Quito is a city struggling against it's own topography. The center of town, stretches down a narrow plain, hemmed on one side by steep, volcanic hills, and on the other by tumbling erosion that bottoms out at rivers lying more than 2,000ft below. It seems a curious place for a capital, for as the city expands the bare concrete construction is forced to cling to ever steeper slopes. When we arrived in the northern outskirts, after climbing 2,200ft from a warm night in Guayllabamba, there was still 20 kilometers of surging, fuming city streets to navigate before finding our rented apartment, still on the north end of downtown.
Already a week in country we were both still struggling with the altitude and the equatorial sun, intensity magnified in the thin air. Luckily, we didn't have much to do in Quito other than meet Stevens, the jovial, square-faced Colombian that runs the Maximus project. Stevens happened to be in town for a few days, meeting with his Ecuadorian counterparts as they work to raise a rugby team amidst a non-existent disability culture. It's a difficult task, as Xavier (in charge of Maximus's Quito efforts) explained when the took us out to dinner at dark, chic little pub in Quito's restaurant row. "We have about 8 players that come out to practice, but probably only two will actually class into the sport. The others are amputees with too much function. We just can't find people with quadriplegia."
"In a city this big, they have to be out there somewhere." I said.
"Yes, the are here. Just hidden." Stevens said with a pained look on his face. It's a problem he deals with on a daily basis. "After the hospital they disappear into the city, sometimes hardly ever leave their house. Yes, they're definitely out there, but..."
In Latin America, and much of the world, this is the problem. With no infrastructure or culture of empowerment, a traumatic disability often translates into a sentence of life-long dependency, especially for those at the low-end of the function spectrum. People are cared for by their families and never learn the skills, or are able to afford the equipment, that would allow them to function in the world. Anyone who's been involved with wheelchair rugby knows the power of sport to empower independence. It's no different in Ecuador, but even getting people out of the house and to a practice is a monumental challenge.
Unfortunately, Xavier didn't have anything going on during our short stay in Quito that would allow us help with the rugby team. We hope there will be plenty more opportunities for that. If nothing else, hopefully our trip can raise the visibility of persons with disabilities throughout this amazing country. Whether it's through newspaper coverage, or the dozens of people everyday who stop ask us where were going and what were doing, many of the who see us probably didn't know it was even possible for someone who uses a wheelchair to pedal a bike.
Not that we've been pedaling anywhere quickly since entering Ecuador. Our progress has been strung between topography lines. We're either moving really slow or really fast, but the fast never lasts long enough to make up for the slow. Such is life in the Andes. The scale of the terrain here takes some getting used to. It's a strange thing to be able to pedal your bike between different climates. One day we're riding amongst Mango trees in the Chota Valley and after a big climb the soil was nourishing potatoes and carrots. At sea level, the transition from tropical fruits to root vegetables takes many thousands of miles; here it's compressed to a few thousand feet of elevation.
Our climbs are now measured in thousands of feet rather than hundreds. We climbed a little over a thousand feet over 8 or 9 smog choked miles leaving Quito, battling buses and taxi cabs for right of way in the slow lane. After descending back to our starting altitude, we again started climbing and found ourselves exhausted after only 23 miles. Camping in a buggy field behind the truck parking at a gas station would prove our best choice of the stretch between Quito and Riobamba, for the truckers were more interested in sleeping than talking to us.
The next day would prove a tough one, for my blood sugars had gone wonky through the night, staying high as I slept. High blood sugars make me have to pee more than normal (in addition to a variety of other physiological problems) and I woke up dehydrated and sluggish. Blood pressure problems ensued and climbing steadily throughout the day, I had one of my worst days of the trip on my bike. 4 hours of pure suffering brought us less than 10 miles down the road, though I felt like I'd done a century. Worse, the exercise and insulin were doing little to lower my blood sugars. Diabetes is something I rarely talk about (either in the blog or with people in general). It's partly because I've had it for so long that it's become a manageable, if annoying, part of my life. It's something I have to deal with, but it's rarely more than peripheral to my day. The other reason is that, for some reason, everybody seems to have an opinion about what I should be doing to manage my diabetes. Even after long years of learning how to adjust insulin to compensate for Paralympic level physical training, or riding a bike for 6-7 hours a day, people often get a confrontational attitude about things I should be doing differently with my diabetes care. Unless you're an elite-level athlete with diabetes and quadriplegia, or my Endocrinologist (Hi Dr. Beard!), I'm not going to listen to your tips about how to better control my blood sugars. Thus, I prefer to keep it private. Anyway, obviously something was wrong and it was wreaking havoc on my physical output. After checking again and finding continued high blood sugars, I switched to new bottles of insulin and waited to see if they'd do the trick. Luckily, after setting up camp in a school yard and cooking dinner over the unleaded flame of our stove, the blood sugars had come down and I went to bed finally feeling back to normal.
The next day we kept climbing, another 7 miles or so, straight up above 10,000ft. For the first time since the Baja, I felt really good on my bike. As it seems to go on this trip, Kelly felt like shit. Fortunately, when Kelly feels like shit, I can actually keep up and we moved at more or less our normal pace. Up at the summit, the road rolled gently through a high pine forest and the breeze blew sharp like Portland's east wind in the spring. Riding at speed in chilly weather put a grand smile on my face and even the descent cooperated, shallow enough that we actually covered 30 miles by lunch time. Unfortunately, that afternoon, after covering a South America best 43 miles, we repeated a Mexico mistake and set up camp in a town plaza on a weekend. Lesson learned, again: you cannot sleep in a Latin American town plaza on a weekend! Well you can try. But between car stereo jams and a late-night soccer game where the teenagers kept sending the ball flying into our tent, it wasn't the most restful night. Yes, shithead teenagers suck, but as our grand political orator G.W. once said: "fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again." Anyways, hopefully we won't get fooled by a peaceful looking town plaza again.
We beat a retreat at sunrise and descended into the sprawling, grimy town of Ambato, only to have to climb out of the river gorge it straddles, up probably the steepest hills of the trip so far. Climbing is one thing when you're in the mountains, with clear air and sumptuous views, quite another when it's accompanied by fumes, Ferreterias (repair shops), and gawking townies. Seeing our stop/start struggling, some local good samaritans came to push us both up a particularly nasty stretch. We must've looked like shit because one of them offered us some breakfast and a shower at his house. We wound up setting up camp on the Rios family's 3rd floor terrace because we felt as bad as we looked. Soon the family was offering to drive us to visit Baños because we wouldn't be passing through there on our route, and "it's beautiful and there are lots of foreigners!"
An hour later we were packed three wide into the family sedan, sucking on granadilla and zapoto (an orange-fleshed fruit, stringy like a squash with a mildly pleasing sweetness, messy like the juiciest mango, which is best eaten anywhere other than the cramped backseat of a Nissan), and descending out of the central highlands towards the Amazon Basin. Baños has the hostal/pub/tour operator uniformity of backpacker towns worldwide and after some lovely sightseeing, we were eager to get back to our terrace and rest our tightening bodies. The Rios family, however, was out to make sure we got the full orient of Ecuador experience. Our jaunt down the road soon turned into a 9 hour expedition, descending farther and farther into the thickening rain forest, visiting family friends, property shopping, sucking the meat off whole Tilapia, us wondering at every stop: maybe, just maybe are we going to turn around yet?
This is probably a good time to expound on Ecuadorian hospitality, which is both wonderful and indescribably maddening. The Ecuadorians we've met so far have been incredibly friendly and generous, offering us refreshments, places to camp, bags of fruit, bottles of water, and genuine interest in our trip, all as we pedal down the road. They, however, have been entirely disinclined to take no for an answer. Politely refusing a large bag of grapefruits, plums, or pears, explaining that: A. We have no more space on our overloaded bikes to strap 5 pounds of fruit. B. 5 pounds is a lot of weight when you're pedaling up the side of a mountain. C. We won't possibly be able to eat all 5 pounds of fruit before it goes bad, or is bruised to shit because, you know, it'll be jiggling down the road on top of a bicycle. Is usually greeted by a smile and: "No, no, no, you need this fruit, just take the fruit." Similar scenes occur when chatting with people on the side of the road and trying to explain that we need to get moving. "Oh you need to keep riding, okay...but I have a brother, and he doesn't ride bicycles, but he has a motorcycle and he once took a trip to Peru, have you been to Peru yet?..." Or getting ready for bed and explaining that we need to get more than 6 hours of sleep if we're going to make any distance the next day. "Oh, I bet your very tired, but are you sure you don't want a cup of tea, it's quite tasty. No? Okay, yes, you must be tired. Say, this is a very nice looking tent, is it warm? Are you sure you won't get wet if it rains? It's very cold out right now, are you sure you don't want a cup of tea?"
All of this is exactly what traveling is all about, cultural differences and the like. For a large majority of the people in the countries we're traveling through don't really understand the need for privacy, personal space, and peace and quiet, which are primarily northern constructs. But when you've ridden your bike for 60 kilometers through the spine of the Andes and all you want is a quiet patch of grass to cook dinner and lay your weary body, all these little differences can make you want to tear your hair out and pretend you forgot how to speak Spanish. All part of the journey though, right?
Which brings us back to our expedition with the Rios family. Where, after 8 hours of driving around we now found ourselves at the Baños thermal baths, which we'd already explained we didn't have much interest in, but papa Rios had decided that it would be good if we just stopped by and he'd see if we could elbow our way past the waiting throngs so that we could just go in and see the pools, which are really quite famous, don't you know? As I was about to start banging my head into the window, Mother Nature intervened by way of Mt. Tungurahua, which had started erupting only a few miles away from Baños. Papa Rios, to our infinite delight, decided it would be prudent if we headed back up to Ambato. On the way up, we rounded a bend and spied a line of cars pulled off the road with their blinkers flashing and their occupants on the grass marveling at the sky behind us. We pulled over and less than a minute later the black sky lit with specks of red, lava burst into the sky and then roiled down the upper peak. "Holy balls!" I exclaimed. Definitely one of the most surprising, and awe-inspiring moments of my life. Which is how this trip seems to be going, just when we start to get grumpy and annoyed with everyone, something grand enough happens that makes us step back and marvel.
So eventually we did make it away from the overly hospitable Rios family, but not before mama Rios decided to gift me a half-used bottle of foot-cream. The next morning we started climbing up towards the highest mountain in Ecuador, Mt. Chimborazo, which crests at a snow-covered 20,500ft. We knew we'd not make it up to the 12,000ft road summit in one day, so after a few steep hours we saw a sign for a roadside inn and decided to pay $30 for the privacy that a locking door affords. After a solid night of sleep, both Kelly and I felt revived and we rocked out to Biggie Smalls and Jay Z as we packed our bikes. The climbing started as we'd left it, steep and unending, but after warming up we both felt good on our bikes. Grinding up hills, with patchwork fields and cloud laden hills following us the whole way, it felt good to be pushing my body and having it respond like I know it can. Another 18 kilometers up, and we crested into a misty, wind swept landscape where a lusty bull was attempting to mount his bovine desire and, sadly, striking only air. A few kilometers later, unable to have seen the snowy peak of Chimborazo because of the heavy clouds, we started back down the mountain. The road was smooth and the curves gentle. I opened it up and flew past Kelly, the thin air offering little resistance and soon topped out at 49mph, blurring by Fedora-clad locals who laughed at our speed as we passed. For 10 miles we barely dipped below 40mph. By the time we reached the pueblo of San Andres, I was giddy with endorphins, trembling with adrenalin. We only had another 8 miles to the promise of a rest and some quality food in Riobamba. I said it then and I can confirm now that I've never had a better day on a bike.