Interview: Laura Bingham

How far can you get cycling across South America with no money?

Dylan Gower talks to Laura to find out!

You went across South America with not a lot in your pockets, how resourceful did you have to be? 

I cycled over 7,000Km without a single penny, so not being able to spend anything or without having the knowledge that I had money to get myself out of situations or to get things that I wanted was definitely a change of pace. I had to be very resourceful in finding food and also very conscious of the fact I was living a different life and I had to be very sensitive and very careful with myself. I was resourceful in the fact that I had to use ingenuity I guess, to find people and to find food and places to sleep and create relationships with people around me. 

Was there ever a time when you wanted to pull out? 

Oh God, so many times, especially the first the couple of months, because it was such a change of pace, such a different life, it was almost quite traumatic, that sort of shift, but in time I gradually became accustomed to that life. I mean, gradually across the country it got easier, the people got nicer, were a lot friendlier but definitely during the first couple of months I wanted to pull the plug. I downloaded some motivational talks from YouTube on my phone and I had to listen to those every day to just remind myself why I was doing it and to keep strong because I was crying at least once an hour, every hour!!

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Photo by Brandon Giesbrecht

What would you say was the highlight? 

I think the highlight was when I got to Paraguay and as I was cycling along everyone was waving, everyone was smiling, everyone was giving me a little ‘toot-toot’, because they were so happy to see me and having loads and loads of people around me, happy that I was there - it was just so rewarding, made me so joyful and so happy whereas before, people weren’t always that enthusiastic to see me or people weren’t as smiley. 

Was there a low point that sticks in your mind? 

Yes definitely – when I was in the Ecuadorian Andes, the indigenous people within the Andes weren’t as friendly to strangers as in some of the other countries, so I found it very hard to create relationships and find places to sleep and food to eat, I passed a lot of days very hungry. There was one particular day when, because of the season that I was cycling in, it was very cold and very wet. It was about the 4th or 5th day I’d been pushing my bike up the Andes, and I was very very hungry and very very wet and very very cold and I didn’t have anything left in me. I dropped my bike on the floor outside this house and fell to my knees sobbing with tears. There was a lady in the garden of this house across the street, Terry, the chap I was working with at the time, put his bike down, walked over and asked if we could camp in the garden or if she could help and she looked at me on the floor sobbing and just shook her finger so I could clearly see that it was a ‘No’, she wasn’t going to help! That was one of the worst moments of the entire trip because I just felt so alone, so desperate, I couldn’t speak English to anyone - it was an awful moment. But, to counter that, there were several other amazing people - the next day there was a lovely lady that welcomed us in and lit a fire for us to dry our clothes and she gave us a plate of food. So for every bad experience there were 5 other experiences that were joyful and happy. There are a lot of good people out there. 

Is there a moment that sticks out when the kindness of strangers went above and beyond your expectations? 

There are quite a few people that I still talk to now who went above the call of duty…I was alone at one particular point and I was cycling through the desert. My bike balance wasn’t very good when I started but it progressed. So, I was cycling through the desert, and I didn’t realise that my back tyre was flat, I had so much weight on the bike and because of that, it had worn through the tyre so I could pretty much see the inner tube. A car stopped when I was faffing with my tyre and they asked if I needed any help and if I wanted a lift to their house to sort out my bike and because I was in the desert, and I didn’t want it to get dark and have to camp on the side of the road because it’s too dangerous I accepted the lift. We went to their house and on to the bike shop; they offered to pay for the bike tyre which I obviously had to accept and then as they didn’t have the right size they said ‘do you know what, we’re going to town, there’ll definitely be a bike shop there. We’re going by bus tomorrow so come with us and we’ll sort out your bike tyre'. So they paid for a bus ticket for me to go with them and then they paid for the tyre! They spent like half the day with me trying to find the right bike shop and then after we fixed the tyre and got everything sorted, I fell asleep on the Mum’s shoulder in the taxi! They were so sweet - they were an adopted Mother & Father to me. They then took me back to the bus station because they had to stay another couple of days and they paid for a bus to drop me off exactly where they picked me up so I could start from the same point.

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All from sitting on the side of the road with a damaged tyre… 

….. Literally yes, they just stopped and asked if I needed any help and I’m still talking to her now…well both of them but mainly the Mum.

I read that you weren’t too much of a keen cyclist before you set out...

No, not really. 

Do you think that’s changed now or do you not want to see a bike for a while? 

Well the Genesis I was given is almost a part of me now - it’s like my little baby. It’s in the barn. I got back yesterday morning and I unpacked it yesterday afternoon! I want to take it back to the Genesis workshop to show them the condition it’s in, especially the second one that got run over. It’s incredible that the second bike managed to cycle an extra 4,000km after it had been crushed! But no, I do have a fondness for that bike because of all of the stuff it went through with me so, yeah, I like the bike and I desperately want to get back on it. Maybe not for a 7,000km journey without money - maybe a nice little cycle around the country to go to the pub to buy a drink and cycle back home but it’s like a part of me now. 

It was a huge trip, do you have an early memory of wanting a life of travel and exploration? 

Yeah, it was when I was just finishing up school, an older friend of mine, he was a couple of years older than me, went travelling around Thailand and it was then I thought ‘Oooo that sounds really fun, I want to do that’ and then when I left school, things weren’t as great as they once were at home, so I decided to go and find a different life, explore the world and explore all the different variations that my life could have; career-wise and home-wise and from there everything just escalated. 

The first trip was small – to Greece and then I just got further and further away from home until I found myself in Mexico, teaching English, working in a Jaguar Conservation Project for the government. I didn’t have enough money for a flight home so I ended up sailing from Orlando to England! I sailed back home and when I got back everyone was amazed I had done it, because I’d never sailed before and I’d never met the men that I was sailing with. Because of the reaction I got when I got back to England I thought ‘Maybe if I do bigger things I’ll get more of a reaction’, so little by little, it just sort of escalated into doing these slightly bigger, slightly crazier expeditions. 

Do you have your sights set on the next big trek or is the plan just to relax? 

No, I’m already planning the next one, well I’m getting married in 2 months which is an exciting challenge in itself but then after that, I’ve got another one that I’m planning but everyone will just have to follow me on Instagram and Twitter to find out what that is. 

It’s Ed Stafford you’re getting married to in September, correct? 

Yeah it definitely is…. 

I’ve seen a bit of his stuff as well, do you have any rivalry of who’s got the bigger, better treks or the bigger challenges or is it all friendly and you’re starting to book some things together? 

He’d definitely win! We’re extremely supportive of each other. I think that the most amazing thing of finding a partner that does the same sort of career as you is when I say ‘Oh I want to go off for 6 months’ or ‘I want to go and do this thing that’s really dangerous’ he understands and when he says ‘I want to go and do x, y and z’ and I think ‘Oh that’s a bit dangerous’ I understand and because we understand why, it makes it very easy to be very supportive of each other and I’ve felt nothing but love and support from him with any of the ventures that I want to do. 

So I feel very lucky in finding a partner that is supportive of this lifestyle, a lot of people wouldn’t understand it or wouldn’t be able to live in the same house with someone that’s constantly leaving and coming back. 

You were raising awareness and money for Operation South America – how much did you raise? 

So far only £600 but I think maybe a lot of people that are following me wanted to see if I’d complete it or not, but I’m still pushing on it and still trying to raise awareness on it and money for it and hoping that with more publicity and interviews like this it will direct more people towards me and they can help me raise money for this charity..but so far not enough! 

Sure, well let us know how we go about that… 

You can follow me on Twitter (@laurabingham93) and Instagram. There’s links up on those sites but I need put a link up on my website I think. I haven’t been advertising it as well I should have, I’ve just sort of mentioned it everywhere I can. I've got a Just Giving Page but that’s about it.

You should have been throwing out t-shirts during your 6 month cycle 

When I left, I left with loads of clothes and extra stuff so I could give them to people along the way that helped me. There was a particularly poor family that really tried to help, I gave them a load of clothes. I left with a full wardrobe and came back with a few t-shirts and 1 pair of shorts! 

Is there something on your list that you just can’t travel without? (You can’t say passport) 

Most certainly, my Rab Down jacket. I would never want to travel without that because it’s so lightweight. I used it as a pillow at night because when you are camping, you can end up with this weird neck position because you don’t want to carry a pillow, so this Rab jacket made the perfect pillow for me and when it got chilly, it was really good for the slightly cold, slightly chilly evenings but then it works just as amazingly in the Andes up at 5,000m altitude. It’s the most incredible jacket – I definitely wouldn’t go anywhere without it. 

So in regard to food and keeping up the calories intake, from what I read it was restaurant scraps, nuts, foliage and the like - was there something that was a life-saver or maybe perhaps something that you didn’t even realise was going to be on your menu? 

A few things, I ate a lot of stale bread, and I found loads of food on the side of the road, like packets of biscuits, packets of crisps and sweets, fruit that had fallen off trucks. I found a box of 64 cans of tuna on the side of the road that had obviously fallen off a lorry. Once, I was cycling along and there was a chicken in the road. I could see a van coming and I thought ‘Oh God, that chicken is going to get hit’, it ran towards the other side of the road and then it saw the truck, ran towards my side of the road, saw me, got scared, and ran towards the truck again, at which point the truck was closer and hit the chicken but it didn’t kill it, it just broke it’s leg. So the chicken was trying to use it’s one leg and wings to crawl out of the road but it was clearly in pain. It’s leg was broken and I didn’t want to leave the chicken just to die and I thought ‘that’s actually really good food, I’ve not had any meat for a long time and I want to eat it’ so, I got a rock and smashed it's head in on the road. This was like 11 o’clock in the morning so now what do I do with this dead chicken? This happened in Peru, it was a really hot day, and I didn’t want the chicken to go bad as then it would be a waste of life. So, I strapped it to the back of my trailer, put my cap on it, which covered the majority of it and just kept putting water over it, trying to keep it cool so it would last until an early dinner. I really wasn’t expecting to eat half dead road kill that I would have to kill myself… 

So you’ve come back with a few new skills then? 

Yeah, I’d say new ways of cooking. I’d never really cooked by fire in the middle of nowhere before and I didn’t realise that I had to put 3 rocks around the fire and make a fire within those 3 rocks to create like a stove, that was a really good skill I learnt. I already knew how to gut animals so doing that with the chicken wasn’t too hard. 

Do you notice all the food wastage going on around you now? 

Oh yeah, there’s a lot of food wastage but I think I’d noticed that already before I left. In South America, I did because I’d be eating in someone’s kitchen with a family, they’d go to put food in the bin and I’d be like ‘No no no, give it to me, I’ll eat everything!’ After Ecuador and being hungry lots, I’d just shove everything in to my face, any food that I’d find would be going into my face and I’d never leave a plate unfinished. But I definitely noticed that in people’s houses, they’d go to throw away food and I’d think ‘no that’s precious’. Every time I go to a supermarket now I start crying because I’m so overwhelmed that I can have anything I want. I just have to pick it up and put it in a basket. I also did that in Paraguay with a lady called Druilla, we went to a supermarket and she said ‘whatever you want, just pick it up and put it in the trolley’ and I started crying in the middle of the supermarket - I’ve done that a few times since being back already. 

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Lastly, for any of the readers that want to do something different, not just go on a normal trip overseas, would you have maybe your top 3 tips for them?

Probably, 1 – don’t be afraid to try something new – one thing I’ve learnt through travelling is that everything will be fine in the end. Don’t be scared of doing anything, it’s good to push boundries. I found one of the best things that I ever did was to create a bucket list, I've got 87 things on my bucket list and that’s a really great way for me to see all of my dreams in one place and then see how I can combine them or to give me inspiration if I can’t think of something to do. I’d highly recommend a bucket list to help inspire you to go and do things. Go online and look at everyone else’s bucket lists too because there’s so many out there and so many inspirational ideas within them. One of things that inspired me to do this trip was that I had cycle across a country on my bucket list so this was me ticking that one off. I also had sail the Atlantic on there so I ticked that one off a couple of years ago too. 

Number 3 would be talk – talk to people if you’re away or out - don’t be scared to talk to the person next to you, don’t be scared to wander round a market and try to talk to the people on the market because they’ll know where all the hidden gems are. They’ll know where all the incredible places are and they might just invite you to their house for a BBQ and then you’ll get to immerse yourself more in that country. So talk to people, be happy and smiley and ask them about their life as a native in that country.

So, have an open mind I guess…

Yeah, on this trip especially that’s how I managed to get to so many places to eat and so many places to sleep. I would be cycling along and I’d be stopped at a service station and I’d start to talk to someone and they’d hear about what I’m doing and they would invite me to their house for dinner or to stay the night - so talk to people!