Interview – solo female cyclist
Leah Manning – cycling California to Patagonia
Leah was born in the USA – 36 years ago.
She cycled through 13 countries, covered 20.000 km and spent 1 year and 9 months on the road so far…still pedaling.
I have vowed to myself to ride as long as I love it. My heart, my thighs and my gratitude for life have grown tremendously traveling by bike.Traveling by bike has been a lifelong dream of mine. I knew it would never be the “right” time so I just took a leap of faith. Riding solo has exceeded my expectations, what a magnificient journey sparked by other adventurous women.
—- Zumba, Ecuador en route to the Peruvian border La Balsa —-
1. You started your long cycle tour with a female partner who had a limited time frame. What did you think for the first few kilometers after leaving home together and what about after six long months on the road suddenly being by yourself?
First thoughts? …where the hell am I going to sleep tonight?! And I loved this feeling. The ultimate freedom, having everything I need to survive strapped to my bike. I met Cherry (www.theseplacesinbetween.com) for the first time fresh off the plane from London. We corresponded on the website crazyguyonabike. A week later we were crossing the Mexican border into Tijuana. She is the bravest, funniest, strongest cyclist I’ve met. Such luck in starting with someone who instantly felt like a sister.
6 months later was a huge contrast to go from spending every minute with someone, sleeping in the same tent, sharing all of our meals & experiences to suddenly being on the road relying only on myself. Getting to the end, finishing, wasn’t as important to me as making each day a discovery, an opportunity to step further out of my comfort zone to find opportunities to learn.
My second day alone, while peeing behind a tree, I saw another woman whoosh by on a bike. She was solo, riding since Argentina, and I felt so positive and empowered by her free spirit. I still keep in touch with her.I have been fortunate to meet and briefly join forces with interesting people along the road from all over the globe. When I continue on my own it is always with new knowledge, and appreciation for being content in my own company.
—- Learning Quechua & infinite kindness in the campos —-
2. You are travelling very light, looking at your pictures it tells me that you cycle in very remote places quite often. You need food, warm clothes, spare parts, water, tent and cooking gear. Where do you put all your belongings?
In Peru I had sent some cargo ahead via bus so that 5000 meter dirt road passes would be more fun and it taught me to par down a bit. I ditched my front panniers which opened up more challenging routes to me. I found that I always had sufficient tools, clothing for riding in rain, snow and freezing high altitude and food to satisfy a voracious cyclist..
I carry an alcohol burning beer can stove and a one person tent that is ridiculously small and light. Slowly, I just started chucking the luxuries, the scenery is the luxury! Peru was the dirtiest, hungriest, coldest, poorest and happiest I’ve ever been. I find that my needs have changed.
—- psyching up to climb 400 meters in 4k on Paso Pomacocha Peru —-
3. How does a perfect cycling day look like to you?
A perfect day involves a road not found on maps; somewhere unique that locals tell you about. Interesting road conditions like rocky dirt, steep climbs, fording rivers and hike-biking on overgrown tracks keep me buzzing..as long as the only traffic are cows or llamas I’m in my blissful zone. I do love the feeling of rising before the world does in “la madrugada” but it is rare for me.
The food variety, fresh squeezed juice stands & coconuts in Mexico and Colombia are absolutely divine, I find myself still daydreaming of them. Ideal cycling days don`t factor distance as much as meeting a memorable person I would have never met in my “old life”. A reminder of how barriers are knocked down when you are on a bicycle…meaning you don’t need roads either. Being among people who live simply where I can sleep under the stars, and drink from a waterfall is the perfect day…if there’s hot springs involved that’s a day for the books!
—- Wild camp near Cordillera Huayhuash Peru —-
4. You spent almost 6 months in Mexico. What did you like about the country?
I grew up steeped in Mexican culture, accepted like family in the homes of my friends. Riding bikes through Mexico, we received the same treatment from strangers. It was an amazingly open, friendly country to learn a new language and explore some of the most diverse and beautiful landscapes I have seen in my life. With over 60 indigenous groups, there are extraordinarily interesting cultures, I feel as if I only scratched the surface in 6 months.
Mexico was formative in changing my perceptions of negative US media. Some cyclists on the US border practically begged us not to enter Mexico, Mexicans warned us that Guatemalans were dangerous, and so on of one another’s neighbor. Each country was just as friendly as the last so I learned take it all in stride with a grain of salt and to trust my instinct.
—- Being adopted for the millionth time. Picoy, Peru —-
5. You were also very brave to spent 4 months in Colombia, 4 months in Peru, 3 months in Ecuador. None of these countries are famous for being very safe. Did you had any problems?
I loved Colombia so much I rode it twice! It is a cycling paradise with a huge bike culture. A majority of cyclists will tell you the people are exceptionally welcoming. It may seem odd that my favorite country also happens to be the one where I was tackled off my bike, chased by a man with a knife and robbed.
Ironically, I was riding with another male cyclist at the time which goes to show that riding with men is not necessarily safer. The incident was avoidable as we were foolish and lack of planning saw us on a road notorious for theft. Colombia can also rarely be discussed without mentioning paramilitary guerrillas.
It was here that I discovered my passion for remote mountain backroads and never took it for granted that I was able to ride through regions off limits years ago that were gripped by terror. Truthfully, as a woman riding alone if I heeded every warning I would never make it out the front door.
The mountains of Peru are exceptionally tranquil and safe, I could wild camp anywhere. I was already privy to the dangers of the Northern Coast. The cycle touring community is tight knit and vigilant, sharing info on dodgy spots.
Ecuador was a very comfortable place to ride. I stuck to remote mountain and jungle dirt roads.I find coasts and cities are always places to be more alert. I love cities almost as much as I love nature and I get into the gritty rhythm of urban life when I can;
Warmshowers hosts are godsends as local people will show you the authenticity & it’s much safer this way. My worst petty theft and grabby incidents have always been while accompanied by other men.
—- Huascaran, Peru. I camped here after riding Punta Olimpica —-
6. Which stop for the night was the funniest, the worst, the most beautiful and which was the most rewarding?
Funniest was in Baja Mexico. It was my 35th Birthday, my first week of the trip. I didn’t care where we spent the night, I was living my dream.. False directions to a campsite on an outdated map led us on a hot dusty road to nothing but chickens. Almost as if it was a mirage we saw a waterslide in the distance. It was eerily empty of people but shortly a man turned up with a giant cake and his whole family for his cousins Birthday.
Worst night was on the open sea on a boat from Panama to Colombia. I was sleeping outside on the front of the boat, certain I would be tossed over the edge. Waves periodically splashed my face, soaking my sleeping bag. The night seemed to last an eternity and my stomach rolled and rocked with the tossing boat. In the morning there was only warm nauseating salty “desalinated” water to drink.
Most beautiful was in Costa Rica. A family let me camp on their roof and I awoke to about 30 monkeys scurrying by. One monkey came up to my sleeping mat and gave it a tug, it just took my breath away to be in the midst of all that wildlife that disappeared back into treetops.
Rewarding was when I rode up 4,890 meters to Punta Olimpica in Peru. It was the highest I had been and to be there on a bicycle was such a magnificent feeling. I descended a little to a laguna that was the most striking turquoise color I have ever seen. I was in awe that such a majestic place existed and I cycling felt limitless.
—- The higher the better. Riding Peru’s Great Divide —-
7. I guess the trip has had a big influence on you. Has it change your life? Did it change the view you have of the world and towards home?
I wasn’t an avid cyclist before this trip, I didn’t “train”. Most preliminary planning, I changed en route. It changed my life to realize you can get on your bike and ride it farther than will be believed. Even if you use plastic bags as gloves, trash bins as panniers, the possibilities are endless. When you are doing what you love there is very little that you need. The things that I worried to obtain before were for an imagined life, not mine. There are doctors & lawyers who left their jobs to know the freedom of traveling by bike, it will change your life.
I learned to trust that I am not given more than I can handle, and some days are espically shit. No bite of food, sip of beer, or swim in the ocean feels as amazing as it does after you worked hard to get there. The people that opened their homes and hearts to me changed the people in my life with the powerful message of kindness..
Where I’m from in CA migrant Mexican farm workers are often seen as cheap labor. Would they be able to knock on a stranger’s door as I have?
—- Entertaining myself on Ruta 40 Argentina —-
8. What has been the biggest surprise so far?
It is no surprise that I could not have gotten this far on my own. Every floor that was offered for me to sleep on, every meal and gesture of kindness from absolute strangers that made me feel part of their family as well as messages and inspiration from people I’ve never met, friends sending me beer money that I am able to live for weeks off of. The amazing people who sent me quality bike parts, I look down while beasting a mountain and think of how they helped me get there.
Others believing in me has made it possible to cross 13 borders..even when I ran out of money to pay the high reciprocity fees to enter. My family, who were initially planning my funeral and now are my biggest fans.
This encouragement and having so many people be part of this trip has blown me away. Before I left, many (including customer service of my bank) felt obliged to warn me that I would be kidnapped or die in some Hollywood movie way. Admittedly I was driven to shed some light, change a some minds, and I did. I am very happily surprised.
—- High altitude cuisine in Peru’s Central Highlands —-
9. What have you learned from other cultures?
In all of the countries I rode, people who appear to have ¨nothing¨ have shared whatever they have, as they would a neighbor. These gestures were extended from cultures that did not relate to me or the crazy thing I was doing (unmarried! childless!) but accepted me with unconditional warmth.
I often think this is far more advanced, something that is getting seems lost in the age of smartphones. Nobody has been negative (to my face) for being from the US. I think we tend to think that everyone hates us. Even in places where the US has a horrible history, people can differentiate government policy from people. I wish we could perpetuate this more in the US.
I have camped in many churches without being asked of my religion. I met indigenous communities who drank ayahuasca to produce intense hallucinations. It isn’t a drug to them, it’s medicine & used to find solutions. This seemed strange to me but normal to take anti depressants and internalize problems.
I have met European families traveling with young children by bicycle or motorhome through Central & South America while schooling them on the road and teaching them the most valuable lessons about the world.
I learned that the happiest people collect memories, not things.
—- Feeling blessed at the Border in Arica Chile —-
10. Which was the toughest 100 km so far?
The toughest 100k so far was crossing the whole country of Honduras in 1 day. A man stopped me to gift me a pretty nice slingshot, for protection. I found it to have a safe feeling actually but 15km before the Nicaraguan border a guy on a motorcycle rode along side me and I couldn’t hear what he was saying through his helmet but then realized he was propositioning me for sex, I yelled no but he still rode next to me and I was panicked because there was no traffic, not anyone around.
I started yelling more and he drove off. I felt unsure of riding ahead where I wasn’t sure how deserted it was or turning back where I had seen a shop. That’s when I saw Cherry rock up sort of chuckling about a motorcyclist who asked to have sex. We blazed over the frontera together, I was ever so relieved to see her.
—- Atacama desert Chile —-
11. Ushuaia is not very far anymore. What are you planning on doing after arriving at the most Southern tip of America?
I stopped a few times to teach English in cities but after a short time of not riding, I went crazy which makes me think more and more that I will not stop. I am about 1,619 km from Ushuaia. My immediate goal from there is to write the book I have been working on. Depending on how that goes I will plan where my wheels take me next. I have been inspired by many other solo women cyclists who broadened my horizons to think about riding other continents. Anything is possible.
—- Crossing into Argentina after being detained at the border 6 hours —-
Read more about Leah on her blog cyclesouthchica