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!

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!!

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: 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.”

Bucaramanga (Colombia)

Henri brought me back to his home. Odil, his 26-year-old wife, Henri Junior, his 16-year-old son, and Andrea, his five year old daughter, were all there to greet him. It was a big, passionate greeting as Henri Junior gave him a big hug and a kiss on the lips. Later, I realized that this is what happened every time he returned, even when he was gone for just a few hours.

Odil stayed at home and cleaned and cooked. When Henry returned, she was his servant, bringing him food and drink. He sat at the table, and she sat watching TV. Henri wanted more drink, so Odil got up to get it. Henri kept the purse – as soon as she would return from buying something at the store, she would give him the change.

Henri Junior was a really genuine, nice guy. It turned out he spoke good English too, and after only 3 months of study. He and I got along really well and it was hard to believe he was only 16. Henri Junior helped me by translating between me and his dad.

They had a chess set at the house, so I invited Henri Junior to play. I was well-practiced at this point from all the chess I’d played with Antonio, the Italian. I crushed the teenager a bunch of times.

Henri would take me out in his truck to show me around, but it seemed there wasn’t much to see in Bucaramanga. He kept bringing me over to his brother’s house where they would sort out some business as they both worked for the same company. I was just waiting around. It kind of sucked.

One day when it was raining, Henri drove recklessly through an intersection at high speed. A car pulled out, and we smashed into the side. Henri got out to talk to the woman, and after a few minutes, he came back with $100. Instead of calling the police, or exchanging insurance information, the woman just paid him cash. Culture.

I stayed for three nights. We brought in a mattress that Henri had in the back of his truck for taking naps, and set it in Henri Junior’s room. They took good care of me. As I was tooling around on the internet during the day, Odil would make me food and set it out on the table. She anticipated my hunger. I’d take a dip in the pool, and come back to find a snack waiting for me.

Henri kept calling me gringo. I told him it was a negative term, and I didn’t like it. He said it wasn’t offensive, and it just meant “American.” He kept saying it.

Henri brought me around to meet different people he knew, presenting me to them, kind of like I was his gringo. “Look at this interesting gringo I found.”

Henri wants to send Junior to the US at some point, so that he can master English. He asked if I would take him in and even write a letter to get Junior a visa. It’s sort of a lot to ask, but I like Henri Junior a lot. He’s such a genuine, well-behaved guy, so I don’t think there’d be a problem. I hope he comes up.

Henri introduced me to his friend, Jose, who spoke some English, and Jose´s son was even better. We went over to Jose’s house. Jose said to me very genuinely, “This is my home. It is also your home.” He invited me back for dinner the following night, as he and his family “want to speak to me more,” but when the time came, Henri didn’t want to go. I think Henri didn’t like it much because we were speaking in English, and he was left out. It’s understandable – it’s how I felt most of the time.

Webcam shot

The following morning Henri would be going to Barbosa, in the direction of Bogota, on his motorcycle to make a delivery. He wanted to try pulling me along up the mountain. I was game to try it although it sounded pretty dangerous. So we did a trial run in Bucaramanga. I got set on my bike, and grabbed the rail on the back seat of his motorcycle. When he took off, I couldn’t hold on. He accelerated too fast, and it would have been too unstable anyhow. Then we tried having me sit on the back of the motorcycle holding the bicycle as it rode along side us. That went well until the bike went over a bump in the road. It jumped up, and I tried to control it, but I couldn’t get it stable again – it was hopping all over. It would have made the motorcycle unstable if I had held on much longer, so I had to let the bicycle drop. I was pissed, and yelled in anguish. Henri laughed. I ran back to see the damage on the bike. Luckily, it was still in good shape. I think the handlebar tape might have gotten a little more destroyed, but that was all.

So Henri figured out a different plan. He had a friend who would be making a delivery by truck to San Gil that night. San Gil was on the way to Barbosa, and it was the first major town after getting up the steepest part of the mountain. Henri would send my bike and bags with his friend, and then Henri and I would leave early in the morning on his motorcycle, and he’d drop me in San Gil to pick up my bike and bags. It was a good plan.