This is going to be a long one. There’s a lot to catch up on. If you make it to the end, thanks for your persistence!
Heading north from the small border town of Macara, the road twists up through lush tropical vegetation. The close atmosphere hangs heavy, wetting our shirts with sweat. Thick green tendrils droop from electricity cables overhead: a testament to the verdurous fertility of the place.
It was a far cry from the brown desert dryness we had experienced through much of Peru, and indeed for much of the trip. I hadn’t cycled through such scenery since way back in Brazil and we were excited to be in a new environment.
We were happy to be in richer surroundings and our conversation was positive throughout the day. Even as Sophie was stung by the numerous wasps that landed on her legs (they are attracted to the salt, we’re told), we remained content. Even as we struggled up the 30 odd miles of constant climbing, we were happy. We were sweaty and tired when evening set in, but pleased with a productive day.
A surreal night
We were hoping to reach the town of Celica that night. But we hadn’t taken into account the steepness and length of the hill that climbed up into the mountains. We were over 10 miles short and settled for pitching the tent just off the road, as we had so many times before.
We waited until darkness to set up camp. We pitched by a gate in a small break in the foliage. It ensured we were hidden as best we could be from the road. After checking the bikes were well chained, eating our pasta dinner and climbing into our sleeping bags, we talked about how comfortable we felt in Ecuador. The locals had been warm and friendly all day. Especially in this thinly populated mountainous area, nobody would disturb us in the night.
Even as Sophie sat bolt upright an hour after we’d fallen asleep, saying she thought she heard the pedal on her bike move, we didn’t really think anyone was out there. There are disturbances every night, and if you got up each time you heard one, you’d never get any rest. We fell back into the deep deserving sleep of the exhausted.
Then it was my turn to wake with a start. “Soph, I’m covered in ants. They’re all over me! They’re biting me!” I had jumped up, out of my sleeping bag, and was frantically flicking away at my face, neck, torso. Was I having a nightmare?
“You’re just freaking out Mike, there’s nothing there. Go back to sleep”.
“No, they ARE there! They’re all over me!”
I couldn’t believe it myself. But I grabbed the head torch and turned it on to confirm the horror: thousands, not hundreds, thousands of ants were crawling from my toes, along my body, up onto my chest and onwards across my face and into my hair. Thousands of them. Where my head had been, thousands more swirled together in insect confusion.
“Out the tent! We gotta get everything out of here, find the hole and patch it up!”
We moved quickly, shocked into sudden action. The colony had entered through a few tiny holes in the base of the tent that we hadn’t seen before. We swept them all out, killing as many we could, and patched the holes. They hadn’t found their way into drybag where we were storing the food. I guess they, like the wasps, wanted the salt that was crusted on our skin.
It was after we had tidied and our adrenaline had dimmed that Sophie looked over at the gates where the bikes had been tied.
“Mike, my bike’s not there”.
“What? Are you serious?”
“My bike’s not there”.
It was so matter of fact. So calm.
We had thought about this moment hundreds of times. What if we woke to find the bikes missing? How would we react?
I grabbed a torch and thick stick, leapt the gate and ran off into the midnight mist. My bike was still there. The thief must be close: he couldn’t manage both bikes so he took Sophie’s first: he’d stash it and return for mine. I ran down the hill, searched through brambles and thick grass. I called out, not angry, but trying to reason with him:
”Esta bici es nuestra vida. Es para la caridad. ¿Por qué tomar lo que no es el suyo?
I could imagine him somewhere in the foliage, concentrating on keeping his excited breathing quiet. He was watching, but there was no way I could find him. I had to return to Sophie. She was still by the tent and I couldn’t leave her alone. She was in tears now. The realisation of what was happening had hit home. She knew that with her remaining money it wouldn’t be easy to buy a new bike, plus the insurance wouldn’t cover one.
The next few days, sleeping in the local police station as we tried to find the bike, were stressful for both of us. Sophie wouldn’t accept my offers of a new bike. We had been arguing a lot and she didn’t want to accept my help. She also saw the theft as a sign that she should cut her losses and finish her trip.
For me, finishing my trip there wasn’t an option. I always wanted, and felt I must, finish what I started by cycling up to California. This was a blip, a challenge that could be overcome. Our differences of opinion, coupled with the stress of the situation, were leading to more arguments, causing a vicious circle that was driving us further apart.
In Quito, we finally agreed on the only option that both of us could accept: Sophie would go home, and I would continue on my own. This too lead to more angst and further rows. But we had to accept the situation.
It was only when we were invited to stay with Sophia – a lady we had met on Warm Showers – that we were inspired and invigorated with the idea of launching a crowdfunding campaign. We set the page up, and within less than 24 hours we had smashed our fundraising target. Thanks to our amazing friends, and even people we’ve never met, we would be continuing the trip together!
We searched a few bike shops until we found Fulgur Urban Cycles – a small independent bike store in the capital. The owner Fernando showed us a new touring bike that he had built. Amazing luck! Touring bikes are extremely rare in South America. In the countries we had visited, people tend to only ride mountain bikes. Fulgur Bikes had the perfect bike, at a great price!
It’s been nearly three weeks now since the bike was stolen, and it’s been a difficult time for us both. Sure, nothing violent has happened to us, but the stress of trying to solve the situation has been real. It’s been tough not knowing whether Sophie would be staying or going, and it’s put a huge strain on our relationship.
Only in the last few days have we begun to pull ourselves out of limbo and feel positive about what we’re doing. We took the bus to Bogota due to Sophie having time pressure to get home. We love what we’ve seen of this city, with it’s open green spaces and excellent cycling routes.
And it’s a shame we haven’t spent more time in Ecuador, with its volcanos, incredible biodiversity and for the most part lovely people. Or Colombia, with its rich cultural heritage, love of cycling and awe-inspiring roads. But we’re back now with full vigour to finish this challenge and cycle the road ahead.
To Central America and beyond!
Vida! Saúde! Felicidade!
As ever, if you’ve enjoyed reading these posts, or if you see value and a challenge in this trip, or if you’d simply like to support a wonderful cause, it would be great if you drop a little sum towards my fundraising goal for the Teenage Cancer Trust. Head over to https://www.justgiving.com/Mike-Edmondstone/ to get involved. Thanks 🙂