Last of the Colombia photos after the text.
Currently in Quito, Ecuador, SOUTH OF THE EQUATOR.
Colombia, by and large, shattered my preconceived notion of a long day. Long days in Portland were usually defined by unremarkable qualifiers—number of hours spent in my desk chair or amount of money thrown at the handful of office-adjacent coffee shops. Because an americano was an out, if only for a lap around the block. And although I long for that quality coffee, I don't miss the crushing sense of sedentation exhaustion it was dutifully dulling. On the road, exhaustion remains a very real inhibitor, but in a different sense. Less due to desperate clock watching, and more a result of jamming a freakin' lifetime into each day. Our days are a combination of random and routine—like when a host's personal recounts of drug addiction, sicario murders and family estrangement accompany our otherwise mundane breakfast routine. He casually re-ups our coffee/chorizo mid-story as if satisfying our morning munchies actually matters in that vulnerable moment. It's not even nine in the morning by the time the conversation ends and my brain already hurts from two hours of desperate translation. Not to mention, although we've just met, I feel like I've known the guy for years. On the road, the potential for human connection, cultural immersion, bodily wear and tear and breakfasts consumed in a single day is absurd.
This particular longish day started like any other, different from every other. And unreasonably early, according to Aidan. We bid our WarmShowers hosts farewell after sharing a disproportionate amount of our lives for having known each other less than a day. We bunked together the night before and spent the evening hours passing a bottle of Aguardiente—Colombia's sugarcane-distilled swill—from one twin bed to the next, swapping stories from the road. Aidan and I shared a single twin bed, and our hosts, a couple of equally slight size, the other. The floors were dirt and the roof a patchwork of corrugated metal, with missing sections, allowing the rain to pour outside, as well as in. In place of doors, rooms were provided privacy with repurposed, thick vinyl banners from a family member's political campaign. Every time I pushed aside the left-side crop of Uncle Armando's face to take a pee, I couldn't help but feel judged for my small bladder. He was always there, always watching. The house was rustic, but cozy due to the friendly faces inside. A behind-the-scenes glimpse into rural Colombian poverty. Although the gap between urban and rural living conditions is astounding, hospitality remains a priority in many of the countryside towns we've ridden through. Those with less give more. Profound realizations to accompany a morning-after teeth brushing. We scrubbed the swill sweater from our mouths, packed up and said a million thank you's as we rolled our rigs outside, insisting on getting the last muchas gracias in just before our hosts closed the door.
Out in the world again, on our own, the crisp morning air reminds me why I insist on setting the alarm so early. It will thicken by mid-morning and my gung ho, pre-dawn energy will slowly fade, only spiking when administered food or ample shade.
We push our bikes through the tiny mountain town, met with a thousand morning stares, in search of breakfast. Breakfast takes on many forms, but is always accompanied by coffee, a memorable interaction and, of course, is eaten more than once a day. The place we finally park outside of is unrecognizable as a legitimate food establishment aside from the men sipping coffee and nibbling something bready on the sidewalk. The decor inside suggests a number of other potential businesses—crucifix knick knack distributor, glam family portrait collector or maybe simply a seller of shitty packaged snacks. Our bikes parked within sight, as always, we belly up and order "the usual." The usual entailing heads nodded with enthusiasm while the owner lists off all the options in what seems to be the single longest word in the Spanish culinary dictionary. Sure, that. Con todo. With everything. And then we wait with bated breath to see what arrangement of typical breakfast fare arrives.
Due to a habitual, frantic, morning wipe n' lube (of the bikes) I'll inevitably leave chain grease paw prints on whatever white diner mugs our coffees are served in. Smudgy hands, don't care. One morning I held out a hand in front of Aidan and, very seriously, but rhetorically asked, "Is that grease or Oreo?" A bold taste test ruled it the latter.
When the food arrives, we'll feast silently. I'll eat too quickly while Aidan will approach his plate a bit more strategically, exercising what he refers to as "bite allocation." There will be the perfect amount of each plated item, in every bite, down to the last bite. My jealously during the final few, gorgeously arranged forkfuls is palpable, following his utensil's movements with puppy dog eyes. "Looks good," I'll say as if I didn't just inhale the same exact plate. Aidan does not sympathize.
This particular morning, a man joined us mid-meal, practicing his English while Aidan prepared flavor combos and I shoveled recklessly. We nodded in response—mouths full—when appropriate. My consumption abruptly slowed due to the man's smartphone that he'd shoved in front of me, unknowingly obstructing the shortest distance between two important points—the plate and my mouth. People (in Latin America) do this often. What begins as excitement to share a single photo of a particular place (or their own bicycle) turns into an impromptu selfie slideshow or nonsensical Facebook wall navigation, lasting uncomfortably long. An endearing cultural difference. Rather than an assortment of unflattering angles or non-mutual friend listings, this man opted to share a six-minute YouTube of a white, Christian guy delivering a female-empowering address, to females, in English, in a patronizing "HE's got your back" tone, with Spanish subtitles and bad stock motion graphics overlaid. No amount of tacky transitions could distract from the uncomfortable amount of direct eye contact he made with the camera. It really felt like he was talking to ME. The man holding the phone, watched me watching HIM, and anticipated my reactions to heavy-hitting lines. After lots of oh wows and que buenos, the video finally ended, as did my obligation to provide ongoing commentary, and I thanked the man for the morning inspiration. He, pleased with himself for spreading the good word, shouted to the woman behind the counter to pack us up a few fried goodies for the road before hitting the road himself. Disappointingly no less atheist than when we arrived, we slipped the greasy treats into our bags and set off, like so many other Colombian mornings, stumbling over a million thank you's, to begin a mammoth day of climbing.
The climbing hasn't gotten easier. Our bikes are heavy AF. And seemingly no amount of newly-acquired muscle fiber makes driving them up mountainsides any less grueling. We rationalize a lot of bad food decisions with these taxing climbs—the body wants what it wants. On this particular day, technically our first true Andean climb, we stopped at a roadside tienda for a sugary beverage to accompany the buñuelos bought for us during our morning conversion, sorry conversation. The fried treats, having thoroughly soaked through their to-go baggie, were looking particularly unhealthy and delicious.
Buñuelo sidenote. It is difficult to adequately emphasize how much I adore these deep fried doughy balls. Consisting of finely ground corn flour, spices and cheese, they're everything I'd avoid in real life. When fried masterfully, a delicate crispy exterior gives way to a steaming pillow of light, fluffy, flavorful goodness inside. Like an impossibly delicate, savory donut hole.
Staring off onto the hillside, as the buñuelo/Gatorade combo systematically worked its way through my bloodstream, I felt capable again. Leveled temperament, post-snack Tara is a phenomenon. Like a magical timelapse of a recently-watered, wilty houseplant. Lifeless to alive right before your eyes. Ready to hit the road and antsy knowing that the worst of the climbing lie ahead, I sprung to my feet, tossing a few post-snack air punches in Aidan's direction, and said, "Okay!" Every time I say that word with specific inflection he knows I'm really ready.
As we futzed with our bikes and buckled our helmets, a young gal, encircled by a squad of wagging tails, approached us confidently. She skipped the small talk and invited us directly up to her house for lunch. It was 10:15AM and our stomachs were mid buñuelo expansion, but we graciously accepted the offer to overeat, without hesitation. After a steep push up the hillside I'd been staring blankly at moments earlier, we reached her house, out of breath and re-reminded of how much weight we're lugging through the longest mountain range in the world. An entire family of warm, smiling faces awaited—grandma, grandpa, mom, aunt, other aunt, three brothers, or maybe cousins, a couple other cousins, the neighbor, the neighbor's kid, three dogs, seven cats and an assortment of other farm animals. What followed was a three-plus hour kindnapping complete with confusing conversations, lots of dog petting, bottomless pours of aguapanela (Colombia's most popular drink, made by adding panela—an unrefined whole cane sugar with a slightly smoky flavor—to water. So, basically sugar water), a massive multi-course lunch featuring the best soup of the trip and two whopping bricks of rice, plantains and chicken for the road, wrapped tightly in banana leaves and finished with a couple cute bows.
Mom had braces, making her equal parts adorable and hard to understand. She stayed in her cartoon character jammies for the duration of our visit until, post banana leaf package offering, I requested a photo for the road. Suddenly horrified at her appearance, she disappeared only to reemerge wearing floral stretch pants and a top featuring a different cartoon character. After a few photos and another round of competitive thank you'ing, we pushed our bikes back down the hill, further heavied by the ridiculously generous amount of food they'd packed us, overcome by a pressing sense of responsibility to set the record straight on what was shaping up to be the most hospitable country in the world.
Initially buzzing from the kindness and potent sugar water, morale took a hit when we realized the repercussions of our lovely lunch date—reaching our goal for the day was a serious longshot. The afternoon hours were sluggish and the climbing even tougher than anticipated due to heavy rain, road construction and an accompanying couple miles of black tar that would later require a rag and a bottle of gasoline to remove from our bags, bicycles, and bodies. Riding into a dusky, torrential cloud forest made for grim late afternoon tent site scouting. A few huts scattered the side of the road, but none all that promising. Both completely drenched, cold, and hungry, for the first time on the trip, I was legitimately nervous it just wasn't going to work out. Our cozy morning with new friends felt a long ways off. And our six-minute dose of Christian guilt and chummy soup slurping atop the hill felt like different days entirely. Are we being punished for making fun of that guy's insulting video? I disguised tears of discouragement behind the torrential rain, and we just kept pedaling.
Out of nowhere, almost thirty miles short of our original destination and fifteen minutes shy of total darkness, we pulled into a strange truck stop asking about a room. The nearby roadwork and late hour had them at capacity, so we turned out onto the road, again, convinced a wet, ditch camp was inevitable. Not five minutes up the hill a friendly face on a motorbike came wrangling. They either found a room, or someone was politely relocated, because within minutes we were back down at the truck stop, moving into their last room while pushing another man's (forgotten?) sandals under the bed. I pried my mind out of worst case scenarios and into a set of warm, dry clothes. As we sat huddled on the bed, wrapped in blankets, passing a bowl of hot chocolate back and forth, attacking the banana leaf bundles, mesmerized by a reality TV show about Russian brides, dubbed in Spanish, I broke into bizarre, adrenaline-fueled laughter, "Jesus, what a long day."
Pass the faux-reos, please.