Monday, August 13, 2012

UPDATED: Cycling in the Andes Round 1

You may, or may not, be aware of this, but I am kind of into bikes. There's practically no better way to get around Washington, D.C., my adopted home city. They're way cheaper than a car, and yes, you manage to get a little exercise during your commute, so you feel a bit less bad about that sausage McMuffin you're chowing down on en route to work. That is, until the sausage grease gets on your hands, you can't brake properly, and you nearly collide with a MetroBus (whose driver might actually have been trying to hit you the whole time, it's hard to tell.)  I swore at the outset of this blog that I would never turn it into a cycling blog, mostly because I could never compete with the likes of TheWashCycleTales from the Sharrows, or even a near-unknown underdog like Bike Snob. What I did not swear, however, is not to do any posts about biking. And while I haven't been in the saddle NEARLY often enough over the past 2 or 3 months, I have found a few opportunities to get out and ride. So aren't you lucky, you get to hear about them! 

To begin, let me fill you in on my developing hypothesis that Ecuador is basically a lot like the United States in the mid-to-late 1990s, or maybe just a weird bizarro-verse US. That's not meant to be an unfavorable comparison by any means, quite the contrary, I think I would have liked to have been in my 20s and not an emo little preteen in that time period, it seems like a pretty good one. But anyway, internet is popular here but not quite as advanced. There hasn't been a terrorist attack recently that's forever altered the national consciousness. A lot of people seem to be of the mind that things in general are going to improve in the future. And perhaps most importantly, EVERYONE is into mountain bikes.

Also pretty much everyone is shorter than me, and their bicycles reflect such.

Ill fit aside, Sunday Ciclopaseo, where the city and a cycling org called Ciclopolis close down Avenida Rio Amazonas from the old city to well north of the airport, is a ton of fun. At the southern terminus, you can see girl rap groups:
Git it girl.

An entire city out enjoying the impeccable Quito summer (and just OWNING one of the most important streets in that part of town):

And some truly excellent dog-walking solutions.

This might have been the first dog I've seen not wearing a doggie sweater.

I should mention that part of the gorgeous weather here is a UV index that's up around 11 on the reg (a real bad day in DC is like 9, maybe,)  and the last time I ended the day with a highly delineated farmer's tan and the same burnt cheekbones I've gotten ever since I was a little boy. Yes, Dad, I was wearing sunscreen. 

Seriously, though, I cannot even conceive of this sort of thing happening in Washington, and this is one of the ways that Ecuador (as well as many other places) just seems so much more advanced than my own country, which I love very sincerely but sometimes in the same way that you love that one relative who always manages to embarrass you at family get-togethers. Nevermind the fact that the mean streets of our nation's capital include several thoroughfares that clear right the heck out on weekends, when US cyclists try and take over a street the result is often something like this (though, credit where credit is due, DC drivers were remarkably patient with us when BikeSnob came to visit. People are so much happier/more patient in the spring.) But that bike lane in the 3rd picture is both color-coded AND marked with a rumble strip, something I think we're still arguing over, at least on the East Coast. Also, a coworker informed me that Quito has just introduced a bike-sharing program. Here's hoping the scofflaw cyclist/dangerous drivers debate doesn't become as salient and mod as it did with Capital Bikeshare's inception. 

So yeah, when I get back, I'll be happy to mount up on Winona the Kona and Consuelo de Ruta again. Oh, and to see all my friends. You guys are important too, don't you ever forget it. But I think I'll miss experiencing the growing sense that cyclists belong on the streets of Quito, and the seeming lack of animosity between the users of different means of transport. 

Of course, the death-defying messengers here ride motorcycles instead of bikes, so maybe that's our problem. So how about it, any of you guys wanna consider dropping that fixie with the chopped handlebars for a 750 cc crotch rocket? Just a thought.

Up next: did I ride a bike down an active volcano? You bet I did. 


UPDATE: Oh, and I almost forgot to mention, on October 20th I'll be riding a metric century (62 miles) in the DC branch of the Best Buddies Challenge! Best Buddies International works to make a positive contribution in the lives of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. If you enjoy helping people, my blog, or cycling even a little bit, I hope you'll consider making a donation at my page. Thanks for your support!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Less than two weeks left in Ecuador, second post about Ecuador. I'm a machine.

Look, I'm sorry I haven't updated in a while, OK? It took me forever to get this post for school together and I woulda felt crummy updating my personal blog while leaving the SIS one to wither on the vine (except for all the other people posting in it. But then I realized "hey, remember that time you could just copy one onto the other? again?" Yup, that's what we're doing. So enjoy tonight's extra-long post about Ecuadorian vs US politics and me meeting a really down-to-Earth rich guy. 

A few weeks on from the exciting conclusion of Quito Summer 2012, we participants doubtless find ourselves reflecting on our experiences. "Is that because you just had to turn in a reflection assignment for a significant portion of the course grade," you ask? Hogwash, I don't believe it and neither should you. Up to now you've read first impressions of the Ecuadorian system, informative analyses of geography and policy, thoughtful praise, and incisive criticism. Look, I'm not going to sit here and tell you that Ecuador and the Andes don't have some VAST challenges to surmount, as well as some seriously questionable politicking from President Correa on down.  

For example, my own research and experience (or a cursory glance at any major media outlet) paints a vivid yet all-too familiar picture: a president who rode into the Palacio del Gobierno on a swell of support from the poor and historically marginalized groups who were to receive, at long last, a seat at the negotiating table. Once in office, however, Mr. Correa surged ahead with his own agenda and about sidelining dissenting voices, attempting legal action against opposition media outlets and branding indigenous organizers as obstructionists who wished, above all, to frustrate Ecuador's entry into the 21st century. Almost overnight, those whose struggles Candidate Correa venerated had become political enemies whom President Correa vilified. What social and political strides indigenous organizations like CONAIE have made ring somewhat hollow when we consider the economic dimension: "Indigenous" and "Poor" are two demographic indicators with a strong correlation.  The country has problems, I don't mind telling you. But I'm going to tell a little story- one that, for me, put everything we had learned and seen into excellent perspective and provided an excellent bookend for the program. If you'd be so kind as to accompany me, or, as they say on the Presidential Palace tour "Sigan, por favor, tengan la bondad..."

...the afternoon had gone as many others before it-- fantastic lunch, museum tours, impromptu games of chicken against taxis in the Centro Historico with which Profe was none too impressed. We entered the magnificent Casa Gangotena boutique hotel just off the Plaza de San Francisco in the historic district and sat down for fresh jugo while we waited to meet our gracious host: Casa Gangotena's owner, one-time Quito mayor, and ecotourism magnate Roque Sevilla. Over juice, coffee, and hors d'oeuvres, Mr. Sevilla regaled us with tales of how his various ventures came into existence and what direction the ecotourism industry may take (turns out it is possible to run an eco-lodge where you never have to touch an insect.) He continued with a self-effacing account of the eruption of the Pichincha volcano just west of Quito during his tenure as mayor, and gave us the inside track on automobile admissions standards in Ecuador. 

Late in the conversation, over the course of giving answers to several of our questions, Roque turned to comparisons between this country and the United States. More specifically, he contrasted the sometimes bullheaded manner of the Correa administration with something a little bit more familiar to us: United States Politics. He couldn't understand, for the life of him, why a country whose people had been behind so many of the innovations that have made the last two centuries what they were suddenly seemed lost in a morass of stubbornness, can't-do spirit, and social movements that, once in motion, seemed to go nowhere. We brainstormed over the myriad reasons why Occupy Wall Street (or DC, or Oakland, or pick a city) had failed, or at least stalled. We contrasted the failure of the electric car due to political, industry and consumer inertia with Ecuador's ambitious plan for rising fuel efficiency standards. And we lamented the reluctance of many of our leaders to risk re-election by actually making the progress they avowedly believed in. And just then, something clicked in my head. For all of its many problems, the current mindset in Ecuador still seems to be that hey, we can get. stuff. done. Diversity actually seems like something that people (avowedly) appreciate, and really believe will result in better decisions, even though it might take far longer. Rural communities don't have to simply put up with the harmful effects of large-scale mining operations just because the mining companies and the governments (sometimes) supporting them are powerful. They can mobilize, be heard, and get results. No, not everything will get done, and many things will seem much better on paper than they will actually turn out. But the belief,  the will, is there, and sometimes I think that the U.S. has lost sight of that will. Granted, any compare/contrast between two so vastly dissimilar countries is going to be hugely inadequate, and neither do I have an ear to the ground in the Palacio to really, really know what's going on. Still, ensconced as it is in the omnipresent Buen Vivir, the politics and zeitgeist of Ecuador provides a few points on life in the 21st century which could, I think, serve as examples for many other, more "advanced" places in the world.

Or maybe I'm just jazzed from all that maté de coca.