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.