Posts Tagged With: Cotopaxi

Mistakes, I Made A Few

Her backpack: Indigenous woman in Cotopaxi, Ecuador, several thousand feet above sea level where oxygen is hardly plentiful. And she manages to still smile

“Has it been a year?” a friend asked, as I stood in his dining room in Miami. “Yes, I’ve been gone exactly a year,” I replied, feeling somewhat uncertain myself.

It was hard to believe that a year ago last month  I left the United States for Colombia, where I started this great global adventure. Hard to believe how much ground I covered by road and how many people I met along the way. How many lives I touched and how many lives touched mine. I am not the same person that left the United States last February. I am changed, for the better, I think. I know more about South America and South Americans. I’ve seen more. I’ve learned a thing or two about tolerance, and above all, patience. You have to be an extremely patient traveling for a year in the Third World. You must adjust to all sorts of situations and customs.

I bit my tongue – mostly – when someone tried to lecture me about the evils of the United States. I listened and nodded and sometimes even agreed with the disagreeable.

South America was great in so many ways. I am now back in the United States. In Miami, to be exact, nursing an injured knee, the result of a tumble in Chile.

My backpack: Compared to what she's carrying above, maybe I should quit whining... 🙂

The knee seemed to bounced back to health, but as I started to make my way across Argentina and Uruguay, with a backpack that seemed to weigh more with every step, the pain returned. So after limping around Montevideo for a while, I hopped online onto the American Airlines website and booked a flight to Miami. The plan: see a doctor about the knee, take it easy and start anew in Europe.  That was the plan. This month, my doctors have had a thing or two to say about that. After X-rays, physical therapy for up to three months has been ordered. I start April 9. Not exactly the way I had hoped things would turn out, but also not as bad as it could have been. No need for surgery, for instance. That’s good news. Bad news, I am in Miami instead of Brazil, which I had to skip to deal with the knee. No worries, new plan is Brazil has been appended to 2013, but more likely early 2014 given my detour.

Meanwhile in Miami, I’ve had time to reflect on the year that was.  What I did, what I would do differently. And with this entry, I hope you, dear future traveler, will learn from my mistakes. I list a few:

1. The Backpack: Mistake number one. I bought the biggest one on the market – 91 liters – but nobody told me that amount of weight is nearly impossible to carry fully loaded, uphill, up stairs, for long periods, especially for a man who weighs 170 puny pounds. (My weight at the start of my trip was more than 190 pounds, at times closing in on 200 pounds).

But I carried two backpacks, so there! 🙂
In Santiago, Chile.

Some might say I don’t have to fill the backpack with the kitchen sink, but another unforeseen problem with a pack that size is it has to have a certain amount of stuff in it, otherwise the fasteners won’t close properly. So then you are forced to load up with stuff you really shouldn’t be carrying. So my advice is buy a backpack built to carry the minimum you will need on the trip, not the maximum. You may find yourself wearing the same clothes more often, but your legs, spine and shoulders will thank you for it.

2. The Fights: So the stranger learns I’m American and I get one of two reactions – love or hate. The United States is not the most popular nation on Earth. That has been made very clear to me across South America, with one individual after another laying into me about Iraq, Guantanamo, American imperialism, 9-11, on and on. From Colombia all the way down to Argentina, I heard from individuals who really believe that the United States government blew up the World Trade Center and crashed planes into the Pentagon as a pretext to attack Iraq.  Really? These conspiracy theorists were fed this story line by conspiracy theorists in the United States. So I can’t really fault their ignorance.

Sometimes I would allow people to go on and on and have their say. Sometimes I would challenge their assertions. And that more often than not was a mistake. People form their own opinions and they won’t change it no matter how much rational reasoning you try to impart. So my attempts to set the record straight often ended in disagreement. Henceforth, I will just shut up and smile.

3. Voices Inside My Head!: As most of you know, I’ve been couch surfing my way around the world. It’s been amazing, but not always smooth sailing. And it’s been those times when I didn’t listen to that voice in my head that said “go to a hostel or a hotel”. When traveling in a strange land, go with your gut! It’s nature’s way of alerting you that something is amiss, perhaps even dangerous. The times I ignored that little voice inside my head I ran smack into trouble and had a bad experience. Nothing major, just unpleasant. When the voice told me to find someplace else to stay, I should have listened. When it told me not to attempt to go down that canyon, I should have listened. When it told me….well, you get the idea.

Knee Issues: Herein may have lay part of the stressed knee problem! Not enough leg room on some buses in South America for people more than five feet tall!
Two-plus hours on a bus - in this position - to Santa Marta, Colombia

4. Tentative – I bought a tent for this trip and it was one of the things I ended up shipping back to the United States because I was carrying way too much. I should have kept the tent! Housing is important and that tent would have come in handy throughout South America. I had used it only a couple of times and thought I would not use it again. Wrong! So many places that allow camping and it would have been great to have it and awake in some beautiful spots. The  tent stays with me on the rest of the journey.

5. Thanks For The Advice: When you travel you will run in to people who have advice as to where and where not to go. What to see and what to skip. Opinions, opinions, opinions. But it’s your trip and if you have your heart set on someplace, do not allow others to dissuade you. Do your own research and decided for yourself if it’s worth it. A couple of times, against my better judgment, I skipped a couple of places then heard from others that those places were phenomenal. For instance, I am hearing from some that the Egyptian Pyramids are a bore. No amount of criticism of the pyramids will keep me out of Egypt. I will draw my own conclusions about the pyramids.

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Riding, Slipping And Sliding Down An Andean Volcano

The very chilled Cotopaxi volcano

I took one last glance at the peak of the 19,347-foot snowcapped volcano, wrapped my gloved hands around the handlebar of the gold Trek mountain bicycle, placed both feet on the pedals, and flying down the peak’s jagged slopes I went, taking the first curve extremely fast, the rear wheel sliding to the right and then to the left as I pumped the brakes to slow down. Not a smooth start to this bike ride down Cotopaxi, Ecuador’s highest active volcano and second highest peak.

Thats me, coming round the mountain

I managed to stop the bike without falling. It wasn’t a pretty stop, but it was stop. There at that curve that came so suddenly and so soon, I listened to Diego, our guide on this bike tour of this beautiful and yet potentially deadly mountain that has logged more than 50 eruptions over centuries. Quito, Ecuador‘s capital, could face a major disaster if Cotopaxi were to explode. Similarly, other towns in the valley near the volcano could be wiped out by mudflows. Cotopaxi, scientists predict, will one day blow its top to disastrous consequences. But none of the people who see the volcano every day ever really think about that. What they think of is its beauty, it’s place among peaks in the Andes mountain range, and they appreciate Cotopaxi for what it is – a natural wonder.

Diego, a tall and lanky Ecuadorian, leads these bike tours of Cotopaxi and other peaks in the Andes several times a week. He works for a tour company named The Biking Dutchman. The company’s owner is dutch.

The Bike Beast - Crossing the waters of a swollen mountain lake

I don’t know where Diego gets the strength to ride these peaks as a job. It’s not exactly office work. It’s extremely physical and even dangerous: rain-soaked and bumpy dirt roads and uneven paths covered with volcanic ash, loose gravel, protruding rocks, rain-filled potholes, cars, trucks and wild horses – yes, wild horses – on the road, and those sharp curves, all make for a great challenge. Miscalculate and you just might wipe out – or be wiped out. But what is adventure with no risks?

At that first hard curve Diego stopped to point out the terrain, below the peak, a valley formed millions of years ago by Cotopaxi’s eruptions. He said maybe we would be able to see the wild horses that roam the valley. Spanish conquistadors brought horses here and these wild horses are of that lineage of horses left behind by the Spaniards. Indeed we saw several of those horses further down the mountain, trotting across the roadway, as we sped on our bikes toward them. On this trek, not counting Diego and a driver, there were five of us: a couple from Canada and another couple from Scotland that now lives in London. We were all going to test our mettle on this trip down the mountain, which involved some challenging climbs, especially given the thin mountain air.

Wild horses run across the valley at the foot of Cotopaxi

We started this tour at 7 a.m., meeting up at the Magic Bean hostel and cafe. After I loaded up on coffee and a cream cheese bagel, we hopped in the Biking Dutchman four-wheeler that would take us more than 14,000 feet up the mountain. From there, we would ride down, mostly down a steep and curvy road, but as I earlier said, there were a few uphill battles which some of us – myself included – lost: we walked our bikes. On one of these walks up the climb, here goes Diego pedaling along: “Hey Michael! This is the last one, it’s all down from here, come on, join me!” Yeah, superman. I’m right with you. 🙂

We made it!

On the way down, I was going so fast it was as if I was flying. At this point it was raining and my face was being pelted by the rain, dirt and gravel that somehow mysteriously was airborne. Churned up by cars and riders ahead of me, perhaps?

After a few minutes on the bike I had shed any fear and relish the speed down the volcano. I had done plenty of road cycling, but not much mountain biking, so there was somewhat of a learning curve (hahaaha, no pun intended 🙂 I figured out when to grip the handlebar tighter and when to loosen my grip; when to raise my butt off the seat and stand on the pedals; when to brake and when to simply just let go. I must have hit speeds of up to 40 mph (conservative estimate) going down the mountain’s slopes and even on some of the curves, feeling the bike slip and slide, but always trying to stay in control. That’s key, maintaining control even if you are going fast. Also extremely crucial, losing all fear. If you are afraid, you will get hurt. If you are too cautious, you will have no fun, and then what was the point of going up the mountain? You may as well have stayed in the city, sipping a mocha.

This kid was too funny!

So down and round and down and round I go, fast, all I hear is the buzz of the wind at my ears, wet, cold and warm all at once. I unzip my jacket to cool off then I’m too cold. Zip it back up, one hand on the handlebar – steady! The rain has clouded and the cold have clouded my Oakleys – my sporty sunglasses – which I then question why am I even wearing them, there’s no sun. I continue on, flying down the mountain, then come to a canal. I stop to take a photo. Here comes Diego: “Michael, you passed the first stop! You have to go back up. It’s a little bit of a climb.” Yeah, superman. A little big of a climb my…. I just came flying down that hill. That’s a nice climb.

Earlier, on the way up the volcano, Diego had pointed out a spot where we all should stop and meet. The idea was for all of us to ride at our pace, fast or slow, but that we should meet at the specified location to continue on the second part of the trek, which turned out to be a dirt path that circled back to the very canal where I had stopped. Nevertheless, I peddled up and up and up and up and up until I reached my fellow mountain bikers. They were waiting for me. The couple from Scotland said they were calling out my name, trying to get me to stop when they noticed I had gone beyond the meet up spot. I heard nothing but the wind.  For that, I got an extra helping of climbing.

Making coca tea, which helps altitude sickness, many swear

We broke for lunch around a warm chimney fire inside a store and coffee shop lower on the mountain. Pasta, some sort of spinach Quiche, ginger tea and brownies were provided. It was there I had my first drink of coca tea. They say it helps altitude sickness, but not that I was having any of that, I just wanted to try coca tea. Two indigenous women prepared it – it cost $1. To me coca tea tastes simply as an herbal tea. And no, I did not get high from it. The coca leaf is just a plant. Cocaine is a derivative of that plant. But it’s quite a bit of steps to get from the plain natural coca plant to manmade cocaine. After my tea, we suited up and down the mountain we continued, the handlebar feeling more like a jackhammer set on high.

I made it all the way down from more than 14,000 feet, without injury and exhilarated. It was a great tour. And great to be on the mountain. Now I’m sore – your body does take a pounding – but it’s a good sore.  Now, on to my next adventure.

Con "El Man Superman" Diego, after the journey

MORE PHOTOS OF THE COTOPAXI PEDAL

 


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