It’s a good time to be a gringo. The sun shines down bright and beautiful on the Ecuadorian verdure, and while the past 10K have been relentlessly vertical, the air at 3,000 feet is crisp. The mountains around us are covered in a patchwork of a dozen different crops, each clinging tenaciously to its steep slope.
I ride around the corner to find Sam and Sven, my cycling companions, waiting by the side of the road, bikes propped against the hillside to the right and jerseys drying on the barbed-wire fence across the road. I’m off my bike and topless in seconds, though there’s neither time nor sunlight enough to dry what has become, essentially, a garment of sweat held together by a collection of loose threads.
Snacks are eaten, shit is shot, and we enjoy a small measure of relaxation before the car appears.
It’s a small Ecuadorian-made sedan, and it rolls down the slope at a brisk pace. In front of us it jerks sharply to the right, brakes, and comes to rest against the curb across from us, nosed gently against the barbed wire and our fetid jerseys. I notice the overgrown remains of a road on the other side of the fence, really just two faded tire tracks that run downhill quickly for twenty feet before ducking behind a large boulder.
A small Ecuadorian man in a fedora emerges and promptly begins to uncoil a length of wire that wraps around two adjoining fence poles. Ah, I think, another low-tech gate masquerading as a fence. I don’t associate this with anything suspect, but rather the economic conditions of the continent.
Mr. Fedora successfully unwraps the first fencepost, and I realize that my jersey has a scant few seconds before the fence topples and irreparably ensnares it. We hurry across the road and grab our sopping shirts just in time, and as the fence falls Mr. Fedora turns to us with a worried expression and shouts “help me!” as he begins to push the car.
I can see it’s a bad situation. The sedan is in the downward lane of a hill with a steep grade, and while there hasn’t been much traffic, it’s a precarious position if another car comes along. Plus, it looks like the car had been dead the entire time, possibly broken. It seems like the ideal situation to express the friendly, helpful nature of the American gringo.
We each put our weight against the car — the three cyclists in back and Mr. Fedora standing at the open driver’s side door holding the steering wheel — and, with a mighty heave, the sedan clears the curb and rolls directly onto the fallen barbed wire fence.
The front tires blow out immediately, but Mr. Fedora continues with a businesslike focus, hopping over a fencepost to keep up with the car. His hands jerk on the wheel, and the sedan almost flies off the cliff to the right. He saves it in time, though he continues to run alongside the car rather than jumping in. The pair quickly rounds the large boulder and disappears.
Mr. Fedora’s levelheadedness throughout forces me to evaluate what just happened: Why wasn’t the car running? Why was the road to Mr. Fedora’s farm so overgrown? And why would Mr. Fedora drive alone if he needed help getting his car there?
These musing are cut short by the sound of a car flying off a cliff and exploding.
Sam, Sven, and I immediately reach the same conclusion: we need to be somewhere else. Anywhere else. We scurry toward our bikes and start to put on our damp tops when a chubby, middle-age woman putts down the hill on a moped and stops at the fallen fence.
She looks at us, then at the fence, and then finally turns towards us again with a concerned look and asks, “Where’s the boy?” We mutely raise our fingers and point through the gap in the fence. She eyes the fallen posts again and mutters, in a tone clearly meant to be overheard, “This is a problem.” She remounts on the moped and disappears up the hill.
The air of mystery isn’t just palpable at this point — I am actively palpating it. My brain turns it over, knitting its frontal lobe in consternation, and palpates the hell put of it. No, this is not a mystery we want to solve. in fact, this is a mystery we would rather know nothing about. It is a mystery in another language, beguilingly written, with one too many hats.
I almost trip in my rush to get to the bicycle, but I am on it, trying to snap my shoes into my pedals, when Mr. Fedora emerges from behind his boulder.
Mr. Fedora has lost his fedora. In another situation I might have taken minutes to think of a new nickname, but here he instantly becomes Mr. Drove-His-Car-Off-A-Cliff-And-Has Blood-Running-Down-His-Face. He stumbles across the grass with all the grace his mild concussion allows before pausing at the tangle of barbed wire and wood separating him from the road.
A more altruistic man might have immediately dismounted to help him across this obstacle over the fence, but mired in a miasma of confusion and fear, I pause, giving Mr. Blood time to make eye contact. He locks his eyes to mine with eerie concentration raises a finger to his bleeding face, purses his lips, and makes the “Sshhhhhh” motion.
Sam, Sven, and I say nothing. In five seconds, we are pedaling away at record speed. This is how races should start, I think. This is how lives end. I glance backwards just in time to see Mr. Blood pick his way haphazardly across the fence to spin woozily in the center of the road. The lack of control makes him even scarier. Seconds later we’re around the corner. I can seen Sam and Sven instantly relax, and somehow I share their optimism: We’re safe.
We’re not safe. Less than a kilometer up the road we encounter Lady Moped descending again. We flash her a trio of big, friendly gringo smiles. With a face of cold Ecuadorian stone, she raises her finger in the same terrifying gesture.
We ride faster. There aren’t cars on the road, but if there were we would be passing them. We make the wind look slow. We cover 3 kilometers in roughly 14 seconds. I’ve almost returned from whatever dark corner my sanity was hiding in when we round the corner.
Two police trucks, two troop transports, and thirty Ecuadorian soldiers with machine guns are performing a drug bust on a house 20 feet from the road.
By some bizarre stroke of luck or survival instinct, my reaction is to continue biking at a steady speed with a blank expression on my face. An outside observer, even one with a machine gun, would not see a man slowly realizing he had participated in the disposal of a car full of drugs, guns, bodies, or some nefarious combination of the three. No, just another gringo in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s the blessed disinterest of the soldiers that lets my attention drift slowly to the other side of the road, where an eerie gaze burns directly towards me.
It’s Mr. Blood. How he had found his way up the hill in his misbegotten state is beyond me, but he locks his eyes to mine and sends a simple message: you live by my grace.
We don’t stop to speak to the military. We don’t stop to drink, eat, or pee. We are all but sure that every passing car is full of cartel hit men, and as the day stretches on we are increasingly befuddled by their failure to murder us.
By mid-afternoon we tell ourselves we’re safe, and turn off the central high mountain road on to a more obscure path headed towards the other side of the country. “It’s more scenic,” one of us says.
Yes, the others nod.