Hello, everyone -
Today I write to you from a somewhat fancier than usual cafe appealing to the local foreign surfer crowd in the tiny town of Montañita, Ecuador.
I stopped drinking my iced coffee after a few sips due to a bittersweet taste I don’t normally associate with ice coffee… or anything other than cleaning chemicals in the air, actually.
As usual, I have found a seat from which I can see the bike, La Gordita, not so much out of worry of her disappearing as much as a growing fondness for my dirty, lawnmower-sounding, trusty friend.
Is it a bad sign I have started thinking of my bike as my close friend?
The waitress is cute though so I will survive.
Zen-like Balance 🧘♂️
This is week 7 of working a part-time job while still traveling on the motorcycle.
During that time I have spent many hours staring intensely at my laptop screen and looking either very odd or very important depending on whether the staring is being done at a fancy, upscale cafe accustomed to laptop-toting foreigners using the wifi and caffeine or whether they have not seen someone wearing giant boots, a heavy riding jacket, and a beard markedly redder than the brown hair on top pull out a laptop, order a small coffee, and sit unmovingly for several hours before leaping up, thanking them for their service, and departing on a motorcycle never before seen in their small town.
I have been working on finding a balance between making meaningful progress on this trip, which still remains of utmost importance to me, and giving my best to the company for which I have agreed to work.
This is an interesting time in my life. I am combining the wild, unstructured, locura that is me with the professional, hard-working, out-of-the-box thinking that is also me.
I am pulling up to coffee shops with irreverent, crazy motorcycle hair, oil-stained hands, and (most likely) an odor from the road and my sink-washed underpants only to pull out a fancy Macbook and answer emails as if I were sitting at a desk in San Francisco in skinny jeans and a polo with the faint aroma of cologne I used at a wine-tasting date from the night before (it’s my favorite polo, obviously).
While I was in Medellin, Colombia, the US extradited one of the big mob (jungle warlord) bosses and there was a whole hoopla and subsequent rising anti-American sentiment.
My travel plans changed.
A few weeks later, the Colombian elections began and turned controversial. Roads were closed, buses burned, and curfews enforced.
My travel plans changed.
As I entered Ecuador, I began hearing whispers and rumors of “Los Paros,” the annual march and convergence of the indigenous peoples of Ecuador to show their discontent with the current administration.
I arrived in Quito and the shutdowns began, roads were barricaded with 10-foot high piles of earth and stone, decades-old trees were cut down and cast over key roadways leading in and out of the capital, Quito, and thousands of people from all walks of life took to the city streets and country roads of the country to shake the country out of their complacent treatment of its purportedly spurned people.
Promises were made and not met. The people walked, ran, and shouted.
And my travel plans changed.
The blocked bridge and the beach escape
I spent over a week in Quito, working, resting, unfreezing my bones from the ridiculously cold and rainy ride from Medellin, Colombia to Quito, Ecuador (about 1,200km), and delaying again and again as each day I awoke to changed, and often worsened, news about what was happening with the roads of Ecuador as the people marched against their government.
At last, a morning came that seemed quieter than most. I packed my bags and took to the road with grim anticipation that I might encounter and have to negotiate unpleasant barriers and mobs of people blocking the main ways out of Quito.
I passed many mounds of dirt recently pushed to the side of the road, burned-out remains of trees that were previously blocking the road, and police addressing large crowds of people ostensibly to inform them they were not allowed to block the roads any longer — due to the sitting president’s declaration that such activity be made temporarily illegal in addition to his month-long, country-wide curfew.
I made it 2-days and over 500km deeper into Ecuador when at last I encountered my first active roadblock.
The traffic was backed up for almost a full kilometer. Something was up. I was tired at that point in my day’s ride, so a roadblock was not the first thing to come to my mind, instead, I thought perhaps there was a ferry crossing I didn’t know about.
As I wove through the many stopped trucks and taxis, a fair deal of which had bare feet sticking out the windows in the classic, “we’ve been here a while and don’t anticipate going anywhere anytime soon” position, the leaning, teetering drunk men started to appear zigzagging between stationary cars, yelling and shouting in mixed celebration and welcoming.
Welcome to the place where we stop you and control your life for a moment.
Pay to play
I parked my bike near the front, took off all my gear, and approached the barrier and the men standing protectively on top.
As I approached and repeatedly said good afternoon, hello, how are you, I was ignored.
Not until I stood directly in front of the most sober-looking man with the least menacing look in his eyes did they acknowledge my greetings.
I asked if this roadblock was a part of the nationwide demonstrations and asked if there was a way I could pass on my motorcycle.
They then turned to look intently over my shoulder from their raised vantage point beginning to ignore me once again.
I tried another tactic.
I said I was riding my motorcycle, the one everyone had just seen enter the mixed party, protest, captive zone, from the United States to Patagonia.
The less lucid one laughed and said, “All the way from America!”
Finally, the one who seemed to be in charge turned and told me I could wait until after 5pm and then pass with everyone else.
As I walked back through the rows of cars and stinky feet sticking out of windows, I tried not to be frustrated.
I was a mere 10-minutes from my Airbnb, a shower, food, a place to rest and relax, and here I was unable to pass.
One thing you must learn while traveling by motorcycle across Central and South America is to ignore shouting, waving, screaming, jumping, and attention-demanding men, children, and women.
As I walked between the rows of cars the windows of which proferred the stubs of the many waiting stinky feet, I barely even registered the man following in parallel from the shadows of the various dirt-floored huts lining the street.
His hissing, waving, and gesturing seemed like that of a thousand other men who wanted, most commonly, money.
I walked until I found a parting in the buildings and therein a pathway leading down to the beach. A pathway blocked by a haphazard, opportunistic jumble of rocks, boards, and one rusty chain.
This is where the previously ignored man burst from the shadows and approached me in a quick but careful halting gate suggesting slight intoxication.
He explained, while continually glancing over his shoulder as if the men on the barrier would hear us over the blaring music from the speakers someone had brought to make the entire event more festive, that there was another way to get to the next town, the beach.
One only need pay the right price and help would be offered; open thine pockets and the way shall be cleared.
I opened my pockets, ducked under the chain under his hurried urgings seemingly motivated by the nearby men on the barrier, and began the descent to the beach.
Memories of Panama…
As I rolled down the steep slope leading to someone’s backyard where a narrow concrete ramp would dump me onto the beach, I took several deep breaths and tried to calm myself. I was about to get back on the beach, the place I had promised myself never to ride again unless with friends and most definitely without the 100 pounds of gear presently attached to my bike!
I felt sick in my stomach from adrenaline.
I had taught myself the horrors of sand-riding on a deserted beach in Southern Panama and the memories were still strong and fresh.
Riding a heavy bike in sand can quickly turn into a disaster.
As my front tire hit the damp, churned-up sand I took one final deep breath and rolled through the first few dancing, swerving movements of my front tire as it worked through the heavy, fluid sand.
On through the sand, gravel, and pools of water I plodded, trying to keep the bike moving at a quick pace to make sure I didn’t slow and get stuck in a particularly loose patch of sand.
The tire danced, I tensed. The bike remained upright, I remained holding my breath.
The fake escape path
Before setting off into the sand, I had questioned the men watching me pay the toll to access the beach numerous times if they thought my heavy bike would make it on the stretch of beach, to which they all enthusiastically responded in the affirmative.
I also asked where exactly the exit from the beach would be… how would I know when to turn off the beach to make it back up to the street?
Every single person told me that it was not far at all, very close, just on the other side of the river dumping its water into the ocean.
And so it was, as I practically swam through the sand on my bike which couldn’t decide if it wanted to go left, right, or straight, I saw a whole bunch of tire tracks all converging on one steep, narrow dirt track between two cement walls leading back up the steep bank.
Without slowing or stopping, lest I be unable to get moving again in the uncertain sand, I began making my way toward that escape route.
As you can imagine, a convergence of so many tires leads to a mess of churned-up, loose, piled-up sand.
The approach went smoothly. The final turn to align myself with the pathway leading away from the retched beach did not.
I was on the ground and swearing loudly with frustration over the occurrence of exactly what I knew was going to happen before: my forced humbling by piles of seemingly harmless sand.
Without hesitation, I began unloading my bags and panniers from my bike, since, from experience, I knew it was far less difficult to raise the bike again, especially on something like sand, without the extra weight still attached.
Not 15 feet away, a young couple with telltale dreadlocked hair and accompanying guitar paused briefly to scowl at the rude interruption to their profound moment on the beach before pointedly looking away and continuing to strum the guitar in some wandering, ambling tune.
As I took the final pannier off, another motorcycle pulled up next to me, laughed at me and asked why I was trying to go up that way (pointing at the escape path I had assumed was the “close” path everyone had informed me of). I asked him where he intended to get off the beach. He laughed again as he took off his helmet and came over to help me with my bike and told me to just follow him.
Having a second set of hands to lift the bike is the closest thing to heaven I will experience on earth. The bike was up and rolled onto more solid sand before I knew it.
As I hopped back on my bike, I was beaming. Whether from the adrenaline or the realization that the worse had already happened, I don’t know.
I smiled and nodded enthusiastically at the dreadlocked head staring pointedly at me as I rode by. The dreadlocked head bobbed forward sharply accompanied by wide eyes and raised eyebrows as if to say, “why are you still here!?”
I won’t miss your guitar tunes, either, my friend.
The real escape path
The sand continued to inspire my front tire to dance and swerve as it pleased.
I continued to hold my breath.
And a full kilometer later… my heaven-sent guide turned sharply toward a line of boats, weaving between them until he found a rocky path leading to another backyard and another small path leading up through quiet houses and the blessed main road.
At last, back on a real road.
No eggs, no onions, no cash
Several days and unending roadblocks later, my small beach town is only accessible a few hours a day when the roadblocks are not up, the eggs and vegetables disappeared from the only grocery store a few days ago, and the ATMs are now out of cash.
I have just over $100, 3 beers, half a bottle of orange juice, a full tank of gas, and enough pasta for 1 full day of meals so I hope the tiny beach hut tattoo parlor won’t charge me too much for whatever I scratch into my skin later today.