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

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