Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Link to South America trip pictures

I hope everyone had a nice Thanksgiving weekend. I finally managed to motivate and get some of the trip photos online, at least the ones up until our extended stay in Bolivia. So if you're bored hit the link here, go to 'View Pictures' and then select 'View as a slideshow' in the column to the right, which is the best way to see them.
- Nate

Sunday, November 26, 2006

¨Here lies Sub-Zero. Now...plain zero!!!¨

Fray Bentos, Uruguay
Greetings, comrades. This E-mail comes to you from the tender arms of Uruguay, which I entered today via a strange road built on top of a hydroelectric dam connecting Uruguay to Argentina. The ¨International Hydroelectric Dam¨ was announced with much pomp in the forms of signs celebrating its construction, signs which presented themselves with a frequency in line with those announcing the speed limit. The latter were largely unnecessary, as the spirit of international cooperation drawn upon in the building of the dam resulted in a sort of faux cobblestone finish on the road, the vibration from which nearly rattled the fillings from my teeth.
Those of you who were following the progress of the Destiny are likely confounded by my present coordinates, thinking that I should be nearer to the southern tip of the continent than I am. Aye, you are correct. The Kentucky Gentleman shares your sentiments, and he was likely displeased when I turned his yokes sharply to starboard and egged him on a northerly course. ¨North, Miss Tessmacher¨, I whispered. For I fell victim to the irresistable siren song of Iguaza Falls, and I was helpless against its charms.
The Iguazu Falls are one of the greatest natural wonders in the world. Snuggled comfortably at the crux of the borders of Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina, Iguazu draws its name from the indigenous Guarani language ¨y¨, meaning ¨big¨, and ¨guasu¨, which means ¨water¨ (most of you probably speak Guarani, so I apologize for belaboring the obvious). The Guarani weren´t kidding. Upon visiting the falls during her husband´s presidency, Eleanor Roosevelt was rumored to have remarked, ¨Poor Niagara...¨, as the Iguazu Falls are some four times larger than the Niagara Falls.
Alas, I underestimated the distance to Iguazu when I looked at a map, thinking I could make it there in a couple of days. Rather, the trip north turned into a 1200 mile ordeal across roads of varying quality, through a series of intense thunderstorms that seemed to follow me for several hundred miles, and into a heatwave that crested 100 degrees for a few days. It was a trajectory marked by insect-infested rooms (commemorated this evening by the discovery this evening of a dead cockroach in my rain-soaked boot whose death the insect coroner could attribute to drowning, being crushing by my giant Slavic foot, or asphixiation by the stench of a sock I´ve been wearing for ten days), tours of tea plantations and amethyst mines, and a few random encounters - one of which reached its weary end with me sleeping in a trailer full of itinerant construction workers (but not before being taught how to operate a backhoe at 1AM by a kindly Argentinian named Armando and an Irish/Argentinian named John and then being taken to a brothel named Manollo´s that was full of disgusting women and disguised as a restaurant) and one which landed me at a family BBQ. At the latter, I was mistaken as a friend of the family, and only late in the meal was it revealed that I had only known the hostess´s husband´s sister´s husband since the day before (and had met him while operating the backhoe). Regardless, the conversation was good, the meat savory, and the king-size bed at the house comfortable. Indeed, the tradition of Argentinians being generous to a fault has continued - from Rafa (who showed me the best that the country has to offer and always tried to pay for everything) to complete strangers that have showed me every sort of hospitality.
Aside from the Falls, my time in the far north afforded me the opportunity to visit Che Guevarra´s childhood home (the museum´s proprietor refusing to acknowledge my assertions that SeƱor Gueverra had advocated a nuclear war against the US (he did)...and who wore a sweet beret), tour an incredible set of ruins left behind from the Jesuit missions before the Spanish gave them the boot so they could annihilate a few more natives, and wind up on a tea plantation with the wrong crowd.
In terms of the tea plantation, it played out as follows. I saw a sign on the side of the road saying something or other about a tea factory. At the bottom of the sign, it said: ¨We´ve been waiting for you.¨ As you wish, fancy tea people. And the Kentucky Gentleman turned off into a flower-lined drive to a rather nice estate.
Security at the plantation was more befitting a nuclear arms installation, and the cadre of meaty guards asked all sorts of questions, save for the largest of the group, who merely stood silently about three feet away from me with a solid grasp on his combat shotgun.
One of the questions in the later stages of the interrogation was ¨Are you here for the meeting?¨ I was unsure as to what that meant, so naturally I answered ¨yes¨. Copies of my passport and license now on file, the gate was at last opened, and I sped into the grounds. After parking in front of the main building, I was approached by a man named Walter. Walter - like all the employees of the plantation - was dressed in company monogrammed garb. We´ve all seen company polo shirts and jackets in our day, but I must say that I´ve never seen company jeans...much less company jeans where the company logo is emblazened on the buttcheek. Very professional. Very classy.
Walter welcomed me to the plantation and ushered me over to a group of seven or so people dressed in cripsly tailored suits. I was introduced and asked where I worked, to which I simply replied, ¨Chicago¨. It was honestly close to 100 degrees, so I couldn´t imagine wearing a suit (or maybe I could - after standing up in a Serbian wedding this past summer in non-air conditioned church wearing a three-piece tux). But my head start on these people in the stink department was robust. And clearly I did not fit in, which confuses me more and more every time I think about why they let me hang around so long.
I was dressed in a raggedy grey V-neck shirt I inherited from Neubz when he left, a dusty pair of motorcycle pants with a little blood on the shins from a dead animal I accidentally ran over the day before (disgusting, I know), and as mentioned, I reeked.
My Spanish has gotten a lot better over the course of the trip, but when the conversation turned to growing techniques, current trends in the global tea market, and new developments in agricultural chemistry, I was clearly at a loss. Since I understood very little of what was being said and simply said ¨Si¨ to every question directed at me and laughed, the conversation could well have played out thus:
Man in sweet brown suit: ¨So, looking at global sales trends, it seems that Ceylon tea is experiencing quite a renaissance in your country - particularly in the Northeast. To what do you attribute this phenomenon?¨
Me: ¨Yes, of course.¨ (Having understood nothing, I smile and laugh a little while shaking my head in acknowledgement)
(Awkward silence in the group. People look nervously at one another.)
After about 15 minutes of this, I think somebody realized the mistake, an S.O.S. was placed discreetly by Walter into his walkie-talkie, and two guys in company jeans came to lead me away.
I was taken to what I believe to have been the tourist center, and seated in a small ampitheater with what appeared to be the rest of the riff-raff looking for free samples to watch a company propaganda film. The man sitting next to me was probably about 350 pounds with a ZZ-top style beard and dressed in denim overalls (no monogram). I could picture him choking back a 12 lb pot roast for lunch and perhaps chasing it with a few bratwurst, but could not imagine him sipping daintily on a cup of tea. We were equally out of place as we watched the majestic film, which borrowed its soundtrack heavily from the musical ¨Riverdance¨ and the early '90s film ¨Howards End¨. This I leaned over to tell to the man in overalls, but either Big John Stud did not care or he was simply not familiar with Sir Hopkins´ work.
Perhaps because they felt awkward about putting me in the wrong group at first, I was treated to copious amounts of free tea and something called yerba mate, which is for whatever reason always consumed via a silver straw. They did not give me a silver straw.
And from there I have made it to Uruguay. The police in Argentina have searched the contents of my bike at least eight times at random checkpoints along the way, ostensibly searching for drugs, though I think it is because they are bored. They are corrupt, but lack the audacity and know that - unlike in Central America - extortion by traffic police is not sanctioned/encouraged by the state.
That´s not to say they haven´t tried. I was fined 100 dollars (which was then raised to 150 dollars when I asked for the paper ticket) for passing a broken down semi on a curve (the alternative being...), but they are not apparently willing to risk asking for the money on the spot; they just allude to it. So they said they would send the ticket to my Embassy in Buenos Aires which would ¨get me in a lot of trouble¨. Surprise, surprise. It never happened.
Another creative tactic has been to ask me for my fire extinguisher. As I scarcely had room to pack four pairs of underwear, I obviously have no room for a fire extinguisher. And since about one out of every five hundred people in Latin America on a motorcycle even wears a helmet, I´m guessing they don´t have fire extinguishers either. The first two times I was stopped for this, I refused to pay. The third time, I responded with an equally asinine question: ¨Do you own a bakery?¨ He did not.
I do not have adequate time to reach the southern tip before Christmas, so I will be heading west to Mendoza, the heart of South American wine country settled near the base of the highest peak in both the western and southern hemispheres. If the Kentucky Gentleman can crest the mountain pass, I will finish up in Santiago, Chile, from where I fly home for Christmas and return to in January for the final push south. I´m grabbing a tent (and perhaps a fire extinguisher?) when I go home, and I think I may start growing a mountain man mustache.
- Tom
PS: From now on I will put a movie quote as the title of each E-mail. Anyone that can get three correct in succession without cheating by using the Internet will get a postcard signed by a local celebrity. This title does not count, as it is a gimme.
If you cheat I will lace your postcard with the lethal poison, Black Velvet.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


Click to see -

Manifest - 11/15/06

Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Hoodwinked By A Fake Plopper

Leprechauns, Hornswagglers, and Fizzywinks!
Greetings from Buenos Aires, Argentina, a city which (according to the cabbies) has the widest city street in the world - 14 lanes. Ah, but the city´s charms go far past the width of it streets, and thus I have been here for over a week.
When I last wrote, I was in wine growing region in the northwest part of the country. From there I rendezvoused with my friend Rafa in Tucuman and we set our compass south for his hometown of La Cumbre, then Cordoba, and finally Buenos Aires.
Tucuman was a rather bland city with little to offer any sort of traveller, though I did have a chance to eat ungodly amounts of meat and familiarize myself with Argentinian cafe culture. The latter consists of stopping for a tiny espresso about three to four times per day. Not being a coffee drinker, the caffeine intake zipped me up like Gary Busse on speed. But the thing I enjoyed most was watching the old men watching the young ladies.
Whereas in the US all men apparently get a small package in the mail on their 70th birthday containing:
1.) A pair of black, knee-high socks be worn only with pleated shorts.
2.) A license to rip gas in elevators.
3.) The title to a 1982 Buick LeSabre.
the Argentinian men come of age at around 65, at which point they are entitled to abandon tact and subtlety in blatant appreciation of the female form in a public setting. The cafe, then, is their playground. I spent a lot of time hanging out with friends of Rafa´s dad (who I found out later was arrested in the 80´s for taking over an airport in a failed coup and tying a Colonel of the Armed Forces to a chair in the control tower with a telephone cord after hitting him in the face with the butt of a rifle...somehow Rafa did not know all the details...that would not be the case if my old man was into shenanigans like that), so that meant trying to find a chair at a sidewalk cafe and introduce it into the perfect half-circle that they would form around one portion of a table so as to have strategic visual access to the most heavily traversed sidewalk. These were well-dressed older men with cool names like Sergio, Gabriel, and Guillermo, though they said little else after I sat down, as the games were underway. When an attractive young woman would enter the horizon, all small talk would end, the elbow nudge would be shared, all men would attain missile lock, and they would shamelessly follow the woman with their eyes until she disappeared from sight, at which point conversation would clumsily resume.
Truth be told, they are still more tactful than most other younger Argentinian men at bars, though that is only when alcohol is involved. In that case, a group of guys openly cheers or claps for each girl that goes by that they like. Sweet style.
But as I said, Tucuman wasn´t much of a tourist paradise, so Rafa and I left as soon as his shady responsibilities moonlighting as a bidder for governmental powdered milk contracts had concluded. From Tucuman we drove to the small, Door County-esque town of La Cumbre, where Rafa grew up. Time there consisted of exploring the small mountains and rivers in the vicinity, hanging out with Rafa´s friends (nearly all of whom live the sweet life in their late 20´s or early 30´s by living with their parents and somehow not working), and celebrating Halloween. Since La Cumbre was for a time a British colony, that holiday remained after the Brits left.
I had no costume, so Rafa´s girlfriend gave me a bag of clothes and told me that she thought they would fit. I went to go put them on and was less than delighted to find a halter top, some sort of burgundy vest that didn´t go past my rib cage, a mini skirt, and a gold wig. We hit a number of clubs before hitting ´´the real party´´ held at a club located in a residential area named Toby´s (and enigmatically owned by one of Rafa´s very entertaining friends who had no job and lived with his parents), which people strangely started to fill as soon as the clock struck 4:30 AM. Not accustomed to the hours of the nightlife and a party that was still rolling at 7 when I left, I started kicking back a number of Speed Unlimited (like a poor man´s Red Bull) and Vodkas. The 80´s rock ballads being strummed up by Lucho (30, unemployed, lives with his parents, very funny, dressed as Flavor Flav) and the tight crowds did not mix well with my out of place doh-see-doh meneuvers, so I headed home as it was getting light outside. In the morning I woke up in my golden wig to learn that that the Speed Unlimited had somehow numbed half of one my fingers. This is making typing somewhat difficult right now.
Oh, I forgot to write about Rafa´s girlfriend. Shortly after arriving in La Cumbre, we went to pick her up. Her name was Desiree, and I must admit that she was very good looking, though that confession will sound strange in a minute. She lived with her parents, but this was obviously par for the course. So we stepped in and her Mom and Dad peppered me with all kinds of strange questions. Later, while she and I were talking alone, we had the following awkward exchange:
Desiree: ¨Wow. So you´re really travelling for a long time. How old are you?¨
Me: 27. (glad she asked because I can never tell how old Latin people are but feel stupid asking since it sounds like such a Spanish textbook type of question) How old are you?
Desiree: 16
Me: (Thinking I didn´t hear right) What?
Desiree: 16
(Awkward silence...doing the Rafa is 16...and that means...right...)
Me:´s high school?
Rafa assured me later that it was ¨normal¨ in Argentina and that her parents were ¨cool with it¨. Hmmm. Indeed. Long live the true Ponce de Leon.
From La Cumbre we passed through Cordoba and wound up in Buenos Aires, which immediately blew me away due its size. Argentina is the 8th largest country in the world in terms of landmass, yet it only has 38 million inhabitants. Nearly 13 million of those live in the metropolitan area of Buenos Aires.
Buenos Aires has been the priciest city of the trip so far, and most of the money I have shelled out has been on food and drink. For the first time on the trip, I truly look forward to every meal. In fact, I had the best steak of my life at a manly restaurant with the Sally name of Cabin of the Lillies.
A friend of Rafa´s came in from DC, so over the course of a few days we did some salsa dancing, played Bingo in a huge casino with a bunch of enthusiastic locals, toured the city, and a bunch of other details that I won´t belabor right now. Sadly, the two most entertaining things to write about are also the most unfortunate for me. First, I was robbed. And, second, I flirted with the possibility of serious personal injury.
The robbery took place in the morning at a small park in one of the three medians that separate the lanes in the 14-lane avenue I referenced earlier. I was reading the paper, enjoying some breakfast, when I suddenly realized that a bird had just pooped in my yogurt and on my leg. I figured this to be revenge for not sharing my donut with the crowd of birds gathered around my feet. At right around this time, a man in his 50´s walked by and motioned to the birds in the tree directly above me. I stood up to survey the breadth of the poop, at which point the man directed me to a cement post a short distance away where he claimed there was water. Near the post a woman in her thirties noticed my leg and offered some of her Kleenex while addressing me in an apologetic tone. I was not in the mood to have people wiping poop off my leg, so I brushed them away. It was on the way back to the hotel that I realized that my camera was not in my pocket.
I also had had a video camera and some cash on me, so they didn´t fleece me completely But I was pretty irritated, and I had evil thoughts of breaking all of that woman´s fingers one by one. Strangely, the more I thought about it, the less upset I got. It´s one thing to be robbed, but to be bamboozled by a three-person (including the deuce squirter in the grassy knoll) squad in an elaborate artificial poop ploy is quite another. I admired their audacity and originality, and, as an aside, I believe that the fake poop recipe involved a spicy mustard.
The brush with personal injury took place at a sort of communications center (mixture of telephone booths for international calls and computers for Internet access) two days later. The place was packed, and the only remaining computer was near the entrance at a small desk.
Sitting down in a chair is a fairly routine practice, but on this day everything went horribly wrong. As I attempted to squeeze into the spot and my left butt cheek touched down on the aged swiveling office chair, something buckled and the chair zipped away with me positioned loosely along its periphery. What stopped it was the 8´ x 8´ storefront window...but it didn´t stop me. It was LOUD, and when I opened my eyes my hands were on the outside sidewalk holding my body up (along with a leg draped over the chair). I was a little scared to turn around for fear of seeing a denim-clad Patrick Swayze looking at me pitifully as he would utter, ¨Oh, Carl...¨. But despite my arms and shoulder being covered in shards of glass, I had not a scratch.
Also strange was the reaction of the other customers and the management. I would like to think that if something like that happened in the US, people would stop what they were doing, women may scream, and those in the immediate vicinity would rush to my aid. Not here. Everyone was so perversely cavalier that you´d think someone fell through that window everyday and my little piece of drama was old hat. ¨What´s that, honey? I didn´t hear you. Oh, the sound? Yeah, some foreign guy fell for the old rickety chair scheme and went through the front window. Sure. So, when´s dinner?¨
As for the girl that worked there, she asked me if I was cut, and nothing else was said until I went to pay for using the Internet. ¨1 peso (33 cents)¨. I said I was sorry about the window, but she had already gone back to reading her magazine.
I am actually no longer in Buenos Aires, as I have been writing this on and off for a few days. Instead, I am in the small town of Azul, south of Buenos Aires on the way to the southern tip. Yesterday I finally got my Ted Danson-bald rear tire replaced, and the shop doubled as a sort of sanctuary/rest stop for motorcycle travellers from all over the world. Last night I did my part to polish off five bottles of wine with two older guys from Cyprus as they jammed out on a guitar called a buziki they brought with them and sang some unusual tunes in their native tongue. The sleeping area was already booked up when I got there, so I ended up sleeping in a garage amidst about 25 motorcycles. And thank God for the wine, as it was a little brisk and the owner dug up a somewhat unusual Argentinian military cot from the ´20s for me to sleep on.
The march to the south continues...
- Tom