This morning I surveyed the scene of last night’s accident. Scouring the mud, sidewalk and berm for a bolt, washer or other parts that fell off during the low speed crash, I found one extra part to the grip weight. In the daylight, I noticed that my right front signal light had snapped. The minor repairs would have to wait for a better day. Since losing some time yesterday with bad weather, I had a plan for a long day to make through the customs and immigration at the Peruvian border and a couple hours south.
As I traversed and winded around the Southern highlands of Ecuador I found myself winding through desolate and remote landscapes. Alone, cold and wet I barely so signs of life as I passed through Cumbe. Packs of women in Fedoras would occasionally appear on the side of the road carrying bunches of sticks and the occasional car or truck would pass in the opposite direction. But I was high in the Andes on a road that was paved only as recently as the late 1960’s.
As the rain continued to pour and the temperatures still chilling, I zoomed past a motorcyclist sitting off the road going the other way. It took a few moments for my mind to absorb the scene, but a few hundred yards past him I realized he was stuck. I slowed, turned around and met Fernando, a lean dark Ecuadorian in his early 30’s. His dark black hair neatly trimmed with sideburns and a mustache. He was barely suited for the cold ride here at 11,000 feet with a baseball cap, a light jacket, dress pants, black loafers and cotton gloves. His bike failed as he was climbing up from his village just 15 miles south. With just the frayed ends of a wire connected to his spark plug, we determined he had plenty of spark from what had to be the only new part on his 10 year or more old motorcycle. Turns out he just put a new spark-plug in this 125 enduro, but e didn’t tighten it. So there was no compression as air spit out of the cylinder with each kick. As I started to go through the process of removing the PVC tube that’s strapped to my crash bars to get a wrench to tighten his spark plug he tried to tell me not to bother. And that someone else would come along to help. Sure. I’d have none of that, and in a few moments we had his bike started and he was off and running.
Later as I rolled into the cute town of Saraguro, I was amazed at the simplicity of the housing and the colorful outfits complete with Fedora’s the woman wore. I stopped and spoke with several people in this village of 10,000. They sustain through cooperative cattle, sheep and goat ranching and farming. None of the three people I stopped on the side of the road to speak with would let me take pictures. But they answered my questions and were curious enough to ask some of me. One women in her 40’s has 6 children, the youngest in a cooperative school taught by her friend. She was on her way to pick up the 6 year old boy. A young 14 year old girl was walking along with her uncle. They don’t teach English in her school, but she had little desire to learn it anyway.
Finally several miles later in the outskirts of Saraguro I met Rosalagria, a 79 year old woman carrying water and a pail of some sort of soup. She’s married to a 59 year old man and all of her children have moved away. She was bringing dinner back to her home in the hills off the road. She couldn’t believe where I came from and the fact that I rode the motorcycle. She was happy to have her picture taken and even posed with my motorcycle. When asked if she was happy, she let out a big grin then pointed to the sole tooth protruding from her lower gum. She wants her teeth back and asked how much it would cost in the United STates to get new teeth. Turns out a dentist in Saraguro would give her ivories back for around $300 — much more than she could afford. But she was saving and hoped that one day she’d have teeth again.
As I scribbled notes in my Moleskin notebook, she asked if she could have the book. She wanted any book. I explained this was important because I’m a writer. She nosed around my belongings and asked if I had another book. I pulled a Lonely Planet guidebook out, but explained I needed this for my travels. Finally I found a small pamphlet that came with my Caberg Justissimo Helmet. It had drawings on how to remove the face-shield and sun screen and was written in 5 or 6 different languages. She was tickled when I place it with a handful of change into her warn and weathered hand. We hugged, shook and headed on our own respective journeys.
Perhaps one day she’ll have teeth, but even if she doesn’t, I’ll never forget her smile, spirit and soulful confession of her simple desire: teeth.
My hopes of better weather as I traveled south were unrealized and by the time I was riding through Loja the rain started. Soft. Then hard. As I descend from the highlands into another valley, I’m greeted by a massive road construction project. Workers in yellow and orange foul weather rain-gear man shovels, wheel barrows and brooms. A couple tractors add color as I white-knuckled my journey down the steep road of recently oiled gravel. The sound of the rain beats on my helmet while my futile efforts to wife the rain from my face-shield sends my mind spinning.
“What the hell am I doing here?” Conversations with myself are common but with my motorcycle riding through the oiled gravel like a freshly waxed ski with bad edges I was just counting down the minutes before I was spitting gravel from my mouth. It was treacherous and filled me with the most fear I’ve experienced on this trip to date. And it went on for miles. Without the rain this would be a dangerous but manageable inconvenience, but with the pouring rain and impatient Ecuadorian drivers and suicidal busses passing me, I was going out of my mind. Later surveying my bike I find that the oil, gravel and chemicals on the road were pelted all over my jacket, helmet face-shield and bike. What a mess.
But I managed. And by the time I crossed the valley and started scaling the next range of mountains the rain had slowed to a drizzle and I could feel myself closer to the Peruvian border. But i was greeted with more terrible road conditions. More rock slides meant sharing a single lane with oncoming traffic. Later a whole section of highway was closed and a bridge washed out. The detour had me wind around a dirt path carved into the hillside and then over a makeshift bridge.
Finally, I did make it to Macara just as the sun set. This is the nicest and most tranquil border town to date. An extremely clean room at the Hotel Karina and dinner at D’Marcos Restaurant Bar was my welcome reward for making it out of Ecuador safe and sound. I just hope things are better in Peru.
Photos: (1 & 2) Rescuing Fernando high at 12,000 feet in the Ecuadorian highlands (3, 4 & 5) Rosalagria from a small Pueblo outside Saraguro in Ecuador; (6) the weather threatened and beat me all day; (7) a horrible section of construction left me with a pitted windscreen, clothes and face-shield; (8) relief from weather as I descended into this valley south of Loja, Ecuador