How far can you get on the kindness of strangers?
When Laura Bingham set off to cycle across South America, she decided she would do it by relying on the generosity of strangers. Lorna North finds out if she made it…
Laura Bingham’s South American adventure would begin in Ecuador, take her across Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina, over the Andes (with altitudes of up to 5,000ft) and through the Amazon jungle. Cycling more than 7,000km unaided would take around five months.
But Laura didn’t want the challenge to end there. Instead, she wanted to see if she could complete the trip without any money, hoping to rely on the kindness of strangers for food and accommodation, while raising money for a charity in Paraguay that looks after homeless or abused girls and young women.
The challenge was further complicated by the fact that to cycle any kind of distance - let alone across an entire continent - you need to keep well fuelled on the bike and well rested off it.
Her diet often included dry bread out of the bin, leftover scraps from restaurant customers’ plates or old fruit she had foraged from the side of the road. Each night, Laura either found the safest place to camp or accepted offerings from strangers to stay in their houses or back gardens.
At her very lowest point, she remembers being on her knees in the rain, by the side of the road, her stomach cramping with hunger, feeling alone.
It's painful when people don't even acknowledge your existence,” she says, “and hits you harder when you’ve been hauling your bike up the Andes and are physically and emotionally broken."
Her food intake had a great effect on how far she could travel in a day, with Laura’s daily mileage spanning from 140km to 10km, depending on the amount of food she was able to source.
Luckily things really improved in Paraguay. “People just started smiling and tooting,” she recalls. By the time she got to Argentina in the last two or three weeks she even had to tell people to stop giving her food.
Laura made her cycle across South America, finishing her journey in Buenos Aires in 164 days and raised £1,200 for Operation South America.
So, how did she celebrate. “I checked into a hotel and, as shameful as it sounds, I bought a McDonalds with my own money. I hadn’t had junk food in five months and it was the first place I saw!”
She says this experience has increased her empathy and understanding of what it feels like to be homeless. But would she do it again? “Absolutely not! I would never wish for anyone to have to live homeless without money and I will certainly never do it again.”
And if someone was to suggest it was all a blag to get a free holiday, what would she say? “You try it. I found a newer low than I had ever felt before, and I’ve had some pretty low times! I never want to go through it again.”
That’s not exactly the best endorsement for anyone considering something similar, but if you were, what luxury item would Laura recommend you take?
“I had a little bit of leftover Christmas cake that my sister-in-law made. I carried it the whole way because it was my emergency food if shit really hits the fan. I never actually ate it. When I felt shit, I just told myself that it could still get worse, so be thankful.”
And if she was to give her younger self a piece of advice? “I believe we learn our most important lessons through our mistakes, so I would never tell myself not to do it. Although I might tell myself to remember to lock the inside of the tent at night.”
So, what’s next for Laura? “I’ve just announced I’m pregnant, so it’s baby planning for the next year and then doing a walking expedition through the jungle in 2018.”
You can hear more from Laura at the Adventure Travel Show at Olympia London on 21 and 22 January
You can follow more of Laura’s adventures here
Get tickets to The Adventure Travel Show 2017 for only £6 when booking in advance. Just quote CASQUETTE when booking online or when calling 0871 230 7159. (Calls cost 13p per minute plus network extras.)