The vast swirl of purple grey marbles hangs desperately on but soon it will fall, soon it will hit earth with a deafening crack. I watch it from the tent, battered and bruised deep purple as it starts to bleed down from large gashes forming ‘cortinas’, curtains of rain. It really appears as if the sky is falling down, like the equalizer dots at the end of a song, called “Black clouds forming”, seeming to just give up in the cooling evening air. When the marble hits, it lands with a deafening crack, of giant boulders, accompanied by long pulses of lightning. For once, I stay dry, a comfortable spectator. The stars come out then, a surprise, I can’t remember when I last saw them.
The morning routine has become one of drying; the sleeping bag, tent, wet clothes and shoes and once done all signs of rain are gone and I head towards to “Elusive lake Number 1”; the crater lakes of Azufral. However, the steepness, roughness and altitude have Rodney beaten. I push alongside until the all too familiar stomach cramps associated with pushing Rodney at altitude kick in and am forced to make an angry retreat to continue on to the border, Ecuador.
First though is a stop at the cathedral which spans the canyon cut by Guáitara River, the site of a miracle; when a deaf mute spoke having seen some form of the Virgin Mary (she’s full of tricks that Mary), and since then the place has been revered as a holy site, and sight. It didn’t always span the canyon, the original church has long gone, replaced by its bigger brother; an impressive sight, though its grey brick reminds me of a concentration camp oven. Inside people kneel at the famous altar, the canyon wall and famous painting, or look upon the paintings and stain glass of such bold colours, or oddly touch a doll “The Patron Saint of Kitchen Utensils” or something and pray.
Inside is not quite as impressive as another church, likewise built into the rock, and suspiciously not far away. I was lucky to stumble upon this one after a couple of days on dirt roads. However, as it does not span a canyon it is relegated to the depths of insignificance. And anyway, time is pressing and the border needs to be crossed before the day is out.
A man shouts at me as he shoves me out the door, I don’t quite understand but gather at least that he’s not happy and that the computers which process customs papers, are down. The door slams behind me and I go about picking my documents off the floor, looking up to a woman leaning in wait against the wall.
“I think the computers are down.” I say sarcastically, and she laughs.
Five hours later I’m through the border and look about quickly stocking up on supplies, stopping at a small roadside shop. The lady leaves the gossiping group on the pavement outside to serve me.
“How’s Ecuador?” she asks.
“Not sure! I only just got here from the border!”
“Oh! You’ll love it! It’s fantastic! Lovely country, lovely people!”
“I hope so, I didn’t think much of the Colombians!”
“Ohhh, bad people!” she says in low tones of agreement.
“Yeah, I think so, though others would disagree. Maybe I was unlucky? But I think everyone else is just stupid!”
She laughs asks me for the plastic drinks bottle for the school, “they get 5cents from the government for every one!”
Two points Ecuador!
I turn right on to some cobbles, giving way to dry dirt, whilst wondering to myself, ‘where am I going to camp?’ I stop to pee, damn ice tea, and notice something….there’s no fences! I look behind me to the other side of the road, no fences….surely not….then deeper rummaging in the bushes, it’s here somewhere I know it…but no! there are no fences and I continue along quite jollily, though with the dread that perhaps I’m riding into some banned Indian territory the “you just don’t go there” type of land. On I go, a beautiful open swell of land, low cactus of broad leafs with tall artichoke like stems raising up out of the vastness, frailejones sit amongst the wind swept pampa, and to the north, straddling the border the Chiles volcano, and beyond that Cumbal volcano. I roll off the road and ask the only house between last town and the next if I can camp (I could camp almost anywhere but they have the best view!
As I finish setting up a woman comes down, her teeth crooked and ringed with gold and her red weathered face looks gravely concerned.
“IT’S VERY COLD!” she says.
“Yeah, it’s okay.”
“Why not camp up by the house?”
“Mmm, I could…..but it’s all set up now! It’s fine no problems!”
“It’s very wet at night and there are lots of sancudos!”
I explain that whilst I might look like a gay boarding school fag, I am in fact a tough as old boots journey man.
“Do you have kids?” she asks, searching for confirmation.
“Look lady, I’m not gay!” I didn’t really, “No!” is what I really said.
“No, why want to come along?” and she blushes and says good night!
She was lovely really, and already I was getting a good feeling about Ecuador and hoped it would continue.
In the morning, a few minutes of perfect warm orange sunrise give way to flat white clouds and I continue along the desolate trail through huge expanse of frailjones in clearing weather to the lonely park outpost to hike (for free too) around the lake in the park .
“Where’d you come from?” asks one of the rangers, “Ibarra?”
“No, over there, the border…what’s called?”
“YOU CAME THAT WAY!”
“It’s very bad!”
It wasn’t too bad admittedly and the man goes on to tell me that the frailjones only grow one centimetre every year and some are 12m tall! 1200 years old if your maths is rusty!
Unfortunately the untouched lands of El Angel give way to a giant patchwork of crops and fields of pale yellow, green and brown covering every available square inch, the only exception sheer black rock, or occasionally a small cluster of trees which lend only to remind of what once was. Luckily however, these fields are farmed by the beautiful and beautifully dressed indigenous peoples and I go to explore the trails and fields in search of well, honest life. I stop to chat to two women working a heavy wooden plough pulled through the dark loam by labouring oxen. It’s a team effort, that sees older daughter working the plough, mum yelling at the cows younger daughter on stand-by and younger daughter still faffing in the mud some distance off.
“You wouldn’t catch my sisters doing that!” I say.
“No, working! HA!” I jest, adding, “not really, in my country women don’t really do this sort of thing, getting dirty. Actually not many men either, it’s all offices, computers. We have machines for all this caper.” And after a while I ask if I can get some photos,
“Why?” she asks, and I explain at length, confusing her more than anything.
The mother, heavy with gold beads, bares gold rimmed teeth as they laugh amongst themselves as the daughter translates. She sits in the mud then to weave and the older daughter hands over the plough to her seven year old sister.
Happy as can be, I ride around the volcano up to a lake abutting its side, Laguna Cuicocha and ask the Indians if I can camp there, roadside,
“It’s very cold.”
Sadly the weather was grey and rainy and so in the morning I continue on my way to make it for Otavalo’s Sunday market. First up the livestock market where women harangue men with baskets of chicks, ducklings, chickens, pigeons, cockerels (for fighting), boxes of puppies and kittens, tethered cows, pigs the size of a house, flocks of sheep and lams, sacks of rabbits and guinea-pigs which they show off by the scruffs of their necks.
One can only guess why anyone would need to buy a dog here, Lord knows there’s enough of them on the street, and in Ecuador they come-a-running for any motorbike or car. I’ve met men who’ve fallen from their bikes because of dogs, never to ride again. They like the front wheel the most (or hate it the most), and also my legs, having been bitten a few times and I’ve started kicking them now. However, I find the only way to actually get rid of them is stop the bike, they’re all bark, though I take great pleasure if I can squuuuueeeeze the dog to the side of the trail into a tree or a ditch, or one day I hope an oncoming car. I’ve sat watching groups of dogs chase every single passing vehicle on a main road, without let-up, trucks, cars and motorbikes….chase, return home, chase, return home. “Ecuadogs”, a completely different breed to any dog in your home, don’t feel pity.
“You want chickens!” says the woman to the man, a fairly nonplussed man at that and probably slightly drunk.
“These are the best!” she says clearly not put off, come on love, read the body language!
“Weigh them, they’re very heavy!”
She tells him the price, he hasn’t even looked at her, he’s clearly not in the market. She grabs two then, by the feet and shoves them into the man’s midriff, he takes hold of them, bobs them up and down, a sideways nod….and actually buys them! What a woman! She could sell dirt!
I move on, the spectacle over as another passer by gets the same treatment.
“Five dollars, money, you pay.”
“I’m not paying.”
“No money, no photo.”
I explain why I won’t pay, but she only repeats, “no money, no photo.” In actual fact I don’t think she spoke Spanish and she switches to her dialect to speak to her friends her all start to laugh.
“What’s that?” I ask knowing when I’m the butt of all jokes, I’ve been polite, I had the decency to ask for the photo at least, I don’t deserve any mocking. She says something to the floor.
“You what?” I say, switching from nice polite formal Spanish to scraping the dirt nasty. “Speak to me, I’m here, I’m not dirt down there!” They stop laughing, but only until I turned my back.
Saddened, wondering if I was in the wrong, I watch groups of tourists taking pictures willy-nilly, without asking, perhaps I should just do that. Their guide stands by with disregard, a walking permission slip it seems. I ask many others, all say ‘no’, or ask for money and so unfortunately I get few pictures.
I move on to the fruit market and the camera stays deep in my pocket, and I find this is much better, friendly conversations and no animosity. A huge market too, and a vast array of different people, wares and clothes, too much too list here I think.
“Where are you going?” ask a lovely couple stood besides my bike, waiting for their bus home.
“Lagunas de Mojanda”
“Ohhh, it’s very cold!”
“Yeah, I’ve heard!!!”
The bike splutters it way up the hill to the lagunas. The weather is ghastly and water runs off the grassy slopes in quick streams, down the road and into the lake which floods high over it. Luckily camp looks favourable here, even next to the road, despite the weather and miraculously it clears to give fine views; sun beating down on to the lake which is brooding dark beneath the tall black mountains and equally black sky.
In the morning, somewhere in the mist, a man comes and sets up a wooden frame, throws a tarp over it to make a small restaurant.
“Is it always this foggy and wet?”
“Now yes, all day, every day. But June is better.”
I wonder if I should suggest he too come back in June, but don’t and so head back down the hill of slick wet cobbles to Otavalo and beyond to the east in hopes of viewing more amiable Indians. The road out of town is disconcertingly bad and so I was unsurprised when it became worse further on; hard packed mud, wet from the rainy season, it’s ruts and humps smoothed slick and I fell repeatedly on the slippery Teflon-pan like surfaces.
I pass a woman sitting on a short stool, in the doorway of a mud-brick house, weaving and, about one hundred yards ahead, after much internal battle I give in,
“Arrggghh, GO ON THEN!” I say aloud to the resolute part of me as I make a U-turn to try and get a photo.
“What’s in it for me?” she asks. I start putting the camera away, my gloves on as I explain despondently why I won’t pay, but end up chatting for a long time. Avelina, in her 70’s, with 12 children, she still comes each day from the city Ibarra to work her fields of ‘choclo’ (maize). She sits with the healthy posture of a twelve year old on the little wooden stool, huddled beneath her black shawl, peering through small glasses perched on her nose at the small table decoration she is weaving.
“So, you still want that photo?” she asks as I prepare to leave, and as she perfects herself her bus passes by and she misses it. Selfishly, without thought I rode off and should have probably stayed behind to wait for the next bus (sorry Avelina).
Next to another sagging mud-brick house, beneath Volcan Cayambe, I peg out the tent as a woman, nearby, pegs out her three tethered cows to fresher pastures, driving home the metal stake with hard smacks of a wooden block. She looks over, skin taught but wrinkled, and smiles nervously, never really quite sure what I’m doing, despite my obtaining her permission. She goes inside and brings out an almost pointlessly short stool, sits upon it and starts milking the feeble udder of one of the cows. I take her picture here, and learn that I need two cameras, one to show them the pictures and one to take a picture of their face when they see the picture, which was that of an incredulous child!
In the morning she visits with her husband and their grand-daughter, who carries a small metal pot with a long handle. I’ve seen these a lot, particularly in the Indian areas, like Silvia and assumed that held either a small amount of fresh milk, or maybe even a packed lunch, I was wrong; it’s for coffee! Even kids need their caffeine hit and I explain to them how in Korea, kids aren’t allowed to drink caffeine (at least in coffee, I’m pretty sure they drink coke).
When I go to leave the old woman kisses me me on the cheek with uncontrolled frenzy and hugs me like I was a giant tube of stubborn old glue, reminding me of when I was a tiny blonde seven year old being terrorised by my vivacious auntie Beral.
The volcano was sadly hidden from view, though I was to camp nearby again that night having spent the whole day in search of Elusive lake Number 2. So, that night I find another delightful family, this time out in the fields milking who say, without hesitation that I can camp. Being able to sit in my tent and watch these people and other families in their environment beneath the mighty peaks of Cayambe dolloped in thick unblemished snow was a delight. I was very lucky.
I ride into Quito with plans to change wheel bearings and chain-set, and with one thing or another, it took a whole day of me lugging the wheel around the city. As darkness fell I battled to get the axle in the wheel and tighten the nut so I could say, “FOR PETE’S SAKE RODNEY, TAKE THAT!!” (Only 25,000kms for those bearings, and now on the third chain-set, no thanks to a badly machined rear wheel I think).
I spent a day walking around Ecuador’s capital city, Quito, a splurge of photos, though people still refused.
I’d hoped to ‘couchsurf’ here, and in the quest to do so I was invited to stay at a place near Mindo, out to the west and famous for bird watching, so I had at least a place to aim for.
“What….you’re not here?” I asked down the phone.
“No, but my wife is, you speak Spanish, right?” asks my host, apparently in Quito.
“Only if people ask me where I’m going and about the bike!”
I felt I was acting husband for a wife and four kids and made a hasty retreat the next morning after a greasy yam flour pancake, to Mindo.
I spent only enough time in Mindo to make a U-turn, rancidly touristy, I almost ‘vommed’. Luckily this led to the ‘old’ road back towards Quito and back up the Andes, along a dirt road through secondary forest (the first one, the primary, having been chopped down to allow grass to grow for cows).
Luckily not all of it is grass, Richard Parsons, a fellow Brit has taken it upon himself to save what little he can, and at the moment he has a fantastic set-up called Bellavista. which has grown now to 700hectares (I met one fellow with 7000!).
Richard and I sat down to giant mugs of coffee amongst swarms of birds, flying, hopping, skipping, climbing and hovering. Richard moved to Ecuador in 1982 and has clearly not lost any of his love – nor energy – pointing out birds with the astonishment of a first time visitor.
“Only twenty years ago this was all cow pastu….WOW LOOK AT THAT!”
He tries to persuade me to buy an area nearby, lower down the slopes, but having been in Ecuador only a little over a week, it’s hard to commit, despite Richards infectious passion and energy, I was mighty tempted. However, when I return from my splendid walk in the cloud forests, after some serious thought, I felt I was, somehow, letting him down when I told him so. “I have to finish.”
I can wholeheartedly recommend a trip to Bellavista, not least as I was able to see a TOUCAN! my sole reason for visiting. Magical! and finally a chance to tick off one of the many – largely unticked – animals from the list.
|A toucan, I promise!
After puncture number 63, thanks be to God, I cross the middle of the earth, the country’s namesake. It reminds me of the time in Africa when I was chased up the road by a black man with a jug of water and a funnel. At the time, I ignored him and continued.
“Where you going, the Mitad?” asks the policeman who has just pulled me over. The Mitad being a big statue on the equator, well just off it actually.
“NO!” I scoff.
“Why not?” he asks with a smile.
“What’s the point?!”
“What do you mean?”
“I didn’t set off on my little motorbike here to tick stupid boxes; ‘ reach cape town’, ‘reach Ushuaia’, they just happen to be places along the way, like Quito or Ibarra. The goal is…actually I don’t know what the goal is, but it’s not; ‘go the equator’! And I make exceptions for toucans!”
I’m fairly certain I didn’t say most of that, but the point remains. Alas when I was stocking up on supplies I actually found another, lesser Mitad, and got the bloody photo.
And then I ticked the box.
The teenage attitude continues at Pululaphua….
“Did you even look at it?” asks the woman in the car park.
“Yeah, I didn’t really umm, understand” trying to think of a better word in Spanish.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, it’s just fields.”
“Well, there is another road you could try…”
She explains at length as I succeed that perhaps I’m being too hasty or something….
“You can’t pass.”
“Why not?” I ask, they never tell you why, as if I’ll just say “Oh, OK, see ya!”
“It’s not allowed.”
“Well, I can see that, but why not?”
“It’s the law.”
“The law of 2007.”
“What that bans all people from entering the park?”
“No! Just motorbikes!”
“But, cars, buses and trucks with engine brakes, no problem?”
“Yes, no problem.”
Little did I realise that I was to have this conversation many times, and told differing reasons for the enacting of this law; sometimes it was the noise, or that bikes ride on walking trails, or that they ride off trail completely, or that often banditos use motos in parks to do whatever banditos do?
Indeed, I had the conversation at my next stop; Volcan Antisana, but the guard tells me about Laguna Muertopongo (“Elusive Lake Number 3”) which I can visit.
|On the way to Muertopongo
Alas, I can’t visit, because feeble old Rodney couldn’t make the steep, sometimes wet and sometimes muddy trail. I despaired and turned about, with stomach cramps again. I camped on the land of a lovely lady and her son, though sadly, all views were again lost to cloud and rain. In fact, I hadn’t had a rain free day since I left El Cocuy in Northern Colombia, sometime in February (which explains my slow progress, I’ve read about 7 books in Ecuador, sat in the tent out of the rain).
The rain I’d been getting daily soaked by was drowning my spirits, but it was nothing, absolutely nothing, compared to the deluge I took on board on my next trip, out to ‘EL Oriente’, Ecuador’s patch of Amazon rainforest. I expected, read, and was told that the rain ‘only lasts one hour and is lovely post hence’. I can confirm this is not always the case and after a severe pummelling and questioning some locals, I bid a hasty retreat, out of the amazon back the way I came, as far at least, as I could manage that day. I set up camp, shaking violently, soaked, nothing is waterproof! My pegs wouldn’t go in the ground, I nearly cried! Finally, I can strip off, and get in to my sleeping bag. I instantly fall asleep. I woke up – surprisingly – at 10pm, still frozen (I was so very cold) and cook dinner, Warmer, my mind functioning again, decide in a moment of clarity that I will not go to the jungle again, unless it is in an enclosed vehicle, and probably truth be told, if I want to see tribes and animals, on an organised tour.
|Warm and dry, thinking about jungle trips in Pifo
After much deliberation the next day, I decide that a tour must really be short for ‘tor-ture’. I couldn’t possibly, without the risking of other people’s lives at my hands, as well my own. And so I go about making new plans….after fixing puncture 64!
“Where’s this road go?” I ask the family as I pass along another one of Ecuador’s Roman-like cobbled roads, that must take many, many man hours to make!
Wow, they really are Roman roads!
“You can go to Cotopaxi if you want!” he adds as if that is at the very edge, of a very flat, world.
It’s not Rome, but decide that volcan Cotopaxi sounds pretty good and take to the cobbles! Hopefully, I’ll get some clear weather for this one!
This leads to dirt, and then mud and essentially I’m fairly well lost, but push on, on to grass, a few hoof prints here and there, down and down into a narrow canyon and urgh….what’s this a bridge? Not sure about this….
“Ummmm,” thinks the old farmer when I ask if I can pass to Cotopaxi (I should really say, ‘is this the way’, a bad Spanish habit.), “onnnnn mooootttto,” Still thinking….”si, you can pass.” he thinks for a second, and adds “There is another way, further back.”
“The one through the gate?”
“That is locked?”
“That leads to the river.”
“The one you have to cross, below the thundering waterfall?”
“Not me, you!”
“Yeah, it’s my Spanish, I say these things like English…”
“Yes, but that’s the one!”
“Yeah…saw that one, think I’ll stick with the trail to the bottom of the insurmountable rocky boulder canyon, across the narrow bridge of death and hope, over the river churning ghostly grey waters threatening to take my life rapidly down into the depth of hell, thanks.”
“Great! Good luck!”
|The other option
And so it was that I slid down to the bottom of the canyon on rocks like rollers, slipping, sliding. I breathe hard, fast, eyes fixed, wide, I see only the trail and hear only the sound of the water, the godforsaken water, thundering by, I want it to stop, to be at peace so I can think. Though all I can think is what will happen if the bike slides unstoppably towards the bridge…I’m done for.
With the bike’s top-case rubbing the back of my helmet I slide terrifyingly closer to the three planks. The front tire on the bridge, the back tire looks like it will just make the corner of the plank. At altitude I’m worried the engine will misfire, splutter, bog and stall mid-bridge….with no where top put my feet. Could I grab the bridge on my way down? Probably not. I have visions of the bike tumbling down the ravine, bouncing off the walls…
What if there’s something ahead I can’t get past…I’d be trapped?
No turning back now, couldn’t turn the bike on this slope if I wanted to and anyway, Rodney couldn’t surmount this beast of a hill!
What’s holding up these planks anyway?
I let out the clutch, start moving forward, feet hanging over the angry waters trying to reach up and grab a tire, the front wheel wobbles left and right as I get moving.
Don’t put your tire in the gaps between planks either Jones…..
As speed rises, things get easier and I open the throttle to make the rocky hill on the far side, up and up, between boulders. Along the shoulder width trials course I go, up and down, between and around huge boulders, past the cacophony of the other option, the river crossing, and finally to some sort of road!
GREAT! GREAT! GREAT! GREAT FUN! But by golly, I was nervous! (It was in fact the climbers path to a volcano nearby).
“You can’t enter.”
“What because of the laws enacted in 2007?” I say, not sure if I’m asking or stating.
“Urgh, yes! That one.”
This at Cotopaxi, another of Ecuadors collection of mighty snowcapped volcanoes, where I’d hoped to climb to the snowline, on Rodney! In the morning I see two motorbikes, three huge army trucks, and of course the obligatory cloud – no volcano. And, still I was not allowed to pass.
“You are very unlucky!” says the guard in face of the thick cloud.
Puncture 65 confirms this on the way to Laguna Quilatoa, another cobble road, leading to dirt winding up out of the broad flat valley to give a view of the expanse of fields below, being worked by the Indians, red shawls flapping horizontal in the wind, raising hoes high over their heads and driving them in to the dark earth. By the road, children make the same actions, but with laundry, raising the wet clothes high and hammering them down as hard as they can on to the washing stone. Men stand around, beside thick hatch huts set down into the ground, in the mountains, out of the wind, or stand roadside chatting with each other, in bright red ponchos striped with black. I find camp here, and whilst the wind was bad in the day it grew ferocious as night fell and the temperatures plummeted.
The door to a tiny village church opens, dilapidated, the sky blue paint peels, walls crumble. In the square all the buildings are the same, surplus in a world where fields rule, fields matter, food matters, not the unnecessary shops and schools and churches. As I peer down at the map looking for the name that appears on the church, out of the corners of my eyes I see the group coming closer in a fanning wave. A strike of fear runs through me as I recall the incident with the Indians in Colombia. With reluctance I look up, and thankfully I’m greeted with smiles and touching, touching everything, pulling, moving switches, rubbing skin, pulling hair..Yes I am real!
After getting some directions and a lively chat I head off,
“Sell me your gloves!!”
“No, sorry I need them!”
“What about your jacket?”
Luckily I kept hold of that too, for when I reached Laguna de Quilatoa it was raining again, though trying hard to clear. Set deep in a volcanic crater, the sulphuric salty water still managed to glow a deep blue despite the bland sky, and the steep jagged walls of the bowl glowed a deep green and black. I decide a great photo would be off one of the Indians sitting or standing around, looking over the lake, but I’m only asked for money and mocked again and give up. Zumbahua nearby is the same story, “Don’t take photos!”, mocked by groups of men, scorned by women, and the inevitable “GRINGO!”
Alas, I tell myself it’s Sunday, the day God rests, and the day when an opportunist Satan rules the world, here at least. I wake up to Sundays with dread and long for kind and friendly people this day especially. But most of all I long for Monday. But, still, this day puts me in a low mood. My memory is terrible, I forget names and faces as easily as one forgets a dream, but taking a photo seems to burn the image on my mind as well as it does the cameras memory and I fear I will forget all of the journey!
At this point however, I still hadn’t given up with asking! And the amazing little straw huts looked good for a spell of investigation, a chance to meet the locals and see the ways of life, and hopefully a photo of a family outside their short thatch house!
This was a endeavour that was quickly abandoned, all said no, and who can blame them. I tried to think what would happen if an Indian pitched up at my parents house and said “WOW! Your house is quite something! Mind if I take a look?”
Quite frankly, no me old son. Now, on your bike.
And quite right.
Still, I met some good people and had some good camps in my search, though always, ALWAYS if I dropped in a “Want a photo?” (always ‘want’ never ‘can I have…’) it was always met with “How much?” Actually, not always…
The next day was a trip to “Elusive Lake Number 4”, and a women even asked me for money for directions, turning her back without a word when I laughed, saying “NO WAY!!!”
From Zumbahua, I was heading to El Corazon (The Heart) for one of my toughest road in Ecuador….read about that and more in Part 2……