Feeling 18 and Ecuador

Jasmine Johnson - Ecuador


October 1, 2018

[image: IMG_3260-3.jpg]

Today I did something pretty stupid.

Back home in Singapore, I love nothing better than riding my bike. Going
out without a helmet (I do not recommend) onto the streets blasting my
music, knowing every path and alleyway. Through the nights and into the
mornings, I would cycle my thoughts away and watch sunrise or set. Today I
woke up with a similar energy. An energy for adventure, a switch into full
gear, throw myself off a cliff kind of lets fucking immerse myself
immersion. Initially, I hadn’t expected much other than to run into one of
my fellow fellows when I passed through his town. I just wanted to see a
fellow fellow on my bike, harmless enough. I packed my lama pen, notebook,
cash, safety whistle, phone, headphones and purple life-straw water bottle.

Ximena my small host mum reels out the bike which looks like a hybrid
between a road bike and mountain bike. Thick frame and skinny wheels. I
slap the 3-year-old dust off the seat and handlebars and press the tyres.
Back check, front Ehhhh… it will do and wheel my bike through the
passageway leading out to the street. I am greeted by the sun, overcast but
with peeps of sunlight. It was the kind of weather that was neither
inviting or discouraging. A neutral tone to start the day.

Kickstand swings back and I peddle off at 11. Ximena shouts “Cuidado con
los perros”. I gathered it was something about dogs and rode off.

I feel free, finally alone in the streets of a place I am learning to call
my home. I see the bus stop I stood at the day before and knew all the
buses lead either to Cayambe (South) or Otovalo (North). I switch gears and
follow the buses to Otovalo up the road and out onto…. holy shit a highway.

The road extended out to a 3 lane highway with a common occurrence of large
busses, school buses, the occasional car and petroleum charters. I took my
bets on the punny bike lane to the right and told myself I just set for my
adventure I can’t turn back now.

Click 3, Click 1, Click 5.. Okay these gears are a bit funky but at least I
have gears I think to myself. I start on the highway, immediately
recognising that there’s no cyclist but hey it’s 11: 15 on a weekday,
everyone is at work. The roads weren’t that busy but I was making sure I
wasn’t wearing headphones and leaned towards the footpath incase a bus
decided to stop. I should note the buses here don’t really stop. They just
slow down and zoom off again. They also hug the “bike lane” ready to make a
stop, even though there are no bus stops more just a trampled area of grass
where people gravitate to.

Almost certain I am going the right way I decide to whip out my phone to
check the directions on my bike, uphill, on my squeaky bike, with cars
zooming 90km/h. This all seemed perfectly good because I did this on
multiple occasions in Singapore to change the music or reply to a text, I
was a “pro”. I felt somewhat relaxed, happy that I was getting some fresh
air and a good workout. I said think positive, emotions are fleeting, be
brave, don’t overthink. I peddle on and my first incline comes into view
alongside another biker! A female one too, decked out in lycra and a
helmet. Feels just like Singapore…

I ride for about an hour, checking my phone at intervals on and off the
road, nearing Eugenio Espejo. I notice people selling fruits, occasional
dogs barking and the mountains. It was hard to appreciate their beauty when
I was focusing on the traffic ahead. I was tired at this point and I was
peddling in the lowest gear at what felt like walking pace. At first, I
managed to find a peaceful headspace, one where I could think about my
first few days here in Ecuador but that soon vanished when the road veered
off onto cobble and the streets began to fill with dogs.

I made my way down the smaller streets of the town Eugenio Espejo. It
looked similar to my own town except emptier. I pulled out my phone
checking my directions and figured that I should be able to cut through
Eugenio to get to Otavalo faster. No problemo. I set through the town
following one road which turned into a larger cobble, practically rocks and
came to a hill which dipped down into the town. “well I got this far, and
Otavalo is just down the hill”. Like brown flour, the dust smothered my
white vans turning them chocolate cake mix brown. For a moment I thought of
Depivalli and the chalk throwing festival, and then I thought about
powdered snow…

The walk down only became steeper and chalkier. At this point, I was
wheeling my bike down a 70 degrees incline trying to not slip and avoid
injury. Luckily my vans held up and I made it down to the bottom of the
hill where the familiar blue street lights of Otavalo began. Phew.

Within 5 minutes I ran into my friend Marcos, he wasn’t difficult to find
because he towered over everyone. As soon as I saw him I let my English
pour out of my mouth. For a second my own accent sounded strange to me like
I understood why people think and Australian accent is funny. It was a
short but sweet interaction. I got directions to the nearest bike shop and
made my way to get a bike lock.

Luckily for me, I don’t really look “typical Australian” my dark hair,
easily tanned skin and Eurasian features make for the perfect Ecuadorian
disguise. However my accent and broken Spanish is my giveaway. The bike
shop is filled with 20 to 30-year-old guys. Walking in I recite my question
under my breath. “Tienes Una bicicleta” (gestures lock). Grins fill the
room and my disguise is replaced with one that reads foreigner. The man
serving me and the rest of his friends smile encouragingly and exchange a
few whispers and he pulls out a lock. I fish out $3.60 and head for the
exit. Gracias!

I lock my bike up in the town square next to the church and head out for
familiar ground. I stumble upon the traditional artisan market where a set
of earnings catch my eye. Once again my mask is cut loose but I pursue my
little Spanish anyways for practice. I drove a hard bargain and snatched
two sets of earnings for my singular piercing for $3.50 each. Great.

Buzzzzzz. Marcos: Hey Jazz I’m going to meet up with two other fellows and
head to Ibarra, we are waiting at the bus terminal. “ Donde esta la termial
de autobus?” BUzzz Marcos: Jazz we are boarding the bus now. Can I make it?
I tell myself to just commit. In a flash, I head down the busy cobbled
streets. Commit Jazz, that’s all you have to do. Commit, Commit Commit.
This word drove my legs 400m in a sprint to the bus terminal to find that
the bus had pulled out and set en route to Ibarra. Shit. Out of breath I
pause and waited for my stomach to catch up. Well, maybe I’ll just get some
lunch.

I wander the streets taking note of the fresh fruits sold by stale actions.
What different lives we live. Day in and day out strawberries, vegetables,
jewellery, alpaca jumpers…. and how did I get here halfway around the world
from Sydney, Australia. There was a stark moment of gratitude and curiosity
towards the shop owners and food vendors. Like a black piano key I stood
taller (physically), coloured differently amongst a sea of locals yet I was
apart of the keyboard, a note in the cacophonic of sounds which dressed the
small town of Otavalo.

45 minutes and I have passed the same bread shop and a woman selling
strawberries twice. The strawberries sat in a cart, stacked, ruby-like and
plump. I asked for a bag and spent 5 minutes on the street corner figuring
out dimes, nickels and pennies. Chao, Buenos Dias and I move a little
embarrassed with my bag of strawberries

Finally, I stumble into a chicken, chips, soup store? The outer display had
images of the meal combos which looked half decent. I enter the store and
walk to the counter and say “Puedo tener COMBO tres”. The woman at the
counter shouted over her shoulder in Spanish and turned to face me and
smiles an okay. All the seats were occupied so I took a seat at the same
table across from what looked like an indigenous man eating lunch with his
young son.

Hi, …eermm HOLA. He gave me a look of confusion and continued swimming his
spoon in his soup. Accepting my poor interaction I slowly raise my bag of
strawberries, lama pen and black notepad to the table. I begin to furiously
scribble the day so far. “Bike, Highway, Dusty Slopes, Strawberries”. I was
interrupted by a bowl of mysterious soup with sliced green leaves and oil
droplets. My lama pen goes down and I veer into the mystery soup. Like a
cloudy miso soup, I stir contents and a layer of foggy oils and green
leaves hide what lurks beneath. I scoop up to find a 3 pronged chicken
foot. It’s ankles looking like the end of a chewed pencil and fleshy pink
skin shiny in soupy oil. I sip my spoon like a red wine glass and smile
like I just swallowed.

The meal was simple, to say the least, but enough to silence my hunger. I
walked back through the town feeling a bit lonely and wishing that I could
not only meet people but speak to the ones I already know. Realising that
I’ve been gone for a few hours I head back to my bike locked up outside the
church.

I knew I wouldn’t be able to carry my bike up the hill I came down so it
was back to the highway in hope for an easier ride home. I walked my bike
up out of the Otavalo Bowl and onto the main highway. I had to cross the 6
lane highway in river crossing style, being mindful that traffic moves in a
different direction from Australia. After a few honks and near misses I was
on my way surely but slowly. I approached a 3 lane roundabout. I felt like
a little Rickshaw driver entering Mario Charts Rainbow Run. HONNNKKK. The
skinny bike path started its painfully familiar incline and I was
travelling at knee replacement walking pace. My legs feeling fatigued and
cold creeping under my shirt I spot an opportunity to cut through the
highway and avoid cycling an extra kilometre or so. The road cut through
the mountain in an almost perfect letter C. I had to recross the road to
reach an overgrown midsection. According to the map, the path didn’t exist
but I took the gamble for my legs. Another session of river-crossing passed
and I was wheeling my tired bike through uncharted territory.

You know those times when you’re watching a horror movie and one of the
characters starts to head into the direction of the killer or ignorantly
stroll into a sketchy looking place, well today that was me. However, I was
a bit excited for my monster to appear from the bushes. I continued to walk
the dirt road and a corn farm and farmers came into view. The pigs and tall
corn crops extinguished my fear and felt a pleasant sense of familiarity.
The main road was 20 meters ahead, up against steep hill where I needed to
carry my bike. I could hear the buses and trucks again from the path and
start to lift my bike onto my shoulder, bracing it like a torrent shield.

The wind switched directions and rolled downwards towards the cornfield and
like sprinters to a gun 2 German Shepards had jumped the fence and began
kicking up to dirt towards me. I had about 10 seconds to react so I began
to sprint upwards with my bike. The dogs come to a quick halt then a
vicious crawl, barking at my ankles smelling my fear. Throwing my bike in
between me and the dogs I try to tread backwards uphill, shuffling my feet
trying not to slip on loose rocks. Their eyes piercing like little black
beads and teeth sharpening themselves in preparation. I hold my breath and
try to relax my stance. The dog furthest begins to ease but the larger
German Shepard stays hastily growling and progressing onto me. My heart
tightens as the dog closes the gap between me and the bike. I know I won’t
make it up the hill in time so I prepare myself to throw the bike onto the
dog and run up the hill hoping a car or person will be able to help me. The
actions race through my mind. Throw the bike downwards, turn, run, call for
help. Throw the bike downwards, turn, run and call for help.

I suddenly realise my bag of strawberries, swinging on the handlebar of my
bike. “Throw a strawberry at them Jazz”. It might distract them. I slowly
reach my hand into the bag and grab two delicious strawberries. Trying not
to make a sudden movement I toss the strawberries in rainbow arc behind the
dog. They mash into the ground in an instant and the dog doesn’t move…
Fuck… a waste of good strawberry. The dog’s eyes still cutting through, I
continue backing and the car horns and buses grow louder. The dog slows
down. Little by little he begins to lose interest. Finally, I hit the
footpath and the dogs trot back home….. What a waste of a good strawberry.

I set on to the main highway again on a slight incline. My legs feeling a
bit better, I change up to a higher gear. Again I see more fruit stalls and
stray dogs. I reach the beginning of a construction site and see a group of
men constructing the roof of a large home. With their long dark hair,
slicked back into a low ponytail and short stocky frames I can’t help but
imagine them as the Wolfpack from Twilight. I giggle and ride on.

I continue riding and 20 minutes in the journey begins to ease down. I
notice a blond lump lying in the bike lane. Peddling closer and closer I
see its a dog. I turn back to see if I can merge onto the highway and avoid
riding close but the dog doesn’t move. Closer and closer I check over my
shoulder and move into the right lane picking up speed. My eye fixated on
the dog for any movement I veer closer and see his stomach opened and his
eyes rolled back. Oh, I don’t think he will be a problem today. I see
crushed mice and decaying carcass as I continue my ride onwards, almost
reaching the last stretch. I am rewarded by a downwards hill, a view of the
lake and mountains. I take a breath and scream the sound of my experience,
let the wind take my voice and the speed shout my freedom. An experience I
think to myself.

I’m 2km off the turn off into my town Gonzalez Suarez and I can see the
last bit of the San Pablo Lake mirroring the mountains in the afternoon
sun. I decide to make the switch again to the other side of the road ready
to turn off. I notice a new tune in the squeak of my bike and stop to give
it a checkup. Buzzzzz Buzzzz Buzzzzz, Hello?….Hola? No reception. “Hola
Jazz” Jaa……My host family is wondering where I am.

The side of the road is covered by bush and a small little farm growing
more corn. I hear a rustle and like prey on Animal Planet I stop and tilt
my head to listen for a predator. An angry fluff of dog jumps out of the
bush and strikes my thigh. With no hesitation, I throw my legs over the
bike and start to peddle. The dog is of medium sizes so my primal instincts
scream flight. Like a velodrome cyclist, I peddle now facing the oncoming
traffic. The dog managing to keep up and snap at my feet. My fear pushing
me further and further onto the road where a bus and the set of traffic is
fast approaching. The dog takes a dive at my leg, my eyes fixated on his
mouth I swerve into the right lane face to face with a bus. Floating
further and further away and closer and closer to the traffic. I shout and
the dog BAAAHHHHH GO AWAY and kick my left leg out like a cowboy in a rodeo
and he finally stops, I swerve left and a second later I’m slapped by the
honking of the bus and its tailwind. I keep my eyes forward and my legs
spinning my eyes stinging from the wind. Be careful I tell myself. Be
careful Jazz. My heart racing, energy pouring out of my body I see my
turnoff and PPPFFTTS. My front tyre sick with fear and tired of rocks gives
way and I see the black rubber melt into the wheels frame. I’m still a
kilometre off…Shit…The night starts to settle in as the last pieces of
light chase the clouds and like an injured Derek Redmond on his last leg to
the finish line I push my bike through the streets home.

I reach my gate and the same skinny passageway, exhausted, a little
traumatised, full with adventure and grateful for the experience. Am I a
changed person? Did I get what I sought? Or am I just stupid?

Reflection a week later: Both. My appetite for going out and doing things
is dangerous. I think I used up all my luck that day. I think now a week
onwards about all the terrible things that could have happened. The worst
probably being flattened by a bus on a bike or bleeding out and being
mauled apart by dogs or losing more strawberries. It’s this encroaching
feeling I get that time is running out. In a few months that line “When I
was 18 will vanish” and when I sit down my grandchildren I’ll tell them I
moved to Ecuador and learnt to speak Spanish and that’s it. It’s not that I
think I’ll have judgemental grandchildren its just that life is short and
ironically I very well could have made it much, much shorted that day, but
my life is short and I won’t find fulfilment in my life if I don’t live it.
Especially my young life, that’s even shorter. I don’t know where the
notion of craving to do things all the time came from… maybe growing with
“Just do it” Nike products or just realised I’ll learn from experience. I’m
scared I won’t learn enough in the right way and I’ll leave planet Earth
thinking I actually know things. I think that’s why I came here to Ecuador.
I started to think I knew things about the place I was living and more
scarily the people living there too. To the next adventure.

“Space I can recover. Time, never”

— Napoleon Bonaparte

Jasmine Johnson