by Nia Thomas
Many of the stories we have gathered during this trip have been about the people. The kind, generous, friendly people of South America. So it was as I was telling my granny yet another story of human generosity towards strangers and she replied "the UK used to be like that" that I began to think, and it came to me, the reason that we seem to have lost this extra level of kindness.
Something is different, and its not just the weather. Some people will argue that the warmer the climate the more friendly and open the people are, and whilst on some levels we've seen this to be true, it's more than that.
In all four of the countries we've biked through so far (Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia) very few people have owned a car. Instead they walk, bike or bus to where they need to go. In the UK in contrast the vast majority of people own a car which they use to go to work, the shops, and anywhere and everywhere inbetween. This car, although convinient and quick, is also their cage.
Think about it; how many times have you seen two cars stop on the street so that the drivers can say "hi" and have a quick chat? That metal box that we drive around in is like a bubble, our bubble, and it creates a barrier between us and the rest of the world. Politicians and local coucilors alike talk of how we have lost some of our sense of community in the 21st century, that back in the 50's and 60's and even 70's we talked to eachother more, we helped eachother more, we knew our neighbours. One of the big differences between now and then is the number of cars. It's not that the people of today are any less nice or generous than the people of decades gone by (infact many of those exact same people are still alive today),but the way we travel around our communities has changed, and this change does not promote interaction.
On our bikes we pass through the streets of South America, catching glimpses of daily life as we pedal by. We see people walking in the streets, people biking in the streets, people waving to eachother, people stopping to talk, people sharing their lives with the people around them. Often we become a part of their lives too, as we stop to talk on a street corner, or are invited in to stay for the night.The generosity we experience comes from our ability to interact with people, something that is easy to do from a bike. It's easy to stop and answer a question as we pass by. The reduced speed of cycling, as well as the open air allows us to start conversations easily and become part of the community.
We become part of the community, sometimes for only a matter of minutes, other times for days. But every experience leaves it's mark, it's more than just a memory, it's a piece of time, an emotion, shared. Be it a smile from a shy Peruvian lady shared across a field of llamas or Christmas cooking pizza with a Colombian family. Every exchange, every moment shared is an experience that we will take with us. On this journey where we are constantly moving, these moments where we connect with people and the community keep us from feeling too lost.
And it doesn't just work in the far flung countries of South America, I've seen it work in the UK too. Before setting off on this trip I worked for a science communication organisation based out of the local university. I biked to work, a short 3 miles back and forth each day. In the 10 weeks that I cycled that route I got to know the faces of the other cyclists (there aren't all that many people bike commuting in North Wales in the winter), and before long there'd be a smile and a wave, a few words exchanged at the bike rack, or questions about my mudguards (made from old 'house for sale' signs). The faces became familiar like the curves of the roads I rode, and in the smiles and the waves and the small talk I felt the sense of community that so many of us think we've lost.
So for me, this is the answer. Leave the car at home. With a new year arriving lets make a choice; once a week, once a month, or maybe for journeys under a mile, lets leave the car at home. Instead walk, bike or bus your way around your community and start to meet the people that make it up. Give yourself the opportunity to smile and wave and stop to talk in the street with strangers who might one day become friends, and start to regain that sense of community that we all long for, it's just outside your door.