"Never travel faster than your guardian angel can fly." -Mother Theresa
Travelling, is a venture of extremes, both of nature and emotion. It is a chance to see the world; the earth’s driest dessert, the highest navigable lake, the best seafood markets and the most revered temples. It is also a time that pushes you to feel a full spectrum of emotions. Reactions you didn’t know you had. One minute you will feel truly invincible. The next, you will feel completely insignificant. The humor in it all is that it often happens within the same day. When on the road, every event, place and encounter is elevated to a level higher than any that was previously conceived. It is like a drug. When something is good, it takes your breath away. It touches a place inside your soul that makes you realize how stunning this journey of life is. The beauty and awe will be something that is imbedded in your mind for the rest of your days and will play in your slide show of memories forever. Landscapes, music, people. However, when something is bad, it is REALLY bad, and suddenly you know how helpless, far away from home and alone you really are. It makes you think, did I just make the biggest mistake of my life?
I have had many encounters to date that test my strength and fortitude. Being completely alone, lost, unable to communicate and on a broken bicycle in the middle of Ecuador is one of those events.
Banos, Ecuador is one of the most spectacular towns I have ever seen. It is hugged by emerald green mountains that form its boundaries, scooping the historical and tourist-friendly town into its arms. Banos receives its name from the dozens of natural hot springs and bathes that dot its center. Blue skies and white pillowy clouds serve as its canopy, and rivers named after the colors in the rainbow form its backdrop. Perched on top of a particularly large green hill is Casa del Arbor, a tree house sitting on the edge of the world. Here, I sat and swung into the sky while gazing at an active volcano, billowing black smoky plumes over its white cape of snow. This town is a magical refuge to backpackers, where my nightly tab consisted of $5 a night for a hostel and some 50 cent “tequila” shots I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
One morning, after parting with some friends I met along the road, I set off on my first lone venture. The town is proud of its natural beauty, and rightfully so. Many of the tourist shops that line the streets offer cheap mountain bike rentals in order for visitors to explore the sights. The premise is simple. Hop on the bike for an easy glide down the mountains while seeing seven of Banos’ most magnificent waterfalls. Then, after cruising down the mountain side, catch a ride back to town by taxi or shuttle bus at the designated spot. Easy! With a daypack which held a small water bottle, a chocolate bar and a coat, I went off to rent my bike.
The lady at the travel agency only spoke Spanish, which I didn’t understand. She showed me a map and assured me it would be “facil” to find the pickup point. I didn’t know “facil”, but assumed it meant easy. She circled some stopping points, brought out my bike, and I was on my way. The roads were made primarily for foot and car traffic, but once I rounded the sidewalks towards the end of town the bike lanes she promised began to appear. The winding lane hugged the road and sloped down the mountains. I enjoyed the quiet of the air and the feel of the warm wind on my arms as I flew down the gradient. Something about riding a bike always evokes the child in me. I feel free. The speed granted by wheels and the ease of travel makes me feel like I am flying. With this incredible lightness, I wound down the mountainside. I saw Rio Blanco, Rio Verde, and Rio Negro. I saw some small towns with sleeping dogs on the cobblestoned streets, and stores that were carefully being swept by their owners. The bike path swooped around the car tunnels and lined the powerful rivers that carved into the mountains. With no real sense of time, I kept riding down the mountains until the bike lane disappeared. I had not yet seen the pick-up point, so I kept peddling onward. Three hours had passed and the roads had become difficult. The bike lane was completely gone, and the hills began to climb aggressively upward. The sun was pounding down, and my water was gone. I felt uneasy but had nowhere to go but onward. I thought about turning around, but I hadn’t seen any cars and the mountain was so steep. There were no street signs and the road had become desolate. Four hours went by, and I finally ran into a small restaurant overlooking the valley. I pulled into the lot and parked my bicycle on the outside of the door.
In a game of charades that consisted of English, Spanish and desperation, I attempted to ask the mother and daughter who ran the little place for help. I pointed to the map I had been clutching with my life, and asked them where I was in relation to the pick-up point. They called over a man who was piling rocks into his pickup truck to come over and look. The four of us poured over my crumpled map and they spoke with surprise as they realized where I was trying to go. They pointed up the towering mountain I had just descended and told me in Spanish that the pick-up point was a few hours backward. I had gone entirely too far. I was praying I had misunderstood them, but the ominous pointing up the mountain sealed my fate. I had to peddle back up.
By this point my water was gone. The sun was beating down with an aggressive intensity that left my hands burnt and shoulders peeling. The elevation of 6,000 feet above sea level (nearly 1,000 feet higher than Denver, Colorado) meant that the air was thin and it was difficult to breathe. I was gasping for breath and took turns alternating between riding and pushing the bike I now hated up the mountain. I took breaks every few minutes and tried to find shade, but that just made my journey longer. I wanted to cry. My chain kept falling off my bike and eventually it got stuck in a position I could not fix. Now I was forced to push the broken monster while it skidded across the road on its useless back tire. Covered in sweat, tears and bicycle grease, I arrived at a shaded bus stop by a construction site. I sat down here and tried to catch my breath.
A young construction worker came over to me and sat down next to me. He was speaking to me in Spanish and I had no idea what he was saying. I pointed to my bike chain and tried to explain “no trabajar”. He made some gestures and waved me to follow him. I was nervous, as there were no cars around and I didn’t know where he was taking me. Weighing my options, I saw I had none, so I followed him tentatively into a fenced off, dirt lot with my broken and worthless bike. Next thing I knew, he was talking with the other construction workers and they were surrounding me and my bike. He disappeared and I was left standing there repeating “hola” as each new worker came over. They took turns examining my bike and talking to each other. I didn’t understand anything. The first construction worker reappeared from around a corner wheeling out a motorcycle. Now the entire construction site was circled around the bicycles. I watched as my bike went into the air and onto the back of the motorcycle. They started tying the broken beast with a rope to the back, which turned into a very difficult feat. My bike was ginormous and it kept tipping the motorcycle over. The workers all took turns offering different suggestions on how to best secure it, and shook the bike to test its security. I tried to stay out of the way, uttering “lo siento” and “muchos gracias” repeatedly. The whole process must have taken 15 minutes. Finally, they decided it was secure and they gestured for me to get on the back. With my fingers crossed, I sat between my new friend and my worst enemy, Mr. Shit Bicycle.
After a shaking start, we were off! Up the winding mountain we went. I gripped onto the seat for my dear life, but quickly had to grab the bike as its tires scraped against the paved road. The mountain bike was entirely too big. I tried to ignore it as the tires hit the road and dragged along. I was afraid it was going to bring us all down as we sped up the mountain. “Un momento!!!” I screamed. The driver looked in his rearview mirror and pulled to the side of the road. He was going to attempt to re-tie my bike, but I knew it was futile. I thanked him over and over, but told him I could push it the rest of the way easily. In reality, we had only covered a span less than a mile. I had ages to go.
He watched as I fought up the mountain and waved goodbye. As soon as I was around the corner, I started to cry. I had hours left to my struggle. I was hungry, thirsty sunburnt and lost. Why am I here? What am I doing? I can’t do this on my own. I was losing it. I couldn’t keep this up for the hours it would take to get back. I mustered up my strength and decided to hitch hike. Hitch hiking as a single, gringo who didn’t speak Spanish in the middle of Ecuador did not sound like a particularly bright idea to me, but I was desperate. I looked down the road and watched for a truck that could fit me and my bicycle. As soon as I saw one winding up the mountain, I stuck out my thumb. Instantly, the truck pulled over. I pushed up quickly to it and a man helped me to throw my bike in the back. I told him “Banos” and he nodded, telling me he wasn’t going that far but he could take me most of the way. I thanked him over and over, and his wife handed me baby wipes to clean off the oil covering my hands from the chain. I was so relieved. My mental and physical exhaustion was so intense, that as I watched the rosary attached to his rearview mirror sway, I really felt like he was my miracle. We drove up the steep and winding roads for what seemed like hours. I was so thankful. Eventually we reached the pickup point and I told them I could make it back from there. I left the truck, and thanked my saviors for the lift.
At the pickup point, I sat on the dirt pile and waited. Not even 5 minutes passed until I heard the roar of a bus climbing the pass. It pulled over, I threw the god-forsaken bike into the undercarriage and boarded the bus to Banos. I was shaking with relief and gratitude. I had made it. With the help of others and their kindness, I had made it. I will never forget the feeling of being lost and saved in Ecuador.