August 13, 2005 GMT
Hi-Tech Shamans

I spent most of this morning listening to a pair of shamans (Juan and Vladimir, whose day jobs are as electronics engineers) describing the solar and lunar ceremonies and what they hoped to achieve for a couple of guests here.

Here is Vilcabamba, a small Ecuadorian village in the Andes on the edge of the Amazonian cloud forest. It's gorgeous. The desert finally ended after 3,000 miles near Tumbes, 15 miles south of the border (which was the usual bear garden as the actual border is in the middle of a very crowded market).

Rather wild and very friendly Ecuadorian nuns

Ecuador is the original banana republic, and as you probably know is still at it because the president decamped to Brazil a couple of months ago. There are no road signs, so finding anywhere is somewhat challenging as the roads bear little relation to the map I have (a Nelles, which are usually pretty reliable). Not sure if a local one would be much better, though.

The currency is the USD which makes life easy, and the cost of living is hardly anything, which makes life even easier.

I'm heading for Quito (22km south of the equator) and will need to do some serious surgery on the bike; not sure of the exact problem, but it may well be something like a burnt-out exhaust valve in the RH cylinder head. We'll see.

Posted by Cynthia Milton at 06:22 PM GMT
August 15, 2005 GMT
Random Acts of Kindness

Ecuador can be very confusing, aside from the road signs.

What we (in the UK) call the Ground Floor they sometimes call the Piso Bajo (or PB) and sometimes the 1st floor. When there's a PB the 1st floor is the 1st floor, and if not it's the 2nd floor. So if you're on what you think is the 1st floor but are directed to the 1st floor you may have to go up one floor or down one floor or stay where you are, depending on the kind of building you're in. Alles klar?

When I rode into Guayaquil yesterday afternoon I made the usual stop at the side of the street where I could see (hurrah) street signs so as to orient myself. A man emerged from a workshop and thrust a small glass of cold beer into my hand, showed me where I was on my map and sent me off in the right direction. The valet parking regime at the hotel was a bit flummoxed, but they compromised by sending me off to follow the hotel minibus to the parking garage from where it brought me back again. The bike appears to have a man with a machine pistol all to itself.

Most people don't wear helmets on bikes here (even the police, and especially the lady cops on the big Suzuki fours). So instead of signs on bank doors requesting helmet removal they request that you leave your firearm with the security guard. Sounds fair to me.

Still, walking around is very pleasant, and I had a lovely morning wandering through the little park by the hotel, where you can wish the iguanas and turtles good day, and then along the waterfront. Very civilized.

Eric the Equatorian Iguana

Posted by Cynthia Milton at 06:25 PM GMT
August 18, 2005 GMT
Cotopaxi's Bottom

Where the roads are good they're very good, and the rest are not terribly good at all.

This means that in a six-hour ride (which is about as much as the shoulder will take without screaming at me) I can manage maybe 250 miles at best. A couple of times I've been down to 150 miles or less. But I'll be having a bit of a rest now, which may help.

The ride from Riobamba is up Volcano Alley, never dropping below 10,000 feet and sometimes up to 15,000 (yup, altitude sickness again). I made the mistake of riding from sea level at Guayaquil to Riobamba at 10,000 in one day so had the inevitable sleepless night; however, with the ride from there to Quito (also 10,000) I've acclimatised rather more rapidly than I did in Peru.

This is winter, which unfortunately means (relatively) low cloud, so instead of the promised spectacular views of the volcanoes I only saw their bottoms; the scenery's pretty good, though. Having ridden for several hundred miles through paddy fields and banana plantations (and been crop-dusted for my pains as the planes don't switch off over roads) I ascended up into the Andes again through tropical jungle-type shrubbery and out on to the high plains, which are clearly very fertile. Even as high as 13,000 feet there are fields of crops like maize and potatoes.

A word about spuds: there are many varieties available on this continent, any of which have tons more flavour than any of the anaemic "standardised" crap we get in the UK. Don't know their names, but I'm sure some must be available from speciality places.

People are STILL asking if what I'm doing is dangerous; well, so far it's the planet and the scenery that's been the danger. That and the delays caused by bike cops stopping me for a chat, and it would be rude to refuse. South America is overall a very polite place, one has to wish absolutely everyone Buenos dias/tardes/noches at all times; this includes but is not limited to the total stranger in the hotel lift, the petrol pump attendant, the man sweeping the street, the aforementioned bike cop, and everyone else in the world.

My respect for Kevin and Julia Sanders' record for riding the Panamericana is doubling daily. For instance, in small towns the road in is generally the road out, so you go straight through. In larger towns the road out bears no relation to the road in, and there are no signs, and sometimes no road surface. The intricate planning they had to do is astounding, as to get the record they couldn't afford to spend half an hour trying to find their way out of labyrinthine one-way systems.

So now I'm back to being a proper tourist. When I arrived in Quito yesterday I went straight to the BMW dealer to throw myself on their mercy. And Hallelujah, despite being a 'shiny' dealer their head bike chap, Augusto, is one of the old school and positively drooled over the Old Lady. So first thing this morning I delivered her into their capable hands and they'll have a list of parts for me by Monday afternoon. Not only that but because by their own admission there are absolutely no parts available in the entire continent they're happy for me to source them (I've bribed Phil H yet again) and have them FedExed out. Ooh, and they even pay for the taxi back to the hotel and everything. I have a date with Augusto tomorrow evening for a drink - he speaks good English and wants to hear all about the trip.

Posted by Cynthia Milton at 06:28 PM GMT
August 21, 2005 GMT

The buses here are a hoot.

They're frequent and very cheap, and extremely fast - I've already learned to keep well out of their way when on foot or on the bike as they give way to nothing and go flat out.

You have to lurk near (never, ever, at) a bus stop, then leap at the door of the bus you think may be going your way. There's a conductor who takes (not much) money but not in return for a ticket, and who usefully tells you that "This bus doesn't go there" or "You should have got off at the last stop".

The trolley buses (troles) aren't nearly so much fun because you know where they're going, but they're still very fast and have a flat fare of 25c.

Ecuatorian girls all wear tight, brightly-coloured polyester tops; quite an eyeful for the chaps sometimes. Unfortunately, many of them also wear very tight hipster jeans, which coupled with an big bum and a beer belly overhanging the "waist"-band constitute rather more of an eyeful than one really wants first thing in the morning.

I took the bus to El Mitad del Mundo on Friday to do a bit of equator crossing. Jolly interesting day out. I'm still not sure about this bathwater thing, but the weight thing postulated by Newton is certainly true.

The earth bulges at the equator; this was first established by a Frenchman called Condamine in the 18th century, here in Ecuador. In fact, it bulges so much that the summit of a local volcano is actually further from the centre of the earth than that of Everest, despite being around 8,000 feet lower.

Newton's umpteenth Law states that the force of gravity decreases in inverse proportion to the square of distance; thus the further you are from the centre of the earth the less you weigh.

So there's a weighing machine on the equator which prints out your weight at Lat. 0 deg 0' 0", and which apparently can be up to 10 pounds less than elsewhere on the planet. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when my ticket showed that I weighed 25 pounds less than I did in Newbury. This might also account for the fact that my grey cargo trousers keep falling down.

All of which reminds me of another altitude lesson I've learned in the Andes. When ascending to anything over 12,000 feet, make certain you've screwed the lid on your deodorant very tightly, as the ball pops out and it makes a terrible mess.

Posted by Cynthia Milton at 06:31 PM GMT

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