Cafayate, Argentina 10-26
It has been a long, long time since my words rang clear from the belfry. But glory of glories, the Destiny has been preserved, and Nate is recovering nicely in the USA.
I think that the last time an update went out was from Santa Cruz, Bolivia, right around the time that a suspicious Bolivian with the very unBolivian name of Jean Denis Middagh Kauffman decided to take out Neubz with a white Toyota Helix pickup. Oh, how times have changed.
A lot of people called Bolivia to offer moral support to the Neubz; heck, a few people even braved the ridiculously high seas of international postage to whisk south a few items to help our beloved cripple wile away the days. Whoever sent the 500 page book titled ¨Civil War: Army vs Navy - A History of the Great American Football Rivalry¨, know this: that is either the funniest or the most random thing I have ever seen sent across the world...depending upon your motive. To people like this we give our thanks.
The weeks spent in Santa Cruz were excruciatingly boring. That, of course, is from my point of view. I could get up and walk around; at the very least I could sleep on my side. Neubz, on the other hand, took keeping it real to a heretofore unattained level. After a breakneck pace and heaps of crazy times on the way down, both of us found ourselves sedentarily watching more television over the course of two and a half weeks than we had watched during the last two and a half years. The WB Network was Neubz´s rock and his shepherd, and I can´t count a day that I didn´t walk in to his room and have the following conversation:
Me: What are you watching?
Neubz: ¨The Gilmore Girls¨.
It didn´t hurt that ¨The Gilmore Girls¨ was on three times a day, but it didn´t stop Neubz from taking in all three...plus ¨ER¨...plus ¨Supernatural¨...plus ¨OC¨...plus ¨Everwood¨...plus at least one Steven Seagal flick per day (which invariably co-starred DMX). In spite of his consumption of TV, The Neubz wanted so much excruciating physical therapy that one therapist didn´t cut the mustard anymore and a second was recruited.
In the beginning the dainty ladies couldn´t hoist his beastly German limb aloft for the exercises, so I had to grasp his stinky foot or the undercarriage of his knee during repetitions. But the leg amazingly got stronger after just a few days, and my services in that department were no longer necessary. This was a true relief, as The Neubz did not wear pants for the better part of three weeks, and his wispy hospital gown treated both the therapists and me to inappropriate amounts of giblets au naturale.
A lot of people asked what we we actually did during our time in Santa Cruz, and most would be disappointed to here how little actually transpired. Most of the time was spent watching pirated movies that I would purchase for a dollar in the streets, reading books, swimming in the poorly maintained pool at my hotel with 85 year-old women sitting around its rim, walking around talking to street vendors, visiting the US Consulate, and making food runs when the hospital meals ran sour (and they often did). Other than that I just hung out with The Neubz a lot and worked out the many kinks with the payment for his medical services and visa complications. And of course there was the twist of irony in representing Lawyer Neubz in court...and avoiding The Colonel...but I´ll get to that in a second.
After flying to Santa Cruz in the Beachcraft Bonanza with Neubz, I had him transferred from Hospital San Juan de Dios to a legitimate hospital (ie not 12 beds to a room with no fan where the doctor says: ¨So we don´t have much along the lines of medicine here. Are you the one that will be running to the pharmacies to fill his prescriptions for blood thinners and antibiotics?¨ Once he was on his way to an upscale Wetsern-style clinic, I had to hop a tasty 10-hour night bus back to San Ignacio de Velasco to resolve the legal quagmire left in the wake of the accident. Having worked for a pharmaceutical company, I was not short on sleeping pills, but the road was as crappy on a hot bus as it was on a motorcycle, and I slept not a wink.
But at last I arrived, and the next two days were spent giving statements to the police, strategizing with an attorney, and then serving as Neubz´s legal representation in court. Only this was not what you imagine a courtroom to be. It was me, the other driver, and the ¨Fiscal¨, or Public Prosecutor (sort of a Judge Dredd-type position: judge, jury, and executioner), who was professionally dressed in...not a wig and black robe...but an LA Lakers T-shirt and highwaters jeans. ¨All right, you guys talk. I´ll be right back.¨ And then he put down his M&Ms and stepped outside for a smoke.
I felt like I was in marriage counseling, except that the person in the chair next to me was a 45 year-old man with a bad mustache and stained teeth. His breathing was erratic and he was sweating profusely. We talked for two hours, though it couldn´t have been more obvious that the accident was his fault. Ah, but the Bolivian justice system is a mysterious thing. If Neubz and I were to press too hard, some money could be passed along to some police and legal officials and magically statements would be altered, accident photos would disappear, and - just like that - the accident would be our fault. The most important thing was obviously for Neubz to be able to leave the country when he wanted without being detained at the border, so I´m sure he slept soundly knowing that a Polish goon with suspect Spanish skills was serving as his legal counsel.
All things considered, things ended fairly well. The prosecutor decided that the other driver´s insurance would pay $3000 (the maximum) to Neubz to help with his medical bills, and the brisk wheels of justice would dole out a verdict in a mere six months. Never ye mind that the insurance company never paid a cent, but Neubz was able to leave Bolivia unmolested, and fortunately we had taken out travel insurance before we left. I believe that somewhere in the policy it said that when the insured party pays a $75 premium and the insurance company pays $14K (and counting), that qualifies in insurance jargon as the insurer ¨singing the blues¨.
As I referenced earlier, a solid portion of our time in Santa Cruz was spent avoiding The Colonel. While I was in San Ignacio preparing to represent Neubz, I wined and dined a number of employees at the Public Prosecutor´s office. This practice earned me an earful from the other driver´s attorney, but I didn´t view the legal system in Bolivia as being particularly virtuous, so I didn´t take his insults to heart.
One of the guys I took out to lunch was a man named Hugo. He was bald but had a majestic mustache, and he recommended that I contact a friend of his in the US Armed Forces that was currently residing in Santa Cruz. To keep myself from having my throat cut while I sleep, I will continue to refer to this man simply as The Colonel.
Within about ten minutes of me placing the call, The Colonel materialized in Neubz´s hospital room. He was around 45 years old, stood about 5'8¨, was of a medium build, and had a lazy eye that kept you on edge because you never knew where he was looking. He wasted no time intimidating the staff and assuring them that there would be repercussions if Neubz was harmed or stolen from. These threats, though they undoubtedly spooked out the nurses, did nothing to stop the sixty or so (no exaggeration) visits to the room every day by various members of the medical personnel. I´m sure that this absolute lack of privacy was sweet ambrosia to The Neubz, who could never sleep past 6AM and was routinely interrupted while trying to pee into a jug.
I arrived back in Santa Cruz after traversing the same choice roads that had taken us 10 hours from the city, and I had the good fortune of having my chain snap in half in the middle of a jungle stretch so rich in insects that I shouted out all sorts of rabid profanity into the 100 degree sky. I now have all the heavy tools and spare parts that were once shared between the two bikes in my metal boxes, so it was a true treat trying desperately to deadlift the beastly bike for 25 minutes from its side after I fixed the chain.
But I rolled into the hospital that night a sweaty mess to find a fairly content Neubz lounging in his bed, watching the WB, and throwing back a plate of food half populated by beets. Still in the habit of cheap accomodations, I found a place about ten blocks away for $4.50 where I could park my motorcycle in the carpeted lobby in front of the television that everyone was watching. Wondering why the area in front of my door smelled so strongly of perfume, I saw the door next to mine open and an attractive young girl in a shiny blue leotard and tall platform shoes emerge. My guess? She was heading off to work, and you don´t dress like that if you´re a computer programmer. My room itself did not smell like perfume, and this I ascribed to the floaters I discovered in the toilet. Neubz´s parents kindly insisted in the following days that I move to a better hotel, so I moved three more times before settling on the Hotel Asturia, a nice place just about two blocks from Neubz´s hospital - and a short block from the home of The Colonel.
My eyes met The Colonel´s the next morning in Neubz´s room...or at least one of them at a time. Neubz and I were both appreciative of his help and attention. He even brought food to supplement the often unpalatable hospital menu, though Neubz would later confess that the empañadas he dropped off tasted like sand, and he would routinely hide them in the drawer of his nightstand so The Colonel would think that he ate them.
The Colonel had served in both Iraq campaigns, Afghanistan, Mogadishu, Israel, Southeast Asia, Northern Africa, and Central America. Afghanistan he described as ¨a good place to let off steam¨. He probably did missions in other parts of the world that I am not remembering. But one thing was clear: he was intense. His wartime mentality was not something he could turn off at will, so our conversations somehow always centered around war and killing. I have no experience in either department, so as you can imagine, times spent at the bar were a true delight.
(After talking about war for three hours in a bar...I tried to change the subject to anything from his favorite foods to what happened to Chevy Chase)
The Colonel: ¨My first kill was with a knife. It was dark, and the enemy had stormed the trench - ¨
Me: ¨Boy, this Guinness is pretty tasty. What do you think of the beer down here?¨
The Colonel: ¨There was no room for guns, so it came down to who wanted it most. It was pretty grisly, and I remember that I couldn´t wash the blood off my hands for days.¨
Me: ¨How about that?¨
Approximately 50% of his sentences started with ¨If the shit hits the fan...¨, so you can probably guess that we didn´t spend a lot of time discussing Edgar Allen Poe or advances in technology. His eyes glowed when he talked about the possibility of civil war in Bolivia, and as he drank more beer, he assured me with more and more frequency, ¨Trust me. You don´t want to see a war here. Because the next time you see me I´m going to be in uniform, and things are going to get bad.¨ I couldn´t help but wonder if they had based Schwartzenegger´s character, John Matrix, in the film ¨Commando¨ off this guy.
In the event of a war, he comforted me a couple of days later:
The Colonel: ¨I´m not going to stand by and leave your buddy in the hospital. He´ll be on a night convoy out of the country. He´ll be safe, I promise you that. There are ways through the jungle. There are ways.¨
(Then pointing to Neubz´s second-story hospital window)
The Colonel: ¨Go ahead. Look out that window. What do you see?¨
Me: ¨Well, there´s a Spanish tile roof, and a bunch of palm - ¨
The Colonel: ¨I see an escape route. I´d have to blow a hole through the wall, sure. But that can be arranged. My question for you is this: Are you willing to do what it takes?¨
Me: ¨What it takes?¨
The Colonel: ¨I´d like you to stop by the house tomorrow. It would be best for you to familiarize yourself with some weaponry, the RPG (Rocket-Propelled Grenade Launcher). You´re going to need to defend the perimeter.¨
At that moment, I wrote him off as batshit insane. Neubz, it turns out, had done this days earlier. And from that point forward, I had to take alternate routes to avoid passing near his house, where through the open door to the garage, I´d sometimes see him sitting at a picnic table in his boxers, smoking. Or was he doing what he told me he was sent here to do, ¨gather intel¨? I don´t know, but my favorite restaurant in the city (¨Le Michaelangelo¨) was about 50 feet from his house, and I risked it every night by going there for dinner. It´s crazy what you´ll chance for delicious Italian food served by a man in an all-white suit that looks like a chubbier version of Ricardo Montalban.
Neubz made good progress in physical therapy, and his therapists always told me that he pushed himself too much. But he was hungry to get out of that bed, and the effort paid dividends. The last night before he left, he slithered into a wheelchair and I took him down the street to the Italian restaurant for a last supper. This meant going against traffic since the sidewalks were in poor shape and did not have ramps for wheelchairs, but dine we did, and at last I wasn´t the most sloppily dressed guy in the restaurant. That award went to the 3-weeks-without-shaving-but
-still-no-visible-mustache Neubz, who was wearing a pair of shorts and an old school pajama top that looked like it had been heisted from the set of ¨Peter Pan¨.
On the morning of the 17th, we took a taxi to the airport, and Neubz ambled onto a plane back to the US. He had shelled out top dollar for a a first-class ticket, and he told me the ride was about as good as it could have been considering the circumstances. And just like that, I was in Bolivia Han Solo...
I had been itching to get out of Santa Cruz for a while, so I was less than pleased to discover my chain had some issues and needed to be replaced before I could leave. I´d say that if you haven´t sought out a part for a large Japanese motorcycle in a poor Latin American country that you haven´t lived, but I think that the experience can be sufficiently summarized in three words: ¨Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy!¨ It took all day.
So the next day, I loaded up and headed south. In light of the accident, I changed the route to head into Argentina instead of east into Brazil in hopes that I would thus avoid the desolate, dirt roads that had given us problems in the past. The road was in good shape, and I made haste, making it to Argentina in just two days.
The border crossing was taxing as usual, and it turns out that my customs form for the bike was expired by five days. The guy working the booth suggested that I find a lawyer. And so began about three and a half hours of sob stories, threats to call the American Embassy, gifts of chocolate, and a photo session of the accident. Somehow they crumbled, papers were stamped, and Argentina was mine.
Crossing into Argentina was like leaving Latin America and entering Europe. Almost immediately the changes became evident. The architecture, people, and roads were more European. Some people were as white as me, and for the first time in a long time, I saw guys that were taller than me. In short, I didn´t stick out as bad anymore.
The country is more expensive, but everything feels a lot less like the 3rd world. The beef has lived up to its reputation as the best in the world, and a number of Argentinians have told me that ¨a meal without meat is not a meal at all¨. Good, too, is the wine, and I have been quite cosy with the bottle this week.
French cars are king here, so I suddenly found myself in a sea of Renaults, Peugeots, and Citroens. This is a contrast to Bolivia, where nearly everyone drove a small Toyota (or piled en masse into the beds of old pickups), and especially in relation to Peru, where there was a mix of Toyotas and an inexplicable assortment of monstrous 1970´s US sedans. Ford Galaxies, Chevy Novas, and Dodge Chargers roamed the streets. I don´t know how they footed the bill when gas was $5/gallon and those behemoths probably bring home a crisp 8 mpg, but if the ¨Dukes of Hazzard¨ franchise is per chance resurrected, more than one Peruvian will cash in on Hollywood´s decision.
Of particular popularity here is the Renault Express, a sort of barebones, small delivery pickup truck with a permanent cap over the bed. It almost brought a tear to my eye to see it, as that was the same car I bought in Barcelona four years ago that I drove/slept in across Europe all the way to Russia for six months with my friend Jon Rebholz (whose feet smelled worse that Neubz´s) and Andy Binder, the latter of whom slept in a hammock that dangled about 8 inches from my face at night. A shrewd businessman even then, we sold/traded the Renault to an engineer in Estonia for six warm beers. This time around, Neubz and I have expertly pawned away two motorcycles. The first was a lemon motorcycle off of EBay (before getting our current bikes) that we bought for $800 and turned around and sold for $50 to my friend, Nick LeRoy, for a tidy profit of... . The second was Neubz´s bike, which I am currently negotiating the sale of to a Bolivian cabbie via E-mail for $200. Like I say, shrewd business sense.
All in all, I have been in Argentina for six days. I spent one day travelling, three days in Tucumán with my friend Rafa, and two days in wine country, which is where I am now. In actuality, I never knew Rafa until this week. As it turns out, he worked for the same marketing company that I worked for in Chicago a few years back driving the same Hershey Kissmobile around the US.
He lived in Alaska for eight years, so his English is perfect, and he has introduced me to the Argentinian club culture. I hate clubs, but the women are so attractive here that gawking kinds of takes away some of the sting inflicted by the awful electronic music and maddening bass beats. Everybody stays out until at least five every night. At first I thought they were superhuman, but then I learned that people take a nap for a few hours before they go out, and unlike the US, people don´t really booze it up big time when they go out. People have a drink or two, but nobody that I saw pushed the envelope.
I am a horrible dancer, and it doesn´t help that the only clothes I have are a bunch of polyester or nylon outdoorsy shirts and pants. That, and the fact that the only footwear I have besides my dusty boots is a pair of hiking sandals that hold stench like a fart in a mason jar. But I don´t feel too bad since all the Argentinian guys wear tight pants, have shirts buttoned down to the sternum, and - most importantly - LOVE the Euromullet.
Rafa had to do some work this week, so I took off and currently am in the wine growing region in the northwest part of the country. I have toured enough wineries (and goat cheese farms) and tasted enough wine to keep me sated until I get to the better wineries in the south on the border with Chile. Unlike Napa or Sonoma Valley, there is no charge for tasting here, and top-notch bottles at the wineries range from $2-8. Unwisely I purchased three bottles and stashed them in what little room exists in the ammo cans on the bikes. Nevertheless, it feels good to know that if I need to lighten the load that I can drink the cargo, which is more than I can say for the torque wrench or air filter cleaner.
From here I am heading back to Tucumán to meet up with Rafa before heading south to Cordoba (where Che Guevara spent a good portion of his childhood) to whoop it up with what will probably be one of the few groups of people celebrating Halloween in South America. My costume: an Argentinian...so I am on the prowl for hair extensions and tight jeans. After that we´ll be heading to Buenos Aires and then I will be flailing south by myself to do a lot of hiking and hopefully find a boat to Antarctica.