Friday, March 18, 2005

Quito Adios

Friday March 18, 2005, 46 miles (74 km) - Total so far: 823 miles (1,324 km)

Friends: It's nice to be winding down my hours in a foreign land without having to disrupt my spending habits by trying to ration or use up my remaining local currency before departure since its the same as back home, U.S. greenbacks. Ecuador does have its own coins, in denominations similar to ours up to one dollar, though that too is infiltrated by the occasional American penny, nickel, dime and quarter. Even after two weeks here I am still startled by the site of everyone in the market, buyers and sellers, holding clutches of American currency. It violates my conditioning of years of frequenting third-world countries. It doesn't compute. It's almost unsettling, as if I've slipped into another dimension.

Ecuador does epitomize the third world. There's no doubting you're in a third-world country when you encounter a pick-up truck, overloaded with rolls of toilet paper, slowly driving down the road with the driver holding a megaphone announcing three rolls for one dollar. You also know you're in a third-world country when you pay for something that costs one dollar with a five dollar bill and the owner has to go find change and doesn't return for fifteen minutes. I did bring one fifty dollar bill that I figured I would have to change at a bank. I was able to break it, however, at one of my four dollar hotels (another hallmark of a third-world country). The owner closely examined the 50, as he explained a favorite trick is to add a zero to the five dollar bill and pass it off as a 50, a problem most countries don't have, as the U.S. is about the only nation that doesn't have different colors for different bills.

In my meanderings about Quito the past two days I've tried to include as many parks and plazas and playgrounds as I could. When I'm marooned in a city, I find myself drawn to its open spaces, as I go through withdrawal of being out in the countryside. These open spaces usually have at least one monument to an historical figure, such as Simon Bolivar, and they are a welcome break from the torrid traffic. I'm further attracted to the parks and plazas and playgrounds, as watching a people at play, or at leisure, tells as much about them as anything. These open spaces in this overbuilt urban environment were predominantly inhabited by men. Some were sprawled on the grass playing cards, but the featured action in the biggest park was volleyball. It was a strictly male activity.

There were two games going on in courts separated by a walkway, both surrounded by spectators, packed together standing and sitting. On one court three-man teams were competing and on the other four-man teams. These games weren't simply recreational. There was money at stake. Before each game started, each team handed a wad of cash to a ref. These were adults in their 30s and 40s, wearing everyday dress, all in long pants. The temperature was 60 degrees, but one or two of the competitors had shed their shirts. None were tall enough to spike, but they covered the court like magicians and were quite adapt at placing their shots, especially just dropping the ball over the net. No one served overhand. There didn't seem to be any wagering among the spectators, nor cheers, just rapt attention. Volleyball, more than soccer, was the game of choice along the road, as well, throughout my travels here. Out in the rural areas there were girls at play in addition to the men. Pool tables were also a common site.

All goes well for me in these last two days. My bike box awaited me in the locked vestibule of the hotel I left it at, and the clerk wanted no storage fee. I was able to loosen my pedals with the small wrench I brought, so I didn't need to search out a bike shop to perform the operation. I still wanted to find a bike shop to buy some more of those Ecuadoran brake pads ("zapatas" they are called, as compared to "zapatos", the word for shoes) as well as some patches, which are usually a fraction of the cost of what they are back home, and something I can always use. So far I've needed two in the 800 plus miles of this trip. I thought I'd stumble upon a bike shop in my meanderings about Quito, but in my first 30 miles of exploration all I came upon were several outfitters advertising bike tours and several multi-purpose stores with bikes out front. None sold brake shoes or patches. They sent me off in the direction of a bike shop, but since I wasn't desperate, I made no determined effort to find one, and didn't. But finally, a first-rate shop, selling even clip-less pedals and helmets, turned up a couple miles north of the airport in the nicer part of Quito. I bought some 90 cent brake pads and 100 patches for $1.50, the only things I'll be declaring on my customs report tomorrow.

I opted for a hotel in the New Town, rather than the Old Town, as it was closer to the airport and had a greater choice of hotels and restaurants (ranging from Mexican to Indian) and travel agencies and outfitters and Internet cafes catering to the gringoes. It was a gringo ghetto akin to that of the Khao San area of Bangkok or Freak Street in Kathmandu, except there were no hoards of gringos. About the only place I encountered any was in the Internet cafes. They are significant enough that Lonely Planet lists them as one of the highlights of Quito, not the most flattering of descriptions, but not necessarily inaccurate. They are cheap, most wanting 80 cents for an hour, compared to two dollars at Banos. I actually found one for 60 cents an hour by accident, as it had no sign advertising its cheapness, unlike just about all the others that had 80 cents prominently displayed in their windows. I did a lot of catching up on the news there, learning, among other things, that Lance finished 140th in the prologue of the week-long Paris-Nice race, his first race of the year, and then after four stages dropped out. It is nothing to be alarmed about. There are still over 100 days before the start of The Tour.

It is most welcome to have a choice of restaurants. One of my main criteria in choosing a place to eat is that it doesn't have blaring music or a blaring television. It's not always easy to find. I had to settle for a Chinese restaurant last night. It had a TV, but it was in an adjoining room and not too loud. Still, I couldn't help but look up occasionally at the movie that was playing, the Michael Jordan animated feature with Bill Murray, followed by Kevin Kostner as Eliot Ness in the "Untouchables." They were stark reminders that I was heading home to Chicago. And from the kitchen I could hear Abba.

So another trip nears its conclusion. It was good to see Don Jaime's new domain and to have confirmed that he is the same ol' Jim, instigator and agitator. In Chicago he helped establish a thriving Critical Mass, spearheaded a movement to depave Lake Shore Drive and hosted poetry slams. Already here in Ecuador, he's becoming a community leader. He's writing letters to the editor and signing them, against the advice of locals, complaining about "fucking idiots" scorching the streets of Banos on dune buggies (cuadrones) and other ills. He's also trying to organize a weekend of art exhibits in Banos similar to Wicker Park's "Around the Coyote" and is negotiating to sponsor one of the town's soccer teams. It was nice to get in a little biking with him. It would have been nicer to have had more, but no matter how much there'd been, it wouldn't have been enough.

It was also good to acquaint myself with my new bike before subjecting it to a prolonged excursion, as I will this summer. I am already excited about another two weeks of movies at Cannes and trooping along with Lance and company around France for three weeks, and between the two getting in more than overnight visits with the friends I met up with in France last summer. I am also looking forward to the ease of camping in France, the variety of food, the late sunsets and the amiability and responsiveness of the locals, which weren't always a part of this experience. It was still a most satisfying adventure. Next time I return to these parts I hope I can entice Don Jaime to join me for a jaunt through Colombia, where the bicycle and those who ride it are celebrated as nowhere else I've been.

All for now, George

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Quito, Ecuador


Thursday March 17, 2005, 82 miles (132 km) - Total so far: 777 miles (1,250 km)

Friends: The climb to Quito will go down as one of the more enjoyable I have encountered. It was no great conquest like "The World's Most Dangerous Road" in Bolivia that peaked out at over 15,000 feet or the climb to Kathmandu over the Himalayas or even some of the Tour de France cols. It's satisfaction came from the pleasure of it rather than enduring the strain. The first 25 miles had a gentle enough grade that I rarely had to use my small chain ring, and could average ten miles an hour. It was almost effortless. The road followed the fast-rushing, predominantly white-water Rio Pilaton through a narrow, lush, green canyon, much more confining and much less spectacular than the canyon from Banos to Puyo. It was heartening to be gaining elevation and knocking off miles with such ease, and with the temperature cooling as I climbed, it was almost invigorating. The first few miles were lined with stands selling tropical fruits for those returning to the highlands. I thought I could do without my helmet, but I dared not, as there was too much traffic, many impatient to pass slower vehicles, both ascending and descending. I had a micro shoulder, set off by a white line, studded with reflectors, though I didn't necessarily have to stick to my side of the line.

I set out late in the afternoon from Santo Domingo hoping to get a leg up on the climb, despite the threat of rain, which did materialize. The altitude function on my cyclometer has turned into a barometer and it was going berserk, indicating the imminence of rain, a near daily event. There was a town 15 miles away, though I did not know if it would be a Zhud and without hotels. But two miles before it, about half an hour before dark, I came upon a cluster of restaurants and one lone hotel, a veritable oasis. I was the only resident that night, though the accompanying restaurant was popular with buses. I had stayed in a bare bones three dollar hotel the previous night in Buena Fe, which left me with a rash of bed bug bites the next morning. This, at five dollars, was much nicer and cleaner, though as with the bed bug hotel, it had no hot water, no great necessity.

My breakfast consisted of a couple of self-prepared peanut butter and banana sandwiches, as I tried to finish off the jar of peanut butter I had brought along. I had another leisurely hour of climbing. I kept thinking what a superlative descent this would have been, probably not having to brake for 20 miles or so. Finally, the going got steep and I had to resort to my lowest gear for prolonged stretches. Still, with the comfortable temperature and some cloud cover, it was a climb that had me merrily humming. There was enough traffic on this route that there were no maniacal dogs. Nor were there any mud slides, as I'd encountered elsewhere, blocking half or more of the road. An 18-wheeler, however, had slid off the road into the cliff side at about the half-way point. Traffic was halted and backed up as a tow truck tried to extricate it. I could circumnavigate the congestion, and for better than half an hour, had no traffic coming up from behind me. When it finally was unleashed, I took a break and let them all pass. My only complaint was the occasional ill-timed friendly toot, a little too close to my ear.

It was exactly 100 kilometers from Santo Domingo to the Pan American Highway, and then another twenty miles to Quito. There were nicely designed signs, the best I'd encountered on this trip, with a yellow circle and red arrow counting down every kilometer. The design would have been suitable for the Road to the Sun in Glacier National Park. I had anticipated the climb taking me two days, but I was actually beginning to visualize the possibility of getting to Quito that night. Making it before dark would be very close. It all hinged on whether the grade tapered off, or if it remained steep. I began to closely monitor my speed and the ground I was covering, happy to have this self-imposed challenge to inspire me. By early afternoon, I had climbed into the clouds, and once again I was in mist that limited visibility and eventually grew into a drizzle. My pauses had to be short before I cooled off too much, which all aided in my effort to get to Quito this night.

The last five miles to the Pan American highway were downhill, but in the rain, preventing me from letting loose, as I otherwise would have. It was five p.m. when I reached the intersection. If I'd seen a hotel, I would have grabbed it, as I was cold and wet. I had scouted out a couple places before the summit as places to camp, but they weren't suitable. Even though I had biked the remaining twenty miles to Quito on my way to Banos, I couldn't remember how much climbing they demanded. If it was flat or downhill, I could manage those twenty miles in the 90 minutes of light I had left. There was an initial descent, but then a prolonged climb on a severely pot-holed stretch that was almost as bad as the worst of Cambodia's "Roads from Hell." It was appalling that the main thoroughfare into a country's capital could be so horrific. With bumper to bumper traffic rushing to get to Quito in time for dinner, it was no fun. I nearly crashed before I could extricate myself from my clipless pedals. Fortunately, they are just loose enough that I jerked my foot out when I was close to a 45 degree angle. After 45 minutes I knew I couldn't make it to Quito before dark and began looking for a place to camp. It would be a minor miracle, but fifteen minutes later I noticed an abandoned house on a small cliff over the road. There was a corn field beside it.

There was a steep path up to it. I was happy, on one hand, to notice fresh donkey prints pressed into the dirt, as they gave me a little extra footing, but I was leery that it might mean a habitation near by. There were two small dwellings off in the distance, somewhat blocked by vegetation and no one to be seen. It was raining, which meant there wouldn't be too many people about with prying eyes. This would have to do. It was fairly secluded, though I had the roar of traffic below me. I had just enough food, a tin of tuna, some nuts, a granola bar, and, if need be, several power bars. I was tired enough to be asleep by eight, the rain drops on the tent drowning out the traffic below. At least I wasn't hugging the highway, as I did my first night in Ecuador, when only a hedge of bushes separated me and my tent from the highway, with a barbed wire fence on my other side. Not all my camping in Ecuador was so marginal. I had one night in a quiet, secluded forest, with a thick covering of pine needles that made for a fine mattress. Off in the jungle, I camped behind an abandoned house with no other habitations within sight or sound. But all in all, it was a challenge to find a place to camp here, even more challenging than India.

It was twelve miles further into the heart of Quito. I was there by eight a.m. As I had breakfast, I perused the guidebook for a hotel. The first I went to was happy to let me have a room, even at this early hour. My next order of business was to check email and send out this. Now I will go to the airport to see if my bike box is at the hotel I left it at. If not, I will utter an expletive, and then begin the search for a box at a bike shop. My flight home is in 48 hours giving me time to explore the city, and maybe even take a ride back up to the northern hemisphere to one of the monuments marking the equator about 15 miles north of the city.

Later, George

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Santo Domingo de los Colorados, Ecuador

Tuesday March 15, 2005, 134 miles (216 km) - Total so far: 695 miles (1,118 km)

Friends: My three days on the flats have come to an end. Those Andes, who have loomed to my right as I've headed north completing my loop of the heart of Ecuador, must once again be dealt with. Its a 60-mile climb of some 9,000 feet or so back to the Pan American Highway and then another 20 miles to Quito. I've gained a little elevation these three days, exchanging the sugar cane plantations for miles and miles of banana trees in guarded and gated haciendas, many numbered and under the domain of Dole. There are vast tracts of corn as well, head high and to the road's edge, lush enough to make any Iowan salivate.

The traffic has been much lighter than I anticipated along this route that links Ecuador's two largest cities, Guayaquil, a port of some 2 million inhabitants, with Quito, the capital, with a population of 1.6 million. There was much more traffic on the Pan American Highway through the Avenue of the Volcanoes between Quito and Riobama. Down here on the flats, unlike up in the mountains, there are locals on bikes. There's not much of interest to travelers along this route. The only white faces I've seen since leaving the gringo center of Banos were a couple of Mormons on foot and several travelers in a van at a gas station.

The past two towns I've over-nighted in were crowded and unkempt and wholly without character, not unlike many of the small cities of Vietnam. I was given strong warnings by the hotel owner in Babahayo to be careful when I went out after dark and to hold my pack tight. I didn't feel uneasy at all but I did allow him to escort me to a restaurant a couple blocks away, but not to the Internet, which I had to go in search of. Rather than leisurely meandering, I maintained a brisk, purposeful pace. Adrian was robbed in a beach town, so that had me on guard anyway. Last night, however, I was in the relatively small town of Buena Fe. The hotel owner there said it was "muy tranquilo", so I could saunter about leisurely, not that there was much of interest other than watching men playing cards on the sidewalk and checking out the several bakeries and peering in at shop windows of daily necessities.

The locals greet me along the road and I receive occasional friendly toots from passing vehicles, but otherwise Ecuadorians are a very reserved lot, expressing little or no interest in me. Unlike elsewhere, it is rare for anyone to plop down at my table as I eat or to approach with any kind of queries. I don't mind being left alone, but I do miss knowing what might differentiate these people from others. What is universal is that it is assumed I am German, or thereabouts. Someone asked, "Que pais de Europa?" But most are like the guy along the road who called out as I passed, "Allemania." I am happy to let them know that there are Americans, as well, with an adventurist and hardy spirit who are capable of roughing it and don't need to be pampered and catered to and don't recklessly dispense their dinero. Samuel, the German, was surprised I admitted to being American, as he seemed attuned to the local anti-American sentiment, though he somewhat encouraged and endorsed it. But I'm always taken as a bicyclist first, and once established as that, I am golden. No one holds Bush or his policies against me. Those cops the other night could have easily hauled me off for trespassing and extorted whatever money they wanted from me, but they couldn't do that to someone on a bike.

I have been trying to restrain my legs these past few days so they will be at full strength for the long climb. As always, the sweltering heat and humidity of the tropics are more sapping than extended climbing. Its hard to drink or eat enough. My stomach doesn't particularly welcome the 90 degree water I pour into it as I'm cycling along. Unlike Thailand, where there was always ice aplenty to look forward to, I've seen none of that here. I've made the drinking somewhat palatable thanks to the powdered Gatorade I brought. It adds some calories and electrolytes, but more importantly, flavors the warm water in my water bottles enough to make me want more than a mouthful at a time. I brought along my water filter, but when a gallon of purified water can be purchased for 60 cents, its hardly worth the effort, and it is an effort, pumping and pumping my Katadyn. I force so much liquid down my throat, I never really want to eat, though I know I desperately need to.

When I awake, my first thought is always, "Have I made a full recovery from my previous day's effort." I take a quick physical inventory. First, I check to see if there is a gnawing hunger in my stomach, hoping I took on enough nutrition the previous evening not to be in any great deficit. Then, I turn to my legs, hoping to find them limber and not leaden. I wiggle my toes, checking to see if my big toes have recovered from being semi-squished the day before or if the bottoms of my feet retain any soreness from their pushing of the pedals. After a prolonged sunny day I verify that there is no residual pinkness or heat in my skin. If I were truly serious, I'd check my pulse, but I have a good sense of that anyway. One night in the mountains, when I finally laid down to sleep, I was surprised to discover my heart still pounding at an accelerated rate after the day's efforts.

I was looking forward to a Chinese dinner last night, as there is a Chinese presence in a few of these towns along this route, but they were all closed. I'm growing weary of the usual fare of a piece of chicken or piece of beef with a pile of rice. Most restaurants have a daily special (the "almuerzo") that ranges in price from one dollar to $1.50, which includes soup, the meat and rice dish and a juice and sometimes a dessert. The best part of the meal, besides the price, is it is served instantly. The soup is usually thick with potatoes and cheese and vegetables. Nearer the coast I even had some shrimp in the soup. Such is my lunch and dinner fare, and sometimes even breakfast, as eggs are not a given. I don't need too much variety to my diet, but I am ready for some. It was a treat to find a street vendor selling hamburgers in Buena Fe.

Later, George

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Babahoyo, Ecuador

Babahoyo: Busted!

Sunday March 13, 2005, 239 miles (385 km) - Total so far: 561 miles (903 km)

Friends: I fear there's something awry with my new bike.  Though it rides smooth and silent, it seems to be emitting some sort of high frequency noise riling the dogs here. Never before have I attracted dogs in such numbers or with such ferocity. They've been tearing after me alone and in packs, as if I've absconded with their first-borns or their favorite bones, and it ain't fun at all. These aren't playful critters. Some have even nipped at my panniers, and finally, my worst fear, one succeeded in puncturing my formerly waterproof Ortliebs yesterday. And it was, of course, raining. It wasn't this way when I last passed through Ecuador in '89 on my way to the Straits of Magellan and Tierra del Fuego. Once again, I miss the company of Don Jaime, who would have provided a counter test, or at least reinforcements.

I have been tempted to pelt the varmints with stones, but I'd go through ammo so fast, a better part of my day would be spent in arming myself. There's so little traffic, I can't count on any coming along to help in my defense, but even so, I draw the bastards over into the opposite lane in hopes a car, bus or truck might suddenly materialize and add to the road kill. Dogs far outnumber all other carcasses for the vultures to feast upon.

Vultures have been on my mind since reading "A Bicycle Journey to the Bottom of the Americas," by George Hawkins several days ago at Don Jaime's bed and breakfast. It's another of those self-published books by someone who took a long bike trip and succumbed to the clamor of friends to write a book about it. This one is better than most. Hawkins took three years to bike from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego back in the early '90s, just after I'd biked South American top to bottom myself. We shared many of the same impressions. He too was overwhelmed by the great enthusiasm and generosity of the Colombians and their fervor for the bike, and then suffered a letdown crossing into Ecuador, where the people are so blase. I thought my reaction to Ecuador then was colored by the stark contrast to Colombia. In all the many countries I have biked never have I been treated so well.

Unlike Hawkins' journey, my ride from Medellin in Colombia to Punta Arenas in Argentina at land's end was unbroken by alternate means of transportation. Hawkins abandoned his bike several times with long hops by train and others by boat, plane and automobile. I can understand how it can happen, especially on that 3,000 mile stretch of desert and unrelenting headwinds from the Peru/Ecuador border to shortly before Santiago, Chile. I know, though, that if one starts crying, "Uncle," when the going gets a little tough, he'll be forever prone to quitting. He who travels by bike accepts challenge and must remain firm to that challenge if he wishes to come home with a full sense of accomplishment. To have quit, regardless of the excuse, is to dilute that sensation.

What has stuck with me, more than anything, from Hawkins' book is his warning that the vomit of vultures is as corrosive as battery acid, capable of dissolving lug nuts, a fact that has permanently altered my perception of these birds. I now give them wider berth than ever, not wishing to disturb or rile them in the least. But I dream of training and enlisting a vulture or two, as one might a falcon, to fly along with me and provide protection from the canines, not with their talons, but with a spray of their potent puke. I'd be happy to reward them with a hunk of meat for every direct hit.

I made my much-anticipated descent from the mountains this morning, starting my day with 34 miles of virtually no pedaling and then a pleasurable 80 miles of nearly shift-free riding on the flats, the first such stretch I have had since arriving here nine days ago. My altimeter would have had much of the day off today if it hadn't gone on strike on day two, either over-worked from constantly having to register changes in altitude or rebelling against my new bike. I have missed it greatly, as I longed to know the grim totals of my daily climbing since I left Banos. I have had some tiring days, but without the altimeter to tell me how much climbing I have done, I'm never sure how tired I should feel.

I spent much of yesterday alternately descending and climbing. I kept anticipating the terrain leveling off and then plummeting to the coastal plain, but no descent lasted more than a couple of miles, and then it was always followed by a climb of equal length or more. When I closed to within 15 miles of the town of Zhud, where I knew the final plunge began, I knew I could be there in any where from half an hour to 3 hours depending on how merciful the road cared to be. I would have liked to have not given it a thought and just mindlessly pedaled along, but with the dogs and the cold rain and visibility not much more than the length of a bus, I was growing increasingly antsy to get down out of the clouds and the mountains. When it became all too clear that it was going to be later, rather than sooner, I was reconciled to staying in a hotel in Zhud, rather than beginning the great descent.

I didn't arrive in Zhud until 5:30 after 68 miles, hours after my hoped for arrival. With only an hour's light left and soaked to the bone and the rain still coming down, it was hotel time. But there was no hotel in this tiny cross-roads town. All I could do was scarf down a banana and start on a power bar and put on my sweater. At least my two dollar Ecuadorian brake pads were doing the job and I could descend with some confidence and rapidity. Finding a place to camp was going to be a challenge. It always is when descending a road carved into the side of a mountain and even more so here in Ecuador, the most densely populated of South American countries with the countryside a patchwork of small holdings and a small abode on each. Even so, I've managed to wild camp five of my ten nights here, if you count camping in a house under construction, even though I didn't have to erect my tent, as I did this night.

After half an hour and ten miles of no place to camp I came upon a grand two story house with over grown vegetation that clearly wasn't inhabited. I hoped I might be able to find a secluded spot behind it for my tent, but it was nothing but cliff side behind it. The house was locked but, by pushing on the door, it opened. It was dusk and I quickly slipped in, hopefully not seen. I was able to lock and barricade the door behind me.

The place was in disarray with wood and construction materials everywhere. There were several heaps of dried corn cobs still in the husk. I found a semi-clear spot upstairs under a window I could open. About 15 minutes later, as I was eating the first course of my dinner, left-overs from my almuerzo (multi-course daily special) I heard someone trying the door below. I wasn't sure if I had been found out or if someone else cared to crash. Peeking out the window I saw a cluster of people, men and women. No one called out, so I hoped they'd just go away. A few minutes later I heard a ladder prop up against the house under my window. As a guy's head appeared at my window, I called out, "Buenos noches." He shouted out to those below, "Un gringo." I told him I was bicycling and there were no hotels around and just needed a place to sleep for the night. He peered in and saw my bike and gear.

He asked if I had a key for the house. I said the door was open. I promised I'd be off "muy temprano" in the morning. He turned to the others below, as they got a look at me in the dark with his flashlight and my head lamp giving me some illumination, and had a quick discussion. He said that would be OK. I settled in, somewhat relieved, but also a tad nervous. This was a rare event to be stumbled upon. I can count on one hand the times it has happened in hundreds and hundreds of nights over three decades of wild-camping all over the world, including the Botanical Gardens of Melbourne, the Rif Mountains of Morocco amongst all the hashish operations, the mountains of Laos in the domain of the Hamas rebels, all over Peru when the Shining Path had a stranglehold on the country, in dried rice paddies in India, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, in the shadow of Mount Blanc in France...

About fifteen minutes later I heard more noise below and a shout of, "Policia, obierto." I rushed downstairs and unbarricaded the door. There was an even bigger throng of people this time behind the cops, who had guns drawn and gave some order that included "Los Manos". I knew they wanted my hands up and I obliged. They quickly pushed me up against a wall with my hands over my head and gave me a thorough frisk, taking everything out of my pockets, including a half-eaten power bar I had forgotten about and neckerchief and pen and glasses and even swiped the head lamp off my head. It was lucky I had secluded my wallet in one of my rain proof panniers earlier in the day, rather than carrying it in my pocket, as I usually do.

When they had everything, I asked, "Esta bien?" After an affirmative, I turned, and once again explained my situation--bicycle, no hotel, dark. They wanted to see my passport and the rest of my gear. Before escorting them upstairs I retrieved what they had taken, which they gave up one by one, the glasses last and somewhat reluctantly. I forgot about the neckerchief, and never did get that back, no great loss as I always have a couple of spares and frequently find them along the road, usually returning with more than I started with.

Upstairs, they dove into my handlebar bag like greedy kids attacking their presents under a Christmas tree. One grabbed my pen flashlight and the other pulled out a bottle of shampoo. I quickly tried to divert them from their pilfering by turning the event into a show and tell, demonstrating my sleeping pad/camp chair and pointing out my tent and sleeping bag and such. After I plopped down in my chair and took a bite to eat proclaiming, "tango mucho hambre," I further distracted them with my passport. One in the crowd of a couple of dozen locals asked what year I was born. One of the officers was able to report 1951. If he had looked closer, he would have discovered that this day, March 11, was my birthday. I could have been in for a night of drinking and celebration if he had. I could smell the breath of alcohol on a couple of the men in the crowd already, as it was a Friday night.

When the cops were done exerting their authority, they pointed out a kindly-looking man in the crowd, who was the owner of the house, and he agreed that I was welcome to spend the night there. Then it was handshakes all around. After they left I went down to barricade the door once again, and lo and behold, a dog had been left behind. He wasn't so brave now. I opened the door and he went running.

It was the first night in the past four that it didn't rain, which I would have preferred, perhaps discouraging any potential prowlers, and also to drown out the various creaks that made me wake instantly throughout the night. I was up at dawn, thanks to the roosters, and gone, as promised, "muy temprano" before 7 a.m.

Tonight I'm in a hotel, getting a much needed shower. Its nice to be down off the Altiplano, back where there's enough oxygen in the air so that I can exert myself without searing my lungs or numbing my brain. Down on the oxygen-rich flats I could hold a steady 15 mph, and, if I felt like it, quickly accelerate to 20 mph or more and romp on my speedy bike, if I cared to try and catch a slow moving vehicle to draft or leave behind a cyclist who wanted to draft me. I have 150 miles of level terrain ahead and then its a long climb up to Quito. After two days of heat and humidity, I will welcome the cool of the mountains, though I will have to earn it. The fields of sugar cane and steamy tropical air make me think I'm back in Cuba, until I glance at all the traffic, none of which is vintage, and the non-beckoning women and the food aplenty.

Later, George

Friday, March 11, 2005

Riobamba, Ecuador


Friday March 11, 2005, 51 miles (82 km) - Total so far: 322 miles (518 km)

Friends: I had hoped to be writing from Riobamba yesterday after making the big climb up from Banos, but just as I reached the fork in the road towards Riobamba, five miles out of town, the rains resumed. The lower part of the road to Riobamba is unpaved, or rather the pavement has been covered by dirt and debris and ash, thanks to the eruption of the volcano five year's ago, and is pretty much blocked to motorized traffic. Bridges that were wiped out haven't been replaced. Adrian and Don Jaime warned me of one bypass around a devastated bridge that would necessitate removing all the gear from my bike, and then take several trips to transport it all. Much as I was looking forward to this scenic short cut, free of motorized traffic, I didn't care to do it when wet, knowing the rain would have rendered the dirt into a muck that would be a nightmare.

There was a covered bus house at the intersection. I sat there and read for a spell, hoping the rain might stop and the skies clear, but no such luck. I had the option of returning to Banos and trying the next day, possibly with The Don, or continuing on up to Ambato on pavement and heading over to Riobamba on the Pan American Highway, almost twice the distance and with considerable more climbing, as there was a 12,000 foot pass between Ambato and Riobamba, which are both at 9,000 feet. Don Jaime and I had been hoping to do the Riobamba ride together, but he was hung up in Quito, as Marshia missed her flight.

When I told Samuel, the German cyclist, that morning before I departed that Marshia had missed her flight, explaining why she and The Don hadn't returned the night before, he looked at me with that quizzical Bruno S. look and said, "'missed her flight?', what is this?" Samuel had a fluent tongue, but less than a fluent ear, which complicated any conversation with him. He could ramble on with his sometimes quaint English, making such comments as, "I jobbed one month digging a ditch for some Mennonites in Paraguay," but when it came to understanding English spoken to him, it could take a while to explain something as basic as "missed her flight", which totally perplexed him. Still, I was sorry we didn't have a chance to do some riding together. I could take him in whatever doses I wanted then, riding alongside him or breaking off for a spell.

Like many touring cyclists, he had a reason for everything he did and an explanation for every item of his gear and he was proud to pontificate on all aspects of his journey, from the nuts and the bolts to the larger canvas. He was inspired to take up bike touring by a book he had read by Heinz Helfgen, a German who had bicycled around the world several decades ago. Samuel was aglow with the satisfaction and thrill of someone who was doing exactly what he wanted to be doing and isn't disappointed by it in the least. Rarely do I encounter such a person in my every day life. But it is a quality common to most touring cyclists, unless one catches them on a day when they've been battling a strong head wind or have had a stretch of days of rain that has left all their gear damp or they've been suffering mechanical or physical difficulties. I met a succession of such sorry souls when I bicycled the Ring Road around Iceland a couple summers ago. Nearly every cyclist there, and I came upon at least a couple every day, had been defeated by the wind and wet and chill, and bemoaned their lot, and had resorted at one time or another to the buses that regularly made the circuit around the island. It was a journey that many were regretting.

Part of Samuel's charm was that when he spoke of his experiences, he frequently prefaced an incident with an exact dates--such as, "I arrived at Santa Cruz on Feb. 2, 2004", or "I had a flat tire going into Chile on November 3, 2003", or "I met a Japanese cyclist on October 15, 2002" and on and on. I regretted not being able to learn more of his travels and his way of doing things. Unfortunately, he liked to linger. When the fire chief in some Bolivian town turned out to be a German, he invited Samuel to stay at his house rather than at the fire station. Samuel ended up staying with him for six weeks. Samuel had already spent three days at Don Jaime's Posada del Arte working on his bike, and wanted to devote a couple more days to it. He was in no hurry and had no deadlines to be anywhere. I, however, had a flight to catch.

Among other things, Samuel was sewing up the sidewalls to his tires, which had some rips in them, rather than simply replacing them. He's a bicyclist who likes to hang out. I'm a bicyclist who likes to bicycle. The more time I spend on my bike the better. Thus, I made the decision to climb up to Ambato, rather than returning to Banos in hopes that the rain would clear the next day enabling me to ride the back road to Riobamba or that Don Jaime would be back and available to join me. I was only sorry I had waited to make the decision after two hours of rain, rather than just one. It was a light rain, not too bad for climbing on pavement, but enough to have made the unpaved road a mess. The rain did stop a while after I resumed riding, and by the time I reached Ambato, a little after four, two hours before sun set, the clouds had lifted enough, that I finally got to see Tungurahua, the volcano that towers above Banos. It is one of ten volcanoes of over 15,000 feet along a corridor down from Quito known as The Avenue of the Volcanoes.

Clouds had deprived me sight of any of these majestic, conical peaks in my week here up until now. Tungurahua was brooding with a white cloud of steam drifting out of its orifice. The heat from its eruption five years ago had melted all the snow which had formerly doffed its summit. There was another snow-covered volcano, however, to behold, off in the distance. An English guy, who had also recently bought a hotel in Banos, says he doesn't fear Tungurahua, as if it does erupt, he is confident its lava will flow off towards Riobamba. He further contends that there are a couple of volcanoes forming out in the Pacific near the Galapagos Islands, that he thinks are providing release of the molten plasma along this fault line, which might otherwise have burst up through Tungurahua.

I will now flee the volcanoes and head to the coast, which will allow me a descent of miles and miles and some 9,000 feet or more. I am ready for it after only managing 37 miles in 5 hours of cycling yesterday, thanks to the rain and climbing. Then I will swing back to Quito to catch a flight home a week from tomorrow. If I'm lucky, I'll put 1000 miles on my new bike and have worked out all the kinks before I return to Cannes and The Tour de France this summer.

Later, George

Wednesday, March 9, 2005

Banos, Ecuador


Wednesday March 9, 2005, 40 miles (64 km) - Total so far: 271 miles (436 km)

Friends: The 39 mile climb back up from Puyo, at about 3,000 feet elevation, to Banos, at twice that, was much less of a strain than I anticipated. It had been a glorious descent two days ago with some steep sections that had my speed close to 40 mph, almost what Adrian achieved, but overall, it was a much gentler grade than I realized. My return was assisted by a kindly wind blowing up the rugged canyon and also by a handful of slight descents breaking up the climb.
What slowed me more than anything were the six tunnels in a stretch of eight miles, only two of which I dared to ride, those with a guiding light at their end. None of them were lit, and I had been warned by Adrian of their perils, one of which has a sharp turn, which caught Adrian by surprise when he first attempted it, before learning better, causing him to crash first into one wall and then another in the absolute, pitch dark. He was going slowly, waiting for a vehicle to come along to illuminate the way, so he did not to fall, but he scraped enough skin off his hands to have some souvenir scars. All of the tunnels have a dirt road bypass, one as long as a mile. Don Jaime, ever adverse to the demon auto, says those are his favorite sections of the road.

I arrived back in Banos before The Don, who went to Quito yesterday, three hours away by bus, to meet wife Marshia, who had gone back to Alabama to visit her parents. One of her assignments was to bring back a a brick's worth of one dollar and two dollar bills. The US dollar is the official currency here, and small bills are always in short supply, and especially of the clean and crisp variety. I was curious to see what changes there might be at Don Jaime's hotel, as he's always looking to add another distinctive touch. He nearly bought a peacock several weeks ago for the garden. Some guy walked into the hotel with a couple of them under his arm, asking $400 each for them. Don Jaime checked the Internet and discovered $400 was a good price. He was ready to make the deal but was dissuaded by his staff. So the hotel's menagerie remains at a rabbit and Marshia's dog from Chicago, a whippet, which bears a resemblance to a miniature greyhound, an oddity in these parts.There was a crisis a few weeks ago when it wandered off when Jim and Marshia were out of town. The staff was in a panic, even sounding an alert on the local radio station, and resorting to the Internet to see if they could possibly find a replacement. But a search party of the staff discovered it before any such drastic measures had to be taken.

Adrian had the hotel at capacity when I returned. He even had to give up his room. I could have pitched my tent in the garden with a German cyclist, someone Adrian had met several weeks ago and had dropped by the hotel once before and liked it enough to return. But with the threat of rain, and gear to dry, I chose to settle in at another hotel. I was eager, however, to hear about this bald-headed, 35-year old's travels, as he's been cycling around South America for 3 of the past four years and is gregarious and eccentric enough to attract the attention of Werner Herzog. Adrian had mentioned him, as he was particularly impressed by the array of tools and parts he was carrying, which included two spare rims on the back of his bike.

We immediately bonded as we both had the same over-sized water bottles and 48-spoke, tandem rear wheels. Samuel was also impressed by my aluminum, Zefal pump, not "that cheap plastic," as he put it. He was a fountain of mini-rants and harangues, from blasting his "shitty Continental tires" to what his intended route was for the next couple of years on up to Alaska. Adrian said he'd heard it all many times. It wasn't long before he grew tiresome to me as well, as I struggled to keep his narrative on track. He didn't care to be interrupted. His eyes would go rolling to the back of his head when I derailed one of his monologues and he groped to get back on whatever track he had been clopping along.

Like many travelers who'd been at it for months, he had evolved a system that he was very proud of and was all to happy to share. He specializes in crashing at police and fire stations. He seeks them out, walks in and launches into a spiel describing his journey, so they can see he is a harmless fellow, and then asks if he can put his sleeping pad and bag down in their quarters. If need be, he'll whip out a newspaper story about him from Paraguay. Rarely has he been turned away. He spent three-and-a-half months working for simply room and board at a German-run hotel in Asuncion, Paraguay. Why, he didn't elaborate. He's very eager to get to Colombia, as he knows he will be treated like a star there, just as I was fifteen years ago, as the bike is so revered by Colombians. He financed his trip by working as an orderly in a hospital in Munich. He wouldn't have been out of place in Nurse Ratchet's ward rubbing elbows with Jack Nicholson.

Later, George

Tuesday, March 8, 2005

Puyo, Ecuador


Tuesday March 8, 2005, 231 miles (372 km) - Total so far: 231 miles (372 km)

Friends: Its supposed to be the dry season here in Ecuador, but I've been rained upon three of my five days so far, and its presently pouring at 9:30 p.m. Fortunately, I'm hoteling it this night on the fringe of the Amazonian jungle. But its such a pleasure to be off on the bike, once again, and visiting friends, the rain doesn't have me fretting...just yet.

If nothing else, its allowed me to put my new touring bike and my experimental rear fender extension to a good test. Yes, after 21 years and some 100,000 miles, I have retired my long faithful touring bike. My last few tours, which have included some mighty torturous roads in Cambodia and Iceland and Bolivia, as well as those Tour de France staples, L'Alpe d'Huez and Mont Ventoux, have had me concerned about how many miles my frame had left in it. I've broken or worn out so many components over the years, I've been nagged of late by the fear of my frame giving out. I'd like to imagine it being immortal, but having broken a frame every couple of years in my other life as a bicycle messenger, I know all too well the reality of metal fatigue. When I discovered last fall I needed to replace my 48-spoke rear wheel, I took that as sign that I could not put off retiring my old bike any longer. Now that I have, it is a relief to be free of  concerns of my Trek 720 collapsing under me. Already, I've encountered some rugged, unpaved, frame-jarring roads here that would have had me nervous as hell. So far, I'm very pleased with my new Trek's ride. I don't know whether its the frame or the clipless pedals or just my joy in having a new bike, but I seem to glide up the climbs with a lot less effort than usual. Maybe I'll have to give Mont Ventoux, which I pedaled up last June, a test after Cannes this May for a genuine comparison.

The brakes grab considerably better than what I've been accustomed to as well, making me feel much more secure on the many steep descents, paved, unpaved and cobbled, I've already been subjected to, but unfortunately the brake pads wore appallingly fast. They didn't even last the 115 miles from Quito to Banos, my first day's ride, literally wearing down to the bone, or metal. The going was steep at times, as I ultimately descended from 11,000 feet to 6,000 feet, much of it in the rain, and had to negotiate some unpaved stretches and steep descents on cobbles, but there is no excuse for brake pads on a quality bike to wear that fast, especially since they'd given me less than 100 miles of service back in Chicago. Fortunately, I still had a modicum of braking power to within a mile of my first destination, before I could no longer take the screech of metal on metal and the terror of barely being able to stop, forcing me to dismount and walk the final mile to what drew me to Ecuador in the first place--visiting Jim Redd, friend and bicycling compadre from Chicago, now known as Don Jaime, or simply, The Don, and his recently purchased hotel. He and his wife Marshia had made the bold move of selling their house and trading their lives in Chicago for one in Ecuador.

I was most happy that his son Adrian, as accomplished a bike mechanic as is to be found, was also on hand. My first question for Adrian, however, had nothing to do with bike mechanics. Rather, I wanted to know why there hadn't been a single mention of rain in any of his email reports during his four months of occasional bike touring around Ecuador. Since I'd had a full day of it, I wondered if his dad had been censoring the R-word in the interests of not scaring off potential clients. Adrian pleaded innocent to any such thing, as this day was, indeed, the first day of rain he'd experienced since he'd been down here since November.

Even after 50 miles of my ride from Quito, which I commenced immediately upon arriving at the airport north of the city last Thursday afternoon, I knew my pads were wearing exceedingly fast, as I had to draw them closer to the rim several times with the adjusting barrel. After I'd screwed the barrel about as far as it would go, not much later, my brake levers were pressed against my handlebars when I needed full braking power, not the most assuring feeling on a steep descent in the Andes in the rain. I knew I desperately needed to replace the pads, but I could find no shelter along the road from the rain to perform the operation. I was forced to continue on until I could risk it no longer, and walked the final plunge into Banos and on over to Don Jaime's hotel, the Posada del Arte. It was easy to find, as I knew it was near the base of the waterfall that cascades from out of one of the mountain walls that frame the town of Banos, just above the hot spring swimming pool that is one of the town's prime attractions.

It was a site for sore eyes, and trembling limbs, to see Adrian, former fellow bicycle messenger, standing at the reception desk in that pose I know so well, having seen it so often at Rapid Transit bicycle shop, where he worked as a mechanic, just down the street from my Chicago abode. I had dripped a huge puddle of water by the time Don Jaime overheard my voice and came down from the second floor. The Don swooped in for a hug, until he saw how saturated I was. But still, there were no recriminations for sullying his fine foyer. I felt a tad out of place in such a relatively upscale setting, but I soon felt as comfortable as if I were back in Chicago with the man who I knew as Jim in his former home that I was so familiar with not far from my own.

Of the 80 or so hotels in this resort town, Don Jaime's is in a class by itself, though the price of a room, ranging from $17 to $28 a night, including breakfast, is still a bargain. Four of the eleven rooms have a fireplace and some have either a view of the waterfall or the hotel's garden. And Don Jaime proudly proclaims that none of the rooms have a TV, though there is one in the cosy and comfortable lobby, complete with a DVD player.

Having done considerable touring himself, including some with me, The Don knew that in my present state nothing could be more welcome than a shower. My most pressing concern, however, was tending to my brake pads, but I deferred to my health and the cleanliness of Jim's hotel before tackling the bike.

After my shower I was crestfallen to discover the spare brakes pads I brought were for my old Trek, and didn't work on my new one. I was reconciled to having to bus back to Quito to find replacements, but, miraculously, I found two sets of what I needed in Banos, the last two sets in all of town, in fact. I would have liked to have acquired a back up pair or two, as well, but I couldn't feel too disappointed at failing in that.

After a wonderful evening of catching up with the new life that Don Jaime has embarked upon here in Ecuador at the age of 62, I followed it with an equally wonderful day accompanying The Don on his morning rounds to the market and various shops, buying supplies for his hotel and restaurant. It took two trips on our bikes, piling high his Bob trailer and filling his Ortlieb panniers, to make all his purchases, which included bananas and cooking oil and beer and plastic disposable containers for take-out meals. Jim divided his purchases among four women in the produce market. It was Saturday, the day he buys fresh flowers for all his rooms, just one of the many touches that make his hotel truly distinctive. Jim also goes to great lengths to fill the common rooms of his hotel with pleasing background music via the Internet, and music he tapes from the Internet that comes up on one of the stations he monitors, particularly Radio Paradisio. His previous life as a computer programmer is not going to waste. However, he won't be offering his skills to the marketplace in this town, not at two dollars an hour (the going rate), or so he says.

That afternoon, Don Jaime and Adrian and I biked up a steep dirt road a couple miles out of town with grades up to 15% to check out a house, high above Banos, that Marshia, former real estate agent, had seen a few days ago, and thought would make a nice getaway for either themselves or their guests. It was a lung-bursting climb of five miles, but, on unladen bikes, not as severe a strain as it could have been. Neither Don Jaime nor Adrian had been up it before. When we paused to gaze down on Banos, a town of 18,000, Jim, or rather, The Don, commented, "Its hard to believe my life is now confined to this rat maze of streets." But this rat maze is not without its perks. Among the things Don Jaime likes about Ecuador is that there are few government regulations, and, even better, what regulations there may be are often ignored. Furthermore, the rat maze is nestled in a spectacular setting that attracts people from all over the world despite a smoldering volcano towering over it all. When the volcano Tungurahua, which at 5,016 meters is the 10th highest peak in the country, last seriously sputtered five years ago, Banos was evacuated for several months. The U.S. State Department has issued a directive declaring Banos unsafe and advises Americans not to overnight there, which Don Jaime just scoffs at. He trusts his instincts as well as the people who sold him the hotel last July, who assured him that even if Tungurahua should erupt, the hotel is not in the path of lava flow.

There is an extremely ugly building, like a squashed Space Needle with what look like water slides spouting out of it, a couple blocks from the Posada del Arte, that The Don does hope is in the path. That building, though, aggravates Don Jaime much less than the cuadrones, the local ATV version of dune-buggies, that recklessly zip about town. Don Jaime has accumulated signatures on a petition and managed a hearing with the Provincial Governor trying to ban them. They are a menace with their noise and their danger to pedestrians, as well as those driving them. We actually saw one topple over making a sharp turn. It was the lead vehicle of a pair of them, each driven by a parent with a child clutching their waist. It was the wife of the family that went over, leaving her in agony on her back, while the cuadrone sputtered on its side 50 feet beyond from where it had catapulted her. She didn't immediately arise, but seemed to be more startled than injured. Still, we had time to snap a picture to further Don Jaime's case against these disturbers of the peace and menace to the town.

I'm presently off on a couple day journey down from Banos into the jungle, which included some 50 miles on a lightly traveled, unpaved, not particularly smooth road. Adrian accompanied me half way to Puyo, where the pavement gives out, before turning back. It was a fabulous descent through a spectacular gorge with waterfalls and a popular cable-car crossing. Adrian, former Illinois cycle-cross champion, was beaming at hitting 67 kilometers per hour, his fastest ever. We weren't the only ones on bikes, as there are as many bike rental companies as cuadrone rental companies in Banos. Unfortunately, the cuadrones are a little more popular with the tourists, the majority of whom are Ecuadorians, either escaping the congestion of Quito or escaping the heat of the low-lands.

When I return to Banos tomorrow, I hope to continue on the bike with The Don for a few days off towards the Pacific. Its possible though we may go in search of gold. Don Jaime has a bead on seven-and-a-half tons of the stuff that the Incans buried in the vicinity when the Spaniards came aprowling. If Don Jaime has been able to further pinpoint it during my absence, I may have to give in to the lure of a different adventure, even though it would not include the bike and will be tainted by the stench of lucre, something I have always tried to resist.

Later, George