After three months in Colombia, I felt at home, no longer overwhelmed by the language, cultural differences, or the uncertainty of the life of a traveler. The Ecuadorian border represented uncharted waters, and a fresh opportunity for my brain to allow anxiety and worry to creep in. Important questions such as, “I wonder if they will allow me to cross the border with this fruit” and “where will I sleep tonight” dominated my thoughts.
I expected stern faced men armed to the teeth at the Ecuadorian border; instead there were two policemen chatting and laughing on the side of the road, barely paying attention to cars as they passed. One officer casually asked me if I had my stamp yet, “not yet”, I replied. He instructed me to a building to get my passport stamped. After filling out a small slip of paper with my name and date of birth, I presented it, with my passport, to the lady at the desk. She searched through my passport and informed me that I can’t enter Ecuador until I have stamped out of Colombia. “Come on, I’m already here”, I joked. She laughed and told me she would be waiting for me when I returned.
In ten minutes, I reentered Colombia, stamped out, and was back with the Ecuadorian customs lady. She stamped my passport for 90 days; I told her thank you, and off I went. The policeman gave me the thumbs up; I asked if he wanted to see my passport, he said no. Thanks Ecuador, that was easy; my first border crossing was a success!
Rain started to fall as I climbed 200 meters in the dark to Tulcan. A dog chased me and took a bite into my rear pannier; Ecuador is strange, I thought. Arriving in the meticulously manicured central park, I was cold, wet, hungry, and still uncomfortable with my perceived new world. Within two minutes of sitting down, a man passed me, and seemed immediately happy to see me as I chewed on a freshly peeled mandarin. “Hey MAN!! Remember me? I’m the guy with the dog, who yelled at you, and gave you the thumbs up on the route between Popayan, and Pasto!” “Sorry, I don’t remember, but thanks for the love.” Jorge sat on the bench next to me, and began asking me questions and sharing stories of his difficult and tragic life. We were deep in conversation when two Jehovah’s Witnesses approached; one elder from Chile, the other from California. Jorge and I answered their questions candidly, and within minutes we were discussing the purpose of religion, life, and travel. The Californian and I separated into our own discussion; the chance to speak in English has been a rare occurrence lately. There is an amazing and surprising amount of comfort for me in an exchange in English. To be able to express myself deeply and effortlessly without the impenetrable wall that is language feels like ripping shackles off my brain.
Eventually the conversation died down; we hugged goodbye. Jorge stuck around, insisting he wouldn’t leave me until I was safe in a hotel. He found me a nice hotel for 5 bucks, and we said our goodbyes. An amazing and surprising amount of comfort can also be found in a bed, a TV, and a hot shower. I spread my dirty, wet clothes all over the room, turned on a movie, took a shower and breathed deeply.. “what’s that smell?”, I wondered to myself. I slept like a baby, and didn’t wake up until 10:30 the next morning.
After a late start, the plan for the day was to ride from Tulcan into El Angel Nature Sanctuary; a 2000 meter (~6500 ft) soft climb into an alien landscape above tree line. Where the trees stopped, a plant that I could only have imagined existed in dreams began to dominate the landscape. Frailejons are a fern-like plant, with large soft and furry leaves that feel something similar a poodle with a perm. Frailejons smothered the ancient rolling mountains up to 3,800 meters (~12,200 ft) as far as the eye could see. The rocky, sandy road rolled and winded for kilometers; the Frailejons became increasingly dense.
The more dense the Frailejons became, the more peaceful I felt. On multiple occasions I got off my bike to meditate, stretch, or just to deeply breathe. Silent, ancient wisdom was being transmitted with the wind. After 30 km or so of climbing, I reached the summit, took a walk to high mountain lagoons, had lunch with some workers at the refuge, and finally began the long cold decent into El Angel.
For the entirety of the El Angel reserve ride, I was following the tracks of another rider, Lee Vilinski (www.crazyguyonabike.com/justride). We had plans to meet up soon, and I was following a day behind. It was a shared experience winding the same route around puddles and over rocks even though Lee was long gone.
I arrived in El Angel at 3 PM. Lee and I talked via the internet and made plans to meet in Ibarra a town 60 km away, around 8:30 PM, I would ride into the dark. When I left the Internet cafe a dog was waiting for me at my bike. The connection he had for me is unexplainable. There was no food involved, but for the next hour, he followed me around El Angel, laid in the shadow of my bike when I went into stores, and finally chased me out of town at a full sprint for multiple kilometers before I was able to leave him behind. I’ll miss that dog.
It was nearly impossible to make it to Ibarra before 8:30 after leaving El Angel a bit late, but I pushed with all my might. I took one 5 minute break in nearly 4 hours of riding. I was absolutely exhausted when I believed I was making my final decent into Ibarra. Instead of a decent I was met with a monstrous climb. As the final minutes of my window to meet Lee ticked away, torrential rain began to fall. I pulled into the centro, our meeting location, at around 8:45 PM, cold, wet, exhausted, and hungry. Lee was nowhere to be seen. I got a hotel for the night, slept like a rock, and met Lee at my hotel at 10:00 the next morning.
It was exciting to be riding with someone again, and Lee was full of great energy. We took a tough mountainous route on cobblestone between two volcanoes and arrived in Cayambe that night. We shared an amazing Chinese meal topped off with a luke warm Coca-cola and two hours of great conversation. It was a promising start to a new friendship.