When one of my roommates asked me if she could host two people at our house last weekend, I said, “Of course,” and didn’t think much more of it. But when I later found out that our two guests were bicycle tourists who’d been pedaling around the globe for years, I got really excited.
I also spent a couple of years traveling through foreign lands by bicycle, and it’s not often that I come across international bike tourists here in the United States. During my two-year trip from Paris to Shanghai, the majority of other bike tourists that I met hailed from Europe or South America, and they tended to explore their home continents before venturing to the U.S. (in part because U.S. visas can be expensive, depending on what country a traveler comes from).
Andrés Fluxa and Clémence Egnell were already at my house when I got home from work on Friday evening. The scattered heaps of panniers (bicycle bags) and the pair of touring bikes parked under a carport in my back yard were familiar sights; I had cluttered perhaps a hundred different people’s homes with similar equipment during my own trip from 2012 to 2014.
I hadn’t planned on writing about Fluxa and Egnell, but many of the conversations that I had with the couple over the weekend reminded me of important insights and lessons I’d learned during my own trip about cultural differences, hospitality, traveling, and paying it forward. The couple also had some interesting observations about the United States.
Andrés Fluxa, a 35-year-old native of Argentina, has been pedaling around the world for almost four and a half years, having kicked off his adventure in December 2012 from the southernmost city in South America, called Ushuaia.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” Fluxa recalls, laughing, about the early days of his trip. “I had zero training.”
Fluxa’s original idea was to travel the 3,500-mile length of Argentina, finishing in its northernmost city, La Quiaca. But even despite hardships like strong winds in Patagonia, Fluxa came to love the freewheeling lifestyle and sense of exploration that bicycle touring awards its participants. After finishing his original route, he decided to grab his passport and continue cycling all the way to Alaska – the longest continuous land route in the world.
Like many long-distance bike tourists, Fluxa was also on a spiritual trip. He had left a teaching job in Argentina because his earlier visions of becoming a great educator hadn’t squared with the reality of underfunded schools and violent and disrespectful students.
As he continued cycling north along the Brazilian coast and then cut inland by taking a boat down the Amazon River, Fluxa developed a passion for photography, which is now his career focus.
It was in Medellín, Colombia, that Fluxa met his girlfriend, Clémence Egnell, in mid-2014. Egnell, who is 31, is from Paris, and was in Colombia in 2014 on a three-week backpacking trip before she was scheduled to start a job teaching English back home in Paris. As she and Fluxa fell in love, they decided that she would join his bicycle trip after she finished her teaching contract.
A few months later, Fluxa flew with his bicycle from Mexico to Paris to meet up with Egnell. He switched his destination of Alaska so that he and Egnell could instead pedal east from Paris. Over the next two and a half years, they explored Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and Asia. Their exhaustive itinerary is as impressive as it is well-documented (complete with Fluxa’s photography) on a website that Egnell maintains, Les Deux Pieds Sur Terre.
The couple has been in the United States since February 21, having flown into San Francisco from Tokyo.
On Friday, they cycled roughly sixty miles to my house from Nederland, and were thankful to get indoors right before the weekend snowstorm struck.
When I asked Fluxa and Egnell how they fund their travels, they laughed, saying that the question is usually among the first that Americans ask them, unlike on other continents, where shoestring-budget travelling is more common.
“Americans ask the question of money much more frequently," observes Egnell. “But it’s good that they ask, because they can know that, with a bit of creativity and imagination, then [traveling like this] is possible."
The pair’s particular brand of creativity and imagination is selling postcards and documentary videos on a donation basis. Sometimes they set up street-side shops in big cities, using their bicycles as a draw. The videos are interviews they’ve conducted with other travelers, locals and hosts throughout the world. They half-jokingly made me agree to be interviewed for one in exchange for their permission to write about them in Westword.
Fluxa says that he’s received as much as $100 for a single postcard when selling them on the street.
“You are not selling just the paper; you are selling a story and the journey," he explains. “People want to help. They will see us and say, ‘How can I help you? Why are you here?’”
“We’ve met so many generous people, and that generosity really exists in this world. It’s good to remember that," adds Egnell.
The pair says that traveling in the United States has been rewarding so far. They particularly enjoyed the dramatic and expansive landscapes of Utah. The only hiccup was that Fluxa was pulled aside for hours by U.S. Customs agents at the airport in San Francisco because the agents wanted to know why he had an Iranian visa in his passport. (The couple had cycled in Iran as they were crossing Central Asia).
“They interviewed me for a long time, asking me, ‘Why were you in Iran? Where does your money come from? Why don’t you have your flight booked to exit the United States?’" recalls Fluxa of his interrogation.
“Finally, I showed them my pictures and the website, and an [agent] said, 'Wow! Four years and a half on a bike? I want to do that! What would you recommend as the most important thing?’"
Fluxa responded: “A good sleeping pad.”
Despite the nerve-wracking experience, Fluxa said that he doesn’t equate people with their governments. Iran itself is a good example, he says, where the people are among the most generous and hospitable in the world, but their government isn’t necessarily reflective of that spirit.
As for surprising lessons they’ve learned about American culture, the couple says that the United States is a lot safer than Hollywood movies had led them to believe. They’ve also been humbled by multiple hosts who saw them on the road and invited them to stay overnight at their homes.
Now that Fluxa and Egnell have reached Colorado’s Front Range, they’re weighing different routes that will take them eastward across the plains.
Already, the couple is thinking about the end of their trip and what it will mean for their lives. They finish their odyssey in a few months, after flying out of Washington, D.C., and doing a short victory lap in France.
“It’s mixed feelings. We love the traveling, so obviously ending that part [is hard], but at the same time we’re planning things that we’re looking forward to. Getting back will be a different adventure," says Egnell.
Tentatively, those plans involve living in the Alps, where Egnell will teach and Fluxa will work full-time as a photographer.
“In October, it will be almost five years that I’ve been traveling," says Fluxa. “I changed my life with this trip. Everything changes — your mind and how you see the world and people.”
“You’re mostly different because you have white hairs now," joked Egnell in response to her boyfriend.
But on a serious note, both mention a desire to pay it forward, giving back and inspiring others to explore the world as they have.
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“The fact that our trip is almost over makes us appreciate and value this experience even more," says Egnell.
To follow Fluxa and Egnell, check out the couple’s website or follow Fluxa on Facebook. The couple says that they’re happy to answer any questions readers send them about international bicycle touring. And I can answer many of those questions as well!