Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Brazil, travelers meeting, lots of camping, running repairs and Dams

"So what time should I turn up?" I asked Alex, referring to Maria's birthday party. "After 11:30 PM" he said.

Apparently a typical time to start a party in BA (Buenos Aires). It was Saturday night and after a day of writing the last blog and doing a bit of tourist stuff I made sure that I had an ample siesta that evening to accommodate these late hours that seemed to be nothing but the norm.
By 3:30 AM it was time for me to go after a jolly evening, certainly on my part however requiring most of the conversation to be in English did make it a wee bit more taxing for my fellow guests, although they all seem to speak English near fluently. I was the to second leave, apparently Maria and Alex got to bed after 7 AM, again the norm.
It was the second gathering that I had been kindly asked to marking Maria's 26 years. The first had been at her mother's apartment in central BA, which is great fun but a little earlier, starting at 9:30 PM.

I always enjoying going to art museums, BA has two excellent ones, one modern The Malba,  and the other The National Museum of Fine Arts,  and enjoyed what remained of the following day in amongst fabulous collections largely from an era when BA was one of the richest capitals in the world during the 1920s.

 I had met John on my previous visit to BA, on the free walking tour. We had exchanged numbers and met up to do some further sightseeing. It was my last day there and he generously said that we would do anything I wished. He had been in the city for a couple of months, and had another month to go so was on a pretty relaxed schedule. One of the most visited spots in the city is the La Recoleta Cemetery, where many of the great and good from Argentina are laid to rest. It is remarkable for its architectural extravagance and variety. One thing you quickly realise is that almost every name on the tombs are also the names of streets in the city.
right in the heart of the city


Eva Peron and family vault
Wanting a moment's respite from all the delicious yet non-stop abundant meat, it was suggested to go to Chinatown and have lunch there. This we did enjoying soups and noodles of the same quality that you would find in any Chinatown around the world. John is very good company, having spent a life time in the US education system and teaching extensively abroad, his world knowledge and variety interests made for an enlightening day.

Back in Misiones with Alex, a couple of days later we caught up with Georg and Jacek, bike travellers from the Panama - Columbia crossing. They were going to the Horizons Unlimited meeting in Iguazu and were drifting around that part of the world for 10 days. We had a fine dinner and the next day I left for Brazil, intending to head towards Rio.
Jacek, Alex, H, and Georg

Good bye to Alex after a great visit and generous hosting

On the ferry boat between Argentina and Brazil

A rather odd picture of some shocking needle work in a desperate bid to keep my bike trousers, with their kevlar lining, going till the end of the trip
However once in Brazil I did some sums and worked out that there was time to join them at the meeting, so dropped Georg and Jacek a line suggesting we met up. This was agreed and a day later we had hooked up in Brazil and spent the next week camping and slowly riding to the meeting. It was the first time I had actually ridden with others on the whole trip for anything other than a few hours, and was great fun. Of course there was a bit of a miss match of speed, they having machines with 10x the horse power of Batty,  however they tended to  stop after a few hours riding and was never more than a few tens of minutes before Batty loomed into view.
Brazilians have been generous to a fault....this nameless man bought me lunch quite out of the blue. The following night we all had dinner laid on for us at a campsite, prompted by a local DJs excitement at having 3 travelers in town
The son of the campsite owner dreaming of adventure...well actually his greatest interest was UK football, and seemed to know every team and player in the league...I was not a great fellow enthusiast, which perplexed him.

I got a little lost on one of the legs, but enjoyed every moment when roads take you to scenes like this.

Across a railway bridge that doubled as a road crossing as well

One interesting incident was being stopped by the police. Documents were pleasantly demanded, however my driving license turned out not to be valid without an international license. I hesitated to show the out of date one that I still had, but did in the end and they were 'just' ok about it. Subsequently having taken advise from my fellow travelers, we set about 'ageing' the out of date license so that the expiry date was rather obscured…..

The south west of Brazil is a lovely area…pretty rather than spectacular, and reminded me of West Dorset or apparently areas of the Black Forest in Germany.
Spending time with these 2 was great fun. They are both married and have families in Switzerland and Poland respectively, and get great support from them whilst on their journey. Jacek has a factory in Poland making socks and supplying the likes of Tesco in the UK, and George ran a top notch men's clothing chain in Switzerland until it was sold a couple of years back. So we had an amount in common in terms of business and managing things whilst on an extended journey.
Georg and Jacek...camping in the rain

Pre-cooking the bangers on the BMW's cylinder...made for it

Georg serving up another delight

Jacek disrupting a rather staid dance with some more expressive dance moves to the delight and dismay of the rather grown up dancers.

A small village down in a valley

They had been traveling together for much of the last 4 months and had camping down to a fine art. Georg at the stove every night creating delights and Jacek, with a new helper, at  the washing up. We all needed wifi and found campsites with a degree of access. It was a rather charmed life for those days.

On the final day's run to Foz do Iguazu where the HUBB meeting was, I had 2 punctures. The first from a nail, the second from a badly fitted inner tube…a rather frustrating time, but got to the meeting place 4 hours after Georg and Jacek, where they had cold beer awaiting.
The roads are patrolled by the most efficient service that is rather like the RAC or AA in the UK, but it is free...the guy on the left was to the rescue within 10 minutes of each of my punctures, and this truck took Batty 10 miles down the road to a bike shop to sort out the second blow out. He too arrived inside 10 minutes from the radio call...amazing service.
A consequence of numerous knocks and bangs over the miles lead to the rear brake to collapsing, quickly followed by 2 of the 3 seat bolts riping out of their metal brackets just before Foz. Help was at hand in the form of Rodolfo, who was running the meeting, with an introduction to a  mechanic. However it was Easter weekend, so had to wait for the Monday before anything could get done.

The meeting was a good gathering of like minded and interested folk…not a huge number, but the highlight for me was riding across Itaipu dam, a hydro electricity plant that provides 17% of the countries electricity.
Raul, Hugo, David, Georg, and Jacek watching a bike movie at the Iguassu Motorcycle Travellers Hostel

Rodolfo on right next to his creation. He does a lot to help people buy and sell bikes legally to each other. There are lots of slightly dodgy ways that bikes  are exchanged between travellers, but he does it properly, which has to be worth it.

The Itaipu dam

The press were out, capturing our historic ride across the dam

40 kgs of rib, 10 hours in the cooking...
Batty is back today, Tuesday after the full treatment from Luciano and Naldo at G&B motors. Several new parts milled and turned for the rear brake and a near as dam it new seat, all at a price that would leave western mechanics in a state of shock.
Luciano and Naldo after seeing Batty back on the road

The seat back with beautifully repaired brackets etc. Riding with the seat wobbling about and at a precarious angle was not a bundle of joy.

Tomorrow is the start of a 3-4 day ride to Rio. I am beginning to sense a slight de-mob, or end of term feeling as the last weeks of this trip begin...a lot of happiness at the thought of seeing all my old friends and family again after such a long time, coupled with tinges of sadness at the end of a life of constant movement and daily new discoveries.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Chilean archipelago, Buenos Aires, Iguazu Falls and the Pope

Hostel and hotel selection is a real hit and miss game in my experience. Guide books help, as do the various websites, but often one arrives in a small town or village and it is a matter of driving around, knocking on the doors of establishments that look about right in terms of  appearance, budget and availability. I have enjoyed very comfortable stay for between $5 and $10, with good beds, clean en-suite bathrooms, hot showers, fast wifi, good breakfasts, stunning views and friendly hosts. On the flip side one can end up in a pretty grotty cell-like endurance for 5x that. The latter has one leaving for an early morning start, the former makes any chance of a large mileage day out of the question as wrenching oneself from the haven either fails and one stays another day, or check out time is the motivator, 12 noon in some cases.

The prompt for writing this was in El Calafate (which is were the last post ended) the only place I could find was the Upsala Hotel, perfectly nice and presentable, quite expensive at $50 per night, it was in peak holiday season near one of the country's top tourist attraction, the Perito Moreno glacier. However when the bags where in the room, it rather dawned on me that it was rather like an old age people's home. Not only were my fellow guests well beyond retirement age, it was the intense heat from the radiators that really made the parallel. This was in no way a complaint, as I arrived wet and cold. The rapid thaw was a great blessing. My sodden boots were perfectly dry and toasty for the next day, a most important mood maker for any motorcyclist.

There was only a couple of hundred miles to go before reaching the most southerly point that Batty was going to get to in South America. One can spend hours researching roads and routes, and of course sometimes that is necessary on a new and precarious route. However the map told me what look like pretty good roads all the way, so I did no checking beyond that. Had I, it would have been apparent that a 50 mile section of Ruta 40 can be a mud fest after rain. It had rained heavily for the last few days. What I had thought would be five or six hours to Puerto Natales took at least 2 hours more because of that 50 mile stretch.  So thick and sticky was the muddy gravel mix that it filled up the gap between the front wheel and the mudguard forcing the bike to a grinding halt. After a couple of attempts digging the mud out to free the damn thing, I gave up and took the mudguard off altogether. Problem solved but it did make the rider and bike somewhat mud covered.

Gordon had made it to the ferry, so after a day, changing the oil and doing various other bits and pieces on the bikes we boarded the Evangelista,  our home for the next four nights along with about 100 other passengers on the way back north to Puerto Montt. It is a stunning journey as this weekly service wiggles its way through the Chilean archipelago for about 1000 miles, only coming out into the Pacific Ocean for about six hours in all that time. Glaciers, mountains and beautiful fjords on remarkably calm waters made what had been first suggested by David in Thailand, and then enthused about by Hugh a few weeks before, a great thing to have done.

It doesn't take long to start meeting fellow travelers, particularly when armed with the 4 smuggled aboard bottles of rum that Gordon had so wisely suggested. The evenings' drinks started early, at about tea time. In fact the sun over the yard arm was not going to happen till 8 or 9 o'clock at night, being so far south, so that was a rule quickly side stepped.

One of the glaciers we passed by. The ship cleverly scoops up some of the fallen ice and serves it in the drinks. Each lump a one in a thousand year experience...or something like that

The 1970s boat had a 1970s disco. Shocking, but somehow it worked...

In Puerto Montt, having arrived at 7 o'clock in the morning, Gordon took me to a mechanic that he had used on his way south. Batty had a bent rear suspension lug, and a seat spring loose. When time allows, I'm going to count the number of times I have been in a welding shop with Batty. It must be around 20 times. The great thing is that it never takes very long,  a quick weld is a great fix and a joy to watch being done well. What started off as a annoyance and concern earlier on the trip, is now something I rather enjoy needing done.

It was a 1200 mile ride to Buenos Aires. The first couple of hundred miles was back over the Andes, crossing the Chile/Argentine border for the sixth and final time. My passport is completely full and the poor immigration officers struggled to find a place to stamp. The second day's ride was delightfully enhanced with lunch with Hugo, Jessica and Victoria who had come out from Baroloche to a excellent restaurant that they knew, that so happened to be on my way. Later that afternoon I ran out of fuel again, having failed to spot the planned for station (they can be several 100km apart). Whilst a bit annoying at the time, new adventures always start with such happenings. I locked up the bike and after about 10 minutes my raised thumb yielded a lift with Santi, a kind English-speaking man who took me to a garage he knew half an hour further on. By the time I got back to the bike and then back to the town where I've got the fuel from for the night, it was about 9 o'clock in the evening.
Batty with her tank tipped up...trying to squeeze a last few miles from it.
The next days were just all about sitting and riding a very flat landscape. Pretty imparts, but really just huge open plains, massive skies on a bike that is going perfectly well, but has now decided that 45 miles an hour is her top speed. I think something must have adjusted itself in the inaccessible throttle mechanism, it would take a day to sort it out, and at the moment don't feel it is worth it for a few miles an hour more. Anyway I have enjoyed listening to a biography of Abraham Lincoln, along with my staple podcasts of Desert Island discs, From Our Own Correspondent, Business Daily, Peter Day's World of Business, Click, Great Lives, The Bottom Line, the Harvard update, to name a few.

A the fox/jackel beyond Batty, my constant ever food hopeful companion that eve.

In total it took five days, the only other adventure being my first puncture. Again I took to hitchhiking with the offending wheel and was back on the road within an hour and a half, which I was amazed about. Hitchhiking with a flat tire engenders rapid sympathy it appears.
Puncture camp
  I was only in Buenos Aires for a day on the first visit and went on a "free" walking tour of the city. Free means "a tip would be greatly appreciated". I have done a few of these in various cities, and they are a great way to get to know the city a bit, not only the history and sites, but also the politics and the places to visit by oneself. I wish I'd done it more often, as they seem to be common in most cities nowadays.


A good example of many of the decorated homes here
The Pink House...the President's office
Carlos Gardel seems to adorn every wall and garage front in the Tango district
 Alejandro was a friend from the Entrepreneurs Organisation in London, and has been a super friend to me here in Argentina. He encouraged me to come up to his new place 600 miles north of Buenos Aires, which I did. He has recently started trading in Yerba, the plant behind the omnipresent drink called Mate, seen in the hands of  thousands and millions of Argentinians, Chileans, Brazilians, Uruguayans, and Paraguayans. It smells like hay, tastes a bit like it, however it does contain three times the amount of caffeine that coffee has, which may account for its almost addictive status.

Alejandro lives in a very splendid house in the heart of Yerba country in an area called Misiones, a spit of  land surrounded by Uruguay, Brazil, and Paraguay. It's most famous sight is the Iguazu Falls, the biggest waterfalls in the world in terms of breath and scale. I was kindly taken there by my host over a couple of days, which gave us the chance to see it both from the Argentinian side and the Brazilian. Both fantastic as they are different. Had I gone there alone, it would not have occurred to me to see both sides, I'm very glad that we did.

Alejandro at the falls

After a few days seeing how the Yerba business works and many great conversations and times, it was time to head back to Buenos Aires because it was Maria's birthday, Alejandro's lovely girlfriend. I took one of the sleeper buses, which are incredibly comfortably and takes one on a 10 hour overnight journey. It was so comfortable that at least seven hours were spent asleep, with time enough to read a few chapters and watch a movie. It makes me wonder why such services are not available between London and Edinburgh/Glasgow, far more comfortable than the train sleeper. The only downside was that I left my camera by the seat, never to be seen again.

Batty needed a new chain and rear sprocket rather desperately.  I rather cheekily asked Jorge if he minded  me using his address to send the parts to. I had met him in a fuel station in the Andes, he having bounded up to me saying "I've got a Royal Enfield in BA, please get in touch when you get there".  He owns a garage and to my mind could make it a bit more efficient with the delivery, having had to jump through various hoops historically when receiving parcels from England. Amazingly it only took three days, full marks to UPS, and Henry - ever the efficient dispatcher of needed parts.
The real bonus was having a very pleasurable two-hour lunch with Jorge.

The day ended in a rather similar theme, although this time it goes back to a delightful meeting with a lady called Fabiana, who I'd met 18 months ago in Rajasthan, India. We had spent a few days in the same hotel including camel riding together. I had promised to get in touch when in BA, and did so. The problem was that Fabiana had not finished traveling and was in China. Such is the enthusiastic and generous nature of this friend, she emailed lots of her pals and I have been enjoying their company both actual and by email since. Dinner with Ramon that evening, with other plans afoot.

Of course the great news in Argentina is the election of Francis as Pope. The country is in complete surprised elation, he is a hugely respected and admired man here anyway, and being the first non-European Pope brings a new focus on South America as a whole.
Everybody I have spoken to, from taxi drivers to business owners, motorcyclists, to barbers, the feeling is that at last there is a stronger counter power to that of the current president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.  Her popularity is very mixed, and to those I have spoken to, her populist policies are leading this country into a land of over-regulation, mass inflation and increasing corruption.  Now, the thinking goes, the church which has not supported her, could feel more emboldened in their exposures of human rights etc, which in turn would embolden the business community (who fear vicious tax inspections etc given a word of dissent) and some of the unions to bring greater opposition to the regime and perhaps bring about the beginning of the end of her premiership.  It will be fascinating to watch how this troubled land, of extraordinary abundance, tackles the coming years.