Journal 10: I won’t waste time professing my shame at not having updated this site in an entire year. I’ll only say, I’ve been doing a lot of living.
2012 began in Cali, with Paola’s wonderful family, where we celebrated with champagne, grapes and BBQ. We returned to Bogota together shortly after the Feria de Cali, at which point I jetted back to the U.S. for a round of Last Man Power fundraising, and some much needed family time. I returned enthused and free, ready to continue on my bike trip, but was immediately humbled once more by just how brutal these mountains can be. From Bogota, I dropped nearly 2000 meters to a town called Honda, where I watched my Kentucky Wildcats win their 8th National Championship. UK championships are placeholders in my life. I remembered the great teams from the 90’s with Tony Delk, Antoine Walker, Jamal Mashburn, and reflected how far I’d come, and how far I still had to go. From Honda, I climbed 2000 of the most challenging meters of my trip so far. The experience was humbling, but I made it to the other side of the giant valley that divides Colombia and arrived safely in Manizales.
Manizales allowed me a much-needed week of recuperation, but provided few memorable experiences. A year later, I remember a few nights of partying with strangers who became fast friends and a few movies at the local cine. From Manizales, I was ready to set out towards Salento. Manizales to Salento was a much more relaxed trip, with a few severe climbs, but nothing unmanageable. The day I arrived, I met Geoff, and we immediately hit it off. I ate one of the best burgers of my trip, and he referred me to Alaska Dan, and crazy as hoot old man who sought to open up a farmers coop.
Salento, Paola, and Vallenato Music
Salento was divided into two segments, because after a week there, I traveled back across the country to Valledupar, where I met up with Paola for a week of Vallenato music. Vallenato features an accordion, a woodblock instrument, and a drum. It is not my bag, though I respect musical talent, and these accordion players absolutely tore it up. Besides, it was a neat opportunity to see a music festival in Latin America. There were some great days, sitting alongside the Rio Guatapuri, and traveling up to La Mina for rock jumping and whisky drinking by the creek, but the festival itself was marred by Paola’s being robbed towards the end of our trip by thugs. We pushed through, though the event had a whole array of lasting repercussions for her, which I can’t get into publically. At the weeks end, Paola and I flew back to Bogota together, said a teary-eyed goodbye at the airport, and I caught a second plane back to Cali, taxi, bus, etc. Eventually got back to Salento, enriched, and yet financially on uncertain footing. The trip had been expensive and I needed work badly.
I ended up moving in with Alaska Dan for a about 3 weeks, putting together a website, all the while eating breakfast and lunch almost every day at Geoff’s. Best wings I’ve eaten in my life. Alaska Dan had a penchant for rum and cokes, and between the two of us, and to a far lesser extent, his girlfriend, we went through a bottle nearly every night. Thankfully, rum was cheap here. For 9 dollars a night, the two of us drank and spat our own version of the truth until 2 or 3 in the morning until we were falling all over ourselves. I also found a new girl, Hannah, that became a close friend. Mad Nights at the Speak Easy. It was an orgiastic period, with wild unfathomable personalities and stories. I will always remember Tiberio, who ran away from home as a child in Italy, became a male prostitute as a child, joined the French foreign legion fighting in Colombia, made his way to Seattle, and now makes his living as a part time chef and a full time artist. He believes that food and sex are life’s greatest pleasures. A true Epicurean. What makes his story so spectacular is that his work (in which he covers the bodies of men and women of all shapes and sizes in fruits and vegetables) is featured in some of the most prestigious modern art museums around the world.
Salento ended on a somewhat sour note. Dan couldn’t (or wouldn’t) pay for the website that I’d built him, and so I had to take a loss and try to hold onto the incredible experiences that I’d had. Still, I was broke again, had to call home for money, and prepared to make my way across Southern Colombia, supposedly the most dangerous part of my tour, with few resources.
Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose
Salento to Ibarra stretches about 1200km, and while I had a few days of rest in Popayan and Pasto, this stretch of Andean road will always hold a special place in my memory. It was so pure. Days upon days of camping or staying in the homes of locals who had a bed to spare. Moutains and valleys and moutains. 1000 meters swings in elevation were a typical morning. I remember feeling freer than I’ve ever felt in my life during this period. I remember crying as I passed over peaks and began the rapid decent after climbs that often took 3…4…6 hours.
It is hard for me to define what brings tears to my eyes in such moments. There is a physical element which mergers with an emotional element. One of accomplishment, certainly, but mixed with more complex emotions. A Sisyphean absurdity to my actions. The inability to share a feeling so profound with anyone that I love who has not undertaken some a journey alone, for so long. And these few weeks, more than any other period of my life up to that point, and I suspect moreso than for many years into the future, a I had nothing. A crazy guy on bike, who honestly couldn’t justify a $10 hotel room in the middle of Colombia’s FARC region.
Which brings me to that story. Of all the places I’ve visited, I found Colombia’s people to be the only ones who were as open, welcoming, and kind as India’s. Everywhere I went I was invited into homes, warmly, and I will always remember these two countries as a model for how to treat guests, strangers, and travelers. But outside of Popayan something changed, and I felt it immediately. Popayan is awesome by the way. I’m talking maybe 100kms outside the city.
The people no longer looked in my eyes when I talked. They didn’t give me clear answers. In perspective, they had characteristics of animals that have been abused and made to live in a state of fear. A few amongst them were strong enough to advise me. “Don’t go that way.” “That way is South. What’s the other way?” I said. “Go back to Cali.” Returning 400kms the same way I’d came wasn’t really an option, but I took the warning, and holed up in a hotel in a small valley. I laid in my bed, finished up my Che Guevara biography, and as I walked to the window to smoke a cigarette, I heard small arms fire in the hills above the town. 3 minutes later, the guns stopped. A siren sounded, the power of the town went off, and a full on military shelling began from the other side of the valley. I went to the window and watched the tracer bullets fly above my head across the valley and decimate the compound on the other side. I remembered third grade, when we watched the first Iraq war on TV during class. I remembered the words shock and awe. And I thought how meaningless such a concept was. Here was a conflict that had been going on for 40 years. How much shock and awe could be left? But then such weapons were features of the past decade. And the government was clearly winning.
In my year in Colombia, this was the only time I’d witnessed this kind of activity. I absolutely love Colombia. I hope no one decides not to go to Colombia for what I’ve written here. But this was very real for me. It was my first experience in a warzone. It was exciting…awesome…and brought home what seems so apart when you read about it or see videos on the news.
It was in Pasto that I began talking to Chris. He was burnt out with his job, and I was high as hell on life. I sold him on the life down here. Bicycling across South America. Thinking on your feet. I missed him. I wanted company. I wanted an artist. I warned him that things change fast here and that you gotta be able to adapt in a hurry. If there’s one virtue I have that enables me to succeed living this way, it’s my ability to do one thing for a month, and then wake up another day and do something completely different. I feel changes before they happen and am already prepared when life throws me the change up. Is this an apology? Perhaps. I never lied or misled anyone. I believe, and will always believe, that given time, I can find a way to make it work.
It was also in Pasto that I talked to Elizabeth. “You’re coming home for yours and mom’s birthday,” she said. “I’m broke,” I confessed. “Beyond broke.” “Its on me.” “Then I’ll fly out of Guayaquil in two months,” I said. Thank you so much Elizabeth. That was an amazing birthday present!!!
It was late May when I reached the Colombian border. Right before I crossed, I walked into an English speaking school, at the urging of its eager patron/administrator. I spent 3 hours talking to the kids in English and Spanish about my trip, home, and their own hopes and ambitions. Then I pedaled my final 18km in Colombia to the border, and passed into Ecuador with about $50 in my bank account.
I needed work FAST. My bones were cold from camping night after night at high elevations, and while I woke up inspired, it was beginning to take a toll on my body. I couldn’t phone home again for help unless I had real prospects for income. I hit Ibarra with a fire under my ass. I’d met with representatives from Colombia’s real estate association in Bogota with hopes of licensing our MLS software to their board and members. No results. In Ecuador, I wasn’t going to wait until Quito, though it was only another 200kms south. I was going to talk to everybody. I made some great contacts in Ibarra, and got damn proficient at giving our presentation in Spanish. But I didn’t have a clear end game because I really didn’t have a buyer in mind. I don’t want to get into business details, but one Sunday afternoon, I followed some real estate signs and ended up in an office in Cotacachi, and gave a presentation in a mix of Spanish and English. “Come back tomorrow and present to the boss,” he said. I agreed. Over the next couple months a deal got hammered out. But an unexpected condition was thrown my way. I need help he said. I’m only going to sign if you stay on to work on the project alongside me. I’ll give you six months out of each year for the next two years. It was a gutsy move. But I felt confident in my suit. And I still wasn’t ready to give up my freedom.
Well, July rolled around, my 30th birthday was approaching, and my eternally young mother’s 40th birthday was just around the corner as well. It was time for another trip to the U.S., courtesy of my exceptionally kind, loving, beautiful, and always entertaining sister. I stored my gear at the Hotel Mediterraneano in Quito, and caught a flight to Miami and onto Atlanta where I met Wilson at the airport and dove into some late night Chinese food. We hammered out some Last Man Power work, caught up face to face, and got to work testing our hydro generator. Then it was off to Kentucky for family time. My birthday was spent in true Kentucky fashion. Visiting the Makers Mark distillery. We had a blast. It was my first time coming “home” to the Kentucky house, and while I never imagined I would feel at home outside of Georgia, it was wonderful to see my Aunt Mary Pat, grandparents, cousin Amy and family, Dan and Bear, and the rest of the gang as I passed through. Living such an uprooted life, I value these times immensely. As a traveler, I am defined by where I come from. It is my identity. And I can proudly say, we come from good stock.
Eventually I made my way back to Quito and down to Canoa. There was a period in Bahia/Canoa where I was holed up in the Coco Bongo Hostel. More crazy personalities. A group of pirates and their wenches that had spent their lives smuggling humans, tobacco, medical supplies, and who knows what else between Cuba and the States. Served their time. Great spirits all of them, but none more memorable than Floyd. We partied hard together a few nights in Canoa, and this little beach town began to grow on me more and more. After a 5 day bike trip down the coast, and another 4 days back to Bahia, it was clear. I’d be working in Manabi, and living in Canoa for a while. Roots. My own bed. A regular income. All of this was sounding really great all of sudden. On top of it all, Chris would be arriving soon. I rented a house, made a move on an incredible chick named Mave, and then it started setting in. All of a sudden I had a lot going for me. And a lot to lose.
Let me back up. One of my first nights after I’d decided officially to live in Canoa, there was a birthday party at a bar called the Tiki Shack for a girl named Anya. Here’s my chance to meet the local crew. In addition to a lot of other great people, I met two special ladies that night, Mave and Bibi. Naturally I chose the wrong one and spent the next couple weeks draining all my psychic energy on this poor choice and getting sucked into a love triangle. Such is life. No bad feelings. As I suffered through this, I began work on the Ecuador MLS. Mid- October rolled in and it was time for me to bicycle down to Guayaquil for a second time that month to meet Chris.
The bicycle trip down the coast along the Ruta del Sol is really a lovely ride. Flat, green, with ceviche and beer on the beach each evening to cap off the day. My nightly stops were Crucita, Porto Cayo, Ayangue, Playas, and ultimately Guayaquil. Chris arrived, and we headed back to the Hostel Wilson to reassemble his bicycle at 2am in the hotel’s garage. We caught up, and I briefed him on tomorrow’s ride. 2 days of desert, then beaches all the way home to Canoa. I really enjoyed having a riding partner for the first time since saying goodbye to my Brazilian friends on the Colombia coastline. I did throw Chris a curveball prior to his arrival by changing plans and making the commitment to stay in Canoa for the next 6 months for work. In my mind, I made this right, by covering his room and hotel bar tab while we were stationed there, but the stay did put a drain on his finances. If I had it to do over again, I don’t think I would have done anything differently, but this ultimately cost him the ability to continue the trip later down the road.
Fueled by a hearty supply of coconut icecream and Gatorade, we made our way back up the coast together and arrived back at the house. The place I’d rented was an enormous 4 bedroom suite on the south beach of Canoa. I had grand aspirations to rent out at least one of the two bedrooms, but the house was wrought with problems: too sparsely furnished, an ever present work crew which woke us every morning with the sound of power tools right outside our window, no doors to any of the bedrooms and bathrooms, and a landlady that ultimately was not able to provide the flexibility we needed to make this a lasting home. Above all else, the house couldn’t receive internet, which was really a deal breaker, although I refused to acknowledge it early on. In early November we parted ways with this house and moved across the street to the Coconut Hotel, where we’d been spending most of our time anyway.
Bibi had been working in Bahia, the nearby city at a restaurant called Puerto Amistad as a waitress to earn money to continue her travels. She is from Bogota, but had already been traveling across South America for more than a year when we began talking more, and was waiting anxiously for Peter, one of the owners of the Coconut Hotel who also ran a sailing charter business to take her up the coast to Panama. I immediately had an admiration for her ability to travel on the cheap, and do whatever was necessary to continue the journey. While being extremely beautiful, like most Colombians, she wasn’t the high maintenance type, which many Colombian women are. We hit it off very quickly, accelerated all the more so because by all accounts, we were only going to have a couple more days together. She was leaving for Panama, and I would be there for some time for work. Well, days turned into weeks, weeks into months, and still Peter wasn’t ready with the boat.
Late November I decided to combine a business trip with pleasure and swing through Manta for some meetings. We stayed in my favorite hotel in Manta in the Murcielago for a night and then made our way down to Santa Marianita, a popular kite surfing beach. I’d been taking kite surfing lessons with Adam and Alicia in Canoa for the past month, but hadn’t gotten up on the board just yet. (I spent a good full day trying in Santa Marianita as well, and while I’m getting closer, I still haven’t quite got this thing figured out). Well after a night in a luxury hotel eating sushi, I figured I would see how Bibi handled tent camping. Hostels were available along the beach, but I wanted to save a little money and we through up the tent along the shoreline for the next two nights. We had a lovely time, despite my kiteboarding frustrations. We made it back to Canoa on Sunday, still anticipating her imminent departure for Panama, but Peter still wasn’t ready with the boat.
After another week in limbo, we decided to head out on our own. She needed work, and after getting her set up building websites, we decided to head out on our own to Crucita, to see if opportunities existed there. The previous time we’d been down to Crucita with Peter, Chris and Annika, the owner of a hostel we liked offered to let her manage the place for $300 a month with food and lodging included. As it seemed like she was going to be sticking around for longer, we decided to check this out. Were we able to live there together, it would save us $700/month. Chris had a job lined up in Canoa at this point working at the Suki Bar, and the location would put me closer to Manta where most of my meetings would be. It all seemed to make sense. But the world would have other plans.
Things Turn Sour at the Coconut Hotel
The first morning, we awoke in Canoa and I checked my email. Mateo had firebombed the Coconut Hotel after a dispute with Peter. Thankfully, the hotel itself was not harmed – at least the part in which guests were staying, but this was only by the grace of God and the winds. Some 20K in damages were done. It was an ugly situation. Already in Crucita, we picked up a website gig and she got to work on this, but that same day I got a message from my boss that we were going to put the MLS project on hold for 3 months. I read the message. I’m free, I told her. Lets go somewhere new. Before the afternoon was over, we had a new route laid out. We would bus to Quito with Chris. Chris and I would travel to Coca on bikes where we would meet up with Bibi and perhaps Annika. We would all hop on a boat in the jungle and travel some 1500 kms down the Amazon into Peru, where Chris and I would hop on the bikes once more and climb up the eastern side of the Peruvian Andes to Huaraz. From there we would head down to Lima. At this point I would head back to Ecuador for work to complete my contract. Everyone else would decide from there what they wanted to do next.
We went back to Canoa to wind everything down, but our paradise at the Coconut was gone overnight. The energy had changed, and Peter, who I’d considered to be a pretty good guy, despite his flaws had turned negative. On top of everything else, I caught dengue fever, and was bedridden for most of the next week. Bibi got the website finished, and feeling better by this time, Chris, Bibi and I headed back to Crucita to present the site, collect payment (largely in pizza). We brought the crew down the final night for a feast (Peter, Zack, and Carl – an all round awesome guy). The next day we headed back to Bahia and Canoa to gather up our things and jump on the night bus to Quito. But this time Chris threw a surprise at me.
When Bibi and I arrived after an afternoon of fast-paced errands in Bahia, Chris signaled to me to come to the roof. “We need to have a talk,” he said. I paraphrase.
“I won’t be joining you guys on this trip. I’ve already booked my flight, so there is no reason to dispute my decision. Basically it comes down to finances. My language skills aren’t where they need to be to get a job long term down here, so when we get to Lima, what end game do I have? I will be out of money, in a new city, with no prospects. I will be forced to ask you or my parents for money for a flight home. And that’s something I won’t do if I can avoid it. I witnessed first hand what this kind of financial dependency did to you and Evan’s friendship, and I don’t want that. I want to depart as friends. I hope you can respect that.”
I didn’t like it, but I did respect it. He was right, and besides, there was no point in arguing. We hugged it out, and I told him I would miss him on the road.
What happened to Chris next can best be read about on his tumblr page or his trip advisor review of the Coconut Hotel. Bibi and I left for Quito that night as planned, arriving in the early dawn, and grabbing the first hotel we could find that answered the door. We found a couple of hostels that were willing to trade free stays in exchange for Hosteltrail reviews, and made quick work of these while running errands. We started talking about bikes.
Talk About Bikes
I had told Bibi when we started making plans for this biking/boating section of the trip that I didn’t want to feel like I was abandoning her in the jungle. I just didn’t see how we were going to stay together if she was traveling on a bus and we were traveling on bikes. “Is this really just about the bikes,” she said. “Yes,” I insisted. “Its just about the bikes.”
At this point of my life, I’m trying to become extremely careful about thinking that my dreams are the same as others’. I suspect that I’ve oversold my dreams in the past. I do this when I’m excited and passionate about the way I’m living, but I’ve been forced to realize that my dreams aren’t for everyone. That it takes a special kind of person to live this way, and that is fine. Still, I thought I’d found that type of person in Bibi.
“If you tell me every day that you want a bicycle, every hour, then its yours. We’ll make it happen. But I have to know its what you want.”
Shortly thereafter we began working with Carlos from Construbicis, custom building her bicycle up from scratch, buying cycling clothes, and organizing gear. On the 26th of December, we set out for the jungle together.
Gratitude for My Blessed Life
My life has been marked by risktaking. I gamble with my life. I try to be calculated in my decisions, but I recognize that the jumps that I’ve made would be considered radical to most. I am always grateful that I have a family who is willing and has the means to help me out when I’m in a bind. Without this, I could never be where I am today. My eternal gratitude to you Mom, Dad, and Elizabeth. And to everyone else who has brought me joy over the year.
If 2011 was the year when I made this leap, 2012 has really seen things come together. I left on a mission to bicycle South America in August of 2011 and anticipated an 18-month trip. But my trip is just beginning. And it has ceased to be a trip. This is how I live, and with work secured, a steady stream of friends, and a partner at my side, I have no intention of changing.
My resolution for 2013:
photo credits: Bibiana Robles and Chris Stapor