The Distance Between Us

Dec 8th, 2020

When I was 25, I rode across Colombia and Ecuador with my then-partner Scott. We both rode cheap used bicycles with old knapsacks lashed onto the back. When it rained, we put on construction goggles and stuck our shoes in plastic bags. We cranked those bikes rain or shine over some of the highest roads in the Andes. 

A few days after we crossed the border from Colombia to Ecuador, it was getting dark and we couldn’t find a place to camp. The road wound endlessly in sheer cliffs and ravines. Then we saw a cement house up ahead, with a flat yard in front. I walked my bike to the door and knocked. 

A young man opened the door and I asked him in Spanish if he would mind us camping in the corner of the yard. He went and got his parents, and we all walked out to the yard. The father wore a collar and a hat with a brim, and the mother had a long skirt and shawl. I showed them our bikes and explained that we were traveling from Colombia to Quito, Ecuador. The family looked at the bikes and stood there, nodding. They were quiet and polite and welcomed us with a friendly, proper formality.

Laura pushes her bike up the mountains of southern Colombia.
A short rest on the climb in mountainous southern Colombia.
Laura Killingbeck

Scott and I thanked the family and started taking our bags off the bikes. After a minute or two, the son edged closer and asked us, if we didn’t mind a humble room, would we prefer to sleep inside? We followed him into the house and he showed us a cement room with a single bed and no other furniture.  Intriguingly, the only decoration was a full-sized poster of Jackie Chan. The son told us that this was his bedroom, and we were welcome to set up our sleeping bags if we wanted. I remember feeling incredibly grateful, partly because we’d be out of the rain, but mostly because it’s not every day that people invite you into their homes like that. 

That evening the mother cooked us a beautiful homemade dinner from vegetables she’d grown in the yard. We contributed our smushed bags of bread and whatever else we could dredge from our panniers. I gave them a small aloe plant that I’d been carrying in my water bottle cage for just such a moment. The mother took it and carefully nestled it alongside a little row of well-tended plants. 

As we ate dinner, we talked about our lives and travels, the plants in the yard, the road ahead. At some point, I told them we were from the U.S. but had started in Bogotá, Colombia. Then the father turned to us and asked a question I’ve never forgotten. “Which is farther,” he asked, “the U.S. or Bogotá?”

Wild vicuñas graze near Mt. Chimborazo, Ecuador's highest peak.
Wild vicuñas graze near Mt. Chimborazo, Ecuador’s highest peak.
Laura Killingbeck

I told him that Bogotá was closer. Maybe I pulled out a map, I don’t know. I just remember sitting at the table with this lovely family, piecing together conversations about our lives, and realizing that our perspectives were coming from very different informational backdrops. If you don’t know that the country next to you is closer than a country on a different continent, how does this shape your perception of globalization? How did it shape this family’s perception of me and Scott, rolling along on bikes with our mishmashed gear and funny way of speaking? And what informational backdrop was I missing? What things were obvious to this family that I would never pick up on? It all felt very complicated and very special. This family was curious about us and we were curious about them, and that is what mattered. 

In the morning, Scott and I packed up our things and loaded the bikes in the yard. The family came outside and we said our goodbyes. We rode away and never saw them again. I wonder if the aloe plant is still there, bigger now. I’m grateful to this family for their kindness, and I always will be.

Deep green canyons and wild roads in southern Colombia.
Deep canyons and wild roads in southern Colombia
Laura Killingbeck

The essence of any long bike trip is a constant state of motion. You push pedals downward, move your body forward, pass through landscapes and states of mind and other people’s lives. Strangers hurtle by in cars, or wave from yards, or watch you eat cookies on the side of the road. People say hello and ask where you’re going or where you’ve been. Sometimes people invite you to stay with them. Most of the people you talk to are folks you’ve never met before and will never see again. 

In all of these interactions is a spirit of curiosity and a spirit of kindness. People want to know who you are and what you’re doing. And as you move in and out of their lives, you want to know about them too. These moments and meetings are fleeting, yet full. And over the course of a hundred miles or a thousand, they weave a pattern of human kindness that continues to make me feel very hopeful. 

Related Reading