Ahead of us, two middle-aged women step out onto the track. It is just after four in the afternoon and it appears that they are making their way home from a long day working out in the fields. Despite this, they have their tailored felt hats sitting perfectly above their plaited hair, their crisp white and embroidered blouses tucked neatly into their bright blue skirts and long socks pulled high above their black shoes. Their electric bright pink shawls, which seem to be something of a uniform for women in rural areas, are draped purposefully around their shoulders, accomplishing three functions; warmth, visibility in the fields and as a sling to carry goods when needed.
This striking traditional dress is worn by almost all Ecuadorians in rural environments, with slight differences depending on the specific area of the country. The men tend to have similar felt hats, calf length trousers, a poncho and in some areas a Shimba, which is a single braid grown to the waist. Apparently this is considered such an identity associated with Ecuador that the army does not require it to be cut off for those men who join with one.
To me it illustrates such self, community and cultural pride. No matter whether someone is working the fields, selling street food or running local shops, they all seem to look immaculate and united.
In contrast, Campbell and I, in our cycling attire, looked rather scruffy. A slight embarrassment. However, they didn’t seem to mind as this pride was also echoed in their interactions with us; they even topped Colombia for their warmth and welcome. Perhaps the Ecuadorians are more accustomed to visitors and tourists as their friendliness and happiness, combined with such a gentle and sweet nature was so noticeable.
For our journey through the country we followed a devised route through the Andean range called the Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route (TEMBR), which is considered a tough ride for its distance, altitude, mountain climbs and those steep Ecuadorian gradients. However, we were ready and raring for the challenge after our training and acclimatisation in Colombia.
And what a country. It may be small, but it is grand. Majestic active volcanoes, whole areas so high in altitude that they regularly sit above the clouds, deep and steep green valleys, Scottish-like remote heathlands, unusual flora and fauna, bright towns, bustling street-life and so many sheep.
The ride notes stated that the best time to visit the country was in the ‘dry’ season from mid-June to August but warned that there was often still a little rain and we should be prepared for four seasons in a day. The notes were not wrong! Over the five weeks that we took to cycle the route we regularly shifted between climates and temperature from walking round towns in t-shirts in the hot sun, to fighting drizzle and high winds, waking up to snow after camping out near the Chimborazo volcano and cycling through thick cloud clinging to the mountain tops and valleys.
I must admit that I was perhaps not quite so ready for these lower temperatures associated with a more constant period at an altitude above 3000m, in an area with quite a bit of precipitation and cloud cover.
Don’t get me wrong, I was not underprepared. With my full cold-weather kit on, I have six layers on my torso, consisting of a short-sleeved top, a long-sleeved merino top, a warm fleece, a padded gilet, a thick down jacket and a waterproof jacket. That alongside two pairs of leggings (one has a furry lining), alpaca ankle warmers, thick merino socks, two pairs of gloves and two hats (one merino and one alpaca). So what’s the problem you ask?
It turns out I have a physiological issue that is slightly more severe than I had previously realised; Raynaud’s Syndrome as well as a general difficulty to get warm and stay warm. Campbell had noticed this in the earlier days of our relationship; my ice-block feet and white hands, void of blood circulation on even a mild day, yet somehow it didn’t occur to me the extent that this would affect me out here.
As there are worse issues to deal with in life, I’ve tended to just get on with it, but I can tell you now that a future lifestyle of winter mountaineering with multiple days camping out at high altitude is not on the cards. I mean, I wish it was; many friends know I love the mountains, the wilderness and a good adventure, but it turns out those trips are going to have to include a warm lodge and roaring fire!
So when we have been setting up our camp spot throughout Ecuador there has generally been a quick dash to get the tent up, put all my clothes on, blow up the sleeping mats then submerge myself in my sleeping bag to cling onto any heat that may be remaining. Campbell on the other hand is more relaxed, pottering around the camp spot, checking the tent and bikes, then taking a lead on the cooking for dinner. He’s definitely accumulating points for the completion of useful team tasks!
This, combined with the regular updates from home on the heatwave that just keeps on going, has made for a challenging period.
However, the rawness and exposure that we have experienced in Ecuador has been beautiful and unique. The challenges have been rewarding with a real sense of accomplishment at having travelled through such harsh environments.
We have met a lot more travellers in Ecuador than in Colombia and Baja. It has been great to meet new people from around the world and even bump into the odd cyclist or two. There was the French family of six (four children aged between 2 and 12!) pushing the limits of the typical family summer holiday, the kiwi couple in their fifties on plus bikes showing that age is no limit, the solo Japanese guy travelling from Mexico to Patagonia with very limited Spanish or English showing such independence and courage and the German tourer ambitiously hoping to make it to Ushuaia in the next four months.
I have enjoyed this country for the people and its interactions. I have been amazed how this part of the world has such rich street life with locals occupying and activating the public realm in a way that us Westerners just don’t know how to.
Interestingly, I happen to have been reading The Happiness Manifesto by Nic Marks, which discusses how we are currently so outdated in using Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to measure a country’s level of development, economy and therefore successes. This measure does not take into account the well-being and happiness of society, nor the level of environmental sustainability that the country is operating by and ability therefore to maintain their current position of GDP and well-being in the future.
It turns out that several South American countries are hitting the nail on the head in combining these three forces; GDP, well-being and sustainability, as recently measured in the new Happy Planet Index (HPI). In particular, Ecuador is currently ranked tenth out of 140 countries and let me tell you why.
According to the HPI case study, ‘in 2008, the Ecuadorian government adopted Buen Vivir or ‘good living’ as its guiding philosophy, placing well-being and sustainability at the heart of Ecuador’s development – representing a striking departure from the prioritisation of economic growth that guides most governments.’ (http://happyplanetindex.org/countries/ecuador)
Since the adoption of Buen Vivir,
- there has been a dramatic reduction in crime, poverty and inequality;
public spending on education and health has increased rapidly, with the country now ranked 13th in the world for the efficiency of its healthcare system;
Ecuador is the first country in the world to adopt rights for nature;
there is a national living wage;
55% of its electricity come from renewable sources; and
Ecuador has become a world leader in measuring the well-being of its residents (along with the UK).
It’s fascinating stuff.
No wonder the Ecuadorians are so friendly, they’re just so damn happy and sustainable!
It looks like we have a lot to learn and take away from this small but special country – it has been the people, pride and sense of place that has been such a highlight.
Thank you, Ecuador and in particular to Cass Gilbert and the energetic and infectious Dammer Brothers who devised the route through their home-country and who we were so pleased to meet at their beautiful organic farm near Quito.