Political exile turns modern nomad

onceTranscript of an article published on the magazine Horizons (Spain), Saturday, August 14, 2010.

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”.

 

  

 

Where’s the two trailer man ?

 

Lately I’ve been able to carry on only a single trailer, not two as previously did. I miss carry on two trailers as I used to do it every day, but the difficulties presented with pedestrians on the sidewalks and the strict security measures established by Spanish authorities  in relation to the terrorist threat, almost forced me to leave the second trailer at home.

Another reason is to avoid the possibility that people become nervous on the terraces at the sudden presence of someone walking around and in between with a bicycle pulling not one but two trailers. Indeed, what I do is to walk from one terrace to another, and then I bend down to activate the two stand sticks that’s work to park my bike. It is an action that is followed with special scrutiny by others.

So there you are, Alexandre from France I think; took this photo and posted on Twitter a few days ago in Central Madrid. This is how I am exposed every day; my routine, my daily activity.  An activity that I’ve been doing for many years now.

Where I come from

aceraI was told that I was born in a sort of Health Center located in a building called “La Acera” in the southern town of Santa Rosa, in the Misiones province, in Paraguay. It was on the early hours of March 28, 1964. We lived near the edge of the village in a government land that my father, who was a Police officer, has achieved profitably for many years.Things were like this in those years where the epidemic of the dictatorship spread it a culture of corruption, political patronage and nepotism everywhere. There was another public land next to our home and that was also used to cultivate maniocs. I was the last of a six brothers and sisters of a dysfunctional and often violent family that we lived in a house surrounded by a large patio in the front, a chicken coop and a pigsty on the side and a plot of oranges and lemons in the back. Our mother held a whip in the dining room wall as a show of force. When her powerful arms held me and punished me to exhaustion, almost every day, I have come to think to take my life on more than one occasion. I really do not know how I survived.

Meeting Sylvia

Sylvia Halpern’s  travel Journal excerpt 

Date: October 27 – 29, 2013

omar2On Sunday I met up with another traveling cyclist, Omar Ruiz-Diaz. We have been in contact by Facebook and he met me at the hotel. Omar has been ‘on the road’ for 22 years. He has a very unusual set-up where he travels on a regular bike with 2 trailers. I’ve heard about him for a long time and was happy to meet. He gave me a demonstration of his biking technique riding in circles. The hotel is on a fairly steep hill and he walked up with his heavy bike. While we were talking he suggested we tour through Spain together. He has been following my progress and thought our riding styles and speed might be a good fit. I’m always up for company and he seemed like a nice enough fellow. I figured we can always try riding together. The worse that can happen is it doesn’t work out. I really wanted to take a rest day and we made plans to ride around Barcelona on Monday.

…………..

oma1Monday morning I rode down to Plaza Catalonia to meet Omar. He was set up with his bike. He lives from his bike and has a lot of things he sells which is why he has 2 trailers. There are large color postcards of him riding in Portugal with a lovely spiritual poem on the back. He has keychains made from bike chains and t-shirts with his logo. He also has a very cool book full of recommendations and lots of newspaper articles from all over the world. People approach him because of his strange set-up and then he tells them about his lifestyle signing a postcard for them. He gives them a keychain and asks for donations. People give him a lot of money. I was with him for 2 hours and watched him collect 40 euros. It’s possible that he actually made more money because I was there with the trike.

omar4He took me on a tour of Barcelona going to a big food market, the Cathedral and out to the FC Barcelona stadium passing the bullfighting ring – Arenas de Barcelona. I also saw the fleet of e-assisted pedi trikes called Trixi. Super design! We made plans to start riding out of Barcelona on Wednesday. He had ridden this particular route before and knew the way.

………

Eduard and his wife Rosa have been exceptionally generous hosts and showed me a wonderful time at their hotel. They took me to a fabulous restaurant high up on a mountain that had a panoramic view of the city. They are really a class act! Eduard also asked to ride with me and Omar out of town. I will have an escort out of the hotel and out of Barcelona – fantastic!

…..

Date: October 30 & 31, 2013

omar6After another healthy and hearty breakfast at the hotel I got packed up. Eduard met me at 8:30. We took a few pics and headed through Barcelona to meet Omar. Boy was it nice riding with someone who knew where to go. It would have taken me twice as long to find my way alone. Omar was waiting and we took a few more pics before starting our ride out of the city. It was a weekday morning and there was a lot of traffic to contend with. Omar is pedaling a huge amount of weight with the 2 trailers and anytime there was a hill, even a small hill, he got off and pushed. He was nimble getting on and off that bike. He was telling me that I was really fast which sounded so weird. I don’t think anyone has ever called me fast before. Eduard also knew the way out of town which made the ride so much easier. We stopped at an electronics store so I could buy a new tablet. They didn’t have the Google Nexus so I picked up an Acer Iconic which is also 7″ with GPS. It was less than $150 which is really inexpensive – score! We got to a place far enough out of town that we wouldn’t have any problem finding our way and drank a farewell cup of coffee with Eduard. Thanks Eduard for your generous hosting and good luck on your cycling trip in SE Asia!

…..

omar7Omar and I continued along the coast. It was a beautiful day. The road was quite hilly and Omar walked a lot. He walks on the left side of the road and I sped up to stay ahead because having both of us to pass at the same place would get confusing for traffic. I easily spun my way up the hills and waited for Omar. This may be the first time in my triking life that I have waited at the top of hills. The views were beautiful and I didn’t wait long.

We would stop at the view points and make some food. Omar had some homemade soup and he pulled out his stove to warm it up. Omar talked to me about his life philosophy whenever we stopped. We did a significant amount of climbing through out the day. Omar pushed his bike up every hill. He said his bike weighs 160 kilos which is over 300 lbs but I’m not sure you could push a bike that heavy up these hills. At one point he started talking about the need to change his diet. On another stop he explained that he has high blood pressure. Oh boy! High blood pressure is a significant health issue and I’m don’t think pushing 300 pound bikes up hill is a probably a good idea. In Barcelona, Omar lives in a Hari Krishna community and I think they eat a vegan diet so they should be able to teach him how to eat better.

At every opportunity, Omar would talk to people in the little towns about his life. He would jump off and pull open a trailer to give people his postcard and a key chain. Most of the time people would give him money. It takes awhile for him to tell his story and every stop took time but he walked away with a few more euros in his pocket. I probably heard the story 10 times through out the day.

omar10We started riding together at about 9 am and reached Vilanova close to 6 pm. 34 miles. 1400 ft of climbing and Omar walked it all pushing a very heavy bicycle. It was getting dark and Omar didn’t want to pay for a hotel. So he started asking people for places to stay. We went to many different places. At each stop he would pull out his postcards, book of recommendations and newspaper articles to explain who he is and what he is doing. It took time. We went first to a bike shop and waited for the owner to finish with customers. Then a volunteer police station followed by an assisted living home where he walked out with a plate of hot food asking if I wanted some hot food. They needed to see me to get a plate. So I also got a plate of hot food. Then we ended up at the fire station, Bombers. Omar talked to them through the door for atleast 20 minutes before we went in. I’m not sure he needed to talk so much. I had the feeling they were willing to let us in as soon as they knew we needed a place to stay. We wheeled our stuff around the back and the guys really enjoyed the bikes. They took Myrtle for a spin and we all took lots of photos.

omar9We were shown a room with very thick mats to use for sleeping. They had hot showers, wifi and we could also use the kitchen. Most important, we were safe. The Bombers also shared a meal with us. We provided a large salad with salmon I fried up and they had pasta, soup and wine. These guys were super fun and even gave me a t-shirt. They were very enthusiastic about our trip and hosting us. I was thrilled to be there and meet them all.

My first time sleeping in a fire station.

…..

Date: October 31 and November 1, 2013

Happy Halloween! Suprisingly, Halloween is celebrated in Spain although differently than the US. There isn’t any trick or treating. Instead, there is a festival in the street with costumes where chestnuts are roasted and they eat sweet potatoes. It was fun to see kids dressed in costumes.

omar8I woke up at 7 am at the Bombers in a foul mood after a night of minimal sleep. Omar was already up getting his bike packed. I made us some oatmeal and a cup of coffee. Even though the shift changes at 7 am, most of the guys we met the night before had stayed to see us off. I really enjoyed these guys and I think the feeling was mutual. Omar was impatiently waiting for me to get ready. At 8 he was pushing me to get going saying the Bombers didn’t want us to hang out. They were all very chatty in the morning taking pictures of the bikes and I couldn’t see that they were bothered or wanted us to leave.

omar11I had charged up my new Acer tablet over night and was having trouble getting on line. A brand new tablet and it wouldn’t connect to the wifi – bummer. Omar kept on me saying we had to leave. I don’t usually get on the road before 8:30 and couldn’t understand what the hurry was. I felt really rushed and this didn’t help my mood.

We said goodbye to the firefighters and took off at about 8:30. Right away I thought I heard something rubbing. We hadn’t even gone 2 blocks and I already had to stop and take the bags off my trike to diagnose the sound. I never did find anything and am wondering if I was hearing something on Omar’s bike.

omar12It was a beautiful day and the climbing started early. The ascents were gradual but quite long. Omar started walking. There was a lot of road construction and not many places where I could wait for him. Our lunch stop was at a small tienda where the people were super nice. We took a fun Halloween photo to post on Facebook. Omar bought a bottle of wine and we used a table in front to make our food. I don’t drink while riding and passed on his wine offering. Drinking alcohol makes me groggy and lethargic. He polished off half the bottle and then took a 1/2 hour nap using a cardboard box as a sleeping mat. I asked if the tienda had wifi and got the passcode. My tablet connected this time and I was feeling a whole lot better about my purchase. When I was traveling with Kathryn, in Malaysia a year ago, we had 5 devices between us. Even though most were Apple products, they all connected differently. Sometimes devices mysteriously won’t connect to wifi.

We continued on and had a very long climb up Col Cristina. Again, it was gradual but took a very long time. At the top was a restaurant and Omar suggested we pitch our tents there. It was 3 pm and we had only gone 20 miles. I figured it would be downhill the rest of the way to the next town. At least we could try the Bombers again. After a rest break in the restaurant, the ride was mostly down but then there was another very gradual hill into Valls. Omar still had to walk. It took 3 1/2 hours to go 10 miles and we arrived in Valls at 7 pm. 30 miles in 10 hours. Today we went straight to the fire station to look for accommodation. This Bombers was huge. It was a new, state of the art facility. They had the emergency radio channel playing outside over loudspeakers high up on a pole. It was so loud we could hear it a block away.

omar13Omar pulled into the firehouse saying that he was completely fried and concerned about his high blood pressure. He had pushed his bike for hours up at least 2,000 ft. This tour was way too much for him. He thought it would be best for him to go back to Barcelona. I wasn’t surprised. 250 lb bikes are simply too heavy for touring. During the day it had become clear that what Omar does and what I do are very different. Omar doesn’t bike tour, he lives from his bike. He needs time everyday to sell his stuff and make money. Whenever we got to a town, he would stop, tell his story and try to make some money from whoever he could get to listen. This takes time. He bike is too heavy to do even 20 miles and have time to take care of his business. For me, I have a healthy budget and don’t need to make money. 30 miles is a relatively light day and I am capable of riding much farther. I spent a lot of time waiting for Omar to tell his story, try to sell things or finish walking up a hill. Our riding styles and reasons for travel really weren’t compatable. I couldn’t understand why he would want to suffer so much. I also think Omar needs to go back to Barcelona to take care of his high blood pressure. This is a very serious condition that should get professional medical attention.

The experience with this Bombers was very different from last night. Most of the firemen were out on a call when we arrived and the guy who answered the door didn’t have the authority to make a decision. We waited for close to an hour for the firemen to return. Omar spent a long time talking about his bike, his philosophy and the trip before we were allowed to stay. But no one said where we would stay. It felt really weird that no one was telling us where to take our stuff. Eventually, I found a guy who could speak a little English and he said we could set up tents outside. I don’t know why, but it really tweaked me that there was this enormous building and we had to set up tents outside. Really guys, that’s the best you can do? Not only that but the building would be locked over night with no bathroom access. This didn’t exactly make me feel welcome. At least we would have a shower and be safe. They also had wifi but it was so slow it was useless. At 9 pm, the guys invited us to share a meal. Ok, now we’re talking. They were much friendlier at dinner and even made us a huge bowl of pasta – very nice. There was one firefighter, Tony, who was especially freindly, spoke English and talked passionately about his paragliding experiences all over the world.

In the middle of the night the wind really kicked up. My tent was sheltered by Omar’s. He woke me up saying we had to move. I rolled over saying I was alright. As soon as he moved his tent I got the full brunt of the wind and got up, grumbling and swearing, to also move my tent.

I woke up at my usual 7 am and Omar was still asleep. I packed up my gear and got ready to go. It was nice having a kitchen to leisurely cook my oatmeal and make coffee. I even did some stretching in the gym.

At about 9, Omar and I left the Bombers, said goodbye and went our separate ways. I started riding toward Lleida and he rode to the train station. So long Omar, it was very enlightening learning how you live and I wish you all the best.

I rode feeling relieved to be on my own. Omar is a nice enough guy but his style of travel was much more complicated and demanding than I had anticipated. Although I learned a lot and really appreciated experiencing another way of living, it felt good to get back to my simpler riding style.

….

The rest of the ride into Lleida was simple riding and I got there around 4:30. 49 miles in less time than it took me and Omar to ride 30. Lleida is one of the oldest cities in Catalonia. I found a hotel in the heart of the old town spending more than I wanted but I was too tired to look for anything else. After 2 nights of poor sleep with the Bombers, I needed some rest. I booked in for 2 nights to recover and check out this historic town.

….

Date: November 3, 2013

Even after spending a rest day in Lleida I was still tired and could have stayed another day. But I wasn’t so happy with the hotel room and decided to move on. I’m sure there is a lot to see in this town but I hardly moved from my room. I did mail a package home. Eduard had given me a book, Omar had given me a postcard and the Bombers of Vilanova had given me a t-shirt. I also had a broken Google tablet that I thought could be repaired and a couple of other things I wasn’t using. Without language skills taking care of simple things can be complicated. The postal woman was very frustrated with me but, eventually, the packaged was mailed. I needed a local address and used the hotel I was staying at.

Ah, the Freedom

Today I received a note from Rachel Goldfarb, who is the main protagonist in the Idle Project, which basically it comes to traveling, enjoy life and do nothing. But for me, as for them and many other people out there in the open world, doing nothing is doing something. Is to meditate, is to create a lifestyle, it is to meet people and know yourself. It is contemplating nature and respect it. That’s the way it is. Rachel thanks for your note. You guys really inspires.

Rachel Idle

How one couple manages to afford to road trip for 3 Years    http://goo.gl/PhUPl9

———–

So, I send them this note last Feb. >

FEB 16TH, 12:19AM

Admiration and respect,

you guys are awesome.

We share the passion for travel, yes.

Omarglobal travel . adventures . life

Each of us in our own style.

The purpose are the same.

Freedom.

Cheers from Madrid.

—–

Today I got this >

1:28AM

Hi Omar!

Thanks so much for your note.

You are so right, that all of us who strive for joy and happiness are on a similar journey, all reaching the same beautiful places in our own individual ways.

It isn’t about travel, it’s about creating a better world through positive energy and following our passions. We are all in this together!

What a beautiful thought!

We just liked your page and will be following along your journey. Keep on living life to its fullest; what you are doing is so so rad! Be joyful, live free!

Hope to cross paths someday.

Much Love,

– Rachel

Rachel is a fulltime thinker and part time writer/cartoonist. For the last two years she has lived and traveled in a ’76 VW Bus named Sunshine. She enjoys listening to birdcalls, sleeping on the ground, and reading up on leisure theory. You can follow the journey at www.idletheorybus.com and on Instagram.