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Posts from the ‘Ecuador’ Category

Shut Up Legs

A_surly,_hard-as-nails German professional cyclist named Jens Voight was once asked what he tells his legs to do when he’s hurting in a race.  His response?  “Shut up legs.”  One might think that after many thousands of miles our legs would be silent killers, mashing fat-kid watts and dancing on the pedals to soar over the Andes.  Yet another cycling maxim comes to mind, Lemond’s famous quotation: “It doesn’t get easier, you just get faster.”  And so it goes for us, except the “faster” part might be a little dubious.

Flying down rough mountain descents; bad pavement can be dangerous.

Most people have no idea what it is like to pedal a bicycle all day, day after day.  We certainly didn’t before August.  We had no collective touring experience before we drove up to Anchorage to begin this project.  Our early days of bicycle touring in Alaska provide constant memories and comic relief to this day.  I was a competitive cyclist before Bound South but that doesn’t make Angus any less of a big, fat, heavy monstrosity to pedal uphill.  We aren’t looking for pity, just understanding.  Every day is a pretty hard day at Bound South; not so hard that we doubt ourselves, never so easy that we take anything for granted.  Cycling is 99% physical; what you can do is what you can do.  The mental 1% is small but pivotal; if Bound South were the Death Star, it would be the uncovered thermal exhaust port.  If your head is in the right place the human body is capable of some miraculous things.  If not, you might have a date with a proton torpedo.  A good mind alone can’t get you to Argentina; that’s why “dreamt” isn’t the same as “done”.  But bad mental states can certainly keep you from it.  A good mind is necessary but insufficient.

There's a cow out at the pasture! Time to go fencing, right Dad?

The number one challenge I have encountered in protecting my “mental game” is compartmentalization.  With cycling in general, and a bicycle expedition in particular, it is almost impossible to separate your mental outlook from the environment being pedaled through.  It’s hard enough to wake up at some ungodly hour to pedal through cold rain for a few hours for training or, heaven forbid, for fun.  It’s even harder when you don’t have a choice, when “home” is an MSR tent, and when the end of your ride will guarantee no more comforts than the beginning.  A common thread in all athletics is a powerful and intoxicating self-awareness of the body; it’s strength, coordination, exhaustion, performance, and recovery.  The experience of disciplined athletic training for the first time is akin to pulling aside a dashboard curtain and seeing the gauges of your car for the first time.  Once you’ve seen it once, you’re forever aware and would never go without it again.  So it goes with us; we attend constantly to the sensations of our bodies, fueling and refueling and feeling the sensations in our legs as we move southwards.  On a bicycle expedition, however, countless other concerns compete for my mental space along with the stresses of our bodies.  Some of it is trivial, like the  countless decisions we make on the road about where we will rest, where we will eat, and where we will camp for the night.  Other things are easily taken for granted, like the water we used to get from the tap.  Acquiring 20 liters of reliable, cheap, purified water to get us through the day is just one of many small details that get lost in the noise of these concerns.  Sometimes I wish that Bound South could just be about riding our bicycles and taking pretty pictures.  That’s the fun stuff and it’s not hard to handle even on the hard days; though the stress can leave you vulnerable.  Minutiae accumulate like pebbles in a stream, and they can bring you to the brink before you recognize it.  Once you are tired, thirsty, and battling a headwind for 180 kilometers on the Peruvian cost it is more understandable when a flat tire at dusk makes you want to throw Angus into a river.

Szczerbiak has never, ever been this clean since leaving California.

These Ecuadorean climbs went on, to quote a farm kid from Eastern Washington, "basically forever."

The key is always to keep your eye on the prize.  Every kilometer done is one less between us and home.  We’re certainly not tired of this journey; it’s a privilege unlike anything I have ever experienced before.  But the end in Ushuaia is what makes every day so significant and what pushes us to ride southwards with a lot of heart.  Live like you’re dying, ride like you’re flying back from Argentina in May.  In the meantime, we’ll just tell the legs to shut up and enjoy the ride until the wheels fall off.

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Mailbag Monday #14

Today_we_continue our Mailbag Monday series…

We’ve had a ton of fun chatting with our pen pals, and here is the final letter, unless we get more…

Dear Nathan,

My name is Shane.  I like video games.  What do you like to eat?

Your friend,

Shane

Rainy climbs in Ecuador

Hello Shane,

I’ve been known to play video games every once and a while. My brothers and  have been on a pretty significant drought, although I did beat the Angry Birds game on my brothers iPhone. I was thinking about hanging up video games since I hit the pinnacle of my career, but I figure I should keep my skills sharp in case something more difficult comes along.

Lately, the bakeries in South America sell pineapple pastries that are impossible to resist. If there was one type of food that I miss currently, I would have to say a good sandwich. It has been several months of tacos, rice, and now chicken. It’s going to be an adjustment to come home to a kitchen with all the fixings. The simplicity of this trip has been an eye-opening experience; I won’t soon forget the convenience of a permanent home.

Thanks for writing!

Nathan

Small Worlds

With_a_ribbon of road stretching back thousands of miles to Alaska, we have many stories to share.  Those we meet usually hope to distill the vast spaces and places into a few highlights.  It’s hard to comprehend what we are doing in any other way.  Upon meeting new people in new places, one of the first things they ask for is our “favorite part of the trip.”  They know and we know that this is almost an impossible question to answer, but we try nonetheless.  People are the highlight of Bound South without a doubt.

Waitresses in Colombia model next to David's bike, "Goliath" for a photo.

Traveling by bicycle is unlike any other kind of travel that I’ve ever done.  I’ve had my eyes opened to the endless possibilities one can grasp with a bicycle and a tent.  At this point, I do not know if I could ever go back.  We could trade country roads for train stations, tent sites for hotels and hostels, and would miss most of the amazing people that we meet along the way to Argentina.  It wouldn’t be the same.  In some ways I think our travel by bicycle harkens back to a more sentimental and perilous era of tourism.  Perhaps there were days before Lonely Planet, before the internet, before tourism was big business.  Travel was composed of much more discomfort, random searching, danger, inefficiency, and luck for better or for worse.  And perhaps the attitude towards travelers was different; they were less consumers and more students, people from a strange land who had something to learn and something to share.  This is not to idealize the past, because modern tourism has opened the world up in profound new ways.  To travel by bicycle channels the most powerful aspects of historical travel; in the modern age, it is hard to do this any other way.

Our camping spot at a local stadium near Pasto, Colombia gave us front row seats to this sword fighting rehearsal.

The pit crew at our roadside pit stop in Colombia.

We have noticed on this bicycle expedition that the most wonderful and hospitable people in the world are typically the furthest from centers of tourism.  We’re a little more extraordinary and less annoying that way, I think.  Based on the flocks of children that gather to stare at us while we eat at rural South American restaurants, we know we’re out of the ordinary.  The relative coldness of the cityscape is not a new stereotype, to be sure.  In Bogotá, we were just a few faces in a sea of people, a few cyclists scrambling to escape the freeways of the city.  We wouldn’t dream of approaching a stranger on the sidewalk and asking if we could set up our tent in his apartment.  These are simple realities of urban living the world over.  Only a few days later, when we were in the empty mountain roads outside of Mocoa, we didn’t hesitate to approach a farming family and ask for a place to camp for the night.  We are asking for help, and a safe place to tent is a gift of generosity that we never take for granted.  Deep down there is satisfaction from the knowledge of mutual benefit; we know that we have made others’ lives richer through our travels and stories.  Everything we do here on our blog is made more powerful and more poignant in the company of a few new friends.

We had much to teach these two children while we were staying with their family in Garzon, Colombia. Here they are showing off their "fist bump".

Jumping for Joy

Our journey is built upon the simple kindness of strangers, the humble and hard-working families of nine countries between Anchorage and Ushuaia.  They are of limited means but have more than their parents ever had.  They work hard and dream for the even better opportunities that their children will have.  They are farmers, shopkeepers, restaurant owners, storytellers, carpenters, mothers and fathers.  They are “authentic” as far as touristic parlance goes; but when we’re looking for a family in South America, that’s the last thing on our minds.  You realize how far you’ve come from Alaska only when you’re sitting in a family room in South America seeing kids’ eyes go wide.

One small hill separated this bus from a gradual descent to Cuenca. We (minus David; he supervised) helped them over the top.

If you would like to experience this kind of travel and learning for yourself and your family, we heavily recommend signing up for two online services: Couchsurfing and Warmshowers.  They can be an economical window to the world and a means to share your world with others.  Even if you can’t host us for a night on our journey to Ushuaia, you can help someone like us on their journey elsewhere.

Avenue of the (Hidden) Volcanoes

When_a_given stretch of highway is titled “Avenue of the _________”, we know great riding is in store (like our days on the Avenue of the Giants in Northern California months ago).  Thus, excitement was my immediate response when I heard from our host in Tumbaco that our route would lead us to the Avenue of the Volcanoes, a portion of the Pan-American Highway in Ecuador that lies between two mountain chains and their respective volcanoes.  And I wasn’t disappointed.  Leaving Tumbaco the next day, we familiarized ourselves with the cloud-shrouded Cotapaxi, the second largest volcano on the avenue at 19,347 feet, as we climbed up 6000 feet over its shoulder at 12,000 feet.  At the top of our ascent, we were treated to spectacular views of the volcanoes lining the highway ahead.  Before long, however, clouds rolled in and blanketed the peaks.

The Avenue

Nathan's rain gear: yellow rain jacket, orange dish gloves, blue rain pants, and black booties. Now that's style!

Ribbon of road in the highlands

We were treated to hot cocoa, juice, bread and hard-boiled eggs for breakfast with the Ambato family

Our time on the avenue after those brief glimpses was one of hidden volcanoes and inclement weather.  Rain, hail, and lightning fell from the sky.  Clouds enveloped us in fog on high mountain climbs and descents.  In spite of these daily trials, our time was also filled with incredible encouragement.  Honks, cheers, and waves became common, and increased in regularity with each additional rain drop. Even our favorite “two hands off the wheel thumbs up” was deployed by one very enthusiastic truck driver.  A family gave us space to sleep sheltered from the rain.  Kids showed us shelter near their favorite soccer field.  A restaurant housed and fed us.  After each rainy night, we started the next day energized and dry.  The conversations, food, and laughter we shared with the people along the avenue contrast with the challenges we faced while riding it.

Roadside panaderias (bakeries) are trending for Bound South. Fresh buns and pastries for a dime each hit the spot. Plus, Jif from Miami is still in good supply.

Approaching the clouds

So many roads to explore

The clouds created a nice backdrop for this monument in Alausi

Caution was absolutely necessary in the fog.

Mariella and her mom

One night outside of Ambato especially stands out.  A family of eight brothers gave us an unfinished home to lay our sleeping mats and sleepy heads down for the night.  Handshakes and greetings abounded while we were shown our sleeping quarters.  It wasn’t long before we were seated around their dining table enjoying coffee, bread, and conversation and joined by their sisters and daughters of similar age (it’s funny how that works).  I sat next to Mariella, one brother’s one-year old daughter.  With a growing vocabulary, her parents solidified us as her new friends.  At first, we were her “nue-ego”.  With a little practice, though, it wasn’t long before we became her “nuevos amigos”.

Our second-most favorite sign

Into the fog

Wait, someone is missing.

Found him!

This boy and his friend insisted on hanging on to our bicycles as we rode out of town. The push up out of town was appreciated, but it became a bit dangerous as we started descending. Even after Isaiah sternly told them to go home, they chased us down the main highway.

When I look back on the road from Alaska, people are what I remember most (and maybe the food, too).  Mountains, lakes, coastlines, deserts, roads, towns, and cities blend together to form a vague painting of the americas in my mind.  Only when I reflect on our new friends does that painting gain clarity and color.

Owned and operated by three sisters, this beautiful restaurant took very good care of us. La Escondida, just south of Chunchi, has delicious food (especially grilled cheese), groovin' 80s american tunes, and friendly staff. A big thanks to them for giving us shelter for a night.

Our bike alarm for the night outside the restaurant

Cold drizzle beaded on our skin, eyelashes, and hair in the fog. Here's me, being all serious.

Sunlight breaks through the clouds near Chunchi

When In Doubt

Rambling_through_the Palouse of Eastern Washington, many months ago, we came up with a maxim that has served us well to this day.  “When in doubt, choose adventure.”  Noble in its intention, “choosing adventure” is meant to ensure that we don’t shy away from the paths less traveled.  They may be more dangerous or uncertain or difficult.  Adventure is a big part of Bound South.  In practice, however, this maxim is most often leveraged ex post to justify a poor decision by yours truly.

A reminder of hard work.

Our first day in Ecuador was a rainy and cold one.

We stumbled upon this school that night, where we took shelter.

A typical lunch in Colombia and Ecuador. For $2 or less, you can get a hearty meat and vegetable soup, an enormous plate of beans, rice, chicken, and potatoes, and a cold cup of juice. We love it.

Cycling is celebrated in Colombia and Ecuador. Road signs and statues are common.

Here is an example from our past days in Ecuador: we were riding down the Pan-American highway.  The road is spectacular, smooth, and mountainous.  I hear about “the old highway from Salinas” and convince Nathan and David to explore it with me.  The result?  Epic, muddy dirt roads, stream crossings, five-way-dirt-intersections-with-no-signs, impossibly steep cobblestone climbs, and lots of getting lost in the country.  We finally wound our way back to the Pana, exhausted and dirty.  At least we traveled southwards, right?  We press on, “adventure” the word begrudgingly gritted between our teeth.

The old "highway" from Salinas.

This tarantula (or rather the sight of him) on the Salinas road nearly knocked me off my bike.

Old roads are the best roads.

Thankfully it doesn’t always work out that way.  That’s what real adventure is about after all; it is not a steady and predictable set of  wonderful experiences and surmountable challenges.  As Robin Hanson writes, “This has a big lesson for those who like to think of their real life as a grand adventure: relative to fiction, real grand adventures tend to have fewer guides, and more randomness in success. Real adventurers must accept huge throws of the dice; even if you do most everything right, most likely some other lucky punk will get most of the praise.”  They must “learn to see the glorious nobility of those who try well yet fail.”  That’s real adventure; simultaneously sobering and satisfying.

Entering one of many tunnels on El Chaquinan.

Leaving the rain, complete darkness engulfed us in most tunnels. Headlights were a necessity.

Steep and muddy single-track called for teamwork.

Mud was inescapable and a bit of fun.

Isaiah functioned as Nathan and David's rear brake for this extremely slippery downhill.

The riding was unforgettable.

Sometimes adventure works out and it makes all of the hapless searching and uncertainty worth its while.  We found an old decommissioned railroad line outside of Quito that had devolved (evolved?) into unkempt dirt singletrack, winding its way through countless canyons and dark tunnels.  Locals call it El Chaquinan and were shocked to see gringos attempting its passage by bicycle.  It wasn’t particularly difficult riding, safe for the parts where we had to scale muddy walls by pushing the bikes, or where my tires washed out on some old rails and sent me diving over the bars.  It was fun, like the first time you rode your bicycle through the rain and mud as a kid.  It was the kind of riding I will remember for the rest of my life.  The annual Carnival celebrations in Ecuador helped us clean off the mud; so many children had squirt guns to do battle with our water bottles.  In the end, we arrived in Tumbaco muddy, tired, and excited for the time to rest with our fantastic hosts.  Teachers at the British School near Quito, the Tober family hosted us and fed us and let us be a part of their family and community at the British School.  The adventure continues now south of Quito as we ride quickly into Peru.  Spending time with the Tober-Zambrano family made us all miss our own family and home.  When you think about it, family is a real adventure with great reward and few guides.  Our sights are set on that and so much more as we continue southwards on our bicycles.

Camelback's high performance jet valve bottle technology proved to be unbeatable.

We spotted this rider from the railroad line high above in the canyon.

We called this bamboo shack home for a few days while we stayed with the Tober-Zambrano family.

During our presentation at the British School, many questions were asked.

Steve lets his daughter, Carla, give Angus a try.

Like their parents, Steve and Maria's children were bicycle fanatics.

Ramone dizzies David with a few roundabout laps at center court.

Carla didn't hesitate to show off her cycling prowess either. In fact, she was very clear about how she was both stronger and faster than David on the swings and on her bicycle.

The end of a hard day's work at the British School

Mailbag Monday #13

Today_we_continue our Mailbag Monday series…

Dear David,

How is your trip?  I love to ride bike.  I take piano lessons.  I am realy good at my Chrimas songs.  How many miles do you ride every day?  I am in the 3rd grade in the Hazelton School in North Dakota.  I have a farm.  I have kittens at my farm.  They are about 6 weeks old.  What kinds of things do you like?  What is the state you are in now?

From,

Summer

Tunnel silhouettes near Quito

Dear Summer,

Our trip is going very well.  Ecuador is wonderful.  The people are very kind and the views are spectacular – we are beginning to see snow-capped peaks again!  It’s great that you enjoy riding your bike.  It is something you can enjoy for many years to come.  Piano is a wonderful instrument to learn.  I took lessons for a few years but took up other instruments as a I grew older.  On average, we ride about 120 kilometers, or 70 miles, a day.  It varies depending on the terrain and our overall health.

My family has a farm, too!  In addition to many kittens, we also have horses, cows, and dogs.  I like many things.  I have always enjoyed playing sports, namely soccer and basketball.  I also enjoy camping and exploring.  Last summer, I went backpacking in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming with three friends.  Photography, reading, music, and serving others are a few other interests I really enjoy.  Currently, we are in the Cotopaxi province of Ecuador. Its area surrounds Cotopaxi, an enormous volcano that soars close to 20,000 feet above sea level. Thanks for your letter!

Sincerely,

David

Gear: Leatherman

Leatherman._He’s our sixth man off of the bench.  He can’t guarantee success, but he sure does prevent a whole lot of failures.  We met in Anchorage; he was a well-made American tool in our loving American family who was ready to travel the world.  We first became acquainted after we forgot to purchase a can opener and were forced to crudely hack at a tin lid with our new friend to survive outside of Denali.  It was love at first opened can of chicken.  Leatherman doesn’t complain, doesn’t smell, doesn’t bend, doesn’t break, doesn’t rust, doesn’t wear out, and doesn’t pilfer my secret stashes of food, unlike just about everything else involved in Bound South.  Leatherman is the overqualified corporate leader, while we are some cheap imitation of The Office.  He possesses countless utility and skills and tools; we frantically call upon him to save our lives with just the knife and the pliers.  Perhaps we’ll finally use the corkscrew in Ushuaia.  Or cut some firewood in Patagonia.  Leatherman is the chicken, we are the egg.  Leatherman is the cart, we are the horse.  Leatherman will return from Argentina as he always is: sterling, silver, and handsome.  We will return from this trip emaciated, bilingual, and with embarrassing tan lines and some good stories.  Most of those stories won’t mention Leatherman directly.  Made-In-The-USA, Stainless Steel, Infinite-Utility, Multi-Tool-We’ll-Never-Lose-Leatherman, today is your day.