The Andes, flats, hardware store fun

Dear friends and family,

I’m 358 miles (577km) south of the Caribbean Sea. 

Not without a tremendous effort, but here I am at 3500 feet in the 1.5 million population city of Bucaramanga.

I arose today at my usual time of 0430 from habit, so did some stretching, journaling and reading.

Now I’m upstairs on the balcony enjoying the cool ( under 70 F) weather, drinking the coffee they offered, which is hilarious because it’s instant in the coffee producing country of Colombia.

To say that I’m worn out would be an understatement after yesterday’s climb. Four hills, each with 500 to 1000 feet of climbing, on a crappy road with no shoulder. Not small shoulder, no shoulder. Most of the way I rode in the drain gutter when it wasn’t completely plugged with garbage. Otherwise, when riding in the road, if I had trucks from both directions, I would just bail out until the traffic cleared, then drag the bike over the gutter ledge back onto the road, and try to get a rhythm going again in my granny gear.

From about ten miles out I got a brief glimpse of the buildings of the city over the top of the hilltops. Like an apparition of a city appearing to be on the very summit of a distant mountain. It could have been disheartening, but I woke yesterday expecting hard and knew I’d get it. I did.

I also woke to a flat back tire so instead of my relaxing morning, I dealt with the bad inflation stem on the tube, hoping it would hold till my hotel, a trip I expected to take about six hours, even including the walking up the steepest grades, which turned out to be “any” grade upwards as I ran out of energy. Six hours became eight hours, what’s the difference in the big picture? Forward momentum that surprises even me.

The heat let up just slightly with occasionally on each summit, a cool breeze, to disappear in the next valley floor. It sure was fun coasting downhill on three long descents.

Riding into a huge city after all this was an additional challenge. The city appears to have no flat areas, all up and down, like San Francisco or Seattle. A kind man offered  me a Coke ( I thought a gift, but turned out to be a sale) as I walked around a busy intersection and I enjoyed the cold of it, but the taste helped me remember why I don’t drink soft drinks. 

The outskirts were poor and kind of rough, but as I got to the center and the tall buildings it became classier. If classier means wealthier, bigger, cleaner, and more expensive. Every few streets there would be a blue painted bike lane, often occupied by parked cars, motorcycles going the opposite way, and occasionally a bicyclist, so had to keep my wits about me.

Eight hours. High heat and sun.  Found my small hotel entrance. A locked gated door with three phone numbers on it to call and announce your arrival. My phone was almost dead from all the city navigation and I was as well. I asked a woman from the hair spa next door if she would call for me on a local phone. She rattled off something to the effect of “ why not ring the bell next to the gate? ” and even rang it for me. Did I say “tired?”

“ Uno momento” from above, and once I was inside,I  offloaded my bike bags and carried the bike up the long steep staircase so  I could relax. Inside, this mini hotel is beautiful, with a terrace out front, a kitchen for anyone’s use and a room big enough to work on my bike, which is a good thing in that my back tire was flat this morning again. 

I did get carried away yesterday replenishing calories with a huge green salad, mushroom and cheese crepes, followed up by an ice cream with whipped cream desert. 

There are upscale restaurants and clubs all around my neighborhood. Lots of alternative choices to what I’ve been eating. International big city stuff. I love the typical food: the soup, chicken, yucca, rice, salad, but alternatives are nice too.

It’s a big city and food prices are double what they are in the country. Hotel, including breakfast, in the center of the upscale neighborhood is still $25 USD. A bargain.

Here’s what I am trying to figure out. With all this riding, how long will it take to see big improvements in my riding capabilities? When I took a day off between rides, it helped my overall energy, but my pedaling power didn’t seem much better.  Maybe once over a certain age the recovery takes longer. I still expect what I had at age thirty for recovery, or maybe I just remember it wrong. I’ve got some big climbs ahead and it would be good to be fit enough to crank my way up them in my lowest gear. 

The proprietress and her daughter are helping me with my Spanish and take the single words I use to describe what I’m trying  and convert to sentences. For instance “ my friends,  blog, no  know Colombia, I want, tell them, friendly people, beautiful country, not dangerous, fear, media and television”. You get the idea. 

They answered with a thank you and happy that I was doing it because it’s necessary to tell the rest of the world about the good things about Colombia. Maybe it’s my tiredness, but seeing their passionate love for their country and it’s recent re-emergence as a different country brings a tear to my eye.

Besides just recovery, I need to visit bike shops to find a tool for fixing the tube stem, another spare tube, and replenish my supply of energy bars or an alternative for the next phase.

Doing some business in a city somehow seems more interesting than just being a tourist. Even if it’s just parts from a bike store in this case. The biking community loves that a gringo is traveling through their country and typically go out of their way to help. After a bit of searching, we found the tubes and the tiny, but very necessary tool.

It reminds me of another search in another place a long time ago:

Back in 1986, Nancy and I sailed from southern Portugal to the island of Madeira. This island group is a bit over 400 miles off the coast of Morocco, so a long way from mainland. In  those days there was only one small marina on the island, just below the capital city of Funchal. We could see it was a tiny harbor packed full of boats as we turned in. Definitely no room for more as boats were rafted off four to five deep  ( that means that one boat is tied to the dock and all others tied to that boat only). There was no place to anchor, so leaving meant another 4-5 day passage to the Canary Islands. Not too excited about that right then.

As I turned around to depart, other boaters, speaking a variety of languages, waved me back in and pointed to the outside of the raft, so I took their advice and tied off. During the course of the day, enough other boats would show up, completing filling the marina all the way across with no passage for anyone to leave. You could literally walk across the harbor from boat to boat to reach the other side. I never saw anything like it and there were lines strung all over boats to try to hold all in place for the afternoon winds. During the night, we could hear other crews walking across our decks above our bunk, coming and going. Each morning at about 0700, the entire fleet would shift and like one of those games where you move pieces around, the inside boats would get let out, lines being untied and retied over and over, with the cacophony of several languages and lots of miming to reestablish the fleet, after about an hour of mayhem. Amazing, and with a week stay there, never saw any damage done!

Got off track here with my memories,  but now we were all free to leave our boats and go exploring the island or, as was my case, find that part that was eluding me. I needed a piece of thick wire to replace a bad one on my alternator. 

I took the old, partially melted one,  and off I went to the hardware store. Just when I started to pick up a few words of Spanish the week earlier, I now was on a Portuguese island. So, zero words available in the language.

Marcel Marceau Kanieski was off to show his skills. I explained ( via mime)  to the clerk in the store that I wanted a wire of similar thickness and length.” No, nothing like that here” he mimed back. As I was showing my disappointment and leaving a man who appeared to be the owner asked why I was leaving without a purchase. Imagine all of this via mime. 

So, I showed  him the wire, he wrinkled his forehead and waved me down a set of stairs to the basement. By the level of dust on things it appeared no one had been down here for many years and we both laughed as we excavated piles of junk, looking for wire. Then, as if he finally understood what I wanted had me follow him another floor deep below. It felt like we were in a cave, cool and dusty and I expected stalagmites . Instead, we found a half spool of wire, matching the size of what I carried. It was attached to something ( the electrical system of the building?), so he motioned to wait while he went upstairs for a tool. All in mime. We were both having a lot of fun and laughing at our real life game of charades. Think of the alternatives like in charades. Does waving your arm forward and back  above your shoulder mean “ past tense” or “ shake spear” (Shakespeare)? 

“Clip” and the wire was cut and the lights were still on. I have to admit, imagining being three floors below street level in the dark and trying to find my way out was concerning.

The owner gave me the wire, I expect in exchange for the entertainment. Sure was a lot more fun than going to see another statue in the park. Or is that just me? Once a hardware guy…

Sending love,


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8 thoughts on “The Andes, flats, hardware store fun”

  1. Gotta love hardware stores! Love your stories!
    Just to let you know, Ecuador is under a state of emergency. I would avoid it. It’s turning out to be a difficult journey, probably a bit more than you expected. Don’t overdo.

    1. Lynna,
      The Ecuador situation is all over the news here. I also have been getting alerts from the US State department warning me to not even go close to the Ecuador border. I’m changing my plans to not go that way.
      I’m doing my best to not overdo.

  2. What a wonderful heartfelt post Charley! Yes – it’s true – our older bods need more recovery time. A good reason for relaxing, writing blogs, and eating great food!

    How I love visiting hardware stores with you over the years, the stories, and your adoration of the many isles, dark recesses and cubbies. And…the relentless helpfulness of the people who inhabit these places 😉.

  3. Love reading about your current as well as past adventures as I didnt really pay attention when you were sailing !

  4. I used to have tires where the cap had the stem tightener/remover built into the cap. Was quite useful.

    Another amazing day. I keep asking myself: okay, remind me of why he’s doing this 🙂 And then I remember how the rewards in life are usually proportionate to the effort and commitment put in.

    Be safe.

  5. Great Stories Charlie! No shame ever in bailing off the road. Glad you’re being cautious. Remember that every cycling day, you will always end up somewhere…

    Cheers to you!

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