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.