People | A lifetime spent on the road
Self-proclaimed ‘modern nomad’ and former political exile Omar Ruiz-Diaz rejected a sedentary life in 1991 when he left his native Paraguay on his bicycle. So far, his nineteen year adventure has taken Omar across three continents.
By Robert Wolz.
Political exile turns modern nomad
Meeting someone like Omar Ruiz-Diaz is only ever going to happen by chance. Since 1991, this native of Paraguay has hardly sat still long enough to put down roots, a self-proclaimed ‘modern nomad’ who has travelled around much of the world with his bicycle as his only regular companion.
But how did Omar arrive at the outskirts of Castillo de Locubín where I found him one day relaxing beside the cool waters of the Nacimiento del Río San Juan? The forty-six year old tells me that his journey began back in his native Paraguay. During his youth, the country was ruled by Alfredo Stroessner, a dictator who had reigned in the country for 35 years but whose regime was on the verge of collapsing. Omar, who was studying at a Catholic seminary during the last years of the dictatorship, was active in the underground movement against Stroessner.
“The Catholic church was always quite outspoken and protested against him”, he tells me. “While studying at seminary, I started working for an underground radio station that opposed the dictator. My father was a policeman. One day in 1982, he told me there were threats made against me. I was forced to leave Paraguay.”
Omar went into exile in Argentina where he studied journalism at university a began working for a newspaper, writing articles against the regime in his country. When Stroessner was finally toppled in 1989, it was the former dictator’s turn to be forced into exile in Brazil and Omar was able to return home.
He re-launched his journalism career in the Paraguayan capital Asunción, working for Radio Cáritas but it wasn’t long before Omar got the urge to travel.
“One day in 1991, I set off on my bicycle for a little holiday. I never imagined then that it was the beginning of such a long adventure”.
But why did he travel on bicycle? “Well, to be honest, it was the only transport I could afford at the time. But I’d always enjoyed cycling ever since I was a boy so travelling that way felt natural”, Omar explains. “However, as I journeyed around South America, I began to take notice of the environment and my experiences inspired me to write several essays on environmental themes”.
“Now my mission is to encourage people to leave theirs cars and to take up cycling instead”, Omar tells me that cycling “is not just a form of transportation, it’s a philosophy. The bicycle connects you to nature and to people as well”.
While travelling northward through his native continent, Omar met a Canadian woman who was also on a cycling tour. The pair fell in love and she took him back to Canada where they would marry and produce a child together.
“Canadians promote cycling more than other countries I’ve visited. Some businesses even have locker rooms and showers for people who commute on bicycle, and even places to store your bike safely”.
Omar largely resisted his nomadic tendencies for four years until the road called him once again. Thanks to the Canadian passport he’d gained while married, Omar is now able to travel much more freely around the world.
“A Canadian passport is welcome everywhere”, he says.
Although separated now, the couple still remain close friends. “We even meet up sometimes and cycle together”, he explains, telling me about the time they spent working and riding around the United Kingdom.
I’m curious to know how a man with such a unusual lifestyle supports himself. Omar tells me, “I’m not in the dynamic of money competition. As I go from place to place and tell people about my travels and my environmental message, they help me by offering food and water”.
“Sometimes people will give me a place to sleep in exchange for a few hours work”, Omar explains, telling me about the unusual Mongolian yurt where he was allowed to sleep at a cortijo outside Castillo de Locubín in exchange for doing a few jobs.
“Occasionally I’ll work a few hours for money enough to buy some food, top up my mobile phone or be able to maintain my website”, Omar says, telling me about www.omarglobal.com The web site, in English, tells about his history. It also includes photos from Omar’s travels, newspaper clippings about him from around the world and information about how people can sponsor him.
He says, “Occasionally, I have to stay put in one place to work for a while and save up money for the next leg of my journey. For example, I spent six months working in a youth hostel in Amsterdam but got back on my bike as soon as I could”.
If your only means of transport is a bicycle, it doesn’t make sense to weigh yourself down with lots of worldly possessions. Everything Omar owns fits into two small trailers which he tows behind him.
“My most important possessions are my two cameras, my 320 meg flash drive and my video camera”. He tells me, explaining that he records every leg of his journey in as much details as possible.
“I don’t want my life to end up being just a few brief anecdotes. I write a blog for a radio station in Paraguay and also publish articles in a Spanish-language newspaper in Toronto, Canada. I take lots of photos, as well, which I upload to my website and also to facebook”.
Omar has also shot many hours of video and would some day like to edit the footage and produce a documentary. In his spare time, he enjoys writing poetry and is also preparing a draft manuscript for a book. Omar tells me that at least two publishers have demostrated an interest in printing his work.
“If I ever publish my book, I’d like it to be titled ‘One Way Ticket’. That pretty much describes my attitude about life. To go and feel free. Feel free to be yourself”.
Opening a pair of thick diaries full of photos, business cards and other souvenirs as well as messages from people he has met along the way, Omar tells me, “I don’t carry them all with me because they’d be too heavy but everywhere I go I get people to sign my diary, stamp it with their seal or give me some little token to remind me of where I’ve been”.
“Adventures like to meet people and I’ve met some wonderful people on my travels. I’m really grateful for the ways they have helped me and for just having the opportunity to know them”.
He says the most helpful and generous people he has met in Spain have been members of the Guardia Civil, local police, town hall government officials, firemen and parish churches.
A I flick through the pages of one of his diaries, I come across a particularly curious souvenir: the cloth badge of a policía local.
“We were talking and he was asking about my adventure”, Omar explains.
“After hearing my story, the policeman ripped the badge right off the shoulder of his uniform! Her said “You’re a braver man than me. Take this”.
Nevertheless, Omar admits to being what he calls a ‘bourgeoisie nomad’ and says he is not a martyr. The man, who has clocked up more than 60,000 kilometres on his bicycle since leaving Paraguay in 1991, calls his journey an ‘existential experience’.
Omar doesn’t have any particular objective other than using his travels to spread his message about the merits of cycling. He’s not out to break any records or aiming to reach a certain milestone.
It’s not about going from A to B as fast as I can. I take my time and enjoy the journey. On average, I cover about 30-40 kilometres in a day”.
In fact, Omar has walked more than he’s ridden. “I usually walk uphill and ride downhill but that’s partly due to the hitch connecting my trailers to the bike”, he says. “I probably walk 70% of the time and ride 30%. I’d say I’m more spiritually fit than physical fit”.
Omar doesn’t just wander aimlessly. He plans each leg of his journey but occasionally deviates from his course if he learns about something interesting along the way.
“Most of the time, I avoid big cities though I have just been to Granada. I left Barcelona three months ago for the current leg of my journey which is 1500 kilometre route to Faro, Portugal. Originally, I didn’t include Córdoba in my itinerary but now I’ve decided I can’t miss it”.
“One thing I love is good wine so I always try to visit vineyards along the way”.
Omar, who has travelled around much of Europe, says there’s a lot of the world he’d exploring but, for him, Africa is off limits.
“I’d love to travel around Africa. I bet it would be amazing. Unfortunately, right now I think it’s way too dangerous for someone on bicycle. I’d feel too vulnerable”, Omar admits.
I ask him if he thinks he’ll ever give up is nomadic lifestyle. “It will probably end some day. I think the one thing that would make me stop is the loneliness. Sometimes I do feel lonely”.
“But I think no matter how old I get, I’ll still want to go off cycling for three months a year in the summer. It’s in my blood”.
I want to ask him what the most difficult thing is about preparing for each stage of his travels and in my mind I’m already imagining how Omar will reply: psyching himself up for each exhausting leg of his journey; saying goodbye to people he’s met; giving up a comfortable bed. However, he surprises me.
“The most difficult thing for me is occasionally having to wait before I can depart. Sometimes the urge to get back on my bicycle is so strong I can hardly stand it”.