10,000 Miles: Episode 5
Mile 3,271*: Quito, Ecuador
It was a rainy morning in mid-August when I fell in love with cycling up mountains.
After a cafe con leche and a guanábana (AKA soursop) smoothie, I began my first ascent into the Andes. My intro to the Andes was akin to plunging face first into the deep end of a pool: thirty consecutive miles uphill with over seven thousand feet in elevation gain.
An ordinary human would find biking in a mountain range to be a wholly unpleasant experience. Depending on the incline, I cycle roughly the same speed as leisurely jog, while gasping for air as if I were running uphill for hours on end. Breathing only worsens with the altitude, until the gasping turns into wheezing.
By the time I reached the top of the pass, my lungs were raw, my legs were shaking, and my clothes were soaked through with sweat. But I looked out on the cordillera (Spanish for mountain range) rolling away from me in all directions, and was filled with such a profound sense of accomplishment and awe that I wept.
And there I was, a grizzled gringo on the side of the road with a masted beard, weeping alone. No wonder I have not been robbed.
My first morning in the Andes it was about forty-five degrees (7 degrees celsius) when I rose with the sun. It had only been a day since I was in the steamy Colombian jungle. The abrupt change in weather was bone-chilling.
I only had t-shirts and shorts and a flimsy raincoat in my pack. My dad was to meet me in Quito with my cold weather cycling kit. I thought about the seven hundred miles that separated me from Quito as I cursed my frigid fingers, too numb to work my gas stove to heat up some instant-coffee. Defeated, I packed up and started to descend out of the mountains towards Medellín.
A few miles into my descent, I came across a roadside bakery with a dairy farm out the back. A big sign hung outside the dairy, pronouncing they were selling “pandequeso” or breadcheese. I knew for a fact Colombians like to do dastardly things with carbohydrates and cheese: at street stall in Cartagena I had an orgasmic experience with a piping hot handmade arepa served with cheese and butter.
To dip my toe in the water I ordered just one pandequeso… then I ordered six more. It was a perfect breakfast: molten cheese covered in skimpy layer of dough washing them all down with espresso drowned in farm fresh milk.
“Let’s slam the rest of it, then head out,” declared the plumber from Hounslow with the wreath of roses tattoo’d across his chest, pointing to the bag of cocaine on the coffee table.
Charlie turned to me and shook his head with a smile, “Slam the rest of it. He was up all morning with a terrible nosebleed. Clogged the toilet with bloody tissues.”
After 11pm on a weekend night, the Medellín neighborhood of El Poblado turns into a cocaine theme park. Wide-eyed western europeans, Americans, and Australians wander the streets and pack the bars and clubs. Some of them have the decency to dart off to the bathroom every thirty minutes, while others are not graced with that amount of decorum.
Knowing that their clientele’s Spanish vocabulary is limited, the street dealers dumb down their sales pitches. Reaching out to try and clasp my hand in greeting they stage whisper: “Hey brother… hey chief… cocaine.”
I wandered through El Poblado park on my way back to my hostel, when a voice called out to me: it was Jair and the rest of his BMX gang, drinking beer on park benches. I had wandered into their shop, Sabotage Bike Shop, earlier that day looking for a quick tune up. Their specialty was BMX bikes, but they had no problem giving me a hand with my touring bike.
While fixing my bike Jair exclaimed, “You like to ride. We like to ride. So we are friends!”
After my bicycle was seaworthy, we toasted our friendship over beers at the local skatepark, talked about the world, love, peace, and the perfect cycling food (which Jair posits is Bocadillo de Guayaba. After eating about fifty of those purple tropical candies, I am more than inclined to agree with him). Seeing them in the park that night, they were a sight for sore eyes.
“Hey brother, where are you coming from?” Jair asked, offering me a sip of his beer.
“A bar, over there.” I pointed in the direction of the club some of my new friends had entered into after squabbling with a dealer for an hour-and-half, convinced he had sold them some sub-par merchandise.
“Cool! We were about to head over there.”
“No, I do not want to return.”
I looked at Jair and his friends, not knowing how to voice the feeling of disgust I had for my fellow tourists, who had come in droves to enjoy the Medellín “night life”. I finally replied, “Too many gringos.”
Jair laughed, “Too many gringos! Okay, blondie.”
I was zipping down a mountain pass taking in the view, when I saw a dead man. In Colombian jaw-dropping vistas are a dime a dozen. I was traveling so fast I only saw the scene in snapshot:
A police officer stood over the body, placing a sweatshirt over his face. A few people stood on the side of the road pretending not to stare. There weren’t any ambulances, no firetrucks, no traffic cones or caution tape blocking off the scene. He was a motorcyclist without a helmet. His motorcycle had crumpled around his legs. I could see his femurs jutting out of his blood-soaked jeans where his knees should have been. His arms wrapped around his body as if his shoulders never contained sockets. Blood pooled under him, spreading across the tarmac like a wellspring.
I thought, “Oh, God that’s awful.” Then, “I should not stop. This is not may place. This is not my tragedy. If I stop, I will just be another nosey gringo.” Then, “At least I wear a helmet.”
On my way out of Pasto, my bicylce got flat tire. I stopped outside a roadside cafe to try and fix it. It was only about an hour after sunrise and a few degrees warmer than freezing. I cut my fingers on the rubber of my tire hardened by the cold. I ride on schwalbe marathons, which are incredible but have tough sidewalls that are really impossible to bend back into the tire rim. Furious, frigid, and under-caffeinated, I let out a jumble of bilingual curses that really amused the fourteen-year-old boy selling potato chips on the side of the road.
Luckily I was at the top of a mountain pass above the city of Pasto. Urban Colombians love to get up before dawn, put on full spandex suits, and cycle up and down mountain passes. Cyclists summiting the pass saw that I was struggling. They stopped and took the time to show me a couple tricks to pop a stubborn tire back into place.
“You drink coffee?” One of the cyclists, Oscar, asked, as he opened the door to the mountain-top cafe.
Yes please dear God thank you.
After downing the third cup of coffee, I got real chatty, “I understand what I am saying in Spanish in my head. The words and there order, you understand? I know when I talk, I talk like an idiot.”
“No, no! My daughter she lives in Dallas. She married a gringo like you… But all he says in Spanish is ‘hello’ ‘how are you’ ‘good morning’. That’s it! But you understand us” Oscar motioned to his cycling companion. He then pointed to my flimsy rain jacket, “Is that the only jacket you have?” I nodded. “It is 42 kilometers downhill from here. The wind is very cold, you can not wear only that.”
“I know… I am cold.” I responded sheepishly.
“Here.” Oscar reached into his cycling jacket, pulled out a surgeon’s mask and a roll of newspaper, and passed them to me. “Put this on your face and this underneath your jacket. It will protect you from the wind.”
I had spent a few days making a b-line for the Ecuadorian border on the PanAmerican highway. After, yet another, uneventful border crossing (thank God!) I was desperate for a quieter road.
In Colombia and Ecuador, the shoulder of the road are two extra lanes even if there is a white dude with a gross beard slowly peddling uphill on said shoulder. To overtake a slower vehicle, trucks have no problem careening into the shoulder at eight miles an hour. Watching my life flash before my eyes a dozen times a day gets to be very tiresome after a while.
So I found a shortcut that took me away from the highway. Well… on the map it looked like a shortcut. Google Maps recognizes it as a road so how remote could it really be?
Four hours later I was cycling on a glorified goat-path submerged in two-feet of mud when I passed this sign:
And at that moment I realized that that I had never been at a higher altitude in my entire life… Welcome to Ecuador, I guess.
CYCLING FROM CARTAGENA TO QUITO BY THE NUMBERS:
Highest Point: 4696 meters/15407 feet (Pinchincha volcano)
Flat Tires: 2 (Bumping up the grand total for the trip to 21)
Coldest Temperature Cycled In: 32 degrees fahrenheit/0 degrees celsius (There has been a 75 degree difference between coldest and hottest temperatures cycled through on my trip thus far)
Beard Length: Waifish Lumberjack
Weight Lost: 15 pounds/7 kilos
Best Meal: A hot handmade arepa with ham and cheese topped with a pineapple aioli and crushed potato chips I bought in the street in Popayán for 25 cents (the pandequeso is a very close second).
Most satisfying meal: 1.75 liters of peach yogurt for breakfast one morning in the Ecuadorian mountains.
Long distance cycling Tip: When changing a flat tire place the plastic cap of the inner tube and the metal ring that holds the valve in place in between your lower lip and gums like they are a wad of chewing tobacco. It keeps your hands free to remove the inner tube/slide it into place, while not losing track of those tiny bits and bobs that come with the inner tube.
Well that’s all I got for now.
Till next time,