Monday, February 11, 2013

Into Argentina, Falklands?, Wine

The hope had been to leave Uyuni in Bolivia to get to Argentinian border on the Sunday, giving a day to cross during Monday. What I didn't know was that the rain, that had been almost non-stop for the 4 days I had been in Uyuni,  had caused a couple of rivers to burst their banks. The discovery of this took an hours drive along the very muddy and gravely road…Batty speed being reduced to between 5 and 20 mph.
 Attempts to find another route around the first flood held some promise, until a guy in a 4x4 turned up, he had been the first sign of life for an hour, he told me that this river was not too bad but the next one nothing was not getting through. The lack of traffic was a hint. Previous experiences told me very loudly to about turn and accept the extra day's travel and go back the way I had come via Potosi. Argentina was not going to disappear, unlike my fingers and toes which got colder and wetter than anywhere else on that sleety 6 hour ride.

The debate still rages in my mind as to whether the copious amounts of coca leaf Mojitos that Carmen and I had drunk the night before putting the world to rights, helped or hindered the day. Whichever way it had been great to connect again having not seen her since Columbia. She and Michael had ridden very quickly to the tip of the Argentina, Ushuaia. Michael had to get back to Germany, leaving her to explore the continent a little more with a backpack.
On the way down to Argentina...the glory of green and warm lands embraced.

Stunning rock forms framed the road for hundreds of miles
The contrast between the previous six weeks in very high country, usually around 10 or 12,000 feet, and the descent into Argentina was a fantastic experience. Being cold and wet on the bike had sometimes been testing, albeit in staggeringly beautiful landscapes and often with good company, had warn me down a bit. Certainly once the sun's heat and the extra oxygen hit started working, one's feeling of good health returns with vigour..

It would be erroneous to claim that I was not wary of the political tensions between Britain and Argentina, and had been advised to stay clear of the subject as much as possible. It took me five hours to get across the Argentinian border, a confusing system that did not really conform with usual crossings. This combined with large numbers of people and a final hick-up caused by my lack of 3rd party insurance and a 9 o'clock at night to scurry around to print off a worldwide insurance that I had. This insurance wasn't sufficient for Argentina, but absolute promises to buy some in the morning eventually got us through. The poor fellow at the border wanted to go home to bed. Anyway the point was that I met nothing but good humour and enthusiastic conversations about the Malvinas right from the start…initiated by others. The 2 Union Jacks on Batty may have prompted the conversation, and I had toyed about taking them off, but thought to see how things went. Nothing aggressive but a seemingly deep trench attitude of absolute claim that goes back 200 years.

Salta was a very pleasant overnight stop, like being in a classic southern European city, full of grace and architectural delights, saying nothing of the stylish and often very beautiful inhabitants. The next day was probably one of my favorite journeys particularly between Cachi and Cafayate. Although not paved, every new turn as it followed a river, had endless new forms of landscape intrigue. Nothing particularly high, but just beautifully honed forms, courtesy of mother nature.

Scenes between Salta, Cachi and Cafayate
It was along this road that I met Ross and Judy. They were in a hire car having had a nasty accident on their bike two days before. Going down the road on their backsides at 60 or 70 miles an hour was no joke, but they were fine apart from the odd bruise and their spirits were ok at that stage, all they want to do was to get back on a bike. Theirs had been completely written off in the accident, caused by a glass-like surfaced road which combined with rain and doing a very normal overtaking manoeuvre.
Ross and Judy
A small roadside cafe emptied to see Batty and I off after a lunch
I was to meet them a couple of evenings later, and over a bottle or two of excellent local wine heard more about their lifelong plan of driving from Alaska to Ushuaia, only to be dashed by the crash and their profound disappointment by the turn of events. A couple of days later I saw on Facebook that they had given up trying to drive in the car all the way south and were flying home to Australia from Santiago.

The word Mendoza I had seen on countless bottles over the years, and driving into the city surrounded by thousands of acres of vineyards held great promise. But before the testing, there were some rather urgent requirements on the Batty front. For two months I had put her through and on roads way outside her comfort zone. The frame had cracked again in front of the engine so before the day was out I found myself at Ariel's workshop. It was Saturday afternoon, and he was closed although happy for me to leave the bike with him over the weekend. Then he handed me a beer and along with his neighbour George and various other people dropping by,  the next six hours was one of much humour and loads of nationalistic quips. This hospitality extended to dinner, or I should say Asado, the grilling of meat over hot coals…barbecue Argentinian style.

Ariel found lots cracks on the frame...none as bad as the front one, but he did fix them all up.
Ariel's father in law, became a great pal as we worked together cleaning and sorting out bits and much so that I asked his name about 5 times...but I just could not get it...such was his dialect and my poor ear.

Machine like welding of Ariel's

Extra metal under the seat...a crack that could have been alarming had it gone completely.
Unfortunately I must have swallowed a dirty fly or some such, and for the second time in the 19 months I've been away, my stomach rebelled and sleep did not come until 5 o'clock in the morning.

Because we were having our annual 2 day work meeting, I had booked into a more comfortable but rather functional business hotel for the week. Catching up with the cream of the Illustration world and lots of other folk was, as always, stimulating and only excited me all the more for my return.
A slight distraction from work...the hotel was having some form of Miss Mendoza competition
I did manage to get a city tour in, as well as a wine tour. On the city tour there happened to be a couple of schoolgirls visiting from Buenas Aires with their parents. They were dispatched to talk to the English man and practice their English. They were lovely and friendly, and I don't know if it was just their politeness, but they did say that the one country in the world that they wanted to visit was Britain. I think a lot had to do with various heartthrob boy band idols.

One of many delightful squares adorning Mendosa
On the last evening Arial and his lovely wife Paola, and enchanting Adrianna, their young daughter, invited me for dinner again. This time with about 10 others and a goat kid as the menu topper.

George was there again and as chief chef. A delightful and funny man, he led the charge on the only Englishman present. As each delicious morsel and beer came my way, I must confess to conceding a little bit more of the Falklands much to the delight of the assembled. The call for "Malvinas para Argentina" met with little truck from my suggestion that the Falklands should be for the Falklanders.
It was not a debate I was going to win, but it was in very good humour and nobody wants any more blood spilt. The only concession I did get was the acceptance that it was currently a political smokescreen to disguise the unpopularity and failing economic policies of the administration.
As the evening wore on George became braver, and ended asking me how many prostitutes I had been with on the trip. What do you say? If I told him the truth he would not have believed me, so I told him about a 1000….great excitement….then he asked how much did it cost each time?…$1000 on average I confessed, where upon he offered me his backside.
George busy joking and cooking
I crossed over to Santiago in Chile and met up with various different friends that I had met along way. Georg, Jacek and Markus on the first evening, Gordon and Ben a day or so later. All in fine spirits and it was great to hear all their different tales of their journey to date, some too fruity for this family blog.
The road in to Chile from the Argentinian border

Pack horses sharing the road

With Georg and Jacek in Santiago

Loads of graffiti in Santiago. Went on a 'free' walking tour of the city. a fabulous invention that has the guide well funded by tips
Gordon was just back from a record breaking assent to 5700  meters on Sean Dillon's 90cc Honda Cub, along with his brother Gavin Dillon (Still riding to Santiago by the time I left, sadly). The Guinness Book of Records are refusing to acknowledge it…brutally saying that it was not that much of an achievement, although accepting that it was a record for the machine…. See to be your own judge.  It doesn't really matter what Guinness editorially think, the fact that three Buccaneer type guys decided to do something extraordinary with no backing or equipment beyond what they already had, is enough for me. Not only did they succeed, they were also only a few hundred metres off the altitude record for any bike (6300m) reached, which was made by a highly resourced team last year, and the three were only prevented from beating this record by unseasonal snow.

On a 2 day, 500 mile ride south of Santiago into the Lake District, and at a stop for fuel etc, a guy on a large Yamaha came over for a chat. Juan Carlos farms 200 kms south of where we were. Such is the kindness of the man, he offered his plane if I ever needed spare parts flown in on my trip south. Hopefully nothing like that will be needed, but the offer has been completely in keeping with all that I have met in Chile.

Under Volcan Villarrica

My camping neighbours, Claudia and Georg...much shared wine, food and fun
Next is a few days with my old Devonian friends, Binny and Jean-Paul and their family. A visit 20+ years in it's making, since their wedding. Then a 2 week push to the bottom of Chile, hopefully joined in part by Hugo and maybe Gordon if we cross over.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Amazon, Lake Titicaca, La Paz , Potosi and Salar de Uyuni.

A belated Happy New Year....

I wrote this post a week or so ago, and it is only now that I am in Argentina that my connection is sufficient to upload the photos

One of my most frequent companions on the road are large tourist buses (think National Express or Greyhound), that whisk many thousands of people every day around South America. For the most part they are generous road users, and give slow-moving motorcyclists ample room when they overtake. It is not always the case, but that is the nature of the twisting roads in most situations, rather than casual driving. Anyway it was interesting to be a passenger and they set these buses up with almost airline business class type seats, so the journey is actually pretty comfortable.

I was on my way overnight to Puerto Maldonado in the Amazon, from where we took a two hour boat ride up the river Madre de Dios to the camp. I think my imagination was that it would be quite a small establishment with a few fellow guess. In fact it turned out to be more like Butlins on Amazon. Capable of housing 200 guests and organising it in quite a regimented way so that we were all  fed  at very specific hours, with a very defined  tour routines etc. I say this only as a reaction to the independent and self determining nature of my usual journeying habits. That said we were given a fantastic trip into the jungle and exposure to lots of creepy crawlies,  mind-boggling scale of trees and fauna, abundant birdlife and lots of Caimen (an alligator type creature). It was three days immersed in a situation new to me and very enjoyable. My fellow guests came from all over the world and their society only added to the experience.

Fire Ants live on this particular tree and in days gone by, Amazonion natives would tie wrong doers or delinquents to the tree and let the ants do the executioner's work...unimaginable.

Young Caimen

Rio Madre de Dios, a tributary to the Amazon and about 800 km until it joins the Amazon
Grown up Caimen

The Rottings having a family sniff of a fruit whose name I forget...Claudia will no doubt correct me

We walked about half a mile next to army of ants carrying their load back to the nest

When I got back to Cusco, off I went to Paddy's Pub, where I met Glen. He told me he had organised his friend Christo, with a taxi driver, to film us both on the way out of Cusco the next day. This was mainly for Glen's ongoing documentary production, but something Batty and I were more than delighted to be involved in.

I had a date in the diary meet up with my second cousin - once removed, Leo, in La Paz, which was a couple of days ride away. The route takes one past Lake Titicaca, the world's highest large lake at 3800 m. Maybe I should have spent a little bit more time there, and visited the famous inhabited floating islands. However what with a slight push on time, and a number of accounts from fellow travellers that it is only a tourist destination rather than a living and working community put me off. That said when I got through the Bolivian border (probably the easiest and most straightforward border that I have come across so far, only taking half an hour) I did go to Copacabana, which is a sort of resort on the bank of the lake and adjacent to the ISLA DEL SOL,  which is the birthplace of the sun in Inca mythology. This rather captured my imagination, so I did spend an extra day and went to visit the island. The boats leave at about 8 o'clock in the morning and one is disembarked two hours later at the north of the island. There is a five-hour walk around it, with various Inca remains en route. It is pretty tough going given the altitude but a struggle worth having. Its name ISLA DEL SOL, had no resemblance of truth during my day there, and in fact it bucketed down most of the day.
By lake Titicaca

Particularly pleased with these boot covers. Made by Glen's fix all fellow in Cusco, they replace the ones that had fallen apart from Australia.

The drive to La Paz was mostly over high flat plains that did not engender great excitement. In fact Batty, with this engine, finds altitudes above 12,000 feet taxing, and her speed seems to max at about 42 miles an hour on the flat, down from 50 miles an hour. It is also pretty cold and every stitch of clothing has to be squeezed on. But a remarkable thing happens when one approaches La Paz. One starts descending very rapidly into the city and the heat climbs as you descend, so by the time I was at the centre I had stripped off more than half my layers.

La Paz
Llamas are everywhere....including the menu, and they are delicious...tasting somewhere between lamb and venison
Apart from seeing Leo, my back tyre that Dr Carlos had given me in Quito was showing canvas and needed to be replaced along with the rear chain. I had read on Horizons Unlimited that the Honda dealership, Nosiglia, in La Paz were very helpful to travellers and so it turned out to be. The only slight problem was that the only tyre that they had which fitted was built for cross-country. As it was the only one, I had to take it and it's wobblier ways have taken a bit of getting used to.

Leo had been working at the Loki hostel, which along with the Wild Rovers hostel chain are synonymous for their parties, and Leo had been having a great time of it. It's almost like anything goes and seemed to attract and trap many travellers in the time of their life for the few weeks or even months. In the process the hostels seem to extract a rather large slice of the said traveller's budget. Probably luckily for this traveller, both the hostels were booked up and I was in a far calmer establishment nearby.
Leo trying Batty for size
After a few happy days in La Paz the south beckoned. Not only was there still many many miles to go, but I also receive confirmation of a return date of 1 May on board the Grande Cameroon departing Montevideo, Uruguay, disembarking in Le Havre about 3 weeks later.

Potosi took two days to get to and it was on final day with about 50 km to go that I ran out of fuel. I knew it was getting quite close, but was confident that my usual six or seven hundred kilometre range was going to comfortable get me there. Alas not. I had a few tricks up my sleeve, like recovering the fifth of a litre that is in the fuel filter, which took me another 10 km, but in the end Batty was dry. The problem had been, I think, is that at this altitude, around 12,000 feet, the engine is a lot less efficient and has used a great deal more fuel than normal. I tried knocking on a few doors in this incredibly remote and isolated area, but was met with rather blank reactions and lack of comprehension of my struggling Spanish. In fact I doubt they spoke Spanish at all as they looked and lived in a very indigenous way. In the end help came 30 minutes later in the shape of George and Juan, two Colombian bikers on a trip south. Of course they could not give me any petrol, but helped wave down a lorry and persuaded the kind gentleman to part with a couple of litres of his diesel. Back on the road we found a station about 20 km on. In Bolivia there is a rather unique fuel system. If you are Bolivian you hardly have to pay a penny for fuel, it is so subsidized that it is almost a non-expense, rather like Iran. However if you are a foreigner not only are you restricted to using a particular brand of fuel station, you are also charged nine times more for the pleasure….Equating it to European prices. This is also confounded by shortages that have trapped people for days. George, Juan and I booked into the same hostel, and enjoyed an evening in a central Potosi bar.

Potosi is said to be the highest city in the world at 4070 m  and was once the richest in South America because of the huge silver deposits in the surrounding mountains, as much as anywhere else in the world put together. Underwriting the Spanish economy for something like two centuries. There was the opportunity to go to see the mines, which are now just individuals and small groups extracting the last few remains of the treasure. However my sensitivities to claustrophobia made it something to miss unfortunately. All this wealth did not come without human cost as millions of imported slaves and indigenous people lost their lives over the centuries.
The Potosi money making machines at the Casa Real de la Moneda...excellent museum

The exhausted mountain

This dipiction of mules powering the silver rolling machines. 12 hour days they did...dead after 3 months..

For the last two days it has been raining non-stop. I am in a town called Uyuni. A rather indifferent town to be in. However it is the place to come to to see the Salar de Uyuni. World's largest salt flat. In fact such is its scale and flatness, with only a metre difference in height over the 12,000 km² area, that satellites use it to calibrate their altitude rather than the ocean.

Locomotive grave yard...all British made, and powered the transport from all the mines to Chile

Obligatory mucking about on the Salar de Uyuni

A sort of 'South Pole' feeling in the Union Jack or Stars & Strips

My Korean friends for about 4 hours
Because of the rain it was advised that one should not use the bike and take one of the many Jeep Tours. I booked a two day one only to be told when I got there that it had been overbooked and I could either do a one day or a three-day tour. Somewhat annoying, but the one-day trip was all I had time for. It was enough to see the scale of the flats, but only hinted at some of the wonders of the place.

It has been interesting meeting Bolivians. Whilst some are friendly in the way you find most people around the world, there have been a lot who just refuse to smile or engage at all, even when selling you something. It is difficult not to feel unwanted and confused by this charmless manner. Juan and George were particularly sensitive to this, coming from friendly Columbia, and they could not wait to leave. I think shyness is a lot to do with it...coupled with some very apparent poverty that cannot help the 'happy stakes'.

Tomorrow I head on to Argentina. I had hoped to go to San Pedro De Atacama in Chile from here, but the roads are apparently too perilous. I think it means missing out some of the Atacama Desert, which will be a sacrifice, but the alternative is several days diversion which will only mean sacrifices elsewhere. I am still in deliberation about this and my next blog will tell you how I concluded.