Bicycling far off the beaten track . . . really far off
That sound, from passing cars and trucks, is frustrating to Akos Szoboszlay when he’s cycling near his home in California's Silicon Valley. “It bothers me,” he said. “I just don’t enjoy that.”
Szoboszlay, 54, sees only one logical solution: “Well, you go to the Third World, where there are very few cars.”
Over the last 25 years, he has cycled in the Indian Himalayas of Kashmir, through the villages of southern Mexico and in the mountains of Hungary, Turkey, Belize, New Zealand and Costa Rica.
Though he mostly bikes alone, he still has plenty of company. Szoboszlay is part of a burgeoning trend of bicyclists who have taken to the unpaved roads and pure landscapes of Central and South America, Africa and the Indian subcontinent.
David Mozer, 52, director of the International Bicycle Fund, a nonprofit organization advocating bicycle travel, has led bicycle tours of Africa for more than 20 years. And even though he has never met Szoboszlay on the road, he shares the same bug to escape the humdrum of daily life in the United States to see the peoples of the world.
He has traveled more than 50,000 miles, visiting the Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Uganda and Senegal. Along the way he’s run into elephant herds and chimpanzees in Uganda and enjoyed locally grown coffee, pineapple and bananas. “No place singularly represents Africa,” said Mozer, whose tours are less a safari of wildlife and more a safari of African culture.
But his travels bring their share of difficulties.
For Mozer, a large problem is mapping his course. Because maps of Africa are not up to date, his trips are mainly based on memories of past wrong turns.
Political situations can also alter an itinerary. During a 750-mile tour of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries near Srinagar, India, Szoboszlay heard over his shortwave radio a warning to foreigners to leave the area in three days or be considered Israeli spies.
“Oops, I better not go there,” remembered Szoboszlay, an electrical engineer whose work schedule affords him the freedom to travel for weeks at a time.
The physical toll of cycling for hundreds of miles is another obstacle. Water can quickly run out, the sun can scorch the skin and there are those eternally clenched calf muscles.
And if the next village doesn’t appear on the horizon before sundown, as happened to Szoboszlay in the deserts of the Sierra Madre in Mexico, it means a night sleeping alone on a ground cloth. In such a situation, the snacks he brings from home are his only comfort. “Cookies, that’s my fuel,” he said.
Even so, traveling in the developing world is catching on because people are enticed by the landscape’s purity, said Greg Benchwick, commissioning editor at Lonely Planet, which specializes in guidebooks for the adventurous.
“A lot of people are starting to see that the developed world is going to remain the same,” he said. “Whereas the Third World and the developing world, it’s the navel of the world, so it’s still a work in progress.”
Price is another draw. Mozer’s tours, which last two weeks and usually include five to 10 bicyclists, cost $60 to $100 a day. By comparison, a safari tour in eastern Africa can cost $5,000 or more for a two-week trip.
Even more intrepid are Tim and Cindie Travis, who started their bike trip in 2002 and continue to this day. After giving up domestic life in Arizona, they have biked Central and South America and Southeast Asia. They are now at the halfway point of a one-year bicycle tour of Australia.
The toughest part for them was getting enough courage to leave home. “I was so nervous I could barely pedal my bike,” said Cindie, 45. “My biggest fear was a feeling of vulnerability. Here I was on a bicycle with nothing to protect me from anything.”
But Cindie’s fears were soon eclipsed by the struggle to live on meager funds.
Whereas Mozer spends $60 to $100 a day, the Travises have cut their expenses to $25 a day for both of them, or what Cindie used to make an hour as a geologist in Arizona.
Their limited funds are spent on accommodations, food and visas, which are difficult to acquire because of their prolonged stays.
Because of the expenses, the two are forced to make friends, find cheap hotels or occasionally pitch a tent on the side of the road. Sometimes such accommodations become islands of safety in potentially dangerous terrain.
“There are some towns where you just get a hotel room and you stay in at night,” Tim, 40, said of traveling in south Mexico and Peru. “When we camp in these countries, you just hide completely from the road.”
Health insurance also sets them back, and because of their high deductible, they hope that any sickness can be tended to by Cindie, whom Tim calls “Bones,” because she’s the de facto nurse. So far, they have suffered through strep throat in Mexico City, a bladder infection in Peru and giardia, an intestinal parasite, in China.
But despite the hiccups, the Travises say the sights they have seen have far outweighed any negatives. In Argentina they witnessed the rupture of the Perito Moreno glacier, which was shown in Al Gore's documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth.” Farther north, they trekked to Machu Picchu, the Incan ruins lost in the clouds of Peru.
Up next for the couple: New Zealand, Africa and the Middle East.
“A lot of people ask us why do we do this,” said Tim, speaking from a friend’s house in Sydney, Australia. “Our answer really comes down to: Well, why not?”
“We just love the road,” Cindie echoed.