Unforeseen obstacles

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
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Andean Adventure

Unforeseen obstacles
January 12, 1998

The hills of Ecuador were long and unrelenting. From the Peruvian border, through the city of Loja, and on toward Cuenca; not a day had passed without a series of long ascents. The last week had been some of the most difficult riding we'd experienced. It was about to get worse.

We said good-bye to our hosts where we'd camped in the fields outside Oña and began the ride toward Cuenca. We hoped to arrive today, but a day-long climb raised our doubts.

Five hours later we're still pressing the pedals up the relentless grade. Somewhere ahead lies La Paz, a small settlement. Excepting a few cars, the last hours have passed in isolation. I hear a truck from behind, its engine straining against the hill. I turn to look and see it is level with Nancy. It pauses and continues. Probably asking if we want a ride to the top, I think.

A moment later the truck draws up beside me and stops. I stop as well, an exhausted smile on my face. It quickly vanishes. Four men aggressively unpile from the back and I realize with horror that one is racing toward me with a large black gun. I don't need to understand their shouts. I drop my bike — my home — and screaming to Nan, begin to run back down the hill.

Realizing the enormity of what's happening, I turn and desperately scream at the men loading my bicycle into the truck. The man with the gun keeps me at a distance, but I am helpless anyway. I uselessly give chase as the men pile in and the truck, with its new cargo, races up the hill and out of site.

Nancy's sobbing screams — "No!No!No!" fill the air. I stand suddenly naked on the deserted road. Moments later a heavily laden cargo truck lumbers along. Standing in the middle of the road, I stop the truck and frantically explain our situation. The men are reluctant to give chase, but eventually agree to take us up to the town of La Paz. Sitting atop the roof with Nancy's bicycle I search the road for any evidence. Our truck moves with a snail's pace up the remaining incline. I see nothing; they are gone.

Moments later, a smaller Jeep-sized truck passes us. The driver stops and agrees to help us so the truckers can continue back toward Loja. We load Nan's bike and speed off in pursuit. I begin to recount the episode to Juan, our driver. When I tell him about the gun, he reaches into his jacket and reveals his own small-caliber weapon. "It's not so safe on Ecuador's roads," he says.

We find a few scraps discarded from my bike, but our search yields little else. Juan offers to take us back to Cuenca with him. We're arriving sooner than we thought.

Our first visit is not to the police, as we'd imagined, but the newspaper. We are interviewed and make a plea for the return of any personal items. With the difficult terrain, I'd been carrying almost all our gear; we've lost not only the bike, but our tent, sleeping bags, stove, camera and all our journals and film from the last month. The television station is our next stop where again we are interviewed and make a plea.

"The police in this country are useless," Juan tells us, explaining our curious itinerary. "At least this way, you have a chance of getting your documents back."

We do eventually visit the police, who make Juan's assessment seem mild. We also go to Radio Tarqui, the most listened-to station in the area where the assault occurred, and retell our story. The station manager offers to let us stay in her home, but Juan assures her that we'll be taken care of.

The robbery, ironically, has made us members of Juan's extended family. At his step-parents' we are given food and spare clothing. Whatever you need, they tell us, we will help you with. We are overwhelmed by the kindness and smile through teary eyes. It's been a long day.

Our visit to Cuenca turns into a concerted effort to put things back together. Rather than wait for the police or wallow in our misfortune, we begin actions to move on. We become a regular presence at EMETEL, the telephone office, constantly phoning the States. Who did we leave our passport copies with? Who might be able to get us another bike? Where can I get phone numbers for The North Face, MSR, REI ...?

In addition to Juan's family, everyone we met in Cuenca expresses their sympathies. They take it personally that such a thing could happen in their country. The president of the provincial tourist board lends us his office and computer; Juan Dominguez, owner of a local hostel, begins making inquires with bike shops and trying to pressure the police into action. The response is amazing.

Eventually, we must move on to Quito to begin work on new passports. It's the first item on a seemingly infinite list. As days go by, we assimilate the experience and continue to heal. The time needed to recover our lost items will help us build the strength we need to carry on. As I told Nancy, they've stolen our bike and our stuff, but they can't steal our dream.

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

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