Thursday, December 31, 2009

Pucon, Chile to Bariloche, Argentina

Leaving Santiago, with my head still in a fog from the hotel’s grand opening party, next on my agenda was the Lake District of Chile. The roads were going to be major highways (back on the Pan Americana Highway) all the way down. Not very interesting, but I would make good time.

I made it to Pucon on the shore of Lake Villarrica in two easy days. Pucon is a touristy hub town popular for booking nearby excursions, including hikes up the active Volcano Villarrica, which looks over the town.

Entering town, the plan was to find a coffee shop somewhere along the main strip and ask around about a place to stay. I had been chilled since leaving Santiago and hot coffee sounded perfect, plus, I would be arriving early in the afternoon, so there was no hurry to find a place. I slowly made a pass through the commercial district, only about 6-7 blocks, and was ready to make a U-turn to do go up the other side of the street when a white SUV pulled up beside me and motioned me to pull over. (“What did I do now?”) The passenger window lowered. It was a couple in their late 30’s; they welcomed me to town, said something about motorcycles, and asked if I liked asado (grilled meat). “Love it”, I said. I was told to follow them. We arrived at their weekend condo a few blocks away. They had three young sons. I still wasn’t clear what was happening, but within minutes I had a strong Pisco sour in my hand. Tom’s wife, Maggie, was in the kitchen prepping food and making more pitchers of Pisco sours, Tom was pulling out some huge cuts of beef and placing them on the grill’s spit. “Wow, this is a lot of food for three adults and three kids!” Soon enough, five more guys showed up on bikes, primarily BMW’s. It all made sense now. These were all buddies that live an hour north in Temuco, and this was an official outing for their unofficial bike club.

As you can imagine, the afternoon deteriorated, and you could really sense how close these guys were to each other. Men are much more open with their feelings down here (Argentina and Chile). It is common practice in many places to see men embrace (not just a man-hug) and kiss a cheek - even the toughest of skate-punks on the street will pucker up and lay one on a buddy’s cheek. Friendship is important here and nobody is hiding it.

“Lunch” was served and the food seemed to mellow the “raucous” crowd. Ivan (who spoke very good English) offered to help me find a hostel close by. We did, and I collapsed on the bed for a couple of hours, riding in the cold all day, drinking, and the caveman diet had left me exhausted, but very satisfied. I woke, showered, and walked back to Tom’s (I had said that I would be “right back”) -this time with a bottle of rum as a small token of my thanks. When I got there they throwing on another slab of meat for “dinner”!

They really turned out to be a great group of guys, and Ivan and I continue to exchange emails.

Pucon, is a prosperous little tourist town, like you might find in Colorado ski country, but with some Bavarian accents. It was still early into the season, and the weather proved to be persnickety, with cool cloudy days, mixed with rain. I wanted to book a trek up the volcano, but I did not want to do it in the rain. It was an expensive place, and I kept hearing how prices were going to double in another month, when high season hit. I stayed a week but then decided that I was wasting time and money waiting on the weather. For something to do (and out of necessity), I pulled a nail out of my rear tire and plugged it - my first tire repair. I was at the gas station’s air pump when I met an Italian guy on a rented KTM. He was on his way out of town and heading to the Atlantic coast, where the weather was better and the whales were supposed to be running with their calves for another couple of weeks. Sounded nice, but I was determined to continue south, staying in Chile.

I woke to another cloudy day and by the time I had finished my first cup of instant coffee I decided that whales and sun sounded pretty damn good. I packed up and checked out of the hotel.

What I did not realize at the time was how cold it was going to get before it got warm again. I had a day of riding south, before I could turn east towards the border. Much of the ride was in the rain. Near the border while riding through some lush green dairy land, I came across a car museum. Thinking that you cannot pass by something as peculiar as this and not stop, I turned around. Bernardo Eggers is a second generation German immigrant running the family’s dairy farm, but his passion is cars. Over the years, he has amassed an impressive car collection, consisting chiefly of Studebakers from the 1940-50’s.

Southern Chile including the Lake District has long been the home of the Mapuche people. One Spanish missionary once wrote, “There are no people in the world, who love and value the land where they were born.” This proud group were one of the few groups who were able to keep the Spanish out, and spent 300-years doing so. They were then largely successful in keeping out the Chileans. Eventually though, the Chileans forced the Mapuche from their lands and into reservation-like reducciones (meaning reductions). Sound familiar?

Once the Indians were pushed aside, the government had to repopulate the “inhabitable” lands, and instituted the Law of Selective Immigration in 1845. Their targeted group would be the industrious Germans. The Second World War brought another wave of Germans. Therefore, it is not usually to pass through towns with Bavarian influenced architecture, German food on the menu, and Spanish spoken with strong German accents.

I began my climb across the Andes towards the border in the rain. As I climbed, it became sleet. Climbed some more and it became snow, then blizzard. I was “smarter” than my previous crossing, and better prepared, but nothing can make riding a motorcycle in a blizzard “pleasant”. Finally, I made it to the top of the pass, and the custom’s building. I was relieved, to say the least, but as my hands started to “thaw”, they become incredible painful, and I had to step out of line and whimper quietly to myself until it passed.

During my descent, the snow eventually stopped and the skies opened up to reveal blue again. Blue, but not exactly great weather. I would spend the next three days in the ski town of San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina waiting for the winds to die down.

Next on the map was crossing the Chubut River Valley. I would be replacing German-Chile for Welsh-Argentina.

Michael Lewis plans to spend the next five years traveling the world solo on his motorcycle. This is not a travel video; it's a series of short interviews aimed at unraveling the thought process that led Michael to trade his house, his business and most of his worldly possessions for a life on the road. In part four, Mike discusses health and travel insurance, as well as the SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger.

Santiago to Valparaiso, Chile

Mendoza to Santiago can easily be done in one day, but I chose two. There was I high mountain pass and border crossing to contend with, and I wanted to enter the Chilean metropolis fresh in the morning. Besides, Adam wasn’t checking into the hotel until the morning of 11th (November).

I had read that the pass could sometimes be closed into late October due to heavy snows. Based on that you would expect one of even moderate intelligence to deduce that November may be, at the very least … chilly. Underdressed and of low intelligence, I made it up the pass, through on/off again rain sprinkles. Stopped to see my first condor, and then upward to see the Inca's Bridge. This naturally occurring bridge (not a functioning bridge) was formed in ancient times when an ice formed over the river and then layer upon layer of accumulating sediment combined with the mineral deposits from the sulfur springs, the bridge eventually petrified. The remnants of a commercial hot springs venture still stands at the river’s edge. Of interest, Charles Darwin sketched this bridge during a stopover on his voyage on the Beagle.

The next morning, after wondering around a gargantuan network of highways, I followed a taxi to the new W Hotel in the wealthy outskirts of Santiago. Pulling up at the valet station, they didn’t know what to do with me. (I was to be the first motorcycle guest at a W Hotel in all of South America! Granted, this was the first and only W Hotel in South American and it’s grand opening party was still a week away.) I met Adam waiting in the hotel lobby and we toasted to our first respective birthdays in the southern hemisphere with a pre-noon beer.

Adam’s trip had been partly inspired by an Anthony Bourdain episode on Chile. Armed with the show’s restaurant itinerary, our plan was to follow in Tony’s gastronomical footsteps. We would split the trip between pork and beef in Santiago and seafood in the coastal town of Valparaiso. The menu included pork shoulder, coffee with legs, razor clams, conger eel, pinchanga, and the mother of all sandwiches, the Lomito Completo!

After two days of stumbling around Santiago in a perpetual food coma, we couldn’t really find the soul of the town. The historical buildings were rare and spread out amongst a litany of uninspiring 1970’s structures. The town lacked a real central core, and for God’s sake – they had a Starbucks, Ruby Tuesday, and a TGI Fridays! ARGH!!!!!!!!!! Was I not in South American anymore?

Leaving the bike at the hotel, we boarded a bus to search out Chile’s elusive soul. Valparaiso, the hillside town known for it’s colorful metal clad buildings, seafood, and past residence to Chile’s favorite son, poet Pablo Neruda. We checked into the budget busting Zero Hotel that had a view that made it worth every penny.

“Valpo” was one of the largest ports in South America and a necessary stopover for any ship sailing through the Straights of Magellan (southern end of the continent) until the Panama Canal opened. Recently, the area has regained some of its prominence as increasingly becoming the cultural center of the country, and through increased tourism –in other words, a much more soulful place.

Back in the day, sailors referred to the city as “Little San Francisco”, due to its division into steep hillside neighborhoods. For the most part, the historic area is very walk able. To get up the steep slopes, rickety wooden funicular elevators are used. In 2003 Valparaiso was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its historical importance, natural beauty, and unique architecture.

The trip was a complete success; we found Chile’s soul, and even a heartbeat, albeit faint. We made it through 90% of Tony’s list, while adding a few items of our own, and depleted much of Chile’s wine stock.

Overall, it was one hell of a birthday!

Trip Menu:

Lomito Completo: grilled pork, cheese, homemade mayo, avocado, tomatoe, lettuce, and fresh grilled bread. Other options include a fried egg and sauerkraut.

Coffee with Legs: to stimulate coffee sales a few years back an entrepreneur decided to open a chain of Hooter-esque espresso bars with coffee served by leggy women in high cut dresses. Like Hooters, if you get turned on by yards-and-yards of nylon stockings, then this is your place. It’s not mine.

Pork shoulder and Arrollado: the entire shoulder joint of a pig, boiled and plomped down on a platter. Arrollado is sliced roll of unrecognizable pork bits. These blue-collar blue-plate specials were washed down with pitchers of Terremoto - white wine and pineapple sorbet.

Machas Parmesana: razor clams on the half shell baked with a topping of Parmasean cheese. (melt Parm over cardboard and I’ll eat it, but these were damn good)

Conger Eel: If it were not for the fact that the name of this dish has the word “eel” in it, they would’ve been extinct by now - the world would have devoured every last one. The eel is prepared baked, fried, or any other way you might prepare a fish. It is presented as a large flat (not round) white flaky fillet – you would never know you were not eating a delicious white fish unless someone told you, or you read it on the menu.

Pinchanga: A no holds barred plate of hangover vittels. A pile of french fries, topped with grilled onions, egg, cheese, and greasy grilled beef. If it doesn’t cure you, it may kill you.

Vino: I had always considered the wine county of Argentina and Chile to be separated by nothing more than a political border, producing much of the same product, but I could not have been more wrong. The two regions are divided by the Andes mountain range, which keeps the salty sea breezes on the Chilean side, while leaving the Argentine side dry and arid - completely two different regions. Due to the proximity of the ocean and the sandy and shell fortified soil of Chile, extremely nice whites (Savingon Blancs) can be found, very different from the white Torrantes of dry northern Argentina. Where Argentina has its Malbec grape, Chile focuses on Cabernat’s and their unique Carmenere grape. However, like in Argentina, I also preferred the Chilean blends when it comes to the reds.

Peckhammer Video:
Michael Lewis plans to spend the next five years traveling the world solo on his motorcycle. This is not a travel video; it's a series of short interviews aimed at unraveling the thought process that led Michael to trade his house, his business and most of his worldly possessions for a life on the road. In part three, Mike explains "carnet de passage."

Mendoza, Argentina

Leaving the white wine capital of Argentina, I headed southwest to the red wine capital of the country. There I would get the bike serviced and excise the broken bolt from the engine.

I am not sure how, but I had somehow picked up a negative image of Mendoza somewhere along the way. I had nothing to base this image on other than subjective hearsay from other travelers. I knew that it was the wine capital of Argentina, but that was the extent of my research. Upon my arrival, my preparedness consisted of a page of hostel listings ripped from my Footprint guidebook tucked into my left chest pocket.

The terrain approaching Mendoza was dry and arid with a patchwork of green irrigated crops - grapevines mostly. Once into the city’s core, I suddenly found myself under a canopy of mature hardwoods – anomalous to the treeless countryside from which I just came. The temperature dropped. It seemed quieter, calmer. At a stoplight, a guy in a restored mid ‘60s Peugeot sedan leaned over and shouted in English if I wanted to sell my bike when my trip was over. I have no intention I tell him. “Of selling?” No, of ending the trip.

From my guidebook page, I found the location of my hostel of choice, or at least a vacant gap in the row of buildings where the hostel should have been. I ask. The hostel has been razed to make way for a new construction project. Back on the bike I locate my second choice, which was neither the value the book professed, nor with parking. That nursing home smell didn't help much either, so it was back to the bike.

Stepping out from the revolving doors, my stride stuttered a bit when I saw a uniformed policeman waiting by my illegally parked motorcycle. Oops. To my surprise, he didn’t seem to mind my disregard for lawful parking etiquette. Instead, he was there standing guard over my bike for me until I got back, mentioning something about it not being safe to leave a loaded bike like this unattended. He proceeded to tell me of a hotel close by that had secure parking and gave me directions to the BMW dealer. My impression of Mendoza was rapidly changing. An hour later the bike was unpacked, I had made arrangements to drop off the bike in the morning and I was climbing into the shower. By the end of the second hour, I was outside a vibrant sidewalk café overlooking Plaza Espana with a frosty mug and a plate of baked empanadas. It was summertime in Argentina and the twilight hour made it ideal for people watching.

Over the next few days, I became more and more intrigued with the fourth largest city in Argentina. Mendoza was indeed old, founded in the middle 1500’s just like most of Spanish South America, but the structure and planning of the city seemed much more modern and, well, smarter. The current population is roughly 120,000, but after a devastating earthquake in 1861, the city was almost wiped out. 5,000 residents perished while most everyone else left out of fear of more quakes. Disastrous at time, it was an opportunity for “modern” city planners to re-invent the town, with a focus on protecting itself from future seismic hiccups.

The city’s grid is now laid out around Plaza Independencia, a green space encompassing a full city block, with fountains, free modern art museum and outdoor music venue - the city’s heart. The grid branches out incorporating wide streets and sidewalks – the widest in Argentina. Most buildings are limited to two stories, and an impressive irrigation system, first initiated by pre-Spanish tribal people, was improved upon and incorporated into the new plan. Now, a nearby reservoir feeds a network of stone-lined trenches and under-street canals that irrigate the trees that line every street in the grid – an arborist’s dream. The plan also included a sizeable Central Park like, San Martin Park that houses the local zoo, running trails, and soccer stadium. All of this is very walk able, going from city edge to city edge in about 40-minutes.

The result is a very comfortable and livable city with public spaces that are well utilized by the populace. In fact, it seems like the only time the townspeople are indoors, is during their three-hour daily siesta, which they take very seriously (the streets are dead from 2-5:00pm). I was informed several times of the scientific evidence available proving that people who nap live longer. "Hey, I am not arguing".

Call it an early experimentation into genetic engineering, but in order to create a livable city you have to have people, so the leaders at the time decided to market heavily to the people of Italy, offering incentives to establish themselves in their newly rebuilt city. Therefore, the city is largely made up of Spanish and Italian bloodlines (read: beautiful women), and cultural habits. If that’s “playing God” then "Hallelujah Brother!"

Currently, the two most important industries of the area are wine and olive oil. With resources like this these, food plays an important role in the daily lives of residents. They take pride in not only preparing their food and beverage, but also in consuming it. The sidewalks are filled with bustling cafes and restaurants. People can be found sipping espresso until the early evening hours, while restaurants do not open until 9:00 for late night dining. Again, I was really starting to like Mendoza.

I was to meet my friend Adam, who was flying in from LA, in Santiago on November 11th, to celebrate our birthdays together. As a precursor I decided to celebrate my actual birthday on the 8th with a wine tour of the area. I splurged a bit and went for the upscale tour, which included a five-course lunch at one of the wineries mid-tour. Waking up alone on your birthday is not the best of feelings, but tasting wine by 9:30am surely helps numb the pain.

It has only been within the past 10-15 years that Argentine wine has made the move from quantity to quality. Many of the old high volume vines have been replaced with quality varieties. Historically, wine was safer to drink than the water, but all that was available was the cheap quickly made “swill”, sometimes transported in cast iron pipes (e.g., winery to train station) or stored in cement vats with cracks repaired with tar. Even today you see Argentines, usually the older crowd, mixing their white wine with 7-up or Sprite and red wine with soda water or ice cubes – anything to make it palatable. I witnessed this several times before I knew what was going on – old habits die hard I guess.

It was my experience on the tour, and during my time since, that it was the blends that performed best. I have always appreciated Malbec (Argentina’s signature grape), but I have never spent real money on a good aged bottle. This proved true on the tour, most of the pure Malbecs tasted young, and a bit harsh, but complex with a lot of potential. Still very much drinkable, but perhaps more enjoyable in a few more years. So, as far as drinking today, the Argentine blends proved to be the most pleasing to me. Sort of like the bloodlines I guess.

The only good thing about leaving Mendoza, was knowing that I had to come back through there on my way back up to Bolivia.

Peckhammer Video:

Michael Lewis plans to spend the next five years traveling the world solo on his motorcycle. His goal is to reach the top and the bottom of major land masses, while experiencing the people and culture along the way. This is not a travel video; it's a series of short interviews aimed at unravelling the thought process that led Michael to trade his house, his business and most of his worldly possessions for a life on the road. Michael discusses the route, and the logistics of shipping a motorcycle.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Happy Holidays from Down Below

Once again, my pen has failed to keep pace with my throttle. I promise to fill in the gaps after Christmas, but for now, a quick update.

I find myself near the bottom of South America, a stone's throw from my goal of reaching Ushuaia, however I am here with a blown front shock. I limped into Punta Arenas, on the shores of the Straights of Megallen, as the oil was steadily exiting due to a blown seal (again, with the leaking oil). I will have to remain in the area until I can figure out a temporary solution. Ultimately, the shock will have to be rebuilt in either Buenos Aires or Santiago. Patagonia is simply too expensive, and too windy to stay while the shock is being shipped up and back - and in the middle of the holiday season, it could take awhile.

For the past few weeks now I have zigzagging my way around Patagonia. First, crossing over from the Chile side to the warmer Atlantic coast then crossing back over to the mountainous eastern side of Argentina once further south. From sandy beach to icy glacier. Whales to armadillos. Although windy, I have been blessed with excellent weather for most of the ride. The prime season for Patagonia is January and February, but December is still spring time here and the flowers are in bloom along with many of the animals showing off their new offspring. I have been fortunate to have seen so many animals, in water and out.

Thankfully, I was able to time my arrival in Punta Arenas to coincide with my friend Kristin's vacation. I met Kristin in Guatemala and we have kept in touch ever since. When I learned that she would be down here for the holidays, I made haste. Now, with the bike locked and covered, we will spend Christmas aboard the Austral Bloom ferry, which for 38-hours will make its way down the Straights of Megallen, through the fjords of Tierra del Fuego and finally docking in Port Williams, Chile. We will then take a Zodiac taxi to Ushuaia, Argentina. Not exactly the way I was imagining myself arriving at my continental destination, but I do plan on returning later with the bike.

I will be sure to include a recap, with photos, once I return to deal with the bike. It has been an amazing year for me, and I have really enjoyed sharing it with you all. I hope you will be spending the Holidays with friends and family, and wish you all a wonder filled 2010!

Happy Holidays,

Other stuff:
-my blog can now be reached simply at: Thanks David!

-all of my current photos can be viewed at my photo gallery.

-please check out the video, Going Nomad, by renowned moto-documentarian, Peckhammer. This is part one of a seven part series. The interview of me was filmed before I left Seattle.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Lost Spot

I have unfortunately lost my Spot unit. So there will be no more Google Map locations posted here until I get another unit sent to me.

For the rest of the year, I will be somewhere between Punta Arenas and Ushuaia in Patagonia - the end of the road.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Bolivia video....

Here is an alternate version of the Bolivia video:


Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Casual Wanderings in Bolivia

Spitting out sawdust and choking on paint fumes, I once wondered if this trip was ever going to happen. A year before I left Seattle, I was still knee deep into a house remodel. And, while I was preparing the house for the market, the market was preparing for its crash. It was a stressful time. I remember now how daydreaming about Bolivia helped me get through it all, always wondering what it was going to be like once I was finally there. For me, the country represented the true essence of the trip, or at least the trip I envisioned.

Bolivia seemed rugged and unforgiving, while its’ people remained deep-rooted in cultural backgrounds and practices. The area had a rich and colorful history, and if that wasn’t enough, the area offered a wonderland of terrains for anyone traveling on a motorcycle.

Some of the country’s natural highlights:

  • The western portion of the country is made up of the Andes Mountains and the Altiplano (a high plateau averaging 12,300 ft).

  • The world’s largest salt flats are located in the southwest corner of the country.

  • Volcanoes tower over algae rich lakes where flamingoes feed by the hundreds.

  • The Atacama Desert is one of the most unique and driest places on the planet.

  • In contrast, the eastern border of the country is made up of Amazon Rainforest.

  • Less than 10% of the country’s roads are paved.

  • And the notorious ”World’s Most Dangerous Road” lies north of La Paz.

Some historical highlights include:

  • The country was part of the Incan empire with Lake Titicaca being the birthplace of the original Incan emperor, according to legend.

  • The city of Potosi is home to the famous Cerro Rico mines, which helped fund much of Europe’s expansion and development in the industrial period, and where many forced laborers lost their lives.

  • Che Guevara, the man on every-other t-shirt in South America, was hunted down and assassinated in Bolivia.

For me, the country would be divided into two parts:

North – which has paved roads, and the

South – which does not.

I entered Bolivia through the peninsular border at Copacabana on July 10, 2009. Even though the Peruvian agents could not find any record of my bike in their Maxwell Smart era computer system, I was still able to make it to traffic clogged city of La Paz in time for an early dinner. The city is home to around a million people and listed as the highest capital in the world at 12,000ft. For me, it was another large city to navigate.

After four days I left and headed north to have “a go” at the notorious World’s Most Dangerous Road. The 50-mile stretch of highway is much tamer now, but when it was the only road available for transport to the northeast area of the country, between 200-300 people died each year. In one year alone 25 vehicles plunged off the edge. This single lane dirt road was carved into the mountainside in the1930s mostly by Paraguayan prisoners of war. Back in the day, whole busloads of people would go over the edge, with no hope of surviving (forget about any sort of rescue attempt). Since the construction of a modern highway paralleling the route, the deadly road is now primarily used for mountain bike tour companies that bus groups to the top and let them ride down. Even now, the road still claims the life of a mountain biker every year or so. Since my bike is “pedal-less”, I drove to the end of the road and took an uneventful, but beautiful ride up the mountain, pulling over for the occasional group of “Woo-Hooing” bicyclists coming down. Though I never felt in danger, I couldn’t stop imaging how a full size bus and a tanker truck might manage themselves when coming head-to-head back in the “glory days”.

Time to head south. An hour or two south of La Paz I took a detour towards a natural hot springs that I had heard about. I saw the sign and took a left. The road was void any life, completely desolate as it cut into the mountains. The spa was to be at the end of the road, an hour or so in. About 30-minutes into the drive I came across two young boys standing next to an upended bicycle, the first people I had seen since taking the turnoff. According to the unwritten unspoken Biker’s Creed - you never pass a brother in need. They had a flat, and were trying to remedy the situation by simply tying a knot in the inner tube. This is great for making sausages, but not an airtight solution for tire repair. They were reluctant at first, but warmed up to me after they saw how much work it was for me to empty out my pannier to retrieve my tire repair kit. We patched a hole, then another, then six! The tube was a mess. During the process a group a girls showed up, from God knows where. We all had fun, but shadows were growing long on the ground, and I still wasn’t entirely confident about this spa “at the end of the road”.

The next morning exiting on the same road (the spa was great), I again came across my fellow cyclist. We shook hands as he proudly showed me his Write Around the World decal mounted on his bike.

Back on the paved highway, another beautiful sunny day, I passed yet another bicyclist, this time on a fully functional red touring bike. I found a place to pull over and wait, while I hydrated. It was Graham from London. Graham and I had had dinner together back in Peru and he said, “If you ever see a red bike, it will probably be me”. It was. Graham had started in Central America and was on his way to Buenos Aires. I have immense respect for people doing this trip on bicycles.

By 2:00 the pavement had ended. I was now in “southern” Bolivia. My goal of making it to Sucre originally looked like a six-hour ride from the spa, but in reality it took almost two full days. The dirt road was slow going, passing through canyons and by working mines and their tailings. The sun disappeared behind the canyon’s wall well before I could make it to the next village. I thought about pitching the tent, but I didn’t have any food, and hadn’t eaten since the morning (I don’t eat much on riding days).

I pulled into the small pueblo of Pocoata in the dark. It was just large enough to have the requisite Spanish plaza in the center of town. This town was not in any guidebooks, and by their reactions to my arrival, did not get a lot of tourists showing interest in their town. It was Saturday night and there was a bit of a buzz in the streets with food vendors and commuter buses stopping, unloading bushels and sacks of goods. After asking around, the “green house” on the square was only place to stay. For $3 I could store my bike in the submerged room next to the small tienda and sleep on a straw mattress in the room with the door that almost closed. It was perfect. Once again, the people proved very friendly once I “proved yourself” by making first contact. Within an hour, the old women loitering in the adjacent storeroom, who wouldn’t make eye contact with me when I first showed up, were now giggling whenever they called out to me as the “Grande Gringo” – or when I would beat my chest and proudly proclaim the same. I couldn’t help it.

I call these the “parts in between” and they are what I cherish the most. The “getting there part”, the roadside tire repair, the unanticipated adventures that await you at day’s end – they are what I enjoy the most. They are genuine moments that occur without the direction of guidebooks or behind the guise of local attractions. Traveling by motorcycle has proven to be an excellent way of running into these parts in between.

I eventually made it to Sucre, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and instantly fell in love with the place. The pristine colonial architecture and near perfect weather make it an inviting place to be outside, creating a vibrant livable city. During my week there, I relaxed, fattened up a bit at my new favorite restaurant La Taverne, and visited a couple charities focus around helping the local children in need. It was hard to leave, but I am determined to return after finishing my trip south. I will be back.

The short two-hour ride from Sucre to Potosi was paved, surprisingly, and took me through a most bizarre hailstorm. Potosi, another World Heritage Site, was home to the famous Cerro Rico mines. The mountain is still being mined today for various minerals, but beginning in the mid-1500s Spanish conquistadors began, filling ships bound for Europe with it’s silver. European development and expansion was significantly funded the by the silver (and some gold) taken from this mountain. In fact, the saying “It’s a Potosi” is still present in the Spanish lexicon and used when someone comes across a windfall or surprisingly profitable transaction, or so I am told. The silver was eventually tapped out and the city was abandoned, as poor as ever. The only thing that had profited locally was the cemetery. It’s numbers increase dramatically.

From Potosi I rode the long lonely dirt road to Uyuni, home of train graveyards and the Salar. Driving on the salt flats proved to be an absolutely surreal driving experience. From Uyuni, it would be another six-hour day on the dirt roads to get to the town of Tupiza, then another four to the border of Argentina.

I finished the remodel, the house sold, and Bolivia did indeed prove to be rugged. The massive scale of everything is extremely humbling. I thought that I had felt vulnerable before, but not like in Bolivia. I learned a lot about controlling my thoughts. How, it left alone they would take off to dark places, the “what if” places. By reeling in the out of control thoughts, the perceived dangers would go away. The country requires immense respect, but it also requires trust. Trust in yourself, but also in that the idea that the world is not out to get you…. Unless you screw up, then it’s going to swallow you whole.

Watch My Video:

Casual Wanderings in Bolivia

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

They Can't All Be Good

As days go, these weren’t very good ones.

I had decided to stay a fourth day in Cafayate, a quaint little town at the north end of the Argentine wine country. Even though it is early in the summer here, the mid-day temperatures were already breaking a 100, and I was perfectly content sitting by the pool drinking the regional white wine specialty, Torrontes.

When Monday rolled around I decided it was time to get back in the saddle, besides, the wine was only going to get better the closer I got to Mendoza. I stopped in the town plaza on the way out of town to get some money out of the only working ATM. After waiting 20-minutes in line I inserted my card, and waited for my cash. I reached for the cash door when I heard the clicking of the cash counter roll out my bills. With my hand suspended in front of the drawer, the screen flashed “Transaction complete. "Would you like another transaction?" “Where the hell is my money?” That was almost $250, or 900 pesos’. With people waiting, I crossed my fingers and re-inserted my card and asked for a lesser amount. It worked.

Once on the road, I headed south. I had pavement for the first hour, then rocky, sandy roads thereafter. I was able to average about 35-mph on the dirt, so the roads weren’t too bad. As it approached noon, the temperature was climbing, and the winds were getting hotter. One hundred and thirty miles into the day, I was doing all right. I had Mick and the boys trying to take my mind off the questionable ATM transaction - it would be days before I would be able to get back on the internet to see if I was charged. Out of nowhere, I started to hear a “clicking” coming from the engine. I pulled over, paused the iPod, and listened. Sure enough, there was a loud knocking coming from the valves – like the engine was low on oil. I knew that was impossible because I had just topped off the engine before going out onto the Salar (salt flats) in Bolivia, a week earlier, and had checked the oil level several times since.

I turned off the engine, removed helmet and earphones and put the bike onto its side-stand. I bent down to look into the BMW’s oil view window to check the level. Nothing was there. I waited a minute to see if the oil needed to settle back down into the pan, but with the bike leaning toward the same side of the view window, I knew that the window should be displaying solid black. What the hell was going on? I looked around the ground to see if oil was dripping from anywhere. It wasn’t. Then I noticed that my right boot and pant leg were covered in fresh oil – “UH OH”. I held my breath and slowly walked around to the right side of the bike “OH, MY GOD” The entire right side of the bike was covered in oil, absolutely drenched. The driveshaft housing, the brake rotor, the rear brake, the pannier, everything from the right cylinder head and back was dripping of oil. I noticed too that one of the four outer cylinder head bolts was also sticking out about two inches more than it should’ve been. Apparently, for the last mile or so, I had been unknowingly dumping oil like a drunken tanker captain. I was speechless, and slightly sick to my stomach, but I instantly knew what had happened.

Standing there, my bike’s engine now as dry as the desert air -I was screwed! I did have an auxiliary oil canister strapped to the back of one of the panniers, but I had used all the reserve oil in Bolivia. I looked at the map to see how close I was to the next town. (Luckily, I had bought a new detailed map of Argentina at a bookstore just two days again. It listed almost every little village, and told you what roads were paved, which were dirt.) I flagged down a young kid on a dirt bike and asked him how far to the next available place to get oil. “About 30-minutes.” I was close. I tried driving slowly, turning off the engine and coasting on the down the hills, but I couldn’t take the hideous noises and the risk of possibility of causing permanent damage to the engine. Besides, the bolt kept vibrating back out of its hole, allowing even more oil to pump out.

I killed the engine and put it up on its center stand. I had only one option- I had to plug the hole and get some oil into the engine before moving another inch – end of story. I took off my jacket and dug into my tools and spare parts, looking for something that could be used to stuff into the leaking hole of the cylinder head, while at the same time keeping an eye out for passer-bys.

The first to pass was a newer small truck. The truck passed me by, but then stopped and reversed. It was three young women - I then understood why they had hesitated to stop. I approached the driver’s window, but made sure I left a non-threatening distance between the car and me. They didn’t have any oil but signaled that a town was close by. They were nice, but I wasn’t catching everything that they were saying. I bid good day.

I found an extra tire valve for my tubeless tires that would work to fill the hole. I would have to carve the cone shaped rubber piece at it’s base before it would fit, and of course wait to see it if it would hold up to the vibration of the dirt roads. Thirty minutes later, another car. This time, a couple in their later thirties with a 4 to 5-year boy in the back seat of a new Peugeot compact. They had no oil either, but they were eager to help. The man stopped an approaching pick-up truck to ask for directions. They were obviously visiting the region, and didn’t know the specifics of the area. Argentine Spanish is much different than what I am used to so I was even slower than normal to understand what all he was saying, but what I gathered was that while I was asking him to please drive to town and buy some oil for me, he was offering to drive to town to buy some oil for me.

I had plenty of time to finish carving up my rubber plug, and it stuffed into the hole the best I could. I then started to repack the bike. After everything was put away I went to strap down my duffle bags. While tightening down the straps, the plastic buckle of the Rok strap shattered. The bags then had to come off and I emptied out my one pannier to dig out my back-up strap. (My head was boiling at this point – I should have been wearing a hat.) The buckle on this strap was already compromised from previous use. Everything packed; I went to tighten the strap. It too blew up too! Maybe my recent rush of adrenaline had given me superhuman strength? If so, it was unwelcomed and not helping my cause very much. At this point, I was kicking up a lot of dirt and screaming some choice words. Again, I unpacked and packed, now using a strap that the BMW dealer in Ecuador had given me to strap down my spare tire.

Soon after securing the bags for the last time, the Peugeot pulled up. They had bought me two liters of 40w oil. He wouldn’t take any money from me. I was so thankful, I had already forgotten about the busted straps. I had now been out in the hot sun for over two hours now, and it was time to get out of there. I thanked them over and over again, and repeatedly patted my chest over my heart with my right-hand. I think the guy was afraid I was going to start trying to kiss him if he didn’t get out of there when he did. I so like good people.

Not trusting my current state of luck, I cut my day short and got a hotel an hour away in the next town. I bought some liquid dish soap and a heavy duty scrub brush and cleaned up my riding pants. I wiped down the bike and filled up the engine with oil. The plug seemed to be holding.

Nothing beats a new day for starting fresh, eh? It was a slightly overcast day, actually getting a little cool as I followed the road up and out of the valley’s floor. Skynyrd now had the task of helping me to forget the prior day’s events. An hour into the day, I was feeling better. Everything considered, it all worked out pretty well. The only solace in the whole matter was that I had created the problem – the bike didn’t fail me, I failed the bike. It wouldn’t happen again.

The vibration caused by driving on the rough dirt roads can cause nuts and bolts to vibrate loose. Therefore, it is important to go over the bike every once in awhile and check for loose nuts and bolts, before things start falling off. The night before leaving Bolivia I had checked some of my usual weak spots. The right valve cover bolts had been loose several times before, sometimes quite loose. However, this time I had obviously tightened them too much, fracturing the one bolt that eventually broke free on the dirt road and allowed all the oil to blow out. So, I screwed up. I was now on my way to Mendoza where the bike would get serviced and all would be well again.

I wish I were making this next part up:

Of course the next day, I could not stop looking down at my right boot, making sure it was still dry - that the plug was still holding. About an hour into the morning I happened to look down to see if my new Che pin was still attached

to my jacket’s left pocket. It was then that I happen to notice some splatter spots on the left breast of my jacket. “Those aren’t from yesterday?” I slowly swiveled my knee out of the way and looked down. “ARGHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!! MY LEFT BOOT AND PANTLEG WERE COMPLETELY SOAKED IN OIL. I pulled over in absolutely disbelief. Not believing what was happening, or what I was seeing, I walked away from the bike speechless, and “took a moment”.

The oil cap had simply come off somewhere along on the road. So once again, I was spewing oil “like a tanker captain on a bender”. All the oil from the engine had now exited from the left side of the engine, within 24-hours of exiting from the right, and it was all completely unrelated. This time I had plenty of oil and a back-up oil cap, but as Dino would’ve said, “Oh, ain’t that a kick in the head!”

Monday, October 19, 2009

Lake Titicaca Video

Here is a short video of my stay at the lake.

Lake Titicaca


Friday, October 2, 2009

Things I Have Learned

I crossed into Peru on September 10th, exactly six months from when I left Seattle. Since then I have tried to reflect on what I have learned during the past 12,000 miles. Seeing that I surpassed my longest motorcycle journey by the third day of the trip, and that my longest prior vacation had been on the short side of three weeks, I had a lot to learn about living on the road (and still do). To date, this is what I have come up with:

  • The world is not a dangerous place, but actually a very friendly and welcoming place.
  • People are no different from anywhere else: They love their children, and want to them to have a better life than what they had.
  • I used to think that life was sometimes “a struggle”, but now I see what a true struggle it is for so many people, and how their tomorrow guarantees nothing but the same.

  • Family is paramount! It is all most people have, where we have so much we no longer have time for family.

  • People don’t covet or envy what I have has much as I originally thought they would, but instead are genuinely interested in what I am doing and are happy for me. However, they always asked how much the bike cost.

  • Everyplace I travel is better than the last. I do not always care for the first impression I get of a place, often coming in through the the back door I see the worst first, but by the time I leave, I often times find it difficult.

  • I enjoy meeting new and interesting people. It’s one of my rewards.

  • Saying good-bye all the time is hard.

  • There are people out there doing some amazing things. My trip pales in comparison to what I see others doing.

  • There are alternate ways of living. The American way is definitely not the only way.

  • You have many more options once you “give it all up”. I use to think that I needed to hang on to what I had, and what I did, because it was my only option. Thinking, “What else do I know?” What I have learned is that the world is full options, and they have always been there. You just need to create an opportunity to see them.

  • Mosquitoes don’t like me as much as they used to. I like this.

  • I thought I was finally to the point where I could eat almost anything. Until last night.

  • I absolutely love being on the bike. It is unconditional freedom – as long as you have gas in the tank and air in the tires, which I guess are conditions.

  • I can rough it for only so long. The “living on 50-cents a day” thing is not for me: I can share a bathroom for only so long. If the trip is shorter because of my extra spending on “luxuries” then so be it. I need to do this on my own terms.

  • I use travel guides for the basic layout and history of a place, but not the specifics. If the area is prominent enough I refer to the search engine of the New York Times Travel section. I can’t usually (read “never”) afford their hotel recommendations, but do appreciate their general direction when it comes to the arts, food, and entertainment of an area. Their opinion appeals to me more, and it gets me off the backpacker trail.

  • That said, I have been able to stick to the budget better than I thought I could.

  • As much time as I spend by myself, I still need my alone time off the bike.

  • Never leave “home” without the point-n-shoot camera.

  • People travel for different reasons. You can’t automatically assume that if someone else is traveling on a bike that you have a lot in common.

  • There are not a lot of people my age (45) traveling like this. For the most part, it is younger backpackers or older retirees. I wish that were different.
  • I prefer to ride for no more than three days straight before staying put somewhere for at least two nights. This is easy - there is always someplace interesting within a 3-4 day ride.

  • I can now ride comfortable for eight hours, rather than the previous six.

  • I am not on a vacation. This is what I do. There is no need to try and keep up with travelers trying to see everything in two weeks.

  • Destinations are often times not as rewarding as the getting there part.

  • I have finally learned why I needed to do this, or at least how to express it better. My life had gotten to the point where there was no more wondering what it was going to be like. Not that the rest of my life had been figured out, but large portions had been.

For years now, without realizing it, I have been systematically eliminating wonder from my day-to-day existence, perhaps confusing it with risk. Indeed, there is safety in knowing what you will be doing tomorrow, next month, next year, and for the rest of your life, but it comes at such a great cost. For most, raising children guarantees wonder on a daily basis, but as much as I love kids, I have never had a strong desire to have my own.

We spend much of our childhood wondering what our lives are going to be like when we grow up. Who will we end up becoming? As adults, we learn soon enough that we cannot all become racecar drivers and astronauts. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but a reality. Even so, I cannot stop thinking of what it would be like sitting down with my 12-year old self and explaining to him how our life turned out, “Well, we work a lot”, and how his shoulders would slump.

We simply needed more wonder.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Casual Wanderings In Ecuador

Well, you can’t do it all. I confess that I hadn’t done a lot of research on Ecuador and planned on fast tracking through the country. Nothing personal mind you. I had just spent over a month in Colombia and had to be in La Paz, Bolivia by October 5th, with Peru’s Machu Picchu caught somewhere in the middle. Sacrifices had to be made.

I crossed into Ecuador on August 27th and headed straight to Quito. I found a hotel in the New Town district. A hotel that had seen better days. The staff was friendly and I was able to secure a double room for $25 a night, with decent bike parking. I stayed for a week resting up, while also acclimating to the 10,000 ft elevation. Quito is the second highest capital in the world, second only to LaPaz, Bolivia. With its proximity to the equator and the altitude, the weather is like a perpetual spring.

While going through the usual border song-n-dance, I met a young Ecuadorian couple returning from a vacation in Colombia. They were returning to their homes in a suburb of Quito. Cristian was mesmerized by the bike and had many questions for me. His dream was to ride around South America on his own motorcycle that he someday would have, and by the caliber of his questions, he had already done some research. We exchanged email addresses.

After a few days into my stay I was ready to pick up the bike from the BMW dealer. I had new brakes put on front and rear and a new front tire mounted. I also purchased a rear tire that I would carry with me and mount at the very last possible moment, getting every last bit of rubber off the current tire. After the purchase was finalized, I found out that Ecuador is not the place to buy tires. Just recently, President Correr had dramatically increased the taxes on many imported goods. The same tire back home cost me $130, in Guatemala $210, and here $340! I would’ve been better off buying the tires in Lima, but I had been hearing scary stories about the availability of my specific tires. It cost me yes, but I had the tires

I got a ride to the dealership on the back of Chris’ bike, with August following behind. I had met the both of them at the hostel in Panama. We have crossed paths several since. We would pick up the bike and then visit Mitad del Mundo, the equator monument. I was now in the Southern Hemisphere.

I had made arrangements to meet my border friend, Cristian at his college campus and then to his parents’ house for lunch. His English was no better than my Spanish, but his girlfriend showed up to translate. He lived in a prosperous suburb, where I saw the first strip malls since leaving home. His mom was making a traditional Ecuadorian dish, and had obviously been working on it all morning. Cristian mentioned that it was a stew made with “cow’s leg”. Didn’t really understand, and let it go. Sitting down with his two brothers, girlfriend and mom, “soup was on”. They acted very pleased to have me there, and I was honored by all the attention and hospitality. The stew was tasty, but I couldn’t quite place the texture of the “meat”. As I chewed and chewed, my mouth started to get a bit “pasty” feeling. Finally, his girlfriend chimed in, “It’s really good, but it get’s a little gluey after awhile. It’s made of cow hooves, you know?” Oh, “cow legs”? Now I get it. I did my best, but couldn’t finish.

The next day Cristian met me at my hotel and we toured the old town together, including the Presidential Palace. President Correr is, unfortunately, following in the footsteps of the lunatic dictator Chavez and the country seems to have a long road in front of it’s self.

I had a wonderful afternoon and vowed to stay in touch and to help with any trip planning that he might have in the future.

Once on the road again, I backtracked north to visit the town of Otavalo. The town is famous for its Saturday market, and I would be getting there at about 3:00 on a Saturday. Many of the indigenous people of the region come here to sell and trade their wares. Not so much a tourist market but a living vibrant local market. What I didn’t know was that they had also just kicked off a weeklong city festival. It was a colorful and lively place for sure, and I enjoyed new and interesting street food – such as a boiled fig and cheese sandwich. That night I went to a local nightclub for a concert by a popular Latin American acoustic guitar artist, Juan Fernando Valasco. Based on the screams by the young women in the audience, he is quite popular.

The next day started with a headache. I had made plans the night before with a new friend to visit the Parque Condor. It was a nearby shelter for birds of prey. (I have really gotten into birds since getting into South American, and even Central America. I keep meaning to pick up a good bird book.)

One of the beauties of Ecuador is that it is so small, but packs a powerful tourism punch. There is an amazing coastline with surfing and whale watching, rainforest, magnificent volcanoes, and desert all in close proximity to each other. And of course, don’t forget the Galapagos Islands. Back on the road, I covered some ground, or least it seemed that way due the generous scale of the map. I enjoyed a beautiful day driving through the Avenue of Volcanoes on my way to the city of Banos.

Banos is small mountain town that is overrun with tour operators peddling outdoor adventures. If you want to rent a 4-wheeler, bungee jump, river raft, go canyoning, etc… then there will be five tour operators vying for your attention (or so it seemed). I spent some time in the natural hot springs, took a short hike, and got a pretty decent massage during my two day stay there, but otherwise wasn’t very impressed. I did schedule a paragliding trip, but cancelled when the clouds started dropping water.

One more overnight, in Ecuador and then I would be at the Peruvian border. I spent two weeks in Ecuador and really enjoyed myself, but admit, the country deserves more attention.

(*Casual Wanderings in Ecuador was a book published in 1923 in New York, by Blair Niles. I like the title and have decided to borrow it.)