23 to 25 May Kms travelled – 15,424
Ah, Ecuador – what a wonderful place. Yet another on the list that offers so much and places where I have to tear myself away from. If I had known of the riches (in bike parts and workshop terms) that Loja offered – coupled with the local prices being the cheapest I´ve encountered to date – I would have scheduled more time here. But as it was Idris was on top form, and I wasn´t doing too bad either, so time to move on.
I had taken a leaf out of Sam Manicom´s book (Distant Suns I think, if my memory has not completely failed me – and if you´ve not yet had the pleasure I can heartily recommend his stuff – see the weblink on the right). Sam suffered some issues with his back while on his travels, and took to riding less and walking more as a means of managing the problem. I have to say it works a treat – thanks Sam! I´ve been rarely riding for more than half a day since my back started playing up in Argentina / Chile, then taking time out to walk for a few hours in the late afternoon. It also has the benefit of enabling me to see more of my chosen overnight location, and to engage a bit more with local people. And I was planning to do yet more walking, as we headed from Loja to the wonderful city of Cuenca.
But we were following my satnav and after about 12 kms the road deteriorated into a mud bath with scatterings of dry dirt. Surely this couldn´t be the fabled Pan American highway? After getting Idris well and truly muddy I stopped to ask a local about the route to Cuenca... “ah yes, this is the road to Cuenca, you can go this way no problems... but most people take the other road over there these days!” Seems I was on the Pan Am, but a 20km stretch that had been superseded some time ago by a separate, cleaner and easier route. Hey ho!
When back on the newer bit, the road did offer some challenges such as landslides and animals, but the biggest issue for me this day was that the road was made of cement. You know the ones... like someone has laid a surface with a design based on bars of chocolate. It seemed as if every second the road would give a little thump through the suspension as Idris skipped over another block of hard stuff. After an hour or so, the routine vibration was threatening to bring back the pain that the revised riding style, twisty bits and walking had, to date, eased. But I wasn´t going to stop. Each bend presented another spectacular scene; up and down the greenest of valleys and through the small towns you find scattered along the way. Bliss. I had visions of the Pan American being this potted, slow, truck-fume ridden nightmare of a road – to be avoided at all costs. But truly, there are stretches of it where you see little traffic as it steers you through the most wondrous landscapes. I´m sure the other vision of it exists too, but not in lovely Ecuador.
Here it took us up through mountain passes at around 3,500m, where the road curiously ran along the mountain ridge between valleys (with some interesting wind blasts from either side) and the opportunity to again look down on blankets of cloud – as if someone had nestled in a mass of cotton wool between the high peaks to help protect the land from harm.
When Cuenca arrived, however, I was ready to stop; and stop I did at a recommended hostel (La Casa Cuencana) for a couple of nights at a very reasonable price. Then the tourist thing began. So much to see in this lovely city – and it seemed that the people were built to match the buildings. And no, I don´t mean all stone-faced and square! A very touristic spot, but yet the volume of smiles and the warmth of the welcome was so notable it surely extends beyond the motivation of the tourist dollar and into the realms of the local character. I knew wandering around the next day that this was to be yet another place Idris would have to drag me out of kicking and screaming.
And it was time to go; a couple of nights pass so quickly. I had a curious ride as I headed further north in the direction of Quito, Ecuador´s capital. I couldn´t really put my finger on it, I was feeling good and the ride went well. In fact I went further than originally planned. Nevertheless, I was carrying an unsettled emotion.
The road from Cusco was an easy run. First three lanes, into two, then one as the road rolled again through green valleys and small towns, as it had a little further south two days before. On reaching some greater altitude though, I ran into a cloud white-out. A no more appropriate term could be written to describe what we hit. At one stage I was even in first gear following the road by means of looking at the white line on the floor beside me marking the edge of the tarmac; praying that there were no landslides ahead (as there had been a number to date blocking at least a third of the road). I could not see beyond the front of the bike, and was fearful of stopping lest any vehicles behind... well, didn´t! This carried on in various densities for around 20 kms. But on the rare occasion that there was a brief gap in the cloud I saw, only for a split second, a sight that scared me more. I was riding a narrow two lane road that was perched on the side of the most incredible sheer drop with no barrier. I´ve no idea how far down it was, but the mere thought of it gave Idris a little wobble!
Before I could really start to worry though, we were round the bend into another valley where there was clear sky and no fall. As quickly as the cloud had hit, it was gone again... well almost. The effect of the wind blowing the cloud from the one deep valley into the other higher plain, however, provided a most unusual effect. I wasn´t able to capture it well on camera (my lack of skills in that department again showing), but imagine a jet of steam shooting out as from a boiling kettle, and then magnify that and place it on a grassy ridge rising into the clear blue sky. The things I´ve seen on this trip so far – and it continues!
The new valley was not only clear, but also considerably warmer. And this was to continue in the run towards – and passed Ambató. I was planning to stop in Baños by the lake, but decided to continue as I had made better time than I had thought and was feeling good. Nor did I fancy the alternative of staying at Ambató, one of the few towns in Ecuador that didn´t inspire. I ended the day at a town some 100kms south of Quito, at a nice little hotel on the main square. A place which I struggle to remember the name of (I know I have it noted somewhere, but strangely not in my day book). What I do recall, however, is the town had an hourly siren which sounded so much like a motorGP bike revving up to the max, that on first hearing I thought there was street racing taking place and ran out of the hotel to watch. Luckily they stopped making the crazy noise at 8pm - and I walked some more.
Thought for the day
I mention earlier that I was carrying with me a strange emotion, and that I was finding it harder to pull myself away from places – particularly where there was warmth of welcome, or where I knew my wife would have enjoyed. I am beginning to realise that this is a feeling of loneliness, something that was bound to happen to a guy who has been so blessed with friends and (particularly) family – and who is travelling alone for an extended period. Skype calls home make a huge difference in relieving moments such as these. But what of those people of the world, some of whom I have seen as I race by, who are habitually alone – including kids. It makes me want to do more and step up my fundraising for Unicef - including when I return. If it feels like this when I have so much – what does it feel like for those who have so little?