31 August 2008

Vilcabamba, Ecuador

Key pieces of gear have been left along the route in a Hansel-and-Gretel-trail of expensive, electronic, sentimental, or mechanical bread, but the items that we´ve managed to retain now hold significant importance in our daily routine. Take, for example, the tube of toothpaste named Melissa. She cleanses our sardine-laden palettes before crawling into the tent at 8:00 and freshens our morning breath at 7:00 after an exhausting eleven-hour sleep. But if Melissa is unavailable at hygiene hour, there´s a red salt-paste that substitutes quite well. After cleaning-up to a bearable degree, we wiggle into our respective nylon enclosures, at which point the Dutch oven turns on, bearing no relation to our Dutch companion. The remnants of our pasture-camping incident can be sensed immediately upon entering, soon to be overpowered by the fumes emitted by our stench-incubating sleeping bags. If the weather outside requires our shoes to be inside, mine serve as the topnote to this active concoction.

Kickstands have also become a hallowed item, conjuring memories of our first ten-speeds that we found standing proudly at the foot of our beds at Christmas-time. Jockeying our massive rigs into position along a busy street with gusting winds can be difficult without the aid of a third point of contact. Soren wisely anticipated this before leaving home, an act which I dutifully, humbly, thankfully followed. The topic never came up in pre-trip conversations with Sven, but since then, we have talked about it daily. The quest for equipping Sven´s bike was delayed due to an unfavorable result in a rock-paper-scissors game in which I won priviledges to the one kickstand we found in Cuenca, after I had broken mine the night before. Not to be defeated, Sven found another one the next day and for the first time, we were all displaying our bicycles, hands-free, with a cocked front wheel. But not for long. Later that night as we were setting up camp on an overgrown side-road, Soren deployed his kickstand and snapped it off, and again, we were like an untrained troop of misaligned soldiers. But not for long. The next town we came to had industrial-strength, Japanese-made, steel kickstands. Yes, steel kickstands, not to be destroyed by a careless kick. Now, our bikes stand as proud as the off-brands displayed in the toy aisle at department stores. If only they were equally as shiny.

26 August 2008

Panamericana, Ecuador

On the map, the Panamericana wiggles its way south in a uniform orange line that shows little indication of the density of traffic. The congestion we experienced out of Quito is rendered the same as the desolation seen on the upper elevations near Alausi, giving little insight into how enjoyable each section might be. As we get deeper into the mountains and further from population centers, the orange-line riding becomes better, just as the road quality gets worse. This trend will undoubtedly continue as we make our way across the Peruvian border at it's most remote post, trading the thick orange for thin white and dotted red.

A similarly odd relationship occurs when getting progressively rural, one that involves the openness of people and the meanness of dogs. We've found that as pueblos become further spaced, the people are increasingly kind, just as the dogs become increasingly mean. Conversations with village people remain simple, hindered by our Spanish ability and their native Quichuan tongue, but we're managing to communicate the necessities by shaking empty water bottles and smiling. We're inevitably led to the outdoor faucet which dispenses the sweetest, purest water without the waste of plastic bottles. The dogs, on the other hand, will guard their alotted property with raised hair and snarling teeth, but as soon as we raise our fists with the rocks from our pockets, they cower like kittens.

The few camps that we've made in between city stops have offered the utmost privacy in stunning settings, never more than a stone's throw from the Panamericana. Breakfasts, lunches, and dinners from our own kitchen has given us relief from the chicken-foot stew that's served at most diners, but the bakeries that punctuate the rows of buildings along the highway never go unnoticed. Somehow, the flaky croissants can't be replaced by the flour, water, and salt bread that we've tried cooking. Now in Cuenca, we're preparing for another remote stretch by eating our fill of heavy foods not capable of being transported under pedal power. The gridded old-town has been full of quait corners, magnificent cathedrals, and unremarkable museums, but the magnetic pull of the Panamericana is pulling us southward, yet again.

25 August 2008

Guasuntos, Ecuador

The dogs on the Panamericana have an uncanny ability to sense vulnerable cyclists. Leaving Riobamba, we were immediately confronted with a pack of muts, minding their own mundane business until the three of us rolled by, at which point their interests perked and the hot pursuit was on. I sped by first, narrowly avoiding a nip at 40 kmph, as did Sven, but Soren wound up trampeling the mangy animal at full speed, sending it shrieking into the opposite ditch. After truing the wheel and wiping off the gutter stench, we were back on track, only to experience similar episodes further down the road. Since rabies vaccinnations are at a shortage right now, we're taking every precaution to avoid contact with these creatures, equipped with rocks in our pockets and Billy at our side.

The countryside of the Panamericana has been surprisingly refreshing, lined with a cultivated grid of greenery superimposed on the steep embankments. Midway through our leisurely ride, we me a couple of Ecuadorian cyclists equipped with substandard mountain bikes, shoulder bags, and tent poles. They had been riding the same route as we were, but with a mere fraction of the gear. After sharing a few roadside delicacies, they tipped us off to a festival happening in Guasuntos, a tiny town just beyond our projected destination. Pushing onward, we found exactly what we had been told, a town of no more than 100 people, populated with 500 festival seekers, now including 3 gringos. The hospitality we experienced upon arrival was impressive as the Presidente of the organization sought food, shelter, and drinks for us within minutes of sitting down. Before we knew it, we had beds laid out in the church, shots of warm candella in our bellies, and dozens of people offering their assistance for whatever our hearts desired.

Well into the night, we found our bicycling buddies from earlier that day, scarfing ice cream on the street after having just arrived. Later, we witnessed a pageant of primetime proportions staged in the main square of Guasuntos, as the townspeople unfalteringly conjured their festive enthusiasm for yet another night of their two-week festival. Live music, barrio queens, food, and drink tantalized our senses, keeping us occupied for well beyond what we had expected.

An unfortunate incident occured that night within the holy walls where our gear was stored, one that left Soren without his camera. Discovering this the following morning, we sought whatever measures could be expected from a sleepy village. The Padre did his part in investigating and the Presidente asked the police chief to file a formal report. With hope, we'll be compensated for the material thing, but in no way can the immaterial things be replaced. Despite the expensive misfortune of the night before, we maintained our good faith in the people of Guasuntos who continued to offer their resources for however long we chose to stay. We hung around for another day, playing soccer, dancing salsa, and throwing dice, but the Panamericana called us before we could witness the bullfight that was to happen the next day. Without overextending our stay, we were able to see genuine Ecuadorian hospitality and experience a rarely witnessed, remarkably grand festival that fueled our quest for days to follow.

19 August 2008

Chimborazo, Ecuador

The route we planned for the next volcanic adventure was actually on the map, a paved road that circumnavigated the base of Chimborazo. We greeted the new day in vagabondic fashion, fixing coffee in the park and wrenching on the rigs before setting out on what the Ecuadorian estimation might take us "tres horas, no mas." As before, we respectfully heeded this advice and strategically planned for at least double that amount, taking into account the remnants of the party that happened inside Sven´s stomach, the heat that radiated off the asphalt, and the depleting oxygen levels. After four hours of climbing and a few siestas that included an Ecuadorian soccer game, viewed from the nosebleed section, we arrived at what would be home for the night, for us as well as the dozens of sheep, llamas, donkeys, cows, horses, and dogs. The campsite was fertile, which is to say, laden with dung, but with what little energy we had left, it was it. Chimborazo commanded the end of the cultivated valley, granting us another picturesque setting to round out another day of escaping urbanity. The party from Sven´s stomach moved to mine as we unwisely climbed over 1000 meters in a day. Every sign of altitude sickness overcame me as I deleriously faded into a restless sleep, interrupted by falty plumbing and delusional dreams. Soren and Sven enjoyed a full body massage before dozing off as Chimborazo whispered sweet-nothings that shook the very ground they lay upon. Even if the clouds obscured the summit, we were reminded of our proximity by the trembling earth.

The next morning offered little indication of where we were, donning a blanket not of the green patchwork from the day before, but of white, stark white. The rain that accompanied the brightening horizon turned to snow that kept us tentbound for most of the morning. Soren heroically cooked a monstrous breakfast of quinoa, raisins, and walnuts, the excess of which is still with us. As the clouds lightened and the snow melted, we packed up our shit-caked gear and pedaled into the clouds. Unsure of where we were and hesitant about where we needed to go, the day passed in complete obscurity. At 4300 meters, our minds were operating at a proportionately slow rate, to the point that we forgot our most prized piece of gear, the stove, at a rest stop in an abandoned building. The terrain was equally obscure with no indication of the 6300 meter volcano that rose just beyond our visibility, which remained at 20 meters, varying slightly with the alpine winds that whisked the clouds away for a time.

Approaching the far side of Chimborazo, the clouds lifted and we got a fleeting glimpse of the monster we had just rallied around. At our highpoint, we managed to get as far from the center of the earth as we´ve ever been, taking into account the bulge of the earth at the equator. Logging 75 kmph, we flew back into the clouds and coasted the remaining 50 km into Riobamba where we´re now indulging in oxygen-saturated sleep, punctuated by the early-morning karaoke beats downstairs.

The backwards "s" that we´ve mapped from Quito may not have been the most efficient, comfortable, or convenient route, but it has provided us with literal and figurative highs and lows that would have otherwise been levelized on the direct route down the Panamericana. Traveling by self-propelled means has allowed us to seek these extremities and customize our experience of moving through Ecuador, which up to this point has been inspiringly genuine.

15 August 2008

Cotopaxi, Ecuador

Wiggling our way out of Quito consumed most of the morning as we gagged and dodged our way through traffic and canines to reach the Panamericana. From there, we sailed into Machachi where we encountered the first trip-defining crossroads; take a right on the Panamericana to reach the main entrance of Parque Nacional Cotopaxi; take a left and follow the "mostly cobbled" track through the north entrance. In our characteristically non-conformist decisions, we went with the latter, going on marginally understood directions from an onlooking Ecuadorian and an aged sign perched high above the main square.

"Mostly cobbled" proved correct, but no mention was made of the grade in our copied pages of the traveler´s bible. We soon found that we "went the wrong way," according to a cycling guide that led tours down the same route. Yes, "down" the same route. Without luggage. But like most advice that we´ve been receiving, we respectfully heeded his word and lethargically proceeded, upward, with luggage. The strenuous pitch and the jostling surface subsided after hours of climbing in the granny gear, changing into a delightfully smooth dirt road that wound through the tundra at the base of the volcano. We were then able to shift down, but only one cog. As bewitching hour approached, which comes early in an equatorial sun path, we came upon a spring-fed valley, framed by the few hearty pines that could endure such elevations, seasonally occupied by the livestock, temporarily occupied by our feigning bodies. Cotopaxi gleamed in the fading light of our first day, treating us to an panorama unfathomably different than what we expected starting in the fume-laden heart of Ecuador.

Waking to a cloud-covered landscape, we pedaled on with only the base of Cotopaxi to guide us. Reaching the saddle between the famed volcano and its younger, feebler cousin, we relished in the descent ahead. Eager as kids on their first ride without training wheels, we forged ahead with nervous braking and intermittant pedaling. At points, the volcanic ash that had been churned up from the jeeps and busses that crawled up from the main entrance became deep enough to make us wish we had training wheels again. We fishtailed our way back to the Panamericana and bore through the raging traffic that we gladly left behind in Machachi, pace-lining into Ambato with our tanks reading "E."

10 August 2008

Quito, Ecuador

The mark of Simon Bolivar is evident in many South American countries this time of year, not excluding Ecuador. Ninety-nine years ago, his liberation efforts succeeded in establishing Ecuador´s independence, celebrated on August 10 in grand fashion. Coincidentally, Sven also celebrates his independence, from the womb, on August 10. Either occasion provides ample reason to take to the streets, along with the thousands of Ecuadorians.
Old Town transformed from a churning automobile-exhaust soup into a cascading stream of dark-haired aggregate as the narrow streets became hallways between plazas. Each open space large enough to hold a handful of people became a stage for festivities ranging from tuba-tossing Latin beats to nightmare-inspired interpretive dance. As soon as one event was inaudible in transit along the cobbled streets, another beat was heard resounding off the Spanish-colonial façades. Fireworks punctuated the evening at intelligible intervals, shot from the surrounding hilltops with no regard for the early morning hours, but no complaints were heard, as all who were in earshot were eagerly participating in populating Old Town to well-beyond capacity.
Despite the seemingly prime setting for thievery or other debaucherous activity, everything went off with brilliant success, proving the unaccountability of second-hand stories that claim danger lurks on every street-corner. Until we find that nastiness, we´ll continue believing that people are people and we´re all inherently good. Ignorant? Idealist? Maybe, but better than being skeptical.

06 August 2008

Lisse (City), The Netherlands

Meanwhile..., at the other end of this rock, things are coming together. Things are packed, things are done, at least that's the idea. My bed is screaming for me and tomorrow I'll dive in a 17h trip through New York and Houston to finally rendez-vouz in Quito with the two hillibilly bros from South Dakota. About 2800 meters higher than my current wereabouts which is probably around the -6m. An altitude I will say farewell for quite some time. From there on the route will be interacting with our physical and amusement conditions. Maybe three days there, beter no days here, maybe skip this rabid dog-haunted town or crash for a while at a mojito-infested mountain village, who knows? Mighty Miyata sleeps in a cardboard box tonight and Will Surely be my 3rd amigo on this trip which is about to unfold..

02 August 2008

Rapid City, SD

Heaps of inadequately sized cardboard boxes clutter the garage floor. Surely and Will wait patiently as we hastily throw together the last remaining gear items and prepare to wrap them in a cozy packaging for the long journey that awaits. Before the bicycling begins, we're scheduled to bounce around on all forms of carbon-emitting transport before eliminating our emissions altogether, save for a few fumes from the campstove.

As a consequence of budget travel, we're first required to drive to Denver before flying to Tampa Bay, a flight that's sure to incur additional luggage expenses. The transportation priorities of this country become perfectly clear (if they aren't already) when we each get slapped with a hundred dollar fee, not for added weight, but for the contraptions that lie inside our slender cardboard boxes. If our powers of persuasion are turned on at 5:00 am, we'll hopefully slide through under the assumption that we're traveling musicians carting around sound equipment, hoping they won't ask the name of our band. If so, we'll be prepared with "We Surely Will," but unable to perform due to a strained vocal chord.

Touching down in Tampa, we'll spend the evening with our cousin before hopping a train to Miami where we'll crash-in on another friend. The complexities of our departure will be well worth the time spent with good people, but considering these detours, I question the retention of our budget. The final leg from Miami will be the last of our exhaustive arrival sequence in Quito, where the formal adventure begins. From there, improvisation will reign, and we'll assume a reverential role to spontaneity. With the framework established, there will be ample room to be swept by whatever currents capture our senses. What is known will provide the circumstance to discover all that is unknown in a self-propelled journey involving bicycles and Andes, a simple equation solved only by experimentation.