Zwei Personen schieben ihr bepacktes Velo dem Strand entlang.

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Trip around the world without an airplane - Part 2

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  • #Cycling
autorenbild julia.
Julia
Guest author, 4-Seasons
© Fotos

Lisa and Julia have been travelling around the world – without using planes – for three years. We conducted a lengthy interview with them two years ago. What’s happened since then? And how did COVID-19 affect them?

Getting from South America to Central America was a bit tricky. The Darién Gap – a huge maze of dense jungle and swamp, without any roads or paths – sits between Colombia and Panama. The area is controlled by drug cartels and paramilitary troops, so most travellers simply fly over it. This wasn’t an option for us, so we looked for alternatives.

We weren’t able to find a sailboat in the Columbian port city of Cartagena, so we travelled to the fishing village of Turbo to look for a merchant vessel that would take us to Panama. The busy harbour was replete with muscle-bound men, towering piles of boxes, the stench of fish and hot tropical air. People greeted us warmly, but just responded with a tired smile when we mentioned that we wanted to be hired onto a ship.

Our search was fruitless, so we ultimately sailed to the border town of Puerto Obaldia in a rickety fishing vessel. The town is cut off from the road network and surrounded by thick jungle, and is home to one of the most dangerous migration routes in the world.

Rivers, swamps, poisonous snakes, jaguars and the paramilitary troops policing the drug smugglers’ passage are just some of the dangers that migrants travelling to the USA have to contend with. Anyone who decides to travel through here is totally on their own.

  • Zwei Personen liegen unter einem Mückennetz, im Hintergrund sieht man das Meer und Palmen.
    Photo © Julia Hermes
  • Kurz vor San Cristóbal (Mexiko) lud Mary die beiden Schwestern für eine Nacht auf ihre kleine Ranch ein.

    Just outside San Cristóbal (Mexico), Mary invited the two sisters to spend a night on her small ranch. Copyright: Julia Hermes

    Photo © Julia Hermes
  • Weltkarte, darauf ist mit einer roten Linie die Route eingezeichnet, die die zwei Schwestern geplant haben.
    Photo © Susanne Mader

The ships only stopped here every few days, so we set up our camp for the night on a small patch of beach behind the village while we were waiting for one. We didn’t sleep well. The tragic stories hidden in the impassable vegetation of the jungle of the Darién region infiltrated our dreams like ghosts. How much longer would we need to stay here?

Relief at reaching Panama

On the third day, a fisherman from the village finally extended an offer to us: he needed to go to see family in Carti anyway and would be happy to take us in his boat in exchange for a few dollars. The town of Carti was located seven hours away and had a road connection to Panama City.

Now, we faced our next adventure: hitchhiking through Central America until we reached Mexico. We’d heard so many horror stories about this section of the continent. Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador – the names alone make many feel uneasy. After lots of people had told us that we wouldn’t make it out of this area unscathed, we were really quite concerned. But, as the years of our travels have gone on, we’ve learned that things can look totally different on the ground. Our hitchhiking went so smoothly, much better than in all the other areas we’d previously visited.

We made it to Guatemala after just shy of a week. Here, we stayed with the NGO ‘Maya Pedal’ for a while. We learned how to build machines run by bicycles, such as juice blenders, washing machines and water pumps – all fuelled with pedal power rather than electricity.

During a trip to the nearby town of Antigua, we ended up sheltering in a little cafe while waiting out a rain storm on a Sunday afternoon. We’d been sitting there for ages when a dog came to the door, made a beeline for our table and settled down on the floor by us. We’d often dreamed of having a dog to accompany us on our journey, and it seemed like the moment had arrived. We called her Nami.

Cycling towards Mexico

Our first adventure with Nami was a cycling trip to Mexico. We took unused parts from the NGO’s storeroom to build two bikes. When we were ready to go, we screwed a shipping crate for Nami onto the luggage rack and set off towards Mexico. We had actually hoped to cycle all the way to the US border, but life had different plans in store...

In Chiapas, we met a few members of the organisation CODEDI, the Committee for the Defence of Indigenous Peoples. They invited us to visit their autonomous training centre ‘Finca Alemania’, which was founded to provide educational opportunities for young people from marginalised indigenous communities.

Travelling the world – without flying

Julia (29) and Lisa (30) are exploring whether and how we can live without exploiting others, succumbing to consumerist pressures or destroying the planet. They hitchhiked across the Atlantic in a sailboat, paddled through the Amazon and thumbed a ride though South America until they reached Tierra del Fuego – read their report here. The duo are now in the USA. Their aim is to travel from there to Russia and finally back to Germany via Asia and Eastern Europe.

Lisa and Julia’s blog: outthere.eu /Instagram

When we arrive, after hours of travelling on muddy jungle roads, we can immediately sense the tension in the air. We’d expected there to be children and teenagers playing, but they’re nowhere to be seen. The previous night, the team had discovered a man during their patrol. Instead of explaining who he was, he pulled a pistol out of his waistband. A shot was fired in the ensuing melee and the attacker later died in hospital. The worst thing of all? The man had other weapons and drugs on him, and was a policeman. The residents of the finca believe he wanted to plant the drugs on them so they could be shut down.

Suddenly, we were caught up in the power struggle between the state and the indigenous peoples. It didn’t take long until we heard that 160 heavily armed soldiers were en route to the finca. With a few other people, Lisa and I decided to block the convoy’s path. From our work in Chicomuselo as human rights observers, we knew that the presence of international onlookers can defuse situations like this.

Shooters, poised to fire, were standing on truckbeds: their uniforms, knee pads, black masks and heavy weapons in front of their chest made them look as if they were kitted out for a civil war. But, actually, after lengthy negotiations, we managed to reach an agreement that just three police vehicles containing a total of twelve civil servants would travel to the Finca, with an international observer in each vehicle.

  • Zwei Frauen und ein Mann stehen um einen Tisch, darauf ein Velo.

    Lisa and Julia cobbled together two bikes from unused parts.

    Photo © Julia Hermes
  • Dschungel in Mexiko.
    Photo © Julia Hermes
  • Zwei Frauen schieben ihre Fahrräder einen sandigen Strand entlang, hinter ihnen geht ein Hund.
    Photo © Julia Hermes

When we reached the finca, we got the sense that the authorities were more interested in scoping out the premises than carrying out an investigation. Our friends were worried that a violent evacuation could take place over the next few days. With heavy hearts, Lisa and I left the area with the children and young people. Our friends knew every inch of the jungle and had a good sense of where to hide if they come under attack.

Such interactions with the state are part of the bitter reality of indigenous resistance movements. These groups are a thorn in the state’s side because they want to live in harmony with nature and in accordance with their customs, instead of selling their land to conglomerates who’ll capitalise on their resources.

All borders shut

Unlike these local problems, the next crisis we experienced was global: we were still in southern Mexico when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. It was just a matter of time before the US would close its borders too. As a result, we needed to press pause on our plans of continuing north and heading across the Bering Strait.

The border is just over 2,000 metres from Teotihuacán, so four to five days of hitchhiking, realistically speaking. Clinging to hope, we headed northwards. One day before we arrived at the border, President Trump announced its closure. After two and a half years of travelling every day, it was the first time we had to regroup. We were stuck in Mexico.

We tried to make the best out of a bad situation: we learn how to make kombucha and kefir, play the guitar, set up a small garden and experiment with lucid dreaming and dream interpretation. Our 84-year-old neighbour Doña Jacinta became our best friend, regaling us with fantastic tales and teaching us how to talk to plants to make them grow better.

Journeying into the unknown

After another futile effort to cross the US border by land, we had one final option open to us at the end of July: to fly to America. True, this stood in stark contrast to our travel philosophy, but our time in Mexico would soon be up and our travel coffers were empty. We hoped to find a job in the US to fund the rest of our trip. So, with heavy hearts, we fled to California with Nami.

COVID-19 shattered our dreams of travelling the world. Yesterday, our trip was an expression of freedom – and today, people look at us with incomprehension. How appropriate is it to go travelling in times like this? Would we be better off giving up our passion project and playing by the new rules? We remain in a position of privilege, but many people’s lives are severely threatened by the pandemic. And yet, this trip has been our life for the past three years and the prospect of simply calling time on this crucial period cuts deep.

We’re still trying to stay optimistic. We’ll see how things go until March, which is when our US visa expires. We might be able to continue our trip as planned via Alaska, Russia and Eurasia, until we make it back to Germany over land. It remains to be seen what the next few months will bring – but we won’t give up in a hurry.

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  • #Cycling

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