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Bicycling Middle Earth
by Nancy Meredith
July 1992
 

The morning air was still cool in Parque Pedro Moncayo, and most of the 48 cyclists who had gathered there had not yet warmed up enough to shed their long sleeves. I watched as they stretched, checked equipment, and conferred with coaches before beginning the fourth and final stage of the Clásica Internacional de Ciclismo—a 500 km road race from Ambato, Ecuador, to Tulcán on the Colombian border.

Support vehicles with roof racks sporting spare bikes and wheels lent a carnival atmosphere to normally tranquil Ibarra, a town where bicycling is more often transportation than recreation. These lycra-clad racers on high-tech bikes were a colorful contrast to bicycling as usual. Sunday morning here is prime time for recreational and sport riding. During the rest of the week bicycling is, for the most part, purely functional. It is not an alternative to driving to work. It is primary transportation. I never saw a tandem in Ecuador, but I frequently saw two or more people on a bicycle, and more than a few balancing unwieldy loads on their two wheels.

As I saw the racers off, followed by local cyclists out for their Sunday spin, I felt my cycling muscles begin to twitch, and two days later I was successful in borrowing a bicycle—a bright red Kenstar 12-speed mountain bike. Be careful what you wish for. There I was, less than 100 miles north of the equator, with a bicycle, a map, and time. I was off to explore Imbabura Province. Alone.

It took a little while to get used to riding in thin canvas shoes, with no helmet, no computer, and no water bottle. Especially no water bottle. But whenever I got thirsty I stopped at a store and talked to whoever was there while I drank a Coke or a bottle of Güitig (pronounced Weetig) mineral water. Taking my refreshment with me was out of the question. Earlier that week, I had naively tried to carry my Güitig away from a store, only to be pursued by the astonished owner who explained that I had to drink it there. I finally got him to agree to allow me to take the bottle in return for a deposit of more than three times the original price of the drink. He was exceptional. Others would not let a bottle leave their store for any price.

The first day I stayed close to areas I already knew, although I didn’t know them well enough not to wonder if I was lost a couple of times. I stopped to ask a woman and her daughter which way to go to find the monument that marked the birthplace of Atahualpa, the last Inca emperor. They gave me directions and asked if I was a “deportista” (sportswoman). Maybe a little crazy, but no deportista by anybody’s standards.

On my second day out I had my great bicycle adventure and lesson in map reading. I started off for Lago Yahuarcocha, just north and uphill of Ibarra on the Pan American Highway, a road that sounds grander than it is. The Pan American is actually a two-lane road that frequently doesn’t even have lane markers. Drivers use whatever part of the road they need, and everyone seems to understand the system of no system. This is a good thing, because there aren’t any shoulders either. The highway is bordered by deep concrete-lined drainage ditches.

My uphill pull was rewarded with a quiet 12 km road circling the lake. It is not always quiet. It is also a speedway for automobile races. But I was there on a good day when there were very few cars and many other cyclists. Lago Yahuarcocha is a still-beautiful but dying lake that has become the cause of much concern locally. It has very little recharge from other water sources and there has not been much rain in the past year or so. Riding around the perimeter it is easy to see how far the water has receded from former levels.

A feeling that was a mix between trespasser and impostor came over me as I rode past the empty grandstands on the west side of the lake. I could almost hear the crowds that had been there for the last race, their cheers hanging in the air like the smoke that lingers after the fireworks are gone. A sign proclaimed what seems to be the national slogan of Ecuador: “Sports Yes, Drugs No!”

After a lunch of Güitig and ceviche, I rolled back down into Ibarra and out the other side toward the warm springs of Chachimbiro in a valley 36 km to the northwest. As I passed through the town of Imbaya, which was not on my map, I figured that Urcuqui, the town I was looking for, must be very close. It was, but not on that road. I should have turned at Imbaya. I should have also gotten something to drink.

After an easy cruise past fertile valley farms, I began to climb again, but I was rested and ready for it. The beauty of this country is incredible, and I haven’t yet seen a photograph that has captured it. For me, it is something felt as well as seen. It also helped to be cheered on by a cyclist going the other way. “¡Muy bueno, muy bueno!” he shouted as he rolled by. The climb suddenly became easier. When the road got so steep that I had to walk, I took it as an opportunity to experience the landscape at a slower pace. The country was dryer here, higher, less tame. These hillsides do not lend themselves easily to cultivation. There is something about that I like.

The road kept going up and the people, houses, and passing cars became fewer and fewer. I hadn’t seen a store since Imbaya. The sun was directly overhead, and close. Savoring the juice of my one and only banana, I was acutely aware of the danger of dehydration and found myself wondering how much liquid I could get from the fat-leafed plants that grew near the roadside. There was no shade.

I asked a man on a donkey how much further it was to Urcuqui. “Yes, yes, pretty soon,” he smiled, nodding in the direction I was going. It soon became apparent that he might have misunderstood my question. Shortly after the road had leveled off enough for me to ride again and to feel the welcome rush of air against my face, I saw a sign for an hacienda, El Hospital. Great! I was beginning to feel like a prime candidate for one, as I wondered what my chances were of pedaling off the edge of the earth. This concern had arisen in spite of strong evidence that the earth does not have edges—just one hill after another.

A consultation with my map showed me that El Hospital is about 20 km past Urcuqui. It was time to turn around. I still ask myself why I didn’t stop at El Hospital for something to drink and a little relief from the heat. It must have been that the prospect of coasting down the road I had just trudged up was so exhilarating that it erased all thoughts of thirst and death from my mind.

However, those thoughts soon returned. When the road started climbing again I knew I’d better give up and hitchhike — either that or fall by the roadside and become lunch for passing condors.

Given the lack of traffic, I was prepared to wait. A pickup truck went by with only the driver in it. "Perfect!" I thought, as I watched him speed by. Then just a few minutes later another car came, Dali-like, a mirage rising out of nowhere. The taxi with five people in it and a Laughing Buddha on the dashboard stopped for me! It was not a hallucination.

"Is there room for my bicycle in the back?"

"Yes, plenty of room," the driver laughed as he started to rearrange things in the trunk.

"Is there room for me inside?"

"Yes, plenty of room," he assured me.

Space is relative, I realized as I squeezed into the front seat next to a woman who was unusually large for a South American. Answering questions all the way back to Ibarra, I felt like I had happened onto a party of old friends. It’s hard to meet a stranger here.

The next day when I went out on the bike, I chose a route of dusty back roads, mostly unpaved, between Ibarra and San Antonio de Ibarra, a short ride long on quality. The dirt road took me past farms that were patchworks of infinitely many shades of green, through tiny villages, past a grandmother in her doorway who grinned broadly as she waved encouragement. Every time there was a choice to make I found someone to ask to be sure I was going where I thought I was. A farmer came out of his field to answer my question, offering me the back of his wrist in greeting. Touching the backs of your wrists when one or the other of you has dirty hands is a modified handshake I had learned a few days earlier. It is a gesture that attests to the importance of human contact, even when conditions are not completely convenient.

Sitting on the step of a store in a village just outside the town of San Antonio, I talked to the owner while I drank a Coke. She told me it’s too bad I wasn’t able to stay for another week for the Fiesta de San Antonio. I agreed. And already I was planning my next trip there, with my own bicycle.

I don’t know how far I rode on any of those three days, and I know my average speed was well below what I expect to ride at home. But I didn’t need a computer or a heart-rate monitor to measure the benefits of riding in this other world. Some things just can’t be measured. And don’t need to be.

©1992 Nancy Grona Meredith

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