Coronapacking - Bicycle travel in a world of Covid-19
I am currently in San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina, where I have now been under full quarantine for around seven weeks. Restrictions are finally starting to lift, and although I don't expect to be free to move for at least a few more months, my mind is increasingly turning to the future and what Covid-19 will mean for my ongoing journey, even if all I can do is speculate at this point of such huge global uncertainty. What mad times these are.
Covid-19 came to South America remarkably quickly. Before all of this started I had been out riding a one week bikepacking loop in the wilderness. When I'd set out there had been only a handful of cases in Argentina; nothing to be concerned about compared to what was happening in Europe. But when I arrived back in town at the end of the week and connected to the internet, I was greeted by the news that South America was shutting down. Borders were already closing across the continent and most of my friends travelling in South America had either already flown home or were in the process of doing so, sometimes at enormous expense. In the week that I'd been gone, the whole world seemed to have changed.
The next few days were a whirlwind. I was late to the party and had to scramble to find as much information as I could in order to make a decision. Embassies were telling their foreign nationals to come home and travellers were desperately trying to organise tickets for the few remaining flights. I was checked into a hostel; panicked backpackers wore stricken looks and huddled together in tense groups as they crowded around phones and laptops. Everyone was trying to leave. No-one knew what would happen or how bad things could get; a lot of people were really scared.
I never seriously considered leaving Argentina and flying back to Europe. At the time, I felt the hysteria was overblown and so flying back to Europe felt to me like a panic move, although in hindsight this wasn't necessarily the case. Europe was the epicentre of the outbreak, whereas South America had relatively few cases. Going back to Europe seemed the last thing I should do.
I have been travelling long enough that I no longer really consider my birth country of England to be ´home´ - home for me is just wherever I am. I wouldn't have wanted to stay with either of my parents as they are both into their late-60s and therefore vulnerable to the virus; bringing Covid back with me was the very thing I wanted to avoid. Flying back promised the security of being in my own country and it probably would have been the safest option, but that kind of thing is simply not how I like to travel. I certainly respect those that did fly back as it was probably the sensible decision to make, but I’m quite old fashioned with my travelling; when I’m on the road I’m on the road, come what may.
Having made the decision to stay in Argentina I made arrangements and braced myself for the madness to come. Within two days of arriving back in civilisation I was already locked down. Argentina was under full quarantine and the country had shut down.
I was lucky to be in Bariloche and to have friends in the area. One had invited me to stay with her, so I hadn't even had to worry about scrambling to find accommodation as most foreigners had. I moved in, and have since been housebound, waiting for the quarantine to be released along with the rest of the world.
The lockdown in Argentina has been relatively hardcore, certainly compared to Europe. We’ve been allowed out just three days a week for essentials such as groceries or medical supplies, but not for exercise or walks. Masks were made compulsory quite early on, and the quarantine has been taken seriously by the authorities. At the time of writing, such has been the situation for almost two months. Obviously it can be tough in lockdown, but I have no complaints. I've tried to make the most of it. Staying productive is really important for me; sliding into a lazy haze of Netflix and YouTube procrastination just makes things go slower and makes me acutely aware of how much I miss my freedom.
I've done a lot of writing, put together a short film, spent time updating my website and caught up on reading. Unable to cycle, I’ve turned to home workouts, doing a lot of push-ups and finding creative uses for my backpack and 10L water bag for weights. I've done more upper body exercises in quarantine than I had in years. I’ve been able to work on my Spanish, and I’ve had all the time in the world for meditation and stretching. I’ve done my best to stay positive.
I wondered at the start whether my experience cycling around the world would make things harder or easier during quarantine. I’m used to a far greater degree of freedom than most people, so in a way it’s all the more painful being so dramatically restricted. I have had quite a lot further to fall. But on the other hand, years of pedalling through remote parts of the world has made me comfortable in isolation, and comfortable living simply. I can’t really miss bars or going out with friends as this hasn’t been a regular part of my life for a long time.
Having spent so much time in very poor areas of the world I also can’t bring myself to complain or feel sorry for myself over this situation. Two months of living in a comfortable house with an internet connection and plenty of food and water hardly constitutes a drastic situation, considering that there are plenty of people in the world who have been struggling to survive since long before anyone had even heard of Covid-19. When I feel like complaining I think about people that have had to live through sieges or wars. It’s important to have a sense of perspective.
I’m very aware of just how fortunate I am, and overall I definitely think that my years on the road have made quarantine easier to bear rather than harder. Of course I miss being free. But three years of cycling around the world has, if nothing else, made me patient.
Plans for the future
It’s very hard to know what will or won’t be possible in terms of bikepacking when the quarantine finally comes to an end. At this point all I can do is speculate as there is still so much uncertainty as to what the world at large will even look like in another few months, let alone in another year. The situation is also going to be very different in different parts of the world.
At least in South America, my expectation is that international borders will remain closed for many more months. I’d be very surprised if Argentina opened it’s borders before September, though certain other countries might relax border controls slightly sooner. I therefore expect to be stuck in Argentina for at least the next four months, perhaps longer. The quarantine here is likely to continue for at least another month, but even after the full force of the quarantine ends there will likely still be restrictions on movement.
When it becomes possible to do so, I hope to ride north up to Mendoza and the area above it heading up towards Salta and the border with Bolivia. Autumn is passing and winter is coming in fast to Argentina; the climate is generally milder and drier further north so I would like to get up there if I can. There are also some fantastic places to explore in that area; enough I think to keep me occupied for at least a few months, even if things are made tougher by the winter. And should the border to Bolivia reopen, up there I’d be close enough to jump through when the time comes.
It may well be a long time before cycling to Mendoza becomes possible however. In terms of Covid-19, Argentina is the most tightly controlled country in Latin America. Even after the quarantine ends, provincial borders (two of which I’d need to cross in order to reach Mendoza) are likely to remain closed for all but essential travel for at least a while longer. Until the provinces are free to travel again I’ll have to content myself with shorter local trips.
Even after domestic travel again becomes possible, Covid-19 will dramatically change the bikepacking experience for some time to come. Responsibility is key; in a global pandemic travelling can be one of the worst things a person could do. The only way I could really justify cycle travel under the current circumstances would be by drastically changing the way that I do it.
Normally I would stop for food every few days and would happily interact with locals, those interactions being a big part of the experience of bike travel. As long as Covid-19 is an issue however, that would have to change. Instead of bikepacking, I’d have to switch to what I’m calling ‘coronapacking’, a quite different style of travel. Aside from obviously staying away from people, that means carrying a lot more food. For short local trips of up to a week where I started and finished at the same place that would be easy enough, but for onward travel (eg. towards Mendoza) that would mean carrying enough food, at least two weeks at a time, to ensure that the chance of spreading the virus is low enough for me to justify it.
It’s still not certain for how long after contracting Covid-19 a person remains contagious, but most reports that I’ve seen seem to agree that after around two weeks from infection people are generally no longer likely to be contagious. By ensuring that I would only need to stop once every two weeks in a supermarket, stopping only in large towns (never in remote communities) and obviously taking all precautions (disinfecting, wearing a mask etc.) each time I did so, bike travel should in theory be just as safe as self-isolating at home.
Between fortnightly shopping stops, it would be easy enough to completely avoid any contact with people. I’m already used to wild camping every night and already tend to prefer remote routes where there aren’t any other people around. Resupplying water from natural sources rather than by asking for water in towns or houses would also be easy enough with a water filter and a little planning. The main difficulty is in carrying the two weeks’ worth of food on a bicycle – that’s quite a lot of weight and bulk – but with my setup this wouldn’t be a problem.
Until Covid-19 has ceased to be an issue, ‘coronapacking’ is the only way I can justify bike travel, something that’s much easier to do on shorter loop-routes than when cycling across a country. Travelling in any other way just seems selfish and irresponsible at the moment, at least in Argentina.
The legacy of Covid
I don’t know for how long ‘coronapacking’ would be necessary, but even after the immediate threat of the virus ceases to be an imperative, Covid-19 is going to have lasting consequences for cycle tourers, and travellers in general. The world may never be the same. In Latin America Covid has largely been seen as a foreign problem, so as a European there is some chance that resentment could be an issue when travelling the continent. Early on during the outbreak there were reports of discrimination against Europeans from around the world, and I myself experienced this in a minor sense too. Certainly there is a risk that discrimination could become a real and pressing issue.
That said, this isn’t something I’d be overly worried about. It might be a factor but I don't think it will be a major one. Of much greater concern to me is the economic fallout that the virus and the extended lockdown will cause around the world. Many Latin American countries were already dealing with economic crises long before Covid started, so the compounding effects of this pandemic are likely to be crippling. Many people will be struggling just to survive, and as a result of this desperation crime is almost certain to rise.
As a cycle traveller I am at the mercy of anyone who sees me and wishes me ill. I can’t run and I can’t hide. As a foreigner, and a travelling foreigner at that, I might already have a target on my back, and there are likely to be more people than ever before desperate enough to consider turning to crime.
With that said I still don’t feel that the risk is going to be high and I maintain what I have always said; that the vast majority of people are decent human beings who will help you when you need it. Even though the risk will probably be slightly higher, I still feel the rewards of continuing my journey continue to far outweigh the dangers. At least as long as doing so doesn’t endanger anyone else.
Through this crisis I’m very aware of how fortunate I am. I’m not in any dire financial straits and I’m not worried for my survival. A bike trip is not worth anyone getting hurt over. If provincial borders reopen and ‘coronapacking’ becomes possible then I will certainly do it, but if not I’ll simply find a job and settle down for as long as it takes for things to calm down enough for me to resume. And sooner or later, it will. The world will probably not be the same as before, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. One way or another life will go on.