Somewhere in the wilderness of Baja California in Mexico, the road stretches forever through infinite desert plains. My map indicates a blue lake to the right side of the road, but in reality, a vast dry basin lies naked behind layers of scrubs.
I stand beside an isolated restaurant staring upon trees, planted in front of the property, as they bend sideways in the wind. It is after two years since leaving Patagonia that the wind has prevented me from cycling. I now know why all cyclists along the route went from north to south.
An hour ticks by, but the bend in the trees remains the same. I take a long look at the blue sky and search for a miracle but all I can see are the floaters in my eyes. The loose particles in my vision resemble tumbleweeds rolling in the desert.
I see a lonely speck in the distance which slowly morphs into a recognisable shape as it approaches closer to me.
I take a deep breath, press the start button on my Garmin GPS device and begin pushing the bicycle towards the road. I have barely walked a hundred meters when I see a lonely speck in the distance which slowly morphs into a recognisable shape as it approaches closer to me. A touring cyclist emerges from the road who keeps the pace as if wanting to continue, but then slows down and steers the bicycle off the road in my direction. Before I can guess the nationality of the rider, I notice a sticker with white and red horizontal stripes on the handlebar bag and another sticker with letters PL on it.
“Hello, I am Maria. I am from Poland.” She extends her hand to me.
At the end of the trip, one of them found a boyfriend, got married, and decided to stay in Alaska, while the other bought a flight ticket and returned to Poland.
“Are you going to Ushuaia?” I ask her.
“Umm, maybe!” A warm smile rises on her face which is facing towards the sun. In her light-blue eyes, the sun appears like a fire in the cold winter evening.
Maria Garus is the first solo female cyclist I have met in 18 months. She started off her journey eight months ago with her two Polish female friends. They all flew into Alaska with a goal to bike together for two weeks from Anchorage to Coldfoot. At the end of the trip, one of them found a boyfriend, got married, and decided to stay in Alaska, while the other bought a flight ticket and returned to Poland.
“At beginning of the trip, I had only one goal—to be able to speak English fluently. Now I have a second goal, to speak Spanish fluently.”
“After they were gone, I decided to carry on. I rode alone for a while and had thoughts of quitting. Back then, my English wasn’t good at all and I was very shy of people. I didn’t have the courage to ask anyone where I could find the box to take my bicycle with me on the flight. I had two options. Explain my situation to people and get back home safely. Or, don’t talk to anyone and keep riding the bicycle even it meant risking my life. I chose the second option because it was easier. Things changed over the time. When people would see me riding alone, they would stop to have a chat with me and treat me as if I was a movie star. I started feeling comfortable in talking to strangers and my English improved gradually. At beginning of the trip, I had only one goal—to be able to speak English fluently. Now I have a second goal, to speak Spanish fluently.”
Maria’s bicycle is loaded with four fully packed panniers and a huge trunk bag. It is a lot of gear to carry for a woman like her.
“What is inside them?” I point at her blue panniers.
“Mostly food! I don’t eat at the restaurants and stay away from cities so I have to cook my own meals. Usually, I carry enough food to last two weeks.”
“So, can you reach La Paz with the amount of food you have in your bags, right now?”
“Probably!” she replies with a smile.
“It’s getting late. You won’t make too far today in this wind. Let’s camp here!”
We talk for over an hour next to our bicycles. Once in a while, I take a glance at the position of the sun in the sky.
“Do you want to leave?” Maria asks me.
I look at my wristwatch. It is 2:30 pm. The GPS device shows a distance of 120-m, the shortest ride I have ever done.
Before I can answer, she adds, “it’s getting late. You won’t make too far today in this wind. Let’s camp here!”
I nod to her. We scout for a suitable location and decide to pitch the tents behind the same restaurant where I was waiting a while ago. Cold wind pierces my skin. I have only two layers on, a long-sleeve cycling shirt and a light rain jacket.
“Do you want to wear this?” Maria hands me her down jacket. I give it a try but the sleeves are a couple of inches shorter and I am barely able to close the zippers.
We walk into the restaurant and sit around a table. Maria orders a beef soup and I, a vegetarian omelette.
” As a project manager by profession, my mind wants to plan everything, but slowly I am taking control back.”
“I come from a humble background. I used to work at a university. My job was to write projects proposals for EU grants. If I had continued my job, I could have become a director. I put my career at risk. As a project manager by profession, my mind wants to plan everything, but slowly I am taking control back. Right now I just flow. Every day, it is a small trip for me.”
While eating, we agree that the fresh tortillas from the restaurant are delicious. They are soft and buttery with many layers, similar in taste and texture to thin Parathas. We order some more.
“Why did you choose the travel over the job?” I ask her.
“For me, travel is a step to know what is important in life and why we are on this planet? I used to ask these questions even before. I haven’t found any answers yet. Sometimes, I even feel dumber than I did before.”
“Next morning, I would come out of the tent thanking God for another day to live.”
“Do you think you are going in the right direction?”
“It is not very important for me to reach the destination. Rather, I see it as a good opportunity to learn new things. There were several times when I broke down. I spent many cold nights inside the tent in my crappy sleeping bag from Poland. I would cry and fear I might freeze during the night. Next morning, I would come out of the tent thanking God for another day to live. Before, I didn’t know how to make a fire, but now I make a fire every day. I have become a fighter!”
“Two weeks ago, I ran away from the bed, haha.”
Maria adjusts the bandana on her head which has smiley orange faces printed on it. She is 33 but barely looks 23. Her smile is gentle and her persona, humble, but there is a burning determination in her eyes which only comes after enduring hardships on the road. I am curious to know what scares her the most?
“Two weeks ago, I ran away from the bed, haha. I have many shame stories to tell, but I better not! ” she giggles, her cheeks blushing.
“Really?” my eyes widen in surprise.
“After what I have experienced, I get a nervous feeling in my stomach every time I receive invitations from older single men, above 60 or 70.”
“I have received help from kind people who offered me a place to sleep in their homes and treated me well, but a few of them went on to ask if I wanted to have sexual intercourse with them. I don’t think they were trying to take advantage of me. Perhaps, they perceived me wrong. It could be that seeing a young solo female, who was not only friendly but also came home with them, made them think I was looking for fun. After what I have experienced, I get a nervous feeling in my stomach every time I receive invitations from older single men, above 60 or 70. I don’t know if there is something wrong with me or with these guys. It is also funny that such incidents happen when I am stinky, have greasy hair, and am wearing dirty cycling clothes. Sometimes, I think I should shave my head. Probably, I will be safer, haha!”
We lose track of time while talking. Hours and hours pass by. People come and leave the restaurant. “Sorry, we have to close now!” the lady in the restaurant tells us. It is 11 pm, but the night has just begun for us. We leave the restaurant to face the freezing cold. It is pitch black outside. We sit on the chairs in the covered passage outside a building. I grab the sleeping bag from my tent and spread it over our legs and use the sleeping bag liner to wrap around my head.
“At this moment, you look like an old Polish woman from a village, haha” Maria laughs at me.
We both marvel in quietness at the sky which is full of stars.
“For me, the most beautiful place so far has been the Jasper and Banff national parks in the Canadian Rockies.”
“What was the most amazing place you have visited?” I break the silence.
“I cycled through the beautiful Rocky Mountains in Canada and have been to many national parks in the USA, including the Grand Canyon when it was freezing cold in December. For me, the most beautiful place so far has been the Jasper and Banff national parks in the Canadian Rockies.”
“It must have been one hell of a journey, isn’t it?”
“I arrived in Alaska with only 4000 Euros, out of which I have spent the most. I have never paid for my accommodation during this trip. Mostly, I camped in the wild or near the official campgrounds. At times, it was scary because there were footprints of bears and warning signs. Once I saw a grizzly bear with two cubs from very close. I cycled as fast I could to get away.”
“In the beginning, I felt it this trip was only mine but it has touched some many people that now it is theirs too.”
“How important is this trip to you?”
“In the beginning, I felt it this trip was only mine but it has touched some many people that now it is theirs too. A lot of people have helped me through. They believed in me. That’s why I should carry on.”
We live through each other’s experiences under the rotating sky. At 2:00 am, we call it a night and crawl into tents. It is the coldest night I have spent in about one and half years.
In the morning, the sun shines and brings warmth to our camps. We head to the restaurant for a breakfast.
“Do you know how long can I stay in Mexico?” Maria asks me.
“Six months! It should be mentioned on the tourist card you get at the border!” I tell her.
“Tourist card? I don’t have any. At the border, the Mexican officer yelled at me, ‘go, go, go!’ So I just cycled through. I don’t even have an entry stamp in my passport!”
“Do you know that you are illegal in this country?”
“Well, if they going to put me in jail because of this I will have another story to tell,” she laughs.
Maria is a risk-taker, but I advise her to stay clean and check with the authorities in the next town.
“One day, I would love to ride a bicycle in countries like Iran and Pakistan with the local women.”
“What’s next after this trip?” I ask her.
“I want to visit Muslim countries. It is my dream. You know, especially in Poland, Muslim countries have a very bad reputation on TV. I think there is no better way to know a country than through meeting its people. For example, you are the first Pakistani I have ever met and I have learnt so much about your culture and religion during this meeting. One day, I would love to ride a bicycle in countries like Iran and Pakistan with the local women. I want to encourage women to go out and explore. They should not be afraid. There are more good people than the bad people. The world is so beautiful.”
I look at the watch. It is already half past noon. How can time fly so fast? We come out of the restaurant and get ready to leave. I rummage through my bags and find a red silicone wristband.
“Maria, that’s for you! This will remind you of our meeting!”
I take her right hand and put on the gel bracelet bearing the imprint “Born to be wild” around her wrist. Certainly, there can be no better to describe her than this. Now she has two bracelets around her wrist. She immediately takes off the other one.
“And, this is for you!”
The black wristband has “Believe in yourself” inscribed on it in yellow colour. I wear it around my wrist and we both drag our bicycles to the road.
“If you go to the Cocos Corner, you will get to see my underwear there!”
“Are you going to the Cocos Corner?” she asks me.
“Should I? I have heard a lot about Coco.”
“You should. He is an interesting guy. If you go to the Cocos Corner, you will get to see my underwear there!”
“Yes, my favourite underwear! Coco wanted to have it. I signed it and gave it to him as a present.”
“That’s creepy! Why did he ask for it?”
“When you will visit him, you will know, why. I was happy after I arrived at his place, but even happier when I left.”
There is nothing except one long black line in the desert. It is the same road, but a different journey for each of us.
We arrive at the tarmac and look at each other. Our time together is over. Yesterday, we shook hands like strangers, but today we hug each other like old friends. When our bikes roll I find myself riding side by side with Maria. I am going in the opposite direction. I stop pedalling but my bicycle keeps rolling for a while as I watch her go away. With the wind on her back, she flies down the Highway-1. Her image floats above the road, then gradually sinks and disappears. I turn around and ride slow. I am not sure if I am going against the wind or the will. After half a kilometre, I stop for a second at a turn-off and look behind. There is nothing except one long black line in the desert. It is the same road, but a different journey for each of us.
I put in the earbuds and turn up the volume. The Sweet Lullaby song from Deep Forest hits my ears and I start pedalling towards Cocos Corner.
I cannot wait to hear what Coco has to say about Maria!
During our recent conversation, Maria told me that her tent was damaged by coyotes while she was camping in the desert. I have launched a crowdfunding campaign to buy her a new tent. Please support her.