Time to come home

– first breakfast at home tasted pretty delicious –

In september last year, we started our midlifetrip. We often questionned ourselves, why we decided to go for 1 year? Why not 6 months? Or 2 years? And we actually never really figured it out… We just wanted to take a break with the past, and prepare for the future. 11 months later, we understand this was a good guess, and that the time is right to come home.

We wanted to travel the world

Travelling the entire world in 1 year is impossible. Even technically I don’t think you can manage with all transports from 1 country to another. But we made a complete loop. And we’ve travelled the far opposite side of the world. Never before have we been able to be so long so far away for home. We gathered 13 extra stamps in the passport, but more important we got to discover a lot of other cultures and environments.

We can’t say which country is our preferred one, or which one we would advise you to go. Seeing different countries in a row, made us see very well the differences between them. And understand that every country has beautifull aspects but also some boring parts in between. And what one finds interesting is not necessarily what someone else would like to experience anyway.

Conclusion however is that the world is a really big, magnificient place, with stunning nature and great people. With lots of history (old or recent), and many stories that can be told.

For the moment, our bucket of impressions is full. I don’t think we can truly enjoy a lot more. So from this aspect, we feel completed in our trip and don’t mind ending the travel, so we can create free space in that bucket again for some other time.

We wanted to unplug

Getting of the grid in this overconnected world is a challenge in everyday life. And so it seemed during this year for us too. There’s hardly a place in the world without wifi or people scrolling their phones. You have to go up high in the mountains to completely unplug. We spent a maximum of 5 days in a row being not connected. If at home I would manage to deconnect for 5 days, that would be quite something.

And being so far away from home, with little looking or being anything like what we knew, social media was at times that one thing that could create a comfortable cocoon because of all the familiar faces. Creating an active Instagram account proved to be very reassuring for the homefront too. As soon as we were offline for a few days, the worrying began…

So eventually, being plugged has its perks too. But 24/7 is definitely not needed, 1 hour every few days is just enough, all the rest is time we prefer to spend differently.

We wanted to go back to the basics.

And oh did we go back to the basics. If you wildcamp at 4000m in the Andes, it’s pretty basic. If you sleep in a hostel in a poor Cambodian or Nepalese village, it’s pretty basic. If you can limit your wardrobe for 1 year to 1 pair of long pants, 1 short and 1 skirt, it’s basic. If you eat at local food stalls in Laos, it’s basic. If your beauty regime is limited to sun screen and a bottle of shampoo, it’s basic. And if you always carry a roll of toilet paper with you, you know it’s basic.

Doing all this basic stuff during such a long time, makes you realise how little you actually need. But also lets you see what it is you truly miss. I will be so happy to discover my 2m wardrobe again, but will (maybe?) much better resist to impulse buys. I will also appreciate much more the beautiful home we have, with drinking water straight from the tap, and a toilet where you can actually flush your toilet paper. And a sofa to sit in, from where you can walk to a fridge to grab a drink. I also won’t mind that much eating the same food for 2 days. And how nice is central heating in the winter?

We’re spoiled little brats in the West. And we’d better realise that very very well.

We wanted to learn about life from the people we meet.

Over the course of this year, we got to meet so many kind people. Some of them randomly on the street, some hosted us for a night (often via the great Warmshowers.org network for bicycle travellers). With some we got to spent only minutes, with others at least a meal or more.

First thing to mention here is the importance of language.We struggled big time in Asia, as we didn’t speak any sanskriet related language nor could explain the most basic stuff. That’s also why we took time to learn Spanish while in South America. And potentially will decide next travels based on whether we speak the language of the destination (or learn it). You can have so much better and meaningfull conversations if you speak the same language. Oh what I would have wanted to be a polyglot this year.

But the people we got to conversate with, were all so sweet. It’s amazing how friendly people can be towards complete strangers. How they start with an attitude of trust towards you. How willing to help.

We’ve learned a lot about living a simpler life. Not that it’s simple, just needing less to be happy. Less expectations, less long term plans, and being completely at ease with an uncertain future. Everything always turns out fine, even when it doesn’t seem like that in the beginning. And if you don’t like the place you’re at, then you always have options.

Maybe all these learnings aren’t rocket science and you’ve probably read or heard them before. But experiencing them yourself, very consciously for a long time, helps in adopting the attitude. Seeing millions of people living that way, and smiling while you pass by, has been very inspiring.

We wanted to give back.

Our volunteering time in Ayacucho, Peru is defenitely a way to give back to society. And it was only a start for more to come. We both learned that we want to have more societal impact in the future too, professionally and/or in our private time. We have some ideas, and hope to be able to get started on some of them soon.

Besides that I want to make a small mention on fair travel. Even when we’ve been travelling on a budget too (no, we didn’t win the lottery to fund this trip), we tried to support the local economies as much as possible. So often we’ve seen other travellers negociating on everything, making the local taxi driver or hostel owner hardly making any money. At times it was really appalling, as prices are already really low in most of the places we’ve been. Potentially, these taxi drivers and hostel owners will end up disliking all those bargaining tourists (something we felt strongly in e.g. Vietnam). If you don’t have money to give fair prices to the locals, then maybe you shouldn’t travel.

We wanted to get inspired.

We cycled enough kilometers on less interesting roads that your head could wonder and ponder. We’ve read more books than in the last 5 years combined. We’ve seen different cultures, with different habits and challenges. We had time to take a street right or left, to curiously explore and discover. We talked and talked and talked. We had time to think, analyse and develop ideas in our head. We got to know ourselves and each other even better.

Having free time and space in your head, it’s really easy to get inspiration. And now it’s time to get all (or at least some of) those ideas into action. They’ve been maturing enough and are impatient to come out of the head and into reality.

So by now,

We’re ready to be home. We took enough break from the past, and are fully charged to start that second part of life.

How to volunteer abroad (if you ask us)

The moment we made the decision to take this gap year, we also decided we wanted to do some volunteering while at it. Since we gave ourselves the gift of all this time off, it just felt right to not only be on a very long holiday. We wanted to give something back to society, and since we were travelling, it would be somewhere out in the world.

It has not been an easy search, but gave us some insights about international voluntourism…

– by volunteering you get the chance to connect differently with the local people, like this lovely lady Noémie from the poor Socos region, who proudly showed us her new kitchen she managed to build thanks to the work of the NGO Solid. –

Commercialisation

When first searching online for a nice place to volunteer, we ended up on too many goodlooking and shiny websites that smelled like too much of the budget went into the marketing. Adding a pop-up to your website ‘how can I help’ doesn’t feel like you’re helping the right audience. Shouldn’t your focus be somewhere in the South instead of commercialising voluntourism in the West?

These organisations make a whole industry of volunteering, hence have more interest in keeping their projects ‘in need’. If all poor kids in Asia learned how to read and speak English, what would be left to make money of, right?

The fees they ask for volunteering abroad are extremely high as well. I think there’s nothing wrong with sharing some of what you have with people who have a hard time. But as with many things in life, money should be used as efficient and effective as possible, reaching the right people and projects and not ending up in expensive overhead costs or unnecessary expenses.

So our online search didn’t really get us where we wanted to be.

– city people on a quinoa farm, not exactly our ‘field’ of experience –

Figuring out what exactly we can do?

Why teach English classes if we’re not even a teacher. Or work on a biological farm while at home we have a hard time keeping our plants alive. We’re really not better at it than local people, so why would we do that?

In many occasions, volunteering abroad is taking a local’s job. We’ve often seen western students working in hostels as volunteers, in order to make their travel more affordable. But this actually is cheap labour for the hostel owner and taking away job opportunities for the locals. Not exactly what it should be about.

Over the last weeks, we also met a lot of competent people in the workplace. Unless you’re an specialist in a very specific domain perhaps, we shouldn’t think we know any better, but leave the local people the chance to take up responsabilities in their own countries. Sharing experiences and ways of thinking is always worthwhile, both ways. But thinking we know better than the people in the South only makes us very arrogant. Not the best attitide for any volunteer.

So let’s support in ‘our’ way

After working for almost 20 years, it sounded logic to us that we did something with that work experience. And that we could do something together.

So why not combine ourselves temporarily into a QHSE team (Quality, Health, Safety and Environment > often combined together into one person or department within companies, or outsourced) and offer this to a local NGO? These are domains that are rarely in the core activities of a business. And as it’s not very likely any NGO would pay expensive externals, we could be ‘free’ consultants.

And what NGO you want to volunteer for?

It’s amazing how many organisations, small or big, are helping the people in the South. We’ve discovered loads of them over the last year. Whether they’re working on health related topics, schooling or poverty, focussing on kids, women or disabled, giving psychological support or jobs, very hands-on or working to improve local laws and regulations, … there’s a lot going on. Luckily, as it’s still very needed.

We looked for an NGO we connected with.

So we contacted Solid International: an NGO with roots in Belgium, that works in domains we find interesting: social entrepreneurship, handicrafts and quinoa!

– These ladies at the Solid social enterprise knit blindly the most beautiful scarfs from baby alpaca yarn. First they were a little shy, but soon they loosened up and talked slowly enough so I could understand. –

We suggested a QHSE audit of their projects in Ayacucho, Peru.

And they accepted.

And here we are

– checking on animal welfare on the Montefino farm, another project from Solid –

Over the last weeks, we’ve done similar things to what we’ve done at home. But in a completely new environment. Nothing commercial about it, just genuinely helping an organisation that is working on improving peoples lifes in a poor region in Peru. With what we have on offer: reporting our observations and sharing our experience to improve the safety, quality and sustainability of their operations. Which they can take or leave, at their own time. Without paying nor getting money in return. Without taking the job of a local person. Without thinking we can change the world, but by planting some seeds that may help taking small steps forward.

It felt right. And we hope they learned as much from the exchange as we did.

————-

PS: some thoughts of other volunteers that inspired us along the way:

– An article of a girl who simply regretted volunteering (the internet is full of these kind of experiences).

https://www.alldayeverydaisy.com/india/why-i-regret-my-volunteer-work-in-india/?lang=en

– A film of a guy who will maybe inspire you to go volunteer too.

The people of Peru

In Antwerp we know only one peruvian guy. He works in our neighbourhood and is always, always happy. Rain or shine, whenever you see him, he’s smiling, and will make you smile too. After only a few weeks of travelling in Peru, we start to think it comes with nationality.

– Peruvian Jorge, working as a courier in our neigbourhood – pic by Charliemag –

We started our trip in Peru in Cusco. Very touristic Cusco, as it is the capital of the Inca’s and the doorstep to visiting world wonder Machu Picchu. The entire year we haven’t seen any city so filled with tourists, tour agencies, tourist restaurants and thousands of souvenir shops. OK, we’ve been to places in Asia where we weren’t alone either, still Cusco feels like (one of) the biggest. But while those other hotspots sometimes worked on our nerves (you were constantly offered tours or souvenirs, prices were high and service low), this didn’t happen in Cusco at all. The local people were kind and happy, in a relaxed way. Not pushy at all. What a nice surprise!

– so many souvernir shops, still no hassling. What a difference with Asian souvenir markets –

This first impression continued. While in Aguas Caliente, the village at the entrance of Machu Picchu and even more focussed on tourists, we had a similar feeling. The receptionist from our hotel gave us super advice for our visit, without any sense of selling us the most expensive deal, rather the opposite. Just honest, friendly and helpful. Nothing fake or pushy, simply refreshing!

– Machu Picchu is very very touristy –

We left the touristic part of Peru by bicycle, heading north through the big and beautiful mountains. The rides were tough, but the many villages on the way were great for a stop, delicious and cheap food, and friendly faces. Kids were waving or starting a conversation. Elderly people on the side of the road all said ‘buenas dias/tardes’. And besides some weird looks and giggles at us, the white giants cycling, we felt relaxed and safe and very welcome.

More than once we were invited at people’s home. And at each occasion the peruvians quickly offered a tea, roasted mais, soup or cheese. These people are poor, living on paved soil, all still cook on wood (and not all have an extraction hood so the fumes stay in the room to be enhaled), some have a toilet but definitely not all. But while they’re poor on money, they’re rich in smiles and hospitality.

– peruvian country side kitchen –

– even when the people are poor, the table is always full –

A lot more is still possible here. While some countries are overregulated, in Peru ‘todo puede’. With a little money (very little), there’s always somebody willing to help you with the smallest thing. I really love it when people are still flexible, creative and entrepreneurial, instead of hiding behind the rules. Whether it goes for transporting our bicycles or guiding us around.

All this makes us question how good all this ‘evolution’ in our western countries sometimes is…

– sharing a meal with Octavio and Hugo, our guides in the beautiful valley of Choquequirao. No big advertised tour, just a Warmshowers host and his friend making a little money while showing us one of the nicest areas of Peru –

– It’s not easy to make the peruvians smile for a picture –

Before coming to South America, we had some small worries about how safe it would be on this continent. And while the TV in restaurants show a lot of criminality (especially in Argentina), so far it just seems a lot of blabla. Of course there are things going on, mostly in the big cities, like in any big city (in Europe too). But the countryside feels really relaxed and safe. We could easily trust strangers with all our goods and money. So if you hesitate travelling down here for that reason, hesitate no more!

– one of the many lovely murals –

Off the bike in Bolivia

Bolivia is not exactly known for being the best cycling country in the world. Or you cycle on the endless sleep-inducing Altiplano, or you cycle on really really bad dirt roads. None of this is very appealing to us, still we had big plans. But they already changed 10 km after crossing the border.

– stunning lagunas and volcanoes when you enter Bolivia –

The south west of Bolivia is extremely pretty: the National Park Eduardo Avorao has some of the most out-of-this world landscape, with snowy volcanoes and lagunas in the most bizarre colours. You can see wild flamingos and you exit it via the famous Salar de Uyuni. There’s a notorious cycle route going through the park, called the Ruta de Lagunas. This ruta is pretty challenging, due to extreme bad road conditions, the high altitude, the strong headwind and freezing nights, and the lack of inhabitants (read, no shops and hardly any places to stay for about a week). Still, after 8 months on the bike, we tought we were as trained as ever possible to make this beautiful expedition a success. Albeit with some doubts whether it was not too demanding and slightly out of our reach: a rough route is one thing, but not being able to recover at night in a warm bed or be secured of enough water and food, is another.

But OK, we decided to go. And so we entered Bolivia via the National Park. And then I got a lumbago. And the next day (after a night in an ice cold refugio) I got a sore and infected throat. And then it started hailing.

Maybe our worries upfront were not that exagerated. And the body was giving signs that the mind maybe didn’t want to listen to.

After a rest day in the ice cold refugio, it was still hailing. And the back and throat weren’t improving. The guts started protesting too. And homesickness found its way to my mind. No way we’d start our expedition like this. It was hard to accept, as we were at the start of one stunning ride. But it was time to listen to the body, rest and take a break from the bike. Somewhat longer than the regular day off.

A long day’s ride in a jeep with the bikes on the roof and we were in Uyuni city, checked into a hotel and stayed for a few days of recovering.

– seeing nothing but 4WD cars in the National Park confirmed our feeling. This is one remote and rough ride –

Still the Salar de Uyuni was lurking. We definitely want to cycle that one. The salt flat is over 100km wide and the biggest in the world. You can cross it completely. Or you can cycle 10km into it, and have the feeling of having the world for your own too. So that’s what we did, put up our tent, and enjoyed a very special night.

– Camping on the magical Salar de Uyuni. For sure we weren’t the only ones around, still there was enough space to have the feeling. –

The next day, while cycling back, we were chased by a dog (the daily struggle of every cyclist) and Dave fell. Some serious abrasions meant another hick-up in our cycling life. His knee suffered worst, and so we were forced once again into some more rest. After a busride to La Paz, we checked into a cute little campspot and hung out there for a week. Taking Spanish lessons, discovering the crazy city of La Paz, and just being lazy.

It did both of us very very well.

Being off the bike did well. Doing something else or not too much at all did well. No daily planning on where to cycle, sleep or eat did well. Being around the same people for a few days did well. Doing an organised tour to the Amazon did well.

– the Amazon is definitely worth a visit too. So different from the South America we’ve seen so far –

All in all we did not cycle for over 3 weeks (with exception of the 50 kms on and off the Salar de Uyuni). And I believe we accidentally picked out the best country for this break. Maybe some cyclist like cycling here. But it just isn’t my cup of tea. It’s too strenuous. Still I have the highest admiration for those cyclist crossing the National Park.

Even after all these months, I’m still a Sunday cyclist just looking for some smooth roads and lots of sunny terraces to go for a drink. And that’s just fine. Dave on the other side still gets a kick from strengtening his leg muscles and endurance. He’s getting more and more addicted to feeling fit. And that’s fine too.

And when it comes to homesickness, we’re a little bit different too. I’ve had numerous moments of these feelings over the last year, while I’ve never suffered from it before. Meanwhile Dave hasn’t had it at all. Chances are he’ll have ‘travelsickness’ when we get home in August.

So maybe one day Dave will be back in Bolivia with another bike set-up and other cycle partners to cross the National Park. In the meanwhile I’ll be enjoying our sunny terrace. Did I already mention you really get to know yourself better during a gap year?

Browsing through Argentina

We entered Argentina via a stunning border crossing, the paso Agua Negra, which is (untill now ;-)) the most beautiful ride of our lives. Coming down from that pass, we immediately found ourselves in an enormous valley the country is notorious for (the pampas). We struggled to recharge ourselves to cycle on, and have been discussing for hours (even days?) which would be the best route up north.

– Argentina is full of enormous valleys. We cycled towards that big snowy mountain in the distance for 3 days. Not really our preferred road. –

Google to the rescue? Or not?

There are many many cyclist travelling through South America, with quite a lot of them come all the way from Alaska. Hence a lot of experience available to learn from. And Google easily lets you find their blogs and websites.

We also became part of a WhatsApp group of cyclist currently riding on the continent where any practical question can be asked and any member will try to help you out. From which hostal to sleep in what town, to where to find bicycle spare parts and drinkable water.

Sounds helpful right?

Well… not always. We learned in the meantime that not all bicycle travellers are the same. Some people we met on the way like to (and can) cycle 150 à 200 kms daily. Some are on such a small budget that they wildcamp 9 out of 10 nights. Others are travelling with a completely different bike set-up and enjoy other kinds of terrain. We quickly learned that what one appreciates, finds ‘good value for money’ or what road is good to ride isn’t necessarily ours.

Besides that, and this might come as a surprise, Google does not know all. While we had full confidence in Google about where to eat, sleep, find water or camp, we discovered a whole lot more is out there in the world. Which is good news, especially if you think you won’t see any village during the whole day, and all of the sudden you bump upon a lovely small hostel or a terrace with coffee and cookies. But sometimes it feels misleading and confusing: if we would have known, we would have planned differently…

– Coffee (yes coffee, in a kind of teabag) and cookies in the middle of nowhere. There are still places like this Google doesn’t know about. –

So after spending hours and hours on the screen, and still not knowing where to go, we made a decision: let’s completely skip Google and the huge amount of information it provides. It’s just too much, too little or not relevant. So back to paper maps, touristic information offices, 2 navigation apps (maps.me and iOverlander) and chats with people that really know and with whom you can have a real conversation, the kind with questions and answers.

So let’s have more conversations...

Our first impressions from the Argentinians was that they’re really friendly and helpful. As soon as you say Hola! they start chatting to you in Spanish and they will always try to help you out. Even if we both have a basic knowledge, it definitely was not enough to say a lot back. The dialect didn’t help either (‘como te djamas’ iso ‘como te llamas’, ‘azji’ iso ‘alli’, …) and we felt pretty lost in translation. So with our new resolution to chat more, we decided that we wanted to spent some time off the bike, and into Spanish classes.

One final time, we googled ‘spanish classes’ and guess what, we ended up nowhere. Or only in posh language institutes in the big cities that have spare money to appear high in Google. But that wasn’t what we were looking for. So we asked around, via WhatsApp and the tourist office. And ended up with 2 lovely ladies, who were teaching English in the village of Chilecito, and made a deal with them. We spent 3 days together while improving our Spanish. It was a great experience, and we would never ever have found them through Google.

– Denisse and Paula from Chilecito taking us to the local market, 2 birthday parties and a real Argentinian asado, teaching us Spanish at the same time –

In a world where almost everybody has constantly a smartphone in his/her hands, it’s really interesting to have a digital detox and go back to the basics in this field too. To be more conscious about what is really helpfull about the online and social world (like some specific apps), what not (a random search and one-way advice from complete strangers), and what still works as ‘in the old days’. To not research and overplan too much upfront. To not see all the possibilities online, and then have to choose, and loose. But to go with the flow, and enjoy that route you’re riding.

At least that’s how it works best for us. Now during this trip, and probably also beyond. So the next time we don’t like the valley we’re in, we simply ask around, and go somewhere else.

– Once you leave the Argentinian valleys and cycle through passes and canyons, the Andes scenery is simply stunning –

First learnings of the Andes

– the border between Chile and Argentina –

Hello continent number 3: South America. Main reasons to be here are the Andes mountains, the latin culture and a good cause. While some cyclist travel all the way from North to South (or vice versa), we’ll just make some loops here and there to discover the variety of the region. And take some busses in between as we have ‘only’ a few months left.

We landed in Santiago de Chile and were immediately impressed by its location in between massive mountains. While they were scaring me a little bit, we made plans to make the crossing between Chile and Argentina, meaning go over the Andes range, via the Paso Agua Negra. From our research we learned it was a really pretty one, and also much quieter than crossing from Santiago towards Mendoza. There are a few other passes accross but those would be even more desolate or longer. And so we went. First with the bus to La Serena at the coast to forage for the upcoming trip. Then on the bicycle, up.

It was simply amazing. And so different from anything we’ve seen before.

It also provided me with the following 2 reflections:

1. The world is huge

– 100’s of kilometers of views like this while on a bus in Chile –

No matter what we all think, the world is not a small place. Even if we can travel in a few hours from one continent to another. Even if we can see someone on the other end of the world being busy typing a WhatsApp message. Even if you can find a can of Stella Artois beer in the most faraway villages. The world is extremely big.

In Europe it can sometimes feel like there is no space and all is connected. But if you ride the bus along the coastline of Chile, or if you cycle between the last Chilean village and the first Argentinian pueblo, you feel with all your senses how big the world is. How empty it sometimes is. And that you still have places where you hear nothing but the wind and can see really far. Like 50 or 100 kms far. And there’s nothing but unspoiled nature in between. At night it was even more so when the sky is dotted with uncountable stars and you get views of the Milkey Way.

It was highly impressive, and it is making you really, really small as a human being.

– big mountains, tiny cyclist –

2. The body is an amazing instrument

Cycling the Paso Agua Negra made us look back to that other big pass we (tried to) cycle 6 months ago, in Nepal. And how different it was, not only because of the scenery, but also because of our (well… mainly my) physical and mental state.

While 6 months ago I really suffered from a lack of physical condition and had troubles with the high altitude (resulting in a highly pressured mental state), this time went as smooth as butter. Admitted, we still pushed and pedalled and lost sweat. But no tears, no swearing and no sore muscles. Just some tiredness and greasy hair.

– we pedalled our +50kg bicycles (which we nicknamed ‘el camion’ in the meantime) all the way up to the Argentinian border at 4780m altitude –

It made me think how amazing the human body is. It’s an instrument that can do much more than I ever thought possible! It can become truly fit, it can adapt to lower levels of oxigen, ànd to lower levels of comfort. And you are the one who can make full use of your potential, or not.

There’s too much attention in general about how the body should look like on the outside. And we often overlook or take for granted what a body actually does (or can do) for us from the inside. Like still being able to pedal your bicycle upwards with only 50% of oxygen supply (which is the case at about 5000m altitude). Good health actually gives you a lot of freedom. And often it’s only when your health is under pressure, that’s you’ll truly understand and appreciate the freedom you had before.

As Baz Luhrmann says in that song I really like:

“Enjoy your body. Use it every way you can. Don’t be afraid of it or what other people think of it. It’s the greatest instrument you’ll ever own.

And wear sunscreen.”

PS: if you’re interested in cycling the Paso Agua Negra yourself and look for more practical info, don’t hesitate to ask us via the contact form!

Western break in New Zealand

When planning our trip, we had to find a way to connect our main destinations, meaning how to get from Asia to South America. We had 2 options: fly over Europe or fly over Oceania. As Europe would be a little strange in the concept of a world trip, we choose Oceania, and more specifically New Zealand as I had already travelled to Australia. With not too much attention we booked a flight to and from Auckland, with just a few weeks stopover. What originally was a pragmatic destination eventually became a very welcome western break.

A language we understand

After almost 5 months in countries where you don’t speak the language and sometimes can’t even read the writing, it was very comfortable to be able to understand everything again. It is also a key enabler for a better contact with the local people, which we really missed in Asia (and where we didn’t stay long enough in a country to learn more than the basics). Sharing a language definitely makes a big difference in your experience of a destination.

And as many New Zealanders were very chatty, it was really easy to connect with them. For a population that lives quite isolated (both from the rest of the world as within their country – closest neighbour could be 20+ kms away) it was really funny to see how they do want to talk if there’s somebody around. Maybe because they don’t see a lot of people, they take any opportunity they can for a chat?

– Donna from Picton cycled past us on her Sunday morning ride, and chatted with us all the way up. She invited us for staying with her later on. –

We learned much about New Zealand from those converstations. Like how they’re fond of their very young female prime minister (who even got a baby while in function). How a sheep farm works (most of the lamb meat gets exported to China and that determines the prices in the local supermarket). How busy they think their capital is (which is nothing compared to other places we’ve been before) and how dangerous they find the roads for cyclists (which was rather easy after having cycled in Vietnam).

Food we recognize

We were also really happy with western style supermarkets. This might sound stupid but after 5 months of roadside noodles and rice, we really got to miss a basic thing as a supermarket with similar range as back home. So we really indulged in all the good food we could find, from tasty local avocados to lamb sausages and almond croissants. And for drinks, we could get wine ànd different local craft beers. Bliss!

– We started cooking our own food again after months of eating out for breakfast, lunch and diner. And like at home, vegetables and cheese were our main ingredients. –

The natural beauty

Main reason to go to New Zealand of course is its stunning nature. Sometimes it ressembles the Alps, at other times it could be Ireland/Scotland, Corsica or Iceland. And the far south of New Zealand apparently ressembles Norway, although we can’t say for sure as we haven’t been in Norway nor in the south. But the best thing of all, it’s al connected! So in the morning you could cycle in Tuscany, and in the afternoon in Iceland. Being as far as you can possibly get from Europe, it’s bizarre that the environment can look so similar.

– cycling past one of the many amazing eucalyptus trees. I hope our eucalyptus tree at home once will get this size too –

With hardly any ugly road to find, New Zealand is cycling heaven. And NZ Cycle Trail developped great routes all over the country. That said, you really need to like cycling hills as there aren’t a lot of flat roads around. Every 500m, you go from 50km/h downhill to 5km/h uphill. All day long. But that didn’t keep us nor others from cycling around. We met a lot of fellow cyclists, mostly Europeans. And most of them spend several months in New Zealand.

– 2 days of cycling through this desolate Rainbow Station Valley. Even while I was pushing my limits once again, it will surely be one of my favourite memories of New Zealand –

Modern cities

Citylife too looked more western. With coffee bars all over the place. And malls and cinemas and bicycle shops with the right spare parts. But here we missed some history and culture. Not that we’re active museum goers, but young cities really lack some kind of personality. Especially in its architecture.

But what they lack in history, the New Zealand cities make up in scenery. The major cities Auckland and Wellington are beautifully situated in stunning bays and build on soft or steep hills, that gives them another kind of pretty look .

cycling in and out of Auckland past one of it’s many bays –

When we just started travelling, we met a german couple who were also on a 1-year trip, but already for the 3rd time. These experienced travellers told us they preferred to have a western break in the middle of their year. And I can say it indeed did well after been far away from all things familiar for months.

But now it’s time for a new adventure, to move away again from the things we know, to explore new territories. And also time to brush up and improve our Spanish, so we can keep connecting!

Hong Kong Holiday

We ended our Asian chapter with 1 week of citytripping in Hong Kong. The destination had been on my wishlist for a while, so now we were ‘in the neighbourhood’, we thought it was the right time. And it definitely was!

  • 1 week of no cycling, so those cycling muscles and bum could get some rest.
  • 1 week of genuine city life after 4 months merely spent in rural areas and small sized cities.
  • 1 week of having plenty of choice what and where to eat.
  • 1 week of sleeping in the same bed after changing accomodation almost daily.

Bliss!

– Hong Kong island at night –

Compact city

Hong Kong is much more than skyscrapers. The urban planning is fantastic if you ask us. Putting all people close to each other (vertically) enables nature to be very close too. The sea not only splits the city centre in two, but you have beaches and fishing villages in less than 30 minutes metro or ferry. The mountains create a perfect backdrop for the skyscrapers, ideal viewpoints for the city’s skyline and make a beautiful hike just around the corner. And with everybody living and working in such a compact city, it is possible to have a proper working public transport system and less traffic on the roads as a consequence. You can find about everything on walking distance, incl a huge swimming pool for Dave. Still Hong Kong also made a lot of place in their urban planning for green areas, there are more parks than any city I’ve seen before.

– old and new vertical living combined –

– beaches and mountains at Lamma island, a 30 minute ferry from central Hong Kong –

– temples and parks with skyscrapers in the background –

So I think all this green and all this variation really made us like the city a lot. You’re whether in the city or in the nature, it’s as simple as that. Not a lot of suburbs in between. Admitted, every citizen would probably like to have some more m2 living space, but I believe this is exactly what Leo Van Broeck (Vlaams Bouwmeester) means with urbanity, creating a more sustainable way of living for the growing population.

Feeling familiar

Living in a western city ourselves, also made us feel a bit more at home in Hong Kong than in a rural village of southeast Asia. We could go for a drink anytime. If we had a craving for a decent coffee or croissant, it could be satisfied. We could read the menu again and had plenty of choice in food. We could read the street signs too and even have a chat with the cashier from 7-Eleven. None of those seem important until you’ve lived without for a while!

– lots of great food to discover in Hong Kong. We became big fans of the Korean cuisine –

We also wanted to be a little bit more cleaned up. Like at home. While we hadn’t bother too much about zip-off pants and stretch leggings in the rest of Asia, we were much more aware of how we dressed and looked, so we got ourselves a few jeans to feel a little better. I wouldn’t say Hong Kong is the metropolis of style, still all girls wandered around with pretty hair and some fine make-up. After 2 days I got a small identity crisis for being frumpy. It made me think how important your environment is for how you feel…

The last thing that made us feel very much at home in Hong Kong was the presence of our dear friend Els. She joined us to explore Hong Kong for 6 days and catch up. We spent many hours chatting just like at home. We didn’t have to explain where we came from and where we were going. We could just talk for hours about anything. When she left a day before us, we both felt homesick and cut of from our lives at home (again). And it wasn’t because she took home our decent jeans.

– thanks Els for your visit in Hong Kong and making some great memories together –

We heard from long time travellers before that it’s a good idea to have a ‘western’ break in a year of travelling. I think now they’re totally right: it does well to alternate adventure. So we’re happy we’ve added an extra western break by going to New Zealand next! Back on the bicycle this time…

Turn left into Laos

When people asked before we left why we decided to travel by bicycle, I told them that we wanted to be free to go wherever we wanted. So in case a local would said it was better to go left than right, we simply could. And so we did. And unexpectedly ended up in lovely Laos!

Here’s how it happened:

After Christmas it started raining in Vietnam. Not just an hour at the end of the afternoon, but full days of pooring cold rain. We had the plan to cycle up north via the old and beautiful Ho Chi Min Road. But the weather forecast was really bad, both where we were at that time (Hué) as where we were heading (Sapa and Hanoi). And while we were looking very much forward to cycle in the pristine mountain areas of Vietnam, it didn’t look like we were going to see a lot of them with all those clouds. This weather wasn’t a hickup from mother nature, it’s an annual thing called the winter monsoon, and it makes mid/north Vietnam very wet during December/January. After a few days in wet cycling pants and limited views from under our rain cap, we had enough.

And then a magical thing happened.

One morning in the remote village of A Luoi, we were having breakfast trying to recharge ourselves for the rainy cycling day ahead. A retired german man saw our packed bicycles and walked up to us for a chat. He spends his winters in Vietnam, and did quite some cycling while in the area. He was the type of cyclist we definitely relate to; collecting impressions instead of kilometers. And he just came back from Laos, where apparently the weather was completely opposite, and the mountains were great too.

“You’re likely to see the first signs of blue sky as from the border.”

“You could cycle The Loop from Thakhek. It’s beautiful out there.”

“I think it will rain for at least another 2 weeks here in Vietnam.”

We were sold. And luckily we had the freedom of our bicycle, enough time and the right passport.

– Random encounters are the best. Thank you Joachim Geppert for showing us the way. –

So one last wet cycling day later, we took a turn left instead of the planned one to the right. The next day we crossed the border into Laos. And how funny it was to see the first cracks in the grey clouds when in line at the immigration office. 1 hour later, we were sweating again under a burning sun.

This random encounter was the best that could have happened. The cycle route he proposed was just STUNNING and one of the prettiest scenery I have seen in southeast Asia. We loved how Laos is not too touristically developped (at least the small part we have seen). We were really happy to add this last Indochinese country to our route, and to discover that it’s a great mix of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam but with quieter roads and gentle traffic. And we enjoyed the very pure way of living including the many handicrafts (which makes great souvenirs).

– views over limestone mountains and forest on The Thakhek Loop, a must-do when in Laos if you ask us –

– the simple but happy life on the side of the road –

– homemade handmade textiles. I could have bought the entire shop. –

So even when we’ve cycled over 5000km in Asia and my bum truly hurts, I’m still so happy we travel by bicycle, unmotorised, independent, at the perfect speed of +/- 20km/h to have a good look around, and to have the freedom to take that turn left.

Missing out in Vietnam

We only stayed 3 weeks in Vietnam. Too short to visit the entire country of almost 2000km long. And while we were missing out on a lot, we really enjoyed Vietnam!

– enjoying a friendly Banh Mi on the side of the road in Vietnam –

Missing the end of year at home.

December is a typical month to be at home. Preparing gifts, decorating your home, spending Christmas with family and New Year’s eve with friends, and having a few days off and enjoy being cosy at home. Ooh yes, sometimes I do miss just being at home.

We thought we would not be confronted with Christmas atmosphere too much in Vietnam, but that was wrong. There are many Catholics in southern Vietnam, many churches (a few are still in construction), hence a lot of Christmas atmosphere. In many coffee bars and restaurants you would hear nothing but Christmas music and the shops were full of red Christmas outfits.

– church with vietnamese Christmas decoration –

We – kind of – celebrated by going to a western restaurant and a video chat with the family. We also sent a package of souvenirs back home, making ourselves a little present at the celebrations in Belgium.

– as close as it gets to my mom’s traditional stuffed turkey: chicken with mushrooms and a bottle of red wine

New Year’s eve was a little different. We enjoyed the visit of friends from Belgium, thinking we’d celebrate together on a sunny beach, but ended up in a rainy city and a bar full of tourists, wearing a rain coat and wet Teva’s. Seems the Vietnamese don’t celebrate the same New Year as we do. And life just went on like any other day on January 1st.

While we missed some aspects of the end-of-year celebrations in Belgium, we also enjoyed a lot to watch and learn how it’s done (or not) on the other side of the world. While we go crazy on gifts, fireworks, fancy outfits and indigestions, other people apparently don’t have that same need or tradition. It’s making you rethink your own traditions and what you truly value about them.

Missing out on many touristic highlights.

We made a strange tour through Vietnam, missing out on many highlights such as the Mekong delta, Saigon, Ha Long Bay and Sa Pa, that are definitely in the Top 10 places to visit according to Lonely Planet, Rough Guide ànd Trip Advisor. We just didn’t manage to cover the huge distances in between (too long to cycle, and after one more bus experience in Vietnam, we’re still not fond of putting our bicycles on a bus) and encountered our first wave of bad weather (cycling in the rain is really only fun for an hour or so and with a guaranteed hot shower afterwards).

– cycling in the rain on the Ho Chi Min road –

While we could have sobbed about missing out on some of the prettiest places on earth, we still enjoyed Vietnam a lot, really! By experiencing other typical vietnamese specialties: The coffee/hammock culture along the side of the road. The many wedding celebrations we passed by. The friendliness and outgoing character of the Vietnamese (sidenote: in touristic areas as Nha Trang and Mui Ne we found them rather rude), the loud home karaoke’s on Sunday afternoon, the amazing coastline with huge sand dunes (often deserted or at times full of development – making us wonder how it will be like in 10 years), the beautiful misty mountains on the quiet Ho Chi Minh road in the west, …

– weddings on the side of the road. One day we saw over 15! A lot of love here in Vietnam –

– the rough coastline and fishery village of Vin Hy –

All of these can hardly be put in pictures, and sometimes it’s annoying that we can’t share the beauty of those experiences. But the good side of that is, that nobody can, and so we’re collecting real new impressions! And it didn’t feel at all like we were missing out on a lot.

Missing out is fine.

No FOMO (fear of missing out) for us in Vietnam. You can keep thinking about/watching to what you are missing. Or you can look at what is present and available, and appreciate that. In Vietnam we decided for ourselves to do the latter. It can be pretty, surprising, joyfull, but sometimes also ugly, boring or even emotional… But we have always found it very real, very vietnamese and very interesting.

– Hoi An is a very cute town full of lanterns ànd full of tourists (traps) –