Pennsylvania Bike Tour: One week, 600 miles

I’m taking vacation next week and doing a week-long bike tour through Pennsylvania.  600 miles in 7 days.  We’re starting from Philly, riding out to the Appalachian mountains, and then looping back to end in New York City.  We’ll be following the BicyclePA Routes (S, G, and V) most of the time, camping along the way, and staying a night in State College, PA, the home of Penn State University — the 2009 #1 party school.  Lemme see ya handz pahty peepl!

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Biking Home: Haines City, FL to Largo, FL

Stats: 95.33 miles, 15.7 avg, 6 hours

This was the home stretch.  I had ~100 miles to get home and surprise my mom.

My South African friends, Scott and Ross, wanted to meet me in Plant City to bike with me the rest of the way home.  I started from Haines City where my CouchSurfing host, Bekah, dropped me off.  I hauled ass ~30 miles –  I remember I was really killing it that morning!

It was awesome meeting up with Ross and Scott.  And their dad took my gear in his van so my bike would be a little lighter on the ride.  The pedestrian bridge across the Tampa Bay was closed so we had to take the Gandy.  The speed limit is pretty high, but the shoulder was wide, so it wasn’t a problem.

We made it to Scott’s house without many problems.  I picked up my gear and then the three of us rode down the Pinellas Trail towards my mom’s house.

It was strange biking on those really familiar roads, returning home.  It felt only half-real.  I pulled up into my mom’s driveway, a few minutes before she would probably be home.  I got a key from the neighbor — he was shocked to see me — and opened up the garage.  Just after I took this photo (using a ladder as a tripod), I saw my mom’s car coming around the corner.  I ran inside and tried to hide to surprise her, but she was too quick.  I saw her face as the car pulled in.  She was amazed.  She couldn’t believe I was home.  It was a great moment for both of us.

My mom and I celebrated by going out for a humble pizza party.  It was great to be back, and not have to think about biking any more.

My sister, Eleanor, knew when I was coming home, and she kept the secret from my mom.  But Eleanor wanted to surprise her too.  Eleanor arrived the next day.  I picked her up from the airport and then we drove over to pick up mom from work.  Eleanor hid in the trunk …

SURPRISE!!

Cycling through a Storm: Orlando Airport to Poinciana

It was about 140 miles from Orlando to Tampa.  I was lucky to find a CouchSurfing host that wasn’t too far off my route, about 40 miles from the airport.  I was arriving into Orlando at 2pm, and it took me a couple hours to get all situated and get my bike re-assembled.  I left at 4pm, and I had to bike 40 miles to my host, Bekah.  There was a really dark cloud looming.

Biking on the ramps to exit the airport was bizarre.

My cell phone had been robbed months before in Guatemala, and I never got it replaced because it wasn’t necessary.  But now that I was back in the US, I stopped at the AT&T store to get a new phone, as I was probably eligible for a free one.  But the AT&T rep told me I wasn’t.  She gave me a SIM card though! 🙂

There was a Subway in the same plaza.  Mmmm meatball marinara.  It had been a while.  I took it to eat it at the tables outside.  There were some homeless people hanging out there.  The lady was friendly, and worked up to asking me for a sandwich.  I was feeling great, really pumped by this returning-home adventure, so I handed her my credit card and told her she could get whatever she wanted.  She came out with a sandwich and an extra large drink.  Dumbass buying a huge drink when you can just get refills.  It’s not like she was rushing off anywhere.  I figured that’s why she’s homeless.  Bad decisions like these.

The rain started pouring when I was at Subway.  I figured it would just be about an hour, as Florida storms usually quick. But the rain kept coming.  It was getting close to 7pm, and the light was fading.  I asked the guy at Subway if I could use the phone, and I called Bekah.  I told her that I was waiting for the storm to cool off and she said that she could just come and get me.  I would have felt bad for her to have to drive ~25 miles each way to pick me up, so I refused politely.  Plus it’s an ego thing.

Since it was getting late and the rain wasn’t dying down, I figured I had to just do it, and get out there.  I took off my shirt, said goodbye to my homeless friends, and plunged into the abyss.  Do or Die Baby!!

Right away it was bad.  So much water on the road.  Passing cars were chucking it up at me.  And I was wearing my glasses!  I could barely see through all the water beads on the lenses and in the fading light.  I was a little jittery too, especially when semi-trucks passed spraying mist at me.  I imagined myself slipping on my bike, getting crushed and killed under a truck, and my mom finding out that I was only a couple hour’s drive away.  “Just don’t fall.  Don’t fall.”

It got worse as I turned off from a lighted strip of road with plazas onto a country road in pitch black.  The only light was from the headlights of passing cars.

I was looking for my turnoff.  There weren’t many cross-streets, but when I checked my cyclo-computer again, I figured that I had gone ~3 miles past the turn, but maybe not.  I wasn’t sure.  I wanted to ask someone.  But there was nothing on that road.  I stopped at a gated community that was under development.  There was no one around; no one was living in the houses yet.  I think I yelled at that point.  Then I stood by the road and tried to wave down a car to ask directions.  No one stopped.  Remember though, I was a shirtless cyclist out in the middle of nowhere in the dark.

So I decided to backtrack.  A couple of miles back, I saw a residential area, so I turned in there.  I pulled up to a house that had a light on, put on my shirt, and knocked on the door.  I tried to come across as harmless as possible because I knew this was weird.  A middle-aged guy answered the door, and I told him the situation and asked directions.  He invited me inside to use his phone so I could call my host.  This guy was really trusting.  Once I got the directions down, I headed out.

I think I arrived at my host’s house at around 10pm.  Bekah was outside waiting for me and said she was worried I wouldn’t show up — that I got killed on the way.  Bekah and I had a pasta dinner, talked for a while, and then went to bed.  Pretty standard, but really perfect; I was exhausted.

Return to the USA: Bogota to Orlando

As my time with Jessica was finishing up, I started thinking of what I’d do next.  The plan was to continue South to Ecuador, maybe even Peru.  But that was a lot of mountain, and I wasn’t really pumped about it.  After 6 months of cycling, it was all becoming the same.  A new place wasn’t all that exciting anymore.

I looked at return flights to the US from Bogota and compared it against leaving from other major cities that I might be passing through, like Quito and Lima.  One-way flights from other South American cities were ~$500.  But I found flights from Bogota to Orlando on Jetblue for $80!!  And this was a flight that was only a week away.  That’s the bargain basement price of Destiny.

It was a relief to know my trip was over.  I’d had enough.

Getting a cardboard bike box in Bogota was harder than I thought.  I went to the Bicycle Shop part of town (that’s how Bogota was set up — all the shops of a certain type were in one part of town), and asked for a box at every store, but nobody had one, or they were too stingy with their boxes.  In the US, bike shops want to give them away.  One store had a box that was fit for a smaller bike and they wanted to charge me for it.  An option of one choice.  Then I had to walk it back a couple miles to the hostel.

Jetblue charged me for bringing the boxed bike.  I think it was $50.

On September 1, 2009, I flew into Orlando, back to  the US.  My mom lives in Tampa and my plan was to surprise her, so I didn’t tell her I was coming back.  So, my ride out of the airport was my bike.  I had to put it back together.

I got a pretty good amount of attention for re-assembling my bike by baggage claim, but not many people asked what I was doing; mostly just stares.  One couple, who were in town to visit Disney World, asked where I had biked to.  I told them Colombia.  “Columbia, South Carolina!”

6-Month Bike Tour Expense Report

Here are my monthly expenses during my 6-month bike tour.  February includes the cost of my new Surly Long Haul Trucker touring bike along with panniers, racks, etc; July includes a $130 flight from Panama City to Cartagena; and August includes my $150 return flight from Bogota to Orlando (with a $60 charge for my bike).  Oh, and I had my camera stolen twice in June (the first time on a bus in Guatemala, and the second time in the mail), which cost about $250.

Month Expenses
Feb (Bike) $1,573
Mar $685
Apr $797
May $428
Jun $954
Jul $819
Aug $769
Total $6,026

As you can see, bike touring is cheap!

I was in the US in March and April, and in May I entered Mexico and continued South.  In June and July, I was passing through Central America, and in August, I was in Colombia.

In the US, I didn’t pay for any accommodation.  We either stealth camped, camped at church grounds, or found a host through CouchSurfing.org or WarmShowers.org.  In Mexico, I was hosted by a lot of CouchSurfers, but those opportunities dwindled in Central America.  However, motel-like accommodation in Central America (residencias) were super cheap — mostly about $5 per night for a private room with a fan. And I stealth camped when I was in a pinch.

Food is expensive in the US, so we ate camp food (mac & cheese, instant mashed potatoes, baked beans) a lot, but many times we benefited from the kindness of our hosts.  But we would sometimes get a gift from a stranger.  I remember one time in Louisiana, I was hanging out outside a post office waiting for Ryan and an older Cajun Indian man asked me about what we were doing.  After I told him our plans to cycle to Panama, he handed me a $20.  I tried to refuse, but he wanted me to take it, “Lunch is on me.  I like supporting with these kinds of things.”

In Mexico, Central America, and Colombia, prepared food was very inexpensive.  Actually, I found that the cost of buying food at the grocery store was about the same as buying a prepared meal at a family-run restaurant.  So it was an easy choice for me — I ate at small restaurants the entire time.  This was great for two reasons: (1) I got rid of my camping cookware to cut down on bulk, and (2) eating local food is an important cultural experience.

So in summary, food was definitely the largest expense.  It’s interesting to see in the monthly cost breakdown that my expenses in the US were similar to when I was in Latin America.  It speaks to the high food prices in the US as we never paid for accommodation and many times we were fed by our hosts.  In Latin America, I paid for most of my food and accommodation, yet my expenses weren’t significantly higher.  I loved being hosted as my favorite memories are from meeting people along the way, but the flexibility of being able roll into a town at the end of the day and finding a cheap place to stay was great.

Bogota: Jessica’s Visit

I think it was when I was in Costa Rica that Jessica started talking to me about visiting me in Bogota. It was hard to estimate how much time I would need to get there, so that she could buy a flight with enough time in advance. And Jessica struggled with the safety issue. Her parents freaked out — since Colombia’s had a bad history, they assumed it was still a war zone. After lots of consideration, Jessica decided to just do it. We set the date, and she bought the ticket. I was pumped.

I had busted my ass riding through Colombia to get to Bogota in time to meet her when she arrived. I did lots of over-80-mile days, and a few 100-mile ones. I didn’t want the possibility of not being there when she arrived.

Before I took the bus out to meet her at the airport, I bought a mango as a welcoming gift. Mangoes were kind of a symbol for me — an exotic, sweet treat that was a rarity in my old life, but I’d been able to find on the side of the road on this trip.

I waited at arrivals with a lot of anticipation. When I saw Jessica, it was unreal! An old friend in a foreign country — now an International friend. It was a great moment for both of us.

We took a taxi back to the hostel, and Jessica wanted to take a quick look around before going to bed. We stepped into a small convenience store that had tables and chairs set up, and ordered a couple of beers. An old man came up and greeted us. He laid out an essay he’d written, and then returned to his table. He was a professor, and his paper was written in Spanish. I took a quick look and couldn’t read it but when he returned, I congratulated him on it. The professor’s mind was weird — he was all over the place. The store keeper yelled at him to not bother us anymore — the professor took his essay and recoiled into his lonely corner.

It was great to have Jessica around so that I could take some time off my bike tour. It was like a vacation from this year-long journey of not working. We toured the city seeing lots of sites and having treats along the way.

We did have some conflict though. When we were looking for a place to eat for dinner, we were in a ritzy part of town. The prices were around $10 per meal — cheap by American standards, but I’d gotten used to Colombian prices. I resisted those places and assured her we could find somewhere better. But we didn’t, and she got frustrated. Jessica said she wanted to enjoy herself and just spend some money on a nice place — “It’s my vacation!” I felt bad, and cheap, but I realized later … “Hey, it’s my bike tour!” I was on a budget and got used to a certain style of living. I probably shouldn’t have been difficult, and the prices weren’t really that bad, but it had been a while since I’d had to compromise.

We reconnected over jugoes naturales, “spreadables” (wafer sandwich of arequipe (caramel), blackberry, and more!), and native hot chocolate. And Jessica and I got out of the city one day. We took a day trip to a village outside of Bogota where there were hot springs. On the bus, a Colombian took an interest in us, and spoke really good English — he turned out to be an English teacher. We hung out with him, and when we arrived in his village, he treated us to a classically Colombian lunch; I just remember a lot of meat — I usually finish meals but it was too much, and kind of gross. Our Colombian friend brought us to his house, which was right across from the hot springs. We had a tour of his house, and he told us that if we wanted, we could stay the night. Readers may think it sounds creepy, but he was genuine and kind. There is nothing sweeter than a stranger’s kindness.

Jessica and I left our friend to go to the hot springs, but it turned out to be disappointing — a developed facility that catered mostly to old people. And it was expensive. We opted out. We had gotten an authentic experience instead.

Being together for over a week took it’s toll though. Our relationship definitely had highs and lows. I want to remember a few of the lows.

As we were walking through an underground bus transfer station, Jessica was taking some photos. A security guard gave her a stern look and a wag of the finger. I thought it was stupid and I wanted to support Jessica’s side on it, so I scoffed at it as we walked on. Jessica cut me off immediately — “Don’t make that face! You’re so skeptical of everything, Eoin!”

Jessica did a great job of documenting the trip. She had her camera out a lot of the time. On the few occasions I was in a shot of a street scene, I gave a corny peace sign. Just having fun. Being lame. Kind of a call-back to times with Ryan. This will come up later.

One night when we were looking for a place to eat, Jessica spotted a place that served soup. I don’t really like soup because it doesn’t offer a lot of food bulk — I like low price, high volume. I didn’t really want to eat there, but I was indecisive. Jessica called me out and said “Lighten up! Let’s just eat here.” I was offended because it seemed like a rude comment, so I told her, and that led to a heated session of letting out our frustrations. One complaint she had was that I was being disrespectful of her photos by always doing that stupid peace sign. I hadn’t realized it, but it was definitely annoying. Jessica and I let it all out and then we made up. Reaffirmation. Although it was a negative time, I felt a lot closer to her afterward than I had before. Bonding through conflict.

Although Jessica didn’t want to CouchSurf, we met up with Julian and his friends a few times. We also attended a couple of CouchSurfing meet-ups. One was for practicing English speaking. We could do that! By the end of it, Jessica had a crowd of Colombian guys gathered around her, enthralled. It was bizarre, and there were a couple of creeps in the mix. The other CouchSurfing meet-up was to attend this seemingly traditional Bull Fighting event. It was strange though. The shape of a bull was traced with gasoline and set on fire. Then after it had burned out, a guy came out with a broom and swept the sand along that tracing. All he did was sweep in that same loop. Countless times and there was no sign of him stopping after about 30 minutes. People started leaving, so we did the same. Performance art gone wrong — does it ever go right?

Bogota: Julian and Falkon

My CouchSurfing host in Bogota, Julian, preferred to go by Falkon. He told me that he used to be a professional gamer and Falkon was his gaming name.

Falkon’s apartment was great. It definitely looked like a bachelor pad — guitars, video games, big tv, sound system.  I feel like there should have been a glass-top table somewhere. Falkon also had a spare bedroom; he said his roommate had just moved out and that I could sleep in there. 🙂

I enjoyed hanging out with Falkon and doing regular things for a few days — including playing Rock Band! ;P Whenever we got food, a drink, or a taxi, he insisted on paying. When I tried to chip in, he’d say, “But you’re my guest.” As a fellow guy, it feels weird saying it, but Falkon is a Sweet Guy. He even treated me to a Strawberry Shish Kabob dipped in White Chocolate! I got him back though; I treated him to McDonald’s. Apparently in Colombia, McDonald’s is a nice restaurant — kind of fancy and different. McDonald’s would even be considered a pretty good place for a date.

Falkon told me about how his last CS guest, Hali, and his old roommate, Carlos, fell in love. Hali, who’s from New Zealand, arrived with her big personality. Colorful clothes and bright pink hair — a modern day Punky Bruster. Carlos was charmed by her, and soon CouchSurfing became a serious, romantic affair.

Hali came by to hang out when Falkon’s other CS guest, Meredith, arrived. Meredith was a Plain Jane from the Boston area. She had spent some time “living” in Buenos Aires (people love saying that they “lived abroad”) and she’s a vegetarian. Buenos Aires is the Beef Capital of the World. If you’re vegetarian in Buenos Aires, you’re missing out on Culture — you need to relax your rules if you go there.

Meredith told us about how she lost her ATM card and that she was running out of money. This sounded like bad news to me. She also seemed pretty sloppy — not a good mix with super-neat Falkon. Lazy Meredith slopping around on the couch all day moping about being broke. I heard later from Falkon that he had treated her to lots of meals and she didn’t show too much gratitude. Falkon got tired of her sloppiness and he finally had to ask her to leave. Loser CouchSurfer.

Two Notable Moments with Hali:

  • She felt the urge to let me know that she has no interest in visiting the United States.
  • Although my Spanish is pretty pathetic, she was helpless. When Hali and I were in a shop, she wanted to buy some jewelry, so I helped her bargain for a better price. I got the storekeeper to drop the price a bit, and Hali bought it. As we left the store, Hali said, “If I had a real local helping me buy it, I would have gotten a much better price.”

Masculinity:

I noticed that masculinity is a little different in Colombia. Guys are more loving and caring with their guy friends. In the US, guys show affection to other guys by making fun of each other — bonding through bashing. Hali told me that when Carlos was living with Falkon, he would make Falkon breakfast each morning and bring it up to him in bed, and many times Carlos wouldn’t even eat. Guys in Colombia aren’t afraid to be sweet.

My Pathetic Clothes:


It was cold in Bogota since it’s up in the mountains. Being on a bike tour, my wardrobe was very limited, especially for cold weather. I wore the same damn maroon plaid shirt and black jeans every day. Falkon felt bad for me in my wrinkled shirt, and kept suggesting that I borrow some of his clothes. He was probably embarrassed of me — same-clothes American with patchy facial hair.

One night when we were going out, I was wearing the same tired maroon plaid shirt. Falkon told me I should take one of his sweaters since it would be cold. I put on a striped one that I thought would look cool, but when he saw me, he didn’t look pleased. Falkon suggested I get a different one. I complied, but I didn’t know why, so I asked. In private, Falkon looked at me with concern and said, “The colors clash.”