Cycling through a Storm: Orlando Airport to Poinciana

It was about 140 miles from Orlando to Tampa.  I was lucky to find a CouchSurfing host that wasn’t too far off my route, about 40 miles from the airport.  I was arriving into Orlando at 2pm, and it took me a couple hours to get all situated and get my bike re-assembled.  I left at 4pm, and I had to bike 40 miles to my host, Bekah.  There was a really dark cloud looming.

Biking on the ramps to exit the airport was bizarre.

My cell phone had been robbed months before in Guatemala, and I never got it replaced because it wasn’t necessary.  But now that I was back in the US, I stopped at the AT&T store to get a new phone, as I was probably eligible for a free one.  But the AT&T rep told me I wasn’t.  She gave me a SIM card though! 🙂

There was a Subway in the same plaza.  Mmmm meatball marinara.  It had been a while.  I took it to eat it at the tables outside.  There were some homeless people hanging out there.  The lady was friendly, and worked up to asking me for a sandwich.  I was feeling great, really pumped by this returning-home adventure, so I handed her my credit card and told her she could get whatever she wanted.  She came out with a sandwich and an extra large drink.  Dumbass buying a huge drink when you can just get refills.  It’s not like she was rushing off anywhere.  I figured that’s why she’s homeless.  Bad decisions like these.

The rain started pouring when I was at Subway.  I figured it would just be about an hour, as Florida storms usually quick. But the rain kept coming.  It was getting close to 7pm, and the light was fading.  I asked the guy at Subway if I could use the phone, and I called Bekah.  I told her that I was waiting for the storm to cool off and she said that she could just come and get me.  I would have felt bad for her to have to drive ~25 miles each way to pick me up, so I refused politely.  Plus it’s an ego thing.

Since it was getting late and the rain wasn’t dying down, I figured I had to just do it, and get out there.  I took off my shirt, said goodbye to my homeless friends, and plunged into the abyss.  Do or Die Baby!!

Right away it was bad.  So much water on the road.  Passing cars were chucking it up at me.  And I was wearing my glasses!  I could barely see through all the water beads on the lenses and in the fading light.  I was a little jittery too, especially when semi-trucks passed spraying mist at me.  I imagined myself slipping on my bike, getting crushed and killed under a truck, and my mom finding out that I was only a couple hour’s drive away.  “Just don’t fall.  Don’t fall.”

It got worse as I turned off from a lighted strip of road with plazas onto a country road in pitch black.  The only light was from the headlights of passing cars.

I was looking for my turnoff.  There weren’t many cross-streets, but when I checked my cyclo-computer again, I figured that I had gone ~3 miles past the turn, but maybe not.  I wasn’t sure.  I wanted to ask someone.  But there was nothing on that road.  I stopped at a gated community that was under development.  There was no one around; no one was living in the houses yet.  I think I yelled at that point.  Then I stood by the road and tried to wave down a car to ask directions.  No one stopped.  Remember though, I was a shirtless cyclist out in the middle of nowhere in the dark.

So I decided to backtrack.  A couple of miles back, I saw a residential area, so I turned in there.  I pulled up to a house that had a light on, put on my shirt, and knocked on the door.  I tried to come across as harmless as possible because I knew this was weird.  A middle-aged guy answered the door, and I told him the situation and asked directions.  He invited me inside to use his phone so I could call my host.  This guy was really trusting.  Once I got the directions down, I headed out.

I think I arrived at my host’s house at around 10pm.  Bekah was outside waiting for me and said she was worried I wouldn’t show up — that I got killed on the way.  Bekah and I had a pasta dinner, talked for a while, and then went to bed.  Pretty standard, but really perfect; I was exhausted.

Bogota: Jessica’s Visit

I think it was when I was in Costa Rica that Jessica started talking to me about visiting me in Bogota. It was hard to estimate how much time I would need to get there, so that she could buy a flight with enough time in advance. And Jessica struggled with the safety issue. Her parents freaked out — since Colombia’s had a bad history, they assumed it was still a war zone. After lots of consideration, Jessica decided to just do it. We set the date, and she bought the ticket. I was pumped.

I had busted my ass riding through Colombia to get to Bogota in time to meet her when she arrived. I did lots of over-80-mile days, and a few 100-mile ones. I didn’t want the possibility of not being there when she arrived.

Before I took the bus out to meet her at the airport, I bought a mango as a welcoming gift. Mangoes were kind of a symbol for me — an exotic, sweet treat that was a rarity in my old life, but I’d been able to find on the side of the road on this trip.

I waited at arrivals with a lot of anticipation. When I saw Jessica, it was unreal! An old friend in a foreign country — now an International friend. It was a great moment for both of us.

We took a taxi back to the hostel, and Jessica wanted to take a quick look around before going to bed. We stepped into a small convenience store that had tables and chairs set up, and ordered a couple of beers. An old man came up and greeted us. He laid out an essay he’d written, and then returned to his table. He was a professor, and his paper was written in Spanish. I took a quick look and couldn’t read it but when he returned, I congratulated him on it. The professor’s mind was weird — he was all over the place. The store keeper yelled at him to not bother us anymore — the professor took his essay and recoiled into his lonely corner.

It was great to have Jessica around so that I could take some time off my bike tour. It was like a vacation from this year-long journey of not working. We toured the city seeing lots of sites and having treats along the way.

We did have some conflict though. When we were looking for a place to eat for dinner, we were in a ritzy part of town. The prices were around $10 per meal — cheap by American standards, but I’d gotten used to Colombian prices. I resisted those places and assured her we could find somewhere better. But we didn’t, and she got frustrated. Jessica said she wanted to enjoy herself and just spend some money on a nice place — “It’s my vacation!” I felt bad, and cheap, but I realized later … “Hey, it’s my bike tour!” I was on a budget and got used to a certain style of living. I probably shouldn’t have been difficult, and the prices weren’t really that bad, but it had been a while since I’d had to compromise.

We reconnected over jugoes naturales, “spreadables” (wafer sandwich of arequipe (caramel), blackberry, and more!), and native hot chocolate. And Jessica and I got out of the city one day. We took a day trip to a village outside of Bogota where there were hot springs. On the bus, a Colombian took an interest in us, and spoke really good English — he turned out to be an English teacher. We hung out with him, and when we arrived in his village, he treated us to a classically Colombian lunch; I just remember a lot of meat — I usually finish meals but it was too much, and kind of gross. Our Colombian friend brought us to his house, which was right across from the hot springs. We had a tour of his house, and he told us that if we wanted, we could stay the night. Readers may think it sounds creepy, but he was genuine and kind. There is nothing sweeter than a stranger’s kindness.

Jessica and I left our friend to go to the hot springs, but it turned out to be disappointing — a developed facility that catered mostly to old people. And it was expensive. We opted out. We had gotten an authentic experience instead.

Being together for over a week took it’s toll though. Our relationship definitely had highs and lows. I want to remember a few of the lows.

As we were walking through an underground bus transfer station, Jessica was taking some photos. A security guard gave her a stern look and a wag of the finger. I thought it was stupid and I wanted to support Jessica’s side on it, so I scoffed at it as we walked on. Jessica cut me off immediately — “Don’t make that face! You’re so skeptical of everything, Eoin!”

Jessica did a great job of documenting the trip. She had her camera out a lot of the time. On the few occasions I was in a shot of a street scene, I gave a corny peace sign. Just having fun. Being lame. Kind of a call-back to times with Ryan. This will come up later.

One night when we were looking for a place to eat, Jessica spotted a place that served soup. I don’t really like soup because it doesn’t offer a lot of food bulk — I like low price, high volume. I didn’t really want to eat there, but I was indecisive. Jessica called me out and said “Lighten up! Let’s just eat here.” I was offended because it seemed like a rude comment, so I told her, and that led to a heated session of letting out our frustrations. One complaint she had was that I was being disrespectful of her photos by always doing that stupid peace sign. I hadn’t realized it, but it was definitely annoying. Jessica and I let it all out and then we made up. Reaffirmation. Although it was a negative time, I felt a lot closer to her afterward than I had before. Bonding through conflict.

Although Jessica didn’t want to CouchSurf, we met up with Julian and his friends a few times. We also attended a couple of CouchSurfing meet-ups. One was for practicing English speaking. We could do that! By the end of it, Jessica had a crowd of Colombian guys gathered around her, enthralled. It was bizarre, and there were a couple of creeps in the mix. The other CouchSurfing meet-up was to attend this seemingly traditional Bull Fighting event. It was strange though. The shape of a bull was traced with gasoline and set on fire. Then after it had burned out, a guy came out with a broom and swept the sand along that tracing. All he did was sweep in that same loop. Countless times and there was no sign of him stopping after about 30 minutes. People started leaving, so we did the same. Performance art gone wrong — does it ever go right?

Cycling in Bogota

I found out that biking in Bogota is really dangerous. It’s mostly because of the buses. These bus collectivos seem to be privately owned — like some guy can buy an old bus, stick a sign on the front window with the destination, and start driving it. They don’t have official bus stops. Instead, if someone on the side of the road puts up his hand, the bus will swing over and stop to let him on — like how you’d hail a taxi. So, these buses were swinging all over the place as I was trying to bike. I had to heighten my awareness to stay operational. The roads were full of taxis too, and they’d be weaving to get around the buses that’d be swinging across the lanes to get to the sidewalk to pick up passengers.

Early on, I made some bold moves squeezing through narrow gaps between temporarily-stopped buses on my wide, fully-loaded bike. I would be holding my breath, a sign of me knowing I was being a dumbass. Then, at one point, I was out in one of the middle lanes making a move past a bus that was on my right, when the bus started pulling out to shift into my lane. I was pinned between a taxi that was tight on my left and the bus that was moving forward into the taxi’s lane. I made an emergency stop as the shock ran through my body. And the bus saw me and stopped moving. I waddled through the gap the bus left me, embarrassed about causing this scene in a place where I don’t understand the traffic culture. “Stupid … Not worth it, not worth it,” I kept repeating in my head. From then on, I dropped my bravado and got patient, staying all the way to the right, and waiting behind the buses that cut me off.

There are a lot of bike lanes on the sidewalks in Bogota, but pedestrians were always drifting in there making it a really slow, annoying stop-and-start for me, so I used the streets for cycling. Also, on Sundays, the city would close off a lot of the main roads for the Cyclovia, a weekly event where people would come out to cycle, rollerblade, run, or walk. It’s a great idea, but that’s only on Sunday — the rest of the week, you have to deal with the horrible traffic.

Bike Tour Laundry System

My laundry system on the bike tour was excellent.  Every evening after riding, I’d hand wash my bike shorts and polyester performance-style shirt and they’d be pretty dry by the morning.  Then, in the morning, I’d wash the underwear I slept in and strap that down to the back of my bike along with anything that was still wet.  I had a cargo net that was perfect to hold the clothes down on top of my tent bag.  The clothes would dry in the sun and the breeze and they’d be ready to wear at the end of the ride.

This was superior to the laundry system I had while I was backpacking in Eastern Europe.  All I could do was hang wet clothes off the back of my backpack.  But then I’d have to throw the backpack under a bus, or on the floor somewhere, and the wet clothes would pick up dirt, and wouldn’t be exposed to the sun as much.

Ubate to Bogota (Colombia)

Getting into Bogota took forever. It stretches out so far that I was in the “outskirts” for a few hours. There were a few sections where I was on an interstate-like highway, but once I got in closer, there were bike lanes, and then a dedicated bike lane on the sidewalk. It turned out that the sidewalk bike lanes sucked since people were always walking in them, so I went back onto the road. But it was stressful on the road since it was jam packed with cars, and the cars switched lanes frequently. My awareness had to be at its peak.

Chiquinquira to Ubate (Colombia)

At this point, I was really close to Bogota, and I had time to spare before Jessica’s arrival.

It was probably my favorite ride in Colombia. The countryside was inspiring, and I could take my time.

There were a bunch of roadside stops advertising fresa y crema — strawberries and cream. I stopped for a treat a few times. Apparently, I was in the dairy capital of the country.

I stopped in Ubate for lunch and found an excellent comedor. The soup and food were fine, but what really sent it over the edge was the drink. The lady poured me fresh mango juice. Thick mango nectar! I tried to pace myself with the drink, so that I’d have some by the end of my meal, but I had bad self-control. When the lady saw I was low on my mango, she refilled my glass, and left the jug on my table. I was in heaven. Unlimited refills of pure mango juice! I finished the jug.

It was still early when I left the comedor. I planned to make it a little further towards Bogota before I stopped for the day. As I walked my bike out to the road, some guys in the neighboring bar flagged me down and waved beer bottles at me. They urged me to sit with them, and they bought me beer. They spoke really fast, and their accent was difficult to understand, but I made out a few things. What they were most concerned about was what I thought about Chavez and Venezuela. Easy question to answer: Chavez esta loco hombres.

After three beers, I told them I didn’t want any more, as I was trying to be polite. One of them said something about a person who drinks beers but doesn’t pay for it. I didn’t really understand, but I felt that they might have been talking about me. When I left, I gave my muchas gracias’s and left some money on the table. However, they didn’t want it and insisted I take it back.

I decided to stay in Ubate for the night. Bogota was just a day away. I found a hotel with a TV for $5. When I turned on the TV as I was spread out on the bed in my cycling gear, Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade came on. I watched the whole thing and didn’t move. After washing up and hanging my shorts out to dry, The First Knight started. I lay there, zoned out. What a treat!