Not long ago, Abby Levin caught the climbing and the traveling bug. She and her boyfriend spent Summer 2014 road tripping the US, car camping and climbing. Not quite satiated, they immediately took off on an international leg – backpacking through Colombia, Cuba, and Mexico through Spring of 2015. She accessed the countries through the rock climbing community and it’s been life changing. In the future, they hope to return to Cuba to donate gear to the up and coming group of climbers out of Havana.
Learn more – interview with Abby below!
Photos above and below by Abby Levin and Maitreya Sriram
Meet Strong, Wandering Abby
How did your trips(!) come to be?
I planned this trip along with my boyfriend, Maitreya. We put some spreadsheets together and crunched the numbers. We figured after working for a few years and living well below our means, we could save up enough to take a year off to climb. The plan was to spend half the time hitting up all the best summer climbing in the US, and the second half to go international. Tickets were cheap to Colombia, so that’s where we went! The idea to go to Cuba and Mexico came later.
How was traveling in your car different than backpacking? What challenges did each type of transport have?
Car camping is pretty plush. You have all the things you would want or need at your fingertips. It’s also comforting to have your own home-on-wheels even if the environment around you is constantly changing. The only challenge is staying awake at the wheel on long travel days, but a bucket of coffee will fix that real quick. Backpacking is just…well, heavier. You’re carrying everything, and since we want to climb, camp, slackline, take photos, and stay connected, our packs are heavy.
When did you start rock climbing?
I started rock climbing about 3 years ago after meeting Maitreya. It started out as something we did together as a couple (and it still is, of course) but it also became an activity I enjoy for my own personal reasons. It’s a sport I recommend to every woman. Not only is it guaranteed to give you a toned body, but more importantly it builds self-confidence and mental strength.
What have you learned about your boyfriend that you might not have without this adventure?
This is a tough one. I’ve learned he likes driving long distances as much as I like napping long distances, and somehow his best hair days are after not showering for a week. I realized his eyes sort of stay open when he sleeps, and he has an amazing way of bringing things into perspective when I’m getting anxious over small decisions.
I already knew that he needs his own alone time before this trip, but when we were stuck together for so long, we figured out how to give each other space and be together at the same time. It’s called not talking for a couple hours. We were ‘that’ couple you see in restaurants who are on their phones and not speaking to one another, little do they know we are together 24/7. [Editor note: I’ve been part of that couple too!}
But mostly, I think we learned how to be solid teammates together. We learned about supporting each other and sharing responsibilities. Being on the go for so long can be challenging and it’s important to pick up the slack when your partner needs a break, so I think we’ve become more attuned to each other in that way. Climbing together has also built a lot of trust and comfort between us. Trusting that your partner will literally catch you when you fall is key to successful sport and multi-pitch climbing, so those experiences have contributed to where our relationship is now.
How has the rock climbing community differed across cultures? Do you have specific examples?
I found so many similarities amongst the rock climbing community. It’s a caring, crazy, dorky, fun-loving community of people who will go above and beyond to help you out out or put a smile on your face. Having this one thing in common allowed us to meet so many like-minded people despite different languages, ages, and backgrounds.
One difference I noticed, however, were the obstacles to climbing in different cultures. I was impressed by the resourcefulness of climbers in Latin America, especially Cuba. Climbing equipment is expensive everywhere, but in Cuba it’s non-existent because it’s not a government authorized sport and the sale of gear is prohibited. The international climbing community has come through with donations of bolts and gear to both develop routes and outfit a small but ever-growing group of climbers there. It truly shows a worldwide camaraderie and outpouring of love.
Do you feel more independent in a vehicle or while backpacking?
Definitely in a vehicle. When you have your car, GPS, and Google you’re pretty self sufficient. While backpacking we were dependent on shotty bus schedules, expensive cab rides, and the kindness of strangers.
Take a photo of your five must-take items for travel.
2. Toilet paper
3. A good all-around pair of climbing shoes
5. Sriracha– the cure to any mediocre camping meal
What can you see if you look out the literal (or figurative) window right now?
At this very moment I’m flying over middle America on my way from Mexico City to Baltimore.
Do you ever feel homesick? How do you stay in touch?
Having a travel buddy helps curb the homesickness, but there were definitely times I missed my friends and family. Luckily, we had frequent wifi and with the power of modern technology I could FaceTime, Whatsapp, Snapchat, iMessage, Facebook, Instagram, and email them often.
Where are you now [back in the Spring of 2015} and where will you be in one month?
Right now I’m at the end of my big adventure…sort of. I’m on my way back home to the east coast, but that perfect springtime climbing weather is upon us. I plan on spending a few weeks car camping at the Red River Gorge in Kentucky with all the familiar dirtbags from last season. The thing is, we met a crazy bunch of French climbers in Colombia who invited us to do some alpine adventures with them in their hometown. So, we’re going to downsize our packs and head to Grenoble! Slowly but surely I will be easing back into the professional world, but what’s one more month in the grand scheme of things? There’s just so much more to see.