Road Luck

Written July 18, 2016 

Photo credit: Alvaro Fau, www.facebook.com/alfventuras, a new friend we met at Scott Nelson's place in Vilcabamba, Ecuador.

Where we are in northern Peru, a little south of the equator, the stars go straight overhead, and it’s like you’re inside a rolling barrel, with the axis ends on either side of you to the north and south.  As Jalene and I passed down through Central America, more and more of the familiar features in the night sky were disappearing, and new southern constellations rose.  I had begun to think “my” northern sky was gone, but last night I got a surprise.  I wandered outside at about 10 pm.  The moonless sky was full of stars, and looking northward I suddenly saw the Big Dipper!  It looked huge, looming just above the horizon with the handle pointing up.  The North Star was just below the hills on the horizon, with everything wheeling around that point.  Turning around, I could see the Southern Cross and all the “new” stars revolving around a point due south on the horizon.  I realized that the northern sky is not all gone - my sky here is now half of the northern hemisphere, and half of the southern.  But compared to the sky I have viewed all my life, the relative positions have shifted 50°.  Only when we get much further south will the sky be truly all-new for me.

Thinking further on this, at the halfway point on our trip, we have now traveled from the 45th parallel in the northern hemisphere to the 5th parallel in the southern.  That means we’ve only gone about 1/8 of the way around the globe.  Not very far when you think about it in those terms.  Compared to some people we know that have circled the globe multiple times on motorcycles, we still haven’t accomplished much, have we?

And yet look at what we’ve learned, and the people we’ve met, and all the stories we can share!  One doesn’t have to go very far from home to learn and experience an awful lot, do they?  So why not make that tiny step, and just go to the country right next door to wherever you are, and meet new people, make new friends, and maybe see a new star?

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Look closely. See the soil is disappearing from beneath the road?

Back to our regularly scheduled story:  After leaving Baños, in Ecuador, we ventured down the canyon to the east, and I showed Jalene the old cliffside roads and the narrow wooden suspension bridge I’d found when I was out for a ride by myself the day before.  As we reached flat ground, we came out into the basin of the Rio Pastaza, which would eventually join the massive Rio Marañon in Peru, destined to find its way to the Amazon.  These are big rivers coming down out of the Andes, becoming much, much bigger as they gather together and make their way eastward.  That night found us in Macas, a hot, humid town along the Rio Namangoza.  During the night, we heard the raindrops begin to fall, and dawn found us with slumped shoulders as we packed the bikes and climbed into our riding gear in the steady, warm drenching.  For the next few hours we cruised south through the flatlands in a constant hard rain.  Water ran in rivers along and across the road, pushing mud and rocks into our path.  Cars, trucks, and buses all plowed big wakes, but it was relatively safe for us, as the road-builders had done a good job at allowing for drainage.  Eventually we turned west and began to climb back up into the mountains, making our way toward the city of Cuenca.  Once we gained a little altitude, the rain stopped, and eventually we climbed above the weather.  In the warm air, we dried out and soon were able to take our rain-mitts off.  We wound our way up and down through the ridges and valleys, seeing big waterfalls in places where last night’s rains were coming down out of the high valleys.  We had to slow in many places where mud and rocks had been pushed out across the road.  Here, where the rains can be sudden and of huge volume, roads are made with low spots, where water (and any slide material) is allowed to simply rush across, rather than try to gather it into a big culvert.  It works very well, and they “harden” the road at these low spots to take the abuse.  Usually the water just flows right across and the road is “self-cleaning”, but if necessary a bulldozer scrapes it off after a really big rain.  They work like snowplows here.  On the bikes, we can just pick our way through the mess that often stops cars.  At other times, we might look back across a narrow valley to see that the concrete we had just ridden across had lost most of the ground supporting it, and was likely not long for the world.  A bit un-nerving, but we made it across each time, so what the heck.

Cuenca is a very urbane, civilized town with quite a few gringo ex-pats.  A big surprise was walking down the sidewalk in such a large city and running into a woman we had become friends with while on our trip two years before!  We stayed in Cuenca for two nights and rested a bit, then rode south again along the cold, high ridges until the road passed through Loja, where we descended into the dry, warm valley of Vilcabamba.  We met up with our friend Scott Nelson from Oregon at his place along the Rio Catamayo, which lies in a valley that gets little rain.  The climate has made it something of a haven for people from all over, who want to live a quiet life away.  We spent a couple of weeks there while waiting for the package (yes, the package we were waiting for during our stay in Quito) to clear Customs, and helped Scott out by doing a little handiwork around the place, painting, plumbing, and building a table.  I enjoyed my mornings with Scott’s dogs down along the river, a great spot to sit and clear your head in the sunshine.  We went out for a day ride to Zamora with new Vilcabamba friends Charlie and Kay, negotiating several big landslides across the road.  At one I watched basketball-sized rocks bounce and fly just a few feet in front of Jalene’s bike, and prayed that another slide was not coming down onto us.  Once again, road luck was with us.

Hallelujah! - We finally got word that the package in Quito had cleared Customs after 52 days, and our friend Felipe had picked it up.  At last we felt free to leave Ecuador and head into new territory - Peru!  Felipe has coworkers that travel to a branch office in Lima, and so it will await us there.  We headed southwest on a beautiful ride along mountain ridges to Macara, where we would cross the border.  Macara is a sleepy, dusty little town, but we found a clean and cheap hotel with underground parking for the bikes.  We walked through the warm evening to find some dinner, and talked excitedly about getting moving again after so much waiting and concern over Ecuadorian Customs.  But we had succeeded without any payoffs or bribery or dishonesty, and so we felt really good to have “beaten” the system completely above-board.  The most important thing we learned, from Daniela, a wonderfully kind and helpful woman who worked at the Ecuador Post Office, was that by walking in and asking worriedly about our package when we first arrived in Quito, we probably drew attention to it that resulted in scrutiny and the delays.  If we had just quietly waited for it to appear, the long wait and accompanying hoops we had to jump through would likely not have occurred.  Travel is an education, isn’t it?  Be humble, quiet your mind, be patient, things will work out.  Relax.  Tranquillo…  But to all who helped us, Daniela at Correos, Court, Sylvan, and Ximena at Ecuador Freedom Bike Rental, and to Felipe and Mila, thank you so much for your generosity and assistance.  We have learned much from you.

From our hotel window, we can see the hills of Peru!

We left our hotel in Macara early in the morning, so as to be at the border first thing, with the whole day ahead of us.  We went to gas up the bikes, only to find a long line at the gas station reminiscent of 1974.  All but one of the pumps was broken.  As we took our place at the back of the line, imagining a long wait of at least an hour in the rapidly strengthening sun, a guy on a backhoe came by and waved at us to follow him.  He took us to the head of the line and pointed to the pump emphatically, and so we just pulled in behind the car getting filled.  The guard motioned to us that it was okay, and the attendant waved us and another motorcycle up as the car pulled away. Nobody in line seemed to notice or care as we quickly fueled up the bikes and took off for the border.  Travel by moto in Latin America rocks!

We're in Peru! Yes, that's a polica. No, we weren't in trouble. They pulled us over to check documents but, instead, we took photos of them and they took photos of us!

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For photos, head to our Gallery page, then scroll down to "Macas to Cuenca, Ecuador" and view the photos up to "Vilcabamba."

Take a look at Jalene's thoughts about how we're "Experience-ing" this trip.