I’m back in Panama, reflecting on my bicycle tour, and sorting out thoughts that I’ve had for a while now. I knew I would see beautiful places, face physical challenges, and be alone but I never expected to feel such loneliness. I’ve been alone on the road in Costa Rica and Nicaragua and felt fine, so why was it so different in the US?
We know that vast majority of people in the US are good people – kind, helpful, and respectful. But I was ignored even when I was requesting help. Have things changed in the US, or have my perceptions changed? Or, is it people’s perceptions of me? If I sat outside a store drinking coffee it was rare that someone would notice me, let alone return my greeting. If I was walking my bike no one asked if I was ok. I felt invisible, like I didn’t exist. When I mentioned this to a few people they said I probably looked like a homeless person. I don’t look like a typical bicycle tourist at my age and size, and my clothes and bike probably don’t look typical either.
I did approach many people and found a few willing to talk. The main things I heard were fear and drugs. As a tourist you see the beauty but you don’t know what is going on behind the scenes. I was surprised to hear of drugs, mostly meth, in the beautiful rural areas and touristy beach towns. You would think a gray haired lady on a bike is hardly threatening but everyone is looked at with suspicion. Even the people who talked with me were very hesitant at first.
I’m sad to see that this state of fear is so common in the US. It isolates, separates, and stresses people. Is it driven by reality? By the media? By what? When I lived in the US I knew people through work and other activities, but I remember it wasn’t common to interact with random strangers (though I don’t remember it being fear based, just the way things were). I was surprised and uneasy in Panama at first when people were so giving of their time and attention. It was so different and I couldn’t believe they didn’t expect anything in return. Now that I’ve become used to this culture, and then went traveling in the US where I didn’t know anyone, the contrast was astounding.
There are a lot of homeless people in the US and I saw them everywhere I went. Is this how they feel every day? No one wants to talk to them? No one wants them around? How sad. I had a choice. I could get off the street at any time. A homeless person usually has no choice. If it’s cold they still are in their tent, or if they are lucky in their car or RV (which no one wants parked in their neighborhood). How far are any of us from being in their shoes if our source of money dried up? How sad to be in such desperate circumstances and then be made to feel invisible as well. I know there are programs and people are trying to help but the problem obviously is far from solved. Of course there is poverty and people in desperate circumstances here in Panama as well, but there isn’t the social isolation which I think can be as damaging as the poverty.
I’m really glad I did my bike tour. I did see amazing places. I was happy I held up well enough physically. I didn’t like the cold, but as the days went by I got better at managing in spite of it. It was the loneliness that did me in. There are other places I want to see and I will probably set out again at some point, but not in the US. I am not happy with extended periods of solitude.
I am SO SO thankful! I am healthy, I have resources, I have family and people who care about me, and I am part of a community. It could easily be me living in a tent under a bridge where no one wants to talk to me. Of course I have done things to help myself but the vast majority of it is just circumstances, and somehow I got incredibly fortunate. Who would have thought it wasn’t the beauty, the challenges, the freedom, or any of the expected things that had the most impact on me, but it was the importance of community and connection.