Tuesday, December 19, 2006

¨You Wish to Depart Hostile Alien Environment?¨ ¨Yes.¨ ¨Compliance.¨

Santiago, Chile
I thought it impossible to find a place with more mullets than Argentina. Then again, I had never been to Chile. Here the mullet has assumed forms with which I was previously familiar - my favorite being the ¨Fractional Mullet¨ that I saw in the central plaza this morning. Not finding the traditional mullet adequately laughable, one fine lad today sheared off two thirds of his Kentucky Waterfall to leave but a small wispy portion wavering from his rear right quarterpanel. I bet he´s an ace with the ladies.
I have little to write about this last week. Aside from some hiking up in the Valley of the Moon, nearly all my time was spent touring wineries. The Valley of the Moon was like being on the moon, or so they say. While on a guided tour through one part of the park, the khaki-clad guide quipped that ¨Your Neil Armstrong might have actually been walking here, hey?¨. He had probably told this pseudo-joke 500 times, and he took note of the ¨I got it¨ nods from the other visitors - mostly Japanese and Germans. I was the only American, and since I didn´t laugh he approached me and nudged me in the belly, ¨You know, your astronaut...who walked on the moon?¨ Hee. Hee.
In contrast to Napa Valley, only a handful of wineries in the gorgeous valleys around Mendoza charge a tasting fee. And since the harvest season here is not until March, I was often the only person at each vineyard. The majority wanted prior reservations, but the security guard at each winery´s respective gate found the pleadings of a stammering foreign moron sitting on an extremely dirty motorcycle sufficient for entry. Ohhhh, and the wine flowed...like wine.
The flagship of the Argentinian wine industry is the Malbec grape, and it is a tasty varietal indeed. My teeth were stained purple all week. And despite the fact that it was clearly a bad idea, I started to buy a few bottles. I scarcely had room on the bike for anything else. So why did I buy 60 bottles of wine? Because it was delicious and because it was cheap. 48 bottles are now on a boat bound for the States, 10 I somehow lashed to the motorcycle, and two I drank the night before I left with Antonio, the night clerk at my ratty hotel, and his friend Armando with the broken foot.
The drive to Chile was without the greatest border crossing of my life, as it winds and whirls through the Andes at dizzying heights. Had the wind not nearly blown me over on several occasions and thrown sand into my eyes (the visor on my helmet was lashed off my helmet by a monstrous gust provided by a semi that zipped by in the other direction), it would have been even more enjoyable. Near the road´s apex it passed just south of Aconcagua, which at 22,831 feet did not seem real. Then it was an incredibly long tunnel through a mountain and into Chile.
Chile is all business when it comes to customs. It took about two hours to complete the border formalities. Thankfully I asked if there would be a problem if I left the motorcycle in Santiago for a few weeks while I went home for the holidays. ¨Yes, it is a problem!¨
I needed to find someone to ¨take responsibility for the motorcycle¨ while I was out of the country. This invariably involved lots of stamps and ate up the better part of an afternoon. My savior was a man known as ¨The Bear¨, a friend of my brother-in-law who worked in the embassy here in Chile for two years. The Bear now has my bike and stinky sandals at his apartment, and I won´t be surprised to find the sandals outside with the motorcycle when I return on account of the foul stench.
Other than that, I´m just waiting for my plane. I´ve got two cheap Chinese suitcases (one of them pink) full of motorcycle parts, clothes, and wine that I want to get rid of. I haven´t seen my family, my friends, or my girlfriend since July, so this will be a welcome break.
Merry Christmas and Yuletide Cheer to you all.
- Tom
Bonus quote: ¨Stansfield?¨ ¨At your service.¨ ¨This is from...Mathilda.¨

Sunday, December 10, 2006

¨I Remember Grey Carpet. I Want to Go Home.¨

San Augustin de Valle FĂ©rtil, Argentina
9-5 grind got you down? Own a horse? Possess the rudimentary carpentry skills necessary to build a rickety cart? Could you lure your horse onto a plane or boat bound for South America? Well then, book that ticket and become your own boss!
Every night in Montevideo, Uruguay, not long after people put out the trash for their neighborhood´s morning collection, one can hear the clickety clack of hooves on pavement. It´s strange to see a horse trot down the main streets of a large city - stranger still to see that horse towing a trailer made of miscellaneous scraps of wood and with either old bicycle tires or wooden wheels attached to a slipshod axle. But every city block has a midnight rider. Apparently there are people who pay good money for bags of paper and pieces of cardboard. And so has spawned one of the more creative and unusual capitalist ventures I have ever seen.
The garbage diggers usually work in family teams, so that means the Mom and Dad bring their little kids along for the hunt, and everybody helps to sift through garbage containing every sort of conceivable refuse (including some fairly ripe bags from the restaurants). And not a scrap is left behind. The city residents, apparently not high on separating their trash for recycling, need not worry that their paper will end up in the dump. According to a bunch of people I asked about it, the paper gig is good for a few hundred dollars a month. The sifters can work when they please, and need only trot in from their shanty towns on the city´s perimeter for a few hours each night to earn their daily bread, exiting the city with their loot piled impossibly high on their creaky carts.
The garbage diggers were just one of the little surprises from Uruguay. I had no idea what to expect from the country. By all accounts from the Argentinians I asked about Uruguay, it was ¨like a province of Argentina¨. Compared to Argentina´s population of 38 million, Uruguay has only around three - about half of whom live in the capital city. Aside from that it´s mostly a bunch of small towns spread across the country: cattle ranches throughout the interior and little fishing villages up the eastern coast all the way up to its border with Brazil.
When I wrote last, I was in the border city of Fray Bentos. The only reason I went there was that one of my guidebooks described it as ¨macabre¨. What it says about me that I am attracted to a ¨macabre¨ town I do not know. But I will say that it turned out to be one of my favorite and the most bizarre places of the trip.
Fray Bentos´ claim to fame is meat - or, more specifically, meat extract. A couple of Germans arrived in the late 1800´s with some new scientific ideas that they thought would change the face of agriculture forever. Why they chose distant Uruguay for their little experiment can probably be attributed to four things: tons of cattle, cheap land, even cheaper labor, and zero government regulation of any kind.
In any event, they set up a factory there that became the world´s largest meatpacking plant and played a major role in feeding troops from both sides in both World Wars. The chemistry conceived by the Krauts and perfected in Uruguay facilitated the development of the Spam that you most likely have in your lunchbox at this very moment.
Fray Bentos was the first city in South America to have electricity. That´s how important the meat plant was. But a salmonella outbreak in the 1960´s stole the company´s thunder, and changing tastes (ie people no longer digging meat extract in a can) throughout the world eventually knocked out the company´s legs.
The nice thing is that when they decided to call it quits, they pretty much just left everything as it was at that moment and the workers got the hell out. Thus, it became macabre. I was the only person at the plant the day I went, and I was able to convince a woman to unlock some doors and show me around the place. It was so cool. It looked like a Hollywood set for some sort of horror film. Enormous flywheels and odd generators and whatnot. Cobwebs everywhere. A room with broken windows and a giant pile of a few thousand meat hooks, some dirty, some clean. Weird catwalks where diseased cattle were separated from the good stock and waltzed into an adjoining chamber for ¨treatment¨. A jar filled with formaldehyde preserving a pair of severed, congenitally joined sheep heads. An office full of antiquated equipment, switchboards, and papers still sitting on the desks. If I ever come into some serious cash, I´m going to fly my buddies down there and rent the place out for a macabre paintball game.
From Fray Bentos, I shimmied down to Montevideo. I don´t know why, but I really liked the place, and I ended up staying there for a few days. I think it kind of reminded me of Milwaukee or Chicago. Whereas Beunos Aires tries so hard to be the cool New York of South America, Montevideo seemed pretty content with itself, and it was a nice respite from the pervasive pretense of the Argentinian capital city. It had a nice stretch of coast, a laid back citizenry, a well preserved historic barrio, and an old meat market turned honeycomb of family-run grills called the Mercado del Puerto. It was at one of those grills that I bellied up to the counter and ate all kinds of meaty delights, steering clear of only one item on the big menu hanging over the grill that listed its English translation as ¨guts¨.
From Montevideo I headed west to Colonia del Sacramento, one of the only completely preserved examples of Spanish colonial architecture on the continent. It seemed to be more of a couples´ getaway for Argentinians from across the bay, so I fell into the role of the creepy guy eating by himself amongst couples dining by candelight at a little table where some guy serenaded everyone with a Spanish guitar. In an effort to escape the hordes of handholders, I went to a museum a little ways out of the city that the girl at the tourism office described as ¨interesting¨, pointing out that it had ¨pencils and marmelade¨. And it did. The guy who started it had an indescribably ridiculous collection of 17,000 keychains, 10,000 pencils, an adjoining marmelade store, and most likely a severe case of OCD.
Argentina and Uruguay are at odds over some paper factory Uruguay wants to build on their shared river border, so Argentina periodically shuts down the bridges between the two neighbors. What that does to stop the construction of a paper factory I´m not sure, but it keeps guys like me guessing as to whether they´ll be able to leave the country when they want to. The sure thing was to put the bike on a two-hour ferry to Buenos Aires, so that´s what I did.
In Buenos Aires I met up with my brother-in-law, Tommy, 25, who is travelling by himself from Chile to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. Good beer was found, good steak was eaten, good times were had, and I bought another painting - the long wooden frame of which is now lashed clumsily to my motorcycle.
After Tommy left for Uruguay, I drove widthwise across the continent, something that took long enough and was so painfully boring that its short description will keep this E-mail from getting ridiculously lengthy. Suffice it to say that it was like driving back and forth on a rural Nebraskan road for days. Cattle. Crops. Cattle. Crops. More cattle. If I could have rigged up a safe way to aim the bike straight so I could kick my legs up and read a book, I would have done it.
Along the way I met a guy who sold metal pipes and ended up at a BBQ with his friends. One of them was a 59 year-old mechanic that wanted to show me the town later, so we hit the casino and local bars until late in the night. The guy that sold the pipes had a Harley Sportster, and he was the first Latino I have met on this trip that knew where Milwaukee was. He said it was his dream to go to the Harley factory, but he doesn´t have the cash.
Finally, I ended up in Mendoza province, which welcomed me with a sign declaring itself to be the ¨Land of Sun and Good Wine¨ and with a full police inspection of my motorcycle including the traditional request for my fire extinguisher. Mendoza is to Argentina what Napa Valley is to the States, though here the valley sits in the shadow of some Andean peaks that crest 23,000 feet. It´s pretty impressive. Just outside of town I tried to downshift and snapped off my shifter, which was sweet. So I had to roll through city working the clutch with what the Pointer Sisters would describe as a slow hand and an easy touch. Third gear is not the gear that traditionally comes to mind when you´re looking for a smooth start from a dead stop with a heavily loaded bike, but I eventually found a mechanic who made me a new shifter from scrap metal for free. It looks absurd (like a cross between a six iron and a spoon), but it works.
I stayed in Mendoza for a couple of days and toured some wineries. At one of the hostels I met an Indonesian guy from Oregon who rode his old Suzuki down here, and a Texan who rode a bicycle here from Ecuador (and who was almost killed by a strung out shaman in Peru). And I got hardly any sleep last night in a youth hostel because some Belgian guy on the top bunk next to mine was snoring like crazy all night. I nudged him with increasing degrees of malice throughout the night, but he was not to be stirred. He didn´t even even stop when I grabbed somebody´s wet bath towel that was hanging nearby and draped it over his face. Pulling out his pillow so that he hit his head on the wooden frame brought peace for five minutes, but in the end the Belgian was steadfast and I found myself outmatched.
All in all it has been a fine run, and I never got around to writing an update for quite some time with all that was going on, so I apologize if you made it through this rambling tale.
Tomorrow I head off to a national park called the Valley of the Moon about fifty miles from here to do a little hiking. I am hoping that it is somehow connected to the Canyon of the Crescent Moon, in which case one of you might just be getting the ¨cup of a carpenter¨ for Christmas.
- Tom
Good luck on the trivia.

Monday, December 4, 2006


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Manifest - 12/4/06