Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Frontier

Pedaling up a never ending mountain, on a remote dirt road, in Amazonia. A thick layer of sweat and grime insulated my body, making the temperature even more unpleasant. The sun beating down with explosive intensity. Taking a breather was disrupted by hundreds of tiny blood sucking flies. This was were I found myself as I pedaled up the last hill before crossing into Peru. It was one of the most trying bits of the whole trip.

Just hangin' around by the border.

Days earlier I had gotten in my second career bike crash in over 12,000 miles of touring. I was riding peacefully near the top of a mountain pass through heavy fog. Scooby-Doo would have been able to cut through it. There was a light mist and the road was covered in a mixture of slippery lichen and algea. I came around a corner, clenched the breaks a bit too hard and spun out. I was instantly bleeding from a few different spots, but the damage was extremely minor. I was very lucky. As I continued on I was hoping none of the cuts would get infected. The hot and humid air created a perfect place for infectious bacteria to grow, so I cleaned up the damaged areas and used a bit of duct tape to keep unwanted dirt and grime out.

This was the fog that ultimately lead to my downfall.

A dirty, bloody, apendage.

Despite being a bit more dangerous, riding in the fog rocks!

Eventaully I pushed through the rest of that mountain climb and coasted down to the Ecuador-Peruvian border. We got our exit stamp from Ecuador and pushed the bikes across to Peru as we were pelted by the first of many Peruvian downpours. The Peruvian border patrol consisted of one dude in street clothes. He decided he was in the mood to play a game of volleyball so he asked his mate to get us checked in and our passports stamped. This new guy was clearly not a legitimate border guard. He was unsure of how to use the computer program. When the phone rang he interrupted the volleyball game and called his friend back inside in to take the call. He asked how long we wanted to stay in the country. We explained that we were on our bikes heading towards Bolivia. He said "I'll give you three months.....well maybe four......I guess we'll go with five just to be safe." Even though foreigners on a tourist visit should only get a maximum of 90 days, this generous substitute Peruvian gave us 150 days. Tormod said "I could chill in Lima for 5 months!"

One of the last looks at Ecuador.

First successful bonfire on the trip.

Imagine yourself cruising down this mountain. The breeze in your face, a burst of adrenaline, and you don't even have to turn a pedal.

Knock off KFC. Kentucky-Loves-Chicken?

After riding for a few days the changes between Ecuador came hard and fast. The most notable change was in the people. The Ecuadorian people were the least social of any country I've toured in. That was far from the case in Peru. As we rode through little mountain town's we are greeted with a flurry of English remarks. It's very common for little kids and adults alike to yell "Gringo!" Nothing else, just Gringo. What could be more sensible than yelling "Gringo!" as two white men ride past. In one of the towns, I parked my bike as I prepared to enter a restaurant for lunch. A little boy on the sidewalk stared at me for a few seconds. Just before I entered the building he mustered up the courage to test out an English word "Hello!". He was unsure of what he had just done. I returned a "Hello" his way. He got a huge smile on his face and turned and ran away. He looked like he was thinking to himself "It actually worked, they do respond to hello."

These clay houses are very typical in the area we have been riding through.

Riding up alongside a river is the best way to pedal mountains.

A decent sized millipede.

A shortcut off the beaten path.

The next notable change comes in the form of a few four legged creatures. Never have I seen more racist dogs than the ones here in Peru. They are flat out racist, loud, and aggressive. They only bark at me and Tormod. It's not the bikes either because they will pick us out even when we walk without our bikes. As we walked through the middle of a small city a large and aggressive dog ran right up to Tormod and took a stand. She began incessantly barked as she inched closer and closer to him. He stopped walking in hoped that she would lose interest and bugger off. But the harassment continued. It wasn't regular barking, she sounded angry. He tried blowing his whistle that he carries around with him. The dog was not impressed. I decided to inject myself into the situation to help a brother out. I grabbed a baseball-sized rock that I had been carrying on my bike for protection. I launched the rock on the ground at the dogs feet. It exploded and made a loud "Pop!!!" Sound. It succeeded in freaking the dog out. She scurried away down an ally and nobody got hurt. We have both started carrying rocks due to the increase in K9 aggressiveness. Neither of us want to hurt or scare the dogs, but throwing a warning shot to scare them off is far better than them taking a chunk out of one of my legs.

Another cool jungle house.

A cool waterfall that actually had a few sulphur hot springs nearby.

The noble tuk tuk. These little guys are everywhere.

This valley was very peaceful.

A few days later we decided to take a gamble. We found a secondary road that looked peaceful and would get us off the main road. The catch......on our maps it dead-ended into a large river. I figured there would probably be a cool zip line cart at the river similar to the ones we used in Ecuador. We decided to go for it. Worst case scenario we would have to back track a bit and ride the stretch on the main road. We rode past hundreds of rice paddies surrounded by coconut trees. The locals walked through these rice filled pools in water up to their waists. After a beautiful ride down to the river we reached the end of the rode. There were a few docks to be seen and a handful of tiny boats. We did a bit of finagling and found a guy who could take us over. We loaded up the bikes onto this dodgy little boat and rode across to the other side.....or so we thought. It turns out this crossing required a few more steps. We had only crossed over to an island. Next we found a lone man standing on the island. He had a t-shirt wrapped around his face so that only his eyes showed. He was the master of this island. We climbed aboard a sheet of metal that was kept afloat by a group of steel drums. All three of us hopped on and he untied the rope. Soon the current caught us the river slowly guided us to the second island. Now we could see the other side. There was a boat and a surfboard in site. "I call dibs on the boat, Tormod can use the surfboard." I though to myself. Soon further inspection revealed that the boat and surfboard were stationary. With those two and a few odd wooden boards they formed a rickety, unstable, Amazonian-style bridge. Our mystery ferry man walked the plank while holding our bikes. I had my fingers crossed that he wouldn't lose his balance. The three step method and we got across!

Palm trees and rice paddies.

These two rice harvesters loved that I was taking a picture of them.

Better not lose your balance.

The final step.

This valley was super green, and rainy.

These farmlands were just beautiful.

Days later we were far from the large rushing waters of the lowlands and high up in the mountains again. The weather had not been on our side. We had been caught in downpour after downpour everyday for the past three or four days. It was nearing dusk and we had just pedaled through our first entire day of rain. That's right ladies and gentlemen. Eight straight hours of riding in the rain. At this point we were cold, hungry, and looking for a suitable place to stay for the night. The thought of setting up our tents in the rain, in soaking wet clothes was a haunting thought. We still had about 10 miles of uphill pedaling before we reached the mountain pass and coasted back down the the tropical Amazonian valleys. We didn't have enough daylight to accomplish that on this night.

This ride would not be good for those that are claustrophobic.

One of the ladies playing hard to get.

Which way to go?

These roads were really slick and the downhill was fast! A bit sketchy.

Just as we came around a turn, a little mud house came into view. Two men were underneath a pavilion working on an elaborate project. I must have looked pretty sorry. Once he made eye contact with my wet a soggy self, he didn't hesitate to call us over to hang out underneath his shelter. He told us to have a seat, "Take a rest from the cold rain." He pulled up chairs for us and brought out some freshly steamed corn on the cob. He called them "choclos". When Tormod heard that he perked up and thought we were getting some sort of chocolate. Nevertheless the shelter and the corn were very much appreciated by these two chilly cyclists. While we ate we were entertained by his two sons Jherry (5 years old) and Jhenko (3) as they flew around two pieces of wood and pretended they were airplanes. This kind man's name was Presvitter and his genorocity continued. He doled out an invitation for us to camp underneath the shelter of his pavilion, safe from the rain. Right after he invited us to stay, his wife Olinda wandered over to him and began whispering something to him. Tormod looked to me and said, "The wife didn't like that one bit." I thought we were soon to be banished to the backyard or something. Quite on the contrary he extended the invitation even further and welcomed us to sleep in his house. You go Olinda! He mentioned that up there in the mountains it gets bone chillingly cold at night, and it would be warmer inside.

Jhenko, Presvitter, Jherry, and Olinda. Such a kind generous family.

This was there toilet. If you every think the public toilet you're using is gross or unacceptable think of this family. They use a tarp, a pipe, and a trickle of water. You have it good!

Jhenko and Jherry customizing some wooden toys.

He showed us his home and said we could sleep on his boys' bed for the night. This was a wonderful offer and he placed complete trust in us. Another one of the many things bicycle touring has taught me. You place your trust in others and they place there trust in you. 99.8% of people are good. Trust a bit more! After the sun went down Presvitter took a break from his work and invited us to join them for dinner. As I waited in the kitchen I was surprised by the number of eyes looking at me. No, it wasn't the parents, or even the kids for the matter, but a group of guinea pigs that were hanging out underneath the watermelon shelf in the kitchen. It was dinner time for them too and Olinda had dropped a bunch of corn leaves for them to munch on. There were 30 of them and they ranged in size from hamster to groundhog. Guinea pigs are a delicasy here and they are consumed on occasion. These guys seamed happy and they had it much better than most animals destined for the plate. By dinner time Tormod had already won the kids over with his bag of candy. We got rice, potatoes, and a local river fish for dinner. After a long day of riding I was very happy with this, but after some sweet candy the kids were less than thrilled. Actually they acted happy when it was served, but they didn't eat very much. They obviously hadn't planned for us to join them for dinner so they gave us and the kids the majority of the fish and their plates were a bit low. I grabbed the last two pieces of bread I had and offered them up. They were quickly devoured. After dinner it was closing in on bed time. We were still unsure how the two of us would squeeze onto this bed made for a small child. The floor was dirt and the roof leaked so the ground was more so mud. We decided to suck it up and attempt to make it work. I got in bed and Tormod followed, right after Tormod sat down "Thunk!" one of the wooden boards underneath the mattress gave way. We had breached the weight limit. We slid the board back into place and I held my breath. We laid down some ground rules before going to sleep. We were to sleep butt to butt all night, neither of us wanted to wake up to find were being spooned by the other in their sleep. To my misfortune we didn't lay down any rules on how much of the bed we were allotted. Several times during the night I woke up with one arm and one leg hanging off the side of this Fisher-Price bed. Here Tormod lays comfortably taking up the other 80% of the bed. When I woke up the next day Tormod looked over to me and said "Morning Honey" A funny ending to a funny expetiance.

Family of cuy.

Our bed for the night.

Closing in in Tarapoto.

Humour is one of the things that helps keeps my spirits up on the tough days like that. We are now deep into the jungle in the rainforest city Tarapoto. My woumds have all mostly healed. For us it is officially Christmas break! We will be resting in this area until Christmas and possibly until New Year's. We will see what happens, either way we will get to know the Amazon a bit better. If we don't talk again before the holidays Feliz Navidad!



Wednesday, December 12, 2018

21 Things I Learned About Ecuador

Since the last time we spoke I met up with Tormod again, and we crossed the quiet border into Peru. I can already tell that Peru is going to be a blast. Without further ado enjoy my list of "21 Things I Learned About Ecueador"

How's this for a campsite view?

1. Menus are Just a Tease
No matter how fancy, or run down the restaurant in question is, this holds true. You find yourself browsing the menu for five minutes trying to decipher what exactly each item is. Finally you procede to place your order. You soon find out none of your top three picks are in season on this particular day at this particular time. Guess it's chicken and rice again.

I spy a grasshopper and a smiley face. Can you fin 'em?

2. Cambio is a Delicacy
Cambio means change in Spanish. In this case nickels, dimes, maybe a 5 dollar bill. When purchasing anything, you better have exact change. If not you will likely get an astonished look from whoever it is unfortunate enough to have to deal with the gringo. This will either be resolved by them pleading with you to use smaller bills, or they'll scurry down the street and buy a pack of napkins to retrieve some change for you.

This was when I received $5 in nickels. When they do have change you never know what you'll get.

3. It is a Country with Vastly Different Landscapes

For how small this country is it has some amazingly different landscapes crammed within its borders. Its possible to climb an active volcano topped with a glacier, chill in a hot spring, and take a swim in a steamy jungle all in the same day. I saw some of the most breathtaking scenery of my life in this little Andean country.

It's not all lush forest and gloomy mountain tops.

4. They are Infatuated with the USA

No joke, I'm like a celebrity here because of my nationality. Tormod tells them he's from Norway and they give him a sour disenchanted look. I say I'm from the Estados Unidos and they look as if they've just seen a trio of puppies riding a unicorn. Word travels fast here. Once a neighbor came to speak with us. The man asked Tormod where he was from. When Tormod answered the man disappointingly looked to our host and said "I thought you said there was a guy from the USA here!"

What's not to love about about me?

5. Everything is Claro or Tranquilo

These are two of the go to words. My guess is they picked them up from their father after he passed them down for generations. I'd bet it's part slang. They use claro to mean "Yeah, sure" or "No Problem" and Tranquilo means "Chill". Ask them if you can camp in their coffee field, they'll respond with "Sí, claro. Es muy tranquilo aqui." Translation: Yeah, no problem. It's super chill here.

Can we camp on your soccer stadium? Maybe even in the goal? Claro, es tranquilo.

6. They Always Mess Up Change

This one perplexes me. In the event they do actually have change, there is a 4 out of 9 chance you will not be getting the correct change. I'm not sure if they're not paying attention or if they're just nervous that they're dealing with a "Hippy" as they call me. You are likely to get a mistake in the $.25-1.50 range. I would think this was just an added Gringo tax, but it works in my favor about half the time. Too bad I'm an honest person.

Make sure you pay the Bugs Bunny ice cream man with exact change.

7. There are No Flatlands
This one is a double edged sword. Since I crossed the boarder into this country I've probably had about 20 miles of riding on a level surface. It's always a leg busting, lung bursting uphill into the mountains followed by an epic decent that is never quite long enough. Once you reach the little creek at the bottom, rinse and repeat. Somedays I really miss riding through the desert in Australia, not a hill for 1,000 miles. Mile for mile Ecuador was without a doubt the most difficult country I've ever ridden. It blows New Zealand and Colombia away.

The final mountain pass in Ecuador. We even got a faint rainbow as a Farwell.

8. The Galapagos Islands are Magical
Really, if you're a lover of wildlife and nature add this place to your bucket list immediately. True it's expensive and you won't get much of a feel for Ecuadorian culture, but where else can you sun bathe with marine iguanas, get face to face with 200 year old tortoises, and chill on a park bench with a seal as you enjoy your morning cup of coffee? It's a place unlike any other.

This guy probably starred as a dinosaur in some old 50's movie.

9. Landslides are Part of the Scenery
Huge landslides are everywhere. Rocks may slide onto the road, or the road may just slide off a cliff. Don't be alarmed by the loose boulders that cover 78% of road or the left lane that just fell 400 feet off a perilous cliff. They don't appear to be in any hurry to clear the landslide that just occured either. It is very tranquilo!

This pic is actually from Colombia, but it's the best landslide shot I've got.

10. We are Great for Business
Picture this, the two of us walk into a ghost town of a restaurant. Not a person to be seen. Within minutes, word spreads of our arrival and the restaurants is full by the time we leave. The other day we parked our bikes outside the restaurant of our choice. Only one customer inside. All eyes where on us. Tormod went in as I grabbed a few things from my bike. Before I could even sit down, all the tables except one had filled up. You may say "Coincidence!", but this happens to some degree almost every time we sit down.

Who wouldn't want to eat with us?

11. It has the Coolest Capital City Ever
I've visited the capital of every country I've biked through. I know that's not many, but Quito takes the honor of being my favorite one. Even though is a huge city with nearly 3 million residents it still manages to have a small town feel. It is situated at over 9,000 feet and landlocked by towering mountains in all directions.  It is a beauty in and of itself. People-watching from a hotel rooftop in Quito entertained me for far too long.

This city rocks!

12. Roads are a Mixed Bag
It wasn't only the landscape that varied greatly, but also the roads. They had perfectly graded roads along the Pan-America highway. After we veered off the main road we found roads comprised of sharp rock that where nightmarish for bike tires and spokes. Loose dirt roads, that spun up mountains and couldn't be pedaled up due to lack of traction. Some of the steepest darn roads you've ever seen. And everything in between. Respect these roads!

If you want a special challenge on your bike try riding through the Oriente in Ecuador.

13. They Have the Worlds Best Chocolate

Now I won't even attempt to be the judge of this. Mainly because to me, chocolate is chocolate, I love it all. To the Ecuadorians, their chocolate is a great source of pride. I heard many swear Ecuachocolate is the best on the planet. They made sure to tell me that Swiss chocolate is imported from Ecuador. I ride pass cacao foelds every few hours. I've sampled many varieties of their chocolate and it is pretty killer.

This humble fruit is where all your chocolatey treats are born.

14. Ecuavolley is the National Pastime
Of all the sports they could love, I'm glad it was a version of volleyball. While I have been unable to spike the ball on the ten foot nets they use, I relished getting a taste of VB while away from home. Every village has one or two courts, and every weekend you're bound to stumble across a few intense games. Usually with some money on the table.

An empty court, just waiting for a few friendly games.

15. They Import Their Peanut Butter from Ohio
Believe it of not, the hiker, biker, body builder staple, "Peanut Butter" is extremely scarce here. The only peanut butter I have bought on the whole trip was a container of JIF imported from Orrville, Ohio. And its expensive! It's gotten to the point where I walk into a grocery store, head directly to the jelly isle and scour the shelves. Where's Waldo?

The food of champions!

16. It's Got More Waterfalls than You Can Imagine

There are more waterfalls here than I thought existed in the whole wide world. In the Andes there are thousands. Don't even get me started on the waterfalls in the Amazon. They created unmatched swimming holes to enjoy during hot sweaty rides. I think I rode past a new waterfall every ten minutes. They were so beautiful with such glistening water that I taste tested numerous falls. No ill effects thus far.

I hope waterfalls will remain a common site as I progress further south.

17. It is Full of Crazy Creatures
Quite the contrary to Colombia, I saw tons on crazy amazing critters on my ride through Ecuador. To name a few of my favorites, I found a Hercules beatle that looked ready for battle, a walking stick slowly crossing the road, a stunning blue morpho butterfly hanging out in our hotel room, and a deadly coral snake. Not impressed? Wait until the next country list. I imagine Peru will raise the bar.

How many more bugs can I stick on my face?

18. They Eat Some Crazy Foods
These may not seem crazy to some of you, but I for one have never eaten cow intestines smothered in a peanut sauce before visiting Ecuador. The best tasting of these cuisine oddities is definitely "cuy". It's just guinea pig, and it tastes great, but I would have never thought to eat guinea pig back home. Rice and cow liver was also a first. They enjoy dining on three foot long cow tongues, and slashed cow legs that look disiesed. Yum!

I liked everything about guinea pig except for the bizarre smell it left on my fingers.

19. The Amazon is All it's Cracked Up to Be
I was delightfully surprised by the Amazon. It will undoubtedly be one of the highlights of my trip. After hearing all the talk about "Save the rainforest!" and "Deforestation" my expectations weren't too high. While I'm sure in some parts of the jungle those are huge issues, I didn't notice these things playing a major role. Besides the few tiny villages we rode through and the small farms that lined the road the forest seemed basically unspoilt. It was very refreshing to see such an amazing and unique part of the world in a relatively primitive state.

A typical medium sized Amazonian village.

20. They Love Their Booze
While in Colombia the people certainly loved drinking on Sundays. Ecuadorians aren't so exclusive, they don't limit the festivities to one day a week. It was not uncommon to see people walking around town in the middle of the weekday blind drunk. On the weekends you could guess that at least one out of five drivers was drunk. It's a bit scary when you think about it like that. Also they say the weekly fiesta is four days if drinking, Friday through Monday, every single week.

Thankfully this guy was a bit too young to drink the powerful whiskey he was shaking up.

21. It is Home to Some Real Characters
While in Ecuador, I came across all kids of people. It's true I usually meet a couple of doozies in every country I rode, but the folks in Ecuador were a different brand. We met a machete wielding coconut seller that went by "Malcom X" on the streets of Quito. There was a man in the Amazonian village that insisted upon marrying my sister. Word to the wise, never show a villager a picture of your single sister. An inventor that designed a bread rolling machine, a Brazilian barbeque, and a bike chain cleaner. An Amazonian that still hunts using a blow gun. That's just to name a few of the great folks that make up this country.

I won't forget all the friends I made in Ecuador.

If you're ever hanging out near the equator pay Ecuador a visit!

So long Ecuador!