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

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