Posts Tagged ‘Ecuador’

Burning Legs and Burning Out

I found them on the road in Ecuador – the cutest children in South America.
Then I stole her hat, which just looks better on me.

Smouldering in Ecuador

Yesterday was the 330th day I have spent riding my trusty steed Belinda through South America. In fact I have been cycling through the continent for so long now that from a distance, and in a certain light, the pattern of veins on my calves has developed a creepy likeness to Che Guevara’s face. But of course there’s long, and there’s too long, the latter gives way to a kind of stubborn sloth that mires all of your experiences. Craning your neck by more than 45 degrees to admire a venerated and heavenly panorama is preceded by a short internal debate about whether it’s going to be worth all the effort and potential neck fatigue. It’s The Law of Diminishing Returns or “Travel Burnout”, which I think is the most fitting moniker to describe this slow rot. In Cuenca, after a DVD binge that lasted until daybreak and the only mildly unsettling realisation that I had paid no notice of the celebrated and reportedly charming colonial architecture the city is most proud of, I wondered if I was, at the very least, smouldering. In a desperate attempt to regain some notion of familiarity in a life that brings daily change and obliges constant adjustment, my days off now in cities are spent almost exclusively in The Triangle – one point represents my hostel, another is a place with fast Internet and the third is an establishment that sells greasy and generous portions of chicken. That’s just how I roll.

In contrast I have become ever more thrill seeking when planning routes on my bicycle – my ‘working week’, if you will. Put it this way – if this blog stops abruptly and CNN begin broadcasting news about a British tourist abducted by FARC whilst attempting to unicycle the Darian Gap with just a knapsack and flip flops, or if the BBC report that a shark savaged corpse has washed up on the coast of Panama after a tourist attempted an unsupported swim from Colombia to Florida – don’t be overly surprised.

So on the way to Quito I spent some time contemplating Burnout and how to avoid it without air tickets home – in case you are wondering how to tell you have reached Travel Burnout, here are some common features of the condition –
  • The ‘Great Things To Do in…’ section of any guide book fills you with a profound joylessness and the urge to never seek advice ever again. For anything. Conversely just the prospect of watching a DVD instills in you a level of ecstasy roughly equal to witnessing the birth of your first child.
  • There is a high likelihood you are harbouring several undiagnosed parasitic infections. Following a period of unease, this is now something you are actually quite proud of.
  • When listening to stories recounted by travellers you meet in hostels you always interrupt early on by yawning, resting your feet on the nearest surface, lighting a rolled up cigarette and issuing the words “Well, when I was in Turkmenistan…”
    You often then spin a grizzly but mostly fictional tale which ends with…
    “And then we had to burn his arms off!” You let people buy you beers for the duration of the evening
  • You wear clothes inside out to get a few more days out of them. And then the right way round again. And then inside out. And then the right way round. Basically – you never wash your clothes (except when you jump fully clothed into lakes which you have decided counts).
  • Your sexual encounters involve backpackers who are increasingly hairy, Belgian and who sleep under tarps.
  • You have called up your travel insurance company to enquire as to whether your policy specifically covers accidental loss (or sale of) a kidney.
  • A graph of miles traveled (x) verses beers consumed (y) is an exponential curve. Whilst plotting this graph you should have been in a museum. God you’re bored.
  • You have amassed an extensive collection of photos of signposts of rude and silly sounding place names. Never once has this seemed a puerile pursuit.
  • To reduce the weight of your luggage you have
    • Cut the handle off your toothbrush, and trimmed the bristles
    • Removed the fabric of your boxer shorts which goes between your legs creating a boxer shorts-skirt
    • Removed all potentially life saving medication from your medical kit (but have since replaced with extra shoelaces and herbal tea).
  • You have had to deny knowledge of the whereabouts of seven Israeli backpackers in room 11 in an Argentinian police investigation
  • You have developed an overwhelming desire to wedgy all British Gap Year student in ‘happy pants’
  • ‘Happy Pants’
  • You use the phrase “you know that money you owe me…” whenever you speak to old friends on Skype who have never lent you money but used to smoke a lot of weed. It has become a lucrative source of income.
  • You substitute showers for what you mentally refer to as ‘a dirt scrape’.
  • You have given up all hope of remembering people’s names and now refer to them by their home towns which are easier to remember. Boston owes you $50 you’ll never see again and Stockholms keep breaking your heart.
  • You regularly scratch plans to visit historic sights or national parks to philosophise with hostel owners, tour guides, the homeless and cheap rum
  • You often wonder whether you had a birthday last month
  • Occasionally you have an entourage of worshipful disciples like in Forest Gump
  • You have personally encountered several travellers who have since appeared on the TV documentary series ‘Banged Up Abroad’
  • You have perfected the ability to kill mosquitoes between your thumb and index finger whilst drunk, juggling and asleep
  • On at least one occasion after too much rum you have passed out and later came to at a diametrically opposed point on the earth’s surface.

The Mission to Quito

The thick navy blue snake weaving a vertical path through Ecuador on my map filled me with dread – I hate the Pan-American Highway, and it hates me. It promises all sorts of unpleasantness – traffic, unrelenting noise, toxic fumes, dirt, drudgery and suicidal ideation. But it’s like that job on your to do list that lingers and loiters for months before you get round to it, and if I want to actually make it to Mexico and Alaska, I need to spend some time on the nasty blue snake. The Pan-Am is simply the quickest way to get through the continent and without time spent (or wasted) on these irksome arteries I would outstay VISAs and in all likelihood roll into Alaska some time in December, lose some digits and then swiftly die of exposure.

So my plan – one more adventure and then Pan-Am it (a useful verb, to be said whilst beating yourself in the head) to Quito. From Cuenca I climbed to over 4000 metres once again through the bleak beauty of the Cajas National Park and then plummeted, quite literally, to the steamy climes of a mere hundred metres above sea level. The lowlands which flank Ecuador’s Western shores are vast and pancake flat, and are smothered in Coffee and Banana plantations – two of Ecuador’s primary economies (alongside oil and tourism). What followed on my route back to the Pan-Am is what I have come to call an Ecuadorian Special. I climbed almost two thousand vertical metres over a distressingly measly 20 km – and yes, that’s an average gradient just short of 10 %. To put that in perspective that’s a climb with a steeper average gradient, and more vertical metres climbed, and at a higher altitude than any stage ever raced in the Tour de France. Add to this troubling set of statistics the fact that the climb is on an unpaved surface and is pedalled not on a bike but on a sort of human powered tank which weighs 20 kg and carries 40 kg of gear and you will begin to understand the pain involved. And Lance Armstrong needed performance enhancing drugs? The wimp.

Here’s an interview I did in laughable Spanglish for the local TV news in Ecuador. Enjoy…

Quito was a good chance to catch up with friends and family via that dazzling and ubiquitous webtool – Skype. It has transformed how we keep others updated about our foreign escapades, it relaxes anxious loved ones, it makes life easier, and I’m all for it – but there is a downside. Conversations that before would have taken place in a private telephone booth, or indeed not at all, now occur with a large and often reluctant audience. Internet Cafes throughout the world are choc-a-bloc with Skype-ers and everyone in earshot is forced to listen to an inquisition concerning the results of Aunt Meryl’s biopsy, or the tribulations of a 17 hour bus ride, or the graphic details of Rob’s latest stool after that “bloody empanada!”. And then there are the forlorn and hapless nineteen year olds calling home to request more money from parents, presumably so that they can invest in dreadlocks, beads and dramatic trousers. But in Quito the conversation next to me took the biscuit.

In Ecuador we have the tearful American girl, and somewhere in the States, and also on her computer screen, the boyfriend. The conversation was a blubber-rich and melodramatic whinge about how she had started her period during a long bus journey and didn’t have any tampons. And after he did what must have been a fairly decent job of consolation and empathy their exchange descended into cheesy pillow talk packed with “I just want to hold you in my arms” (wait, I have to dry heave), “I want to feel your heartbeat next to mine” (please let this be over soon) and then a playful bout of

You hang up!” 
“No you!” 
“No you hang up!” 
“No you!”

Sensibly, during this tragic ending, I fought the urge to bind her to the desk with the mouse cord and spank her with the keyboard as her shocked boyfriend watched on the webcam. Maybe then he’d hang up.

In Quito I was reunited with Tom and James – a lively pair of British cyclists also heading north but now stuck in Quito who had passed me further south. Tom spectacularly stacked it in Ecuador and injured his knee in equally astounding fashion – he’s been stuck for over a month now after requiring skin grafts in two operations. I was stuck in Quito too, waiting for bank cards to arrive in the post. My kindly bank – The RBS (which stands for Reliably Bent and Shady) – had been in the midst of a take-over by another bank, Santander. The deal eventually fell through but not before RBS decided suddenly, and with no forewarning, to cancel millions of customers debit cards, no mind that those abroad would be in big trouble once they realised that their cards were now nothing more than plastic mementos for RBS.

The upshot of all this was a mild crisis when arriving into a small Ecuadorian town with no access to money, no actual money, no food, no place to stay, no friends to help me and no means of paying for a phone call to the bank to find out what was happening and call them Bastards. So I presented myself to the police station and explained – I had no back up, I realised, after previously working through my emergency stash of dollars. Eventually I found a trusting Brit, noted down his account details, emailed my very understanding mum, asked her to transfer money and then paid her back online – a total farce, in other words. But it did further strengthen a belief that has blossomed during this trip – that the world really is packed full of people who will help you out. On four separate occasions over the last card-less month I have found people to take money out for me, even though my pitch for help sounds like I’m a practiced confidence trickster on the blag. For all those generous and understanding souls – thank you.


Once my cards arrive (please God let it be tomorrrow) I’m out of here and I can’t think of a single border I have been more excited about crossing (and there have been more than forty so far) than the next one into Colombia. The mere mention of the country causes southbound backpackers to get dreamy eyed and sentimental. Colombia you see, is everyone’s favourite, and for all the best reasons, namely – The convivial people, the jawdroppingly beautiful women, the lush and dramatic landscape, the women, the scrumptious food, the women, the music and the dancing, the women and the women. Yep, I’m really looking forward to Colombia. It’s just a shame my boundless enthusiasm doesn’t match my ability to Salsa.

On a final note my photographs of the Salar de Uyuni won third prize in the Insight Guides / Independent travel photography competition and for which I won a shiny new camera. For the Brits amongst my readers – the images should be published in next Sunday’s Independent (Oct 28th) if you want to check them out.

Chasing waterfalls and such

It’s only falling water…

“Don’t go chasing waterfalls. Please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to.”

It was poor judgement – opening with a TLC song lyric, and you’re probably wondering whether to keep reading or if your time would be better spent on Facebook, or indeed counting your eyelashes. But stick with me – some waterfalls are more than just falling water, and chasing them is the fun part. Someone should have told TLC.

In a world so explored, mapped, mastered, manipulated, plundered and bent out of shape, a brand spanking new discovery is an ever rarer gift, and in a world so exploited, it’s a comfort, too. It shouts that maybe we, the spoilers and the wasters, don’t know everything, and perhaps there are more hidden secrets out there waiting to be unearthed. It’s even better of course when that discovery is a whopper. At three times the height of the Eiffel tower, Yumbilla Falls in the Amazonas region of Peru is exactly that, yet for decades Yumbilla had been shrouded in foliage and disregard. Only in 2007 when it was officially measured did it claim it’s long overdue limelight – Yumbilla turned out to be 895 metres high and the 5th highest waterfall in the world, and last year it earned itself a trail. There are no official tours from Chachapoyas but I contacted the American who built the trail having decided I wanted a sneak preview.

For Yumbilla though perhaps ‘discovery’ is a bit over zealous and should be prefaced by ‘international’. The locals always knew about Yumbilla. And that a new discovery was made here didn’t really surprise them anyway and why would it? Because in terms of new discoveries, the Amazonas region of Peru has them in spades. Ancient burial sites, fortresses, long isolated tribes, rare bird species, pre-Inca walled cities – the land around Chachapoyas is the secret garden of South America, and it just keeps on kicking up surprises.

Before I took the time to explore the new trail to Yumbilla I booked a tour to Gocta, another lofty cascade at 771 metres and the 15th highest in the world. It wasn’t just the waterfall though I had come to admire, the region also boasts a bizarre bird species that the guides would have you believe is lurking in every cranny. The Andean Cock of the Rock – a species whose vaguely comical name is a good fit for it’s bizarre appearance. Bright, unapologetic orange with a head that looks out of shape, like a deformed parrot, maybe one that had flown hard and headlong into a tree in the night. They sold knitted take-home versions in the shops in Chachapoyas, but I suspected spotting one was not really that likely – it was all more of a selling point for tours, a tourist lure.

On the tour, under a sky which threatened rain, I was joined by a trio of Tazmanian backpackers. With the usual Peruvian welcome party – a scrawny dog nipping at our heels – we all took strides towards the waterfall, aside from a ten year old and a fat lady who were given ponies. As the latter eagerly mounted the animal I feared the result would be four splayed legs – like when big people jump onto horses in cartoons – and a rotund lady rolling around like a tipped insect, crying out for help and unable to get up, thankfully though the animal managed to teeter along, ruefully. Next to the reluctant beast was an elderly man, who I found out later was 89 years old, and who was bounding along as fast as the horse, perhaps making his point. Already the animal looked closer to death than he did.

As we made ground the world around us slowly morphed into a more prehistoric one, moss and cobwebs smothered the rock faces, fern replaced banana, menacing cliffs faces were projected from the undergrowth and then after an hour or so the vista we were bent on seeped in through the green curtain around the path and then surged magnificently towards us. We stopped in our tracks and watched the water in free fall, our eyes staying with it until it was a fine spray, a mist, then nothing at all. Cameras were raised and then lowered with a measure of despondency and admiration – from here Gocta wouldn’t fit into even the widest angled lens, and this was only the bottom section, there was a 230 metre drop which was above the reach of our gaze. In the shadow of the behemoth I ate and I snapped photos and I thought about how measly the stream was at the bottom, embarrassing even, considering the dramatic statement nature had made just above it. And I watched the old man laugh, and heard the pony groan, like a teenager who’s been evicted from bed by his mum before school. And everyone apart from the pony and TLC agreed – it was only falling water, but it was worth the effort.

Gocta Falls
The Andean Cock of the Rock in it’s natural habitat (a souvenir shop)

Due to a corrupted camera memory card I am saving the story of Yumbilla on this blog until I have sorted it out.

Bordering on insanity

The road to Ecuador was another Peruvian Special – an unrelenting slalom which was either a companion to the roiling waters of a mountain river or was incautiously winding up a mountainside and unapologetically destroying my mettle. Now though I am a stronger (possible typo – should read ‘stranger’ ?) cyclist than ever before. I may have been riding for almost three years but you can forget the fitness plateau, Peru doesn’t do flat lines.

As I dropped from the mountains to the jungle Blue Morph butterflies and The Peruvian Giant Centipede made fleeting appearances as the government posters warning of nasty diseases such as Leishmaniasis changed to warnings for different but just as nasty diseases like Dengue Fever. Rice paddies disappeared and the jungle reclaimed my eye line but thicker now, disordered. Wilder.

Drip, drip, drip. I kicked off my sodden sleeping bag roaring expletives, aiming them at the clouds above, and my judgement. Cloud forest it may be, but last night I had been tricked by the soothing, unprepossessing sapphire of the evening sky into believing that it wouldn’t rain, that maybe I’d be OK in just my inner tent. My POROUS inner tent. My POROUS inner tent come paddling pool. Long after I’d pegged in the outer tent the rain continued to beat out a maniacal rhythm on the fabric. Morning came and my vision, bleared by sleep, appraised the quagmire on my doorstep, my campground now reminiscent of a bad year at Glastonbury. The road too had been churned up by the downpour and hacked up by the javelins of water. Mostly I pushed my bike through the viscid gunk as buses skidded and climbed muddy inclines sideways whilst gangs of men pushed from behind. Mud, Lycra and skin had become one, maybe though my suit of filth would come in useful – I had overstayed my Peruvian VISA, I had a sob story ready and all I needed now was a sympathetic border guard. Things though got worse and I went from looking like a soldier fresh from the Somme to some kind of unearthly swamp beast.

This border point was the backdoor into Ecuador and my guess – that it would be more relaxed than the primary routes across – was looking on the mark as I peered into the customs building to find the two customs officials blind drunk and belting out Peruvian classics with the aid of a karaoke machine. The immigration official was absent and ambiguously ‘back later’. When she showed up an hour later I knew immediately I hadn’t got the push-over I was hoping for, I got Bitch From Hell, the kind of ruthlessly efficient and by-the-book obsessive I could have done without. It took me half a day to get my exit stamp and involved paying fines, taxis to town, depositing money into bank accounts, signing 15 forms and getting photocopies. Intermittently she would disappear when I needed her, probably to return to her hobbies of submerging kittens in wet cement or hurling orphans into a threshing machine. Eventually, task completed, she reached for the stamp and grumbled, I think it was something about me disrupting her plans for a mass genocide, and I hotfooted it to the door, the bridge and Ecuador. But I don’t begrudge Peru or her purveyors of red tape for a tedious farewell – the last three and a half months had been a terrific ride, in every sense.

The jungle, I decided, doesn’t hold the romance it promises. The views can be limited, it’s hot and sticky, insects rule – filling your tent, bouncing off your head torch and into simmering pasta. Yes that crunch and explosion of bitter goo was an invertebrate, swallow hard and get used to it. But new countries introduce themselves through the small differences, the minutiae which help mould the taste and texture of the new place and which for me made up for the jungle blues. The tangle of undergrowth in Ecuador looked unmeddled with, a pristine slice of nature. The roads though were much steeper. There were kids with blue eyes (perhaps the missionaries had been doing more than just spreading the word of God). There were concrete volleyball pitches in every village. Troublingly though was the fierce and grave epidemic that had Ecuador firmly in it’s clutches – The Moustache. A gaggle of bristling Soup Strainers were there to greet me as I cycled into my first Ecuadorian village – they were attached to the faces of a troop of men, one of which would certainly have done well with a decent singing voice, undoubtedly opening the door to a career as the world’s best Freddie Mercury impersonator. The men and their quivering lip plumage let me shower and granted me permission to sleep outside the church, as I settled down for the night two motorbikes parked up.

Oli and Mat – A German and an American, adventurers, between the three of us we had been on the road for almost a decade, but then any onlooker could have guessed that. Perhaps from the fist sized rips in each of our clothes. Perhaps from the painted alpaca skull on the front of Mat’s bike or the Skull and Crossbones and words ‘Carpe Diem’ on the body. Perhaps from the repeated use of the phrase “New Day, Same Pants” the next morning. But perhaps not from Oli’s motorbike – a fully loaded 70 cc model he’d, somehow, been riding since Pakistan. Food pooled, we cooked together and talked in lists – the best places we’d slept, the stickiest substance that has leaked inside a pannier, our craziest adventures (Mat’s tale of paddling the Darien Gap by canoe topping that one). And as I stared out over the cloud-filled valley I thought about how a day can back flip and cartwheel and embrace you – this morning I was dirty, late, tired, lonely and pissed off. It’s a tired cliche that nobody wants to hear when they’re down – but things really do always get better. I know I won’t remember that next time.

The Crackpot Magnet

My birthday rolled around as I rolled into Vilcabamba, my third on the road and my thoughts strayed to my previous celebrations – thirty was spent festooned in traditional Arabic dress in Syria when a family invited me in from the desert and threw me an impromptu party. Thirty one was probably as fun but less memorable – Cape Town, Jagerbombs and ‘the caterpillar’ dance are about the only details I can be sure of. Vilcabamba though offered a nice twist, being as it is – one of the downright weirdest towns on earth.

Vilcabamba’s story is a little hazy and uncertain, a bit like it’s latest residents. The valley it lies in gained notoriety, and became known as the Valley of Longevity, once locals were observed to live unusually long lives. By 1973 these oldies made it onto the cover of National Geographic and soon after the scientists arrived, as did the mystics and the hippies, all keen to learn the secret – and you could pick and choose the culprit: mineral rich water, extra strong anti-oxidants, a magic tree, and a host of more exotic theories.

And ever since life in Vilcabamba has been tinged with a likable absurdity. Researchers dug around and found that the old folks tended to exaggerate their ages and that these exaggerations became grander the older the person got – eighty year olds were routinely claiming that it was time to celebrate their 130th birthday, so eager they were for prestige in the community. Now Vilcabamba is a mecca for ageing American hippies who need their pension to stretch a bit further and who believe there really is something special about the environment here. There are a host of other characters as well though – political refugees (in the loosest possible sense), spiritualists, conspiracy theorists, rosy cheeked alcoholics and various crackpots. “Oh Yeah… We get a lot of freaks here” a hostel owner confided to me. Noticeboards around town advertise psychic crystal readings, dowsing seminars, fire guardians as well as the odd house to rent with ‘a healing space’. Around the town square sit artisans, many from Europe, plying their wares and a few stoners selling poems with titles like ‘the unfortunate gooseberry’, no doubt the brain child of a magic mushroom bender in the 70s. And of course there’s the self styled shaman who sells hallucinogens to tourists. Recently the leader of a group arrived here from Britain, and with followers. Their focus is on time travel, alien abductions and mind control and their website reassures those who perhaps judge them a little insane – “We have no intention of ending our own lives”. Meander around the town for an afternoon or evening and its easy to find yourself engaged in an impassioned conversation about a range of fantastical conspiracy theories and doomsday scenarios. Rumour had it some residents had even built a bunker near the town in the hills – the end of the world is on it’s way, apparently.

The town’s eccentrics made it a nice place to chill out for a few days, but better still… I met a girl. According to another cyclist I know, this is akin to getting a really slow puncture. And after some days together I cycled off, she was still in Vilcabamba, but travelling south. I cycled out of town feeling great, feeling invincible even and then very quickly – like I was making a big mistake. She was still there and I was cycling in the wrong direction. I emailed her. She emailed me. There was a festival north of Vilcabamba in Latacunga called Mama Negra. Let’s meet up. I felt invincible again.


Mamacita and Mama Negra 

“What’s going on?!” I yelled over. “No idea!” my mamacita shouted back.

She had been pulled into the multi-hued vein of the procession and was surrounded by men dressed in white robes with striped masks who were tapping her legs with coloured bones and spitting sugar cane spirit into her face. It was a cleansing ritual, I found out later. Just then a tubby man sat astride a horse and thrashing the air with a fist cruised past. His face was painted black, he had fake breasts and he was holding a doll of a black infant in his other hand, savagely beating the air with the child, the crowd were yelling in delight despite the lack of parental concern of the mock parent for the mock child. This was Mama Negra Festival and that was Mama Negra her/him-self.

The origins of Mama Negra festival  have been blurred by the passage of time, in reality its probably an amalgamation of cultural and religious celebrations. From an outsiders perspective it doesn’t immediately sit well. Blacked up faces? Pointy white hoods? Men dressed as black women? But this is a celebration of the cultural diversity that came with Africans arriving on Ecuadorian shores, and of religion too and perhaps transvestism, which also seems to be a common theme.

The Wickerman on LSD is what comes to mind as I watch the procession roll on, everyone in the crowd now inexorably pissed, including the ten year olds, and there’s a vaguely menacing air to the drooling drunks dressed as some kind of clown. The carcasses of large pigs are carried by men, decorated with bottles of booze and dead chickens, and seem to sway to the music which comes courtesy of brass bands comprised of men in dark aviator sunglasses and suits, like Colombian drugs barons. Behind them dancers in more traditional South American dress, firing out dance moves tirelessly as the parade moves on and the town gets drunker.

By nightfall the city of Latacunga has undergone a sinister transformation and the residents are comatose in puddles on the street side or fighting or stumbling and moaning. The less inebriated have taken to setting fire to things. As I left the square to find a toilet two teenagers grabbed my hand, one threw a clumsy punch which I blocked with my left hand. Only a few minutes later, with blood streaming down my arm and a deep laceration to my index finger, did I realise that the kid must have struck out with a knife, and I didn’t even see the weapon. But despite the grim hangover that was the night time antics, the celebration itself was a blinder.

The day after the riot, I mean festival, I said goodbye to my mamacita. I returned to Cuenca and my bike. I pedalled off, and that was that. Onward, but with a slightly heavy heart, to Quito and then Colombia.

I think he’s just trying to read that logo on her top. Yep, that must be it.