Biking the Americas, Focus on Kids

Marcela Valente

HAVANA TIMES, 8 Sep. (IPS) — Damian Lopez, of Argentina, has been riding his bicycle the length of the Americas for the past three years.  His mission?  In addition to completing the long journey, he wants to shine the spotlight on children who are at risk due to violence or abandonment.

See photo of Damian Lopez

“The bicycle is a mode of transportation that is slow enough to allow you to see everything around you, not just the landscape, but also a reality that you wouldn’t see as a tourist,” López told IPS during a stop in Buenos Aires on his north-south trek.

A professor of chemistry at the University of Mar del Plata, Argentina, he had the experience of touring different regions of his country on his bike. Ten years ago he decided to take on the challenge of riding the length of the Americas.

But it wasn’t until Jun. 4, 2007, that he departed Anchorage, in the northwestern U.S. state of Alaska, with a plan to reach the extreme south of South America in 2009. But circumstances forced him to extend the trip, and nearly 39 months later, he is still on two wheels.

The goal is to end the trip in Ushuaia, in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina’s southern-most province. He is heading west from Buenos Aires, crossing the Andes Mountains into Chile, then re-entering Argentina farther south to reach his final destination.

Fully aware that the journey would provide a range of unique experiences, López decided to give his trip a “social leg,” he says, and contacted the non-governmental organization SOS Children’s Villages (known as “Aldeas Infantiles SOS” in Spanish), dedicated to helping at-risk children.

The organization has chapters in 132 countries, with 500 permanent homes for boys and girls who cannot rely on their parents to care for them, due to violence or abandonment. Along his route, the cyclist visited more than 30 of these “villages.”

Since its founding in Austria 60 years ago, following the Second World War (1939-45), SOS Children’s Villages has helped more than a million boys and girls, primarily in Africa and Asia, but also in Latin America, and in industrialized countries.

“What is interesting is that unlike a traditional children’s home, this is a long-term project where the kids can live from very young until adulthood, with a woman who looks after them and sends them to school,” he said.

He was referring to the SOS “mother,” a woman who has received specialized training and lives with the children full time. The children live there with their own biological siblings as well as their new brothers and sisters “of the heart.”

Lopez’s idea was “to integrate the different cultures across the Americas through a sport like cycling, and at the same time, promote the work that the Children’s Villages are doing for kids,” he said.

He admitted that “it has not been an idyllic trip of seeing the beautiful scenery of mountains and jungles… You run into some very hard socio-economic realities — people living in situations of extreme poverty.”

In Central America, he recalled, in countries like Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador, the journey turned dangerous because of the violence associated with armed gangs of youths, known as “maras.”

But what “totally changed the trip” were the visits to the Children’s Villages. “It was a 180-degree turn,” he said. At some of the homes, the children demanded that he stay longer, which ended up prolonging his journey.

The route has been erratic, with changes depending on his physical state, recommendations from locals, and must-visit sites.

Although he did not carry a cellular phone or a computer, Lopez has maintained Internet contact, updating and sharing his route — leading some people along the way to welcome him with a place to stay or meals.

At age 35, Lopez says he has no other possessions beyond his bicycle and the basic items for survival. “I don’t have a house, or a car, or a television,” he says. His professional career is on hold while he pursues this endeavor, which he knows will leave him a changed man.

Now, so close to his destination, and closer to returning to his hometown of Mar del Plata, he states with conviction: “I’ve pedaled 44,000 kilometers across the Americas; I’m no longer the same.”