Cajamarca, Peru to Quito, Ecuador (October 2003)
Peru and Ecuador
- More than 13 million children in sub-Saharan Africa have lost a parent because of AIDS.
- 22% of British adults are obese.
- In sub-Saharan Africa, 6000 people a day die because of AIDS.
- One less trip to the cinema per year by people from the world’s wealthy nations could pay for a healthcare system for all of Africa.
- In the last UK census 390,000 people stated their religion as “Jedi Knight”.
“Maybe all you know about South America is how to eat an avocado pear.”
—Thomas Cook advert, 1953
Tips from the 1953 South American Handbook:
“Travellers should make a special point of never sitting in damp clothes, even for five minutes.” “The most suitable clothing is either 2 or 3 lightweight suits of the ‘Palm Beach’ type or, better still, half a dozen suits of white duck.” “At altitude be sure to walk slowly, and on flat feet.”
“Curiosity will conquer fear even more than bravery will.”
“What is stronger – fear or hope?”
“Life’s not like a box of chocolates. It’s more like a jar of chillies. What
you do today may end up burning your ass tomorrow.”
From Cajamarca I dropped back down to sea-level once more, to hot skies and
men wearing shorts and flip-flops. One evening I slept beside a haystack,
the straw soft and prickly beneath me. A lady from the village looked
dubiously at my camping stove, departed, and returned soon after walking
with the exaggerated careful step of somebody carrying a large bowl of soup
and a plate of rice. Waitress service and a comfy bed of straw: I will
remember that village.
But the next 1000km were utterly forgettable. The kilometres melted away as
I pondered their worth; how important really is the need to ride every
possible inch? Is it more important than that wasted week of my life? What
did I gain from that lost time? The thoughts revolved as the wheels span and
Peru passed by until one day I reached Cuenca and was glad to have those
kilometres behind me and to have achieved them on the bike. I remembered
little, but it is the little things that you remember; the things that you
do not notice from a bus: the undertaker who sold coffins and Coca-Cola in
the same shop; the cafés with the melancholy Jesus prints and the
out-of-date calendars of improbably-breasted beauties clutching cold beers;
filling my water bottles at a bakery-cum-bus depot-cum-cock fighting arena;
burning my tongue because boiling water is so much hotter at sea-level than
it is up in the Andes.
The land reminded me of Africa, of dust-hazed heat and scrubby bush, water
being drawn from wells to quench the thirst of hump-backed, contoured
cattle. A man may shout “gringo!” rather than “mzungu!” as I pass by here
but the cheap nylon soccer-style shirt and the baseball cap are the same.
Like in Africa flip-flops dangle from his feet as he rides his donkey,
towing a creaking water-cart on wobbly wheels. Like in Africa, minibus taxis
with glitzy stickers and dubious brakes race by, over-loaded and over-fast,
over the other side of the road with the conductor leaning out of the window
and whistling whilst the driver overtakes something, hooting and hoping for
the best as the road rounds a corner.
In Africa it was an art form to spot somebody who was likely to speak
English and hence be able to assist you. And all over the world it is
advisable to choose well when selecting a person to ask for directions.
These judgements have to be made only from the person’s appearance as you
have never yet spoken to them. The next stage of assessing a person’s
character comes once you have actually spoken to them. A useful pointer that
the person I am talking to is a jerk is when their English vocabulary is
limited to the regular use of the word “fuck” or if they ask incessantly
about the price of my bike (my standard response: “it was a gift”, or the
surreal: “about 20 kilograms” which usually provides enough confusion to
allow a quick change of topic).
Ecuador’s only fault is to come near the end of a long run of Andean
countries. If I was riding from north to south and just beginning my South
American travels in Ecuador then perhaps I would love the country, but right
now I want something a bit more different, a change of scene, a new chapter.
The terrain doesn’t help much: the exasperation of non-stop long-ish uphills
and downhills with not a moment’s flat respite overwhelms any appreciation
for the landscape. The Caribbean tranquillity of Cartagena increasingly
fills my thoughts. The rainy season has finally caught me up so that the
impressive cones of volcanoes such as Cotopaxi were hidden in grey cloud.
Ever-gloomier reports from Colombia are swallowing me in my own brooding
storm clouds. Additionally, Ecuador uses the dollar as its currency meaning
that it is probably the most expensive South American country I have
But the people are generally friendly in Ecuador, with the notable
exceptions of the man who leaned out of the window of a passing truck and
punched me in the head, and the man who looked me up and down before
declaring, “with a body like that you will never make it round the world!”
The town of Catamayo seemed to specialize in coconut ice-lollies. I enjoyed
one then rode on. About an hour into the steep and extremely hot climb out
of town I noticed, sweating and suffering, that the road was dotted all
around with lolly sticks as passengers finished their lollies and, this
being South America, threw the sticks out of the windows. One hard hour of
riding equals a few minutes of ice lolly in a car. Not for the first time I
thought of the speed and ease of motorized travel.
Given my own imaginatively mangled interpretations of the Spanish language,
it is a little unfair for me to enjoy people’s terrible English so much
(there is, after all, that famous Spanish proverb about “el pot y la kettle”),
but here are a couple of recent gems from restaurant flyers given to me in
the streets of Loja:
“The pleasure to savour the best meat to the grill and their traditional roasted Uruguayan.”
“He/she offers:… strong plates… cured meat of head… rice with pottage and
meat hoe… tortilla to the French with mushrooms… chicken to the coca line… sandwich and mounted of beacon.”
Which all helps to remind me of my old adage when selecting an eating venue:
“If it has a menu in English – definitely too expensive; if it has a menu -
probably too expensive; if you can recognise what you are eating – perhaps
I left Loja at dawn and took the old dirt road out of town towards Cuenca.
Brisk broom-sweeps outside homes bloomed clouds of dust into the air.
Pockets of cloud wafted upwards out of the valley. The morning began it’s
business. Dawn in the Developing World is always such a bustle that I
sometimes wonder why it is still so poor. A green valley, a small quick
river, clusters of trees, black and white cows, a veil of dew over the grass
and even clouds of steam when you exhaled. Just like home: only three more years to go!
I stayed in Cuenca with Seb, an Ecuadorian friend of a friend. He had just
returned from a year in England and I arrived in time for his ‘Welcome Home’
party. It felt odd to watch him telling of exotic, far-off lands (“and in
England they have this special sauce that they put on everything. They call
it ‘gravy’…”) and to see how good it was to be back amongst friends and
family. We went to watch the local football team, Deportivo Cuenca, in a
terrible, lazy match. But the stadium was nice, the fans were quiet and
relaxed and I drank a beer and enjoyed the views of the cathedral and
Leaving his house to ride to Quito I had a near-disaster as his dog escaped
and ran off to the park. Terrified about losing my host’s dog I gave chase,
running round and round the park (to the amusement of the early morning
joggers) until eventually I got the little bugger back home!
Gringolandia, an area of Quito, rivals even Cusco for feeling utterly unlike
South America. Germans in zip-off trousers and sandals, Brits clutching
guide books, Israeli crowds shouting loudly about high prices, Scandinavians
booking Spanish classes, Americans in over-priced restaurants (Italian,
Indian, Thai, Israeli, Afghan or Mongolian), Frenchmen nursing hangovers,
Dutch discussing discount Galapagos Tours and a few Indian women with
several babies and no money sitting on the pavement begging from us all.
The Old Town of Quito is beautiful, and on Sunday when it is closed to
traffic it is wonderfully peaceful. Large plazas, fine old colonial
buildings, ambling families eating ice creams, small shoeshine-boys looking
for business and smug couples lounging intertwined together on park benches.
At some mysterious signal showers of pigeons scatter from the rooftops,
their shadows racing across the plaza as they swoop and curve and somehow
agree on a new resting spot. Then peace once more. On a small hill above the
city is a large metallic statue of the Virgin, prominent and impressive (and
no doubt keeping a safe watch over us all) yet standing in that very
slightly crouched posture of somebody who is busting for a pee. I watched
the funniest clown that I have ever seen as he followed people and mimicked
their every move. How cruelly embarrassing it is to be reflected (I noticed
he was working on Mirror Street) and exposed so ruthlessly. Hilarious for
the onlookers yet I took great care to keep out of his way.
One evening I gave an enjoyable presentation at the South American Explorers
Club in Quito but apart from that I have done very little
but be bombarded with ever-gloomier and depressing and frightening tales
about Colombia. And, worst of all, the Rugby World Cup is not on TV out here
either. Unbelievable! Good luck, boys…
I have made a bet with a New Zealander that if England wins the Rugby World Cup he will donate $50 to Hope and Homes for Children. If New Zealand wins, however, I have to carry a brick on my bike for a week…Are there any hopelessly optimistic Aussies, Bokke, French or even Welshmen keen to take me up on this bet too?!
AMERICAN PR: Do you know of anyone who would be able/willing to help with the fund-raising publicity of my ride when I enter the USA? Please contact me