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2001-06-20 - 6:44 p.m.

The 140km ride from Cali ended abruptly 10km from Popayan. A tank blocked the road, with 3 soldiers on top aiming the large cannon at several hundred protesting teachers and students, marching towards the city. A soldier with a loud-haler told the crowd they could only proceed as long as the march remained peaceful. Violence would be met with violence.

At that precise moment, my front tyre punctured with a loud hiss. I decided I'd be peaceful and walk with the protesters for a while. I mentioned to several that I was a teacher and was quickly ushered into the throng amid cheers and laughter. Several kilometres later, policemen directed traffic at an intersection. I decided I'd fix the tyre and resume riding. Back on the bike, I soon caught up with the protest again and began weaving my way through. With another loud hiss, met by more cheers and laughter, my front tube exploded again and a closer inspection revealed that I'd finally split the sidewall of my 13000km-old Continental tyre (purchased in Prince Rupert, Canada!).

With the light fading fast, I decided it'd be faster to walk the remaining few kilometres into Popayan, and once again joined the protest. At another intersection, the protest went left, while I was told it would be quicker to go right. 45 minutes later, I was in the central plaza, with only the the last shades of dusk remaining. After scouring several blocks unsuccessfully for a hotel, I found a group of policemen and asked for directions. They looked worried. One babbled into a radio. Seconds later it appeared - Robocop de Columbia! He was mounted on an enormous Suzuki trail bike, clad in black leathers, knee-high steel-capped boots and a flack jacket, with his face hidden behind a balaclava, helmet and purple-lensed sun glasses. He packed an arsenal of several pistols, grenades, an AK-47 and several belts of ammunition. Stopping briefly beside the radio babbler to receive his orders, he then rode slowly past me, acknowleging me only with a flick of two beckoning fingers which seemed to suggest I follow him. I did, half expecting to meet Arnold Shwarzenegger at the next corner. After pushing my bike after him for several blocks (which included a flight of steps!) we arrived at a hotel. Finally turning to look at me, he pointed a finger and mumbled 'stay inside' from behind his helmet, before riding off.

Not one to argue, I settled into a room. Minutes later, the protesters marched past the hotel. Robocop followed closely behind. Turning on the T.V, news programmes showed scenes of tear gas and stone throwing from protests around the country, followed by a live 30 minute plea for calm from the president, promising to improve the lot of Columbia's teachers.

I spent the following day in Popayan. The protest had remained peaceful and Popayan displayed its full colonial splendour, with large white-washed mansions, cobblestone streets and an impressive central plaza. I found Matt, yet another Swiss cyclist, shivering with a cold sweat in his hotel room, suffering from a virus. He joined me for dinner and promised to catch up as soon as he recovered.

The 200km stretch from Popayan to Pasto was an isolated stretch of highway, close to guerilla controlled territory, and a known danger spot for robberies and hijackings. Almost every Colombian I spoke to was adamant that I shouldn't cycle it. So reluctantly, I borded my first bus since Mexico city, and sighed as the bus drove through spectacular mountain scenery on a high mountain road teetering over steep gorges a thousand feet below. There was no sign of the guerilla anywhere.

Pasto on the other hand, had a definately bad vibe. Anti-U.S and pro guerilla/FARC slogans were spray-painted on every significant building. Venturing out to a bar with a Dutch traveller, we found ourselves targets for abuse from groups of teenagers in the street. Groups of policemen huddled on each corner, keeping the peace. Entering the bar, we were body-searched twice (very intimately!) before being allowed to enter.

The following day, I reached Ipiales, near the Ecuadorian border. Again the scenery was spectacular, with small rural villages and farmland dotted throughout the mountains. Roadside vendors tempted me with fresh spit-roasted guinea-pigs, but out of respect to my first ever pets (Bubble and Squeak, RIP), I rode on.

Just before the border, I met an American, Brad, cycling from Tierra del Fuego with his dog, Luka, perched on a milk crate strapped to his rear rack. He told me he was terrified by the horror stories he'd heard of Columbia - I reassured him by admitting that I'd entered the country expecting to be robbed or kidnapped at any moment too, but was leaving with great impressions of spirited, welcoming, friendly people, doing their best to live with the country's significant problems.

From Tulcan, just across the Ecuadorian border, the road dropped for almost 60km. From cool mist-topped mountains and green pastures, I was soon riding along a sweltering river valley with barren, parched earth and rock on all sides. Afro-caribbeans washed and played in the river. Then the road veered steeply up again for 25km, back into the mountains to the the town of Ibarra, surrounded by several dramatic mountain peaks, one snow-covered.

Riding out of Ibarra the following morning, a front pannier seemed to be loose. One of the screws holding the rack to the frame had sheered off and the rack was dangling freely on one side. After 2 hours in a car mechanic's yard, the rack was rebuilt and remounted using homemade industrial-strength brackets. I rode on and stopped for lunch in Otavalo, home of Ecuador's largest market. I was sorely tempted, but refrained from buying an alpaca sweater and llama wool hat.

At the 65km mark, I reached Cayambe, a small but lively town, 70km from Quito. With a glance at her rusting top bar, I decided it was time to overhaul Bessie the mountainbike cow. With almost 10,000km covered since her new year (moo year) repainting in Mexico, she was beginning to look maltreated. Another car mechanic was found. Unfortunately, he didn't have the paints available to colour the average gurnsey cow, so we had to settle for gun metal. A quick test was done with the top bar, and Bessie responded with glowing delight. Gun metal it would be. The following morning, I stripped Bessie down to her frame, cleaned and sanded her ready for painting, and returned her to Rodriguez the mechanic. He had her looking shiny new within the hour, for the grand sum of $6. That night in a hotel bathroom, Bessie was rebuilt and reborn, a sparkling new gun metal metallic mountainbike cow.

What I thought would be an easy ride into Quito, provided a few surprises; a drop of 1000 metres followed by a steady 25km climb, a puncture on the outskirts of town, and finally, a guy on 4ft stilts dancing to salsa music in the middle of the highway for no apparent reason.

On Friday, both Matt and my brother Andy finally arrived, and life became chaotic. After a night spent talking until 5.00am, the 3 of us scoured Quito for good bike shops that would weld V-brakes onto Andy's bike and build a new rear wheel for mine. While waiting for a bike repairs, we took a bus to the equator monument, Mitad del Mundo. Water flowed in opposite directions down a plughole either side of the equatorial line, and it was supposedly easy to balance an egg on the head of a nail - we couldn't. A cultural museum displayed a shrunken fist-sized head - the standard punishment metted out to one's foes in times of tribal warfare.

Returning through the city with our bikes in a taxi that night, we stopped at an intersection. A car screeched to a stop behind us, proceeded by lots of horn tooting and shouting. We turned to see a man emerge from the car waving a gun at us. Ducking down in the seats, I politely suggested to the driver that he "GO!" We did, and fully expecting a high speed chase, I turned to see if he would follow. With a sharp intake of breath, I relaxed somewhat as he turned off - apparently disinterested in our bikes and cameras.

We decided to celebrate our continued survival with a visit to Pizza Hut. They chose the wrong people to offer an 'all you can eat $4.99' deal to. We got our money's worth by easily devouring 43 pieces of pizza and 4 litres of coke between 3. Never underestimate a cyclist's stomach.

'They say hard work never killed anybody, I say why take the risk ?!'

Total distance cycled: 16732km


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