Jungle ride

On Easter Saturday, I rode a bike from Baños to Puyo, on the edge of the jungle. I hadn’t been on a bike since I broke my hand in December, and this shiny Bianchi was far nicer than my own much-missed New York bike. I needed it, for the road surface was dreadful much of the way. The road was clogged with Ecuadorian tourists on the route of the waterfalls for Easter weekend. Every vehicle threw up huge clouds of dust on the unsealed road, and at certain spots drivers switched on their headlights despite brilliant sunshine.

I stopped to see various waterfalls in the valley of the Rio Verde/Rio Negro. It’s spectacular. Troops of Ecuadorians trotted down steep slopes in city shoes, with not a bother. They were very cheerful, even the wealthy Quiteños, compared to gringos, who whine about hunger, thirst, and boredom on holiday.

There is nothing like the thrill of travelling from one climatic region to another under your own power. You can do it in a bus or car, and in most countries the distances involved are so great that you have to. But to experience the change fully, you need to feel the air on your skin—and not roaring past you on a motorbike, either. On foot, or on a bike, you feel the air warming or cooling, you have time to notice the vegetation changing, and to see how the mood changes with the temperature. Ecuador makes it easy: it’s a scant 60 km from Baños to the edge of the jungle, manageable even for my saggy backside. Truly, this is the first three-dimensional country I’ve ben in, where height counts for as much or more as length and breadth.

I stopped in Rio Verde for lunch, and the restaurant was taken over by a raucous family form the coast.
    ’What’s your name, sweetie?’ beckoned the ringleader.
    ‘Ramón,’ said the waiter.
   ’Well, Ramoncito, I’m going to have the special,’ she teased, and the whole family, down to the toddlers, hooted as he blushed.

I pedalled on, over rocky surfaces that threatened road rash at every curve. At Rio Negro I stopped again for blackberry juice, and was greeted by two lovely resident babies.
   ’This one’s a gringo,’ said the café owner, while the mother scowled. ‘Look, he’s as white as you.’
   ’With ten layers of dust and sunscreen I’m not so white any more,’ I said.
   ’True,’ she agreed, ‘there’s a sink out back.’
She told me it was 35 km to Puyo and I lost hope: I was already saddlesore. But the road was paved from here on out, and it was mostly downhill.

And it was, except for the uphill. A few hills were excruciating. With all my Manhattan commuting, I’ve never had much call for hill legs, and I, sir, am no Adam Stein. At the top of one killer I broke my own rule and gulped from a waterfall, untreated. Sometimes iodine water just won’t do.

But the downhill stretches were glorious, crouching low to minimize wind resistance and swooping around hairpin bends. I was exultant. The freedom of a bike, where your own pumping legs swallow distance, is something you never forget.

The vegetation changed, and I recognized fewer and fewer plants away from the gorse and heathers of my childhood. Flowers were frothing again; bougainvillea and fuschia. I passed a tea plantation and felt I was back in Vietnam. I whooped and hollered: jungle!

At Shell Oriente, my passport was checked and as usual they carefully copied down the details of my US H1-b work permit, which looks much more official than the real passport page. The word ‘Ireland’ has worn off the cover from being in my sweaty leg pouch, and I’m ready to start making up interesting nationalities. Shell is strange, a military base with a Microsoft distance education college, several air taxi businesses, and missionary headquarters.
   ´I think we just passed the highest point,’ said another biker, ‘I read somewhere that for the next thousand miles it just slopes an inch a mile down to the sea.´
   ’Don’t say that!’
Sure enough, we turned the corner into a tortuous, endless climb. The light was changing and ahead a boy was silhouetted against a pinky-yellow cloud at the top of the hill. By the roadside, and father and son gathered sacks of a leafy plant.
   ’Is that to eat?’
   ’The guinea pigs eat it.’
A final fattening for Easter Sunday.

Eventually, I skimmed down into Puyo, a non-descript town that lives as a base for jungle trips. At the bus station, the driver sighed: yet another damn gringo bike to haul onto the roof. I was grinning and caked with dust, and I had just enough time to run to the bakery for a bus snack.
   ’Any bread left?’
   ’Bread makes you fat. If you like bread, how come you’re not fat?’
   ’I just biked here from Baños.’
   ’In that case, darling, you better have two.’