Saturday, March 17, 2007

It's the End of the World As We Know It

(St. Patrick´s Day...and Jim Paprocki´s birthday)
Ushuaia, Island of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina
Latitude: 54.8 degrees south
Trip Odometer: 20,041 miles
Day: 231

It was a troublesome day for line-makers in Vegas. At about the same time that Winthrop was serving a set of walking papers to Notre Dame in the NCAA men´s basketball tournament, a $2000 Japanese motorcycle held together by a lot of pink duct tape and a kaleidoscope of fluorescent zip ties was sputtering to the to the end point of Ruta 3 in southern Argentina, thereby reaching the literal end of the road through the Americas. After over 20,000 miles, eight months, and fourteen countries, the driver finished the final 20 miles the best way he knew how: with a less-than-slender Irishman from Belfast on the back of his bike.

Shortly after the last update, Lady Fortune smiled upon me and a new way of attaching the theretofore incompatible front sprocket to the motorcycle was revealed. More than slightly eager to get the hell out of Rio Gallegos, I attempted to make my way towards the island of Tierra del Fuego to the south by way of El Cabo de las Virgenes, the second-largest penguin colony in Latin America.

The road in that direction was a dirt job blazed by Chevron-Texaco as a means to get to the rich oil and natural gas fields lurking near to and off of the Atlantic coast. A few days of sporadic rains had turned parts of it into the equivalent of one of those giant pools of ice cream that kids had to slide into on the zany Nickolodeon show, ¨Double Dare¨. Traction-wise. The road sadly was not edible.

It took about three times as long as I thought it would to traverse approximately 100 miles, but through the light fog along the beach I could hear the odd mutterings of a whole lot of penguins; I had been able to smell them since a ways back. 20,000 of the little pudges were molting in the reserve, doing their best to shake off the old feathers for new, insulated ones that would allow them to head back out to the ocean without freezing to death. Most people visit the area when the chicks are starting to hatch or simply in finer weather, but all of that was fine by me. There´s something very unusual indeed about being completely alone on a beach with thousands of penguins waddling around to keep on eye on you keeping an eye on them.

The penguins choose this particular stretch of land to come to breed and molt because of a scrubby type of brush called the ¨mate verde¨. The soil being loose and unaccommodating, it seemed to be about the only type of flora able to hang up its hat there. All of the male penguins come in every year, take a look around the place, scope out a choice parcel of land with a mate verde plant growing on it, and then dig out a little enclave in the sandy soil at its base. There they set up shop and lounge, safe from the eyes of the birds of prey circling above. ¨Bring on the ladies¨, they say.

The female penguins strut up in short order and do a little Parade of Homes as the males show off their digs and ask, ¨You like?¨ If the female does indeed fancy the place, she lets herself in, a woman´s touch is applied to the nest, and in short order the stork arrives with a little bundle of penguin egg joy and the occasional jar of Clausen pickles...or at least that´s what we´ll tell the kids.

The slippery roads and extended travel time bought me another night in Rio Gallegos since I couldn´t make the border in time. This night brought a middle-aged Argentine furniture salesman and a young Israeli man to the shared hotel room. Though I wear earplugs at night, they didn´t keep me from being woken up to incomprehensible shouts in Hebrew from the Israeli, who apparently doesn´t just talk in his sleep but screams. I was comforted in the morning to find that his mysterious incantations had not morphed me into a piglet or a candlestick.

At last I crossed the border into Chile and took a ferry across the Straits of Magellan, named for that savvy swashbuckler who is falsely believed to have been the first man to sail completely around the world. Alas, old Ferdinand was laid low by a bad mama jama named Lapu Lapu in what are now known as the Phillipines when the overzealous Portuguese spread one dab too many of evangelism onto the natives´ bread. Out came the spears and down went Magellan. Most of his crew made it back, though.


The Strait of Magellan separates the mainland of South America from the largest island in South America, Tierra del Fuego, or ¨Land of Fire¨. It is so named because of all the torches and campfires Magellan and his crew saw along the coast when they first sailed into the strait. Why the natives were living in this remote and fairly inhospitable part of the globe back then is another question. Lacking furs or other sources of clothing, they would slather sea lion fat onto their bodies to keep warm in the extreme cold (and to lock in the stench). Equally as surprising, they rigged up a way to keep a fire going in their boats for warmth while fishing. There boats were made of bark and the water was freezing cold. Something in that smell lightly of a gamble to you, too? Talk about a will to survive.

Thanks to the fact that Chile and Argentina have hashed out a very odd set of borders on the island (do a Google Image search for a map of Tierra del Fuego), you have no choice but to go through Chile to get to the southern tip of Argentina. That meant two border crossings in one day. Even though they´re a world apart from the other countries in South America in terms of modernity, don´t think they don´t have stacks of superfluous paperwork, a series of stampers swimming in red ink, and a couple of sets of dilatory, uninterested hands at the ready to make your transit as painfully slow and inefficient as possible. The icing on the cake of the whole process was watching an Argentine officer that could have been helping with the long lines instead seated on a wheeled office chair with his legs up using a knotted rag to play tug-of-war with a dog that was effectively pulling him around inside the border station.

Cold, soaked from the rain, and not excited about driving much more in the dark of these shortened days, I arrived at the city of Rio Grande. There I stayed at a place called the Hostel Argentino, a place recommended to me by several other motorcyclists. The tradition of the owner, a gracious middle-aged woman with a limp named Graciela, is to give each newcomer a shot of some odd homemade liquor. She gave me two shots because she said I drank the first one too fast (solid logic), and for about an hour I had trouble focusing on colors. No idea what it was. Maybe paint thinner.

From there it was a day´s drive over the final mountain pass and into the city of Ushuaia, which contentiously claims to be ¨the southernmost city in the world¨. Chile also claims to have the southernmost city in the world at Puerto Williams, but it is mostly a naval base and there is no road going to the island. Still, because of their heated rivalry in all things, it must irritate the Chileans to no end that the Argentines beat them to the marketing punch.

Here I have remained for about a week, just taking it easy and taking in the sights. The horizon over the ocean(s) to the south is endless. Only a few small islands stand in the way of a long, cold swim to the Frozen Continent. Well, a few islands and the occassional cruise ship. Walking around town looking through the windows of some of the shops, I can´t help but wonder who in the name of Cat Stevens would buy that gawdy two-foot tall quartz carving of a pair of toucans. Then I see the elderly couple with the Princess Cruise Lines nametags and freshly purchased ¨Ushuaia: The End of the World¨ baseball caps on their heads. Oh, yeah. They would.

Among the best things to do in Ushuaia is to take a boat ride into the Beagle Channel. A number of modern catamarans hustle out every day with about 125 people on board to wind among the islands off the coast and to check out the cormorans and sea lions that live together on the rocks. Instead, I booked passage on what was arguably the ugliest, most rickety vessel in the harbour - a six-man sailboat called the Paludine. Once aboard, I learned from the 28 year-old captain (when he wasn´t holding a cigarette or glass of brew up to his mouth) that he had bought the boat for a song.

About twenty years back, a retired engineer from the French navy decided to build himself a boat. He designed the 30-foot Paludine. Apparently over-engineered, it weighed ten tons when it should have weighed four. The Frenchman then sailed the ship around the world two times by himself, eventually landing in Ushuaia. There he encountered a horrible storm off the coast, dropped anchor, and hid below while his boat was beaten savagely against the rocks. Lacking fresh water, he scurried onto the coast to find a little river or something. It was around that time that he noticed a sign saying, ¨Warning: Mine Field¨. Terrified to move a muscle, he stood fast on a rock for two days straight until a Chilean naval patrol boat spotted him. The mine field sign was only a joke, they said, to keep the Argentines out. More than a little shaken, he headed into town, talked to the then much younger captain, and told him that he had had enough and wanted to sell the boat. The Frenchman wanted sixty thousand. The captain said he had ten - maybe thirteen. The Frenchman said ¨fine¨, and the captain, surprised that the Frenchman would agree to his paltry sum (and actually having no money), convinced his dad to sell his car and pretty much everything else they had to buy the boat. Oh, and one more thing: the Frenchman had done all of this when he was 73 years old.

All in all, Ushuaia has been a little anti-climactic. The closer and closer that I got, the less and less I actually cared if I got here. First of all, I never thought this bike would have made it. And secondly, it feels like somwhat of a hollow and false finality to what has been a great trip. As Robert Louis Stevenson once said, ¨To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.¨ Or, at the risk of sounding very cheesy indeed, better put in the Cavafy poem which I have attached at the bottom of this E-mail for those who aren´t laughing already.

From here it is a decent distance northwest to Torres del Paine National Park, the crown jewel of the hiking circuit in Patagonia for a week-long trek. And then begins the long final approach to Buenos Aires along the Atlantic Coast to sell El Jugoso. It will be a bittersweet parting to hand over the keys, but at this point I don´t care if it gives up its spirit tomorrow. For $2000, it has definitely done its job.

- Tom


As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
angry Poseidon - don't be afraid of them:
you'll never find things like that one on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
wild Poseidon - you won't encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbours you're seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfumes of every kind -
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you're destined for.
But don't hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you're old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you've gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.
Without her you wouldn't have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won't have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you'll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean
Constantine P. Cavafy

Manifest - 3-17-07

Friday, March 9, 2007

Bad Eagles Remake: ¨Welcome to the Hotel Rio Gallegos!¨

The accepted nomenclature for articulating the escalation of the intensity of an inconveniece goes a little something like this:
Annoyance -> Operation -> Fiasco -> Ordeal -> Hassenfeffer
We are currently at Code Hassenfeffer here. Anything above and beyond this string begins to elude the realm of language and instead manifests itself in maddened deeds (arson, acts of mayhem, etc). But first, to bring you up to speed...
My last update originated over a shared dial-up connection from the windswept hole of Gobernador Gregores, that sweet oasis in the sand. From there it was another woeful journey west to the trekking Mecca of El Chalten, nestled at the foot of the Andes on the border with Chile. Heading west meant taking the 35 mph wind straight in the chops like a repeated clothesline from Ricky ¨The Dragon¨ Steamboat. In an effort not to repeat the same dreary explanation that I doled out in the last E-mail, suffice it to say that it was soul crushingly miserable and - if possible - worse than the day before. The highlight was spotting some wildlife: a big armadillo that could neither smell nor hear me in the fierce wind, so that I was able to get within about three feet of him as he went about his digging business, and later a group of ten huemul (like a Dr. Moreau blend of a llama, a deer, and a horse) that took off hot-footing it across the desert when they sensed me motoring toward them. Wildlife thus outnumbered cars eleven to zero over the first two hours. And I only got blown off the road three times.
I made it into El Chalten late at night and checked into a classy army barracks-style hostel run by a bearded man with teeth stained dark brown from cigarettes. The little town is the gateway to a trekking circuit that pipes around the surreal, craggy spires of Mount Fitzroy and its supporting cast of shoulder-high compadres. I headed up into the mountains for three days, where the briskness was in rich supply and the views spectacular. This would be a good place to insert a couple of pics, but this computer doesn´t take kindly to USB devices. Then again, it is the first computer not to have a shared dial-up connection in some time, so I shouldn´t complain. The best part (though it didn´t seem to be such a great idea while arduously peeling my eyes open) was waking up at 4:30 AM to hustle up a steep grade to the Laguna de Las Tres to watch the sun come up on Fitzroy.
While in the town, I also met one of the most inspiring people of the trip, a 73 year-old German named Deiter. He had bought an old pick-up truck and was driving around the continent, sleeping all the while in the back of the truck and deliberately seeking out horrible mountain storms, which he described over the painful crooning of the permed lounge singer in the restaurant as ¨the greatest show on Earth¨. He capped off the night by paying for all of the drinks for me and the four other motorcyclists in our group - two Swiss, an English woman, and a Scot - and inviting us to visit him in Germany.
From El Chalten I headed south to El Calafate, the draw of which is its access to a series of titanic glaciers. The main attraction is the Perito Moreno Glacier, located within the Parque Nacional de Los Glaciares. It is one of only two advancing glaciers in South America and one of only a handful in the world. Every 12 years or so (approximately the cycle of Argentina´s boom/absolute bust economy), it succeeds in cutting off the flow of meltwater from the mountains towards Lago Argentina, until the pressure becomes too great and it gives way, giving off such a thunderous boom that it can be heard fifty miles away in El Calafate. Alas, I had no such luck while I was there, but it was awe-inspiring nonetheless. Chunks of its massive sapphire face collapsed into the water at least a dozen times while I was there, each with the approximate report of a small cannon. This naturally sent the masses crowded onto the elaborate wooden lookout structure scrambling - the foreigners for their cameras and the Argentines for the exits (people in Argentina, as it is well known, have a terrible fear of pirates...they probably mistook the booms for an attack from pirate ships).
The drive through the other parts of the national park afforded one of those transcendant, almost spiritual experiences that only a motorcycle can provide. It was a winding road along the coast of a completely still, alpine lake with the visage of the glacier-topped mountains predominating the vista. The well-paved road curled through pine forests which would suddenly open up and give you a different panorama of the white mountains and then the blue, scabrous spine of the Perito Moreno glacier. The clean smells of the forest and the palpable taste of the crisp breezes coming off the lake heightened the immediacy of it all, how it is all was just thrust in your face, and soon you´d just forget you were even downshifting into the corners or steering at all. You just looked and you were there, soaking it all up in the process.
The next morning I surrended to another early riser, boarded a bus, and was herded like cattle along with perhaps 500 other people from all over the world onto a modern vessel that plied along through the crisp waters of the Brazo Norte on a day tour of a half dozen other glaciers. Everyone seemed to have a neckwarmer except for me and a Hungarian couple, though they (God bless Eastern European style) were dressed in a mixture of pink and yellow skiing gear, and thus clearly took the cake in the style department. The thin canals that brought us up to the heads of the glaciers were littered with bobbing indigo icebergs that had broken away from the the gargantuan bodies of ice coming down the mountains, and when I wasn´t getting beaten back by strong winds and the frigid waters churned up by the nose of the catamaran or, for that matter, watching people lose their balance (including a broad shouldered Austrian that took down two old women while trying unsuccessfully to regain his balance) and sometimes their hats, it was all quite a sight to behold. One of the glaciers was named after someone called The Spegazinni, which strikes me as probably the greatest conceivable name for a glacier, sub sandwich, ice cream sundae, or despot.
El Jugoso developed a few ailments along the way to El Calafate, some of which I was able to address by myself and some not. First, the clutch cable went. This was a bad sign for an aftermarket cable that went by the name of ¨The Terminator¨, and I took the obvious affront to Schwarzenegger´s character to heart. Here the sage foresight of Swami Neubz came into the light yet again, and I gave him a salute for his brilliant idea to zip-tie the stock cable to the aftermarket one. Even in the 30 mph winds and light rain, it was a snap to get into place, and soon I was no longer broken down on a remote mountain road.
The more serious problems were the continued deterioration of the rear sprocket and the failure of the shifter, the teeth of the latter having worn away completely and thus rendering it incapable of engaging the gears. El Calafate was not a big town, and the consensus amongst the locals was to seek out ¨El Mono¨ (The Monkey). Clues as to where The Monkey lived or worked (a drugstore, a taxi stand, a gas station) all came up empty, though the search did result in the predictable comical awkwardness of walking into a store and saying, ¨I´m looking for The Monkey...¨
In the end, I cut out a small piece of a beer can and used it as a shim to fail the small gap created by the loss of the shifter´s teeth, thus vindicating a late night at the bar with a couple of Australians. It worked for a day, and got me all the way to the Atlantic Coast of the continent and into the drowsy burg of Rio Gallegos. With a population of 80,000 it is the largest city I´ve seen since January.
Here I have remained for the past five days on a tour of the city´s welders and motorcycle mechanics. All I needed was a few parts (3 of the rear sprocket´s 43 prickly, tired teeth remained when I arrived) and for someone to do a little weld work on the shifter. The ensuing witches brew of incompetence, apathy, and addiction to alcohol whipped up by one of the mechanics set me back a few days, but I´m close to pay dirt now. At the present I am waiting for a machinist to finish fusing parts of two front sprockets together so that I´ll have a compatible piece to work with. This town is terribly depressing (it reminds me of rural Russia), and the only consolation is a revolving door of odd characters that shows up every evening to set up shop in my shared dorm room. My current roommate is Homer Simpson incarnate.
Provided that I ever leave, it is a measly 400 or so miles to Ushuaia and the ¨end of the world¨.
- Tom

Monday, February 26, 2007

Desolate Jones On Line Three

Gobernador Gregores, Argentina
Collector of clay leprechauns. Accomplished jazz harpsichordist. Designer of the arcade game ¨Streetfighter¨. Ruthless dictator. Augusto ¨Clap Your Hands Say Yeah¨ Pinochet was all of these things and more. During his time at the helm of the Chilean state, Pinochet always seemed to be on the make - or, before his recent death, on the run...from the persistent hands of justice. But among his many achievements - or at least one of the things achieved while he was in power that he signed his name to - was the construction of the ¨Carretera Austral¨, or Austral Highway.
Now before your mind conjures an image of cruising down a plush four-lane highway with your arm out the window, some classic rock on the radio, and your blinker signalling your impending exit to stop in at a PDQ because you´re jonesing for a lemon slushee, let me assure you that the Carreterra Austral is a highway in only the loosest sense of the word. It´s more like the long, rocky driveway of that weird neighbor of yours that never bothered to have it know, the guy that hands out pencil erasers for Halloween and sometimes sits on his roof in the morning drinking Mellow Yellow out of a rubber glove. No?
What the Carretera Austral did accomplish was to bring some semblance of infrastructure to a portion of the most distant and uninhabited sections of Chilean Patagonia. It is an area rich in rugged natural beauty and vexing contrasts. Indeed, for those willing to endure the poor condition of its roads, careless driving methods of its users, and lack of creature comforts, it can be quite an unexpected treasure trove.
The Carretera officially starts outside of the fishing city of Puerto Montt and winds some 700 miles south - connected at points only by ferries - until it dead ends near a group of huge, impassable ice fields at a dusty little town called Villa O´Higgins. I entered the route after my rafting escapades in Futaleufú, though I was sapped of any inclination of riding it through to the end by each rut and stone in the road. El Jugoso was calling for sweet mercy, too, having surrendered one of two bolts from the seat, one of two from the gas tank, two of two from the exhaust pipe, and almost one of four from the subframe (which, as you remember, was what caused Neubz´s bike to literally break in half in Bolivia) to the merciless hammering of the road. After eight days of being jolted around my body started to feel like it had been put in a rock tumbler, so I shimmied back east by way of Chile Chico to Argentina, which is where I am now.
Early in the voyage down the Carretera I had the sterling fortune to encounter a couple of hilarious motorcyclists, Camilo and Paul (on a Suzuki 650 and Honda XR250) from Santiago, who were heading in the same direction. We stuck together for a week, taking in the sights, meeting a string of interesting locals, and partaking of some of the deluxe accomodations afforded the budget traveller along the way. One such ¨hospedaje¨ (essentially someone renting out a portion of his or her house) was run by a cantankerous, portly hag that reminded me of one of the wicked sisters in the book, ¨James and the Giant Peach¨, except that she had liberally applied some sort of silver rock star makeup around her eyes and hated Israelis. Drama was consequently always in the air. We also encountered some kindly backwoods folks that made their own tasty cheese in old paint cans and who apparently were not in short supply of sweat pants and other leisure wear. The list goes on, but suffice it to say that remote areas of the world are seemingly always disproportionately flush in odd characters, and that the back roads of the Carretera Austral possess remoteness in spades.
The road was typically flanked on both sides by either thick coniferous forest or - somehow - lush rainforest. Given, if it wasn´t raining, it at least looked like it would rain, so precipitation was not the issue. But it was windy and none too warm, so I don´t know how some of the vegetation could survive. Consfusing but delightful, too, was how every little town was lined with flourishing rose trees exploding in a whole spectrum of colors. In addition to the to flora, the road was nearly always shadowed by the mountains of the southern Cordillera, including at one point the impossibly spindly towers of the Cerro Castillo.
And, if you haven`t guessed, I`m getting pretty far south now. This means ice, and lots of it. Several of the mountains had hulking glaciers draped over their crests like quilt racks, and the compactness of the ice gave it a deep blue like I had never seen before. At one point we had the opportunity to hire a guide to take us out onto the sprawling mass of the titanic Glacier Exploradores for a day. Exploring its luminescently cerulean caverns, walking along its bottomless and echo-friendly crevasses, and simply running up its steep ridges with a pair of rusty crimpons was one of the highlights of the trip, and I struggle to describe its vastness and majesty in words.
Departing the Carretera Austral took me along Lake Carrera, whose bright azul waters looked to have been Photoshopped in from an Acapulco postcard. The road was full of ¨twisties¨ with constantly changing views of the mountains and water - without question one of the best roads of the past seven months.
But not everything has been empanadas and roses. The teeth on my rear sprocket have worn about as thin as the lead singer of The Black Crowes, and I drive each day wondering when it will finally give up the ghost. I had hoped that getting back to Argentina would be the harbinger of civilization, but if anything it is even more desolate and disconnected from the world than was the other side of the Andes. Rainforests and mountains have given way to endless desert dotted with sparse patches of scrub brush. Towns - if there are any - are more like depressed little settlements with a gas station. In the case of Bajo Carracoles (population 37), the last town I passed before arriving here, the service station didn´t even have any gas. Thank Roy Rogers for my six gallon tank, which on the past leg was tested to its last drop.
I would be bored out of my mind were I not constantly fighting to stay on the road. A gale-force wind constantly blows across the desert from the west. Leaning into it and battling its periodic gusts is exhausting and, at times, terrifying. Route 40 is the main road south through central Argentina, but it is not paved. For whatever reason, the engineers that built it dumped on copious amounts of gravel and loose stones. The passing convoys of semis and lonely cars have left ridges down the length of the road, piling the gravel into lines between four and twelve inches tall in between. It would be easy to hoist the mizzenmast and give it the gas while blowing along in the tire tracks, but the wind (so fierce and cold that it gusts in under my helmet, makes my nose run, and then slingshots the snot onto my sunglasses or - when it gets dark and I have to take them off - into my left eye) mercilessly pushes the motorcycle towards the pile of loose gravel. If you hit it, your wheels basically become the legs of the cartoon villain that tries to run on a pile of marbles, except that if you fall it will hurt - really bad. I´ve done the dance about 20-30 times, and it is not pleasant. So far, I have kept El Jugoso on both wheels. But driving this road has been my least favorite drive of the trip. For the first time in a long time, I can say that I would have preferred being on a bus with everybody else.
Not wanting to get back on that windy road is probably why this E-mail is getting long, but I´ll bow out with a description of a crazy old man whose yard I set my tent up in two days ago.
Rolling into the town of Perito Moreno, I looked at my trusty map and saw that there was not much of anything for a while. The gas station attendant confirmed this. So I decided to set up camp. Municipal Camping costed only $2.50, but the people there were shady and there were no other tents - just guys who were sleeping in their trucks. I decided to follow the signs for Camping Raul to have a comparator.
I knew I had found it when an old man bolted into the street in front of me, waving his arms frantically and shouting, ¨Aleman! Aleman! Spreken zie deutsch?!¨ Nice. A madman that thinks I´m German.
This was the eponymous Raul. He was about 60, bald, with darting eyes, and an incoherently rapid cadence of speech. Everything he did and said was spastic and ridiculous, and I couldn´t help but imagine all the inhabitants of the surrounding houses checking their sugar bowls and finding them empty. He was obviously excited to show me his house/shack/what he later described as ¨bomb shelter¨ and camping area. The latter ended up being a section of the yard next to a garden and a large circular metal structure that I later saw two gauchos filling up with horse saddles and miscellaneous pieces of metal piping. Like a true salesman, he refused to tell me the cost before showing me all of his place´s amenities. The shower and bathroom were clean, he explained, and the toilet paper was not ¨the cheap stuff¨ - something he had to demonstrate by ripping it from the dispenser (breaking it in the process) and thrusting the roll in my face. ¨Feel it!¨
But the toilet paper was not all he had to offer. Next on display was a collection of testimonials from past visitors written in any of a stack of little books on the shelf in his personal chamber. He splayed the booklets out on the table, wildly thrashing through the pages. ¨Look! He was on a motorcycle, too!¨ I took the booklet from his shaking hand, and as I saw the passage he was referring to it was clear that the small drawing was actually that of a bicycle and that the person was from Belgium. ¨I don´t speak Fren-¨, I tried to say, but he screamed, ¨The garden!¨ I followed him outside.
He walked faster than me...probably because he was not walking but sprinting. When I got to the garden he was down on all fours in the dirt, tearing up green leaves. ¨Lettuce!¨, he proclaimed in his Helen Keller-esque manner. And with that, he stabbed about four leaves into his mouth and started munching. Needless to say, he talked with his mouth open. And with green jutting from all corners of his mouth, he explained, ¨Lettuce! All fresh! It´s for you! All of it! And the onions! Fresh!¨ He slowed down only to tell me, ¨My mother just died Buenos Aires...16 children...¨, before grabbing an onion and adding, ¨Do you want some mint tea!?¨
His price was three times that of the municipal site, but obviously I had to stay there. It was an unforgettably unusual experience, from the hardboiled eggs he layed on the seat of my motorcycle with a note saying ¨For the road¨ to the scratching on my tent zipper which I opened to him standing with a plate of freshly grilled chicken, sausage, and beef that he invited me to eat with him. Insane? Yes. But generous and well-meaning? Now I know why all those books were filled with notes of thanks.
From here it is another painstaking run through the desert to El Calafate, base for some of the best trekking in the world. And from there, it is a paved road south to Ushuaia, that ever-dangling prize.
- Tom
Quote: ¨We are the music makers. And we are the dreamers of the dreams.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Under the Watchful Gaze of the Diginied Sheep

Futaleufú, Chile
This is the first update that I have written whose length will be determined not by available time or how long I can tolerate sitting in an uncomfortable chair. It is rather dictated by the winds of finance, currently blowing over my shoulder to the tune of one dollar and sixty cents. It´s not that I don´t have more money available; I just can´t get at it. Futaleufú is a town of approximately 500 people, so certainly they have no need for more than one bank, but as luck would have it the ATM at said bank accepts all cards (including, I suspect, Diner´s Club) except Visa. The list includes Mastercard and Cirrus, both of which are owned by the same company that issues Visa, but that fact grants me little solace, nor does it change the fact that all I could afford to eat today were a couple of flaky pastries and an empanada. There is also a little ramshackle building nearby with a cardboard sign out front informing me that its proprietor buys Argentinian pesos (in which I am flush), but the door has been locked since the first of ten or so times I have checked on it beginning at 9AM. The running computer and half-consumed bottle of Fanta on the table I can see through the window have not moved, and no one in town knows where the lady is. The bank changes dollars (not pesos...despite the fact that the border is about 5 miles from here), but by the time that I remembered that I had emergency dollars duct taped to the gas tank of the KLR, the bank had closed. Even here, in the most modern and industrious of all countries in Latin America, ¨banker´s hours¨ don´t mean 9-5. They mean 9-2 - with a break for lunch.
Obviously the inconveniences of Latin America are many. But once you get used to the fact that nothing is efficient or predictable, you start to derive a sort of casual amusement from witnessing the laughable idiosyncrasies that comprise its societal workings. In this sense, it´s not hard to have a good time and spend little or no money. This is especially fortuitous for me this week, as cold, incessant rain has kept me here in Futaleufú long enough to dry out my coffers. So I´d be lying to say that I have wanted for entertainment or stimulation while I have been here, even on limited funds.
First off, the only cheap accommodation I could dig up was at a place called Residencial Coyhaique. It is not so much a hotel as it is some sort of halfway house or dormitory for a motley bunch of itinerant grunts brought in to help with the busy work of putting a cellular tower on a nearby mountain. Presently my motorcycle is leaned against a pile of wood in a sad, leaky excuse for a shed in back of the house. I was given a large room on the top floor with three beds and five wool blankets, all of which are necessary since it gets quite brisk at night, my window does not close, and there is no heat in the house. The door does not lock, but it does close if you give it the mustard. How, then, I came home yesterday to find two cats sleeping on my bed and the door still closed is a matter still unresolved, though I am not certain that I can write off the possibility of Patagonian cats possessing the necessary motor skills and guile to shimmy the handle on my door open and then close it with due force behind them. Perhaps a better explanation is the presence of the little girl down the hall. One of the workers brought his daughter, who is about six, and she apparently just hangs out with the stout, elderly cook downstairs all day (as an aside, that lady is always cooking enormous amounts of food, but seems confused and insulted when I ask if I can buy some, me being the only tennant not partaking). And puts stuff in the toilet. Each day when I get up to take a leak, I find something new in the shared toilet. First, pieces of bread and some gumdrops or something. The next day, a little plastic boat. And this morning, a stick of lipstick. Maybe it´s not her, but then the theories get even stranger.
Walking around town today, I made eye contact with a sheep grazing on a front lawn next to one of those colorful pedal cars for kids. From that point on, the sheep kept a watchful eye on me. Six blocks later he was still behind me on the sidewalk, although he would stop and bow his head every time I looked over my shoulder. Eventually he tired of the surveillance, or we simply reached his place. He went up a short set of stairs and went through the open door to a house. Odd, but classic rural Latin America.
Futaleufú is currently celebrating its anniversary, so the town is awash with a number of activities, the majority being competitions of some kind or another. So far they have included soccer matches in the corrugated metal covered gymnasium between teams comprised of people of all ages and hailing from the northern and southern halves of town, each side with its own mascot and cheer squads. There was also the contest today to see who could stay balanced on a bicycle for the longest period of time without pedaling out of a small area denoted by cracks in the pavement in front of the police station. Typical anniversary fare, really.
But most people, including me, do not come to Futaleufú for hot bicycle balancing action. They come to raft the Futaleufú River, considered in the rafting community to be one of the three best in the world. My rafting resumé is thin, but I decided to hit the river anyway. As expected, I was the only guy in the raft that wasn´t a fanatic that customizes his vacations around the sport. But I fared well enough. It was as intense as the guide painted it out to be, and we whistled through about four hours worth of rapids with scary names that translated into ¨The Terminator¨, ¨Moondaka¨, ¨Rock House¨, and...¨Meat and Potato Stew¨. I loved every minute, aside from the presence of a New Zealander seated on the ridge of the raft in front of me. Mind you, he wasn´t affiliated with the company, but he still felt it his duty to scream commands at the other six of us, like he was leading us into an attack on Guadalcanal. I had the misfortune of sitting behind him, and moreover, being the only other English speaker in the boat. When things got wild (and they often do on a Class V river, Class VI meaning unnavigable), he would get tossed into me as he took the brunt of the force of the water. I regret not having the wherewithal to move away from him at these times so that he´d be thrown from the raft, but I was usually otherwise engaged drinking deeply from the wall of water that came over on my own side.
So that´s Futaleufú.
The other two weeks were spent in Argentina. Having been summarily discouraged that I could not learn how to fly fish in a couple of days (Brad Pitt made it look so easy in ¨A River Runs Through It¨), I resigned myself to using spinner bait in the rich rivers around Junin de los Andes. Not wanting to pay the exorbitant $150/day that the fishing outfits around town were charging for a guide and gear, I asked some people I met if they knew a local fisherman, who then made a call to someone, who in turn called someone else. The next morning a 25 year-old chap named Guillermo showed up at the house I was renting a room in, and we fished all day. How did we do? I hit more fish on the head with the spinner than I caught. This is probably why everybody else was fly fishing. Still, it only cost me a few beers, and it was a relaxing day. Guillermo was a funny guy, and his current employment was just another jolting reminder of how good we have it back home. He essentially works 12 hours a day six days on/three days off at an oil refinery of some sort, where he is constantly in contact with harsh chemicals because the protective gear is lacking. The skin on his arms showed it. Salary: $2.50/hour. Nevertheless, he was upbeat and positive, and he claimed that if he worked for three more years that he and his brother would have enough cashed socked away to build a couple of modest cabins to rent out to fishermen. He wouldn´t let me contribute to the fund, instead only letting me buy him a cheap dinner of empanadas (dough around beef, chicken, cheese, etc.). On the whole, I´d venture to say that empanadas constitute somewhere in the vicinity of 40% of my total caloric intake in Argentina because of their tastiness/cost quotient - perhaps 60% in more expensive Chile.
The other time was spent in and around Bariloche, the Argentinian Patagonia tourist haven. Is it touristy? Yes. But is it as beautiful as a pirate´s breath is offensive? That, too. I hung out with Pete (motorcyclist from New Zealand) and his hilarious London wingman for a few days before meeting a couple of inseperable brothers (Matt and Keegan) from Michigan and staying at their place they had just built outside town for about a week. The friendship with the latter was forged in the manner of all good comradeship among men: over a fart. Thinking that no one was around while he was brushing his teeth one morning while camping, Matt let out a solid toot. I happened to be walking by, and simply commented, ¨Nice gasser¨, and kept walking. They turned out to be great guys, and we spent a lot of time hanging out around town at its many brew pubs before I did some hiking up into the mountains on my own. Both have degrees from Michigan State, but have made a living starting their own company as kiteboarding instructors ( in Michigan, Puerto Rico, and Argentina - spreading their time around their houses they built in each place while in pursuit of good weather. I could write a book about these guys and their comical mannerisms, their success in avoiding the corporate world, and their commendable and fresh philosophies on life, but this E-mail is getting long. Besides, I´m not sure I have enough money to pay for the time I´ve used thus far.
I remain...
Yours in the Brotherhood of the Travelling Pants,
- Tom
Note: The Chileans have been the first to begin to ask with any sort of frequency if I had a name for the bike. As neither ¨Aqua Sips¨ nor ¨Kentucky Gentleman¨ translate very well, I went with a Spanish name. ¨Che¨ Guevara and Alberto Granado called their bike ¨El Poderoso¨, or ¨The Powerful One¨. I have thus dubbed mine ¨El Jugoso¨, or ¨The Juicy One¨. I do not explain that it is related to all the juicy ripplers I´ve buried in the seat in the past seven months.
Quote: ¨Now...where is Mr. Takagi? Joseph Yashinobo Takagi...born Kyoto, 1937. Family emigrated to San Pedro, California, 1939...interned at Manzanar, 1942 to '43...scholarship student, University of California...1955. Law degree, Stanford, 1962. MBA, Harvard, 1970. President, Nakatomi Trading. Vice Chairman, Nakatomi Investment Group...and father...of five.¨

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Chickens At the Outpost

San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina
Why Latin American Internet cafes go so heavy on bad pop/dance music is a matter that will eludes me. That said, if any of this becomes incoherent or stops abruptly, you can blame it on current bass attack with only three words repeated throughout: ¨Keep...the...BEAT!!!¨
February brings me back to Argentinian soil, and with it, reasonable prices. Gas has fallen from $5/gallon to $2.50, disgusting motels have been traded for fantastic campsites, and menus are more wide open to a man on a budget. Getting here meant crossing a poorly chosen pass not well suited for vehicular travel, but that I shall deal with that in a minute.
Over the past couple of weeks I have spent a good portion of my time in Chile´s very well maintained and naturally incredible natural parks. Starting out in Laguna del Laja (That´s ¨Lagoon¨ del Laja for you that don´t habla Español...and ¨Laja¨ you ask?...clearly it translates into ¨smooth stone¨...come on, people, I´m not going to hold your hand through the obvious cognates!), I was befriended by the disgruntled park administrator, who allowed me to stay in an unused room of the park headquarters since the sites were for large groups. ¨My room¨ was then cordoned off with a ratty red blanket, which didn´t stop an old woman from walking in on me in my underwear, which must have startled her considerably - at least sufficiently to cause her to drop her bread and utter ¨¡Permiso!¨. She probably thought she saw a ghost, but it was only my chest, still so white that you could watch a movie on it.
The park encompassed a number of remote mountain lagoons surrounding Volcano Antuco and its surrounding range. I spent the next couple of days exploring the place - first by motorcycle and then on foot. During the former, I came upon what seemed to be a funny sort of monument to the Chilean army, comprised of a statue made from a camouflage-painted metal garbage can with pieces of metal welded to it so that it resembled a soldier with a ridiculous face. I found out later by talking to the locals that it commemorated 45 soldiers that died during a training exercise in 2005 when they got lost nearby in a blizzard, which in turn took away a good portion of the humor derived from the goofy statue.
In terms of the hike, I teamed up with a group of seven Chileans about my age from Santiago. It was good to roll with a posse again. The hike was a steep one, eventually leveling off onto a high valley covered with dark volcanic rock from when Antuco blew its top about a 100 years back. Despite the lack of sure footing and the fact that it shredded the lighter footwear of my comrades, it goes without saying that I love magma. Love the magma.
The Chileans were kind enough to share their food and wine with me, and I ended up staying there for a couple of days. Such generosity has been commonplace in Chile (with offers of food, drink, and conversation so frequent while camping that I have little need to bring or prepare my own food), despite the warnings from Argentinians who told me that the Chilean people were ¨very cold¨. Then again, Chileans and Argentinians are always cutting each other down, so it seems. In the ´90s they almost stepped into the ring together after a maritime incident in which a temporary guard near the straight of Magellan opened fire on a boat full of Argentines, but a war was allayed by virtue of intervention by El Papa (aka The Pope).
On a similar note, it has been fascinating how much that religiosity has waned the further I have headed south. Compared with countries in Central America, Bolivia, and Peru, Argentina and Chile are much more overtly secular. Catholicism is not even remotely as pervasive in everyday life. The buses do not have paintings of the Risen Christ on the hood. There are not as many American-based churches with evangelical headquarters in the countryside. Bumper stickers do not commonly express the driver´s belief that ¨The success I have I owe to the Father¨. And, as was the most striking example of living the faith, no one is dressed up as Jesus in a crown of thorns with a giant, wheeled, wooden cross braced against his shoulder rolling along in sort of pilgrimage across the country as in Peru and Bolivia. I do not intend here to offend or to draw conclusions, but it would make for an interesting sociological study to track the inverse and commensurate relationship between standard of living and religiosity across Latin America.
All the off-roading in the park loosened up the fork clamps on my bike and kind of threw the steering askew. Neubz had great foresight in assembling the tools (most of which he admitted were purchased in a late-night online buying frenzy facilitated by the comsumption of alcoholic beverages), and he didn´t skimp on quality. But in spite of having near every kind of equipment a man with a motorcycle could want, the socket set maxes out at 24mm, and the stem nut is a 27mm. I deemed the bike dangerous to drive, so I jettisoned the lion´s share of my gear at the park and slowly made my way down a gravel road toward civilization.
Civilization, as it turns out, was a generous word. At the outskirts of the little village, I was surprised to suddenly be surrounded by a group of perhaps a dozen horses who had bounded out from the wooded bank of the road on both sides. My only thought: ¨What in the name of Sidney Poitier is going on?¨ I was soon surrounded on all side by the horses, who ran along in the same direction as me like a cavalcade. I didn´t dare slow down, as there were three horses behind me that I could see in my side mirrors, so I just kept the same speed until they had enough of their hijinx and dispersed as quickly as they had come. The townspeople down the road were likely equally surprised by catching a glimpse of me, my protective riding gear reminiscent of something they had only seen in the Disney classic, ¨Tron¨.
As it went, it was classic Latin America. ¨Oh, you need to go see Pascualito.¨ Pascualito? ¨Go up to the third street and take a right.¨ Does the street have a name? ¨No, but his place is in between the butcher and the yellow house.¨
Pascualito was exactly what you´d expect in an elderly, small town mechanic - aside from the fact that he wasn´t a mechanic. He fixes tires, but that was about as close as I was going to get to what I was looking for. His tools were a mixture of homemade implements and Chinese wrenches that he had busted and since crudely welded back into approximate shape. But we were able to get things situated, and he even treated me to some sage advice as I was driving away: ¨Remember, don´t get married until you´re 50! I didn´t. And it´s the only reason I´m happy!¨ Wise words, Pascualito.
While buying some supplies in town, I was approached by a group of teenagers who told me that I had to go see Jonny. Jonny had seven motorcycles, knew everything about them, and he could make sure that everything was set.
Jonny lived outside of town, and to make a long story short, he did have seven motorcycles of varying quality...none good. He was friendly enough, and wanted to take the bike for a ride to see what the problem was. I never let him, as he was drunk out of his mind and did nothing for the bike except spill a warm beer he was trying to hand to me ¨for the journey ahead¨ all over the seat while trying unsuccessfully to throw a leg over it. He also offered to trade his sister for the bike, assuring me that she was ¨really hot¨. I´ll have to mull that one over.
The rest of the next two weeks were spent hiking in two other parks with a couple of Germans and a Swiss. Then there was camping with the Chilean family, the father of whom told me of the good days in Argentina in 1979 when meat was so cheap that while he was visiting a friend, his friend went out and bought pasta from a restaurant for the special occasion because dry spaghetti costed more than beef. Why my Dad - arguably the world´s champion of beef - didn´t live in Argentina in the ´70s is a mystery to me.
The pass that brought me into Argentina was represented by the rare purple line on the map, which should have tipped me off that it was slightly sub par. As this E-mail is getting long, let me say that it was a five-hour crucible done completely in first gear up a rocky one-lane road, across bridges so rickety that they wouldn´t even have served as visual props in ¨The Dukes of Hazzard¨, including a stop for fuel from a woman in a shack with a wine jug of gasoline, and ending up at a remote border post where the immigrations officer filled out paperwork among the clucking of chickens that walked in and out of his crowded office at will. I imagine that getting that prized post is akin to getting tapped by the President for an ambassadorship to Chad.
That doesn´t sum up the two weeks, but I´ll finish later. I need to meet someone for dinner - a guy from New Zealand also travelling by cycle.
I did, however, manage to toss a nice stack of pics over to Webmaster Alex, and I´m sure they´ll be up in short order. If not, he has to eat a bag of Whiska Lickin´s cat treats, as per our agreement.
- Tom
Quote: ¨Striker, listen, and you listen close: flying a plane is no different than riding a bicycle, just a lot harder to put baseball cards in the spokes.¨

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Ice Cave Picture

Click to see -

Manifest - 1/28/07

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Back In the High Life Again

Los Angeles, Chile
Praise be to Samsonite! The bike was still where I left it, though - as expected - my sandals were moved to a new location. While on the topic of stink, I´m going to go ahead and reset the stench meter to low, as I got a new pair of boots while back in the US.

Sweet, succulent, Santiago. I ended up staying longer than I planned, as The Bear allowed me to sleep at his apartment and I met a bunch of his friends. A few days after I got there, a teacher from the US bound for some whale research project in southern Chile arrived from Chicago and joined the crew. In general, it was a lot of exploring the town, dancing, frisbee, and tipping it back. That´s not to say it wasn´t pricey. In addition to being the most Americanized and modern city I have seen on the trip, it was also the most expensive, with prices on par with - if not higher than - the US.

I finally wrested myself from the web of good times in Santiago and started to make my way south. That day I spent my first night sleeping in South America in a tent. It was only $2 for the site, but then again I would say that I got approximately $2 worth of sleep. It was a Saturday night, I got there late, and seemingly everyone at the campground was drunk. The security guard reeked of booze, and he did laps around me in the sand on his bicycle while I set up my tent (thank you, Neubz) in the dark while talking gibberish about a motorcycle he used to have. Somehow he never went down, but I´d be lying if I said I wasn´t hoping for it. But other people did. There was a large group of lively high schoolers about 150 feet away, and I unknowingly set up camp directly in the route between their camp and the water supply and bathrooms. A number of them tripped over the tarp cords as they stumbled towards the john using their cell phones as flashlights, even in spite of the heavy logs and a picnic table that I nearly herniated myself moving into a perimeter around the tent to keep them away.

From there I continued to head south through beautiful rolling green hills punctuated by valleys overflowing with picturesque vineyards and fields of olive trees. I wanted to get to Concepcion, and about five hours out I was befriended by a motorcycle gang that called themselves ¨The Falcons¨. They were headed in the same direction, so I joined their posse, and we motored along at high speeds towards the Pacific coast. Good people. They even gave me one of their Falcons bandannas.

In Concepcion, I was finally was able to find a new helmet. Since the visor broke off of mine in the gust of wind (taking the complicated plastic mounting hardware with it), I was unable to find a reasonable helmet in Argentina, and my Ebay efforts in the US came up short. While the Chinese helmets I found in recent days were by all means high on style and rich in interesting attempts at English in their accompanying literature, I had doubts as to their capability to protect my melon. But I struck gold in Concepcion. I like the helmet, though it would look more at home in the XGames or some extreme motocross competition. Oh, well. I´ve got no one to impress.

In all of Latin America, it is common knowledge to travellers like myself that you do not stay in motels. Hotels are fine, as are hostels, residenciales, pensiones, and the like. But motels, no. Motels are not so much places to sleep as they are places rented by the hour for young, unmarried couples that want old Westerns and eat sourdough bread...and do so discreetly. Never in our trip south did Neubz and I want so badly for cheap accomodation to stoop to such degenerate standards, and I think I can say that we prided ourselves on that.

Times change.

Over the past week, I have stayed at two such shady establishments - the Hotel Victoria and the Hotel Fish. ¨Wait a minute¨, you´re saying, ¨didn´t you just say that hotels were okay?¨ Yes, I did. Which was why I was more than confused by the menu posted on the wall at the Hotel Victoria that listed prophyactics for room delivery - right after the $1.50 cheese sandwich. And then there was the collage of penciled hearts with names in them all over the walls of my room at The Hotel Fish (Chico and Chica Crespa had marked their names three times). And the six foot by eight foot mirror next to the bed. That creeped me out pretty bad, so much so that I unfurled my sleeping pad and bag and slept on the floor.

I tried to protest to the management.
Me: ¨In my experience in South America, hotels are usually a place to sleep, whereas motels are a place where people go other things.¨
Chain-smoking lady with leathery skin: (smiling) ¨That´s right¨.
Me: ¨Well, I think this is more of a motel.¨
Chain-smoking lady with leathery skin: ¨It is.¨
Me: ¨But the sign out front says it´s a hotel¨.
Chain-smoking lady with leathery skin: (her eyes strangely closing half-way) ¨That´s right.¨
Me: ¨So in Chile you just don´t know.¨
(Phone rings. She answers. Nods head. ¨OK. So two cheese sandwiches and a Coke to room seven.¨)
Me: (In English) ¨Sweet.¨

At the second place (where I left from early this morning when my 12 hours were up), I was accosted in the parking structure by a maid whose teeth were on average each composed at least partly of gold.
Theresa: ¨You know, the Señora is very interested in your story.¨ (I had spent about two hours the night before talking to all the maids so as to minimize the amount of time spent in my room and all of them knew the motorcycle story. And they were constantly asking if someone was meeting me, offering me a second towel on several occasions ¨just in case¨.)
Me: ¨Oh?¨
Theresa: ¨Follow me. You need to see the Señora.¨

I followed, feeling as if I was to be introduced to a Head of State or a religious leader. The experience, as it were, wasn´t far off from the latter. We wound through a kitchen, a few dark halls, and finally emerged through a curtain into a sort of living room. There, seated in front of me, was the Señora - looking more like some sort of oracle than a human. She was seated in a medical device chair, the feet on her propped up, edemic, sausage-like legs adorned in bright yellow socks that splayed out in front of me. Her fingers were heavy with gawdy jewelry, her hair was done up high, and the room was flush with incense and very large photographs of her and her husband posing in front of famous buildings throughout South America.

We talked for a half-hour. She was one of the kindest people that I have ever met. Never in my wildest dreams would I have suspected this 82 year-old woman to be the proprietor of a place like that, but it just goes to show that you never know.

Today I stopped in the coastal town of Lota to go on a tour of a carbon mine, though the experience was sadly far less authentic than our adventure in Bolivia. I´m confident that the highlight for the Chileans in my group was watching the tall gringo bash his head on big, wooden beams throughout the dimly lit descent into the mine and hearing him curse in a language they didn´t understand.

From here I will be heading briefly east for a hike into the Parque Nacional de las Lajas before heading south for some longer treks into the parks in the south near Pucón with my newly acquired camping gear. All the pictures I have ever seen are unbelievable, and I am very excited. And rumor has it that legitimate hotels are no longer $60 and up like they were in Concepcion the further you head south, so hopefully my experience with Shady Alley is past me.
Stay classy,

- Tom

Quote: ¨I was born to love you. I was born to lick your face.¨

Manifest - 1/23/07