A Time in Tumbaco


Tumbaco, Ecuador.

After riding the first section of the Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route from the Colombian border, I’d reached the suburbs of Quito, my first major metropolitan area in many weeks. I’d planned to spend a few days a the Casa Ciclista there, visiting the major city a bit, but mostly hoping to connect with other cyclists heading North or South. As has been my pattern, a few days stretched on a bit…

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 Tumbaco is a somewhat small suburb just 5km East of Ecuador’s capital city of Quito. Not many tourists walking around here. Good cheap food around the square. Big markets with fresh food. Bus access to Quito. Perfect.


 Just 3 blocks from the town square the Casa Ciclista is run by the warm and wise Santiago. Operating this biker refuge out of his own home, Santiago is firm but benevolent ruler of his domain. He’s seen every shape, size and mental state of long-distance bike tourist passing through his space, so he knows how to lay clear ground rules without being harsh or aggressive. For example, “My family uses the kitchen between 7 and 9am, 12-2pm and 6-8pm. You can use it any other time than that.” Of course he ended up inviting me to share meals with his family during those hours but it was a simple way to keep many energies happy in a small space.  Behind his main living area and yard, there is a second yard where most bikers set up tents, and a covered area under a mother-in-law apartment for rain respite. It was in that space, which he called “the bunker”, that I found the time capsule of bikers past. Scriptures and art pieces all over the walls, many made from defunct bike parts, a big give/take bag, a few shelves full of mostly broken camping/cooking supplies. I loved it. You could feel the rich history, 20 years of stories packed into one little room. 


Upon my arrival I was also greeted by Vicki and Neil, two other the only other cyclists at Santi’s house at the time. He was from Ireland (I believe) while she was a Brit. They’d started in Chiapas about 4-5 months back and made it this far. I reveled in the contrast — I’d ridden Chiapas back in August of 2015, nearly 10 months prior. These guys’ bikes were significantly more loaded than mine. I definitely had some, “what the hell have I been DOING with my time” kinds of thoughts. Nonetheless they were a jolly pair and we shared some lovely meals over our few days together at Santi’s house.


 We took one day to ride the bus into Quito (not a super bike-friendly city we were told). I’d not been in a city bus since… well… hm… I really can’t remember! I’ve only ever ridden my bike or driven in most cities, even in the United States. It was a big contrast to bike commuting: slowing packing with people at every stop, which was every couple of blocks. I marveled at how much faster I could be cycling the route, but enjoyed the contrast of experience. By the time we got off in the historic center, we had to pry our way through the packed space to get out before the doors shut us in.


One of the various plazas in the historic center. Huge churches everywhere. It was here that I had arranged to meet some random guy I’d found on a Craigslist-esque website for Latin America to buy a used camera. Mine had reached defunct status in recent weeks and finding a good camera down here can be tough. New electronics in Ecuador can cost up to 3 times the US prices due to import taxes, if you can even find them. So an almost-new camera at 1/3 the original price seemed too good to be true. Luckily it checked out and I was back in photo business within 2 days of reaching Quito. Sweet!


 Basilica del Sagrado Voto Nacional. Translation: one big-ass mother church.


 One stately man makes his confession through the gaudy gothic gate. One homeless woman finds seated solace by his side.


Back at Santi’s house, Vicki and Neil pushed on Southward after a couple of days, leaving me alone with Santi and his lovely family. I’d started to feel a tingle in my throat the previous day which was quickly committing itself to a full-on cold. Goddamnit!!! This is the second cold in only a few months. I’d been plagued by a pesky cough few a few weeks straight in Northern Colombia, and now it hit me again. I’d not been sick for a year before that, so frustrating to get hit again so soon. Alas. I was in the ideal place if I was going to be sick: free lodging with my own space and access to healthy food and good medicine. I guess I’ll be here a few more days…

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I used the time to soak up cuddles with Santi’s fantastic and sweet pup, catch up on some blog posts (I was a good 7 weeks behind at this point), and do some bike repairs.

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By grace, Santi is a highly skilled bike mechanic. I didn’t actually need to utilize his skills a great deal, but was deeply grateful to be given access to his used parts bin. I shared my concern about my rear gear, a very specialized part built to my German Rohloff hub, which was wearing out a bit fast and I had no replacement. He had a vague memory that some other biker may have left behind that very item having ended his trip here in Quito. Digging through his various bins of gears, shifters and derailleurs for a while, it was like the pot of gold at the rainbow’s end… The EXACT right gear, down to the correct tooth count, and in near perfect condition! For those non-Rohloff users, this is the equivalent of finding Beluga caviar at a Pizza Hut. He also happened to have a used disc rotor to replace mine which had worn so thin it had cracked in a couple spots. Amazing!

It had been week since I’d arrived at Santi’s house and I was feeling the need to push on despite being in the full throws of illness. Complicating the decision was a message from my high school friend Peter, he’d be flying in 3 days later to speak at a local TEDx event in Quito. It would mean hanging around an extra 4 days after having already stayed “too long”.

It’s a very complicated beast, the decision to stay or go when on a long-distance journey such as this. If I stay for every cool opportunity I’ll never progress. If I keep pushing past the possibilities I miss the juicy bits of life that are what this is all about. The hardest thing is to say no, as FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) screams loudly over the inner orchestra. Reluctantly, I elected to push through this anxiety…


Jotting a quick note with a poor pic of my bike on his wall of cycling fame, I graciously thanked Santi and rolled out of his house towards the next section of the Trans-Ecuador Mountain Bike Route.  Passing through Tumbaco’s central plaza I procrastinated my way into a quick cup of coffee, still not feeling 100% about my decision to leave. Checking my messages for a moment, the hesitation was ratified:

My sister and brother-n-law, who’d been chosen to adopt a child from an expecting birth mother back in the states, were frantically packing to hop on a plane to be there for the impending birth! Well… No way in hell I could disappear knowing that such an important moment was imminent. I turned around, rode up to Santi’s house and knocked on the door….

“Hi, I’m Santiago,” he coyly stated with tongue firmly planted in cheek, “would you like to come and stay a while?”

Not a moment’s blink or hesitation, he’s seen this before. He welcomed me back into his home for another stretch. There’s an elusive power in “turning back” towards a place that’s already been passed. On the one hand it brings of a fear that I’ll never get back on the road, drawing attention to the amount of time I’ve spent OFF the bike this last year. Countering that criticism is the excitement of saying YES to an opening in the moment, ignoring the constrictive “shoulds” of life. I guess I’d be attending that TED talk as well…

I set my bike down and waited anxiously by my computer as little bits of news arrived text by text. They had reached at the hospital but no baby yet. Then pushing. Then silence… then MORE SILENCE… then….

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Welcome to the world, Jonah Mateo Kaplan!!!!! I’m an Uncle!!

But wait… What does this mean?? Should I fly up there right now? If not now, when? I was consumed all the sudden with conflicting feelings, torn between my excitement for my Sister receiving the one thing for which she’d been most praying for so long, and my need to continue down my own path. Truly, deeply, I wasn’t in a good place to jump on a plane. It had only been 3 months since I was back in the states to help with my Father’s failing health, and I was just back in the swing of things. Am I a horrible person for not parting the oceans to accompany my Sister? Sigh. I decided to just sit with it for a while… No rash decisions, but certainly not easy.


With family immediately expanding back in the US, I bussed to downtown Quito to see Peter speak. For those who are not familiar, TED (Technology/Entertainment/Design) is an organization that hosts conferences around the world featuring innovative people across many disciplines. You can download the talks as podcasts (there are thousands of them now) and learn, through short presentations about all sorts of amazing things. I listen to TED talks quite regularly and am a huge fan of the organization but was excited to discover an event first hand. Peter, who’d started an NGO a while back to help with Haiti’s disaster recovery, would be speaking about emergency preparedness.

A theatre full of really excited people gathered to discuss Quito’s future on multiple levels. While the specific jargon of many talks made translation quite difficult for me, it was still an exciting and interesting day of lectures and discussion. I even got to tag along with Peter to the after party for those who spoke, allowing us to catch up for a bit. What a gift. So glad it worked out for me to stay.


Finallly, it was time to go. For real this time. My sister, brother-in-law and new nephew were safely back in the Bay Area getting settled. A conscious conversation with Sherry clarified that I would continue riding for now, no rush to fly back to see them… at least not just yet. My cold was… not as bad. And it had been 10 days in Tumbaco. Time to GO! I felt much clearer about this second exit from the greater Quito area. Loose ends tied, letters dotted and crossed. A big, final hug to Santiago and his fantastic family and I was off to continue the TEMBR Southward!

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