Monday, August 3, 2015

Unexpected Occurrence in Ecuador

I write this overdue entry from my place in Napa Valley, CA where it's sunny and the grape harvest has started early with all the warm weather.

This was my 4th consecutive year heading down to Latin America for a winter adventure.  My first time traveling south was in Dec 2010 - Feb 2011 backpacking in Chile & Argentina.  I spent 5 weeks of it volunteering (WWOLF) on an organic farm in El Hoyo, a small Argentinian town in the northern Patagonia region.  It was an incredible experience and what got me hooked on Latin America.  Here is a photo from Feb 2011 - As a former baker, I was in charge of baking all the bread for the farm so was about to load some challa & whole weat loaves into the homemade, wood-fired oven with fellow volunteer, Justin.

Back to Ecuador.  After riding 1200 miles through Colombia & Ecuador last winter (Jan - March 2014), I had a better sense of what I would be going through.  I definitely felt more confident but was also about 20 lbs heavier from when I left Ecuador the year before.  Let's just say living in Napa Valley, California can be gluttonous, haha. I was eager to get a new bike, having some clue now as to what I prefer, and start cycling south.  I flew from San Francisco, CA to Quito, then spent 5 days there acting as a tourist.  (My "Ecuador" page is in the works, including my experiences cycling from the Colombian border to Quito Feb-March 2014 & Feb 2015 in Quito)

From Quito I took a taxi to Tumbaco, a city of 50,000 about 15 km/10 miles away.  Tumbaco is the home of an incredibly warm family, the Laras. Santiago Lara, seen below building my bike, is a long-time, avid cyclist & began hosting cyclists with his wife, Ana Lucia, in a house in Quito 35 years ago.

They now live with their 2 daughters, Ana Carolina & Micaela, plus other relatives in Tumbaco and always have friends and family stopping however many cyclists are camping there,  Santiago also runs his bicycle business off the property, fixing & building bikes for customers.

La familia de ciclistas (Ana Lucia, Ana Carolina, Santiago & Micaela):

I was getting extremely eager to get moving, being surrounded by other cyclists, talking about their adventures and working on their bikes.  Below shows the garage and outside camping space for any cyclists passing through:

The big day finally came and I was ecstatic.  All packed up andready to head off on day 1.  (Left to right: Franco from Buenos Aires; myself; Santiago & Mattias from Bogota)

I would be riding for approx 2 months, making my way into northern Peru.  I did not have a final town or city in mind as I don't like to make any real plans, just kind of go where locals recommend.

My first bike, the Specialized 01 Work Hybrid is back in California and I use it regularly.  Here is my new (and improved) bike, built by Santiago. It's an Ice Biker mountain bike with 27.5" wheels, front suspension & 27 gears (all Shimano components).

I left around 1pm the first day so got a late start and the brunt of the sun.  By dusk it was starting to sprinkle and I was ready to be done, though I only rode about 45 km that day, ending with an hour climb up a mountain.  I found an hourly hotel which only charged $11 for the night and unloaded my gear. The issue with ending a day on top of a mountain is that it's colder and you get chilly plummeting down the next morning.  When it's getting dark you don't have any choice.  As such, I had the pleasure of taking an ice cold shower that night before eating a dinner of fruit, granola, tamales & crackers.

The next morning I was sore, but feeling great mentally.  I was back on the road with no obligations and the freedom to roam as I please.  I found a little restaurant serving breakfast right before getting on the Pan-American Highway and had a scrumptious meal of eggs, bread, coffee & fresh strawberry juice.  I walked out content and ready to start covering some miles.

I turned onto the Pan-American, staying in the 3 foot shoulder on the side.  The road starting going down hill and I started picking up the pace.  I was listening to Jack White on my mp3 player.  I glanced down at my speedometer - 20mph - I was moving!  Then my mp3 player unclipped from my jersey and fell down, ripping my headphones out.  I looked down and swiped so they wouldn't get caught up in the chain or my spokes but had no luck,  When I looked back up, it was too late.  I was riding directly into a 3 foot drop cement drainage ditch that runs right next to the shoulder of the road.  I slammed the breaks but still dropped down in the ditch and sailed over my handlebars, skidding along the cement.  It all happened very quickly and I remember ending up on my back, looking up at cars passing above on the highway.  I started yelling "Ayudame" or "Help me" in Spanish and within a minute there was a police officer.  I had managed to crash directly in front of the entrance to a police academy.  That was fortunate.

At first I didn't know if I had broken anything or could even get up. I was still wearing my helmet, which saved me from some serious head damage.  I managed to get up and could walk with no problem.  The police were helping get all my stuff (my homemade panniers hadn't moved an inch!) and asking me about the accident.  They called for an ambulance and got me into their main office.  Since I was traveling solo I didn't have anyone to capture my time with the police, in the ambulance and in the free clinic where I got stitches in my cheek, chin & wrist.  The nurses were friendly and allowed me to skip the line, and one police officer, also named Santiago, stayed with me while I was getting stitches.

You might be wondering what something like this costs a tourist.....nothing.  It's free, even for tourists.  Thank you, Ecuador.

After the stitches, Santiago drove me back to the police station and got 2 other officers in a truck to drive me to the next town of Machachi and find a hotel to recover in.  I found a cheap hotel and they carried my bike and everything up the stairs into my room. Thank you, friendly Ecuadorian police.  Now I was able to look in the mirror and view the damage:

My right wrist had been cut deep and I could barely carry anything in that hand:

My helmet:

Jersey (there is also a 12" long hole on the back where I slid):

and finally, the brand new bike with a slightly bent frame and wheel:

All said and done, I feel fortunate to have walked away with wounds that can be healed.  I stayed in the hotel for 3 days before taking a taxi back to the casa de ciclistas in Tumbaco.  Santiago and his family were so welcoming and comforting, working as a team to make sure I was ok.  Santiago inspected my bike, his wife, Ana Lucia, served me pancakes and his brother went to the farmacy to get me more medicine and things to cure me faster.  Talk about hospitable people.  I've barely spent 2 weeks with them and I am like close family.  Thank you so much, Laras.  The Sunday I returned to their house happened to be the day before a family friend & fellow cyclist, Henrik from Denmark, was finally flying back home after 4 years of traveling....and it was Superbowl Sunday.  The family grilled burgers and we drank some beers.  Here is my family away from home:

The day after that picture, I flew home to California, unexpectedly losing a close friend.  It's now been 6 months since the accident and I look back at it as a learning experience.  Other cyclists have told me their bad stories of crashes and broken bones and it happens to the best of them.  Santiago has broken all sorts of bones over 40 years of cycling.  I still cycle regularly back here in Napa, California but am more cautious overall.  The crashed bike is still with Santiago in Tumbaco, Ecuador waiting for me to return this December 2015.  Santiago is going to fix it before I return and I will set off south once again towards Peru with plans of cycling 2 to 2 1/2 months.