8/31/19 – 9/3/19
Early the morning of August thirty first Soph got on a bus to Popayan. I retraced our path to the east and then took highway forty five south. Riding in the early morning is a rare treat. The road has a different look and feel. The air tastes sweeter. I fly through the downhill and past Pitalito. I stop for coffee just after getting off the twenty and sit eating my sweet roll letting the excitement of the trampolina build as the caffeine takes hold. Every Latin American country has a “most dangerous road in the world.” The trampolina is named for the way the cars and bodies bounce down the steep cliffs after miscalculating a turn. I finish my coffee and move.
Moderate climbs and drops that I dispose of with ease. Pushing and pushing until late morning, when rain comes. I pull off for lunch. White noise on the tin roof of the restaurant. A timber truck pulls up and a man jumps off the logs in the back. I assumed he was a worker. He came in and spoke to the manager. I didn't pay much attention, but he clocked my soft gringo skin and approached.
"Perdon señior. Soy de Venezuela y estoy viajando con mi hijos." I looked and saw some kids crawling out from beneath a tarp on top of the truck. I gave him an apple and two thousand pesos, about 60 cents. He seemed grateful. Other people gave handfuls of change and the kids came inside to get little bowls of porridge. There are always people on the move here. Always in search of something better. They're easy to pick out. Latin Americans are generally clean cut and highly detail oriented with personal appearance. A dirty collar and a hole in a shoe or an old Jansport held together with safety pins. These are the marks of a refugee. They do all the same things that we do. They walk, they bike, they hitchhike. They do it rain or shine. The difference is they don't have a choice.
He told me his dream was to get to the United States. To say thanks for all the support, he ran outside with a bottle of alcohol, took a giant swill, and began blowing fireballs in the parking lot. The kids looked happy with their soup.
I put all my rain gear on just in time for the sky to clear and took it all off. Six more clicks to the top of the hill and I reach a checkpoint. I chat with the police for a few minutes. They don’t seem interested in searching me so I offer my hand, thank them, and say goodbye.
More rain on the downhill. Cover up and zip down slick roads fast as I can with fogged glasses. Bottom out, rain stops, pull over to strip off impermeable gear. It starts again within twenty minutes. Don’t bother with the slicks because I will get just as wet sweating inside them on the climb. Hours of downpour. Numb hands and face. Pass a little house and ask to sit on the porch to get warm. Woman hands me agua panela and bread with a small chunk of country cheese as if she is expecting me. Held the hot mug between my freezing palms.
Twenty six more kilometers. Another checkpoint. We talk about riding and different countries and eventually I ask if they would like to search my bags. They laugh and wave me on. Landslides all over the road. Old lady shoveling away at bus size pile of mud. Filling little bucket and dumping it over a cliff. Kids playing on top of the next one, shoveling somebody’s hard work back into the little bit of lane that has been cleared. They can be hundreds of meters wide. Sometimes I forget that there is pavement under it all.
Overnight at a casa ciclista in the jungle with three other riders and we all pitch in what we have for hobo stew. I woke up at five the next morning with my heart pounding to hit the trampolina. I could hear the rain though and laid for an hour and a half hoping it would subside. Eventually I decide I just have to leave and get moving. I step outside and realize what I’d heard was a little creek nearby, the skies were blue. Not wanting to waste time I poured my coffee and cream into my cereal.
Within ten minutes of riding I notice my shifting is off. I look at my chain and it is rusty from the rain and covered in sand. I pull over and scrub the drive-train with gasoline from the stove and then oil anything that moves.
Breakfast in Mocoa. Anticipating a rough ride, I try to release air from my tires, but the valve is stuck on the front. I push it in and then it won’t stop pissing air out. Pull on it with my pliers and get it to stop. It was still harder than I’d like for the terrain, but I didn’t feel like messing with it.
As I begin climbing I noticed my water was half gone. Something had punctured the bottle. Stop again to salvage what was left into another one. All these issues and I hadn’t even hit the dirt yet. Checkpoint at the bottom. Chat with soldiers. They tell me that two other cyclists are just thirty minutes ahead. Check my gear out, but don't search anything.
Road begins to wind and climb. First truck passes remarkably close. The dirt begins soon after and I immediately have to walk my bike up a steep rocky section. I get back on but have to ride unclipped because it is tough to balance on the fist sized rocks and my right shoe is torn so if I needed to pull it from the pedal quickly in a fall I couldn't. Thirty five hundred meters of climbing in the next 20k. Twice as steep as our hardest climb to date. My over-inflated front tire made it rough, but I was moving.
Strange lunch of rice and beans while a drunk guy drills me about cocaine. He tells me the next restaurant is twenty kilometers ahead. It is one o’clock and that is far and I’m not carrying much food or water, but it doesn't make sense to stop yet. Put socks on because I have blisters from riding in the rain. Immediately come to what looks like a shallow river crossing but hit a deep rock and come off the bike. Feet now permanently cold and wet. Continues to get rockier. Trying to maneuver around baby heads while riding uphill at a sluggish clip of three to four clicks per hour.
Occasional cars passing but mostly quiet. They give no space. Road annoyingly graded and banked so the left side is always more appealing and the right full of loose gravel and large stones. As trucks pass I struggle to get far enough to my side. I hit a large stone and fell to my left, coming within inches of hitting the side of a passing truck with my head.
I caught sight of Andre and Carmen, the two other cyclists the police had mentioned. Hungarians. Rode central Asia and now moving for Argentina. They have light bikes but they're slow. We leap frog for a bit as I stop to take pictures, but I leave them behind.
Pass a communications tower with a nice flat place to camp, but kept pushing hoping the restaurant further ahead would have a covered area to keep the tent out of the night rain. Passed an abandoned military checkpoint. Then a tight curve and a rainbow. The rain had miraculously held off all day apart from some sprinkles. Soldiers set up just in front of the restaurant at the top and cheered as I arrived. Luis, restaurant owner, showed me to a nearby building and said I could camp inside for free. It had a hot shower. I ate two dinners and went to bed.
The gain in elevation made the air in my tires expand and my front twas now rock solid. I still couldn't get the valve to release and I knew it would be torturous to descend on. I justified carrying a safety pin for ten thousand miles by puncturing my own tire. Flat number eleven. I felt it letting out slowly and hoped it could be replaced in the morning. I was amazed that Soph had yet to get a flat. Sometimes it strangely annoyed me. Then I thought, “could she ever get a flat?” If she did get a puncture, but I had to replace it, who’s flat was it?
I was happy to wake up to a completely deflated tire the next morning. The cold made it hard to replace. I had a warm breakfast and waited for the sun to break through the clouds before I started down the slow and rocky other side. There would be another steep climb after an hour or two. My clothes had never thoroughly dried from the first rain out of San Augustin and my underwear was causing an indefatigable chaffing which required the construction of a crude sock from duct tape and gauze as a means of defense. It was hard to find a rhythm. I broke for lunch at two thirty. I couldn’t tell if I was hot from the sun or cold from the altitude. There was still twenty kilometers to Sibundoy.
Ten or fifteen kilometers outside of town you reach the last high point of the trampolina and get one of those heavenly views of grey skies above all the surrounding peaks but with a thirty mile mouth in the middle of it all to let the sun shine into all the little farms and lakes in the valley. It’s a warm reminder of how beautiful the world is after spending two days struggling up the steep side. The descent is relatively easy with a few sharp curves. At some point it turns to tarmac. On the outskirts of town there are massive white clay ovens the size of a house and little dusty men cooking bricks.
At the fringe of most pueblos you are likely to find the shacks. They’re constructed of any combination of mud, corrugated steel, sheets of plastic, clapboard, cardboard, or even glass bottles used as bricks in between mortar. They often lack waste disposal or proper plumbing, and are often littered with garbage and strange cloudy liquids flowing down makeshift canals between property lines and along roadsides. I’m always strangely drawn to these parts.
Álvarez and Dani were artists that lived in this rickrack. We met through Warmshowers and they’d graciously offered me a place to lay my head. Their home was modest to say the least. The kitchen had a dirt floor. The storage room I slept in had a cold concrete slab. They’d met two other artists passing through town that day and offered them a space as well, so I was informed I would be sharing the storage room for a night. My roommates were Nicolas, Sabrina, and their three year old son Leon. They slept on a tiny filthy mattress, all three of them. I blew up our shiny orange double wide mat and placed it next to theirs with my lonely sleeping bag in the center. We sat huddled in the kitchen over a pot of agua panela talking about traveling. I got that American guilt feeling that I get when the conversation turns to visas and all the countries other people will probably never be welcome to simply because of where they’re from.
I didn’t sleep much. I was cold and could hear mice and rats scurrying around me. I kept thinking about the three people to my left.
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