Friday, October 26, 2007

A Colombian Cycling Tale

Nevado de Huila?
Rio Magdelena

You are my brother, blood of my blood. This is your house; we wait for you. Message from military to FARC
Rice fields
Rice capital of Colombia

Mocoa to Pasto

Sure glad he's on my side!
Travel without worries....your army is on the hi-way

Steve, Lucho and Wilfredo
Maria and Ramon, welcoming dad.
Safer on a bike
Mocoa to Pasto

Soaked to the bone, surrounded by densely forested mountains streaming with waterfalls, the rumble of thunder amplified between close peaks,and hardly a soul around -- it is in this special place in southern Colombia where I feel the enormity of the natural world and become an insignificant speck of dust . . . a very wet one at the moment.
I'm half way between tropical rain forest and Andean cloud forest,half way up the eastern cordillera, half way between 500m and 3000m,but mostly half way on a road between somewhere and nowhere – my favorite road on the planet -- with a contented, yet half-mad grin on my face, thoroughly enjoying the warm wetness of the tropical storm.
Like many folks, I can, even when I bicycle, bore myself with the routine of daily life by traveling the same road over and over again, be it to work or for recreation. What I really prefer is to see something new around every corner. Yet Heraclitus said, "You can never step in the same river twice": and so, after repeated travels along the Mocoa-Pasto road, the last time still feels like the first time, a rare phenomenon in life.
Having bicycled the graveled, hairpin, cliffhanging road downhill onfive different occasions, the crazy idea of actually cycling up the mountain somehow took root in my brain. The logical, pessimistic left hemisphere argued it would be too much pain and suffering, while the dreamy, consequence-blind right hemisphere wondered if the impossiblewere perhaps possible.I at least had to give it a go.
The opportunity came during a mid term break in October when Maria, with baby Ramon in tow, would be spending some time with her family in Pasto. I hopped on my bike and a few days later (along with Rodrigo, a 21 year-old architecture student)cycled from Bogota to Saldana (205km), past Neiva to Campoalegre(160km), up to Pitalito (160km) and then down to Mocoa in theAmazonian department of Putumayo (140km). At that point, Rod had to catch an overnight, 12-hour bus ride in order to write an exam at university the following morning.
5am the next morning, I found myself alone, still dog-tired after pedaling 665km in only 4 days, gazing up the mountain and thinking…."the bus, the bus….take the bus you silly fool." But then that old right-brain kicked in and I knew I'd suffer serious regret if I didn't at least attempt it, so…..pedal, grunt, sweat, drink, and repeat the same sequence for ten hours in the saddle.
And so with that half crazed grin on my face, the rain having stopped for a while, I arrived at the top of the last climb to find the welcoming sight of the small town of Sibundoy nestled down in a deep valley bottom and bathed in the sun's last rays of the day. With no cell phone contact all day, I was pleasantly surprised to see Maria, Ramon, and brother-in-law Modesto come bouncing up the road in his little Suzuki 4WD to meet me.
Whew! I'm still not sure how I pulled that one off…even my usually reliable bike computer had gone mad, the pedaling time-function flashing on and off, unable to show enough digits to indicate that I'd cycled over ten hours!
After a day's rest at the local hot springs, all that was left was the 70km ride to Pasto. This time I was accompanied by a couple of old cycling buddies, Wilfredo and Lucho, who had come out to join me on the last leg and to kick my sorry butt up two more long climbs. Bogota to Pasto; 820km in 6 days.
From the seat of my rusting bike, this aging carcass has experienced many countries, roads, and faces over the years, but this neglected chunk of rain forest and mountain is the one magical place that keepsdrawing me back even though it always makes me feel smaller and more insignificant that anywhere else I know. Perhaps the magic is in the views down to the flat, five thousand kilometers of seemingly unendingAmazon basin; perhaps in the thickly vegetated mountains, hiding inthe ever-present, swirling mists; perhaps in the eerie lack ofpopulation, with no more that ten or so buildings along the central part of the road. All this suffering for just a brief, passing glimpse of creation, a glimpse that lets me dip my tire into the same river twice and savor the experience as if it were the first time.

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