Where the Pavement Ends
Sweaty and breathless, we reached the top. Here, the paved section of the road ended and the dirt and rocks began. It was still raining, and the dirt was now pure mud, which sloshed up around us, into our eyes and covering our clothing as we rode. After only ten minutes of plunging downhill through puddles and over small boulders, we came across a few wooden shacks on the side of the road. We had made it to lunch and to the halfway point of our journey!
As we got off of our bikes and headed to a table in one of the shacks for some vegetable soup, bread, chicken, rice, and Coca Cola, the guys from Holland started teasing me about my face, which was apparently covered in mud. "Intense ride, huh," they commented to each other. "Ever expect anything like this?" They all shook their heads and wiped their faces with their bandanas. I glanced in the small mirror by the doorway and burst out laughing. My face was not only splashed with mud; it was caked in it. The whites of my eyes and my teeth were ghoulishly bright next to my new dark–brown complexion. Before sitting down to eat, I asked the Frenchman to take a picture of me on my bike so I could document what was turning out to be one wild ride.
The most grueling and exciting part of our descent was still to come, however, as the rest of our trip was without pavement of any kind, on much softer terrain and around much sharper turns. On such a narrow road, there is literally no room for error. The road has only one lane, but vehicles travel in both directions and make their presence known around each bend with a honk of their horn. I had never felt this much excitement, that so much was riding on every split–second decision of where to turn my wrists. I quickly learned not to be scared of the large rocks in my path, but instead to confidently bounce over them. Veering around the rocks would have been impossible anyway, given the width of the road, but attempting to do so surely would have resulted in my slipping and flying off the road into the abyss below.
A Pause for Those Who Did Not Pass
We continued to careen at breakneck speeds, but I was glad to see that I was no longer at the tail end of the pack. As we charged under waterfalls and through small ponds, I took amazed glances at the scenery around me, which was gradually turning from gray tundra to a lush, jungle green. The wind whipping by my ears was no longer bitingly cold. And although the impact of our constant jolting over rocks was like drilling into a concrete sidewalk and our perpetual squeezing of the brakes to ease our descent was extremely hard on our hands and forearms, I was in a state of such wonderment and adrenaline that I barely noticed the pain.
The group stopped a couple more times on the way down, once by a stone memorial marking the spot where a young Israeli woman had perished descending the road on a mountain bike several years beforehand. The other time was just after a lovely waterfall and within view of the location where the large bus had slipped off the cliff just a few weeks earlier, killing the driver and all thirty of its passengers. The site of the recent bus tragedy was especially arresting—the path of the bus as it plummeted down the mountainside was still clearly visible as a thick brown scar on the full, leafy, green landscape. Our guide, who rides this road every day, recounted the unpleasant spectacle that the wreck had caused for his biking group on the day of the tragedy, as they watched the rescue team fishing up the casualties. We all gave a silent thank you for our good fortune on the road thus far, and I think were a little more cautious the rest of the way down.
When we had nearly reached the bottom of the valley, the drizzle eased and the temperature soared so that I had to stop and take off my jacket. It was incredible to think that just hours before, my sweating fingers had been near frostbite. Our guide, commenting to the driver of the minibus that had dropped us off at the summit and had followed us down the road from there, remarked upon how impressed he was with my riding abilities. "Are you sure you've never been on a mountain bike before?" he asked me. I nodded, feeling more pleased with myself than I had in a long time.
Were those bananas I saw growing? I ached and smiled. I'd made it from high altitude to the jungle.
Carla Seidl is a graduate of Harvard University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies who served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Azerbaijan from 2006 to 2008. Her anthropological memoir about her experiences in Ecuador, The Sophisticated Savage, was recently released from Inner Hearth Books. Carla is also an emerging singer–songwriter and independent radio producer. Read and listen to more of her work at www.carlaseidl.com.
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