From Costa Rica and beyond

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Colombia Part II

Cali is a city known for its salsa dancing clubs and its plastic surgery clinics. I didn´t patronize either. Some of you may be disappointed about that and perhaps some day I´ll regret it, but I still had a nice stay there. Angelica Orozco´s sister, Alexandra, manages the very nice Hotel Calima Real. I was able to stay there for next to nothing and enjoy good breakfasts and all the CNN my heart desired. Plus my bike was shielded from the elements in the hotel garage. The highlights of my time in Cali included a tour of the city courtesy of Alexandra, her husband (Ferney), and her son (Juan) and daughter (Camilla). We drove up to a hilltop to gaze over the city by night. I was reminded of overlooking Montreal from Mont Royal. Before going out, I had eaten a massive pasta dinner. Alexandra asked me what I would like to do and particularly if I would like to go eat something. Stuffed to the gills but not knowing what to suggest nor how to suggest it in Spanish, I kept it easy and meekly suggested that perhaps a little dessert would be good. Being conscientious hosts, this then became the evening´s quest - get Glenn some dessert. After bypassing a number of cool neighborhoods a bunch of hip restaurants and bars and finding no place that would serve up a good dessert, I began to feel a bit silly about all this trouble on my behalf. Finally, we stopped at a bakery, where I got a piece of pie and where they treated me to a tasty loaf of sweet bread. Ferney and I closed the evening by going, just the two of us, to a friendly roadside bar for a couple beers. My very broken (as if it had ever been whole) Spanish sufficed to discuss a bit of Colombian culture, schools, politics, beer, and women.

Two nights later, my colleague, Angelica, was in town with her son, Geronimo. I joined her and her family at Fernando and Alexandra´s home. Angelica filled me in on what has been happening (or not) in the Northeast Kingdom and at our school. Alexandra´s daughter, Camilla, kept yummy food flowing my way, and Ferney taught me how to make Arepas, a Colombian specialty.

Good fortune had Aussie riding friends, Adrian and Tim, arriving in Cali that same day. We decided to quit Cali the next day and head for Ecuador. Despite rain, we met at 8:30am and slowly made our way through the city to find highway 25 south. On the outskirts of town, I noticed my bike was not feeling normal. The rear end felt squirrelly. I pondered reasons for that, but soon learned what the real problem was when suddenly the rear end felt like it was going to slide out from under me - a flat tire. Damn! Fortunately, I was not alone. Adrian and Tim soon realized I was not behind them and backtracked to find me. We put the bike up on the center stand and, on the side of the road, removed the rear wheel which had become home to two large nails. I dug through my panniers to find a replacement tube. We took the old, shredded tube out, inserted the new one and (using my tire irons, the best one of which I had just bought in Bogota!) started putting the tire back on. That started easily enough, but with about 3/4s of the tire on, we couldn´t get it to budge anymore. As we pushed harder and harder, the new tire iron began to bend - not a good sign. Resignedly, we loaded the wheel on Adrian´s KLR and he rode off to find a tire shop. He returned about an hour later with the wheel ready to go.

Off we dashed, still intent to reach our destination, Pasto. After a little rain and a great trout lunch, the landscape became hilly and led us down into a canyon. A Red Cross vehicle was coming out of the canyon as we headed in - an ominous sign, given all the rain Colombia has seen in the past weeks. Indeed, our road was partly washed out in several locations, but it was passable, easily so for our two-wheelers. At least, it was until my rear end felt the back of my bike start to squirm again. Another flat! Having learned from our first effort, we knew this was doable, if annoying. The problem this time was the valve stem. It was so loose, that it popped right out of the tube. Having used my spare tube, we now turned to a patched tube Adrian was carrying. By this time, our hopes of reaching Pasto were dashed, but there was still time to get close. Off we went! There were lots of police along this beautiful route of canyons and rivers, but none were interested in stopping us or taking our money.

The sun was getting lower and the road getting worse (lots of potholes) when I again sensed something wrong with the tail of my bike. By now, I was getting paranoid and was no longer sure whether I was just imagining some defect. To be safe, though, I pulled over and Tim quickly confirmed that my tire was flat again. Adrian, who has a biker´s equivalent to a driver´s lead foot, was way ahead of us. By now, Tim and I were becoming a practiced pit crew. He learned how to detach my panniers. We needed to work quickly as the daylight was dwindling in this mountainous area. Tim was quick to point out that at least my tire went flat in scenic locations. We wondered though with all the police around, if it was a safe location.

This flat really baffled us. The valve was fine and despite using lots of water and soap, we could not find a leak. Good thing. We had no more tubes, so this would have to do. Soon, a Spanish couple on Hondas arrived and checked on us. Tim asked them to tell the police we were there. Within 15 minutes, a couple police showed up and shortly thereafter, Adrian. Tim asked if this was a dangerous area. They said it was, but when we asked if that was because of FARC, they said no, simply general delinquency. Our trio reassembled my bike and we rode to the next town where Adrian had already reserved $5 rooms in a hotel (before turning back to find us). I was extremely worried about my tire going flat again...and this time in the dark, but we arrived safely at the hotel and the tire pressure was still good. We had a delicious dinner at our hotel and marveled that I could drive over 13,000 miles without a flat and then get three in one day.

The next day, after coffee and arepas, we made our dash for Ecuador. The Andean mountains and canyons on our way to Pasto were breathtaking. I was still holding my breath about the rear tire, but all seemed well. Highway 25 took us to ever higher elevations and cooler weather. My bike, like all carbeurated vehicles, lost a bit of power and responsiveness, but still had more than enough to move me speedily forward. The roads were well paved and nicely sculpted for fun in the curves and the scenery continued to amaze with small streams cascading hundreds of meters from on high. A bit of traffic was stopped where some road work was being done. Still paranoid, I looked at my tire. Tim confirmed: it´s going flat again!!!! We proceeded through the construction zone and stopped where there was a generous shoulder. Somehow, we had ridden nearly 100 miles and only now did that patched tube fail - who knows why then and not sooner? We attracted the attention of some police officers who were posted nearby. They joined us, oversaw our repair efforts (and indeed, Adrian and I managed to pinch one of the new tubes we had JUST bought in Pasto) and checked out our bikes.

Our last noteworthy stop in Colombia was at the Santuario de Las Lajas, a majestically situated church near the Ecuadorean border. The Virgin was reportedly seen there back in the mid 1700s and the current construction (done in a Neo-Gothic style and reminiscent of Germany´s Neuschwanstein) was completed in the mid 1800s. A local man unchained a barrier that allowed us to ride our bikes down a pedestrian only path right to the church. I felt like a schmuck doing that, but being out of shape and at a high elevation, I justified my indulgence.

We successfully and uneventfully crossed into Ecuador around 5pm. We rode into the dark and spent the night at a $6 a room hotel in San Gabriel, a charming little town, whose church is topped with an impressive sculpture of the archangel. We enjoyed a $1.75 dinner and then crashed in our beds under thick, warm blankets - a necessity in this cool climate.

I am writing from Quito, officially south of the first time! We enjoyed a lovely ride here, although we somehow missed the monument marking the equator.  Such a photo-op gone...and an opportunity to show off the result of my self-inflicted buzz cut.

Quito looks like a great city! Adrian and Tim are getting their bikes tuned. Mine just needs an oil change. Hopefully, I will have more to tell about this mountain city very soon.

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