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 concerned 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.

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