Such Great Heights-Ecuador / Erika Rowe & Yaniv Singer

What exactly does the guide book mean when it says “watch out for the moneychangers at the border, they will try to cheat you.” Let me tell you. At the border between Colombia and Ecuador we realized what we should have known all along. Never trust these people. We approached a number of guys, shopping around for a reasonable rate. Soon we found two guys who were willing to give us a significantly lower rate than the others. They asked how much cash we had, then how much change, did the calculation on their calculator, showed us the amount, and moved on. Actually, first they asked us for some Israeli coins, for their “collection.” They walked off, and then Yaniv started to rethink the situation.

See, he can do what I never could. He can do quick calculations in his head. And he quickly realized that we had been cheated. Here’s what went down. One guy asked how much cash we had. The second guy asked how much change. While we were busy counting change, the first guy entered the amount of cash we had, multiplied it by a bad exchange rate, and saved it in the calculator’s memory. Afterwards, while we were watching the calculator, he entered the total amount of cash plus change, multiplied it by the agreed upon exchange rate, then, and here’s the key, instead of hitting enter, he hit memory. I don’t even want to think about how many times this happened before. Luckily, this time, we saved ourselves about $18.

This border crossing, which should have been so quick and easy compared to the others, ended up taking two hours longer than it should have because I inadvertently pissed of the Aduana (customs agent.) When we were done with Colombia (20 minutes, easy) we were directed to the Aduana office. As we arrived, he was walking away with another official and told us to wait there until he returned. Now it was around noon, and our experience is that officials are very likely to disappear for two or more hours around lunchtime. If this was to be the case, we wanted to know so we could go get some lunch too. I asked him how long we needed to wait and he gave me a look of disgust as he stalked off. When he returned, ten minutes later, he lectured Yaniv on how rude I had been. Then he spent the next two hours staring at his computer and chatting with friends before deigning to help us. No matter, he was honest and we got through without paying any money, which is really what matters.

From ecuador bordrer to quito

moment of zen

Night was falling and we drove off into the hills to look for camping. After getting rebuffed at a few houses, we almost gave up and camped next to a dirt road in the open. We were not inclined to do this, for security reasons and because it looked like rain. However, the people we met swore it never rained there. It was almost dark when we decided to ask at one more farm. They graciously allowed us to park our bikes next to their tractor in the garage. As we set up our tent they invited us to come shower (hot water!!) and join them for dinner. Such sweet people. As we finished a delicious fish meal it started pouring.

From ecuador bordrer to quito

asking, and being denied. It’s always for the best though, because every single time we DO get a yes, they turn out to be wonderful wonderful people.

From ecuador bordrer to quito
From ecuador bordrer to quito

our safe haven

From ecuador bordrer to quito

thank you REI, for making our sturdy tent. no thanks to Yaniv, who takes pictures instead of helping me set up

From ecuador bordrer to quito

our host was super-impressed by our heated hand grips. as am I.

The next morning we set out from their house, hoping to reach Quito before the afternoon. The rain had turned the dirt roads into muddy messes, which basically always spells disaster for me. True to form, I promptly lost control and went down. Not a big deal, until we noticed my clutch lever was broken. We never bought a replacement after I used our spare in Baja. Refusing to consider the worst-case scenario (Yaniv driving five hours to Quito while I waited with my bike) we decided to send him off to the nearest village in the hopes of finding some small motorcycle shop. He took off and I settled down with my book for a long wait. It was probably one of the more beautiful places to crash, complete with waterfalls and pastures. And I never mind sitting in the sun for a good read. I was immensely surprised when Yaniv returned twenty minutes later though. As he was riding to the village, he passed another BMW rider. It took him a few seconds to think it through, then he whipped around a raced to catch up with him. Brian, from England, was miraculously riding a BMW F650 GS Dakar as well!. AND he had a spare clutch lever, which he was kind enough to give us. Our problems solved, just like that. After the quick repairs, we were on our way to Quito.

From ecuador bordrer to quito

apparently, when in a muddy rut, one should stay within its confines, and not attempt to exit. especially if one’s name is Erika.

From ecuador bordrer to quito

camping somewhere

From ecuador bordrer to quito

my lovely view

New Years in Quito turned out to be quite dramatic. When leaving our hostel we ran into an Australian/British couple, Mandy and Dave, and decided to join forces with them for the night. The tradition in Ecuador is to make giant puppets (usually of people you don’t like) then burn them in the streets. The resulting scene was smoky and exciting, there’s nothing like a whole city on fire to make a night memorable. While looking for a good party, we noticed one area that had about forty Indians dancing in the street. They were more lively than anyone else, so we stuck around to watch them.

From ecuador bordrer to quito

business people getting in their kicks. probably burning an effigy of their boss

From ecuador bordrer to quito

even adults like to play

From ecuador bordrer to quito

how may I help you?

It was only men dancing, wearing everything from traditional dress to jeans to swanky club outfits. The day before we had eaten a delicious Indian meal in the restaurant in front of which they were gathered. Playing constantly there were music videos, all with one very famous male actor. Prophetically, many of them were stories about a girl rejecting him for drinking too much and making an ass of himself at a party.

From ecuador bordrer to quito

still feeling the love

From ecuador bordrer to quito

he wanted me to make-out with him at midnight. i declined.

At about five minutes to midnight, after more than four hours of dancing and hugging and kissing, the men split into two groups and started to fight. It started with two men pushing each other put quickly degenerated into a brawl the dimensions of which I have never witnessed. The two groups faced off at each other from opposite sides of the road and started to throw beer bottles at each other. Two by fours magically appeared and it started to get really ugly. When a cop car finally showed up they all ran away. In all of the excitement we almost forgot to yell Happy New Years and kiss.

The fires were all smoldering when the two gangs came back. One lone policeman was left holding his hands up between them. He was almost able to keep the peace, but some spectator on a balcony threw a bottle and they clashed again. When the police chased them away the final time we decided it was time for us to leave. Walking down the street with broken glass crunching under our feet and smoke swirling around the corner it felt a little like a post-apocalyptic scene. But a few streets away it was all back to normal, and we fell asleep quickly in the hostel.

From ecuador bordrer to quito

our camera died, so no pictures of the fight

From Quito south the countryside became more and more beautiful. We were soon passing snow clad mountains. The roads are in excellent shape so we made good time. There is no feeling equivalent to the exhilaration of having a full tank of gas, a slight chill in the air and many miles to go. As we rose in elevation we began to don more and more layers. Soon a fog settled in, which was fun for maybe five minutes. Then the fog thickened and the road deteriorated and we began the coldest most miserable ride of the trip so far. For five hours we strained to see ten feet in front of us. It rained intermittently. The road would end, abruptly and carry on for a few kilometers as a bumpy muddy mess. By six pm I was sobbing in my helmet, determined Yaniv wouldn’t know how miserable I was. Then we stopped for gas and I kept crying, so that didn’t work.

From ecuador bordrer to quito
From ecuador bordrer to quito

practicing my off-road riding skills. no falls this time.

From ecuador bordrer to quito

typical Ecuadorian dress

From Ecuador: quito to Peruvian border

the beginning of the fog

From Ecuador: quito to Peruvian border

death on four wheels

We decided to stay in a hotel that night, instead of camping, which immediately made me feel better. I fantasized about scalding hot water as we rode in Cuenca, a pretty little town in the south. We found a hostel and were greeted by the charming and ebullient owner, Esmeralda. The city was quaint but alive, full of beautiful architecture and cheap almuerzos. For USD 1.50 we got some sort of corn appetizer (it reminded me of hominy), lentil soup, rice, salad and meat. Also it was served with a delicious hot sauce.

From Ecuador: quito to Peruvian border

view from our hostel

From Ecuador: quito to Peruvian border

The city was so nice we lolled around until 3 pm, a rather late start, even for us. From Cuenca the descent from cold, lush agricultural land to hot arid desert was quick. One minute we were freezing our booties off and the next we were gasping for air. The riding was superb though, long curves that you could take fast and beautiful views of the mountains. The Ecuadorians that we met were welcoming and kind, and I left with a feeling of regret.

From Ecuador: quito to Peruvian border

coooold and pretty

From Ecuador: quito to Peruvian border

camping somewhere

From Ecuador: quito to Peruvian border

on top of the world

The road from Cuenca towards the Peruvian border was absolutely stunning. Up to some point, the road was in superb condition, made from cement instead of asphalt. No potholes, no oil spills, no construction, and hardly any trucks. The road was constantly curving, but it was wide curves, and you rarely had to shift below 4th gear, although you also rarely went on a straight stretch for more than a few seconds. Heaven for motorcycle riders.

We left Cuenca late, and for the first hour or two we only climbed till we got well into the realm of heavy clouds and frigid temperatures (the plants were covered in frost, and we wore all the layers we had. Then, suddenly, the road started to drop. When the temparatures got warmer again we stopped and set up our tent on the lawn of a beautiful house. The up and down routine continued throughout the next day. In 10 minutes of riding the climate would change from cold (silk liners for the gloves, warm layers under the riding clothes) to hot (stop. Take everything off, continue quick so that your sweat will evaporate. Slowly through the day the highs became less high and the lows became more low. The last two hours of riding were completely in desert hills. By six o’clock we arrived at the border town of Macara, and started to look for a hotel.

Uninspired towns and premature iPhones

It’s funny how you get a sense of a town as soon as you roll into it. Unlike the recent towns of the mountains of Medellin, Cali, Quito, Cunenca, this town was completely uninspiring and depressing. No parks, no trees, no cafés, no galleries, no museums, no nice restaurants, no bookstores, no street art. Nothing but hairdressers and hardware stores, and shoe stores, and ugly buildings. To tell the truth this is really what the vast majority of cities and towns look like so far in Latin America, and it is a big part of the reason why we are camping so much in the trip. The hotels fit the towns perfectly—most of them cater by the hour and usually have names the include the word “cupid.”

From Ecuador: quito to Peruvian border

cute piglets

The people in Macara are even more uninspiring than the town (to say “less inspiring” would wrongfully imply a positive flux of inspiration). People are sitting on the curb doing nothing or watching reality tv in storefronts or playing video games or riding around on their scooters holding babies without helmets. Nobody, for example, is sitting in a café reading a book (something that I don’t remember seeing ever since we crossed the border from California). I hear readers think to themselves “sure. People in these countries are poor and need to work all day long. They don’t have money to buy books, or time to read them!” Although this is true for many of the farmers we met on this trip, it is not at all true for any of the city people that I speak of. People are generally well dressed, well groomed, with touch screen cell phones, and good cars. It’s not about time or money, it’s about a different set of priorities and values, and poor taste. Of course, this is just my own personal judgment. After all, it is hard to objectively say that reading a book is betting than seeing reality television. Still, the priorities that the people of these town display, and in particular the lack of emphasis on education explains a lot why so many of these countries are failing in so many ways.

Sometimes I feel as though electronic technology has reached here too soon. As an example, the existence and popularity of the iphone in the States comes as a kind of outcome to a society that works relatively well (leaving the concept of equality out of this judgment): the infrastructure is good, there are highways, supermarkets, libraries, hospitals, public transportations, schools, and concerts in parks. Art and science have their place in the society-they are respected by people and funded by the government. The police is an institution that the average person trusts and obeys. Etc. etc etc. Not that everything is perfect, but only after all of the above functions in some way can a company like Apple come into existence and start innovating and give us the iphone (leaving aside the questions of if we need it or is it even good for us as individuals or a society). Consequently, when we hold the still futuristic iphone in our hands we feel a sense that things are relatively fine with our society, and moreover, that we must be doing relatively well in it, if we could afford such a machine.

Such machines however, eventually find their ways into cultures and societies that never could have invented them by themselves, precisely because they have still not achieved all of the more basic milestones a society can achieve and that I mentioned above. This could become very debilitating for such a society. For the feeling of accomplishment that an American feels when clutching the iphone is shared too by an Ecuadorean, Panamanian, or Israeli, for that matter (let people not say that I am biased). But in this case, the feeling is an illusion, for all of the infrastructure mentioned above does not exist here, there are no schools, no libraries, no scientific research, no rule of law. The result is that instead of working for these things, the iphone holder instead posts what he had for lunch on facebook. It’s like having whipped cream without the sustaining and healthy meal that should have preceded it.

From Ecuador: quito to Peruvian border
From Ecuador: quito to Peruvian border

tiny delicious mangos

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One Response to Such Great Heights-Ecuador / Erika Rowe & Yaniv Singer

  1. Fantastic writing about a great adventure. And Erika: it is very special what you do on your trip….. You don’t give up, but also had bad times.
    Motorbiking is much more as only holiday.
    Keep on safe biking,
    Josua

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