I made the choice to try and find out the ways in which some people around the world live. I am very fortunate to live in a first world country, but I wanted to understand what it’s like to not have anything.
I wanted to experience how it felt to feel real hunger and the fear of not having food or shelter. So, I decided to cycle 7,000km (4,350 miles) across the South American continent to find out. I want to tell you a few things I learned.
1. The importance of a smile
In Ecuador, no one smiled at me. I felt like I was a burden on society and that I was worth nothing. I was constantly rejected and it built up a huge fear inside of me. I became scared of people and this fear took a long time to disappear.
It was only when I made it to Paraguay when it started to go. When strangers smiled at me, waving and were genuinely happy to see me that my heart really started to sing. I was truly happy. A smile is a powerful thing.
2. What true hunger and fear is
I wanted to feel what true hunger was like, especially when you don’t have a choice and you fear how long it will last. I learned this very early on in my expedition and I developed a huge fear around food and safety. I now have so much more respect and empathy for those whose lives are this reality. It’s terrifying.
3. The importance of being safe
I was always aware of being safe, but travelling by bike with no money was completely different; the risks are so much higher. Because I didn’t have any money, I was reliant on people and sometimes even if I wasn’t sure if they were good people or bad people, I would have to trust them because I needed their help. I needed them.
It’s important to camp away from the view of the road and to always put a lock on the inside of your tent. Always trust your gut, if something doesn’t feel right then don’t do it.
4. I learned what I am capable of
There were so many moments when I questioned and berated myself, but over time I learned how to recognise this behavior. I would counteract it by telling myself how capable and special I was. I listened to motivational videos as well that I had pre-downloaded to help remind me of what I was capable of.
There were so many moments I wanted to quit! Yet I kept telling myself, “You will fail if you give up now, but you don’t know what will happen if you keep going”. I never realised my inner strength, the only way to find it is to test yourself.
5. How to survive without material luxuries
Throughout all of my previous travels I always thought that I was travelling very simplistically and without any luxuries. However during this trip I came to realise how this wasn’t true.
Things like body wash, shampoo and toilet paper became a very luxury item and when I had ran out at the start, that was it and I couldn’t buy anymore. Something I craved the most was sweets. Oh, how I craved sugar! I haven’t been able to stop myself since I came back.
6. I learned if you cry in the rain people won’t know you’ve been crying
This is a bit of an oxymoron; it’s sadly funny. Funny in retrospect, but very sad that in the rain I would cry so much and no one would realise as it is impossible to identify the tears in the rain. The rain made me miserable and I thought about all the times I may have walked passing a sobbing person in the rain unaware of the pain they were in.
7. How important it is to not presume someone’s story
Anyone seeing me at first glance would probably have thought I had plenty of money on me and that I was just doing a little cycling tour. It is only when someone spoke to me that they realised that wasn’t the case. We can’t presume anything; we don’t know a person or what their story is. We should be mindful of that.
Some of the happiest memories I have from the entire trip were when people stopped and offered me things. Every time I was so over the moon. I didn’t even have to ask. Those little surprises were like chunks of gold!
I promise, if you give any traveller or any homeless person something out of the blue, you will make their day. In Paraguay this happened quite a few times to me, it made me so happy!
Please visit www.operationsouthamerica.org and support this fantastic charity I have been working with throughout the expediton. Keep up to date with me on my social media and find out what I’m up to next via Instagram and Twitter (@laurabingham93).