trip, but then we also wanted to see southern and eastern Africa and southeast Asia, and South America, and we only have three years… And so voila, we wound up with the route you see there – a function also of political (Sudan, Congo) and meterological realities (we were obliged to start in November). There are many parts of the world we would love to see which we are unfortunately not going to pass through (Turkey, for instance), but we like to think of these as little projects for future bike trips with the kids…
Why three years?
Three years is a delicate balance of how much time we think we will need to see all the things we would like to see and then how much time we have before starting on our other life projects (kids, farms, etc.) – and not to mention how much time we can subject our mothers to this sort of traveling without being thrown out of the family… Our general feeling is that by taking a chunk of our twenties (and yes, gulp, thirties) to visit all these places in one big trip, we can avoid the standard vacation formula of the two-week package tour. You know the one, where you spend a huge amount of money to be carted around by bus in a country where you’re not used to the food and you don’t speak the language and really only have ten days to “see everything.” That formula seems to us to make a huge environmental impact for very little benefit – what country can really be “seen” in ten days? This way we take our time, we do it as ecologically as we can realistically muster, and then when we’re older we’ll travel in the places a bit closer to home and a bit more child-friendly. Europe, the US, and the like…
This one, well… We find that if you have to ask what’s so great about long-term traveling, then you probably won’t follow any explanation we give. Suffice it to say that no two days are the same, that every moment is memorable, and that it’s down-right addictive! Sorry mom!