Five days of solo biking in northern Ecuador

Imbabura Volcano is dusted in snow the morning after rain. Perched on the flanks where blueberries and potatoes grow, we’re layered in sweaters and scarves. I’ve just come back from the feria with Lordes, Roberto and Gova, where families from the indigenous community of San Clemente gather in Ibarra to sell homemade food and corn flours for every purpose. Our tent sells tortillas a tiesto (toasted on a ceramic pan over fire), hog roast, and chicha (a fermented corn drink). When heavy rains come in the afternoon, we wrap ourselves in woven tablecloths to take down the market. In the evening, the paper maps are splayed out on the cowhide in front of the Pupiales’ hearth, and Matias is tracing paths with a toothpick, effusing quick Spanish stories of land. I have five days off from teaching the semester course, an unusual construction given that we’re on expedition and I don’t have a home in this country. But I realize that I do have a burly bike, friends with formidable route knowledge, and the will to be utterly alone.  Despidiendo the chill of height, I descend through the city of Ibarra towards the via antiguo, an old cobblestone highway winding down to the Valle del Chota on the way to Colombia. Quito is a concrete beginning, rested in the eminently explicable inter andean valley, between the eastern and western cordilleras. The mountains in the north feel more raucous and haphazard but no less magisterial. 

This road plunges towards desert scape, rocking through dusty chaparral, opening like a mouth or a tongue to canyons and outcrops surging in presence. Enormous cacti have heaved themselves into the path, crumpling in their own weighty rootlessness. Sun blazes and I veer towards the only house, where vats of water are set out in the sun for showers, and where I receive a blackberry popsicle and an orange. 

El Valle del Chota is said to be the only African settlement in the Americas of people never enslaved, who arrived following a shipwreck on the Pacific coast. Germinator of bamba music and Ecuador’s giants of futbol, El Chota is glorified in my mind if only as the day’s destination. In deepening heat, I pull into a one-street village of concrete houses and crumbling roads, rumbling trucks of sugar cane continuously pulling in and out. There’s no store or hospedaje. Every house looks out onto the municipally-funded soccer pitch, and every person in town is in their jersey, inscribed with alternate spellings to names I recognize, like ‘Naytan’ and ‘Rolan.’ The only thing to do on Saturday afternoon, or probably ever, is to watch soccer, which I do as I wait for Mercedes to call her friends Anita and Pilar on the landline because maybe I can stay in their house. There’s a throbbing energy of vitality and agility and music. I sit on the sidewalk and drink yellow soda with Mercedes’ son who is still sweaty from the game as my legs are devoured by bugs. 

Pilar Lara introduces herself to me as my mother, and tours me through the rooms of her house for my choice, except that they are all claimed by people who actually live there. I end up in her own room, where I sleep a long and soggy night possessed by the heat, sweating into the sheets. 

In the morning, Pilar gives me a bag of mangoes and two ‘pepinos’, a sort of tomato-pepper-mango. On the ascent to the market town of Mira (17km uphill), I meet the Columbian cyclist who, from the land of García Márquez, will introduce himself as Stalin Chi. He is a former vegetarian with a fast food joint in Ibarra selling salchipapas and papipollo, and talks about Mario Benedetti’s discourses between the poet and death. In Mira, women are skinning sugar cane with machetes and we buy a bag of sugar cane cubes as a cycling snack, chewing out the sweet water and spitting the pith. He joins my route for the rest of the day. At the high point of our ascent, Imbabura rises again behind the crest of the valley, sucking folded earth or otherwise muscling its way up from haunches. The rest of the day is almost inexpressible. Over a descent of 19km to the Estación Carchi, we pass through at least five climatic zones, gaze towards roiling mountains black like voids, cool cornfields, broad-handed tropical leaves, sugar cane, and back to blazing, dusty canyon. 

The terrain is torn with ‘quebradas’, lit: places that have been broken. Earth, crumbling, plunges to depths inexpressible in topographic lines, labelled only with an innocuous Q. The in-between places are ‘botada’, wastelands, but lit: places that have been thrown out. 

In a newer language, the filaments between verb and adjective keep their tenderness, as if what we are is happening, as if that which we are among has just become. The language enlivens itself. Like how the yellow grass is magnificently, somehow, more beautiful in wind. Madrugar is not just to wake up early, but to actually dawn.

At the end of the day I leave off in the little village of Tumbabiro, returned to the mountains. Seeing that I am left handed puts him over the edge. ‘Estas cada vez más loca’ (you just get stranger and stranger). It’s a surprise to remember that we too are unusual characters to the others we encounter. 

Abdón Claderón greets me at a hostería in Tumbabiro, former superintendent of regional school districts and named for the child hero of Ecuadorian independence. He talks about educational methodology, shows me his collection of enormous beatles and accompanies me to the village’s evening mass. I spend the following morning lathering in mud at the hotsprings in Chachimbiro before an afternoon of boiling, forsaken ascent to Cotacachi. 

In Cotacachi I meet Crisa, who has hosted cyclists on wild adventures traveling across the continent and around the world. After dinner her young son Omken jumps on my cross-bar and I ride with him through the night to the circus in town. In the morning, I stay to ride Omken to school the same way. 

Crisa is preparing for her radio show tomorrow on musica infantil, and we spend the evening listening to Andean arrullos, traditional lullabies reviving ancient children’s songs. As I go to sleep the dogs are barking madly and Crisa says she doesn’t like how they bark because yesterday it presaged a tremor. But in Latin America the dogs are always barking madly and the earth is always about to shake.  Finally, the long and last climb to Laguna Cuicocha. The wooing mountain wind roughens and softens at once, and the edge of the páramo is the coast of the sea. Some say this laguna has limitless depths and touches the ocean. We don’t know how much this crater, like any creature, holds. We see only what stays unfilled.

I am in the heights with a nibble of cheese and a handful of seeds. I am in the heights with a mountain of grace. I am letting the day hold me. Like this water, held, gazes up at the crater’s firm arms to say thank you for showing me you could hold more, but this is all I have (as the wind sweeps across my upturned chest). And the day says, you are enough, let me just hold you awhile longer. 

These are days of new dreams thickening, which is something to beware. They’re not dreams I should say yet, because of the way dreams have of elbowing their way, against all convenience, into form. To ‘dream about’ is tangential, approximating, off-shore. In this land, ‘dream about’ is ‘soñar con’ (to dream with), the dreaming itself commanding the ‘with’ of presence. 

‘We spend our lives trying to discern where we end and the rest of the world begins’ (Maria Popova). In these changed days of trusting in unfolding, where I end is wider, and where the world begins is closer. 

What to do for the sake of poetry? For the sake of finding a place in this messy world for a poem to hear itself breathing. After days of self-propulsion in every sense, there is something absorbing about sitting down on the bus in the passive tense and being taken. About the decisive distinction between waiting and moving, and the clammy shade. On my last night I return to a particular garden in a pueblo tranquilo on the hillside if only because it's the place these poems want to sleep. The bus rides are rumbling and circuitous, a bag of granadilla, aguacate and warm pan from the dusty Cotacachi market as the light of day blackens abruptly in the mountains. 

My heart is upended by the encounters of kindness of this firm earth.