You're here for a good time, not for a long time.

You're here for a good time, not a long time.

October 27, 2011


Having spent one week here now, Argentina is everything I’ve imagined since I wrote my culminating report on it in UW-Spanish for Senor Garcia way back in high school.  I love this place.

From the La Quiaca border crossing Charlie and I moved south to catch up with our friends Eddie and Lizzie.  We met the couple in La Paz, Mexico and haven’t seen them since Mazatlan.  We’ve come close to catching them several times on the way down, but somehow always missed each other.  Not this time.  Charlie and I hooked it down the well-signed, fully paved Argentine roads heading south.  We stopped at a small town north of Jujuy for lunch and enjoyed the best steak sandwich I’ve ever had.  Great meat on fresh bread with a salad bar for toppings.  It’s been since Mexico that I’ve eaten this well. 

Best of all were our servers.  They were unshaven guys our age listening to funky music wearing hats backwards and sunglasses.  Guys I felt like I could have a good time with.  They were cool, just screwing around, being in their twenties.  The people here seem really upbeat.  You get the feeling that they can grow up and to a degree choose their futures whereas unfortunately in Peru and Bolivia, they’re fates seemed sealed the second they started working for the family at age eight.  I know it’s a different culture up there under different circumstances, but I much prefer this one for the long-term.

From Jujuy we moved west towards Salta on a very unique road.  It was one lane paved, with the yellow line running down the middle.  Why build two lanes when you only need one?  It was a winding road through foothills and across rivers leading towards Salta and the entire time I felt like I was on a giant bike staying in my half-lane.  We arrived in Salta at 5:30pm.  It’s a big city, and very clean.  There were street lights and green trees running the sidewalk.  Some of them were budding with pink and purple flowers.  Springtime in Argentina.  I saw a supermarket with a big Wal-Mart sized parking lot for the first time since Colombia.  Salta looked nice, but Eddie and Lizzie were still 200 kilometers south. 

Charlie and I got gas, got lost, and an hour later were finally on the road to Cafayate.  After an hour of night driving under the stars we pulled into El Balcon Hostel in Cafayate and found Eddie and Lizzie.  It was crazy seeing familiar faces from so long ago.  Last time I saw these guys I was barely a month into this trip.  It was spring then too.

Sunday night we all went to bed pretty early.  I learned a lesson about Argentina as I tossed around in bed that night: they start partying at 2:00am and go all night.  The disco next door blasted electronic music all night long.  My earplugs managed to suffice and I actually slept pretty well.  The next day Eddie and Lizzie went on a bicycle ride to go look at some rock formations.  Charlie and I were pretty satisfied sitting around catching up on emails and facebook instead.  For dinner we all had a big barbeque of steak, sausage, and grilled vegetables over the hostel’s grill.  For $5 I filled myself with more protein than I ate in a week up north.

Charlie and I did one more night in Cafayate while Eddie and Lizzie went ahead.  They only went about a hundred miles.  When we gear up, we like to make a day of it.  Getting on the bike is like preparing for war, and I just can’t bring myself to that mentality for a hundred miles.  We took our extra day relaxing and eating even more flame-broiled steak.  In the afternoon we both installed our extra rear tires and I’m happy to say that neither of us pinched tubes.  It was a first for me and I was beaming.  Wednesday we mounted up again and moved south.

The end of the day put us in Catamarca, a big city with plenty of money.  Charlie and I spent two hours doing laps around downtown trying to find a cheap enough hostel.  We were just about to break down and pay $40/night each when we found San Pedro Hostel.  It’s an fun, relaxed place run by a guy named Julio, who recently sold his BMW F-650.  He likes us and we like him.  Tonight will be our second night.  There’s not a lot happening in town, but it’s absolutely pleasant.  I can’t get over how good it smells and how clean it is.  The green trees everywhere have boosted my mood too.  Best of all, we’re back below 1,000 meters elevation and I can breathe again.  I can even stand up without getting a head spin.  It’s a lot like home, and it’s just what I needed.

Right now it's siesta time.  The whole city shuts down from 2:00pm until 6:00.  Then everything stays open until past 10:00pm.  It's awesome, and the attitude around town reflects it.  No hurries, no worries. 
Tomorrow we’ll move south again to Mendoza.  It’s 750 kilometers and likely a two-day trip.  We’ve really flown through northern Argentina, but that doesn’t mean I won’t come back.  Julio just spent the last hour explaining to me a slew of bike routes we could take around here in the foothills of the Andes.  With my mom and Charlie’s brother flying into Santiago in two weeks, though, there’s no time to waste.  These bikes are reliable, but a simple failure could mean a week’s wait or more.  I plan to arrive in Santiago five days early just in case. 

With my shock blown out again I’m not so keen on being adventurous with the bike right now; it’s more about survival.  Just like before, the back end humps up and down over the tiniest bumps and through the hard curves.  It’s manageable, but not much fun.  Luckily an adventure rider named Pat from California sold me his lightly used shock for a very low price and it will show up with mom in Santiago.  There I’ll leave the bike at a mechanic for a full service and the shock installation.  Otherwise the bike has been running pretty well.  Back at sea level I have seemingly infinite power.  When it was real cold up in Bolivia I had an oil link every morning at several points out of my radiator hoses.  It was never a big deal because as soon as the engine warmed up, the leak stopped; nevertheless something I’ve been keeping an eye on.  I remember Ty had that problem on his V-Strom as well.  I’ll have to ask about it in Santiago.  I also picked up a couple new fuel filters yesterday.  My current filter is disgusting after going through Bolivia. 

The plan is simple from here.  Find Eddie and Lizzie in Mendoza, band together for up to a week and then head to Santiago.  From there we’ll park up, rest up, and start the family tours.  I think my mom and I will use public transportation to hit Valparaiso, Mendoza, and then Buenos Aires over her two-week visit.  After that I’ll figure out how to get back to the bike and see what happens.  I’m sure I’ll want to ride more, but not necessarily all the way to Ushuaia.  I also applied for a travel consulting job in Buenos Aires, so if that materializes into an interview I’ll be focusing on something other than motorcycling for once.  If that doesn't happen, they still have world-class skiing and windsurfing here.

October 24, 2011

Fotos X

Charlie and I made it to Cafayate, Argentina last night and caught up with Eddie and Lizzie.  We love it here and will be staying a few days.  Easily the best country since Mexico.  Here are some pictures since Peru.  Oh and my shock blew out again as many warned it would.  F....antastic!
The final day of our 1,400 kilometers of dirt in Peru.  Eye drops helped.

Looking down on Machu Picchu from Wayna Picchu.  Best view all day.

Terraces leading down into the mist.

Here's that incredible Inca stone work.

Machu Picchu: ticked off the list.

Heading for Lake Titicaca at 4,000 meters.

Crossing the lake on our 'lancha' just after paying $40 to leave Peru. 

Miners protesting and blowing up dynamite on La Paz's only arterial.

Charlie and Anna enjoying some juice.
Following Charlie inside the mines.
Trying to hold together hundreds of meters below the surface.
Two miners pushing thier 2.5 ton cart.
Me with the mining devil.

La Paz with Huayna Potosi in the background.
Train graveyard.

On top of Fish Island overlooking Salar de Uyuni.

Gina and me inside the cooking pot.

Pigmy mummy!

Very creepy individuals.

The new train transporting minerals across the Salar.
Get used to the red jumper.  One of the lagoons in the Atacama.

Steaming geysers at 6:00am.

The red lake.  The same red in the lake makes the flamingos pink.

There they are!

6,000 meter peaks in the background.

Yeah, we even saw the most photographed rock in Bolivia.

October 23, 2011

Different Worlds

Live from Argentina... The Tom Report!

After Salar de Uyuni Charlie and I were ready for a little class.  Bright and early Saturday morning we took off down the road that Ty warned would be hell.  The washboard was just as bad as expected.  At 20mph my windscreen was slapping me in the face guard over the bumps; so I took Charlie's advice and kicked it up to 60mph and started hitting every third one.  It's not the most relaxing way to ride, but with sandy desert on either side of me I decided to risk it.  Luckily for the entire 200 kilometers from Uyuni to Tupiza I didn't come off (despite plenty of close calls).

In Tupiza Charlie and I pulled up on the road and discussed our plans.  We decided to head for the border.  It was only 90 kilometers more and there was plenty of daylight.  He pulled away and I nearly ran off the road trying to get off the line behind him.  Flat rear tire.  An hour later the nail was removed and the wheel back on my bike.  With the delay we decided to skip lunch and smash some Snickers bars and Oreos.  Bellies full of chocolate, we hit the border around 4:00pm. 

Others had warned us that we were in for a four hour border crossing, so we had our fingers crossed.  As it turned out, we were through within an hour and a half.  Charlie and I had bought international insurance in La Paz that covers every country south of Ecuador.  That saved a lot of headache getting into Argentina.  The rest of the process was pretty simple: I've got 90 days to get a job or go home.

Since crossing it has been all smiles.  Argentina is momentous.  It's been the destination in our hearts for the past seven months on the road and several years of planning.  We pulled into a very nice hotel in the border town.  It has hot water, water pressure, heating, Wi-Fi, multiple power outlets, a locking door, a bodai and most of all, you can flush the toilet paper.  We took turns in the shower and then went straight to the in-house restaurant.  We each ordered $10 steaks.  They're far overpriced, but it was a celebration.  The steaks were everything we hoped for: over an inch thick, spanning the entire plate, cooked to perfection, with two fried eggs on top.  After that and a liter of beer I sank into bed at 9:00pm and slept for ten hours.  Today we're taking it easy and moving south towards Salta.  Last night we found out that Eddie and Lizzie are down there and we're ready for some familiar faces.  We haven't seen them since Mazatlan, Mexico, so it will be a wild reunion.

As for our tour of the salt flats and the Atacama, there was so much packed into three days that I don't have much to say.  Taking the three day tour in a Land Cruiser was definitely the way to go.  We booked it with our friends from Potosi, Alleric and Gina.  We met at 10:00am Tuesday morning and hopped in.  Joining us were the driver, our guide Robert, and a young French couple.  Robert was in his forties and he had less than half his teeth.  The first thing he said to us was 'Hi everybody, I am Robert, like De Niro, and I used to work in the Potosi mines.  When I was fourteen the mine collapsed and half of my crew died.  The rest of us drank our own urine for days until rescure.  I'm very lucky to be alive and excited to be out of the mines and guiding your trip now.'  Heavy. 

Robert wasn't great at English, and with his seven total teeth he was difficult to understand at times.  Even so, he was a great guide for three days.  First we drove out to a train graveyard.  Just a bunch of old steam engines rustsing away in the desert.  We took pictures and kept going.  Next we hit the salt flats.  6,000 square kilometers of foot-thick salt sitting on top of a lake.  It felt like you were getting nowhere out there.  Just stark white in every direction.  We stopped for lunch at Fish Island.  It's a island in the flat with 1,000 year-old cacti growing on it planted by the Incas.  A hike to the top revealed an amazing 360 degree view of the flat.  It was unbelievable, like nothing I've ever imagined.

Next we spent a couple hours taking strange perspective shots on the flats.  With the endless white background and blue sky backdrop, you can create some funny situations in a photo.  There are a bunch that will make I'll upload someday.  In some I'm standing in a cooking pot, being crushed by a giant boot, and even smiting Charlie.

We finished the day heading to the opposite side of the flats where our hotel was located.  It's called Hotel de Sal for a reason; it's build entirely out of salt.  The walls are salt bricks with a salty mortar.  The chairs and tables are slates of salt.  The floor is crushed salt.  The only thing that wasn't salt was my bed, and even it was sitting on a salt frame.  Salt doesn't insulate very well and that night was cold.  I slept in my sleeping bag under the covers.  We took off at 6:00am the next morning.

Our first stop was an hour away where we got to see some pigmy mummies.  They were tiny, oddly shaped people who used boards to shape the infants' skulls like an alien's.  The site was peppered with little rock domes and on the side of each one was a small hole.  Inside the hole were the mummies.  Most were just skeletons, sitting upright in the fetal position, but some still had skin on them. 

Next we drove into the Atacama.  Our first stop was a lagoon with a flock of flamingos grazing on microbacterials.  The girls went nuts.  We had lunch there and kept going.  As it turned out, there would be many more lagoons and flamingos.  By the end of the day I had seen thousands.  Just before our hotel we stopped at another lagoon, this one completely red.  Apparently the color only comes out in the daytime and is caused by phosphorescence.  Quite a sight.  We also saw some crazy rock formations.

Friday we were up at 4:30am and on the road.  The roads in the Atacama are incredible.  It's a wide open desert at over 4,000 meters and you can drive whereever you like.  There is nothing but sand and gravel in all directions with a few peaks in the distance that reach over 6,000 meters.  So when I say on the road, I mean, making a bearing towards our destination and off-roading toward it.  Friday at 6:00am we arrived at a series of geysers blasting up from below the surface.  They smelled like sulfur, which turns my stomach easily.  You did not want to fall in; inside the craters was bubbling magma-hot filth water.  I kept my distance.  After the geysers we went to a hot springs and all hopped in.  The night before the temperature had reached -25C degrees so it was great to warm up finally.  After that we hit the Chilean border and dropped off the French couple.  They were fun, and now we have French friends.

The rest of the day we roamed back across the desert towards Uyuni.  It was a long drive and we made it back at 6:00pm.  I'm glad we didn't take the bikes.  Our tour covered 900 kilometers of trail very similar to the 200k from Uyuni to Tupiza.  The bikes would have rattled to bits.  In fact on the ride from Uyuni a bolt rattled out of Charlie's triple tree clamps which hold the forks to the frame.  That's not supposed to happen.  We pulled a bolt from my engine guard and called it fixed.  After the tour we had pizza with Alleric and Gina and said our goodbyes.  We'll all be in Santiago at the same time, though, so we'll see each other soon.  Now it's all eyes on Argentina. 

October 18, 2011

Cerro Rico

The Potosi mine tour at Cerro Rico was the most shocking and dangerous experience of my entire trip so far.  Charlie and I booked a 2:00pm tour Monday morning.  Our guide showed up with a mouth full of coca leaves and led us a couple blocks down where we changed into yellow jumpers and rubber boots.  Then we all hopped in a micro bus and rode up to the miner´s market on the edge of town.  There we each spent about $1.50 on gifts for the miners (coca leaves, juice, and crackers).

Half an hour later we pulled up at one of 500 mine entrances and geared up.  The guide strapped helmets and spotlights with battery packs to us.  She spoke broken English and rapidly explained that if anyone got scared she would lead them out.  At that we went in.

There are over 16,000 miners in Potosi and they have an average lifespan of ten years after they start working.  Most of the deaths are from black lung disease, but plenty more are the result of on the job accidents.  I had no idea what I was in for.

The first couple hundred yards of mine were build by the Spanish over 400 years ago... back when they enslaved the Bolivians and sent them into the mines for six months at a time without surfacing.  The walls and ceiling were built up with bricks that arched at the top overhead.  The height was probably 5.5 feet.  Under us were two rails leading in and six inches deep water.  My boots leaked instantly, and the overwhelming smell of piss in the water made it even better.  We continued on through the visible dust in the air as the ceiling kept creeping lower.

At some points there were wooden braces overhead, others no.  Some of the braces were split in half under the pressure from overhead; we stooped right under them.  Along side us the entire way were pipes with air hissing out every few hundred feet.  They tied rags around the leaks to slow them.  The mine kept getting smaller and smaller until we were crouched almost on our hands and knees working our way in.  It was getting hotter too, and the air was thick.

About a quarter mile in we came to our first miners.  Two guys shoveling debris into buckets.  When they filled the bucket it was pulled up to the surface via a shoot and then dropped back down empty.  They had mouths full of coca leaves and weren´t very interested in our company.  When they had finished with the debris they sat down and unwound staring at the ground.

After five minutes of the gringos taking picture of them they were back to work.  From deeper in the mine we heard a rumble.  It was the next load of debris being carted in.  2.5 tons of rock being hauled in an Indiana Jones style mine cart by three Bolivians.  They ram it against the broken rails all day long shirtless and breathing in dust six days a week.  They pulled up, rocked the cart back and fourth, and eventually toppled the load onto the floor for the shovelers to take care of.  Then they accepted a juice and some coca leaves and trudged back with the cart.  We followed them.

Even further down we came to the end of the tour, probably a half mile deep in total.  It was easily 90F degrees and the guide wouldn´t let us stay there long.  We hung around just long enough to get a glimpse of the actual work being done.  Four Bolivians with pick axes chipping away at a silver vein and shoving the debris down a ramp into the carts... as they have been for the last 400 years.  They were thirsty and we all handed over our gifts.

With that we turned around and started stumbling back out.  Every so often another cart would come by accompanied by three groaning bodies.  On the way we went down another shaft to visit the God of the miners.  It was a devilish statue that the Spanish set up for them.  I didn´t pay much attention to the guide´s speech due to the shock of what I had witnessed.  A half mile of four foot ceilings to get to the entrance and we were out. 

I asked Charlie´s opinion as an Australian miner.  He was dumbfounded.  He said they stopped mining like that 200 years ago in the modern world.  ´They don´t dig holes as far as they can anymore, they just move the whole damn hill´.  They´ve been tunneling Cerro Rico for 400 years and Charlie reckons a real mining company could make it disappear in under three months.  The miners follow tiny veins all day long for $14 a day killing themselves.  The big companies would just rip the entire hill apart and pull out the good bits later. Charlie was obviously disturbed by the hazards too.  According to him, one gas pocket, one earth tremor, or one falling rock could have killed us all in there.

It´s incredible that people still crawl around in these shafts and die in droves here given the technology that´s available.  Cerro Rico is a miner´s co-op by name, but apparently the people at top still rake in the real money.  The Bolivian government won´t allow foreign investment.  The current president is the nation´s first indigenous leader.  It sounds romantic, but the fact that he has 2.5 years of education and is chummy with Castro and Chavez is a little unsettling.  According to Nora, our hotel owner, the country is heading towards a communist dictatorship rapidly.  I'm not sure about that, but one look at the Potosi mines, and you can tell that something is wrong here.  Someday it will turn around, but a lot of miners will die in the meantime.

Today Charlie and I arrived in Uyuni.  We got a peak at the salt flats on the way in and they were amazing.  White expanse as far as the eye can see.  The road from Potosi was 70% paved, a perfect ratio for a day´s ride.  The countryside looked like Arizona for some reason.  I´m still scratching my head about that.  Tomorrow we embark on a three day tour of Salar de Uyuni and the surrounding national parks.  We are in a Land Cruiser with two new friends from the mine tour.  Alleric from South Africa and his wife Gina from England who both live in Australia.  Charlie originally met them in Mexico and now five months later we crossed paths agian.  It should be a good time, and then we´re high tailing it for the border.  We might skip Atacama for now.  More dirt roads make me cringe thinking of my suspension.  Plus I had a real steak last night and now I´ve got blood thirst.

Gas shouldn´t be so much a worry now; Charlie and I each bought a 5 liter jug that we keep in our panniers full of fuel.  An extra 50 miles range is a substantial buffer.

October 17, 2011

Foreign Plates

Our last day in La Paz Charlie and I set off for legendary Death Road.  Originally the only road to a small town called Coroico, the dirt road with thousand foot dropoffs is now a popular tourist attraction.  There are numerous agencies in La Paz that offer bicycle rides down the road... we took motorcycles.  After what we experienced in the badlands of Peru, I wasn´t expecting anything too exciting.

The highway leading to the turnoff proved deadly enough.  It rose to 4,800 meters through thick fog and intermittent rain.  We stopped at several gas stations on the way but none of them would sell to foreign plates.  We were livid, and running out of fuel.  Apparently it´s a law in La Paz that foreigners cannot buy gas... logically. At the second station we met two Austrians on Honda Trans Alps.  They needed gas too so we decided to ride together towards Death Road.  

Eventually we stopped at a roadside shack and inquired about gas.  They had a few liters and we each bought five.  Ten kilometers further we found a gas station that was above the law and filled up.  Two kilometers later was Death Road.  It was an ominous turnoff shrouded in fog and by then the rain was picking up.  The waterproof outers we´re getting clammy and I was worried about my new ´waterproof´ bag.  Nevertheless we started down at a slow pace slipping over the wet rocks.  

For the entire 40 kilometers of dirt and gravel I never saw more than 500 yards in front of me.  The fog was thick and wet.  Looking over the edge was impressive enough without landing below.  You´d peer down into the foliage and it seemed bottomless.  Just rolling fog passing through the deep valley below.  The road was bad, but nothing I´m not used to.  There were plenty of river crossings and waterfalls to ride through.  And of course a slew of cyclists to dodge.  

By the time we got to the bottom the rain was coming down in sheets.  Charlie exchanged information with the Austrians and we headed back towards La Paz on the new ´good´ road.  The new road seemed to take even longer than Death Road and was already severely damaged by the constant rainfall.  The rentention walls on the uphill side had already given out and had been reinforced by rebar.  Climbing back to 4,800 meters soaking wet was even less fun than it sounds.  Fully loaded uphill at that height my bike maxes out at around 40mph.  Very slow going when you can´t feel your hands.

On the other side of the pass Charlie and I stopped for lunch and dried off.  We then decided to get out of the city and find a hotel on the outskirts before nightfall to avoid the same hassle in the morning.  We looked at a map and decided to head south through the city and spit out on the highway at the other end.  As it turned out, there is only one highway in and out of La Paz, and it´s at the north end.  The two of us weaved traffic for two hours for twenty miles figuring that out.  By the time we found a hotel we were fifty miles south of the city and well into night time.  

Our hotel was a little swank and overpriced, but at that hour it was an oasis.  We went to bed by 9:00pm and were up and about by 6:00am on Sunday.  Sunday was election day in Bolivia, and it turned out to be very complicated.  Starting on Thursday they stopped selling alcohol across the country.  On Sunday, no one is allowed to drive.  As Charlie said, ´keep the population sober and immobilized for when the results come in´. Not really sure the rules, we decided to ride anyway.

The foreign plates turned to our advantage on Sunday as we were the only vehicles on the road besides ambulances.  We cruised across the Altoplano (high plains) at about 4,000 meters all day long making great time.  Gas was especially hard to find.  Some of the stations that were open wouldn´t sell to us and others simply were out of gas.  In the end we filled up at a family´s house that sold gas by the jerry can.  They were kind people and very excited about our trip.  It was surreal being the only souls on the road.  We crossed a lot of uninhabited terrain.  It was a little lonely, but a nice break from the usual semi duels.  

Around 2:00pm we pulled into the last police checkpoint before Potosi.  The police stopped us and said we couldn´t continue due to election day.  We had to wait until 7:00pm.  Charlie and I begged and pleaded and brought up the very valid point that all other police had waved us through without any questioning for the last 300 miles.  The cop called his commander.  Comandante Alvaraz came down and informed us that he could let us pass an hour earlier at 6:00pm, but that was all.  It was such a releif that they didn´t ask for a bribe.  

With no other option Charlie and I bought some snacks and sat down on the road to wait out the next few hours.  As luck usually has it on this trip, though, we met a new amigo just half an hour later.  Hans is a Swiss guy on a Honda Africa Twin and he was trying to leave the city with his Bolivian girlfriend Nora.  We talked to him for a while and he said he knew of a hot springs ten miles away that we could go to.  He slipped the commander $5 and was granted passage to our side.  

Together we took off.  I was low on gas, but anything was better than waiting.  We arrived at the hot springs and soaked for a couple hours with our new friends.  Hans had a lot of good route information and Nora owned a hotel in town.  Ideal people to run into.  At 6:00pm we dried off and headed back to the checkpoint.  Five miles away I ran out of gas.  Long story short, I siphoned Charlie´s gas twice to get back and it was as disgusting as it sounds.  I think my fuel petcock has the draw lines backwards.  When the engine started to sag I switched to ´reserve´and about ten seconds later it died completely.  Next ride I´ll try running on reserve and switching to ´on´when I get low.

We spent the night at Nora's lovely hotel last night and this afternoon Charlie and I are touring the mines here in Potosi.  That´s all for now.

October 14, 2011

On the Outside

These reports may be fewer and further between for a while because my netbook seems to have crashed for the final time here in La Paz.  I´ll be using smelly internet cafes for the next month until my mom brings a replacement down.

Leaving Peru turned out to be an absolute hassle.  Charlie and I got to the border to find another nest of corruption.  In the end I paid a cop $40 (down from $100) for permission to leave the country because I didn´t have insurance.  It was the same scenario as in Mexico; everyone involved had the same story and I was dealing with the highest in command.  I didn´t put up much of a fight this time because more than anything I just wanted out of Peru.  I paid him, he gave me a bogus stamp, and I was out of the frying pan into the fire.

The Bolivian side went pretty smoothly, even with the $135 visa charge for U.S. citizens.  At least that one is real.  Another round of headache started while we imported our bikes.  The worm behind the counter asked us for insurance... which we still didn´t have.  We told him exactly that.  He said he couldn´t do anything unless we had it.  We asked him where to buy it... La Paz.  ´Ok, we´ll go to La Paz and buy it´.  ´No, one of you takes a bus there and buys it for both and comes back´.

That would have been a 24 hour trip so we just hung around fifteen more minutes asking him stupid questions until he started filling out his paperwork and completed the import.  He was just looking for another bribe; but luckily the cops outside liked us and he had no power to hold us back or write us up anyway.  We got through the entire crossing by noon and headed towards La Paz absolutely furious. 

After talking to the guys at our hotel in Puno we had decided to take the low-key crossing that requires a ferry over Lake Titicaca.  The road across the border was great with beautiful views looking north and south down the ´world´s highest lake´ (whatever that means).  At the end of a small peninsula we came to the town with the ferries.  We stopped at a little restaurant and ate a very dodgy meal of rice and hot dog.  After that, we rolled down to the docks and loaded onto the boat.  These aren´t your typical ferries.  They are skids with outboards on the back just big enough to hold a tour bus.  Charlie and I parked our bikes up against a railing and held on tight.

The whole quarter mile distance took about twenty minutes.  The boat slowly plowed through the water creaking and twisting in the waves.  On the other side we unloaded and rode off towards La Paz.  Three hours later we had arrived at Lion Palace Hostel on Calle Linares.  The place was recommended by Anna and is located on the main tourist avenue.  We found Anna in good form upstairs and within a half hour we were all out for drinks to celebrate.  The reunion was going great until around 9:00pm when I was crippled with gut cramps which soon spiraled into another round of traveler´s diarrhea.  I spent the next two days slugging down antibiotics within blocks of the hotel.

The days weren´t completely wasted.  Wednesday we walked down to the main street to watch the miners protesting in the streets.  The protests blocked up the main highway in both directions; thousands of people wearing mining helmets marching and chanting through the middle of La Paz.  Every quarter mile they would clear a hundred foot radius circle and blow up four half-sticks of dynamite in the street.  Bombs so big you felt it in your chest when they went off.  It was quite the scene but shortly after arriving I was forced to waddle home to the toilet.

I also got to see the ´witch´s market´ which is mainly full of spices and Viagra knockoffs.  Most interesting were the dried out llama fetuses hanging for sale at every doorway.  I never figured out their importance, but given their popularity there must be quite a market for them.

Today, Friday, I´m finally feeling back to normal.  This morning we walked down to see San Pedro prison which was made famous by the popular book Marching Lines.  The prison is one-of-a-kind in that inside is a fully functioning society with no guards to enforce typical rules.  Prisoners buy thier cells and can decorate them with whatever they want (TV´s, furniture, etc.).  The more money a prisoner has, the better location and treatment he gets.  To earn money they all run businesses out of their cells.  They also bring thier families inside to live with them in jail.  Right now there are over 100 children living in San Pedro.  Drugs, alcohol, prostitution are apparently easier to find inside than outside.  What the prison is most known for is its production of cocaine.  The inmates have been producing and selling some of Bolivia´s purest coke for years now. For the last decade they have even offered semi-illegal tours into the prison for tourists.  Given what goes on in there, though, the lines of legality are very blurred.

Outside of the entrance we met Dave from New York.  Dave has been an inmate for the last twelve years as the result of a botched drug run.  He´s got two weeks left and he´s currently on work release.  While the others on work release find jobs and spend their meals with their families, Dave is unemployable as a foreigner so his job is to recruit gringos to take the tour.  He´s barefoot, smelly and obviously strung out, but still a hell of a nice guy.  He told us a lot about being on the inside, how it´s basically a huge party in there year ´round.  He offered us the tour but eventually I declined.  I wanted to go in, but reports are that authorities are cracking down and sometimes deporting tourists who get caught.  If I didn´t have my bike, I might have gone for it.  Instead I decided that I´ve dealt with enough stress and headache on this leg of the trip.  Seeking it out just didn´t seem prudent.

Meeting Dave was entertainment enough anyway.  He said some funny stuff.  Most notably ´Man the thing that gets me is that they caught me with 2.5 kilos of the finest yay you´ll ever see, and then sent me right back to where they make the shit!´ Dave´s lucky to be getting out soon.  The growing notoriaty surrounding the prison has finally forced the government to build a replacement outside of town complete with guards and rules.  According to Dave, it´s a priveledge to still remain in San Pedro, which shuts down completely in February.  It must be; he was bitching that they wouldn´t let him in until dusk.

Tomorrow Charlie and I head south while Anna is moving to Cochabamba for a few months to study Spanish.  It´s been a real fun reunion despite my gut-rot, but everybody´s got places to be.  Given the way all of our minds operate, though, this won´t be the last time we meet up.  The world is getting smaller every day.

October 12, 2011

Do the Picchu

With Machu Picchu in the books I can finally leave Peru.  Peru is a cool country, but it was slightly soured for me by police corruption, food poisoning, and a blown suspension.  Charlie and I left Cusco this morning after shipping a slew of junk home from the post office.  I sent my backpack, work boots, ‘waterproof’ liners, Mountain Hardwear fleece, gaiters, and a few other garments totaling 6.25 kilos.  For $65 it was boxed and shipped; not bad considering DHL would have charge around $300.  On top of that I left my spare oil, Pelican case, mounting rack, and a few other things I haven’t used in the last six months.  All told, I think I dropped around 25lbs while making my luggage system much easier to work with given the new waterproof duffel. 

Hopping back on the fully loaded bike today, I was glad I did.  After 2,000 kilometers to Lima and back without side panniers I got accustomed to a super light, nimble ride.  Riding out of Cusco with all my gear today felt much more like piloting a boat.  Momentum plays a much bigger role.  Brakes act much softer.  And the power is subdued.  It was a five hour ride to Puno on Lake Titicaca and most of it was straight highway above 4,000 meters.  This was the first ride I’ve spent much time in fifth gear at real high altitude.  The lack of oxygen in the air took a dramatic toll on my power.  I had to coax the engine from gear to gear.  The throttle response was muted and I couldn’t crack open the power at a moment’s notice like I’m used to.  The struggle at altitude was something we knew was coming.  I just cruise at 65mph now and make sure I’ve got plenty of space to slowly pass the semis up here.  I’d better get used to it; Bolivia is landlocked in the Andes.

To sum up our Peruvian experience, Charlie and I were pulled over by another set of corrupt cops just before Puno.  They decided that we needed insurance (we don’t).  We argued with them this time.  All they could say to us was that the fine was really big… I nodded while Charlie took pictures of them and wrote down their names.  They never even tried to explain the classic process of keeping our license until we paid the courthouse the next morning.  They just wanted us to offer up the bribe.  With disgusted looks on our faces Charlie and I just sat there and argued until they’d had enough.  The one in charge gave us back our fake licenses and looked at Charlie screaming ‘maybe you’re allowed to in your country, but here in Peru you do not take pictures of police officers!’  Charlie’s response was simple, ‘because in my country the officers aren’t corrupt’.

Tomorrow we cross into Bolivia over Lake Tititcaca.  If we’re lucky we’ll get to see the floating villages.  If not, I’ll have a reason to come back.  We’ll stop in La Paz for a night or two catching up with Anna before she heads off to start he Spanish courses and we haul towards the salt flats.  It’ll be a fun, although brief, reunion and hopefully she can show us some of the better parts of La Paz.

As for Machu Picchu, it delivered as promised.  The train up to Aguas Calientes was a relaxing break from the bikes.  Peru Rail offers a pretty good service with the train following the river up the Sacred Valley.  The windows in the ceiling offer plenty of incredible views of the towering mountains overhead.  It was a wet green valley leading up on both sides into the fog above.  Every few minutes the clouds would break and the snowcapped peaks in the distance materialized.  Aguas Calientes is the jumping point to Machu Picchu; it’s a small town that seems to be built entirely on servicing its 2,500 daily visitors.  Charlie and I spent the night there after our train ride and then caught a bus up to the park the next day at 5:00am. 

Unlike a lot of parks in these countries, you don’t have free range in Machu Picchu.  There are set paths to follow that lead you through the park.  There are plenty of opportunities to get sidetracked, but it was nothing like Tikal, where I scrambled whatever wall I wanted and bushwacked jungle the entire way.  Machu Picchu is a different scenario, though.  It’s too small to let everyone wander.  There are also way more ways to kill yourself up there.  The terracing is even more incredible than the pictures display; it is endless, spreading up and down all sides of the mountain deep into the fog.  One slip and you can tumble thousands of feet down into the valley. 

The remaining buildings were striking.  There seem to be entire neighborhoods of walls standing on all sides of the park.  The only part missing was the roofs.  The stonework is unbelievable.  Stones the size of refrigerators are jig sawed together tightly that there are absolutely no gaps between them, and no mortar either.  It must have taken ages.  The stones don’t follow a particular pattern or standard shape.  Instead it’s as if they grabbed one, shaved it down to fit perfectly on top of the last, and then grabbed the next one randomly and did the same.  It paid off; the walls are still standing centuries later.

On the far side of the park is Wayna Picchu, the mountain that you always see in the background of MP photos.  Charlie and I paid an extra $10 entry fee so we could climb to the top and look down on the city.  It was a wild hike up slippery rock to the top and unfortunately the view down below was constantly marred by the fog passing through.  It rained most of the time we were at Machu Picchu, but that was alright.  The rain made the rocks slippery, but also reminded me of home with all the green ferns sprouting up everywhere. 

I could go on, but we’ve all seen pictures of the place.  Seeing it firsthand is something entirely different, though.  The scope is much more dramatic and seeing the surrounding area really brings an appreciation for just how ridiculous the idea of building a city there really was.  Sitting there amongst the clouds on a saddle between two mountains teetering thousands of feet over the Sacred Valley in the middle of the Peruvian Andes… it deserves the recognition as one of the last remaining wonders of the world.

As the day wore on Charlie and I started to get tired and hungry.  We had taken a couple hundred photos and were thoroughly soaked from the constant drizzle.  The place was only getting busier by the minute, so by noon we were back on the bus heading back down.  We caught the train back to Cusco that night and slept most of the way.  Sunday I changed oil and gave the bike a good inspection, replacing several bolts that had rattled off in Peru.  In the evening I went over to Norton Rat’s and drank myself into a very jovial mood as the Packers scored 25 unanswered points against the Falcons.  It was great, and I paid for it today riding with a headache. 

October 6, 2011

Hold on Tight!

Back in Cusco, Charlie and I are beating feet to get out of Peru.  We pulled in late yesterday, got our daily McDonald’s fix, then passed out early.  The ride over was a blur.  We blew past Nazca (home of the famous Nazca lines) for the second time in a week without stopping.  Something about hopping in a rickety Peruvian Cessna to see more deserts didn’t sound appealing.  The mountain pass was much easier on us this time around; we hit it mid-morning accompanied by sunlight and blue skies.  Regardless of how well we knew the road, all told it was still a very long ride. 

Today I woke up and got right to business.  First Charlie and I went down to the Ministry of Tourism to buy our Machu Picchu tickets.  They were $50 each including access to the nearby mountain Huana Picchu, which offers the view that you’ve all seen in post cards.  Next we bought the train tickets to get us up there.  MP is a good distance from Cusco, and it’s not directly accessible by motorcycle.  So for once, we’re going to put our feet up and let someone else do the driving.  With the roads, the drivers, and Alex’s most recent accident, I feel privileged for every mile I don’t have to ride around here.

Tomorrow we catch the train at 7:00am that leads to Agua Calientes.  There we spend the night and wake up even earlier to catch the park at sunrise.  I’m excited.  Machu Picchu seemed so distant for so much of this trip and now it’s 24 hours away.  We’ve come a long distance.  In the afternoon after touring the park we’ll come back to Cusco via the train and spend all of Sunday preparing to continue south. 

While out and about I also had my side rack fixed where it had rattled a hole through.  I had a cab take me to a welding shop and explained to the blacksmith what I needed done.  He nodded confidently and finished the job in twenty minutes.  The rack is stronger than it ever was.  The price: $3.  I gave him $6.  Then I went across the street and bought motorcycle oil for my second change in Peru.  I’m sitting right at 3,000 miles after all of our looping around.  I could wait it out a bit longer, but Charlie’s changing his so it’s an opportune time.

I also did a load of laundry and got a haircut, so I’m feeling pretty fresh at the moment (although my hands are still covered in grease like normal). 

I’ve decided to keep my side panniers for a while, at least until Santiago.  My suspension is better, but still not as stiff as I’d like.  I was considering dropping everything but the essentials from here on out; instead I’ll think it over a bit more.  I’ll be sending the important items home from Cusco.  Anything else I refuse to carry can be left in the ditch for all I care. 

Santiago is coming up on the horizon.  By the time we leave Cusco, it will be less than five weeks away.  Five weeks to cover all of Bolivia and half of Chile.  I’m still not even sure I want to see Bolivia.  I here it’s amazing, and I’m sure it is.  But this is vacation too; crossing another country that doesn’t sell my bike sounds harrowing.  In the end, I’m sure I’ll end up there, but I’ll be dragging my feet crossing that border instead of bolting straight for north Chile.

I consider Santiago to be a massive fork in the road.  It’s either a spot to batten down the hatches and double my adventure efforts, or wind down the trip and start the process of getting home.  Depending on how the first week of travel goes with my fixed suspension, I might have a new, stronger rear shock sent to my house for my mom to bring down.  If I end up putting a $700 unit into the bike, I’ll intend to get quite a few more miles out of it down here.  I could have a Suzuki dealership install it while they give the bike an oil bath and rejuvenate it.

Or I could pull in, drop the kickstand for the final time, and call it the end.  Santiago is said to be the best port south of Colombia for shipping bikes home.  Buenos Aires is apparently more expensive than normal right now due to elevated port fees.  I’m finally at the point where I need to keep an eye on my bank account.  I got time, but if it’s coming to a decision of ship the bike home and go home with a landing pad or go for broke down here and come home shirtless.  It’s hard to say; there’s a lot of times when I feel like the novelty has worn off.  I keep thinking about my next trip now (probably Alaska).  How I’ll build the bike better, plan better, pack better, and do it all with just a little more maturity.  It all makes me so excited that I really want to get home and start saving money all over again while tinkering on a whole new DR650 with all the right modifications. 

At the same time, there’s no need to jump the gun.  I am, after all, on a pretty cool DR flying towards Tierra del Fuego at age 24 at the moment.  Just like living in the Moontower, this is something no sum of money or planning could ever replicate.  When I’m out there gliding along above the tree line with the motor whining between my legs and the wind in my face, I can’t imagine getting off the bike until I’ve spent my last dollar on just one more tank of gas.  Time will tell.  I’m just excited for Machu Picchu right now.

And also, I received an email the other day from a reader who’s been unsatisfied with my reports as of late.  Here’s a portionof what he had to say:
‘…you’ve devoted an inordinate amount of press to things that displease you. We get it. Point made. We know shit exists now get-past-it. Leave the smelly third world if it’s so irritating. Find your dream job at a surf shop or in the mountains but please STOP BITCHING. It’s a dreadful habit.’

I’ll keep this short and to the point.  These are not fucking bedtime stories.  Reading the hard times is getting you down?  Try riding them.  If my realities are too harsh, then pick up a Lonely Planet, because this is an adventure.  I’ll write the good, the bad, and the beautiful.  So hold on tight!

October 3, 2011

A Different Trip

October 2nd marked six months on the road for Alex and me.  It’s a miraculous feat that we made it this far.  And it really hasn’t been easy in distant memory given multiple accidents, constant mechanical failures, and a near kidnapping.  It certainly hasn’t weakened my resolve to keep going, but the fairy tale ride we imagined has been much more a battle than I planned. 

No more fitting for this stage is another bad draw for Alex.  He was in Ecuador two days away from Lima when a sixty year-old drunk man stepped into his lane.  Al was doing 50mph and the impact sounds pretty grizzly.  The old man is alive with critical injuries.  Alex escaped with a fractured collar bone.  And the bike needs work too.  A more detailed account is on Alex’s blog.  It’s a lot to take in for me and I can’t imagine what it means to Alex.  He’ll need about two weeks to clean up all the loose ends up there.  He sounds positive, but there’s been plenty of talk of sending the bike home.  Who can blame him?

Sending the bike home means I continue indefinitely with Charlie or whoever along the way.  It’s just strange to imagine Alex off the road.  Sending the bike home doesn’t mean he can’t continue; there are other means of transportation.  It’s just a prospect I never thought either of us would face.  I won’t continue because the real debate is starting on ADVrider right now.

A year ago October 1st is when I landed in Juneau, AK, the end of a very long and exciting twelve months.  Four months driving truck six days a week in -35F degrees followed by two months of trip preparation, skiing, weekend in Vegas and then six months on a motorcycle in Central and South America.  I’ve seen and experienced quite a range of life in one year.  Unbelievable.

So, looking forward now, there’s a lot on the way.  There’s still the November 15th deadline to be in Santiago to pick up mom.  Plenty of time, but it’s fast approaching.  I’m doing away with my Pelican case on the rear rack.  I bought a waterproof duffel bag here in Lima that can combine the case’s contents and the Sea-to-Summit bag’s into one.  I don’t really trust the waterproofing, so I bought a pack cover to put over it if need be.  It’s lighter than the pelican case, less hassle and it gives me an opportunity to use the Pacsafe I’ve been toting this whole time.  It was only $70 for the whole setup so if I’m not satisfied by Santiago I’ll have my mom bring down some Wolfman gear. 

It’s an exciting adjustment though because at the same time I’ll be shipping home a lot of volume and weight from Cusco.  I’ll be able to put all the weight where I want it and still have plenty of capacity for whatever comes along in the future.  I’m really excited to hop on the bike with the rebuilt suspension and a lot less weight.  It’s a welcome adjustment after all that destructive dirt.

Today we met an Australian girl at the hostel currently riding a Chinese bike.  It’s a shame she’s going north.  This ride has been a testicle festival for a while now. 

So after six months there have been a lot of blows but still remaining is plenty of opportunity.  I think in a week’s time the dust will settle on Al’s situation and we’ll have a clear plan on his future.  Sometime soon here Charlie and I need to put the armor back on and face the road again too.  I’ve got one thing on my mind right now: red wine and Argentinean steak.