We loaded our bikes in Salento with the company of a few dogs who were sniffing our luggage and our bikes, curious of the smells we had brought with us. We left the dogs at the hostel, disappearing behind us along with the gorgeous green gullies that descended out of the hilltops consumed by clouds and fog. The night before, lonely lights could be seen scattered across the slopes, while the concentrated illumination of a distant city disproved the easily held notion that our view from the hostel contained nothing but wilderness and remote farmland. We wiggled our way back to the highway out of the picturesque town, our bikes leaning left and right and rolling up and down the well-paved road.
We stop-and-go’d our way through Armenia, where everyone was staring at our bikes, pointing and smiling. A few interested passers-by asked us where we were from and where we were going from a rolled down window or from the seat of their own bikes. One couple even asked us if we wanted to stop and have a coffee! ‘Lo siento! Sorry! We’ve gotta keep going.'
After Armenia we were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves at times on a wide two-lane highway, and, cruising through flat plains that we hadn’t known existed, we were making better time than expected, having thought we would spend the day craning our necks out from behind wide trucks on the steep winding roads that we had navigated for the previous few days. Soldiers continued to have a continuous presence on the highway, young men and women grasping long barreled shotguns or rifles, standing in the shadows of the roadside foliage. Though it sounds somewhat off-putting, we were more often than not given a thumbs-up and a smile as they nodded us onwards down the road.
In the afternoon the rain started and didn’t stop. It followed us through Popayàn and didn’t let up as the roads lost a lane and we forced back into our previous routine of passing our way through long lines of traffic stuck behind massive trucks, sometimes along the wide shoulders and sometimes when an opportunity presented itself in the on-coming lane. This continued until about 5 o’clock, as the light began to fade behind the dark grey clouds that continued to rain down on us. We had made it to Rosas, a small town that even now remains a bit of a mystery, and stopped at the first hotel we found. Not a single store or business in Rosas takes cards for payment, and there isn’t a bank within two hours of the isolated town. This presented a slight problem for us as we only had enough Colombian Pesos to buy dinner. The prospect of going hungry only to save enough Pesos to pay for half of the hotel was not an option so we bought supper and went to bed hoping that we could find a solution in the morning. There had been rumors of a small bank machine in town that might work for us…
The morning came and the bank machine turned out to be a card-reader in a stationary supplies store that only accepted Bancolombia cards. So, without a miracle cash solution, we dipped into our stash of USD and pleaded with the hotel owner to accept the cash, which he of course did, though not without charging a healthy premium. We donned our soggy gear that hadn’t come close to drying overnight in the cool and humid mountain air. Twisting our way out of Rosas, the sky had cleared and we were drying out. It was warm and sunny, not hot, and perfect weather for riding. We stopped for breakfast at a small restaurant that, like most of the small restaurants that have kept us fed through Central and South America, consist of a few plastic chairs sitting in front of a private home. The usual chaos ensued as one child ran down the street for the bottles of water we had ordered, while another was tasked with bringing us our flimsy set of cutlery wrapped in the thin square of a napkin. Waiting for our ‘huevos con carne’, we were offered the usual items – hammocks draped over thin forearms, iPhone cables strung between fingers and fruit stacked delicately on shoulders. We listened to the incessant honking that, quite honestly, seems ineffective at best, and watched stall keepers flog their piles of melons, overflowing out of crooked wheelbarrows leaning on cracked cinder blocks. Our food came, and we listened to chickens crow from the shadows of the greasy auto shop across the street as we ate a fulfilling meal that set us up for another long day in the saddle.
Around breakfast time, we were surprised to see a distinct change in the geography and the climate, which had really dried out. We were back in the desert: baron hills with only small shrubs and cacti lined the road, and just in time for October some of the leaves that remained had yellowed and fallen to the ground. We ended up riding along amazing desert cliff sides with fully-fledged canyons below us. Landslides had left trails of rock and gravel strewn across the pavement at irregular intervals and larger boulders had smashed into retaining walls. Some survived the onslaught intact while others bulged, the rebar struggling to support the weight of the rock above; and others still had failed, the evidence lying in scraps of concrete and rubble on the road. Occasional crews of no more than three swept and shovelled the mess into barrows and pickups, though it seemed like an unwinnable fight.
The end of this desert stretch was the most spectacular as the immeasurable valleys had opened up and the grey ribbon of asphalt, only barely visible against the sandy hillside, was lined with toy-sized trucks slowly winding their way on and off distant bridges, in and out of faraway tunnels. Rural life had still made its mark on the landscape as splashes of green squares fed by brown dirt paths occupied some space along the otherwise empty slopes. At the top of one of the more significant passes, clouds of blue, black and grey collected along with a firm wind and a storm was unmistakably imminent.
It poured and poured, and as the peculiar thought of a big rainstorm in the desert began to develop, the landscape had suddenly changed again and we were back in a rich mountain forest. The desert crossing had almost been a dream, out of place and out of context. Its hills had been gradual and its turns wide. The sun hot and the air dry. And just like that, it was over. The hills now steeper, the turns now tighter, the traffic now truckier, we were once again peering out from behind rain speckled visors looking for opportunities to pass left or right along the single lane of wet pavement.
Through the flooded streets of Pasto we rode, and then back through mountain passes until we reached Ipiales. The final stretch into the border town had been a joy to ride. Sheer cliffs and sharp hills remained, somehow, covered in a quilt of crops. A closer look revealed isolated buildings, small and lonely on the slopes – no doubt home to the ranchers that toil the slanted fields. We entered into Ipiales only to find a much sought after bank machine, then made our way to the small town of Las Lajas, famous for the impressive church that is built into the steep cliffs above a rushing mountain river. We wandered the town, visited the stunning church, and explored the museum before supper, then made our way to bed only ten kilometres from the Ecuadorian border.
The crossing into Ecuador on Sunday morning did not go as planned. The gates to the immigration office were closed, and guards looked down on us from the elevated terrace with unforgiving eyes. The message was simple: the border was closed. The reason was not so simple: it was because of the vote! The Colombian government had decided to close its borders on the day of the historical referendum that would decide whether or not the country accepted the government’s peace deal with the FARC rebel group. Our time in Colombia had been bookended by this monumental deal, our arrival having coincided with the signing of the treaty on the previous Monday. We didn't have a choice so we went back to the beautiful town of Las Lajas, took our luggage back upstairs, and had an unplanned day off. We did some trip planning and some relaxing. And in the evening we watched the Colombian people shock their government and the world by rejecting the proposed peace treaty with the rebels. Evidently they are looking for justice as much as they are looking for peace, and the treaty in its existing form did not provide them with the closure they were looking for after so many years at war, so many crimes committed and so many lives lost at the hands of the group now looking for power and respect as a political party. A difficult choice, and a close outcome.
Monday morning we had better luck at the border and after three hours of line-ups and stamps, VINs and registrations, we were once again in unchartered territory. As a kind American had mentioned in one of the line-ups, the roads in Ecuador are better than in Colombia. More reasonable speed limits too, he told us, and we had better respect them: he warned of us three-day jail terms for speeders, and explained that once out of jail your bike would almost certainly have disappeared.
We enjoyed the two-laned divided highway for most of the day, though at times it was missing or under construction for future generations of Alaskentinians to enjoy. At first, Ecuador offered a much different experience riding through the hills. It felt as though we were closer to the hills, the details of the crops and the texture of the land magnified by our proximity. We passed through another stretch of expansive desert, where green crops had been forced out of the dry ground; and in the forested hills, rectangular farm crops had been shaven out of the natural vegetation, separated by straight lines of fences or hedges.
We skirted Quito, impressed by the big city’s sprawl within the confines of its mountain location. A thin layer of squat buildings, built of grey stones and bricks, flooded the contours of the valley floor and swept up the surrounding slopes. Though we could only catch quick glimpses of the country’s capital, we were hugely impressed by its sheer size and impression on the land. We now know we crossed over the equator somewhere along our journey past Quito, but if we want a picture next to the ‘Middle of the Earth’ monument it will have to be on another trip...
The weather that followed us throughout the day was mild and gloomy and we escaped another downpour as we followed the line of volcanoes that cuts Ecuador in half. Somewhere between Quito and Riobamba we lost the sun, and with it the mild warmth that it had given off from its position behind the clouds. When darkness had fully descended upon us we only had about 60 kilometres left until Riobamba and before long we had found a hostel with a secret entrance through the back of a barbershop. After unloading our bikes we took them to a secure parking spot a few blocks away. On Tuesday we took a day off and were able to do a few errands, a load of laundry, and an expedition to an alluring rope swing above a precipitous cliff near Baños.
Wednesday arrived and it was time for our long-awaited visit to the villages partnered with Free The Children. We were picked up by two amazing women: Angelita and Eli. Angelita, the first ever Community President in the Chimborazo Province of Ecaudor and a Free The Children veteran is an indigenous Kichwa herself and works directly with the communities to ensure that each party can maximize its investment with the other. Eli has worked for Free The Children for five years and is an invaluable source of information on the workings of the organization. Together, they know anything and everything about Free The Children’s work in Ecuador, and though we were only able to spend one day with them, we were thoroughly impressed with the work that has been done and continues to take place in Ecuador. We were able to visit three of the five communities in Chimborazo Province, and each one taught us something different about the communities, and the impact of the organization on their residents.
1. The Partnership: Our first stop was a village called Shuid. Located high in the mountains far from the nearest town. Free The Children arrived in this location when there was only a pair of run-down buildings in 2008. The school now has 300 students and about a dozen well-built classrooms. Upon walking into the Grade Six Social Studies class we were welcomed by smiling faces shouting a coordinated ‘Buenos Dias!’ We had the same reception in the Grade One class where we were treated to a beautiful song about corn, in all its glory, to which we responded with a rather impromptu performance of the Hokie-Pokie. Dom, who had ridden his bike from Riobamba, gave each of the kids a turn to sit on the bike, while the growing crowd was amazed at the drone that we sent up for some pictures. The kids, smiling from ear to ear, were mostly oblivious to the difficult conditions that they face as it compares to countries such as Canada: the children here have up to an hour-long walk to school along difficult mountainous paths, and, because there is still a lack of classrooms, the older children don’t finish class until the evening and have to make the long, treacherous walk home in the dark – a prospect that would give any Canadian parent a nervous breakdown. Thankfully, Free The Children is working with the community to build another two buildings to provide enough classrooms for all of the children to go to class during the day, and walk home in the daylight.
Around this time Angelita and Eli explained the backbone of the Free The Children’s Adopt A Village philosophy: the partnership. Communities seeking help must provide 10% of the project cost as capital, building supplies or labour. This ensures they are invested in and committed to the project that they will be responsible for once the organization has left. In traditional Kichwan fashion, the community tends to come together in a ‘minga’, a volunteer work party, to accomplish the work at hand. We saw this first hand as Kichwan women, dressed in their long skirts, colourful shawls, and elegant hats lugged stacks of ceiling boards up the stairs. The project superintendent added that the community would soon meet to decide where the next building would go in. The community’s involvement in decision making is crucial to ensuring the efforts are being directed where they are needed.
2. Empowerment: The second community was the first in the region in which Free The Children got involved. The school is now in full swing, and Free The Children was recently able to provide the community with running water to eliminate the need for families to collect water from contaminated streams running off the surrounding farmland. In this community, Angelita runs a women’s group on Thursdays in the school’s lunchroom. Even though it was Wednesday, some of the girls and women came around to show us how they make ‘facas,’ using the traditional Inca technique. A ‘faca’ is a hair wrap that has other names and other uses, and thanks to Free The Children the women now have access to broader markets to sell their products and earn an income necessary to keep their kids in school instead of working for the family. Maybe the most inspiring part of the women’s group was hearing that they are taught about women’s rights and self-confidence, and the path to becoming strong, independent women.
A beautiful story emerged from this community that showed how the program has taken hold, and empowered the community to better itself. A few years ago, the community approached the organization asking for help in building another schoolroom. Unfortunately, Free The Children was unable to fund the project at the time, and apologetically told the community leaders. The leaders then rephrased their question, and informed Free The Children that they had in fact raised all of the money for the new building, and were seeking help with logistics and planning. Seeing how beneficial the schools had become, the community had come together and looked inwards to make additional improvements instead of expecting the foreign organization to solve their problems for them. That is the change that Free The Children works to achieve with all their projects, and to see it shine so brightly was incredibly heart warming.
3. Community Commitment: The third community has only recently partnered with Free The Children and the work to expand the existing school is just beginning. The new building is well underway though, and as we were arriving late in the afternoon, Eli and Angelita had expected the workers to have gone home. However, when we arrived, the foreman and handful of other workers were still hard at work, shivering in the cold mountain air after a flash hailstorm. Like the previous community, these workers understood the value in their work and were committed to completing the project so that their children, their neighbours, their friends would have a school.
We spent a day with two amazing people who work diligently to better the lives of those who need the help. We witnessed countless other remarkable children, mothers, fathers, teachers, and principals living their daily lives which was now easier thanks to the work of Free The Children. We finished the day with many questions answered, while many more would come to us lying in bed and sitting on the bike. The experience was incredibly powerful and will unquestionably be long lasting. Thank you to Free The Children: we are truly impressed with your work and extremely grateful that we chose your organization to support along the course of our journey.
Yesterday we carved our way down from the chilly highlands towards the coast. We had a new appreciation for the small villages perched on the hillsides, and we reflected on all we had seen and learnt the day before. The roads were good and the traffic was light, and we made it to Huaquillas, in the South West corner of the country by late afternoon.
Today, as we set foot and wheel in Peru, we are poised to surpass 22,000km travelled since leaving the Alberta foothills on July 13th. As we inch towards Ushuaia, so too do we inch closer to our goal of raising $22,000 for the inspiring organization with immeasurable impact that we witnessed first hand on Wednesday. Many of you have generously donated, and for that we thank you. If you haven’t donated, and you are able to do so, please follow the ‘Donate Now!’ link above: the money raised doesn’t just buy bricks and concrete, it provides the opportunity for eager communities to envision their future, employ their people, and enlighten their children for generations to come.