Ecuador (Part 1)

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December 27th 2012
Published: January 21st 2013
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Monday 17/12/12 –We woke up with a grim mind-set in preparation for the border crossing. However I had a more immediate problem to worry about: my bike wouldn’t start this morning. It wasn’t even receiving enough power to kick the starter motor over, so we immediately knew it was a dead battery. I pulled out my battery whose cells were all bone dry (except, of course, for the inspection cell that is used as a guide for judging water levels – this one was full!). Twenty minutes later, we were riding off towards Ecuador and on our approach to the border we met another adventurer on a KLR. We pulled up at immigration and chatted to our fellow rider who was a young Russian guy (Alexey) who had bought the bike 3 days ago and never even ridden a motorbike before! He was spending a few months seeing as much of South America as he could. As expected he was struggling to learn how to ride on such a large and top-heavy bike, but his determination and enthusiasm were to be admired. We decided to clear the border and rode to Quito in convoy. The border crossing was simple but slow. We also got about $120 worth of money changed at the border, at first the money changer offered us only $85 – I guess he thought we were either rich or idiots!

We enjoyed riding into Ecuador, even the mountain air smelt sweeter here! We decided to stay on the main road through northern Ecuador, the Australian government recently labelled northern Ecuador as yet another ‘Don’t Travel Zone’, just like southern Colombia. To our astonishment we filled up the bikes with fuel and it only cost $8.50! Fuel is only about 38cents per litre here…

We rode through many more mountains until we came to the equator. It didn’t feel any different to the rest of the world, infact I rode past it without even noticing until Kenz got on the microphone and said we just rode through the equator. I was expecting to get briefly dizzy, or to suddenly become left handed as we crossed the equator – but nothing evident happened. We doubled back and pulled into the abandoned parking lot along with Alexey. We had recently taken a short cut by veering off the Pan-American Highway meaning that this particular monument is rarely visited. Seeing as no one was around, I rode my bike down a few narrow steps and out onto the monument for a few photos. Our northern hemisphere journey from Vancouver, Canada to the equator (via Deadhorse, Alaska) totalled 37,546kms; I doubt our southern hemisphere adventure will be as ambitious.

We hit the road again and approached the Ecuadorian capital city Quito. We are so pleased that the drivers here are very polite. It’s very rare to hear a car horn, people seem to pick a lane and stay in it, most cabbies aren’t suicidal or bipolar and the roads are in good condition. It was a pleasure to be able to ride into a large city and enjoy taking it all in without fearing our lives. We enjoyed a fantastic meal at a local Indian restaurant, and are so far pleased by the friendliness of the Ecuadorian people. As our pre-selected hotel was booked out, we followed the owner out to his house where he is setting up another guesthouse, so we will stay there until a room becomes available at the hotel.

Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday18-20/12/12 – The next 3 days were spent doing Spanish lessons and exploring the city of Quito. The city is very appealing with plenty of parks, interesting architecture and great food. We also dropped the bikes off at the Kawasaki dealer for a much overdue bike service. About a week ago I noticed my front and rear brake pads were getting razor thin, and for the last few days riding through Southern Colombia I haven’t really had any brakes. The pads finally wore through and it’s been metal scraping on metal – not ideal conditions for riding the Northern Andes.

Friday 21/12/12 –This morning we moved from the hotel owner’s house down to the hotel.It’s an unusually nice and clean place that far surpasses our usual standards. We met up with our friends from Tasmania (Isaac and Renee) who are also over here travelling. We decided to spend Christmas and NYE together before they move on north towards Mexico, and we continue south towards Chile. We picked up the bikes thisafternoon and much to our surprise they were (almost) sparkling clean! Perhaps even more surprising was that the world didn’t end today; I guess all those hippies that sold everything they had (probably not much) and moved down to party the night away in Central America just wasted their time. The front page of the paper had pictures of gringos holding hands and dancing around Chichen Itza in Mexico, it’s a shame that because I am white and in South America that I probably get associated with these people by the locals.

Saturday 22/12/12 – After much discussion over the last few days we decided to book some flights to the Galapagos Islands. The mere thought of what it is costing us makes the considerably tuffty hairs on my neck stand up; but it would be a shame to be so close and not take a trip out to the islands. We visited a very abrupt travel agent and booked our flights before jumping on a bus and enjoying a 2.5 hour bus-a-thon out to the Otavalo markets where many local artisans sell their wares. Kenz bought a small shoulder bag and a nice canvas painting. There was also some interesting food for sale such as grilled bees and bags of ceviche made from very small shell fish.

Sunday 23/12/12 – Most of the Ecuadorians we have met so far have been very friendly and willing to help, however they can be a little abrupt – they don’t use their pleases and thankyous. For example this morning I asked for more bread at breakfast and the lady just said no and walked off, and yesterday Isaac asked the travel agent if she could also email the flight tickets to him and she said no and just went back to her computer.

After breakfast we headed to the old town of Quito which seems to consist of mostly cathedrals – you couldn’t behead a non-believer around here without the head rolling past at least another 2 churches! Each church was both incredible in their size and grandness, and yet despicable when the cost of such ornateness is considered in its historical context. Perhaps I was sending out bad vibes into one of the more garishly ornate cathedrals because when I left a young kid outside turned and vomited down the back of my leg (I was unfortunately wearing shorts). I had previously heard of people who ‘accidently’ spill something on you and as they help you clean off they pick your pockets - so I was wary of this kid at first. After cleaning it off with some tissues and alcohol handwash I just realised the poor kid was sick, then I started wondering if what he had was contagious. After briefly considering going back inside and giving a small-coin ‘donation’ and praying to some random saint’s idol that I wouldn’t get sick, I decided instead to take faith in my imperfect but doubtlessly-real immune system. Another church we visited was so ornate – every possible surface was gilded in gold or paintings, it was enough to give you a headache. Also some of the paintings were really creepy such as pictures of men being disembowelled or tortured by other men.

We continued down the narrow colonial streets and past churches till we came to the gigantic cathedral La Basilica which was absolutely astonishing. The cathedral was very gothic and instead of gargoyles protecting the building from evil spirits, there were carvings of native animals such as armadillos, sloths and iguanas to scare away the evilness! We entered the cathedral during a service, so we quietly snuck around in awe of the size and scope of the building. It’s easy to see the attraction of such grandeur and wealth of the Catholic Church to the poor and sick who have little to hope for in this life, but are promised everything after death. As we exited the cathedral and ran the gauntlet of homeless wanting spare change, vendors selling prayer candles, hideous statues of Mary and icecreams we came to the central plaza which was being set up for a celebration. A local traditional dance group were performing so we sat down to watch for a while. During the performances a drunk homeless man with fingernails like talons kept wanting to dance with us, after we politely refused he wandered off and returned a few minutes later so we had to be a little more forceful. Eventually the performers invited the audience up to join in and sure enough talon-man scrambled out to the middle to dance. It was like everyone was doing ring-around-the-rosy with the homeless man in the middle just out of talon-length.

Monday 24/12/12 – The city of Quito is situated in a valley that is between a couple of tall mountains, one of which has a cable car to the top which leaves just 10 minutes from the city centre. We caught a cab and then rode the cable car from an altitude of 2800 feet to just over 4000 feet. The view of Quito from here was amazing – the city is much larger (over 2.5 million people)and spread out than it seems from below, as it straddles a few valleys which can’t be seen from ground level. We went for a short walk around the peak of the mountain checking out the views of the city, but the altitude and cold wind started making breathing and exercising difficult, inner ears ache and want to return to lower altitudes increasingly prevalent.

We returned to the city and decided to visit the supermarket to buy the ingredients for tomorrow’s Christmas lunch. Who would have guessed that grocery shopping on Christmas Eve was not a very good idea?! You can probably imagine what a grocery store in Latin America is like on Christmas Eve. To further complicate the shopping process the shopping trolleys are (intentionally) too wide to be pushed through the checkouts over here – instead they just empty the contents onto the checkout and leave the trolley in between the checkout and the people wanting to checkout. The result was wall-to-wall empty trolleys, full trolleys, and people resigned to their fate of spending Christmas Eve, likely Christmas Day and possibly Boxing day in trolley gridlock. And this also meant that the aisles could really only be entered from one end – and not the end near the registers!

After escaping the store with most of what we wanted (an escape likely to be recorded as myth –such as an escape from Alcatraz or Steve McQueen’s ‘Great Escape’) we returned to the hotel and relaxed playing cards well into the evening.

Tuesday 25/12/12 – I must have been naughty because Santa didn’t bother visiting this year. Maybe he didn’t visit because of the huge storms that rolled over Quito for most of the day. Massive thunder (the kind that rattle the windows and make your heart momentarily grow legs and try to crawl out your belly-button), massive lightning and torrential rain made it a memorable Christmas. Whilst Kenz and Renee worked some culinary magic on some chicken, powdered mashed potatoes, and canned vegetables; Zac and I bonded over televised sport, cards, how “women are all …” and other ‘manly’ activities. We then enjoyed a great Christmas lunch, dinner and left overs as we relaxed for the rest of the day.

Wednesday 26/12/12 – We waved goodbye to Zac and Renee with plans to meet in the city of Riobamba later in the day. We mounted our trusty steeds and were looking forwards to a short 2 hour ride to our destination. Unfortunately my steed was decidedly untrustworthy and wouldn’t start. A brain embolism was narrowly avoided as I struggled to maintain my composure. I had specifically asked the mechanic 4 days ago to check the battery as I thought it wasn’t holding its charge and was about to die. His response was ‘she’s all good mate!’ (more accurately ‘no problemo, amigo!) which only further aroused my suspicions. We then executed the excessive but regrettably necessary procedure of warming up Kenz’s bike then swapping batteries so my almost dead one could start her already warmbike, and her charged battery could start my cold bike. We then rodestraight around to the mechanic whilst I decided on a few choice words for him. All of them melted away when the mechanic was pleased to see us, apologetic and gave us a free can of chain lube – it’s almost impossible to be pissed off at someone who is so nice. So we ordered a new battery to be charged so we can pick it up when we return to Quito.

After our late start we eagerly headed out of Quito, only to be pulled over 10 minutes later by a honking man who kept pointing at the back of Kenz’s bike. The cap off her storage tube must have come off on the highway – but luckily none of her equipment had fallen out. After a quick repair job using very little ingenuity but copious amounts of sticky tape, we continued on towards the high mountain passes. The roads here are in very good condition and great to ride on: there are few potholes or trucks; the roads are normally wide and often have multiple lanes for overtaking. It’s a pleasure to ride 200 kms in 2 hours and only have to pay 20 cents each in tolls! We headed up into the clouds at over 3700 meters and then back down again towards Riobamba. At one dodgy section of road with steep cliffs we noticed heaps of people standing on the road side pointing down the valley at something we couldn’t see. The next day we saw the newspaper with a frontpage picture of a crumpled bus at the bottom of a cliff with a headline with something about 42 people (dead or injured, we weren’t sure and the Spanish dictionary didn’t help us). We continued into town where we parked the bikes and I did a search in a six block radius for suitable hotels and parking spots. I eventually found an adequately priced hotel which had a car park nearby with a terrifyingly ferocious guard dog on duty. We unpacked and left the bikes under the fear-provoking gaze of the guard dog fearing that the bike may be torn apart by the scary beast. We found Renee and Isaac, and then walked around the city admiring the outside of churches as the doors were locked (did they know I was coming?!). As night fell the streets came alive as locals flocked to the town square to gossip, eat chocolate covered strawberries, let off fireworks and admire the striking (and sometimes over the top) Christmas decorations.

Thursday 27/12/12 – We caught a bus out to the small mountain village of Alausi which has little to offer except it is the station from where a train travels along about short but spectacular section of mountain called Nariz del Diablo (the Devil’s Nose). We endured the bus until it descended into a deep cloud filled valley and stopped at our destination. The woman in this town still dress very traditionally, many of them wore bright red ponchos, bright red or green stockings, bulky frilled dresses and a felt fedora with a beautiful bird feather. A few of the men also wore the traditional dress of white trousers with a bright red poncho. After discovering the 11 am train was full, we resigned ourselves to a day of exploring the area and catching the 3pm train. We spent the day seeing the sights, most notable were the giant (thumb sized) wasps, giant moths and gigantic (bigger than thumb size!) beetles with giant horns. The city must have been into giant things as there was also a giant 12 metre high statue of Saint Peter which we hiked to. Eventually as we started running out of giant things to look at, 3 pm arrived and we jumped on the train with a few other tourists (around half were foreigners and half South Americans). Most of the trip was winding between incredibly steep mountains and valleys; sometimes the track seemed to defy physics by clinging to cliff edge or mountain side. One part of the mountain was so steep and the cliff so narrow that the train had to use switch-backs where the track would finish, a worker would pull a lever to switch tracks, the train would then go backwards down the new tracks until the train came to the end of those tracks, and the process was repeated until we were down on the valley floor. People used to be able to ride on the roof of the train, until two people fell off and died, so now it is a sedate affair where everyone has seats inside. The tracks were built in the early 1900s by many desperate workers and some prisoners. The prisoners helped build sections of the railroad with the promise of freedom if they survived till the completion of the track. Just over 4000 people contributed to the building of the rail road (including dynamite teams who scaled the cliffs and blew a thin ledge in the rockface so the tracks could be laid); of these 4000 men, about 2500 died from accidents before the track was completed. The section we rode was called the Devil’s Nose as it passes by a steep mountain which apparently looks like the devil’s nose. At the railroad museum there were many eye-witness accounts from the men who built the tracks (and some locals who lived in the area) of the devil snooping around the tracks or riding the train, or even sending herds of goats to try and derail the train. Of course all the eye-witnesses also saw Mary descend from heaven to banish the devil from the area. It’s interesting how miracles such as these still occur in areas like this with poor education and health services, but never in developed countries with high levels of education.

After returning by train to Alausi, we rushed to the bus station to catch the last bus out of town, which turned out to be running about 40 minutes late. The bus left town as the sun set and we travelled over the mountains in the inky darkness, penetrated every 10 minutes when the driver turned the overhead lights on whilst collecting or dropping off passengers. About halfway home we picked up a lady with a baby slung over her back. She stood next to Kenz and kept smacking the baby’s head into Kenz. Everytime the woman moved or the bus took a corner, the baby would swing out and either collect Kenz in the face, or the space where her head was just before she bobbed or weaved.

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