JOURNEY TO THE MIDDLE OF THE EARTH

And beyond…..

”Oops, forgot to watch the GPS and drove right by the equator 10 miles ago”.

After an hour trying to get to the park at the equator, we arrive just as the day is winding down. We take some obligatory photos wobbling on the line painted on the ground and decline the offer to spend 10 bucks to go up a couple of stories to see the line from above.

“Hey, let’s go flush the toilet and see which way the water goes.”  So we do. “Hmmm… I don’t remember which way it goes at home.” Our big experiment in gravity, physics and snake oil is a bust. Stefan furthers the bust by saying “Well it depends how the toilet is made anyway so it’s not the right experiment”.

It’s getting dark so it’s time to find a place to stay. The place to stay ends up being a wonderful little hotel 30 feet from the equator and staffed with a great collection of little old ladies who are so friendly they can’t stop hugging us and getting lipstick all over the place.

Ecuador has been an interesting place so far. We visited Otavalo – a town made famous by its handicraft market. It must be in every guidebook. Tourists outnumber locals and all of the locals magically know enough English to try to sell us something. We emerged unscathed and wandered into the local food market.

The food market was just preparing to open. The stall keepers were having breakfast. After some charades I convinced a lady to make me some breakfast. She returns with what turns out to be the best meal of the trip so far. I received a plate filled with potatoes blended with a collection of roasted vegetables, beans and topped with roasted ‘corn nuts’.  The flavours were fresh and vibrant and the combination was a perfect way to start the day. Oh, and Stefan (the disbeliever) goes and orders up some horrific deep fried gristle, perfect for teasing dogs, not so good for eating. Good thing they have roast chicken next door to the inn where we are staying.

As we leave Otavalo and Quito behind, Ecuador continues to be a treat to drive through. The roads are good and the terrain is constantly changing. We wind along country lanes and minutes later find ourselves at the bottom of rocky valleys. The high mountain passes are as dramatic as any we have seen.

When we pull over for lunch in Ambato, a passenger in a truck hops out and waves us down.  He starts waving a cell phone at us and saying “Here, you must speak to my friend”. Soon we are in a conversation with his English-speaking friend, Julio, who is on the other end of the line.  Julio Velastegui (www.juliovelastegui.com) is another motorbike traveler and when his friend saw us, he knew that we had to meet. After getting our location, Julio quickly heads down to join us.  We once again learn how small our world is when Julio shares the story of meeting another fellow motorbike traveler, Sherri Jo Wilkins (www.sherrijowilkins.com ), while he was on the road in Canada earlier in the year.  Coincidentally, we also spent time with Sherri Jo earlier in the year, both in Canada and in England.   

South of Cuenca we arrive in a small mountain-top village named Catacocha, where every road is being worked on at the same time. After navigating what looks like a war zone, we find a hotel that turns out to be a very clean and very affordable home. We like it enough to stay an extra day.

Tracey’s birthday happens while we are here and we enjoy a night out on the town. Literally, a night out on the town.  While a woman is making us a one-pot dinner, we sit on lawn chairs in the middle of the street with a bare light bulb swinging precariously overhead, the bare wires threatening to electrocute any one of us at any moment.

We use our time in Catacocha to do some maintenance and take care of our trusty steeds. It is during this time that I become part of a scene which will occupy my thoughts forever. An old man is trying to move along the street. He is missing one eye, has a club foot and is barely able to move. He can only shuffle sideways and it takes him a full ten minutes to make a step. After four hours the man has progressed about 100 feet. I don’t know where he is going, but it will clearly take a long time.

The man is proud.

He does not ask for money.

He does not beg.

He does not look for help.

The rest of the people pass by him and go about the day, seemingly unaware of his presence. The sidecar would be a perfect way to get him where he is going but our ability to communicate the desire to help him fails. We leave him to his lonely shuffle and I can’t help but think of how excessive our own world is in comparison. We drive 15,000km with less effort than a stroll in the sun for this man.

I have learned another lesson today.

The image of this man’s trek will stay with me forever.

I use the word trek. For him, simply getting to the end of the block would be an all-day task.

Miles

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RIDING WITH JUAN VALDEZ

So here we are in Colombia, once considered the most dangerous country in the world.  Although the country has implemented security improvements that are allowing it to slowly emerge from the extreme violence of past decades, my guard is up.  Although conditions have improved dramatically, Colombia can still be an unpredictable place, with flare-ups between guerilla and paramilitary factions.  But the locals certainly don’t appear to be living in a state of fear.  Most of the population has never before experienced such an era of peace.  Homicide rates in many Colombian cities where they were once among the highest in the world are now similar to some U.S. cities. 

I’ve been reading that the poorest Colombians can barely afford the necessities of life, but here in Cartagena, we are seeing a contradiction to this.  Though I suspect that this is the case in some of the country’s smaller pueblos where there is a lack of jobs, in the area of Cartagena where we are staying, citizens seem to be enjoying a life style of modern amenities, luxury homes, shiny cars, and posh restaurants.

Cartagena is said to have the most impressive old town in the Western Hemisphere so we spend the better part of a day walking through this area, surrounded by 13km of impressive centuries-old colonial stone walls built to protect the city against enemies.  I feel like we are stepping back in time as we are surrounded by colonial-era mansions and churches that are almost perfectly preserved.  Under our feet are streets of cobblestones and above us are tile roofs and rows of ornate balconies dripping with flowers. 

One morning, in search of a road map of the country (something that we had been lacking thus far on our trip), we head off with fellow motorbike travelers, Sarah and Malcolm from Australia, for a walk to the shopping mall.  Along the way, we see Convento de la Popa, sitting on Cartegena’s highest point and we also pass Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, the castle built by the Spanish during the colonial era which once dominated approaches to the city by both land and sea.  We are pleased that we had some decent sightseeing on our walk because our search for a roadmap has proven fruitless.  Once again, we will be exploring with no map.

On our last evening in the city, our guest house is visited non-stop, both by Halloween trick-or-treaters and by many of our companions from the Stahlratte stopping by to wish us a continuing safe journey.  It was tough to say goodbye to everyone, not knowing if our paths would cross again.  Fortunately, we didn’t need to bid farewell to Stefan from Germany who will be riding with us for the next leg of our journey. 

Stefan, Miles and I head off from Cartagena, but not without some challenges.  It is All Saints’ Day, and the streets are lined with children and ladies singing, making music with pots and pans, and collecting food for the traditional feast.  Driving through the outer town, we see a very different city from what we had experienced in the historic district.   We were suddenly thrown into heavy traffic and chaos.    

As we head south out of the city, it becomes even more obvious why traffic accidents are so common in Colombia.  Drivers are both aggressive and careless behind the wheel.  They aren’t following street signs or road markings, are passing each other left and right (literally), are towing cyclists who cling to their back bumpers, and are providing rides to pedestrians who jump onto their back bumpers and then hold on for their lives.  On the winding rural roads and high mountain passes, we witness many near-accidents and it feels like my heart is stopping with each one.

Near the end of our first day of driving we see heavy black smoke rising from the road ahead.  I imagine that my fears of a horrific motor accident have become reality.  As we get closer, we see close to a thousand protestors who have built a blockade across the road and set it on fire.  Although we never do understand what they were protesting, they certainly aren’t messing around.  In the end, it proves to be a positive experience as it forces us to do some off-road driving and takes us to a fabulous little village where the locals jump to their feet and cheer on our daring efforts to get around the blockade. 

On the sides of the road, we begin to see men who remind me of Juan Valdez.  I now feel that I have finally arrived in Colombia.  Admittedly, I am a victim of marketing when it comes to Juan.  He’s merely a fictional character used in advertisements to represent the Colombian coffee farmer, but he’s been in the media since before I was born and in my mind he is an icon of Colombia.  I couldn’t help thinking of Juan each time I spotted a farmer meandering down the road on his mule laden with heavy burlap sacks.

The next morning finds us once again driving into the clouds with lovely views of the valleys through filtered sunshine.  Unfortunately we are also facing a flat tire at the highest, coldest part of the road.  We pull off the road next to a house where a young boy is sitting on the veranda.  He quietly watches our entire tire-change process without uttering a word.  As we pack up and prepare to leave, he is joined by some friends and now suddenly has the bravery to come and speak to us and take some photos.  We are so glad that he did. 

Tracey

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