Thursday, March 09, 2006

The odyssey continues

From their webpage tracking system, I could see the motorcycle had arrived in Miami. I called LAN to find out when I could pick it up, and was told it should be available by 9:30 a.m.

The hotel is on the northern edge of the airport, and it sounded like LAN's warehouse was at the west end of the airport. I took off on foot, following the access road that runs the airport perimeter. Asking directions from various individuals, I was told to head towards the control tower, and that it was a long walk. Glancing over my shoulder for a taxi, I marched off along a road I'm sure no one ever walks.

It was perhaps three miles around the airport to the cargo terminal. Along the way, I had the opportunity to study the debris of modern transport. A remarkable amount of hardware and scrap lines our highways. Someday, all this will be valuable. After about an hour, I reached the LAN building.

Inside their import office, I was handed documents and told the first step is to clear customs. I was given directions to the customs building. Of course, nothing here is intended for pedestrians. The building was a fifteen-minute walk.

At Customs, I went to the import window (seems reasonable). But they directed me to the far end of the building. There, I found an office called "Personal Effects". Inside, uniformed Homeland Security agents sat at computers. These big, husky agents (even the women) looked ill-trained and poorly-suited for desk jobs. They should be out repelling the terrorist invasion at our borders.

A tall, tough-looking agent handed me a declaration form and told me to fill it out, then returned to his desk. A television, centrally-located in the office, was tuned to a popular show. When I was finished with the form, I had difficulty getting anyone's attention through the seemingly bomb-proof glass.

The agent returned. He was curious about my trip.

"You should have driven back!" he said.

"I pooped out." But he was right.

The customs stop seemed just a formality. Walked back over to LAN. Next, I paid a $20 fee and was directed to their warehouse, where forklift drivers are handed "pick tickets". Federal agents appear to be assigned to these warehouses to inspect incoming cargo. They wandered among the pallets being unloaded from an aircraft.

It took about half an hour for one of the drivers to get to my ticket. He brought the bike out and placed it near a ramp. Everything appeared intact, just as it had left Santiago. A number of workers gathered around as I unwrapped the pallet and reloaded the bike. Took out my electric tire pump to re-inflate the tires, but realized the adapter needed to plug the pump into the bike's accessory socket was back at the hotel, in my computer case.

But I did have CO2 cylinders: my first opportunity to use these. Three cylinders filled the tires sufficiently for the short trip to a gas station. The LAN gang wished me well, and I was off, once again a functioning member of American society.

Pulled into a gas station a few miles away. No attendants around, I tried filling the tank myself, but couldn't start the pump. I spotted a mechanic and, a bit annoyed, asked "how you get these pumps to work?" He told me to ask inside the mini-mart.

"This is a pain," I thought.

Inside the store, irritated by the inconvenience, I asked how to operate the pump.

"It's pre-pay or credit card," the clerk said from behind his bullet-proof barrier.

I forgot that I am back in the land where you don't have to talk to a human for many transactions. A little embarrassed, I went back outside and slipped my credit card into the pump's reader. (I had also forgotten how convenient these pumps are!)

It is interesting though how in many countries, I was trusted to pump my own gas, then pay afterward. Not so in the U.S. any longer.

With all the security measures I see here, and after just a little bit of the local news, I have to laugh at all the warnings I heard about traveling Latin America.

It is already clear to me that my own country is perhaps the most threatening place on the planet! We have a culture of competition, intimidation, aggression and violence. One need only look around. It is manifest everywhere. In the news, on the streets, in the shopping malls. The SUVs seem bigger than ever and "Hummers" (that ultimate of "urban assault vehicles") are commonplace in Miami.

The mechanic topped off my tires and I was ready to roll.

Checked out of the hotel, then turned toward South Miami, the area called "Little Havana". I wanted to find a Cuban restaurant for lunch. But before actually reaching this district, I stumbled upon La Rosa, a very popular thirty-year-old Cuban restaurant. Judging by the expensive cars parked prominently out front,
it was perhaps a little fancier than I was looking for.

Inside, I finally found somewhere I actually felt young! Demographically, I was definitely in the youngest third of the clientèle. Looking around, there were white-haired retirees dressed in pastels, business people entertaining clients; at a few tables obviously-wealthy old men dined with very beautiful, and very young women. More than a few ill-matched hairpieces stood out in this land of the "fountain of youth". The food was good, if a touch bland.

After lunch, I drove towards the beaches, but seeing the line of hotels that form a virtual wall, I turned south toward Key West. Somehow, I ended up on "Florida's Turnpike" which is fairly expensive. Motorcycles pay the same price as cars, $1.00 at each toll booth, which seem less than ten miles apart.

Once I left the Turnpike, and continued south on U.S. 1, I began seeing hundreds of motorcycles, most Harleys. I stopped at a cycle shop in Key Largo to find out what's going on. Two burly fellows were out front cleaning up their rental bikes, an on-going battle against the corrosive salt air.

"It's 'Bike Week' at Daytona," I was told and since they've come all this way, many bikers decide to drive out to Key West.

When I said that I'm headed that way as well, one asked "Why would you go there? There's nothing out there. We call it 'Key Weird'. Watch out on Duval. The prettiest women have (male organs.)" (Apparently, Key West is known for its tolerant atmosphere, and welcomes gays, lesbians, all types.) They also warned me to watch my speed while driving through the Key Deer preserve. The game wardens enforce speed laws there.

The ride out to Key West is almost like driving through a 120-mile strip mall, with some amazing scenery interspersed. Many small islands barely reach above the water surface (and must completely disappear during hurricanes.) It seems such a fragile place to live. I can't imagine being caught out here in a storm.

There's a lifestyle unique to this area, I'm sure. Sail boats and yachts hide in little protected bays and inlets. It is obviously a fisherman's paradise. Houses stand on stilts above grassy marshes. There are some interesting road houses that appear to be gathering places for the locals.

Riding the "Overseas Highway" portion of U.S. 1 out through the keys, the most obvious question to me: why was it built? Why all the expense and trouble to connect these islands to the mainland? Was it primarily military in purpose, to provide a line of supply to the military outposts?

The result seems to be that millions of people end up taking a ride to essentially "no where". The end of the road, where they eat and drink (too much), then turn around and go home.

Reaching the "Key Deer Refuge", I nearly laughed (and would have were it not so tragic.) It's a very small island where the "endangered" Key Deer live. The island is bisected by one of the busiest two-lanes in the States. And new businesses continue to encroach. Signs warn drivers to be cautious. "Speed kills deer." Extinction is virtually assured.

The city of Key West is an interesting mix of early twentieth century military outpost, southern fishing village, popular tourist destination and party town.

The sun set as I cruised up and down the narrow streets, exploring shady neighborhoods, admiring some of the old wood-frame houses and huge banyan trees. Duval Street, about which I was warned, is lined with shops, pubs and restaurants, the sidewalks jammed with tourists. A very festive atmosphere.

I never got off the bike in Key West. I just kept riding, eventually finding my way back to Route 1 and out of town. In both directions, traffic was very heavy. (There would be a real crisis if cars didn't leave Key West at about the same rate they arrive!)

I don't know Florida's laws about "splitting traffic", but did it nevertheless, on several occasions evoking strong reactions (horns, flashing lights, maneuvers to cut me off). "Geez! You would think I personally injured these people!" Americans in particular seem to take law enforcement personally. I call it the "vigilante syndrome", a remnant of the Wild West. Of course, as a motorcyclist, one of the reasons I ride is to avoid being stuck in lines. It appeals to the outlaw in me.

I wanted to put as much of the two-lane highway behind me as possible before dark. There was no particular plan. I would ride as long as I felt like riding. It is SO easy in this country! Riding the interstates at night is of little concern. If the temperature permits, and fatigue is not a problem, there's no reason to stop!

On my map, there were some campgrounds along the coast north of Miami. I considered checking those out.

To bypass Miami, I again took Florida's Turnpike. Cranked the speed up to 80. Sailing along through moderate traffic, I was illuminated by a spotlight. It was a police car, but it was headed off on a different fork in the road, so I assume he was just warning me. Another $5 or 6 in tolls to get around Miami and then pick up Interstate 95 north. Of course, the interstates are primary trucking routes, whereas traffic on the Turnpike was predominantly passenger vehicles.

Took a break about 10:00 p.m. at a Denny's restaurant in West Palm Beach, ordering up my usual: waffle with strawberries. It seemed not that long ago I was sitting in Denny's restaurants in Washington D.C. and Brownsville, Texas (last August).

The temperature was so nice, it seemed I could drive all night, but after ten hours in the saddle my butt was getting sore. At Fort Pierce, I found a cluster of motels at the freeway exit, and decided to check their status. Except for one or two expensive suites, all were full.

The ride would continue a bit longer...

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