Month: August 2016

About Antennas And Bridges

As time was to tell, my route towards Peruvian border, which I still have not reached, was to be marked by antennas and bridges. But let’s take it step by step.

After the Chimborazo expedition I have stayed in Riobamaba two days more than originally anticipated. It seems my body needed some more rest.
To say farewell to Riobamba I managed to locate a street named Yugoslavia, in memory of my former country. The map was also showing a street named Slovenia (Calle Eslovenia) but the reality was somewhat different. A more detailed field inspection showed that Slovenia is still on an evolutionary level of a field. It still lacks something to become a street.
I left Riobamba on a secondary road so to enjoy the countryside without the traffic of Panamericana. But even the side roads eventually connect to Panamericana and this one was no exception. So the next day, when the clouds were not exactly sure if I needed an extra shower, I joined the main road that leads south somewhere towards Peru. And in about 200 metres there was a surprise waiting for me. At first I only saw a yellow reflective vest almost entirely hidden behind a corner of a small house. It continued into rear panniers that in turned reviled a cyclists leaning over his rear brakes. And when he got up and turned around – what a surprise. It was Andres, an Argentinian that I have met in Casa de Ciclistas in Tumbaco.
Cannot really write that we run into each others arms since I was still on my bike. It was more like I cycled towards him. Surely a very pleasant surprise.
Since our route towards south was taking the same path, we hit the road together. Initially crossing a plain that towards the end of the first day of pedalling together was becoming more and more rugged and in such was showing us what lays ahead in the upcoming days. We ended the day with a long descend that was starting to take toll on our brakes. Finishing the day in Alausi we wandered the streets in search of a place to spend the night. In the end we ended up under the statue of San Pedro “. We had an official approval on a signed and sealed piece of paper given to us by the municipality. The next morning the security guard guarding the park around the statue confirmed our suspicions. We really could see the road leading out of town. There actually was no way of missing it. There was a line leading towards almost the highest mountain surrounding the town. The very top of the mountain was reserved for the antenna (radio, TV, mobile provider – who knows?!). There was nothing else left for us but to set the antenna itself as a goal and start to grind uphill. The must be a descend on the other side!
When, midday, we have managed to reach the top and look around the curve there was a view of a beautiful, sunlit valley waiting for us. The road changed inclination and we started a descend that seemed to me as it was never going to end. The breaks experienced the same kind of suffering as my thighs just a moment ago when we were still fighting our way to the top.
Already during the descend we were able to see on the other side a thin line leading towards a new peak with a new antenna on top. But as long as we were descending we were able to live the illusion of a possible existence of a different route leading out of the valley.
Well, there was none. At the bottom of descend there was a bridge that took us over the river and into another climb.
Slowly we started to learn the logic of countryside of southern Ecuador – antennas and bridges. Former causes pain in thighs, latter in knuckles of one’s fingers gripping the brakes.
After a few days we somehow befriended with this countryside that then reviled another of its characteristics – wind. It blows from all directions not giving you enough time to catch a breath. Sometimes literally since on occasions I had a hard time taking a breath. Cycling in this kind of conditions was bordering science fiction. We had just crossed a bridge, meaning that we will have to walk towards the antenna. Turning the pedals was impossible. There was not even enough of a break in-between the gusts of the wind for us to mount our bicycles let alone being able to turn the pedals twice.
So we walked! The wind knocked over Andres’s bike twice while I had to stop on several occasions. Some times for 5 – 10 minutes. I simply could not afford to lift one leg and put all my weight on the other one. The wind would knock over both me and Lou. There was nothing else for me but to stand and wait for the wind to calm a bit. So that I was able to make another step and then stop and wait again. There was no other way.
Step by step we fought our way towards the antenna. We could not see the bridge in the valley but we never doubted its existence. Somewhere on the other side of the valley we managed to catch a glimpse of another antenna

We did however, after some days, during a break and in search of motivation to make it to the yet another antenna, at yet another bridge, get some reinforcements. Safia, a French cyclist also making its way south, joined our team.
Together we then enjoyed the beauty of the Andes all the way to Loja. Here we are, at the time of writing, finishing a day of rest and recuperation-
The road into the city was a steep descend, we have already crossed a bridge and on the hills surrounding the city we have already spotted antennas and windmills. Thou I think Ecuador still has some surprises on store for us.

With a Smile on my face, until next time!
Simon

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Chimborazo

On Monday, August 1st I have left Casa de Ciclistas in Tumbaco after almost 3 weeks of staying there. It did not go without a heartfelt goodbye and once I was again turning the pedals I felt a bit heavy-hearted. In 3 weeks the people around here sort of grow under your skin.
Direction was well-known – due South towards the volcanoes. There is an abundance of those around here in Ecuador but I have selected the two most recognizable – Cotopaxi which with its almost perfect cone shaped and snow-capped reigns over the surrounding landscape and Chimborazo, 6.310 metres high giant, the highest peak in Ecuador. But there is one more thing about Chimborazo. Due to its position almost at the Equator and given the fact that the Earth is flatter at the poles and has a subsequent bulge at the Equator its peak is actually 2.000 metres further from the centre of the Earth than the top of Mt. Everest. It is the point where a man can be closest to the Sun while still standing on the Earth.
The first days after a 3 weeks break were though. Not only that the body has somewhat forgotten how to function on a bicycle, also the route I have chosen was not what one might call ideal.
I have entered Cotopaxi National Park via a less accessible and hence less used northern entrance. Leading to there is a road where asphalt is soon replaced by rocks. The road itself is paved with rocks the size of a bowling ball. Riding your bicycle on it is almost like a mission impossible. On the climbs, which do represent the majority of the route, I have soon learned that it is actually more effective to walk beside my bicycle. So I have walked. This has continued also when the rocks gave way to gravel covered with a layer of fine volcanic sand. Here I have often sunk into this sand. So, dismount from the bicycle, walk a while, mount the bicycle again, pedal for maybe a kilometre and here we go again. 60 kilometres through Cotopaxi took me more than 2 days. But in return I got the chance to experience all the pristine beauty, the wind, the sun, the empty plains, the road and me and Lou. Incredible! When, on my descend back to civilization, I have encountered a brand new, beautiful asphalt road already before exiting the Park, it sort of did not fell right. Nevertheless I was happy with this unexpected gift!
This tranquillity was then followed by three days of more or less busy Panamericana towards Riobamaba. A short stop and organizing the Chimborazo “expedition”. After a short tour of the agencies in town that offer a climb to the top, I ended up at John’s home. He is a Canadian, owner of Andean Adventures and is at the same time running both of the refugios on the mountain (the one situated higher is currently closed). After a short conversation I was determined to climb the mountain. Together we made a plan and the next day I started my expedition. First cycling for more than 40 km to the Park entrance at 4.300 metres. The last 10 km were hard and exhausted I made it to the entrance just before the nightfall. There was no time to stop and just admire the beautiful, empty landscape. The wind was cold and the half an hour of sunlight that was left I used to change into dry clothing (several layers) and quickly set up my tent in the shelter of the entrance to the souvenir shop. The wind was brutal and I could listen to its howl all night long.
The next day I have parked Lou into the cafeteria which is also run by John. I have grabbed the equipment and sat into John’s car. But only for a kilometre or so, just enough to escape the windy area. Here John has “kicked” me out and I continued on foot towards the refugio that lays at 4.850 meters. To acclimatize.
After more than an hour I have entered the refugio and there was John. Waiting for me at the bar and offering a coca tea. “Helps to acclimatize!” Not sure if this is true but who am I to question the advice of an expert.
Then I headed further, higher. To Condor Cocha lagoon at 5.100 metres. Again to acclimatize. John has suggested to me that I stay here for as long as I can and just breathe. So I have looked for a suitable, sheltered spot, managed to get almost cosy in between the rocks, closed my eyes and listened to the wind up there on the mountain. I was alone and the world around me has disappeared. And when I was just about to fall asleep, the clouds started to roll in, the wind got stronger, it got colder and sleet started to gently fall.
I made it back to the refugio just in time for dinner and then to bed (there was no electricity while I was there). The dormitory was full and around 22h I was awaken by the noise of those getting up for the climb to the top. The next day I learn that most of them did not made it, but they all managed to get back safely. The remainder of the night is peaceful for me.
On the third morning I wake up with slight anxiety. Today is the day of my attempt to summit the mountain. Just the time until the evening has to somehow past. Then dinner, a short nap and the moment will come.
During the day I did not do much. Again I hike to the lagoon, today faster and much easier than yesterday. I return to the refugio for lunch and then just relaxing. I will need the energy later on.
At 18h I’m in bed. Little too early to just fall asleep and the uncertainty of what awaits helps to keeps me awake for a while. Then, little before the agreed upon waking up at 22h, I open my eyes not entirely sure I really want to get up and start dressing up. Bu then the whole room starts to get up and I’m left with no other option but to join the band. I put on all the clothes I manage to find and head downstairs. Manuel, my guide is already waiting there for me. He provides me with all the gear that I’m lacking. Ice axe and crampons is not something I would be caring with me.
At 23h we head out. There is 6 groups of us and we silently head it into the night. The moonlight is strong enough so that I do not have to use my headlamp. We walk in silence, Manuel and I more at the back. The night is almost totally clear, no wind. The conditions are ideal.
We start the climb in a compact formation, slowly making progress. After about an hour the first stops and still together we make our first break. Then the line starts to stretch and first groups start to turn around.
Soon we stop again. We need to put on the crampons and Manuel and I we tie a rope to ourselves. There is an icy part ahead. I start to put more and more focus to my actions. I’m entering a world I do not know.
All of a sudden, Manuel and I are the first group. All the others are behind us. The path keeps on going up. I do not see much, just what the beam of my headlamp illuminates. That and a beautiful Moon saying goodbye for the night and there is also a shooting star or two.
I’m getting more and more tired. My walking is interrupted by moments when I stop. At one point Manuel encourages me: “Come on, it’s just 30 metres to the snow!” So I make it and at the edge of snow we sit down. I’m tired. And then Manuel shocks me when he announces there is at least 4 hours more walking to the summit.
It’s 4 o’clock. This means we have been already walking for 5h. Nope, I’m not making it. I feel I have energy for another hour, hour and a half. But then I need to get back down safely!
Considering the above, I call it off. The goal of every climb of a mountain is to get back down. Going further I would be jeopardize this.
We sit for a while longer looking down at the lights of others whom all but one group (a German couple and their guide) have already turned around. I’m soaking up the peace and quietness and then at 5.700 metres we also turn around. Back to refugio.
The descend takes at least two and a half hours. At the end I’m so tired that my legs keep on getting tangled up. On the plain leading to the refugio I have troubles walking in a straight line.
Once I make it to the refugio I take off all the gear with some difficulty and very slowly before I head for bed.

Chimborazo was a wonderful experience which has once again proved to me that there are no shortcuts. If you want to accomplish a task you have to prepare for it properly. And I haven’t!
Acclimatization I have done properly but I haven’t paid enough attention to physical fitness. However strange it might sound from somebody that has spent a good portion of the last year and a bit pedalling all days, I just was not fit enough for the whole climb. Turning the pedals and climbing a mountain require different sets of muscles.

Tomorrow I’m getting back on a bicycle and together with Lou we are heading onwards on the route of Dreams. There are more than 600 km separating us from Peru (and to Tierra del Fuego and Ushuaia there is …).

With a Smile on my face, until next time!
Simon

Casa de Ciclistas

Those of you that pay attention to my scarce postings on facebook have probably noticed that I managed to reach Ecuador. Not only that, I actually managed to reach the southern hemisphere. For the rest of you that did not know that – Now you do!
Colombian part of the travel continued in the same style as I was mentioning in my previous post. Seemingly endless and at times meaningless climbs that were followed by descends which, due to all the breaking they required, gave me soring knuckles on my hands. Once I actually managed to break so hard that the front brake pads heated the rim so much I got a puncture. Given the fact that this happened on a downhill going almost 30 kph, the end result was fairly predictable. First a bit of dancing on the road, trying to catch my balance, and to top it off examining the texture of the asphalt from way too close. When we eventually stopped, Lou and I were kings of the road, literally since we occupied all of it.

This however was not the only opportunity I got in Colombia to practice my skills of replacing (and repairing) the tube. All in all in Colombia I did it almost 10 times which for me is a lot.
Cannot really claim that I have learned much new stuff. Not that I have already known everything there is to know about it, it’s just that I do not really poses a talent for this kind of things. But be it as may, this is also an integral part of traveling by bicycle, same as oatmeal breakfast or the ability to eat and almost endless amount of food and after half an hour you could do with a snack. Or the daily search for a place to pitch your tent, an activity where imagination is your best companion. But when you are wandering with a bicycle through Latin America this last activity has a specific – Casas de Ciclistas.

Casas de Ciclistas are locations spread out throughout Latin America from Mexico and Guatemala all the way to Argentina and Chile. It apparently all started in 1985 in Trujillo, Peru where a local man, Lucho opened the doors of his home and invited in all the wandering cyclists that roam the roads and trails of South America. From then this kind of hospitality, so typical of the region, is spreading all over the continent and beyond. This kind of houses aren’t exactly in every town which makes them even more appealing and welcoming where they are.
My experiences with these cyclists safe heavens are currently limited to two locations, San Antonio de Prado (close to Medellin, Colombia) where Manuel and Martha make sure cyclists have a roof over their head and Tumbaco (near to Quito, Ecuador) where it has been 25 years since Santiago, Ana Lucia and their whole family started to offer to all the passing cyclists a place to rest and recuperate in the inviting environment of their home.
After my first experience in San Antonio where I came more out of curiosity to see what a Casa de Ciclistas is all about and where instead of the planned 2 days I spent 10, I have adjusted my plas so that I will also stop in Tumbaco. Just that this time around I did not set up any timeframe to my stay. So now I’m here more than 2 weeks without being able to precisely define where did all this time go.
Surely my laziness contributes a great deal to my prolonged stay, after all it doesn’t take it much to convince myself to stay one more day (several days in a row). But there is also another factor that I cannot simply overlook. And that is that while staying here a special, friendly and relaxed relationship develops with family hosting me as well as other cyclists that call this hose their current home. And it is this relaxed atmosphere that leads to the fact that we laugh a lot.
It may happen when I suggest to Santiago, who is dealing with a rat that has settled in the old house, to use one of the proven methods that have been captured in depth in the documentaries about Tom & Jerry (this is a short compilation of more powerful ones).
But there are also other temporary residents of this address that contribute to the laughter. For example, there was an elderly French cyclists that has during my stay also stopped here. Somehow the conversation lead to his one might say almost genetic proneness to accidents and comic situations. One evening he was telling a story how he, several years ago, almost destroyed peace talks between some armed groups in Chad. His method included him trying to be helpful and change a gas cartridge on a camping stove. This on its own is not really funny, but let me shed some more light on to it. This was happening in an old house in the centre of a village where, just the night before, they managed to come to an agreement about the cease fire with both negotiating groups being still in the village while he was replacing the cartridge in the kitchen. While doing that he manage to perforate the cartridge next to an open flame. What followed was a small detonation, he survived. But when he showed himself at the kitchen door (this is how I have pictured teh scene), a little burnt and all black, he was greeted by a group of armed men that thought there was a bomb attack.
Once you hear this and similar stories, laughter is guaranteed.
And this is also why I’m being “held” on these locations.

But truth be told, I should not try to diminish my laziness. One proof of it is that this post took me 3 days to write (not counting the days just thinking of writing it) and the end result is not really a masterpiece, isn’t it!
The only effective recipe for laziness I know is to kick myself in the ass and move. So tomorrow I’ll be back on the road – Or will I?!

With a Smile on my face, until next time!
Simon