7 January 2017
We left La Paz after breakfast, cycling a grueling distance on a hilly, unpaved carretera before arriving in Velez for lunch. From there, it was almost all downhill on pavement to Barbosa. In between Velez and Barbosa we were passing many signs for bocadillos, a paste made from the guava fruit. We were in the region where bocadillos come from, so we stopped at one of the places where they were making them. The man outside was in the middle of painting the building, but he went in and emerged with a fresh package of bocadillo, which he gave us for free.
Shortly after this, the shifter cable on the bike Lenin was riding snapped, and he was forced to ride in the hardest gear. We were climbing uphill at the time, so we stopped and sat on the side of the road, eating bocadillo while trying to see if we could fix the shifter. Sitting down again in surrender, it began to rain. Fortunately, we only had to walk a short distance to the top of the hill before we could coast down all the way to Barbosa and find a bike shop.
It was Sunday afternoon of a holiday weekend in Colombia, but we eventually found a bike shop that was open and able to replace the shifter cable. I was amazed at how inexpensive it was, and I bought new brake pads to hang onto for when the existing ones inevitably wear out. One guy at the shop told us that we had just missed Nairo Quintana, world champion Colombian cyclist, who was in town for a mountain bike race. A girl at the shop was very excited to meet someone to try to practice her English, and she asked me to talk in her Snapchat video before leaving.
When we finally got back on the road, we only had a short distance to travel to the next town, Moniquira, in the department of Boyocá. It got dark as we rolled into town, and it started to rain. I wanted to seek shelter from the increasingly heavy rain before my shoes got too wet, so we pulled aside and under the cover of a fruit market. The fruit man gave us some mandarins, and we sat and talked with him and his family for over an hour, trying to decide where to sleep, waiting out the rain, and hoping that maybe one of them would offer us a place to spend the night. The problem was that it was a holiday, and that town specifically had a special celebration that night where everyone sprays foam at each other. People were in town from all over, visiting family, taking up all the space that would normally be vacant. The rain wasn’t letting up, so we ventured out to ride across town to a church to ask if we could stay there.
We arrived, cold and wet, to the church, where we asked a boy if we could speak with the priest. The boy came back several minutes later, saying the priest was busy. His family was in town so we couldn’t stay there, but he gave us directions to another church in town, where we would meet the head of tourist police. The other church was only two blocks from the market where we had been passing time earlier. We waited for over an hour under an awning in the doorway of this church before Lenin finally found the tourist policeman. Every place in town was booked solid for the holiday, except for this one finca that the policeman estimated to be about ten minutes out of town by bicycle. Instead, Lenin talked him into letting us sleep inside a community building around the corner, which the policeman thought was too dirty. He obligingly unlocked the building for us, and we made ourselves comfortable on the floor of an empty room for the night.
17 December 2016
Our third day back in Medellin, Lenin woke me up before sunrise. The previous morning, we met up with Lenin’s brother, Edwin, to run up to Los Tres Cruces, a climb so steep that none of us could actually run up it. As much as I hate waking up early, we agreed that it was a great way to begin the day. However, I didn’t want to do the same run two days in a row, so Lenin planned a bike ride up to San Felix the next morning.
Medellin has plenty of distractions sprinkled throughout the city to keep its people physically active. Aside from the numerous ciclorutas (bike paths), outdoor gyms, skate/bmx parks, soccer fields, basketball courts and swimming pools, there is a huge cycling track by the airport where you can find peletons of people decked out in full spandex, riding laps as fast as they can, as well as people riding hybrids or mountain bikes at a more leisurely pace. Not far from there is a park for roller and inline skating, a running track, and squash courts. You can take ciclorutas from there to El Stadio, where there are even more free sporting activities to do, including another running track and a velodrome. We detoured on our way to San Felix to do some laps around both the cycling track and the velodrome. After properly working up a sweat, we finally headed out of the city and up a mountain (which seems to be the only option when leaving Medellin).
Though Lenin had warned me that the ride to San Felix would be uphill for 20 kilometers, I was unprepared for how steep it would be. Neither of our bikes had sufficient gears for climbing, but we powered through regardless. For the first time, I was tempted to grab onto the back of a passing truck as it exuded black clouds of diesel exhaust in my face. I thought better of it though, and somehow managed to pass the truck, which seemed to be struggling more than Lenin and me during the steepest part of the incline. After a short distance the climb became more manageable, and we settled into a steady pace until we reached a place where we could take a break and share some fresas con crema and jugo de guanabano con leche. Our destination was another 12 kilometers uphill, where a cluster of paragliding businesses were situated near the top of the mountain, overlooking the city. In his past life as a paraglider, Lenin would come to this place religiously, spending hours every weekend and even sometimes during the week to go flying.
Lenin guessed it had been maybe 10 years since he last took flight with a paraglider. He has changed a lot since then, most notably his long hair, and it was apparent when we arrived at the first paragliding business and nobody recognized him. We left our bikes with one shop to walk up a steep set of slippery, uneven steps, to reach the peak of the moutain where most of the paragliders were taking off, landing, or just hanging out. Delving deeper into the paragliding community, memories came trickling back to Lenin. Not a single person recognized him, although he couldn’t remember anybody’s name, so I guess it was fair. He knew their faces though, and when he reintroduced himself to them one by one, seeing the shock and surprised reactions from each of his old paragliding friends never got old. When one of his friends found out that I had never been flying, Lenin asked him to take me on a tandem paraglider. All I had to do was sign something and pay for the insurance. I barely had time to think about it before I was whisked away to the field where people were taking off and landing. Two boys who couldn’t have been older than 13 started strapping me into the paraglider while Lenin tried to explain to me how to take off and land. It all happened so quickly, I don’t think more than 3 minutes had passed from the time I had accepted the offer and suddenly we were running off the side of the mountain. In the air, soaring over the mountains, I felt like my feet might brush the tops of the trees, but then we went higher, far above the point of our take-off. We flew above the forests and farms and had the most spectacular view of the city. I think the ride only lasted 15 minutes, but it was amazing.
The bike ride back home took a fraction of the time we spent going up. We coasted all the way down the mountain amid gorgeous scenery and raced through the traffic when we reached the city at the bottom. It was an exciting ride after an adrenaline rush from paragliding. At the end of the day, we met up again with Lenin’s brother to drive to Guatape and spend a few days on his houseboat.
Cycling is among Colombia’s most popular sports, second only to football (soccer), and you will find all sorts of riders out training or commuting on the roads both inside and outside of the cities.
Aside from the heavy traffic and air pollution, Medellin and its surrounding areas are incredibly conducive to cycling. Following Bogota’s lead, Medellin also hosts a Ciclovia every Sunday from 7am to 1pm, closing 42 kilometers of roads to motor vehicles so people can feel safe to bike, run, walk or skate freely. Some of these same roads host a smaller version of Ciclovia every Tuesday and Thursday night between 8 and 10pm. Additionally, there are over 100km of ciclorutas (separated bike paths) within the city. For the BMX riders, there are parks and pumptracks sprinkled throughout the city, including a pretty big one named after world champion Mariana Pajon, a native of Medellin. While there’s no velodrome (yet) in Medellin, there is a decent track where roadies can train, riding circles as fast as they want out of traffic.
If you’re comfortable riding with traffic, the autopista (highway) is one of the fastest ways to get around town, and it is not off limits to cyclists. While there are many bike routes throughout the city, they can be slow due to the numerous pedestrians who are not paying attention to their surroundings while strolling down the bike paths. Most road cyclists will end up riding out of the city on one of the highways and inevitably end up climbing switchbacks up one of the steep mountains on the outskirts of town. It is not uncommon to see pelotons of professional cycling teams training on these roads every week. Possibly the most popular spot to ride on the weekends is the road leading to the airport in Rio Negro. It’s basically straight up a mountain for 16 kilometers, but you can find hundreds of riders on both road and mountain bikes cycling up Avenida Las Palmas on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
The worst part about riding in Medellin is undoubtedly the pollution. Medellin is currently the 8th most polluted city in South America, and you can really feel it when you ride a bike. Most of the buses and trucks emit thick clouds of black smoke that encompass you and your bike as they accelerate away from you, and the numerous motos are not much better. Traffic can be very slow, and you really have to be careful when going around buses and taxis because the motos are usually speeding along in between the lanes of cars. I regret not having a GoPro to take video footage of one of my rides through traffic, because I think the video would be quite exciting.
On our first full day in Medellin, Dallas and I took a tour of the city with BiciTour Medellin. Carlos and Mateo were excellent guides, and I was lucky to be able to ride with both of them a few weeks later when I had finally acquired my own bike. The tour is a great way to learn about Medellin while seeing more of the city than you would be able to on foot. They will teach you about the city’s violent history, show you some of the graffiti, buy you salpicon, and take you to Pueblito Paisa, a model colonial village with one of the best views of the city.
Every Wednesday night SiClas organizes a ride called Sicleada that leaves from Carlos E. Restrepo park at 8pm. The route changes weekly and is never repeated. It varies from easy, flat rides within the city to fairly difficult rides that include climbing the surrounding mountains of Medellin. This ride draws over 1000 riders every single week and is a great way to meet people and make friends. The ride is usually more or less 20 kilometers, and very slow. Volunteers block cars from intruding on the ride from side streets, and the front of the group waits at the top of every hill for the rest of the group to catch up before moving on. There is always a break about halfway through, where some of the riders sell homemade sandwiches, cookies and juice. People are talking, laughing, whistling, playing music, and generally having a blast throughout the entire ride. If you ever find yourself in Medellin on a Wednesday night, you should rent a bike from SiClas and do it – this is an experienced not to be missed.
Another encouraging program in the city is EnCicla, a free bike share service. Drawbacks to this are that it can take a few days to get a card to use the program, since you have to apply with ID and a utility bill to prove you are a resident. The other down side is that the service is only available on weekdays from 5:30am until 7pm. There are some stations that are manned by a person and others that are automatic. Because it’s a free program and doesn’t generate any income, it’s expensive to operate. Maybe in the future it will be more like existing bike share systems in the US that are all automatic and available 24 hours a day, but this will probably require them to charge a small fee to rent the bikes.
The cycling community in Medellin is expansive, and there is something for every type of rider. Groups on Facebook, Meetup, and Couchsurfing exist for mountain bikers, road cyclists, and casual riders who just want to socialize. The people are friendly, and it’s very easy to make friends and find people with whom to ride. I did have a bit of trouble finding a good road bike, and it’s not easy to find a good, inexpensive second-hand bike. Most shops sell new bikes for the same price that they would cost in the US. They do come with an ownership card that includes the serial number in case your bike ever gets stolen, which is a system I think should be adopted everywhere. If you know where to look for used bikes, they can be very cheap (30,000-100,000 pesos). But depending on what kind of riding you plan on doing, I’m not sure how reliable these bikes are.
Now that I’ve written enough material for three blog posts (and I could go on), I should conclude by saying that cycling around here is really great, no matter what kind of biking you’re into. There are obvious concerns with exercising in such heavy air pollution, but I think my positive experiences and the excellent views have outweighed the risks.
Cartagena is the exact opposite of Bogota in terms of climate. At sea level and on the Caribbean, the temperature never dipped below 80F. During the day it is too hot to want to go outside at all, so most people do what they need to do in the morning or after the sun is lower in the sky. The people of Cartagena have darker skin and seem to get much of their heritage from Africa as opposed to Spain. They identify more with the rest of the Caribbean than they do with Colombia. The touristy part of the city is quite small and has a very old and charming air about it. Streets are narrow and the architecture is lovely, with luscious vegetation overflowing from balconies above and thick vines twisting upwards from street level. It reminded us of the French Quarter in New Orleans.
After walking around with our heavy bags during the hottest part of the day for a few hours, we concluded that Cartagena is much more expensive and more difficult to find a hostel than Bogotá. We eventually settled on bunk beds in a rather dirty hostel for 35,000 pesos each (about $11 per night). The next night we found a nicer hostel with a private room just outside of el centro histórico in an area called Getsemani. The city has a really interesting history, and we should have learned from our time in Bogota and taken a bike tour or walking tour the first day, but just walking around we got a sense of the historical significance of the place. Streets have names like “La Guerra” (the war) and “Calle Del la Bomba” (street of the bomb). And then there is the Castillo, which was the only fort built by any of the Spanish colonies that was under siege but never seized. We didn’t get to visit it before leaving, so we will have to go back some day.
The hostel where we stayed for our second night organizes a shuttle bus to Playa Blanca, a popular beach on Isla Barū. Advertised as one of the most beautiful and serene beaches where you can get away from all the people, I was skeptical when I saw how many tour buses and boats have trips out there daily. We arrived around 10am on a Wednesday and were immediately bombarded by locals trying to sell us…everything. The most annoying were the men selling oysters, or some type of shellfish. They would walk around with a bucket full of them, carrying one in their hand that they would shove in front of us (mostly in front of Dallas), so we would have to turn not to walk into it. I wondered how many other armpits those shellfish had visited. Our plan was to rent hammocks to spend the night on the island, but we ended up renting a cabaña instead for 50,000 pesos. That was half the money we brought with us, so we had to be very careful to budget for the rest of our time there. After all the daytime tourists get back on their boats or buses, the beach really did get more relaxed and peaceful. We weren’t constantly turning down people hawking their various food and drinks, and we could walk the beach until sunset.
Being a Caribbean city, fish is the most popular dish here. Dallas and I always share a plate, which is more than enough to keep us full. The fish is usually reddish and comes fried whole on a plate with rice, patacone (smashed and fried plantain patty) and sometimes salad. The proper way to eat it is with your fingers, and everything but the bones are edible (sometimes even the bones can be consumed). We had this fish for lunch and dinner on Playa Blanca and had just enough cash left over for some fruit and water for breakfast the next day.
When we arrived back at the hostel, it was time to go to meet our AirBnB host. We chose Miguel because he had good reviews and he promised to show visitors the way locals live in Cartagena. It was Christmas Eve, and we thought it would be nice to spend a few nights with some local people as opposed to being surrounded by other orphaned tourists. Miguel delivered on his promise, and we had a wonderful experience with him and his other guests in his neighborhood of Los Almendros, about a 20 minute cab ride from the centro historico. He was home to greet us and offered us cold water and small bottles of beer called Costeñitas. It’s so hot on the coast that some people prefer to drink beer in small bottles so they have time to finish it before it gets warm. Then they just get a fresh one from the fridge more frequently.
Once settled in, Miguel introduced us to his neighbor who was stirring something in a huge pot over an open fire in the park across the street. Other neighbors were helping – one brought over some grated coconut and milk while another man poured an entire (small) bottle of Aguardiente (distilled sugar cane drink that tastes like licorice) into the pot. Antonio, the man who was in charge of making the Natilla, which is some kind of corn-based pudding or custard, gave us a taste of it from the big spoon. It tasted like corn porridge, but he still had to add the coconut, cinnamon, and more panela (sugar). We also got to talk to his other neighbors who appeared to spend their time hanging out at the tienda on the corner, running up a tab. We were each treated to three or four Costeñitas by the time we retreated to Miguel’s house to plan dinner.
Miguel drove us to the supermarket along with Michelle and Tyler, two other American guests who had arrived just after us from Panama on their way to Ecuador. We each prepared a dish to share with everyone else for our Christmas Eve dinner. Miguel made pork, mashed potatoes and plantains, Michelle and Tyler made pasta with mushrooms and broccoli and garlic bread, and Dallas and I made apple & mountain berry pie. Two other AirBnB guests, a Russian/Canadian girl and a German girl who now lives in Portugal, also joined us for dinner. Dallas and I cherished our local experience in Cartagena so much, we extended our stay with Miguel from two nights to four. We highly recommend staying with him or someone like him if you visit Cartagena. Any place can be enjoyed more fully when you get away from the other tourists and make real connections with the locals.
We spent a week in Bogota before flying to Cartagena. Since it didn’t take long for us to get robbed, we were very wary of the place for the rest of the week. We spent pretty much all of Wednesday with the police, and we barely left our hostel on Thursday.
We finally wandered out for a walk Thursday evening where we discovered Carrera Siete, a road where a long section had been closed to cars a few years ago and was now exclusively for pedestrians and cyclists. This was just a few blocks from our hostel, and stretched on for about 1.5 kilometers. The whole street was all decked out in Christmas lights and decorations, and in Simon Bolivar Plaza stood an enormous Christmas “tree”. Chinese drummers were performing on a stage that had been set up opposite the tree, and their performance could be heard from inside the cathedral across the plaza where a mass was taking place at the same time. The whole street was alive with crowds of people – street performers, artists, vendors, people walking around in Christmas hats and people playing with these light-up propeller toys that launch high into the sky and then slowly fall straight back down. Those light-up toys could be seen all over the street and plaza.
Dallas and I were mostly interested in the street food and the guinea pig games. The food was cheap, and most of it was tasty. We shared a corn on the cob and an arepa con queso, and then watched some guinea pigs run into houses. The game is really silly, but really fun to watch (and even more fun to play). A group of 5 or 6 guinnea pigs huddle next to one another on the street by the feet of the man with the microphone who is encouraging everyone around to bet on which house the animal will choose. The houses are all lined up in an array about 20 feet away from the guinea pigs – the far row with doors facing the guinea pigs and the nearer houses have the doors turned away. The man with the microphone keeps talking to work up a crowd, and people line up around the guinea pigs and houses, forming a runway for them to run towards the houses. People place coins on top of the house that they think the guinea pig will go into, and when enough people have placed their bets, the man with the microphone picks up one of the guinea pigs and places him down a few feet away from the others, so he runs towards all the houses. There are several of these exact same set-ups along Carrera Siete, and as far as I know, this goes on every night. It’s the perfect gateway game to get kids hooked on gambling.
After betting and losing 200 pesos (~6 cents) a few times, we buy some plantains with cheese and guayaba, a popular fruit that always seems to come in a paste form and is eaten with cheese. We also try the aromatica, a hot drink that tastes like sugar cane and limes with herbs. The next day, we came back here and Dallas actually won 1000 pesos on the guinea pig game!
During our travels this summer, Dallas and I were lucky to meet a few of the good folks from Green Guru, an awesome company out of Boulder that up-cycles old bike tubes and tent fabrics to make useful things like wallets, backpacks and panniers. We applied to be ambassadors after talking with them at RAGBRAI, and at the end of our season we got to check out their shop in Boulder and receive some gear to test out. I’m writing my first review of the Hauler Bike Pack Saddle Bag in total honesty.
Here are all of the positive features. This bag is like an over-sized saddle pack that attaches to the rails on the underside of your saddle by a clipped strap on each side, and a Velcro strap to secure it to the seat post. The best thing about this bag is there is no need for a rack, so it can literally attach to any bike. At 425 cubic inches of space, you can pack enough stuff in there for an overnight trip if you needed. This pack is made of up-cycled tent fabric
and bike tubes on the outside with a waterproof nylon inner lining. It has a reflective strap that faces back towards car headlights when it’s on your bike. This strap is sewn into the bag as a series of loops, and a bike tail light can easily be clipped onto one of the loops. Also on the outside of the bag is a small zippered pocket on the top and a Velcro pocket on the bottom containing a removable plastic stiffener. It has a Velcro and roll-top closure, with 2 more clipped straps to keep it tightly rolled while riding. There’s also a removable, adjustable strap that clips onto the bag easily to convert it into a shoulder bag, or pannier-shaped messenger bag. It’s pretty versatile.
Now for the things that I don’t like about the bag. It can take a while to attach to the saddle, especially if your saddle is mounted all the way forward on its rails. The female half of the clip needs to be fed through the rails, and the bulk of the plastic can be tricky to get through and hold there while you try to bring the male half of the clip to meet it. I know in order to be able to tighten the straps down so the bag isn’t hanging low and loosely between the saddle and rear wheel the strap that is fixed to the bag needs to be short, but maybe the other strap could be longer to make this easier (or there could be a loop attached to the end of that strap so it’s easier to grab to tighten after you’ve loosed the clip all the way). The clips could also be smaller, but then you may sacrifice weight capacity for the bag. The only other thing that is annoying about the bag is riding with it. The bag swings back and forth when pedaling, and I don’t think it is avoidable. Maybe it’s my massive hamstrings that hit the side of the bag with each pedal stroke, batting it back and forth like a pendulum, creating some weird gyroscopic feeling while riding with a heavy load. I’ve tried using the bag with both my mountain bike and road bike, and still get this swinging. However, it’s much better than riding with a backpack! I’ve tested it on the road and on trails, and it’s actually less noticeable on trails, perhaps because the terrain is already bumpy and pedaling isn’t as frequent and rhythmic.
Overall, I am very happy with the Bike Pack Saddle Bag. I look forward to taking it on more long mountain bike rides, and using it to commute around town (although I’m going to have to add to my collection of bike packing bags if I want to take my tent with me). I don’t have a rack on any of my bikes right now, so I haven’t been able to use panniers, and this bag offers a solution, allowing me to carry everything I need without having to wear a sweaty backpack.
Where to begin? In waiting for the perfect inspiration to post, I have allowed too much time to go by and too many things to happen that writing a thorough update has become overwhelming. I will do my best now.
Time has a way of passing faster when you’re not paying attention. I am lucky to have enjoyed my time so much in the past few months that I was barely aware of its passing until another notch on my personal timeline hit and I am celebrating, or experiencing, my 30th birthday. While I wouldn’t call it a celebration, it is an experience – and a little reminder that time does keep going, and nobody has yet figured out how to control that.
Dallas and I were dog sitting and house sitting in Durango, Colorado for about 6 weeks. Dallas went back to California on Christmas Eve to sell our bikes and collect some belongings while spending the holidays with his family. I stayed until New Year’s Eve, and attempted to rent a car to drive to Denver to catch a flight to Detroit for my cousin’s wedding. After walking around Durango for 3 hours between a few different car rental companies, I conceded to defeat. Despite having plenty of savings in the bank to buy a car, let alone rent one for a day, I was turned down by every rental company because I didn’t have a credit card. This is one of the most ridiculous things about the US. These companies would be perfectly fine renting a car to someone who is hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt as long as they have a credit card, while the people who are careful never to spend more than what they have are punished for not having any credit. I had to get to the Denver airport the next day, and there was literally no way to do it. For $400 and an expensive cab ride to the Durango airport, I could have bought a plane ticket to Denver that would have gotten me there a few minutes after my flight to Detroit took off. I felt utterly defeated and helpless.
Naturally, I began scouring craigslist for…anything. Durango doesn’t have enough of a presence to require its own craigslist page, so I was searching the entire western slope of Colorado, with no luck. I began expanding my range to areas south of Durango. Albuquerque, Flagstaff, Farmington, Phoenix…I was desperate. Eventually, I found someone who was driving from Phoenix to Cleveland. While I was originally hoping for a ride to the airport, I ended up securing a ride for myself all the way to Michigan. AND I got to stay in Durango for an extra day and hang out with Liza and Coda, the two dogs I was sitting. As luck would have it, my flight out of Denver was canceled and I was able to get full credit for the price of the flight I would have missed anyway. The drive took two days, but Ray had done the drive many times before and dropped me off safely at the hotel where my family was staying in time for the wedding rehearsal dinner.
While I love my cousin Rachel, I wonder about her sanity when it came to picking a time and location for her wedding. I’m pretty sure everyone who was flying in had trouble related to snowy weather conditions, and there were just as many delays or cancellations on the way out. I amazingly managed to fly out of Detroit somewhat on time, but the plane I was destined to take from DC to Providence was stuck somewhere else so I ended up spending an extra 7 hours in the airport after that flight was canceled. Had I been allowed to rent a car, I probably could have driven to Providence in less time.
Dallas met me in Providence a few days after I arrived. It was his idea to come back to Rhode Island and try it out for a while. We hadn’t had an income since September, and we really needed to take some time to rebuild our bank account balances. I vaguely questioned Dallas’s sanity as well for choosing to come to Providence in January, but he really didn’t know any better. I am happy to be back in an area where I’m surrounded by familiar faces and places, and I think my friends and family are happy that we’re here (for now). Now I just need to figure out how I’m going to save enough money to hit the road again in a few years. Dallas just started a job at Brown, so send him congratulatory messages! He will be working part time with full time benefits, and he may choose to stay long enough to earn a degree while he’s here. This means we could be here for a few years! But I have every intention of still completing my bicycle journey around the world. During this pause, I am thinking about starting a business to help support our goals and mission of promoting bicycling! I will update as things unfold…
Dallas and I figured that while we were already in the Southwest, we should find a way to explore the surrounding area before our dog-watching duties began again. So we rented a car and drove down to Flagstaff, where I have a cousin, Jeanine, and Dallas and I have a friend, James.
Over the past two years, I have been traveling around my own country like I never have before, and I am still astounded by how vastly different it can be depending on where you go, and how dramatically beautiful it is. It’s amazing that you can see such an array of climate zones, landscapes and people all while remaining within the United States. These experiences that I’ve had make it a little easier to appreciate being an American, even though I am still itching to get out and explore the rest of the world. From the food and hospitality of the South, to where the mountains meet the ocean in Alaska, and everything in between, I am more in love with this country than I ever have been. Our recent trip to the desert in Arizona further exceeded my expectations, and continued to awe me in every way.
The enormous red rocks rising straight up, illuminated by the sun, give off a presence that is impossible to capture on camera. Yet, the scenery was constantly making me want to stop and take a million pictures everywhere I turned. It is so stunning, I could not take my eyes off of the landscape. This presented a challenge when Dallas and I went trail running in Sedona. We spent a few hours on a ‘run’ that couldn’t have been more than 6 miles, pausing to take in our surroundings and attempting to photograph everything without falling into the canyon. It was equally difficult to drive down to Sedona from Flagstaff without stopping or slowing down to feast our eyes upon the vivid land.
The day before we went to Sedona, we drove from Durango to Flagstaff, stopping at the Four Corners National Monument along the way. My eyes could barely handle all of the visual stimulation then, and it was nothing compared to Sedona. Once in Flagstaff, Dallas and I met up with James (who Dallas had originally met on his first bike tour in California and who had stayed with us in Portland when touring with his mom, Jo). James brought us to Diablo for burgers, and then we walked over to Flagstaff Bicycle Revolution to meet my cousin, Jeanine, and her husband, Stuart. Flag Bike Rev is a local bike shop, and they were having their holiday party.
After leaving the party, we were kindly welcomed by Jame’s friend, Lauren, to stay at her house. Two of their other friends were in town from Silver City, New Mexico, and Dallas had stayed with one of them while he was passing through two years ago. We had good conversation with James and friends, and I really enjoyed listening to Lauren and Mike sing and play the guitar (Dallas even joined in on guitar towards the end). It’s really comforting to know that there are such good people all over the country, and we can relate to many of the same things, like music, the environment, and bicycling. I think that this would be my group of friends had I lived in Flagstaff or Silver City. It also makes me miss my friends back in Rhode Island, and I look forward to seeing them again.
Anyway, after all of us went out for an early breakfast of chiliquiles at Martan’s, Dallas and I headed off to Sedona. I could probably spend a few months in Sedona before I got tired of exploring all of the trails it has to offer. I did want to visit Arcosanti before heading back to Flagstaff, so we only got to spend a few hours in Sedona.
Arcosanti is an experimental town, designed by architect Paolo Soleri, who just passed away earlier this year at the ripe age of 93. Soleri was born and studied architecture in Torino, Italy before coming to the US and working under Frank Lloyd Wright. He started constructing Arcosanti in the 1970’s, based on his idea of Arcology (architecture + ecology). It is still somewhat a work in progress, but is a very cool idea with the goal of being environmentally sustainable and lean with regards to urban sprawl. I first learned about Arcosanti while working on my master’s at Brown and researching places that are not autocentric (revolving around the automobile). I am slightly embarrassed that we had to drive there, but I am glad that I got to see it.
On the way back to Flagstaff, it started snowing, and the next morning there were several inches of snow covering everything. I love the way the snow clings to all the tree branches, turning them white. We enjoyed coffee and breakfast with James and friends at Macy’s, and then said goodbye before driving to the Grand Canyon. We drove over a mountain pass on the way, and once on the other side, there was no more snow on the ground.
I felt like we were the luckiest couple of people on earth when the clouds began to break while we were at the Grand Canyon National Park, and I was reminded of when the same thing happened while we were visiting Denali National Park in Alaska. I can’t believe this enormous canyon has been sitting here all this time, and I had never even seen it once until now. It’s incredible how different everything can look depending on the season, the lighting, and the weather. There are so many different types of beauty, but I think my favorite is these striking natural landscapes.
Dallas and I began hiking down into the canyon from the South Rim’s Kaibob trail, but we only had enough time to go about 1.5 miles before having to turn back up. We watched the clouds shift as the sun set behind the south wall of the canyon, casting various colors and changing moods on the whole picture, all the while maintaining its majestic aura. The long drive back to Durango was dark and silent, but the moon rising behind the clouds was also pretty magnificent.
As the holidays approach and people are scrambling to solidify travel plans to see family, an important priority for many people is finding someone to care for their home or pets while away. Then there are people like Dallas and me, who are always trying to figure out where we’re going to sleep for the next few weeks (or months) and how we’re going to afford it. Websites like trustedhousesitters.com offer a solution for both types of people. Dallas and I joined trustedhousesitters.com on November 1st this year. We have membership privileges for one year before we have to decide whether to renew or let lapse. I have formulated a rough sketch of an opinion so far, from the perspective of a house-sitter who has yet to connect with the right homeowner.
First, you have to pay for a membership in order to contact homeowners, and it’s a bit pricey. This could be why most of the members are older, retired professionals. For homeowners, this filters through all the potential sitters and is MUCH better than posting an ad on craigslist. Homeowners can feel more secure knowing that their sitter will not be partying or doing drugs in their home while they’re away. However, as a younger house-sitter with no steady income or pension, it is a bit of an investment for me. That said, the costs are well worth it if it hooks us up with the right home. In most cases, the membership would pay for itself in just one sit, saving us on the costs of hotels or hostels.
Also, as a younger house sitter amongst a member base of “mature, responsible, house sitters with extensive references and resumes”, I feel at a slight disadvantage when it comes to getting chosen to be the house sitter. We need to use our age to set us apart advantageously. While many of the members advertise that they are fit, I wonder how many of them would run daily with the dogs in urban areas that have leash laws.
Most house-sitters are not expecting to be paid. This is a great benefit for homeowners, for obvious reasons. However, most people who can afford a membership can also afford to pay their sitter a little bit to reward them for doing a good job. If there is no payment at all, there may be less incentive for the house sitter to make extra efforts to keep the house clean or the garden alive. I assume that most of the members on here would go that extra mile just for the positive feedback to use a reference, but it is nice as a house-sitter to receive a little bit of compensation, not only to offset the cost of travel or the time involved in caring for pets, but as a token of appreciation for a job well done. This would still be much cheaper and less hassle than boarding pets at a kennel or hiring someone through a pet-sitting service, and it would provide homeowners some extra peace of mind. I don’t mind not being paid, but when everyone is offering their services for free, it diminishes the perceived value of all sitters.
In search results, your sitter profile is not going to show up if you say that you charge “Sometimes” unless a homeowner indicates “I don’t mind” in the search query, so if you want homeowners to be able to find you, it might be beneficial to indicate that you don’t charge at all. I don’t like this, for the reasons mentioned above. Sometimes a free place to stay is more than enough and I would not feel right charging a homeowner, but when the house-sitting job comes with responsibilities like feeding and exercising animals, keeping house plants and gardens healthy, and helping to run a farm or bed-and-breakfast, I would expect a little bit of compensation.
The reference feature allows house sitters to request references from other members or externally, and references are posted on sitters’ profiles. There’s also a feature to have a police report available, to prove that you have no criminal record. Homeowners can search for sitters based on references and police report availability. The references offer sitters great motivation to do a good job so they can earn more positive references to help them in finding future house-sitting opportunities.
The site is an excellent resource for both homeowners and house sitters. It connects people who would never have found each other and opens people’s minds up to opportunities outside of their immediate vicinity. Members are much more reliable and trustworthy than your average craigslist user, or at least the sketchy people are weeded out from the start. I have already started recommending the website to friends who may be interested in house-sitting as a way to vacation inexpensively.
Recommendations for the site:
Reach out to younger people and try to diversify the membership base. Maybe offer a Groupon or not charge a house-sitter for their membership until they have secured their first house-sitting gig through the website. OR, in addition to the membership option, allow people to join for free and pay per house-sitting gig that they obtain (members would not have to pay this fee). Also, try to attract people from other countries. Right now, the majority of homeowners are in the UK, US, Australia and western Europe. It would be nice to see an even wider range of locations, including South America and Asia.
Improve search result feedback. Allow people to sort search results in order of proximity, or other options. Your profile won’t have any priority if someone in your area searches for a house-sitter. Let the profiles of house sitters who indicate that they charge “sometimes” appear in search results for either paying or non-paying homeowners.
So far, I love the website and am excited for its potential in helping Dallas and me find places to stay while we are traveling. When we do find a house-sitting gig through here (and according to the site, 75% of members with complete profiles do), I will be sure to blog about it!
For those of you who made it through to the end of this lengthy review, Trustedhousesitters is offering a 25% discount on memberships when you enter the discount code, “nomadiccycling”!