Montag, 25. April 2011

English Summary No. 8

After some two and a half months in Tumbaco I was finally getting ready to leave. The reason why I spent so much time there was a very crazy idea of Santiago's. A few days after our arrival Martina went back to Peru for about a week. During this time Santiago got a call from a friend who was looking for a woman to race with his team in the HuairaSinchi, a 3-day adventure race in Ecuador. So Santiago began to mention that race, suggesting I should take part. In the beginning I refused, telling him he's crazy as I would visit the Galapagos when Martina would come back and then keep cycling North. He kept insisting, showing me pictures and videos of the event, realizing that this sounded quite tempting to me. He figured that I could/should talk to his friends, just to get to know them, without any obligation. I finally agreed, suspecting that this was going to cause me a lot of problems.

So, one evening José, Alfonso and Nicolas showed up at Santiagos' house. Their problem was that José's wife, who would usually be part of the team, was pregnant and, apparently, there weren't many women in Ecuador willing and capable of taking part in such a race which includes mountain-biking, trekking, kayaking and some sort of rope exercise. I mentioned to the guys that, although I'm traveling by bicycle, I've never even sat on a mountain-bike, I've done kayaking about twice in my life and, of course, wasn't trained at all in hiking/running. They figured that, as I have endurance from my trip, with good training during the next two months, I could do it (yeah, they needed a woman and had finally found a potential "victim"). I also mentioned that  my visa would run out and that I was traveling with a friend who might not want to stay here so much time, so I needed some time before I could decide.

I passed a lot of time discussing the situation with other cyclists staying at the Casa and all of them figured that, if I really wanted, I should do it. And this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance, I finally decided to stay in Tumbaco for the coming two months. As was to be expected Martina wasn't very happy when I told her but, as she didn't want to travel on alone, arranged herself with the situation taking Spanish classes and doing a trip to the Galapagos (which I would have to skip).

Training with the team startet the following Saturday with a 4-hour hike on a hill near Quito. On Sunday I did my first ever mountain-bike trip and on Monday I could hardly walk my legs were so sore from the fast descent on Saturday. During the week I trained alone or with Santiago, the weekends to come were reserved for the team. Nicolas borrowed me a pair of cycling shoes with clips which lead to some bruises on my right knee before I learned to unclip fast enough to put my foot down in any situation. The following weeks were hard for me, first because of the training, second because I was quite worried whether that race I had agreed to was too big for me. The guys of my team were all super strong cyclists who seemed to have been doing mountainbiking for all their life (or at least several years) and were used to cycling and other adventure competitions. And who am I, compared to that??? To my comfort I had some good friends in Santiago's house who cheered me up when I was exhausted after a training or otherwise depressed.

Two weeks before the race we stopped doing long or strenuous training sessions as we wanted to be rested and fit for the big day. I had done some shopping with José and Alfonso to get me the necessary equipment for the race. I also could borrow some of the things I would need from my new friends. The closer the race approached the more nervous I was. I didn't want to disappoint my team but wasn't sure whether I would be able to live up to their expectations. I was further worried by the fact that we had never trained with the whole team together. They had told me that José would pull me on the bike but we haven't trained that even once  (we finally did on the last evening before the race in Nicolas' garage).

Friday morning arrived and Alfonso came to pick me up at Santiago's. We would meet the team in Nicolas' flat and go together to the "registro", the team registration. There, we had to have the GPS and the radio  (for emergencies) checked and sealed, the compulsory equipment was to be checked, we got some stuff and information on the kayak and rope section: On the kayaks we would arrive at a bridge, "park" our boats, swim to the ropes hanging there and clip in the belay system. We would have to jumar up to the bridge and rappel down into the river againg. Then swim back to the kayaks and keep paddling.

After the registro we went back to our "base" (Nicolas' flat) to prepare the support cars together with our "abastos" our support staff. At 5 pm we would have to go to the "Congresillo Tecnico", a technical meeting where we would get more detailed information about the route as well as the maps. That meeting was interesting, with introduction of all the teams and news such as we would have to swim across rivers (with life vest, backpack and all). That evening we still spent a lot of time preparing for the race. José brooded over the maps marking his suggested route and we covered the maps with waterproof film as they would probably get wet. All this took a lot of time and it was midnight till we could go to bed. The alarm clock would ring at 3 am.

We left Quito early in the morning and drove to the village of Pintag where most of the competitors were already assembled and preparing themselves for the start. I was super nervous also because I don't like big groups of cyclists on narrow streets and here, we would be taking off all at the same time, 52 teams with four members each. Shortly after the start, José held the "jalador", the device to pull other cyclists, to me. That was going to be a bit complicated. The guys wanted to overtake others with me on the "leash". When they found that we were still too slow, Alfonso took me on his jalador as well. They were pulling side by side now what turned out to be tricky when they tried to overtake an other cyclist taking him in the middle. These kind of problems were sorted out soon and we climbed that hill way faster than I ever could have by my own. Unfortunately, some parts of the trail were so muddy that my gear changing didn't work properly anymore, which made everything even harder (I couldn't use my first gear anymore).

At one point we had do cross a creek either by climbing over some sort of aqueduct or by hauling the bikes over a small gorge. We chose the second option and continued by pushing the bikes up a very steep hillside. On the top we could cycle again but obviously had lost the correct route as, during the next several kilometers, had to lift the bikes over dozens of barbwire fences. We finally managed to find the first transition area and the point of control. We changed rapidly and took off for what was supposed to be a hike of some 25 km. José and Alfonso estimated that we should arrive at the day's finish between 5 and 7 pm.

After a few hundred meters downhill we began a long climb in the páramo, andine grassy and bushy landscape where, at one point, our compulsory gear (sleeping bag etc.) was checked. There were still many other teams close to us and, as it seemed, all of them had chosen the same direction. After a few kilometers I made a bad discovery: my water supply was almost gone. How was that possible? I had told  Gisela, my abasto, to fill it up, I had seen that she had done that and I hadn't drunk much yet. My assumption was that, as she had filled the bag when it was still in the backpack, that the pack had compressed the water bag and made it look full when there was not even one liter inside. Whatever, I had just a little water left when there were still many hours of hiking to come. That was bad but couldn't be changed.

We kept walking uphill for a few hours, Alfonso always waiting for me, José and Nicolas far ahead. So far, that at one moment we couldn't see them anymore and didn't know where they had gone. Alfonso was quite angry at them and we had to search for about half an hour till we found them. There was also a discussion about which way we should take, we wandered around a nice, dense forest for a while just to find out that there was no way we could descend to the valley through that forest. So we went back up and chose another "path" down to a lake and crossed some sort of river or part of the lake. On the other side there was a broad path up the next rigde where we knew the next checkpoint would be. So it was and we reached it by about 6 pm. We would have to hike in the darkness as there were still many kilometers ahead. We met other teams again, walked together for a while, than separated again. At nightfall we put on our headlamps and could see other lights in the dark.

We hiked up and down, following another ridge, and couldn't see other teams for quite a while. It felt weird and unreal walking through the night in a complete unknown place, at the same time it demanded concentration as the terrain was rocky and the wet stones were sometimes slippery. After a few hours we bumped into many other lost competitors, joined them and, as nobody had a clue where we had to go, at least all agreed in the direction we should take. We lost the others in a steep descent into a valley where we tried to find a way through thick bushes. We actually made it through the brush and found a broad, very muddy trail. We followed it for a while until a big group came toward us and we found out that they were led by someone of the organization who had decided to "collect the lost sheep" and drive them in the right direction, which meant showing them the river crossing which they would never have found alone in the dark.

I wondered about that. The rules of the competition said quite clear that it was strictly forbidden to enter any water after 6.30 pm, how were we going to cross that creek? By sliding astride over a tree trunk, hoping not to fall into the fast current below. We all made it safely, found checkpoint no. 4 and continued on another even muddier trail. There were some three kilometers to go. In the beginning it was easy as there was no turnoff to confuse anyone. Later we tried turning left, found a lady sitting in a Pick-up who told us that we were wrong. Her explanation of the route weren't very clear and it was hard to find the right path. But somehow we made it and after wading through knee-deep mud we reached the village of El Tablon where our abastos were waiting for us. It was 11 pm.

We tried to clean ourselves as good as possible, got a plate with hot soup and soon had to pack our stuff.  A two-hour car ride to the campamento was waiting for us. From there, we would leave early the next day. We heard people talking about the organization considering to postpone the start from 5 am to 9 am to let people sleep at least a few hours. At the new camp, just before going to sleep (in was 3 am by then) we heard loudspeakers announcing the decision. We would head out only at 9 am.

So in the morning we had enough time to have breakfast and get ready without any hurry. As the day was cut short so was the program. The first cycling leg and the orientation hike were left as planned, the second cycling was just returning to the campamento and the second trekking was canceled. My guys made it quite clear: they wanted to win that day. That day's cycling was mainly on gravel roads, no long climbs but a lot of up and down. Of course, I only kept up with them because of that famous jalador. But the last few kilometers were single trail where that bit of help couldn't be used. We were among the first who reached the beginning of the trekking, changed shoes and took off. This hike wasn't supposed to be very long or hard, but we had to find four posts hidden in the dense wood, so it was more a question of efficient navigation. The landscape was interesting, dense, beautiful forest with many bright red flowers and butterflies. Unfortunately, as this was a race, there was no time to appreciate nature's beauty.

Finding the first post was rather easy, then in got more complicated. Several teams were close to each other, we  also met teams form elite who turned out to have already spent hours and hours and couldn't find post no. 2. So we first went to look for post no. 3 which we found near a beautifull waterfall. Then we joined the search for the evasive no. 2 and, with the help of some very good friends of my guys, managed to find it (not exactly where it was marked on the map). On the way to the last post we followed a river which was flat but sometimes tricky walking in the water on slippery stones. We were close to the leading team who arrived at the post maybe a minute before us. After marking our pasaporte we chased them back to the bikes.

They made it there a maybe two minutes before us, so we would have to be faster then them. At one bridge they seemed to have taken a wrong turn, at least we caught up with them and a head-to-head race began. We overtook them in one climb, the passed us in the next. On top of every hill, Alfonso yelled a me to make me change gears and keep pedaling while my hurting legs screamed at me to do the opposite. To my amazement in the descends we were faster than the other team and finally managed to lose them. I was rather scared in these descends but went faster then ever before in my life. Alfonso's shouts made it clear that he was going to kill me should the other team win. We won. By maybe two minutes, but still. Although this wasn't going to undo the two or three hours they had won onus the day before, my friends were happy and I survived the day:-).

Because of the cancellations it was still early afternoon and we had time to relax, wash in the river and also clean our dirty shoes. Then we had to drive another one and a half hour to the next camp down in the Oriente, the rain forest. The place was hot and humid and sleeping there wasn't easy. The start of the last day had been set for 6 am so, when at 5.15 am the organization announced that we would start at 5.45 am everything went hectic, people running all over the place to get their things ready. I almost forgot my hiking shoes, another participant was going to leave without helmet and was sent back to get it. I don't know why they changed the time, to make people nervous, annoy them or whatever.

It was still dark when we took off and the first few kilometers were on a "gravel" road with lots of big, lose stones that made cycling hard and being pulled a pain. So I was happy when we reached the paved road but after a few minutes we turned into another gravel road which, fortunately, wasn't as bad as the first one. When we arrived at the point where (I think) the trekking should have started, nobody knew where we were supposed to leave the bikes and we were finally sent further on cycling until the river we would have to cross. There was another chaos going on. The river was flooded and it wasn't clear whether they would let us cross it or not. After some discussions and shouting it was decided to stop the time. We would have to wait for the responsible people to arrive and assess the situation. That was ok for me, we could sit down and eat and drink without hurrying or running someplace. I wasn't very keen on swimming across that river anyway.

I finally had to. One of the security guys had swam to the other side and obviously figured that we could do that too. Oh thanks, I had never swam with clothes, shoes and backpack (and life jacket!) but, of course, I followed my team in the water. At one point, I noticed that I wouldn't make it to the place where we were supposed to get out. Alfonso thought so too and told me to hold on to his pack pack. The problem was, swimming with just one arm didn't work very well either. So I let go soon, tried hard again and was lucky that José caught me and helped me out of the river. I felt weird, swimming through the brown floods seemed to have sucked all the energy out of my body. But there was no break, we started the hike right away, joining up with the leading team.

The day before we had already been in a very nice forest, this day was even better, this was real rain forest. As the area was inhabited there were many chaquiñanes, small trails going all over the place, so it was hard to find the correct one. We often followed small streams which was nice and flat, when walking through the forest it was almost always steep up and down, sometimes with mean ants biting our legs. We passed several houses, at one of which a local man offered us to lead us. After some confusion about where we wanted to go he guided us the the checkpoint where we met people of the organization and and a group of indígenas with painted faces. We soon kept going, looking for another stream where we would have to travel floating downriver for some two kilometers.

That was good fun. It took me a while to get used to this new "way of transportation" and to make sure not to bump my legs or butt in the shallower parts. Other stretches were tricky because the water was not deep enough to float and we had to wade through the strong current trying not to fall over. Still, I liked it much better then swimming across the first river and was a little sad when a guy with a flag indicated us to get back on the shore. The hike went on and on until we reached a third river. This one was flooded too and we had to swim again. And again, the current was strong and I realized I wasn't going to make it. I yelled over to the boys already on the other side what to do and was told to stand. And really, me feet reached the ground and I could take some steps towards José who was waiting to pull me out of the water again.

The sensation after swimming through that river was similar to the first crossing. My knees were weak and I felt like just lying down but instead we were told that the kayaking, which was supposed to start here, had been cancelled and replaced by a last cycling leg. Our bikes were already waiting but I could hardly open my wet shoelaces and actually needed Giselas help to get into my stubborn bike gloves. And off we went. More gravel road, more hills and more jalador. But we soon reached pavement on a rather flat road where we could go much faster. Another team, aventura, but male-only, passed us but couldn't shake us off. I sometimes wondered where the leading aventura mixed team was, they had crossed the river just bevore us but we hadn't seend them since.

The pavement stopped and we continued on a very wet dirt road. Being "on leash" I had no possibility to avoid all the dirt Alfonso's back wheel sprayed directly into my face and eyes. At one point we were stopped by a mobile checkpoint what turned out to be lucky because shortly after that we reached a turnoff and didnt't know which was our way. The checkpoint car was still close so we asked and found out we had to take the road to the left. We crossed a shallow creek and saw the finish in the distance. The male-only team was out of sight, they had missed the turnoff. So we were the first team of the whole HuairaSinchi who crossed the finish line! It was incredible. I had survived that three-day race I had been so afraid of (why had I ever said yes to that?). Everybody was happy, my team seamed to be satisfied with our result (although the exact ranking wasn't clear yet). 

The day after the race there was a price giving ceremony where our second rank was confirmed. We received a pretty trophy and a USD 600 cheque for one of Quito's outdoor shops. Wow, ¡cool! I spent the next days at Santiago's house with cleaning my stuff and trying to get myself organised and ready to leave when Martina would come back from the Galapagos. Turned out she was waiting for a parcel from Switzerland so I had a few days more to figure out what I would send home or take with me. We checked our bikes, asked for Santiagos's help one last time and soon didn't have anymore excuses. We would finally leave.

So one morning we packed our bikes again. How was it possible that we carried so much stuff? It seemed more everytime we had stayed somewhere for a while. After all the mountainbiking I had done, would I still be able to ride my heavily loaded touring bike? Saying goodby to Santiago was hard. I had spent so much time in his house, washing bikes, helping him in the kitchen, talking and training with him. After a last hug we set off. Santiago had suggested that we follow the Chaquiñan, the biketrail until a town called El Quinche. It was slow riding, the trail was more suitable for mountain bikes, but at least there was no traffic. We only did some 40 km that day staying in El Quinche.

The next day we passed the equator, something special and like some sort of landmark for our trip. We passed through Cayambe and then climbed up into the mountains again until a village called Olmedo where it started to rain hard and we found a place to stay. It was nice and sunny in the morning and the muddy and stony road took us through a idyllic valley down to Ibarra and further down into the hot valley of the river Chota. There we chose another detour and climbed another steep hill. We slept in the town of Mira and climbed again a lot the next morning to El Ángel. We had intended to take a road through the páramo but followed the advice of a police officer who warned us of lots of rain and cold up there. So we stayed on the main road, sped down to the Panam and kept going until a small town with the strange name of Julio Andrade. From that place it wasn't a very long way the Colombian border which we reached during the next morning. The border crossing was easy. Nobody cared about my three-weeks overstaying in Ecuador and we easily received a 90-day visa for Colombia.

In Ipiales I felt a bit overrun by all the curious people surrounding me and the bikes while Martina was checking out hotels. We ended up staying with Alvaro, a couchsurfing member and English teacher, who talked to me on the plaza. He has his own English school (English Institute) and we were given an empty classroom to spread out our matresses. We left early the next morning as we had a long way to go. First a 40 km descent, followed by a 25 km hot climb and another 12 km descent into Pasto. The landscape was awesome, all green hills and deep valleys. And lots of friedly cyclists on the road.

In Pasto we saw a picture of an interesting church on the wall. The Santuario de la Señora de las Lajas. Las Lajas is a small town close to Ipiales and we had been told to visit the church. Wanting to continue we had ignored that advice and now chose to take a bus back to Ipiales the next morning. It turned out to be worth it. That church is part of a brigde over a narrow valley or a gorge and its architecture is simply stunning.

After two nights we left Pasto. A short kilometer climb was followed by a 40 km descent, we crossed a bridge and started another 15 km climb which was very hot due to low altitude and daytime (afternoon). The last 15 km descent took us to the small town of Remolino where we found a hotel with cold showers (you wouldn't want a hot shower there!). The next day included 50 km of short ups and downs and brutal heat, flatish for the next 30 km and than a five km climb where we felt like we were being grilled. In El Brodo we stayed in the nice Hotel El Patía where I had time to fix a puncture in my tire and found out that this tire was about to break from the inside. Martina gave me an emergency patch and I hope I can squeez out a few hundred kilometers more before putting on my replacement tire.

For several days already Martinas Achilles tendons were inflamed and caused her a lot of pain. So we decided to cut the next day short and only did 40 km until Rosas. It was mainly uphill and mainly hot but we met very friendly people on the road who gave us sweet lemons and bananas. The town of Rosas doens't have any accommodation but a few minutes up the hill we found a hotel and a hospedaje which were both eaqually bad, meaning lousy matresses. The hospedaje was cheaper so we chose that place. The 40 km to Popayán were easier than expected, beginning with a nice descent followed by a climb of some 12 km and than lots of small ups and downs.

I don't remember the address of the hotel where we stayed in Popayán, but it was on Calle 5, is called "Pass Home" or in Spanish "Hogar del Paso". I liked it very much and can recommend it. We stayed five nights there letting Martinas tendons rest. Then we set out for Cali, now without any exact profiles or other information. It was a lot of shortish ups and downs until Santander de Quilichao, then 45 km flat. In Cali we stayed at Hernan's Casa de Ciclistas, a very nice guy and a very friendly place.

After a few days in Cali we took a bus to Bogatá where we had to pick up Martina's new credit card at the embassy (to replace the one stolen in Ecuador). We visited an interessting Salt Cathedral which is part of a huge salt mine in the town of Zipaquirá, passed some three hours in Bogatá's Museo del Oro, the Gold Museum and bought some bike parts (and I a new bike computer). We didn't see much more of Colombia's capital as it was raining nearly all the time and we didn't feel like walking around and getting wet on flooded streets. We stayed in another very nice Casa de Ciclistas where we met Paola and Igel, the German couple who owns the Casa in San Agustín. They were about to leave for Germany where they will start their next trip leading to Asia.

On our fouth day we were picked up by Julio, a friend of Martina's whom she had met down in Argentina and who had invited us to stay a few days in his home in Honda. Before we went to Honda, we spent two nights in a charming (and touristy) village called Villa de Leyva. Getting to Honda from there wasn't all that easy. We had to go back almost to Bogatá to find a road that wasn't closed down because of landslides. Honda is at very low altitude and accordingly hot and humid. The hard rain in the last few days had caused the river Magdalena to rise and flood many houses that were built too close to the water. We spent four days with Julio, visiting his farm and going for a horse ride, walking around Honda and hanging out at his pool and just chilling out.

We're now back in Cali and getting ready to leave. Martina's tendons seem to be ok, we just hope they will stay that way.

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