Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The hazards of blogging

The backlog of journal entries is like intellectual constipation. It feels like I can't absorb any more until I rid myself of all the stuff that has come before. I don't want to think about plans or even go out in the city and experience anything new, until this process is complete! It's clearly a weakness in my particular character.

There has been occasional e-mail banter this week, but generally things have been quiet, and that's not a bad thing. I did receive an e-mail from Pia! (You may recall, I met Pia and Sophia in Chile Chico. Those "famous smiles".) They are now back in Santiago, and we planned to meet for tea or coffee in the coming days.

After about twelve hours on the blog, I went out for a drive, looking for a restaurant. In the end, I went to the nearby Lider Mercado for bread, turkey, cheese and a bottle of 2004 Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon. An outstanding wine at a reasonable price!


Learned that fellow-traveler Jeremiah is stuck in Porvenir, seriously ill. Brad had arrived in Ushuaia. (Perhaps it was Brad seen heading south on Argentina's Ruta 3!) Nina and Geoff were now heading north from Ushuaia. And, finally, Anne, who had spent a couple weeks in Santiago having her bike repaired, has now reached Ushuaia. I haven't received updates from David of Sacramento and the four Japanese riders, Aki, Motsu, Mako and Fumy.


Persistent elbow and shoulder inflammation lately from the (unhealthy) combination of all the computer work and too much riding!

Monday, February 27, 2006

Service in Santiago

Monday! The work week begins. It was time to get off my "duff". The rear tire pressure was dropping too fast, so I decided to change out the tire, re-mounting that Brazilian spare I've been carrying for a month.

Took the bike over to Bimota, and once again they got right to it. Not a moment's hesitation. These guys are good!

When "Javier" was finished with the tire, I started the bike up and noticed a rattling sound. He found a loose skid plate bolt and tightened it. Then I mentioned the starting problem (only in neutral). He quickly determined a sensor was at fault. It took an hour or so to repair. For this there was no charge. "The relationship is free," he said.

Next, I visited the offices of "LAN", Chile's national airline, to inquire about shipping the motorcycle home. In a Las Condes office tower, this was the first time I saw "designated elevators": on a keypad, you type in the floor number desired, and you are assigned an elevator that will take you directly to that floor.

At LAN, I met with Jorge Nunez, North American Export Manager. He was extremely generous with his time and very helpful, laying out exactly what steps were necessary, and provided his cell phone number should I run into any difficulties along the way. It sounded like, at most, a two- or three-day process.

Stopped in at Williamson Balfour to check on having the front brakes repaired. Their quote: $1,480 to change out the two front brake discs (including that 19% IVA! I don't know how people can afford to ride - or drive - here.) They estimated it would take about nine days to receive parts. I took no action. With complete wheel and brake assemblies in storage at home, I can't justify spending the money here.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Traveling Solo

I never did go to sleep Friday, my mind wandering anxiously all through the night. So Saturday, I laid down for a "nap" at 6:00 p.m. and didn't awake until this morning at 7:30.

I finally got around to washing the bike, borrowing a garden hose outside the hotel. Took a closer look at a nail in the rear tire. (I first noticed the nail after checking tire pressures at a refueling stop between Buenos Aires and Mendoza. Knowing how difficult Metzelers are to patch (especially using the BMW tire repair kit), rather than attempt a roadside repair, I left it in, hoping to limp to Santiago, where it could be properly repaired.)

Through a film of water, air was bubbling up around the nail. I then began to inspect other areas of the tire and was shocked to find many tiny leaks. I easily located a dozen or more. Though still having two or three thousand miles of tread-life left, the tire was shot. The $250 German Metzeler wasn't quite as durable as expected. Would a $65 Brazilian Pirelli have done as well? I'm left to wonder.

Checking my notes, I saw that I've traveled 6,500 miles since installing it, many of those miles on tough road, so I guess it's not too surprising. With good pavement, I could probably run it down some more, just topping off with air as needed.

At "Tiramisu" tonight, I looked around and thought "isn't it odd to be the only 'solo diner' in this crowded restaurant?" I'm so accustomed to the condition, that I hardly regard it unusual. This time it felt strange.

Many people have asked, "isn't it difficult to travel alone?"

It certainly has its good and bad points. The most obvious weakness, the limited supply of motivation, creativity and counsel. There's no one there to give me a shake when I need it. And then there are the all-too-frequent bike-lifting exercises; much easier with company. Companions are also useful for keeping watch over motorcycles and gear at border checkpoints and hotel check-ins, summoning help in emergencies, etc.

But the solo traveler experiences fewer arguments and less dissension.

Being out here "solo" is not particularly hard. I've been on a solitary journey most of my life. (In reality, aren't we all on a solitary journey?) For those unaccustomed to viewing life this way, it might be difficult to accept.

I ordered a bottle of sparkling water and was served Pellegrino. The idea of such a basic necessity as water being shipped in little glass bottles from Italy to Chile (where there is an abundance of mountain-fresh spring water) is one example of just how odd, and unreasonable, our world is becoming. (There are many Chilean brands of sparkling water.)

I had an opportunity to try another Chilean wine (this one served by the glass): L'Apostle Cabernet Sauvignon. A very nice wine, full of "dark fruit", chocolatey and ripe, yet crisp. (I apologize if I occasionally lose you with the "wine geek" remarks.)

While seated at a sidewalk table, a young girl passed by offering roses. I declined, gesturing to the empty seat opposite me. "No tengo novia" ("I don't have a girlfriend.") She then asked for money, even if I weren't interested in a rose.

My pizza arrived and she returned to demand a piece. After four visits to my table, I was ready to drag her out to the curb, when the couple seated next to me silently put a slice of pizza on a small plate and handed it to her. I felt like a jerk.

She returned one more time, pointing to the tip I was leaving for my server. Her persistence has apparently served her quite well!

Friday, February 24, 2006

Dinner with Bikers

When I arrived at the hotel in Santiago, there was one vehicle in the parking lot: a R1200GS like mine. I later met six Brazilian riders staying at this hotel. Dinner at "Delmonico's". From left to right: Javier from Spain; Conrado, Cecilia, Vanessa and Denis from Brazil; Rodrigo Perez from Santiago; Silvia from Austria; Rodrigo Caceres from Santiago; Joly and Humberto from Brazil. All ride BMWs, except "Perez" (who was being pressured by the group to get one) and Silvia, who is understandably a fan of the Austrian KTM motorcycles.

I asked the Brazilians (those staying at the hotel) if they wanted to have dinner at "Tiramisu". Everyone was interested.

I joined them around the pool where they were enjoying some beers. Later I added the bottle of Argentine wine to the mix. (Afterwards, I looked at the wine bottle: the front label stated it's a Goyenechea 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon "Quinta Generación". The back label says it was hand-harvested in March of 1999 and bottled in November 2000. I'm not sure about Argentinean labeling laws, but that wouldn't fly in the states.) The wine was good, though slightly tainted by a bad cork. (I hate when that happens!)

"Javier", from the Basque region, joined us. He was staying at another hotel, but apparently met everyone at the BMW dealership. He's in the early stages of his journey around South America. The Brazilians are just wrapping up a tour of Peru, Chile and Argentina. Some are riding home, while others (those with the damaged bikes) are flying, bike shipping arrangements to be made later.

Rodrigo Caceres, from Santiago, whom the Brazilians had met at Williamson Balfour, came to the hotel and persuaded us to go to a different restaurant, "Delmonico's", an up-scale seafood restaurant in a new shopping mall. I followed him over to the restaurant. He was riding a new R1200GS (that inferior yellow color though!) He's quite a "hot-dogger" and enjoys seeing what the bike can do.

Rodrigo ordered the wines, including an excellent Montes Alpha 2004 Syrah. At the table, I was surrounded by lawyers: Vanessa, Sylvia and Rodrigo. I had to defend myself all evening!

The Brazilians said "you must go to Fernando de Noronha", an island off Brazil's northeast coast. For me, it was quite interesting that I would meet and spend time with Brazilians when I'm at this crossroads in my journey. My brother, Drew has been trying to persuade me to go to Brazil, as several of his friends who live there have offered their hospitality should I make it that way.

But as I have mentioned to several people already, upon reaching Buenos Aires, it was just like the scene from the movie Forrest Gump where he was running across the United States (for the third or fourth time.) In the middle of Monument Valley, Arizona, he stopped, turned around and ran home, confounding his followers. He just decided it was time to stop. When I reached Buenos Aires, my vision of the route ahead was a blank.

We split the dinner bill eleven ways: $45.00 per person. Ouch!

It seems I have some explaining to do...

I am back in Santiago after a five-day, 3,000-mile driving blitz. For reasons difficult to explain (and perhaps unexplainable), I turned left at Buenos Aires, rather than continue north to Brazil.

I returned to the "Park Inn Hotel" at midnight last night, to rest a weary body and to await the next chapter, which may involve the shipment home of bike and rider.

Meanwhile, I hope to post some of the missing chapters from the past month!

Santiago Revisited

Nightfall and I was still on the road from Mendoza to Santiago. I came upon the mirador, or observation point for Aconcagua, the highest peak outside the Himalayas. When I passed here a month ago, the summit was shrouded in cloud, but tonight, in the twilight "alpenglow", I was startled when I looked up and saw the mountain. I scampered up a small hill (as fast as I can scamper in all my riding gear), and in the rapidly-fading light, set my camera on the ground and took this five-second exposure. Below, with a little software enhancement, is a high-contrast image.

I'm amazed that the camera captures so much detail, when the eye can barely discern the mountain!

2:00 a.m.

There's a strange sense that I need to get home. "I've got work to do." (Though it's not at all clear what that work might be.)

And I couldn't really understand why circumstances were propelling me back to Santiago. ("Maybe I can then take a ship home?" It's one of those romantic ideas I've had, to sail up the coast and through the Golden Gate.)

Wind is certainly a "feature" of Argentina. (And it always seems a crosswind!) Again, I was fighting heavy winds. Though my track was generally westward, the wind had now shifted to the southwest, and was as brutal as ever.

Passed the 40,000-mile mark in this journey today. A long ride in exactly nine months (and for most of Latin America, it's nothing like driving 40,000 miles in the U.S.) Strange to think that 7% of that mileage was racked up in just the past four days!

Fell for the "LPG station trick" again. Very low on fuel, I was relieved to roll into a station, only to find all the pumps outfitted with an unfamiliar kind of hose and nozzle assembly. Fortunately a real gas station was not far beyond.

Arrived at my destination, Mendoza late in the afternoon. The smell of fermenting grapes in the air. I drove right downtown and, with just a bit of difficulty, found my way to the Alcor Hotel. The streets seemed just as busy as during my previous visit, which was a concern. I thought tourism would be winding down now, as summer vacations are ending.

The hotel lobby was crowded. I squeezed to the reception desk and asked about vacancies. "None," the woman said with a smile. A couple other travelers were standing there trying to somehow extract an opening, but there were none to be had. Another young lady recognized me. I think she said "I'm the one who turned you away last time!"

I tried only one other hotel, one that had looked interesting on my previous visit. "Completo!"

"I'm not going to play the game this time..."

Left Mendoza, and headed for Chile. ("I might make Santiago by 10:00, which is not bad, though I'm not sure what time it's getting dark now.") Opened up the throttle and made tracks for the border. The sun would be dropping behind the Andes soon.

In the golden late afternoon light, it was a pleasure to be carving my way through the sweeping mountain curves, effortlessly passing trucks and buses as we climbed through the pass.

Heavy on Argentine Pesos, and uncertain how I would unload them, decided to take a bottle of wine back to Chile with me. At a market in Uspallata, I grabbed the most expensive bottle from the shelf, a "Goyenechea" Cabernet Sauvignon from Mendoza, about $14.

Sunset came earlier than hoped and with diminishing visibility, I was gradually forced to slow. I wanted to be over this pass by dark, but it was now clear (especially with customs still ahead), I would be on the pass well after dark and would have to adopt a much slower pace.

I was so focused on the road that when I reached the Aconcagua mirador and glanced sideways, I was jolted by the sight of the mountain, looming in the cloudless twilight. Turned the bike around and found a parking place on the shoulder, then fumbled for the camera. The cold air now had a bite.

Climbed a small hill for a clearer view. My tripod packed away in the pannier, I improvised, using some rocks to prop the camera on the ground. Took a few photos, blindly aiming the camera. The cold limited my patience.

Before reaching the border, pulled up to a hotel to see if I might exchange currencies there. It was a castle-like structure, very European: the "Arco de las Cuevas" hostel and restaurant. A fascinating building. Unfortunately, I wasn't interested in staying the night. They don't do currency exchange, but I was told there's an exchange office at aduana.

Reaching the border station, I was waved right into the large immigration hall (as opposed to going past all the little booths outside.) Apparently this is the way it's supposed to work, but when traffic is too heavy, they have to augment with the booths.

Exchanged my last 31 Pesos, which was perfect; this provided enough Chilean Pesos for the highway tolls going into Santiago (and for the fee I was about to discover.)

The border checkpoint is very well organized:

Window 1: Argentine Immigration. Stamp my passport. No problem.

Window 2: Argentine Aduana. Handed the officer my motorcycle temporary importation permit. "Do you have this document?" he said holding up a large yellow and white form.

"No. Only the entry form. That's all they gave me."

He consulted other officers, then handed me the blank form. "Fill this out and return it." A little miffed, I stomped off to fill it out. Returning, he signed, stamped and handed it back to me.

"Go to window 3," he said, pointing the way.

Window 3: Chile Immigration and Aduana. "Do you have this form?"

"No." (Because it’s kept behind your window, you idiot!)

"Fill this out, then take it to window 4."

Window 4: SAG (Agricultural) "Fill out this form, then give it to the officer outside."

I handed the completed forms to a SAG officer standing outside near the motorcycle. She looked at the yellow and white form (from window 2.)

"You did not go to window 1."

"Yes I did. They stamped my passport!"

"Go to window 1. They have to sign this."

Window 1 (revisited): The officer was perplexed. I told him he had to sign. He did so, and handed it back.

Back outside, I found the officer again.

"Did you pay?"

"Pay what?"

"Window 5. You have to pay."

"Jesus Christ!"

Another officer, smiling, escorted me to window 5. The fee is about $1.25. Now I remembered: it's the toll for the Chilean side of the tunnel. (Earlier, entering the tunnel on the Argentine side, I was just waved around the toll gate.)

Outside. I showed her my receipt for the toll. Okay, now they can inspect.

Another officer, a young fellow, noting that I was very angry, decided to inspect the three hard cases and the tank bag, tapping each in succession, indicating he wanted them opened.

Of course, when you open the side panniers and start rummaging through, everything just starts spilling out.

After being satisfied, he said "close them up” and left.

"Thank you very fucking much!"

Other travelers milling about were amused by my carrying-on.

I had lost it at this point and was livid (an all-too-common condition lately!) All the mindless bureaucrats and "control freaks"!

I'm weary of the countless control checkpoints along Latin American highways. Even if many of them don't pertain to motorcycles, or just wave you through, their very presence is oppressive and demoralizing.

(Yet, just today, I was reflecting on the virtual absence of a police presence actually out on the highways of Argentina and Chile. You can pretty much drive without fear of being pulled over and cited. I don't quite understand the contradiction. Perhaps it's the high cost of gasoline that keeps them relatively immobilized. The California Highway Patrol certainly doesn't allow the price of gas to curtail activity.)

In the dark, and with no pavement markings (only occasional reflectors along the shoulders), I slowed to less than half the speed I was driving earlier. But I was okay. Really. I had calmed down and it was just a matter of taking things slowly and patiently working my way back to Santiago.

Highway mileage signs confound here: it is not uncommon for distances between cities to change significantly. According to the signs, the distance between Mendoza and Santiago grew by 30 miles, the nearer I came to Santiago. It was running away from me!

Midnight exactly. Arrived at the "Park Inn Hotel". 46,251 miles on the bike. The only other vehicle in the parking lot, an R1200GS like mine. An unfamiliar clerk at the front desk (and a not very hospitable one at that.)

I asked for my "old" room, 207 (I think) again. He said the second floor was not available. "Why?"

"It's closed," he said, but couldn't explain why.

I was getting picky now, but settled for a first-floor room.

While unloading the bike, a group arrived by taxi. They had obviously enjoyed the evening. All were motorcyclists. One Spaniard and six Brazilians. Most of their bikes are in the shop at Williamson Balfour. One, an R1200GS only three months old has a bad engine! Another, has $5,000 in damages, the result of fall in Peru.

Settled into my room, turning on the TV. The first English channels in weeks. Later, connected to the internet. Ah, the luxury! (Is this why I drove all the way to Santiago?)

Travel has become tedious the past couple weeks. Not what I would characterize as “fun”. I look forward to just "chilling out" here for a few days.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Buenos Aires to who knows where

Argentina's enormous plains are home to big winds and big weather. The sky is the source of perpetual drama.

9:00 p.m.

Alongside Argentina Highway 7, west of Buenos Aires

The past few days have been a physical, emotional and psychological odyssey. No sleep last night. Over 850 miles driving up to, and around Buenos Aires, then nearly 300 more after giving up on efforts to ship the motorcycle home from there. After 1,150 miles, I finally came to a halt, here among a clump of trees just off the highway.


At around 9:30 this morning, I found an agent at the American Airlines counter in the Buenos Aires international airport. I asked him to price out passenger flights to L.A.: $794, all the taxes included. There was a flight going out at 10:55 tonight. I made a reservation. If, between now and then, I could make all the arrangements to ship the bike via air cargo, I would be on that flight. I would arrive in L.A. tomorrow morning.

The agent then referred me to American Airlines Operations regarding the shipment of the motorcycle. They have an office hidden behind the check-in counters (and they had probably been there all morning!)

Inside that office, I found a gentleman who was clearly more informed about air cargo shipments. He said American doesn't handle "dangerous goods". "You need to contact DHL or Fed Ex", or some similar outfit, and he directed me to the air cargo operations area, which is a separate complex from the passenger terminals.

Walked over to the air cargo terminal, half a mile away, and checked in at security. They provided a pass so I could visit Fed Ex and DHL Express.

At DHL Express, I was told they only carry parcels up to 25 pounds, and $3,000 in value. For air cargo, I must go to the DHL Customer Service counter in the "arrivals terminal", they said. Before walking back to the passenger terminals, I checked with Fed Ex.

At first, I was told the same: they ship only small parcels, then a fellow there who spoke some English said they could ship the bike as "personal effects" and estimated the cost at $500, but he said I would need an agent. They can't do the documentation. He referred me to the airport customs office to find out what is required. At customs, I wandered through the maze of cubicles until I reached the group that handles export cargo. They told me "you don't need an agent. Fed Ex and DHL prepare the documents. We don't do any of that."

In the passenger terminal, I located the DHL Customer Service counter. The staff appeared overwhelmed and stressed. "All we do is small parcels, we have nothing to do with shipping motorcycles! You have to contact the main office," and he gave me a phone number to call.

Using the airport phone center, I called the DHL/Danzas main office. Sergio Chavaris said "it's no problem" and quoted a rate of about $900 ($2.26/Kg). He told me me to contact Diego Orfano at DHL's airport office and "tell Diego you talked with me."

Outside at the motorcycle, I met Richard Shindell , an American musician who now lives in Buenos Aires (though he still tours in the U.S.) He noticed my license plate, and said he had recently played coffee houses in the Bay Area, even in Petaluma or Santa Rosa, he couldn't recall which.

Exited the parking lot over a curb, without paying. ("They owe me!") I rode the bike over to the air cargo terminal and checked it into the export loading area. Security called DHL requesting someone escort me to their office. After fifteen minutes, no one had showed up, so I walked over unescorted.

Laureena Fuentes, conversant in English was quickly becoming my personal assistant there. I told her that "Fed Ex said the bike could be shipped as 'personal effects' and that Sergio said it was 'no problem'." She made an inquiry and confirmed they could also do this.

But she didn't recognize Diego's name. "Oh, he must be at DHL/Danzas. It's the same company, but they have a different office," and she explained how to get to his office. At Danzas, they didn't know Diego either. Then, one of the fellows called a third DHL office "in the Millennium building," finally reaching Diego.

Sergio had already contacted Diego and discussed my situation. Diego, however, handed me off to another fellow who told me "you need to come over to this building so we can talk. It's very complicated. It would be easier through DHL Express, and much cheaper."

Not wishing to walk across the airport to yet another office building, I told him "I'll go back to DHL Express. They discovered they can ship it after all."

Meanwhile, Laureena had spoken with customs and learned that as long as I have entry documents for the motorcycle, DHL Express can handle the export as personal effects. But it's still new territory for them.

I had been through the security checkpoints so often, they finally stopped asking to see my pass.

Laureena continued to work on my case, trying to ascertain how the bike must be prepared for shipment. But time was slipping away, and she began to doubt this could be resolved today. After speaking with her boss, she reported that the packer, who is not even at the airport, couldn't possibly do the job today, "and he's in frequent contact with them." I wasn't convinced. No one had actually talked to the packer about my situation.

Finally she called the packer. They were not accepting any more jobs until Monday. If the bike were received then, they would have it ready next Friday. And I would need to be here to accompany the bike back to the airport and through customs!

So, it appeared I was looking at a 10-day process. Laureena said she would try to find a way, perhaps through my providing them "power of attorney", that I would not need to be present for the final transfer. "But this will take time, I can't have an answer to all this today!"

Laureena was a real champion for my cause, but even she finally reached the limit of her patience and became upset with my negativity. “It’s not like we’re lazy! I really want to help, but it’s just impossible to do today!”

Staying did not seem an option for me. I had no place to go in Buenos Aires. I told her I’d just as soon leave the motorcycle on the side of the road.

“Don’t you love your motorcycle?” she asked sincerely.

“No. It has served its purpose."

After nine hours at this airport, I was no closer to having the bike shipped. My mind was too numb to really think. At this point, I was merely reacting. I collected my things and left the office. Outside, I stood by the bike for a long time. “What now?”

Try shipping from Santiago, Chile? The idea of re-tracing my route, even in part, felt like such a "cop-out", a retreat and a failure. ("Is there another way to view this? Of course. I’ll just have to discover it.") Returning to Chile just felt wrong, but maybe it was the simplest solution.

At this point, I was simply tired of being "jerked around" by people who haven’t a clue.

There was still one matter to address in Buenos Aires: Sacha had purchased brake pads to replace those I had given him. They were waiting for me at the BMW dealer downtown. I really didn’t want to undertake the 20-mile drive back into the heart of the city just for these, but experience has shown it is wise to carry spares.

With its traffic congestion and shroud of smoggy haze, I found Buenos Aires very unpleasant today. Since I had unintentionally become quite familiar with downtown Buenos Aires last night, I easily found the BMW shop and there I met “Large”, the parts counter man. As soon as I approached, he knew what I had come for. He actually showed concern for my situation and was quite sympathetic. I purchased an oil filter, four spark plugs and one liter of oil. This set me back over $100! Incredible. (Sacha had to pay over $100 just for the two small brake pads!)

With parts in hand, I asked Large for directions to Ruta 7. It appears that, unconsciously, a decision was made: I would be heading to Mendoza and from there, Santiago. Drivers here (as in Lima) are "nuts", and really have little regard for motorcycles. It's a tough place to ride. Well beyond the city, at 3:30 I finally stopped at a gas station for a sandwich.

Throughout the plains west of Buenos Aires, in Argentina's "bread basket", billboards advertise fertilizers, herbicides, "microencapsulated" pesticides and seed stocks. It's a major marketing and public relations campaign in support of large-scale agri-business and genetic engineering.

Collected in the ponds, lakes and rivers is the residue of these operations, and as I rode throughout the afternoon, I was frequently enveloped in the sickening smells. All I wanted now was to get out of the wet lowlands and back to the mountains!

The only campground I passed today was apparently closed for the season. As daylight faded, I searched for a suitable spot to set up my tent. Periodically, there were small groves of trees planted along the highway's grassy shoulders. I eventually found one that would offer a little bit of concealment.

Trying to cross a berm in the deep grass, I put my foot down to catch myself, but the ground was not there and I dropped the bike. No problem. I was a few feet from where I wanted to be and just started pulling things off and tossing them over to the campsite.

Because the bike was upside down on a little slope, it was difficult to right, but I experimented with different lifting techniques until I found one that worked (Sacha's handlebar technique). The left pannier was "tweaked" again, the telescoping sections forced out of alignment. No big deal.

Erected the tent in the twilight, and put out the rainfly as the rain drops started falling. Too warm to seal things up completely, I left the screens open. As darkness fell, I delighted in seeing fireflies dart about.

Since being ill, I had lost my sense of smell for virtually all the southern leg of this trip. With it now returning, I was hoping to celebrate reaching Ushuaia with a nice dinner and some good wine in Buenos Aires. It looks like that will now have to wait until Mendoza.

Buenos Aires Airport

Wednesday morning,  8:00 a.m.

Here is another of those surreal experiences I have a particular knack for attracting.

I’m at the international airport terminal outside Buenos Aires, awaiting the arrival of American Airlines staff. After a bizarre night, I will look into shipping the bike home.

First I was told they’d be here at 7:00. Now I’m told 10:00 a.m.


After over 800 miles and a grueling night of riding amidst the truckers, I rolled into Buenos Aires around 11:00 p.m. and began the now-accustomed hotel search. Five hours later, at 4:00 in the morning, I was standing in an Esso* station, mind numb, simply staring at the streets around me.

For a long time, I just leaned on the bike. I felt homeless (though, of course, far from it; I obviously have many options the homeless don’t.) I was at a complete loss for where to go from here. ("Maybe it’s because there is nowhere to go from here?")

(*Somewhere on this trip I finally learned that Esso, a gasoline brand I've known since childhood, stands for S.O., Standard Oil!)

Earlier in the night, it had taken about an hour and numerous inquiries to finally locate the Buenos Aires "Holiday Inn Express". My vision of just rolling into this city and setting up camp for several days was dashed when they told me they were full, with nothing available until March. (Anyway, the price, $130 per night, was way too much.)

I then tried roughly a dozen other hotels, crisscrossing downtown Buenos Aires throughout the night. And repeatedly, that almost smug response to my inquiry: “lleno or completo (full)!” Not the slightest offer of further assistance, a suggestion, or even sympathy.

Finally, someone explained: "the Rolling Stones gave a concert tonight. People have come to Buenos Aires from the surrounding countries!" I tried to ascertain if there were another area, far from downtown, with hotels, but no one seemed aware of any. What about at the airport? "No."

Through the filter of this ordeal, I wasn’t enjoying Buenos Aires much. Even though there seemed interesting areas with nice shops and restaurants, it was not enough to overcome my aversion to yet another unfamiliar, giant city. During the night, what struck me most were the over-crowded, trash-filled streets, insane drivers and suicidal taxis. The boulevards appear to have no lanes. (Cars go everywhere, and have a tendency to pass very close to me, which several times had me shouting at the oblivious drivers.)


I stood by the motorcycle in this gas station, in the middle of the night, mentally going through all the arguments. I feel like I’ve gained what I was after from this experience. (Though I’m not quite sure what that is, there is a sense that I "have it"!) Right now, I can’t think of much else I really want to see. Is there anything remaining that’s justifies the continuing commitment?

  • The Salar de Uyuni, certainly; but is it worth all the effort to go to that isolated playa, and then commit to the entire ride back to the States?
  • Brazil? Bob has told me I would need to dedicate much more time to Brazil, a country larger than the United States. Besides, he said you can't really see  Brazil from a motorcycle. (From the highway, you can't see much at all in the tropical rainforests!) You need to fly into remote locations to fully appreciate the country.
  • Venezuela and Colombia's Caribbean coast? Yes, based upon all the stories I've heard, I was really looking forward to these exotic destinations and would have liked to meet Hugo Chavez!
  • El Salvador? Another gem that I regretted missing on the way south, but again, does it justify the return trek?
  • The highlands and west coast of Mexico and Baja California? That could easily be a separate trip after returning to California.
  • After yesterday's little taste of  heat and humidity, I don’t think I can face the tropical regions once again (and that’s what much of the remaining journey would be. There would be few mountainous landscapes like those I've so enjoyed in South America.)
  • The front brake discs need replacement, an expense of $1,000 or more. It would be difficult to shell out that money, knowing I have a nearly-new set buried in my storage unit back home.
  • And then there’s all those border crossings and bureaucrats. (Twelve countries between here and home!)
  • And, finally, I'm time-bound to be home for Jessica's graduation in May. (Of course, I could always store the bike in place and fly home for the occasion.)

Does it make any sense to throw more money at a venture when you feel you've finished? Money wasted now, riding "just because I said I would" comes at the expense of future opportunities.


The middle of the night brings out some strange characters. One such fellow came over to me at the gas station. Wearing a sport coat (clearly not a homeless person), he provided counsel in broken English: "you’re down! You need to have coffee and donuts, then think like it's tomorrow."

I looked at the map. Buenos Aires is surrounded by many suburbs and towns – a heavily-populated region which I already want to escape. I asked directions to the airport and soon had half a dozen Esso employees and customers trying to help me.

At 4:40 a.m., decision made, I was off to the airport to take action! After a twenty-mile ride, I found my way to the airport terminal's information kiosk. There I was told the only company who could carry the bike would be American Airlines and their service counter wouldn't be staffed for two hours.

Returning to the motorcycle, I found three airport security guards gathered around the bike. They wanted me to remove all my gear and put it on a cart to roll around with me. No way. I didn't care if they felt responsible. I just ignored them.


Argentineans appear to like French cars! Renault, Citroen and Peugeot appear to represent a high percentage of the market.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

On to Buenos Aires


Awoke in a soaked tent. I hadn't tucked the edges of the tarp far enough under the tent. I guess I had slept, though it was a restless night. Crawled out to check on the weather and to see my campsite by daylight. I waved to a northbound Harley rider. A gray, chilly, drizzly morning. Put on my riding suit just to get warm.

Without much delay, I continued my push to Buenos Aires. The drizzle and strong crosswinds seemed like they would be with me for the day.

In Sierra Grande, a refueling stop and much-needed visit to the "loo". (You have to supply your own toilet paper here.) An attendant recommended a short-cut to Buenos Aires: taking route 251 north out of San Antonio de Oeste, then east on route 22 to Bahia Blanco. He said it's faster than staying on Ruta 3. Seeing that many other vehicles appeared to be making that turn, I followed his advice.

Less than an hour north, I crossed the Rio Negro, its flood plain green with tall trees and lush fields. The past 1,000 miles had been a colorless, incredibly homogeneous stretch of tree-less pampa, so this was a remarkable vision. North of Rio Negro, I was beginning to notice trees, though not tall ones, scattered across the plain.

And the weather was quickly changing. The uniform gray of the southern skies, had given way to hazy billowing thunderheads. Above were air masses in collision. Within an hour, I was stripping off all my cold weather gear. Off came the rain coat, fleece jacket, winter gloves and long-sleeved shirt. (I had already stowed the electric vest this morning.) While stopped, I also took the opportunity to lower the handlebars from the “off-road” position. I wasn't anticipating any more unpaved roads for a long time.

It felt like I had just crossed from the Canadian border to the Mexican border. It was hot and humid - 95 degrees in the sun! Rio Negro seems to be the dividing line between northern and southern Argentina. The atmosphere was becoming quite turbulent, with the moist unstable air spawning thunderstorms.

Continuing north and east, these storms were developing into mammoth weather systems with canopies hundreds of miles wide. And yet, the highway avoided them so effectively, only occasionally brushing the edges of the curtains of rain. (A few times it actually felt refreshing.)

Bahia Blanca, which has such an alluring name, was a big disappointment as I discovered it's an enormous oil depot, with sprawling refineries and all the attendant sights and smells. Not a pretty place. But it provided motivation to keep moving.

Sunset found me in Las Flores. I had been watching the fantastic cloud formations for hours, waiting for something to photograph, and I figured the time was about right. Pulled in for gas, and there, parked at one of the pumps, I saw the Harley from this morning. (We had leap-frogged each other a couple times during the day.) I went over to meet the rider.

Bill Clark's from Bandon, Oregon. He's the Harley rider I keep hearing about as I tour Latin America. He's on his way back from Ushuaia, riding his 2002 "Heritage Softail". He has also taken this bike up to Prudhoe Bay.

Bill planned to take a room in Las Flores, but I intended to move on to Buenos Aires, about 100 miles further. As we talked, the sun set, and photo ops faded, but I didn't mind. Unfortunately, when he came over to look at my bike, someone found a pocket translator he had dropped on the ground. He returned to pick it up, but it was gone.

It wasn't my intention, but I got caught driving after dark; actually, for several hours after dark. (Coming north and east, and with the passage of time, "I've lost" over an hour of daylight. In Chile, the sun was setting after 9:00, tonight sunset was around 8:00.)

Ruta 3 is heavily-traveled at night, and virtually all the vehicles are trucks and buses. Trucks driving 35 mph and trucks driving 80. Trucks with barely any running lights (or lights obscured from behind by the belching smoke) and trucks lit up like Christmas trees. (I see little evidence of trains carrying much freight in Chile and Argentina. There's nothing like the great rail systems of North America.)

It's a two-lane highway, kind of like a two-lane U.S. Interstate 80. And a real driving challenge to work through the maze of tractor trailers.

Rio Gallegos to Peninsula Valdés

I saw this little guy scurry across a barren stretch of Argentina's Ruta 3. I assume it's an armadillo!


Camped in the brush along Argentina's Ruta 3 just north of the turn-off for Valdés Peninsula. Rode out to the park, paying the 35-Peso entry, continuing on to Puerto Pyramides, only to find the municipal campground a virtual slum, crowded, littered with trash, occupied by apparent "squatters".

I was so disgusted, that even though it was 10:00 p.m , I turned around and left the park. Tried to demand my money back at the gate, but heard the usual story: “there’s a problem.” I asked for the ranger's supervisor’s name. Not that it would do any good.

Another useless 60-mile detour. Passed 44,444 miles on the way out. Not the celebration I had intended. Perhaps it was best to pass on the Valdés Peninsula after all. When I asked where I could see the whales, the ranger said it's not the season.

I chose a spot along the highway that was screened from north-bound traffic by tall bushes. I didn't want to be spotted. As I set up my tent in the dark, there were frequent silent flashes in the cloudy sky. Judging from the winds, however, I guessed the storm would soon be upon me.


Crawled out about 8:30 this morning. Cold, but at least I slept. The knee very sore. Everything more difficult when it's cold. Slow to pack up.

A day focused solely on riding – over 850 miles. I’m now about the same latitude as Puerto Montt. I may not need my electric vest tomorrow, but it was good today!

Early on, just north of Rio Gallegos, I passed a south-bound R1200GS with two aboard. Waved and started to pull over, but they kept going. I followed for a while but they showed no sign of slowing, so I turned north again. I wondered though if it were Brad?

Rain in the afternoon, then I cleared the storm only to find Ruta 40 type cross winds, but these were coming off the Atlantic! (So curiously, it was again from the right side. I hope this doesn't wear out the right sides of my tires!)

In Trelew, I needed some food. Asked a service station attendant where there might be a nice restaurant nearby (expecting he would recommend a sandwich or pizza shop.) He sent me to "Eloisa", a white-linen-type restaurant. Not exactly what I was searching for.

Across the street, on a corner, was the "Mi Ciudad" cafe, which seemed to be doing a good business. It's mainly a bar, I found, but I was able to order a pizza. Unfortunately, it was terrible! I'm beginning to think Argentina doesn’t know pizza. Still, I ate half, merely to load up on the carbohydrates.

Along with the pavement, songs have returned. I'm at ease riding again (save for the battering wind.)

Some interesting wildlife along the highway today: many guanucos (grazing the shoulders), rheas (related to the ostrich), pink flamingos standing in shallow ponds and even a small armadillo.

Its eyesight is apparently not too good, but when it finally noticed me hovering above, it "took to ground"

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Puerto Natales to Rio Gallegos, via Torres del Paine

Torres del Paine

10:00 p.m.

I'm camped along the highway about 25 miles north of Rio Gallegos. It's not quite like camping along Ruta 40; this is the main north-south artery for Argentina. But I’ll put in some ear plugs and it should be fine. I’m just behind an embankment, out of the direct view of traffic. It's cold and windy, though not too bad. Hope I can sleep!


After some breakfast, I had a 9:00 a.m. start for Torres del Paine (accompanied by lots of tour buses and passenger vans.) Not much wind this morning, but it was chilly. And my right knee was very weak and in a bit of pain (from that twist on Ruta 40), more bothersome than usual.

From Puerto Natales, it's about a 90-mile drive up to Torres, and all gravel once you pass the airport, much of it a construction zone. (It should be paved before long, which is just fine with me.)

At the National Park, there's a 10,000 Peso ($20) entry fee. I was given a map, and the young lady drew an "x" at two places on one of the roads. "This is where you get the best view of the Torres," she said.

In my experience, the fox is an extraordinarily elusive creature, but in Torres del Paine National Park, they have become accustomed to hand-outs from tourists

I followed the gravel road in towards what I figured was the center of the park, the park administration building. The roads are well-traveled, mostly with small and large tour buses, many labeled "adventure touring", or some variation on the theme.

Torres del Paine. It's not as remote as I once imagined.

So what do you do here? I stopped to take photos of the glacier-carved and polished granite peaks, visited the saltos, impressive falls, found the "x"s and took some more photos.

Chris and Amber! I found a great little river for you to kayak in Torres del Paine!

The only problem is this little falls downstream...

Torres del Paine is a remarkably compact cluster of mountains, somewhat reminiscent of Wyoming's Grand Tetons

The Torres

Torres del Paine is unquestionably beautiful, but I think I’m suffering from AMSS (Awesome Mountain Saturation Syndrome). Is it worth the drive out here? I think I would choose another place, rather than invest the energy to come here. This has been "hyped" and marketed far too much. (Of course, I never left the road and ventured into the back country, so this might be akin to judging Yosemite National Park based upon a visit to Camp Curry.)

The reality of Patagonia is so different from my imaginary picture (formed from hearing the stories of winemaker Tony Coltrin’s and others’ who traveled this land.) I never envisioned such a prevalence of tour buses and outfitting shops.

I did enjoy wandering amidst the hearty vegetation and Bonsai-like cypress and pines, and watching the herds of Guanacos, hundreds of them migrating in a column through the park.


Running at full speed, with a bite to the rear leg, this guy chases an intruder away

My path took me out of the park along a different route. I made a wrong turn and ended up at Cerro Guido, rather than the Cerro Castillo I wanted. A policeman straightened me out. (And believe me, I need a lot of straightening!) It was a mere 15-mile "side trip". In Cerro Castillo, I looked for a gas station. The police said it's small but there is one. So small, I guess, that I couldn't find it.

Then I was told there's gas across the border in Argentina (and it's much cheaper there), so I spent all my remaining Pesos on junk food at a small trading post, departing Chile with 50 centavos. An easy border crossing: I was the only person! (However, two bicyclists beat me to the Argentinean port of entry, so I had to wait five minutes!)

A (really!) final farewell to Chile. Again, it was rather emotional, considering all I've experienced in this incredible country.

After about six miles, the dirt road I was riding connected with Ruta 40. It's paved down here! Things were looking up, and I felt like singing again. Sit back, relax and roll on the throttle!

Reaching the town of 28 de Noviembre, I refueled and asked the attendant which of the two eastbound roads do I take for Rio Gallegos. He pointed west.

"No, I just came from that direction."

He pointed west again.

"That's Chile. You don't go to Chile to reach Rio Gallegos. I just came from Chile."

He nodded, then had to take care of other customers.

Left in confusion, a gentleman came over and, in an English accent asked if I drove from S.F.

"Yes. I'm confused."

"Where do you want to go?"

"Rio Gallegos. But that fellow said I have to go west to get to Rio Gallegos."

"It depends on the kind of road you want to drive..."

He then explained that if I want to ride tarmac, I need to go back to where I originally came out on Ruta 40. Had I turned left there, instead of right, that would have put me on the northern route to Rio Gallegos, via Esperanza.

"It's 99% paved. If you continue east from here, it's all ripio (gravel). Unfortunately, those maps don't tell you which is the better road."

Well, my preference was clear, but I hated the idea of back-tracking 23 miles.

Of course, these guys were right. Following their instructions, I was on road that permitted me to cruise at 85 to 90 mph all the way to Rio Gallegos.

Reached that city at 7:30, and drove directly to the "Hotel Alfonso", but was disappointed to learn it was full. The same with three others. Never an "I'm sorry", or "can I make a suggestion?" It's as if they're making up for all the time they probably have to beg for customers.

"I’ll just go eat." (I had been looking forward to dining at "RoCo" once again. However the restaurant was closed today. "Damn!" I was mad at the world. "I’m getting the hell out of here!" Just to put something in my stomach, I bought a hot dog at the "YPF" gas station. The sun was setting as I rolled north out of Rio Gallegos. "Here we go again!"


At gas stations here, the attendants almost always ask if you have change. They don't seem to have coins (but can find them if they need to.) And they carry the "till" in their pocket! Each walks around with a big wad of bills. It all seems very loose. (Different than Chile!)


The bike is only starting in neutral now. A new development. Something to do with an electronic sensor, no doubt.


Patagonia has been a land of illness for me. My Guatemalan host, David Kuhn, also reported he became terribly ill as soon as he reached the southern climes during his vacation cruise.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales

Sunset at Puerto Natales, Chile

“Hostal Natales”, Puerto Natales, Chile

Wind blowing, rattling the plastic skylight panels. It’s midnight. The search for a room was relatively easy in this town. After only a couple other stops, I came upon this hostel. This is a great spot, though for many I'm sure the $20 price is too dear. I was put in a room with four bunks, but assured I'd be the only inhabitant. A large private bath. Lots of modern computers (though expensive: they charged me 1,000 Pesos per hour to hook up my laptop, in lieu of the normal 2,000-Peso rate for use of their terminals.)

I only traveled from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales today, but given the continual 30+ mph crosswind, the 150-mile ride was sufficiently-tiring. My neck muscles were fatiguing, as I struggled to keep my head and helmet from flopping all around. (It's interesting; you can drive the motorcycle into a 60 mph headwind and the aerodynamics will deliver a remarkably smooth ride. But when that wind is coming from the sides, it's an entirely different experience!) Arrived here with less than two liters of gas to spare.


Rested well last night, ear plugs effectively eliminating the noise from the boulevard below. Up at 8:00, a light breakfast, then turned to the internet. As it would be a short riding day, I felt I could spend a few hours on the blog.

Connected to the hotel, is a large internet café. High speed connections are available in this city. I was able to post via "Picasa" again, and ended up going back over all the photos published through “Blogger” and re-posting them (this resulted in better images in the blog.) But it's a time-consuming process.

(What is it about internet cafés and air freshener? Periodically, the people who run these places walk around, spritzing the air with freshener. It makes me gag!)

I ended up spending five hours here. As I was reaching the point where I’d have to break it off, I received an e-mail from Nina: they were in Punta Arenas, and would be at the main square at 3:00. I tried to tie everything up and get down there. It was 3:10 when I began circling the square, but I never found them. After about five passes, it was time to move on. (In the process, I found a good little internet café and coffee shop: “Coffeenet” just off the square. But too late!)

The wind outside Punta Arenas is amazing! And with it, comes rapidly-changing weather. Rain was bearing down from the west and I raced to outrun it. I had hoped to visit the Pinguineira Otway, just north of Punta Arenas, but with black skies, the rain had already laid claim to that area. I rode on. It was cold, but up ahead (always up ahead, just out of reach) the edge of the storm, and promise of sunlight.

If the road had adhered to a northerly track, I would be away from this threat and out in that sunlight, but it seemed to tease me, turning west into the approaching rain, then veering north away from it, then back into the rain again. Anticipating that I was soon to be drenched, added another layer of protection: my Gore-Tex rain jacket and pants. They also helped to block the cold wind. At this point there weren't any more layers to put on! (I could barely move as it is.)

Across one particularly barren stretch of plain appropriately stands a "Monument to the Wind"! A series of towers, mounted with swirling abstract metal sculptures. Approaching Puerto Natales, with its more mountainous terrain, the wind subsided.

In Patagonia (as in Newfoundland), the weather changes rapidly. Everyone jokes about it. "If you don't like the weather now, wait thirty minutes."


On advice from the hostel (not hostile) staff, I went out to dinner at the "Concepto Indigo” restaurant. I told them I wanted to try centolla, the king crab for which this region is famous.

A comfortable, rustic dining room with windows looking out on the channel, hot sun glaring through the glass, then disappearing behind clouds. Cream of pumpkin soup, then “Chupa de Centolla”, a casserole-like dish made with king crab. Very good! Accompanied by an excellent Mexican-style salsa and "Kunstmann" beer. At nearly $24, however, the meal was expensive.

After dinner, I walked along the waterfront, where a large ferry was still unloading, apparently an hours-long process. Tractor trailers were rolling off and directly into a fenced customs compound. This one small area of the town was bustling with activity. Everywhere else it was pretty mellow.

This ferry is a major supply line between Puerto Montt and Puerto Natales, traveling the inside passages of Chile's southern coast

Wandering "uptown" later, I passed a group of backpackers apparently having some trouble with an ATM. I asked if anyone wanted to exchange currencies. One couple agreed to trade, and I gave them 20,000 Chilean Pesos for about 120 Argentinean Pesos. This will leave me pretty tight on Chilean currency. (I held back enough for the entry into Torres del Paine tomorrow.)

I had asked someone where I could find some coffee, and was directed to “El Living” on the square, where they advertise “real coffee” and vegetarian food. A very comfortable little spot. I've found at independent coffee shops, it's a good bet you’ll hear Bob Marley's music.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Porvenir, Tierra del Fuego to Punta Arenas

Shrine to the Virgin Mary on the ferry

11:30 p.m.

"Hostal Calafate", Punta Arenas, Chile

For me and the motorcycle, the ferry from Porvenir to Punta Arenas cost 7,700 Pesos, over $15. It was about a 2-1/2 hour crossing. Not many vehicles boarded, but I was surprised by the hundreds of foot passengers. At 7:00 p.m., we set out under completely overcast skies, sailing on glassy calm water. It was eerie, too still.

Crossing the Magellan Straits to Punta Arenas

Farewell to Tierra del Fuego

The water surface, fabric-like

I was approached by a man and his son. Galvarino and Rodrigo Adasme are from Santiago. They are proud owners of BMW motorcycles and, together, restore older models. Rodrigo has a pretty good command of English, which made conversing considerably easier.

It's funny, I will often be listening to someone speaking Spanish, and feel things are going pretty well, I'm understanding it. Then I'll trip over a word I don't understand, and lose it all.

While we were talking, people crowded to the port-side railing. We were passing a couple of whales. By the time they re-surfaced and I got a look, they were a few hundred yards off. Still, I could see, and hear, the blast of water from their blow holes.

The Chilean Armada, including an ice breaker (on the left) in Punta Arenas harbor

Approaching Punta Arenas, a crew member came for me, saying something about the motorcycle. I started to take a picture of Galvarino and Rodrigo, but he said we had to hurry.

Working our way down the decks, the passengers were all crowding near the exits, ready to leave. The cars on the vehicle deck were lined up, engines running. My bike was in the way, still strapped down. I clambered down the ladders and quickly unsecured the bike just as the bow ramp was dropped. Getting off the ship and out of the rush of vehicles, I took some time to re-organize my things, and pack them better.

Galvarino and Rodrigo followed and offered to lead me to their hotel in Punta Arenas. If I liked it, I could stay, otherwise the hotel staff could probably help me find another.

Indeed, theirs was too expensive ($150, I think, but they didn't have any rooms left.) The receptionist called several other locations on my behalf. She found one (this hotel) nearby for $50.

Max told me, when in Punta Arenas, "you must go to 'Sitito' for centolla (king crab)", but the receptionist said "it's very touristic and expensive. There's a better restaurant." and she said her favorite is "Damiana Elena". We all (not the receptionist) agreed to meet there for dinner in 45 minutes.

Having a closer look at "Hostal Calafate", it was clear you are paying for the location, a half-block off the main plaza. The building is well-worn and amenities minimal. I wasn't going to spend any more energy on hotels though. A positive feature: they provide free parking in a locked yard behind the hotel.

At about 10:00, I met Galvarino, Marta and Rodrigo at the restaurant. I tried to buy a bottle of wine for the table, but Galvarino suggested we try the Misiones de Rengo 2004 Syrah Reserve. It was more reasonably-priced than the "Casillero del Diablo" I was going to buy.

We talked about Parque Pumalin. Rodrigo explained that much opposition to the project was based upon the fear that rich foreigners were buying up Chile's glaciers to control the fresh water supply! I don't doubt that this could indeed motivate some individuals, though I cannot believe that is the case with the Tompkins.

I was disappointed that there was no centolla on the menu. I assumed that all the fine restaurants here would offer it! The food was good, though not exceptional. It left me wondering if I had made the right decision to miss out on "Sitito". In the end, Galvarino insisted on paying for dinner. I couldn't even contribute. "You are our guest in Chile!" And once again,  I find the journey highlighted with the kindness of strangers.

Galvarino, Marta and Rodrigo at "Damiana Elena" restaurant in Punta Arenas. Notice Galvarino's drawn wallet. He insisted I was their guest in Chile.

Ushuaia to Porvenir, Tierra del Fuego

I don't think they quite get it. Once you leave this place, you're probably not coming back.

"Hosteria Los Flamencos", Porvenir, Tierra del Fuego

12:00 a.m. Friday

If I had known the ferry from this small town on the west side of Tierra del Fuego to Punta Arenas doesn’t run every day, I might have chosen to spend an extra day in Ushuaia.

I arrived in this little seaside village and, at the gas station, asked directions to the ferry. The attendant asked “today’s”?


"140 kilometers further," he said.

"No, I mean this ferry!" I said, pointing to the harbor.

He said it leaves at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow. Then he asked if we were done.

I drove out to the ferry ramp, a few miles from town. No information there. Turning back for town, I saw a weathered sign for this hostel and decided to have a look before checking on hotels in town. The place was deserted and it took several minutes to find the caretakers. I facetiously asked if they had a room available and how much it would cost. 19,000 Pesos - $38! "There's no one here!"

I said it was too much for me. They dropped the price several times. When it reached $20, I agreed to stay. But no receipt, they said. This would be off the books.

A sadly neglected hotel, that doesn’t look that old, but is very run-down. Still, it was warm (with a gas space heater in the room) and the idea of camping out tonight by the landing really wasn’t too appealing.

"Hosteria Los Flamencos" in Porvenir, on the western shore of Tierra del Fuego

 Ferry at Porvenir, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

This morning

After a good rest, I was up and about at 9:30, feeling somewhat improved. Decided I would leave Ushuaia today, earlier than anticipated, and notified the desk clerk. (This was bucking the usual pattern when I have settled into comfortable lodging!) Check-out is 10:00, but he said 10:30 would be fine.

Packed everything up, then sat down for some coffee, toast and mini-croissants. Chatted with a couple from Mexico City, "Maya" and "Humberto". There they operate a Uruguayan restaurant franchise, “Don Asado” and invited me to stop in. Maya’s from Germany and speaks excellent English.

Down the block to the internet café again. I couldn’t leave Ushuaia without at least posting something in the blog! Wrote a few thoughts, thanking those who have joined me along the way, in e-mails, blog comments and telephone calls. On several occasions, I have thought "I must do this" and was happy the thought resurfaced at this particular moment.

I also sent off a photo to the Kenwood Press. They now have the "triptych": photos of me at the top, middle and bottom of the hemisphere.

The final business here was to top off the gas. It was 1:45 when I turned northward, bidding farewell to Ushuaia. Someone said it takes 14 hours to reach Punta Arenas by bus. Threatening skies, especially in the mountains...and cold. Using my electric vest, I assured my shivering body that once I crossed the mountains it wouldn’t be so bad.

On the way home now. One last look at Ushuaia!

From Ushuaia, the mountain pass is 25 miles. Beyond the pass, however, it really didn’t get much warmer. At 39 miles out, I entered the construction zone and that lasted until 53 miles, when the pavement resumed. (Within a short time, this entire stretch of Argentine highway will be paved.)

And farewell to the Fuegian Andes. North of these mountains, it gets warmer!

Overtook two other riders in the gravel: Brazilians I had passed on the way in! At Tolhuin, I planned to look for the bakery Sacha had told me of. Stopped at the gas station, where I found the Sao Paolo riders gathered and having sandwiches. ("Are you guys always eating?" I joked to myself.)

I was directed to the “Panaderia La Union”. With photos all around the building, apparently of the owner with various celebrities, this place seems to be a landmark. I bought a few empanadas, sitting down to eat two.

Blasted by a chilly crosswind, I continued on, trying to maintain 70 to 80 mph. It was emotional to look at the cockpit gauges and see "I’m 100 miles closer to home!"

There are similarities here to the North Slope of Alaska, as the oil industry has a strong presence, tapping into these desolate plains.

In Rio Grande, stopped only to refuel. Cold, with occasional light rain showers. Uncertain what hours they keep, I raced to the border crossing. Arriving in San Sebastian at 4:30, topped up the gas and hurried to the Argentine checkpoint. There, I found two Austrian riders going the other way. Offered them encouraging news: the worst roads are now behind them. Sailed through police, immigration and customs checks, then rushed off to Chile’s frontier.

The Chilean officials were uncharacteristically cheerful! The "Servicio Agricola y Ganadero" (SAG) forms are never out. Arriving at that particular window (after waiting in the other lines), the officer handed me a form and with a smile sent me off to fill it out. Naturally, when I return to his window, he's nowhere to be found and I must wait. I suspect he finds pleasure in this little manipulation.

After clearing customs, bundled up, putting on fleece over the electric vest and a wool beanie under the helmet. I wanted to put in a good day of riding, and perhaps reach Punta Arenas by day's end.

The unpaved road west to Porvenir is much better than the one I came south on. I was able to average 60 mph over much of it, though there were still plenty of potholes. Rain ahead had me concerned, but I never really had to deal with mud. To the west, a low range of hills stood in the way, so the highway skirted southward between the hills and numerous bays. Except for the birds and an occasional fox, there was little wildlife to be seen. This, to me, was surprising.

I imagined there might be an 8:00 p.m. ferry from Porvenir to Punta Arenas, so I was determined to arrive before that time. It took all my concentration to make it in time. Of course, then I found it doesn’t run until tomorrow.

And so, a forced pause in this sleepy town. Still, I was up until 1:00, recording receipts, looking at maps, writing notes, organizing "my life".

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Fin del Mundo

At the end of the road, reading the Kenwood Press. "I should be in here somewhere..."

269 days and 36,650 miles since I left my home on Sonoma Mountain, I arrived at a sign in Tierra del Fuego National Park that stated I had reached the end of the road.

I waited for the tour bus crowds to dissipate before I set up my camera, rolled the motorcycle up next to the sign, set the camera's self-timer and stepped into the photograph.

In more than one sense, it's a turning point. All along the road south the "unknown" lay ahead. And always, mixed with the anticipation, was an unspoken fear. Each time I recognized it, I realized that fear was simply a waste of energy. It would not excuse me from fate.

Now as I turn homeward, it is clear the unknown still lies ahead, and forever will. Whenever fear arises, I want the lesson of this experience to be that famous admonition: "continue because you must."

I think of the all enjoyment I've derived from having so many of you along. The dialogues through telephone calls, e-mails and blog comments have been an unexpected source of pleasure and support. First and foremost from family. But also from good friends like Mike and Heather, Sharon and Scott, Dona and Jack, "The Old Mondavi Gang" of Joyce, Janice, Susan, Shirley, Terry, Kim, Mark, Louis, Tim, Stephen, Jim, Josh, Russ, Lisa, Leo, Gary, Mike P., Mike F. and Steve. From Stephan, Gustavo, Jean-Pierre, Sasha, Richard at Hess, Klaus and Guy.

And from "new friends", Max, Evan, Tim "PAYNTERinFLORIDA",Tim Spires, Dicky "Muddyboy", Carolina, Emilio de Cancún, Jinx, Scott, Bill from Nebraska, "Don" David and Kelsey.

And finally, from my "riding buddies", Anne ("Anna Moto Diva"), Brad, Aki and Motsu, Mako and Fumy, Sacha, Jeremiah, "Toddy", David from Sacramento, Bill from Denver, Issa and Larry.

Thanks to you all! You're great traveling companions.

I look forward to our ride "home"!

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Day of rest

The end of the road, outside Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego. Take the picture. Turn around. Go home.

At breakfast, I sat with “Mark” from Oregon, who is about to depart on a trip to Antarctica. He didn't convince me of the need to go see it. It's far too expensive a trip, and I don't think tourism should be encouraged in that delicate environment. Later on, I went out on the motorcycle to explore the city.

The above "end of the road sign" is unfortunately situated in Tierra del Fuego National Park. Not only do you have to pay 20 Pesos (almost $7) for the privilege of taking a photo at the end of the road, it draws all these people into the park who have no interest whatsoever in nature. (Like me,) they just want to take the photo and get out. People hire taxis to take them out to the sign!

Inside Tierra del Fuego National Park

Trying to get some photos of Ushuaia, I noticed several large hotels high in the hills outside town. I drove along the “Circuito Martial”, a controlled access road, lined with hotels, cabins and a ski resort. In the late afternoon mountain shadows, a bitter wind was blowing.

Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego. "The southernmost city in the World". (There are, however, towns further south. Across the Beagle Channel, there's more land! I guess that's why the call it a channel.)(When viewing this photo, you must think "cold"!)

Drove out to the airport, which is on a peninsula that juts into the Beagle Channel. It's up on a plateau, that offers a good view of Ushuaia against a mountain backdrop.

Looking south, across the Beagle Channel from Ushuaia

View from Ushuaia's airport

Dinner at “La Rueda”: “tenedor libre”, “all you can eat” for $28 Pesos. (I feel a strange need to rush, so I can get back to the buffet before everything’s gone!) The excellent parrilla saves this buffet from the mediocrity typical of such places. A shame my sense of taste isn't functioning too well, as there are wines I would love to try.

Ushuaia about an hour and a half ago. The parrilla, or barbecue, at "La Rueda" restaurant, Ushuaia. Meals are "tenedor libre", "all you can eat" for 28 Pesos, a little over $9. Not bad for the Fin del Mundo, End of the World. But drinks are mandatory with the meal, and if you waste food, $2 will be added to your bill!

The final push to Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego

Cute little sign on the way to Tierra del Fuego. I measured the wind speed at 40-50 mph.

This morning

Awoke to the systematic slamming of hotel doors at 9:15. That’s one way to assure guests don’t sleep beyond the 10:30 check-out! (I, for one, probably would have.) A short time later, the phone rang and I was asked to move the motorcycle. I looked outside and saw blue sky. Immediately, I was in a good mood. On to Tierra del Fuego!

Inventoried my aches and pains: chest sore (bronchitis, not good); left calf bruised and sore from one of those falls; my twisted right knee is feeling better; headache. The latter may be caffeine withdrawal. (Since becoming ill, I’ve had less coffee, coke, chocolate.) The chest has me a bit concerned, since I have no idea what weather and dust conditions I’ll encounter ahead.

Breakfast consisted of the thickest coffee yet, and a couple of “media lunas”, small croissants. Gave the hotel clerk a 10-Peso tip for pulling me back in last night, then recommending “RoCo”.

On the road at 10:45. It took a while to get out of Rio Gallegos. I knew I just needed to head south, but began to doubt my sense of direction. When I asked a taxi driver for help, I wasn't surprised to learn I had been driving east (into the Atlantic) instead of south.

It's about 350 miles from Rio Gallegos to the end of the road, Ushuaia. There seemed a chance I could make it in one day, if road and weather conditions were decent and the ferry schedule favorable.

Once clear of the city, I met the wind head-on, the famous wind I had somehow missed on Ruta 40. I stopped to photograph a wind warning sign and ended up chasing my helmet across the highway. It was that strong. I measured the headwind: gusts over 40 mph. This would seriously impact fuel efficiency, and progress.

Rediscovered the bureaucratic insanity of borders. I hadn't really paid much attention to the map, but now I was getting the geography lesson: to reach Ushuaia (Argentina), you have to leave Argentina and briefly re-enter Chile. Then, less than 150 miles later, cross back into Argentina. In my time calculations, I hadn't factored two border crossings. Maybe I wouldn't make it today?

Arrived at the Argentina checkpoint just behind a 50-passenger bus. "Well this sucks." I made sure the bus didn't beat me to the Chilean side. At the first Chilean checkpoint, they were jack-hammering concrete right outside the door. These poor guys had to endure this on top of all the impatient travelers!

As usual, the forms you need are kept behind the counter. After waiting in line, travelers reach the window and are handed the necessary form and told to go fill it out, then return. The process is so incredibly inefficient! (Occasionally you meet a particularly helpful official who will fill out the form for you, right there at the window.)

When the SAG (agricultural) inspector wanted to check my bags, my anger spilled over again, and I started swearing out loud. What a thankless job they have. The thought that I'll have to again go through this nonsense just down the road had my blood boiling. I just see the bureaucrats mindlessly stamping and signing papers, as though no one's ever questioned the purpose and sanity of this entire arrangement. (You would think Argentina and Chile could come together and work out an open border agreement specifically for Tierra del Fuego - something like the European Union has done.)

Arrived at the Straits of Magellan ferry landing and drove to the head of the line. One vehicle, a fuel truck, boarded the ferry, and the ship departed. I wonder if they're not permitted to take other vehicles when a fuel truck is aboard? There was a 30- to 45-minute wait for the next ferry, not a big deal. Meanwhile, I talked with a young Spaniard off one of the buses in line. He was "from Don Quixote’s land, La Mancha."

The ferry across The Straits of Magellan. After unloading, one gasoline tanker rolled aboard and the ferry left.

These guys show you don't need a big BMW to ride to Ushuaia. From Brazil, they rode these (I think) 175cc bikes.

It's a short crossing to Tierra del Fuego, the water very choppy from the wind. I strapped the bike down with my own ties. The crew members said I really didn’t need to. They were right. There were no swells to speak of. (This is not an ocean crossing!) Apparently, there's no charge for this ferry; at least, no one asked for payment!

Farewell to the South American mainland. I'm off to the island of Tierra del Fuego!

On the other side, it's gravel and lots of wind! My internal dialogue on the road to San Sebastian went something like this:

"Thick gravel with a 50 mph cross-wind. You don’t like it?"

"Well, lets add potholes! How's that?"

"How about deep pits too? Big ones, and lots of them."

"And a construction zone."

"Since it's not raining, let’s have the water truck make mud."

"Wait, there’s a rain cloud over there. Let’s bend the road that way."

I was taking things much too personally! But it seemed the obstacles were intentionally placed to thwart my goal! (After all, it's all about me.)

At the San Sebastian border crossing, I found about eight bikes, most BMWs, parked at customs. The drivers were in the lines and there were a few nods of acknowledgment, but we didn't really connect. I learned from one that they're from Sao Paolo, Brazil, headed for Ushuaia.

Leaving customs, they pulled into a nearby café. I refueled and continued down the road. Pavement begins again on the Argentine side of border. I took off, trying to make up for the hours spent in various lines.

A wild ride, the wind pushing the bike all over the road. Even this you adapt to. I had to stop, not because of the wind, but because the Tierra del Fuego landscape is so awesome in its harsh desolation. Steven Sohrakoff, the rider from Oregon, was right: it is windy and cold, and I’ll probably never come back, yet it’s incredible! Trees are stunted and gnarled by the wind. The tall grasses are in perpetual motion as waves of air roll over meadows. Pools of water appear cobalt blue in the late afternoon light.

I don't think I've ever seen water like this. Looking out onto the Argentine Sea, the water was an eerie slate gray.

Only the heartiest of creatures live here. Yet, just as in the Arctic, man has learned to endure hardship and adapt, developing large resource-extraction operations, estancias, towns and cities.

While off in a meadow taking photos, the Brazilians raced by honking and waving. Thirty minutes later, I passed half of them. I was now riding 85 to 90 mph, making a run for the finish line. Just beyond Tolhuin, the pavement ends. Soon the road will be completely paved from the border to Ushuaia. For now, however, there is about twenty miles of construction.

Wind washes across Tierra del Fuego's landscape

Wind-whipped, stunted trees populate Tierra del Fuego's hills

I found myself riding behind the other Brazilians on the dusty gravel road. I know my lungs couldn't take much more dust and I had to either pull over, or get far out ahead of them. With all the bikes (and on-coming vehicles), visibility was terrible, the road now heading west, into the sun.

I made a move and passed one of the bikers, a woman, giving her a very wide berth. As I did, she drifted into some soft gravel on the shoulder and nearly went over the edge. But she held on and recovered. I somehow ended up riding elevated on a stretch of freshly-laid and smoothed gravel in the center of the highway that we were apparently supposed to be avoiding. "Oops." I finally emerged from the pack and tried to put some distance between us, so my dust wasn't making their job even harder. Between the hazardous surface, the racing motorcycles and on-coming vehicles appearing out of dust clouds, it was pretty exciting stuff!

The final leg into Ushuaia is tarmac, winding through the tail end of the Andes. Though the sun had set and the temperature was rapidly falling, it was "smooth sailing" downhill into Ushuaia. (The sun set before 9:00 p.m. The days are growing shorter here!)

Ushuaia's a pretty big port city, with a lively downtown district full of bars, restaurants, hotels and casinos. The "Hostal Malvinas" was the first I tried. It had a nice well-cared-for look about it. They had a room, $50 for the night. (I expected to pay more here.) The room was very clean and comfortable. It seemed almost too easy.

I parked the bike on the sidewalk, just outside the door. I was assured it would be safe there. Just around the corner is an internet and telephone center. I called Jessica, Drew and Jeff to wish all "Happy Valentine’s Day!" I was finally kicked out at 12:15, as they were trying to close the shop.

"La Rueda" restaurant was recommended by the hotel clerk, so I took a walk over. The front door was surrounded by the Brazilians' motorcycles. The door was locked and hung with a sign: "cerrado", closed. ("The bastards beat me to it!" I laughed.)

Went back to the hotel and sat in front of the TV, dining on cereal bars, chips, soda and one leftover ham and cheese mini-croissant. Wrote some notes (such as, "since when did TV announcers begin to need laptop computers sitting in front of them, the brand names prominently displayed for the cameras?")

I now have to digest the "being here" and what it means. Jeff asked me tonight, "so what are you going to do when you get back? Are you networking? Where are you going to live?" It seems my focus is never far beyond the next hurdle. Like riding in the dirt, I have to learn to lift up my eyes and look at the horizon!