Bike rides with Paul Smith – and other dangerous pursuits
Driving on shabby, rocky roads with huge potholes, ruts and unexpected mounds is never easy — even in a car. Doing the same on a bicycle, even one with an electric motor to partially assist the effort, is still more precarious. Such is life in the Monte Verde District.
I rode my bike on these roads alongside Paul Smith, the well-known artist, Quaker and environmentalist. Paul, now in his mid-eighties, is a never-ending source of inspiration and ideas. You do not say no to Paul. Paul, however, does say no and, although he professed nausea from a stomach ailment the night before, he declined a water bottle and a snack as unnecessary baggage.
Paul wore an oversized wool sweater that caught the wind and billowed out to the sides. He smacked his lips at intervals with an unhappy look on his face, likely from the nausea.
The rough roads made conversation difficult, as did his tendency to accelerate ahead before falling so far behind that I could not see him.
He said he wanted to stop in and say hello to people along the way. A few minutes later we dropped our bikes to the ground and approached a house set up the side of a small hill.
Paul, still wearing his bicycle helmet, banged on the gate that protected the front door and cried out greetings. When that didn’t produce any results he moved to the side of the house, banging on the windows and pressing his face as close as the visored helmet would allow.
I watched all of this uneasily from a spot further down the driveway. It looked like nobody was home, but if there were people inside it was unclear how they would feel about seeing a face pressed against their window.
Paul eventually gave up and we continued on. Several bumpy, hilly miles later I grew concerned about Paul’s condition. He was pale and continued to complain about his stomach. When I delicately asked how he was feeling, he ignored me and instead drove further up the hill into the teeth of what turned out to be a significant rainstorm.
The rain kept coming and the temperature quickly dropped. Much of our path was now downhill, which is even more treacherous and slippery in the rain: the water hides holes and forms mini-rivers down the sloped roads.
Paul repeated his theme of speeding past me, then falling behind, but I noticed that I now had to stop and wait several minutes for him to catch up. We were both soaked, cold and miserable. I spied a local bakery coming up on our left and had an idea.
I stopped my bicycle and partially blocked the road directly in front of the bakery. When Paul caught back up to me I waved excitedly at the bakery and gestured to him to pull over. He rode right past me.
“Stop!” I cried out. Fortunately, he eventually did. When he rode back, scowling, I explained that I needed something to drink — and maybe a snack. Paul shook his helmeted head no, sending water flying.
He finally agreed to wait on the porch while I went inside to order. I tried sticking my head out to see if I could order him something. No, I could not.
I stashed a ginger ale and a roll in my soaked backpack and went outside to find Paul stumbling on the porch. He finally agreed to come inside the bakery for a minute to regroup.
He sat heavily on one of the chairs and the nice woman behind the counter asked us, in Spanish, if Paul wanted anything. Paul is very well known by most people in the area but it did not appear that she was personally familiar with the large, dripping man in her chair clutching his equally wet green sweater.
Paul replied that he wanted only water.
“A bottle of water?” she asked innocently.
“No! A cup! Just a plain cup!”
I smiled reassuringly. Her eyes widened, but she could tell that Paul was not feeling well.
As he looked past me, sipping his water, I realized my latest mistake. The cooler full of water bottles, where the señora had initially headed, was directly behind me — and Paul had a clear view. To say Paul is an environmentalist is to say that the sun is hot: true, but a long way from the depth and breadth of the situation.
For my benefit, Paul switched to English to launch into his angry analysis of water bottles and the waste and harm they cause the environment. The good news was that his anger seemed to heal a lot of what ailed him. The bad news was that the poor señora did not understand why Paul was so angry at her drink cooler.
I agreed with everything Paul stated, which was easy, as I do. Then I politely floated the idea of getting a taxi. A number of taxi drivers in town use pick-ups. It would be my treat. It was not for him. It was for me. I pointed to the rain outside which had only gotten worse.
In return I received another head-shaking. With many thanks to the señora, we were soon slipping and sliding all over the horrific roads on our journey back. We shared these roads with tour buses, trucks laden with cattle and a host of other drivers trying not to fall off the mountain. It was not safe, or fun.
Eventually we made it back to Santa Elena — the hub of commercial activity in our district. We passed the main taxi stand but, unfortunately, there were none of the truck variety. I called out to Paul that I would wait for a truck taxi if he would get out of the rain.
Paul did not hear me, or ignored me, and continued on. My eyes were drawn to the giant brown stripe of dirt that now marked the back side of his sweater.
He soon slowed and I again passed him. He dropped from view and I slowed and looked backward. Paul and his sweater soon appeared but, instead of heading up the hill with me, he continued straight and drove into the open doors of a local appliance store. I turned around and rode back to the store.
The entrance was crowded with a number of people attempting to escape the rain. Paul sat on his bike, legs out to either side, dripping large pools of water onto the showroom floor. He was still facing inward, surrounded by a number of curious employees, when I put my bike down and went in after him.
“Paul, are you ok?”
The crowd gave us curious, concerned expressions.
“Why don’t we get you off the bike. You can wait here and I’ll go get us a pick-up taxi.”
“I don’t think I can make it.”
I nodded again. “That’s why I’m going to get us a taxi.”
“I don’t want a taxi.”
I gestured towards the pool of water now beneath us and the increasingly agitated employees. “Well, I don’t think we can stay here.”
Paul looked at me, nodded, and turned his bike around so that it was facing the street. I felt a wave of relief. He was going to get off his bike; I would get a taxi and we would make it home safe and sound.
I had seriously underestimated Paul. Instead of dismounting, he began pedaling. I watched as he made his way up the hill, into the driving rain. Swearing softly to myself (mostly), I waved goodbye to everyone clustered the doorway and chased after Paul.
I caught up with him soon thereafter and shouted that there was almost always a pick-up taxi around the next corner where I would turn to go home.
“Paul,” I yelled, “I’ll load your bike into a taxi and pay them to take you home.”
I thought he nodded. I felt even better when he slowed down at the curve. Best yet, a pick-up taxi was waiting for us. I prepared negotiate with the cab driver when Paul began pedaling in earnest and accelerated away.
“Paul!” I cried out.
Without turning, he shook his helmeted head and disappeared into the rain.
Paul and I have plans to go on another bike ride. After discussing this article, we agreed that we had both been too preoccupied with the idea of letting the other down to see common sense the last go around. Next time I will bring water – in reusable containers! – as well as snacks and the number of a taxi driver. I will also bring a bit of rope in the event that I have to cut off Paul’s avenue of escape. Vamos a ver.
Read more Dispatch from Monteverde columns here.
A version of this piece was originally published on Marshall Cobb’s website; visit it here. Marshall and his family moved to the Monte Verde district in 2015. He takes breaks from working on his novel by posting on his blog and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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