Alumna at Large: Robin Brodsky on Cycling Solo Through South America

Robin Brodsky is a rock climber, backcountry skier and mountaineer from Durango, Colorado.  She is also a Women’s Wilderness alumna! Currently, she is on an epic eight-month-long journey through South America.  Along the way, she writes a blog called Free Wheeling Fem which you can find here. During a break from cycling, she sat down and answered some questions about her amazing travels across South America.

WW: A lot of your posts are about major social issues, whether that’s your post about trash and eco-tourism or the earlier post about advocating for safer cycling in (and around) Washington DC.  Do you think there’s something about traveling that makes you more aware of these issues?

RB: I do think travel makes me more aware of these particular issues. Especially when traveling by bike. Cycling safety is probably the biggest issue. Spending many hours a day in a bike saddle, I deal with traffic every day. As a side note, there are over 1.5 billion cars on the road worldwide. China is leading the way.  As of 2013 China has on average at least 1,500 new cars on the road every day.

I’m currently in Lima, Peru where there is no efficient infrastructure.  There are approximately ten million people in Lima, roughly one third of the population of Peru. The congestion is mind boggling, the exhaust fumes turning once sunny skies a dull, hazy yellow. Not only is it not very cycle-friendly, pedestrians don’t stand a chance. There too many cars for it’s narrow streets, and there is a lawlessness to the drivers. I have seen taxis make a left turn from the right hand lane; intersections with no stop signs or other indications; pedestrians without walkways. They have managed to place traffic control officers at major intersections, but even with some limited cycle paths, I wouldn’t commute by bicycle in this town.

Then there is the noise. The constant rumble and din of ever increasing traffic. It is well above healthy levels. My grounding as a psychotherapist is in eco-psychology and I often ask (to no-one in particular), “When did we become OK with this?”  I wear earplugs to walk down the street.

Right now, I am visiting a spiritual community near the beach. It is a lovely spot at the end of a road where the people are working toward self-sufficiency and sustainability. There are gardens, composting toilets, and very little use of electricity. This part of Peru is a desert, but there is ground water and a river nearby. The whole valley is quite verdant.  There is also a major trucking route less than five hundred meters above us on the mountain. Hundreds of trucks pass by daily and the noise and exhaust drifts down onto the property here. I find the noise invasive and persistent. There is nowhere to get away from it. I cycled out of Lima the other day and had about eleven hours of ear splitting traffic to contend with. It is my opinion that the level of noise in the city and on highways works it’s way into our subconscious mind in unhealthy ways. I find it exhausting. My brain feels tired after so many hours of it.

I see a relationship between roads and garbage. Where there is a road, it will inevitably be littered.  Here in Latin America, the culture of trash is to simply drop it on the ground or throw it out the window. I don’t believe it’s malicious; where one puts trash is just not considered important. I think it’s also a matter of economics. There is no infrastructure to haul it and nowhere to put it. I’m currently cycling up the coast of Peru and I can see the high tide mark where the plastic from the ocean washes up. It is an unbroken line for hundreds of miles. Hundreds of plastic bags float in the water along with styrofoam food containers and empty potato chip bags. The real culprits, I believe are the mega corporate junk-food producers. Coca Cola, Nestle, and Pepsico at the top of the list. I’m currently writing an open letter to Coca Cola for the incredible job they’re doing: raking in billions of dollars in profits and giving NOTHING back.

WW: Recently, you traveled to a language school in San Jose Peten, Guatemala.  How’s your Spanish? Has knowing the language (better, anyway) changed the way that you travel?

RB: I chose Latin America because I can speak the language. I love connecting with the people in whose country I am traveling. Of course I get mixed responses. I think that the machismo is still very much alive and strong here. Some of the men are not sure what to make of me and don’t understand what a woman is doing traveling alone on a bike. I do find that people warm up and become more “amable” (Spanish for friendly) when I greet them in Spanish and we begin to chat. The women seem a little standoffish at first. I smile and say hello and ask them how they are. They comment on my ability to speak Spanish and it breaks down some barriers.  It would really take years of living here to fully grasp the nuances of the language and culture.

The Latin American countries are all so different, too. I was looking for an avocado yesterday at a fruit stand and the woman had no idea what I was talking about. I kept asking for aguacate which in Central America is avocado. She tried to sell me some peanuts. But when I found one she laughed and so did I. I’ve since learned there are whole vocabularies that differ from country to country. It’s a sharp learning curve.

WW: Why the blog?  Who are you trying to reach and what do you want to share with your readers?

RB: I believe there are simple solutions to some of the issues social issues I mentioned before. This what I want to share. I think that a blog is a way to get my thoughts and ideas out there. Let’s face it, I don’t have the connections to get a book deal. Social media and the internet is a great way to put my ideas into print.

I want to reach anyone who will take the time to read what I write. Writing has always been my first creative love. I’m not as tech-savvy as I’d like to be, so my blog is NOT a glitzy photo essay.  There are a million and one blogs out there of “hard core” people doing “hard core” things and taking great photos! My blog is not about how many miles I rode today or the hills climbed; it’s more about my observation of the world at large and my opinions about it.

It is common for people to ask “why I’m traveling”. Some want to know if I’m doing some kind of research and if I am a professor. I say “no” on both accounts. I say things like, “The mass media wants us all to believe that we are different and separate. That we have reason to fear each other. But it’s not true. I am learning by way of meeting people that we are pretty much the same and want the same things in life: peace and prosperity.” This usually garners nods of agreement. And almost everyone here has either been to the US or has family there.

I think the main reason I blog is so that readers see that ANYONE can do this. Especially women. I don’t think of myself as über athletic and if I can do it anyone can. The biggest obstacles are the ones that we create in our own minds.

WW: What WW course did you take and what impact did it have on your life?

RB: I did a Survivors of Trauma course. I think that’s when I first met Laura Tyson. We went backpacking in the desert and I think we did some rock climbing too. It gave me a sense of community and I met some very strong, beautiful women. It helped me to connect with the outdoors for myself. I had already been working as a guide. But I didn’t have the language to articulate for myself how being in nature is so curative. I remember being on solo toward the end and thinking it had ended too soon.

WW: Do you always travel alone?  What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of going solo?

RB: I just wrote a short blog post about this very topic. I do mostly travel alone but not always out of choice. There are very few people my age doing what I’m doing. I’m not attached to cycling with people my own age, but the younger folks I meet are almost always in couples. I did meet one guy about my age and he was traveling alone as well. We cycled together for a few days but he had a very specific agenda. He was cycling lots of miles pretty quickly every day. My cycling style tends to be a little more laid back. It is important at times to make some time and mileage. I don’t feel comfortable or particularly safe wild camping so I prefer to travel to specific established campgrounds that I hear of or read about. In the US, it doesn’t bother me but here in Latin America, it’s a little more sketchy.

WW: I [Molly] have always felt that traveling long distances under my own power (in my case, mostly on foot), gives me a uniquely relaxed sense of passing time; like I am filling and enriching an immensity of time with experiences, rather than trying to cram life into finite minutes as they rush past.  Why have you chosen to travel on a bicycle and what do you value most about the experience of human-powered travel?

RB: That’s a great point! There are many reasons why I have come to enjoy and appreciate traveling like this.  I didn’t at first.  I hated it. I did not like the sensation of being in my own body. I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression my whole life and as an adult, I found that physical movement is very important!  For years, I used alcohol and drugs to self-medicate. When I got sober, I realized that I was not actually a clumsy buffoon as I had suspected.

I started climbing in my thirties and even that was extrinsically motivated. I waited tables in Yosemite and all the cool kids were climbers. I wanted to be cool. The same was true for telemark skiing. I started that when I was forty-one! And guess what? I was NOT a clumsy buffoon, I was an animal on tele skis! Climbing and skiing completely changed my relationship to my own body. I even wrote my Master’s Thesis on Telemark skiing; it is as about as close to flying as I can get. I learned that I’m really an athlete at heart, as I believe we all are. We are built for self propulsion. We were never meant to be couch potatoes. Travel under our own power puts us in touch with the ground that we cover. And not just the ground, the air is alive with birds and the sound of wind and leaves in the breeze. It becomes so sensual.  I love walking! To watch the landscape change and begin to feel differences slowly. Almost like witnessing the geologic passing of time on a human scale.

I walked the Camino de Santiago in 2014 across northern Spain. It was such a peaceful experience. There is some city walking which is loud and hectic but it mostly crosses the countryside. I believe we all long for a deeper connection to the world we live in. We get trapped in these lifestyles of “Go, go, go!” We have come to believe that more of everything and “faster” is better. Walking long distances breaks life down into more simple components. Cycling does as well. But it is a little quicker than walking. It is a similar experience to walking but I can cover a little more ground.

WW: What is the most surprising thing you have come across while cycling through a foreign country and why did it surprise you?

RB: That might have been today. When I arrived at the plaza of this lovely, little town. A very friendly and effusive gentleman in a municipal uniform of sorts approached, immediately shook my hand and told me to camp right there in the plaza! He said, he sits watch all night long, very safe, no problem and FREE! I believed him. Under other circumstances, I might have taken him up on that, but between camping on dirty beaches up the coast for days, the ride up the mountains, which had me dripping with sweat, and being filthy with road grime, I opted for the hospedaje.

On the coast, I had had very mixed experiences with the locals. Mostly they were amiable, though very reserved. Lima is just a typical huge city: very impersonal. So, I was taken aback a bit by how forward and friendly he was. Once I started into the mountains, though, I noticed how much more friendly folks are. I spent about forty five minutes with a fruit seller and her neighbor on the side of the road. I bought a mango and we chatted as I soaked up some afternoon shade (this is where that Spanish comes in handy). We talked about our families. I shared photos of my nephews. They always  talk about the children. This is where the barriers begin to break down and we see each other as people. It’s sometimes difficult to know how people will respond to Americans. Latin Americans have good reason to dislike us. The US government has done some awful things here – maybe less so in Peru, but certainly Chile, Argentina, Venezuela, and countries in Central America as well.

WW: AND I have to ask: What’s the next adventure?  

RB: I’m on it! I’m writing these words from my cheap room in a small mountain village in Peru. I’ve cycled north from Lima headed to Huaraz, the climbing capital of Latin America. My plan changes every ten minutes. But for the moment, I am going to see if I can pull some trekking together in the Cordillera Blanca and then do some cycling routes on the back roads. From there, I hope to make it to Quito, Ecuador and eventually Columbia. I have given myself eight months to explore South America cycling and walking. We’ll see how long it lasts. Cycling up the coast on the Pan-American Highway was brutal. Hot, hot, hot, desert, sun, and sand as far as the eye can see.  And sadly, the beaches are literally covered in … guess what? GARBAGE.
Very discouraged then, I was ready to quit for a while.  Except, I’m too attached to my bicycle to leave it behind. The busses don’t allow bikes as baggage.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned…