Bumps in the road—inverted and gaping as the monster pothole that sent both Max and I flying through the Amazonian night—are a part of bike travel. They, in fact, keep you guessing, aware, awake, keep your senses sharp in this travel lifestyle that some consider a detriment to productivity. They force you to adapt in new and never-considered ways. They ultimately make you stronger.
Though this particular pothole setback will leave a visible scar on my left hip and a dull pain in Max’s right shoulder for the better part of the week, it was Surly who took the brunt of this life lesson.
Immediately following my last post from Tena, Ecuador in which I dreamily described my new Amazonian life by the river everything, almost literally, shattered. A sequence of bent metal, embarrassing haircuts, bad news, and well-placed insect bites began to unfold, as if signaling the end of this month’s good karma quota.
Max and I biked to the medium-sized city of Tena specifically to buy supplies for our upcoming raft adventure. We needed food, batteries, medicines, and most importantly information. Internet, the virtual highway to the all-knowing, was high on our priority list. But the connection was slow (perhaps this the first fated link in the evil chain of events that followed?). We were delayed, which means our cross-town Easter egg hunt for supplies was also hours behind schedule. We returned to our river campsite, 25-some kilometers away, under the dirty mosquito net of night.
Naturally, we made the best of the situation, stopping occasionally to enjoy the blackness and silence of the jungle, observing in awe how domestic dogs sauntered the white line like wild cats, dodging the occasional street lamp spray, transformed savagely somehow by the mask of the cloud-covered moon. On uphill climbs we shut off our only light—a half-dead Frogger I used to use for city riding; we pedaled up the rolling hills in touch with the road, without the normal prejudice of expectation that daylight vision imposes on the sport. We moved forward, toward the goal, that much we knew, but the velocity and distance remained unimportant and ridiculous when compared to the grand mystery the dark scenery evoked, a feeling which perhaps the blind experience more often than us in our wide-eyed, light-drenched existence.
It was in this glee, this dream-like connection with our immediate world—the shadowy tree giants bent over our forward path—that we blindly and forcefully on a downhill curve coasted into the only pothole between Tena and our tents. It was deep and unforgiving, with a sharp lip that leaned into our sudden punch with a still stronger force well beyond self-defense. First I flew over my handlebars, sliding Superman across the asphalt; then Max, unintentionally (as if at this point the Karma Game left us any choice) followed, his bicycle landing atop his sprawled body several car distances away. Through the blackness, as much by instinct as genuine concern, we yelled out to each other, then quickly turned our attention to our bikes. This, I was later told, is the true sign of an avid cyclist: love of thy bike above thyself.
As you can see from the photos Surly was in a bad way. The top tube crinkled until the front wheel rubbed against the frame, until the mudguard lay to the side, motionless, like the tongue of a dead animal. The down tube was also warped unrecognizably, like a pot belly sucked in on a shirtless Memorial Day BBQ. The Surly was unrideable.
Max’s cheaper frame miraculously did not crumble upon impact, probably because he, unlike I, was not pulling a heavy trailer. Instead he acrobatted into the air, clearing the bike completely, instead of absorbing the blow before flight like yours truly. It was obvious with minor adjustments he and his stead would be Patagonia bound in no time. Neither of us were so sure about Surly.
We managed to stop a motorcycle, who in turn called another motorcycle friend (not sure why), who then called a truck taxi who wanted to charge us double when the word “tourist” reverbed from cell to transmitter to satellite to cell. While waiting for the taxi I shuddered polite responses to the motorcyclists’ silly suggestions, such as “You should scrap the frame” or “Just buy a new one,” all the while annoyingly picking at wounds with a deep-down knowing that Surly was a survivor, that everything was Karmically cool between us and the universe.
Max and I cooked spaghetti with mozzarella that night, with portions generously larger than our normal budget rations and scientifically equivalent to the size needed to replace bad thoughts with delicious ones. The family was asleep; the stilted home silent without the normal candle flicker licking at the outside air. Gulping Pilsener beer as the water boiled and the river flowed uncaring we mutually agreed without words to forget the whole thing until morning.
Max woke me with bad news, completely unrelated to our unrideable bikes and aching bodies: the raft ride to the Peruvian border was not to be. The oldest son, whether true or an excuse, claimed the balsa trees to build the boat were prohibitively expensive. With Max the messenger, I did not sit in on the conversation, the details are mute, nor was I able to break down the expenses face-to-face, but it seems the son made up his mind. My Apocalypse Now Huckleberry Finn fantasy died before breakfast. Max and I are not so thick to think that we could build a raft the traditional way without any tradition of our own, with highly sinkable bikes and trailers aboard, then navigate waterways as confusing as a House of Mirror’s disco night. We’ll have to find another way to Iquitos, Peru.
That morning we also decided to backtrack. Instead of testing our luck with amateur bike mechanics and searching high and low for a reputable welder in Tena, we decided a five-hour bus ride back to Tumbaco, back to Papa Santiago, ringleader of our former refuge the Casa de Ciclista, was the more sensible option. Santiago knows personally a precision welder and precision welding, the sentimental equivalent to heart surgery, was exactly what Surly needed.
Once it was clear Surly would recuperate and continue onward to Argentina with Bob and I another itch unfolded. A real itch. In my leg.
The Amazon sprouts and festers in equal parts. Beautiful flora grows from the most unlikely places, trees on top of trees and plants in the armpits of everything; not an inch of soil goes to waste, not even when absorbed by the endless waters or filtered through gold miners’ wooden bowls. The tree line is not really a line at all, it’s a 3D illusion that criss-crosses vertically and horizontally, itself many layers of mystery, like the interactive posters fashionable in high school that nearly made us all cross-eyed. The Amazon’s festering side is less romantic. From all the aforementioned crevices, nooks, holes, layers, waters, armpits, and soil emerge bugs which I’m convinced, even in well-colonized areas like Mishualli, are still unknown to science. They may be extraterrestrial.
One such bug bit me. Five days later I sprouted (festered?) cankles. My left leg is obese with a swollen, red infection that a doctor in Tumbaco supposedly wiped away with alcohol and a smile. Insect eggs inside the wound were causing the discomfort. Now pills, creams, and bandages will accompany me back to the Amazon when we catch a riverboat in a few days.
Bad news and unfortunate fate all around. The haircut needs no further explanation:
Karma has a warped sense of humor.